Thesis ID: CBB472514036

The Organization of Life: Architecture and the Life Sciences in Britain, 1921-1951 (2019)


Choi, Esther Miriam (Author)
Papapetros, Spyros (Advisor)

Princeton University
Papapetros, Spyros
Publication date: 2019
Language: English

Publication Date: 2019
Physical Details: 327 pp.

In the decades between, and following, the two World Wars, a group of modern architects, biologists, artists, and writers were faced with the dilemma of how to redesign the conditions of life in Britain. Reconstruction, and planning in particular, adopted an acute sense of urgency, as the exigencies of the economic collapse and the prospect of another war intensified the degeneration of a "civilization in crisis." For a nation in a state of fracture, remedying human depravity through the creation of a harmonious world order could not be decoupled from responding to the crisis of human nature itself. This dissertation explores the exchanges and collaborations that took place between these figures to reconstruct Britain as a scientifically-ordered world comprised of scientifically-designed subjects. Spanning thirty years, four case studies revisit schemes that championed the belief that the human body and behavior can be thoroughly shaped by a modernized environment. Examined through evolutionary themes as well as philosophies such as evolutionary humanism and theories of cultural evolution, the episodes are characterized by an unflinching belief in biology and culture as "civilizing" tools for national rehabilitation, and the power of design to construct a "second nature." The study begins with the history of biotechnics: an influential theory of cultural evolution devised by biologist, sociologist, and town planner Patrick Geddes, and the theorist of technology Lewis Mumford, which transformed design into a "biotechnique" for evolutionary control based on principles of artificial, rather than natural, selection. The second chapter considers how the biologist Julian Huxley and the architects Tecton viewed their geometric design for the London Zoo's Gorilla House through the lens of environmental adaptation, and analyzes modern architecture’s effects on its resident apes trapped in domesticated and troubling circumstances of captivity. The third chapter unpacks parallel desires to design a national "common sense" by Design Research Unit members Marcus Brumwell and Herbert Read, and Innes Pearse and G.S. Williamson, the biologists behind "The Peckham Experiment", which used architecture and design as sociobiological instruments to influence the biological and cultural heredity of human subjects. The dissertation closes with a new generation of artists and designers like Richard Hamilton of The Independent Group, who were drawn to the visionary speculation of epigenetics: C.H. Waddington's theory of biological development, which suggested that transformation is always a relational interaction based on differentiation and unfolding. Together, these case studies contribute to an historical ontology and epistemology of how modern architecture, art, and the life sciences worked in partnership to reorganize and recondition patterns of human activity as biopolitical schemes for social change. Although these scientific and cultural workers could never quite realize their utopian aspirations, their entanglements mark an important shift in concepts of nature and the human condition: from abstract and immovable, to constructs that could be radically engineered. Overall, they demonstrate that spatial schemes for social change based on a top-down experimental set up will always reveal the inherent biases of its designers.

Citation URI

This citation is part of the Isis database.

Similar Citations

Book Christina E. Crawford; (2022)
Spatial Revolution: Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union (/p/isis/citation/CBB757394269/) unapi

Book Welter, Volker M.; (2002)
Biopolis: Patrick Geddes and the City of Life (/p/isis/citation/CBB000500021/) unapi

Article Hailing Zhao; Rachel Douglas-Jones; (2022)
Weaving the Net: Making a Smart City Through Data Workers in Shenzhen (/p/isis/citation/CBB935113214/) unapi

Article Matthew Wilson; (2019)
Labour, Utopia and Modern Design Theory: The Positivist Sociology of Frederic Harrison (/p/isis/citation/CBB874563046/) unapi

Article Heathcott, Joseph; (2013)
Ephemeral City: Design and Civic Meaning at the 1904 World's Fair (/p/isis/citation/CBB001201124/) unapi

Book Roberts, Sam; (2013)
Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America (/p/isis/citation/CBB001213238/) unapi

Book Taylor, William M.; (2004)
The Vital Landscape: Nature and the Built Environment in Nineteenth-Century Britain (/p/isis/citation/CBB000773019/) unapi

Article Liddiard, Robert; Sims, David; (2012)
A Piece of Coastal Crust: The Origins of a Second World War Defence Landscape at Walberswick, Suffolk (/p/isis/citation/CBB001550401/) unapi

Book Cogdell, Christina; (2004)
Eugenic Design: Streamlining America in the 1930s (/p/isis/citation/CBB000401087/) unapi

Book Amy D. Finstein; (2020)
Modern mobility aloft : Elevated highways, architecture, and urban change in pre-interstate America (/p/isis/citation/CBB845299669/) unapi

Book Marilyn Musicant; (2014)
Los Angeles Union Station (/p/isis/citation/CBB755993162/) unapi

Book Adnan Morshed; (2015)
Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder (/p/isis/citation/CBB234169728/) unapi

Book James Zarsadiaz; (2022)
Resisting Change in Suburbia: Asian Immigrants and Frontier Nostalgia in L.A. (/p/isis/citation/CBB646453225/) unapi

Book Kenny Cupers; Catharina Gabrielsson; Helena Mattsson; (2020)
Neoliberalism on the Ground: Architecture and Transformation from the 1960s to the Present (/p/isis/citation/CBB454741476/) unapi

Book Bingaman, Amy; Sanders, Lise; Zorach, Rebecca; (2002)
Embodied Utopias: Gender, Social Change, and the Modern Metropolis (/p/isis/citation/CBB000651067/) unapi

Chapter Patrizia Papini; (2005)
Larderello: Il villaggio e la comunita (/p/isis/citation/CBB871774950/) unapi

Book Gauvin A. Bailey; (2018)
Architecture and urbanism in the French Atlantic empire : State, church, and society, 1604-1830 (/p/isis/citation/CBB655076242/) unapi

Book Kirsten Rüther; Martina Barker-ciganikova; Daniela Waldburger; Carl-philipp Bodenstein; (2020)
The Politics of Housing in (Post-)Colonial Africa (/p/isis/citation/CBB734427885/) unapi

Authors & Contributors
Bailey, Gauvin Alexander
Bingaman, Amy
Cogdell, Christina Grace
Divall, Colin
Heathcott, Joseph
Papini, Patrizia
Business History
East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal
History of the Human Sciences
Intellectual History Review
Journal of Design History
Cornell University Press
Edizioni ETS
Grand Central Publishing
McGill-Queen's University Press
Urban planning
Technology and society
Urban history
Comte, Auguste
Geddes, Patrick
Fuller, Richard Buckminster
Harrison, Frederic
Geddes, Norman Bel (1893-1958)
Ferriss, Hugh (1889-1962)
Time Periods
20th century, early
20th century
19th century
21st century
20th century, late
United States
Great Britain
Los Angeles (California)
Tuscany (Italy)

Be the first to comment!

{{ comment.created_by.username }} on {{ comment.created_on | date:'medium' }}

Log in or register to comment