architecture in evolution: a typology

In recent years, theorists have resorted to evolutionary metaphors in an effort to make sense of the current moment in architecture. Most notable in this regard is Charles Jencks and his taxonomy of architectural styles, captured in suggestively fluid diagrams [1]. To my mind, because they focus exclusively on the 20th and 21st century, Jencks's diagrams promote a myopia, adding to the confusion rather than providing clarity. The ideological vacuum left by postmodern relativism, the abolishment of the grand narrative, is potentially dangerous as regressive ideologies are eager to fill the void. We need a new grand narrative. That is why I propose a typology, an integral, evolutionary theory of architectural form, encompassing both the depths of prehistory and our boldest visions of the future.

I chose a model of nested spheres to illustrate my view of architecture's evolutionary career, in reference to the ancient concept of the Great Chain of Being [2]. Each sphere represents a discrete stage or bifurcation in the unfolding of the discipline, expressed in a distinct building type. These are, in order of appearance, the archaic, nomadic, domestic, monumental and integral types. To try and capture, in a simple model or typology, the full complexity of the field of architecture requires, admittedly, a measure of hubris. To maximize the legitimacy of the model I seek corroboration with insights from the fields of archeology and philosophy of mind.

20th-century discoveries in paleontology have shown that evolution occurs with jumps and starts, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as ‘punctuated equilibrium’ [3]. But the human imagination has entertained concepts of stepped evolution long before paleontologists Eldredge and Gould coined this term. In the 1950s, philosopher of mind Jean Gebser described the unfolding of human consciousness through five 'structures' of consciousness: the archaic, magic, mythical, mental and integral structures [4]. In the early 20th century, archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe saw the history of culture as shaped by a series of ‘revolutions’, the most well-known being the Neolithic Revolution [5]. Childe was influenced by Marx, an exponent of the utopian, progressive thought inherent to the European enlightenment [6]. It is noteworthy that more ancient conceptions of evolution were not necessarily progressive. Both ancient Greek and Hindu sources speak of cyclical time, situating us in a degenerative present phase, moving away from a Golden Age of humanity.

The evolutionary model I adhere to is distinct from the currently ubiquitous neo-Darwinism in that it is progressive and goal-oriented, teleological, but also in a sense cyclical. Jean Gebser, having lived through two world wars, knew that the word ‘progress’ must be used with caution: “… progress is also a progression away, a distancing and withdrawal from something, namely, from origin. … we must remain suspicious of progress and its resultant misuse of technology (to the degree that we are dependent on it and not the reverse), as well as of the doctrines of evolutionary superiority ...” [7]. Gebser advocates an integral model, in which the primitive and the futuristic are not mutually exclusive. In an integral state of mind, both can be upheld for their own merits. 

If we consider a cyclical or spiral notion of time (which I believe Gebser does not explicitly do), the most primitive and the most advanced may, in a sense, turn out to be the same thing. Taking seriously the idea of a Golden Age, it becomes reasonable to believe that early humans possessed a supreme intelligence, even if their outward technology was rudimentary compared to ours. We can imagine a cosmos where humanity spirals in and out of communion with the archaic, divine mind ('origin' in Gebser's terminology), but at the same time is forging a progressive evolutionary path.



According to Vitruvius, the ‘invention’ of fire catalyzed the forming of communities and the emergence of spoken language [8]. It is here that the story of architecture begins: the fireplace, focus of social life, source of light and warmth, of protection against a hostile environment.

Archeological evidence for the use of fire pre-dates the evidence for constructed dwellings by hundreds of thousands of years, pointing to the Lower and Middle Paleolithic, roughly between 1 million and 100,000 years ago. The first hominids to colonize Eurasia were probably groups of Homo ergaster, some 1.5 million years ago. It seems likely that the control of fire was what enabled them to colonize cooler regions, although unequivocal proof for hearths occurs not earlier than about 150,000 years ago, in the Middle Paleolithic, at cave sites belonging to Homo neandertalensis such as Le Lazaret in southern France [9]. The first burials are also reported for this period. Perhaps the rudimentary architecture of the Aranda, contemporary Australian natives, can be regarded as an expression of the archaic type. I quote from Rykwert (1984): “The only shelters they put up for their own use are windbreaks of bush and scrub which are made by weeding and trimming as much as by piling up. They sleep out in the open, sheltered by these breaks, with small fires to warm them up in cold seasons” [10].



The bifurcation that led to the nomadic phase in architecture occurred with the Upper Paleolithic, roughly 100,000 years ago. Architecture is now expressed as the nomad’s hut, circular in plan. The fireplace sits at the center of the hut, an umbilical connection to the archaic. The ritual significance of the center becomes apparent in the customs of contemporary Asian nomads. During ceremonies, a birch tree is erected on the site of the fireplace, projecting out through the smoke-hole of the yurt [11]. It is the axis mundi, the navel of the world, connecting the spiritual worlds above and below. The Gilyak of eastern Siberia regard the fireplace as the gateway of communication with the spirit world [12].

The archeological era known as the Upper Paleolithic is characterized by a proliferation of cultural output. Tools made of stone, bone, ivory and wood become extremely detailed and varied in form and function. The well-known 'Venus' figurines date from this period, as well as famous cave paintings. Domestication of animals, primarily the dog, is likely to have started in this era. People are believed to have lived in relatively small groups as food gatherers, hunters and herders. Complex camp sites from the Upper Paleolithic are known from locations across Eurasia. Animal figurines of fired clay, and impressions in clay of basketry and textiles, date back as far as 27,000 years ago at sites in the Czech Republic. Two infants buried around 24,000 years ago at Sungir, Russia, were honored with red ochre, numerous fox teeth and objects made of mammoth ivory and bone. At the Russian site Kostenki I a camp was found, consisting of several semi-subterranean dwellings in circular array, constructed from mammoth ribs and furs [13].

The proto-agricultural culture known as the Natufian flourished in the Levant from around 12,500 to 9,000 BC. This culture was at the cusp of the Neolithic revolution. The lifestyle was at least partly sedentary and people were harvesting wild grains with stone sickles. Natufian houses were some 4 meters in diameter, circular or oval in shape. The house was pit-like, dug into the ground, the interior wall lined with stone masonry. The floor was paved, with a central hearth. Interior wooden posts presumably supported a thatched roof [14]. The wooden posts of the Natufian house foreshadow the timber frame, the bent, characteristic of farmhouses from the Neolithic onward. I see the Natufian house as a transitional form between the nomadic and domestic types. Similar houses occur in the Jomon period of prehistoric Japan [15].


The start of the domestic phase, characterized by the rectangular building plan, coincides with the rise of agriculture following the end of the last Ice Age some 12,000 years ago. The earliest known moment of transition from round to rectangular is believed to date from the ninth millennium bc, with the Mureybetian culture in present-day Syria. The site of Jerf el Ahmar provides a remarkable example of the ‘invention’ of the rectangular floor plan, a metamorphosis which took several centuries to complete. The site consists of some sixty architectural units distributed over several levels. Danielle Stordeur gives the following description: "The first four [levels] have only produced round constructions. The three following have constructions with rectilinear interior walls and fairly straight exterior walls, articulated by large curving angles. In level O/E the first strictly rectangular constructions appear" [16].


Jerf el Ahmar (from Stordeur, 2000)

Archeologist Jacques Cauvin observes the fact that circular, semi-subterranean dwellings, such as found in the Natufian culture, were replaced by rectangular ones, now placed above ground: "We must not forget that when rectangular architecture appeared at the end of the Mureybetian period, it had never before in any way existed in the world, but then it very rapidly became the archetype of the human house. In that way sedentary people left the hole of their origins and the circular matrix of their first homes" [17]. Cauvin’s choice of words (“hole”, “matrix”) suggests an emergence, like a birth, out of a primal state of unity with mother Earth. The neolithic revolution was not just an outward transition towards, in Marxist terms, a new mode of production. It was a bifurcation in consciousness which was expressed culturally, in architectural form.

With the neolithic revolution the rectangle replaces the circle as the default building plan, although in some parts of the Neolithic world, such as the Atlantic coast of Europe, the circle would remain favored over the rectangle [18]. The circle is generally maintained as the preferred shape for spaces of special importance such as the megalithic circles, the most famous of which is of course Stonehenge. The Linear Pottery people of neolithic Europe produced circular enclosures alongside rectangular timber longhouses [19]. Also in more recent architecture the circle retains a special position, often nested within the rectangle. Many examples can be given: Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, Le Corbusier’s Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh and the Glass House by Philip Johnson to name just a few. In ancient Rome, the omphalos or world navel was situated in the temple of Vesta, which stood out because of its circular floor plan. Vesta's temple housed the sanctus sanctorum, the archaic, sacred fire [20]. The temples dedicated to Vesta, with their circular plan, refer to the archaic and nomadic types. They are evidence of an integral sensibility in monumental Rome.

The domestic type is still ubiquitous today. The barn or farmhouse with the pitched roof is the universal building type in rural communities around the world. The domestic type also dominates the (American) suburb. Although houses are outfitted with air-conditioning now, the television has usurped the central position of the fireplace and sustenance is derived from the strip mall and online shopping, its inhabitants are still invested in a nostalgic illusion of connection to the land. Surface ornamentation is used to create a rustic effect, as well as facades in faux neoclassical style. It is here that the domestic type transitions into the monumental.


Metallurgy took off with the use of copper in Mesopotamia around 6000 BC in the Chalcolithic Age, followed by the Early Bronze Age around 3000 BC. The emergence of cuneiform script out of pictorial writing is attributed to the latter period. Metallurgy may have evolved independently in Egypt, although connections with Mesopotamia did exist [21]. The pyramidal structures of Egypt and Mesopotamia appear to be symbolic representations of the hierarchically stratified societies that produced them. Architecture has now become an official discipline; we have entered the monumental phase.

To me, the monumental phase corresponds to Gebser’s mental consciousness structure, in which three-dimensional, perspectival space is discovered: "The ring is broken, and man steps out of the two-dimensional surface into space, which he will attempt to master by his thinking. This is an unprecedented event, an event that fundamentally alters the world" [22]. Buildings are now conceived as three-dimensional solids; facade and section become important. The monumental phase is further characterized to the emergence of the city. Roger Matthews (in Scarre, 2005) writes: "Although we find large agglomerations of people much earlier, for example at Çatalhöyük in the Neolithic period of Anatolia, it is only in Late Chalcolithic Mesopotamia that we can detect a real multiplicity of function within those settlements, which enables us to identify them as true cities" [23].

The verticality of neolithic hill (tell) sites such as Çatalhöyük was the spontaneous result of stacking many successive generations of mud-brick construction. Perhaps the tell phenomenon, as a faint and distant memory, informed the intentional emphasis on verticality that begins in the Ubaid period (5000 – 4000 bc) of Mesopotamia. In their intricacy and symmetry, the temple complexes of the Ubaid period are clearly different from the organic agglomerations of the Neolithic. Gwendolyn Leick describes a fifth millennium precursor of the ziggurat at the site of Eridu, now southern Iraq: "all the earlier ruins were filled in with sand and enclosed with a brick wall, to provide the basis for a new building elevated from the surrounding areas by one meter and accessed by a ramp" [24]. In the subsequent Uruk period (4000 – 3000 bc), the ziggurat type would materialize: a stepped platform in solid sun-dried brick, topped with a shrine.

The monumental type defines (neo)classical styles and is still greatly influential in architecture today. Even buildings that are generally considered ‘modern’ based on materialization (glass, steel and concrete) and lack of ornamentation are in fact expressions of the monumental type (and the Gebserian mental consciousness structure), as evidenced by the symmetry of plan and facade.


Jean Gebser detects the shift from mental to integral consciousness in modern architecture: "The new conception of space based on the new valuation of time has led to what is today called a ‘free plan’. In other words, time, to the extent that it is expressible architectonically, has transformed closed, three-dimensional architectural space into dynamic, open space-time" [25].

The integral type disperses perspective and abolishes symmetry. It is connective, striving for transparency in both space and time. The integral type encompasses both modern and postmodern architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright´s pioneering language of interpenetrating solids and hovering planes was paralleled by a European avant-garde following World War I. Theo van Doesburg stated in 1924 that the new architecture "acquires a more or less floating aspect that, as it were, works against the gravitational forces of nature" [26]. Postmodern architects freely sample from the full range of architectural types, taking advantage of the temporal transparency of the integral type.

In the years following the end of World War II, incidentally the time of publication of The Ever-present Origin by Jean Gebser, members of the international CIAM movement stressed the need to connect with the archaic. Sigfried Giedion was researching "the eternal present" and, in the words of Francis Strauven, "the original archetypes of art and architecture … the primal, prehistoric forms that he saw simultaneously re-emerging in the art of the contemporary avant-garde" [27].

According to Strauven, Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck "… believed that CIAM now had no choice but to abandon its narrow Occidental viewpoint and place itself open to a broader human horizon, a more complete conception of man." In the context of CIAM 9 (1953), van Eyck "… expressed his conviction that the attitude of the Westerner towards the so-called "primitive" cultures should be a humble one. Only by discarding his rationalistic bias can the Westerner gain access to the general-human archaic values that survive in these cultures." Western man had to recover "… the elements of a primary, general human visual language that have survived through the millennia within the archaic cultures. They are the same forms as those being discovered by contemporary archeology in prehistoric art" [28].

The presence of the past is an important characteristic of the integral type. Japanese tradition and the legacy of the Western avant-garde were brought to a synthesis by the Metabolist group in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. For all its futurism, Metabolist architecture embodies ancient Oriental notions of impermanence as exemplified in Ise shrine. Ise shrine is essentially an Iron Age house with a continuous existence of 1200 years, its material constituents being replaced (‘metabolized’) every 20 years. Kenzo Tange: "In the same way as life, as organic beings composed of changeable elements, as the cell, continually renewing its metabolism and still retaining as a whole a stable form – thus we consider our cities" [29]. Like Metabolism, the contemporary genre of generative design (or parametric design) is biomimetic. It aims to derive architectural form from non-form: a genetic code of numeric values (it is here that architecture overlaps with civil engineering).

A desire for weightlessness, for dissolving the solid into floating planes or pixels, or a blob of living information, is a dominant theme in contemporary architecture. The Blur Building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, at the 2002 Swiss Expo, is a compelling instance of architecture´s current dematerialization. We also see designs resembling flying saucers, mock spaceships that remain, without exception, sadly landlocked. However superficially different, contemporary design approaches exhibit a shared yearning for transcendence. They are architects’ intuitions of the End of History, which would be a release from the constraints of Cartesian spacetime, as well as an alchemical transformation: finding the Philosopher's Stone. But to the extent that architecture is actually built, it can’t escape Newtonian laws. The integral type is forever approaching, asymptotically, a transcendent reality. For the time being, fungal mycelium could serve as the model for a decentralized, organismic architecture embodying the principles of the integral type.


Silvan Laan, January 2020 (based on my 2016 master's thesis, The Fifth Order)

updated August 2020




[1] Charles Jencks, In What Style Shall We Build? The Architectural Review, 12 March 2015

[2] Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, Harvard University Press, 1936

[3] Niles Eldredge & Stephen J. Gould, Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism. Models in Paleobiology, Freeman Cooper & Co, San Francisco, 1972, pp. 82-115

[4] Jean Gebser, The Ever-present Origin, Ohio University Press, 1985

[5] Vere Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself, The New American Library, 1936

[6] Arata Isozaki explains the influence on post-war Japanese architects of “Marxist ideas and utopian thought inherent in Herbert Spencer´s Darwinistic, progressive social order”. Rem Koolhaas & Hans Ulrich Obrist, Project Japan, Taschen, 2011, p. 37

[7] Gebser, p. 41

[8] Vitruvius, De Architectura Libri Decem. In Joseph Rykwert, On Adam´s House in Paradise, second edition, MIT Press, 1984, p.105

[9] Chris Scarre (ed.), The Human Past, Thames & Hudson, 2005, pp. 115-116

[10] Joseph Rykwert, On Adam´s House in Paradise, second edition, MIT Press, 1984, p. 185

[11] Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton University Press, 1964, p. 117

[12] C. Fillingham Coxwell, Siberian and Other Folk Tales, C. W. Daniel, 1925. Cited in Michael Cremo, Human Devolution: a Vedic alternative to Darwin’s theory, Torchlight Publishing, 2003, p. 314

[13] Scarre, p. 162

[14] Scarre, p. 210

[15] Takada Kazunori et al., Reconstruction of a Jomon Period Sod Roof Pit House, Nihon Kôkogaku no.15, May 2003, pp. 129-138

[16] Danielle Stordeur, New Discoveries in Architecture and Symbolism at Jerf el Ahmar (Syria), 1997-1999, Neo-Lithics, 1/00, p. 1

[17] Jacques Cauvin, The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 132

[18] Richard Bradley, The Idea of Order, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 10

[19] Ian Hodder, The Domestication of Europe, Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 125

[20] Paul Devereux, John Steele & David Kubrin, Earthmind: communicating with the living world of Gaia, Destiny Books, 1989, p. 29

[21] Rykwert, p. 170, also Scarre, p. 372

[22] Gebser, pp. 75-76

[23] Scarre, p. 439

[24] Gwendolyn Leick, Mesopotamia, Penguin, 2002, p. 6

[25] Gebser, pp. 466-67

[26] William J.R. Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900, Phaidon, 1996, p. 149

[27] Francis Strauven, Aldo van Eyck, Architectura & Natura Press, 1998, p. 238

[28] Strauven, pp. 254-55

[29] Kenzo Tange at the World Design Conference, Tokyo, 1960. Koolhaas & Obrist, p. 197