silvan laan

integral design

architecture in evolution

The rectangle is the default shape for the architectural plan. Efficiency demands it, how could it be otherwise? There was a time, however, when the rectangular plan was not yet conceived or, arguably, conceivable. For the longest stretch of prehistoric time, when small groups of people lived as hunters and gatherers, the round plan was the universal standard for nomadic dwellings.

The popularity of evolutionary taxonomies waxes and wanes in the fields of archeology and anthropology. The currently prevailing postmodern sentiment in the humanities does not favour a generalised and systematic understanding of cultural evolution. In architecture, the problem with postmodern relativism is that, more often than not, architecture is reduced to a banal contest of originality. Faced with this predicament, as a designer I felt the urge to withdraw and begin an interdisciplinary search for universals, leading me to believe that thinking along "evolutionist" lines is still viable.

The archeology of architecture unequivocally shows that some forms generally emerge earlier, others later in the developmental sequences of societies. This observation in and of itself carries meaning. The meanings ascribed to elementary shapes by members of disparate cultures, both prehistoric and contemporary, are not my central concern. This is not to say that a people's architecture does not reveal a great deal about its inner life. But surface intentionality can be deceptive. The sediment of thousands of years of experience shapes our attitudes from a subconscious level. I think it is fruitful to try and shed light on these hidden processes. Our handling of form will become more deliberate, informed and imbued with meaning.

To my mind, models of natural selection fail to adequately explain cultural evolution. My intuition is that the evolution of architectural form reflects an autonomous inward process, a gradual ripening of the collective mind. Depth psychology holds that much of our behaviour is governed by primordial forces in the unconscious psyche. Jean Gebser developed a model of historically successive "structures" of consciousness that, paradoxically, can also occur simultaneously insofar as the "integral structure" comes to fruition in the individual. Gebser presents a balanced postmodernism which does not throw away the baby of rationalism with the relativist bathwater. It is about curtailing the dominance of rationalism in favour of an integral sensibility, cultivating the free flow of information between unconscious depth and mental surface. This is a central challenge in the present time, a challenge to which many artists and architects, under the banners of modernism and postmodernism alike, have successfully risen.

The rationalist versus the integral mind (inspired by MacLean, The Triune Brain in Evolution).

In a new theory of architectural form I outline a system of architectural types.

type origin expression
archaic lower/middle paleolithic Archeological remains of hearths and burials are the earliest proof for place-making activities by early humans. Today, linear and point-like elements, meandering walks and fountains, fireplaces or single trees facilitate revery and provide focal points for contemplation and conviviality.
nomadic upper paleolithic (Domed) plazas, round tables, round rooms facilitate celebration and community while also inspiring reverence. Although circular elements are generally fixed parts within today's architecture, they do refer to an early phase in cultural evolution when nomadic life was the standard.
domestic neolithic The transition from round to rectangular building shapes occurred simultaneously with the invention of agriculture and sedentary living. The default shape for the architectural plan, rectangular spaces are widely applicable. They are especially apt for practical uses: storage, offices, workshops.
monumental bronze age Born from the accretion of domestic-type units in the earliest urban centers, pyramidal structures symbolise kingship and the hierarchic power structure of statehood. Rationalist planning is concomitant with an emphasis on symmetry.
integral contemporary Although it may present as a distinct type, the integral is more aptly called a metatype. Rather than adding a new phenotypic layer in linear fashion, the integral metatype concerns the relationships between the preceding types, adding indeterminacy to the whole. The asymmetrical plans of early modernists signal the arrival of the integral in architecture. The sampling attitude of postmodernism is further evidence of the integral metatype.


"The campfire has been in the center of social life since the beginning of the time of man. Primordial man (Homo erectus) was already warming his body by the fire a good million years ago. Fire not only gave warmth and light, dried wet clothing, and cooked meat, but was also sacred and healing. It was the sun spirit or the heavenly fire that had taken up residence among the people. The ring of boulders that were placed around the fire were the original medicine wheel. The stone circle became the focus (in Latin, focus means fireplace) of the sacred. Later, in the Neolithic period, stone circles such as Stonehenge took on gigantic proportions."

Claudia Müller-Ebeling et al., Witchcraft Medicine.

Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico, 2021.


"Thus, in the habitation of the primitive peoples of the North American and North Asian Arctics we find a central post that is assimilated to the axis mundi, i.e., to the cosmic pillar or the world tree, which, as we saw, connect earth with heaven. In other words, cosmic symbolism is found in the very structure of the habitation."

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion.

Levina, M. G. and Potapova, L. P., Historical and Ethnographic Atlas of Siberia.


Early prototypes for the contemporary farmhouse, such as the Linear Pottery longhouses of neolithic Europe (c. 5000 BC), were supported by heavy timbers set in post-holes. After the columns were put in position, horizontal girder beams were placed on top. The evolution toward the contemporary three-nave barn required the central row of columns to make way, leaving the ridge beam floating. A further refinement was to complete mortise-and-tenon connections with the timber frame (the bent) lying flat, prior to raising it.

Linear Pottery house reconstruction, museum Archeon. Photo Hans Splinter.

Three-nave farmhouse, Frisian. S. J. Fockema Andreae et al., Duizend jaar bouwen in Nederland.

Three-nave farmhouse timber frame, Schraard, Friesland, 2014.


"The social roles and practices of citizens were routinized within the urban layout of monumental constructions, streets and pathways, walls and courtyards. The built environment itself demonstrated the superior access to knowledge and planning held by rulers, ostensibly on behalf of all."

Norman Yoffee, Myths of the Archaic State. Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States and Civilizations.

Saqqara pyramid complex, reconstruction model. From Rykwert, On Adam's House in Paradise.

integral design

The goal of integral design is the creation of environments that promote health in a broad sense. Integral design enables a kind of spiritual time travel, connecting us to our source. Integral design starts with an analysis of the existing situation. Elements from previous generations of habitation can be preserved and utilised so that the finished design may be viewed as a palimpsest. Elements representing four types, archaic, nomadic, domestic and monumental, are integrated in asymmetrical compositions for plan, elevation and section.

Sketch design for an urban yard, Amsterdam, May 2021. A composition of three elements, a rectilinear patio (blue, domestic), a curvilinear path (red, archaic) and a circular sun terrace (green, nomadic), each paved differently.

silvan laan

Silvan Laan is a designer. Schooled in Amsterdam in the modernist tradition, his work balances rationality with a romantic sensibility. Silvan Laan provides consultancy and architectural design services.

silvan dot laan at xs4all dot nl

Unless stated otherwise, text and images by Silvan Laan. All rights reserved. Last modified 6/27/2021