silvan laan

architecture in evolution


Japan in the late Middle Ages saw the rise of an urban merchant class, prompting the need for a commoner's architecture. A new type had to be developed since strict feudal regulations meant the new architecture could be neither modeled on the peasant house nor on the formal residences of the upper classes. Under the influence of Zen buddhism, the humble tea hut became the retort for experimentation in which a new architecture could take shape. Antithetical to the opulence of aristocratic architecture, the tea masters adopted elements of the peasant vernacular, cultivating a rustic austerity which became one of the defining characteristics of the new sukiya (tea house) style.

The old aristocratic shoin style already combined features of the rural vernacular and buddhist temple architecture. Distinct from formal temple planning, shoin style floor plans were asymmetrical, even though the building layout was still prescribed by rigid protocol. The innovations of the tea hut helped the shoin style evolve toward a new style marked by free plans. The fledgling sukiya style was initially adopted by the elite for the building of private palace retreats as a way of escaping the formalism imposed by the feudal system. The new style was also used for public buildings such as restaurants and inns, places where the social classes could mingle. This provided the springboard for the flourishing of a new residential architecture for the middle class in a blind spot of government regulation. The sukiya style introduced an egalitarian spirit, free planning and a refined austerity in Japanese architecture some four hundred years before modernism made similar achievements in the West.

Since the sukiya style already embodied elements of modernism, Japanese architects, unlike many of their counterparts in the West, could accept the new ideology without any feeling of resistance and without psychological complications. In fact, when we look at certain modern structures in Japan, it is often difficult to tell whether they were constructed according to purely Western concepts or whether they reflect elements of the sukiya style. In any case there is no point in attempting to make such an analysis, and no one in Japan has ever thought of doing so (1: p. 107).


1. Teiji Itoh, Yukio Futagawa, The Elegant Japanese House, Traditional Sukiya Architecture, Weatherhill/Tankosha, 1969, third printing 1982.

Bird observatory, Vereniging Natuurmonumenten, Polder IJdoorn, The Netherlands, 2014. Architectural design by Silvan Laan. Built by Jorrit Vijn. Photo Elmer van der Marel.


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 Joseph Rykwert, On Adam's House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History.


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. From S. J. Fockema Andreae et al., Duizend jaar bouwen in Nederland.

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


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.

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


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, Christian Rätsch, Wolf-Dieter Storl, Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices and Forbidden Plants.

Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico, 2021.

architecture in evolution


Everyday experience tells us that 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: huts or tents (1: p. 132).

Time and again, theorists have attempted to understand the history of architecture in evolutionary terms. The Banister Fletchers, in the early twentieth century, produced a naively eurocentric evolutionary tree of architecture. More recently Charles Jencks has mapped the permutations of twentieth century architecture in flowing diagrams expressive of a non-hierarchic sensibility. Jencks's diagrams omit the greater context of ancient history and the vernacular. In their emphasis on the bewildering proliferation of twentieth century movements, "the continual revolution," they promote a myopia, obscuring the search for universals (2: pp. 350-351).

To better understand the controversies of cultural evolution we must enter the domain of archeology and anthropology. In those closely related fields, the popularity of evolutionary taxonomies has waxed and waned since the nineteenth century. The currently prevailing postmodern sentiment in the humanities does not favour a generalised and systematic approach to cultural evolution. "Evolutionism," and rationalism in general, are seen as belonging to the toolkit of the "white male oppressor." Comparative archeologist Bruce Trigger warns against dogmatism in the debate between rationalism and postmodern relativism: "The challenge is to stop simply supporting one or the other of these alternative positions in a partisan manner" (3: p. 11). Trigger's directness in stating his position is admirable: "I reject the suggestion that the idea of evolution as an approach to the study of human history is inherently and inescapably colonialist and racist" (3: p. 41).

a philosophy for contemporary architecture

In architecture, the problem with postmodern relativism is that, more often than not, architecture is reduced to a banal contest of originality. Writing in the nineteen sixties, in his work on the Japanese house, Heinrich Engel signals an "overemphasis on individual freedom" in the West (4: p. 432). Moreover, architects have become increasingly marginalised in the face of pervasive industrial standardization of building components, unable to fulfil their role of integrating art and industry. Engel blames this inertia on the lack of a unifying philosophical substrate: " … the contemporary industrial society requires an integral concept that will coordinate its major formative forces, science and technique, as well as architecture and art, economy and politics" (4: p. 482). Engel does not provide a full-wrought definition of the sort of philosophy he thinks could benefit contemporary architecture. His suggestions bear some ambiguity. On the one hand, Engel seems to argue for the continued dominance of scientific rationalism when he coins the term "intellectual style" (4: p. 430). His frequent and uncritical use of the word "progress" suggests he was, at the time of writing, still firmly wedded to the paradigm of modernity. On the other hand, Engel stresses the importance of learning from Japanese culture: "Contemporary architecture is lacking any forceful spiritual idea or philosophical conception, and it is very well possible that in this ideological vacuum of the present the aesthetic-philosophical principles of Zen Buddhism, timeless and inclusive as they are, could provide the basis for a new morality in architecture" (4: p. 375). Joining Engel in the search for a universal philosophy for contemporary architecture, I can't help but think that aspects of evolutionism can prove valuable even today. But the desire for universals will have to be made subject to a new integration.

The simple observation, made possible by archeology, that some forms generally emerge early, others late in the developmental sequences of societies is meaningful in and of itself. All societies find their ultimate origin in the hunter-gatherer life and the taming of fire (3: p. 41). The peasant village preceded the city/state without exception, even if a regression from statehood to more humble forms is not unheard of. When it comes to explaining the mechanisms behind cultural evolution, models of natural selection will not be adequate. It is my intuition that the evolution of architectural form reflects an autonomous inward process, a ripening of the human mind, proceeding with periods of relative stasis and sudden jumps, largely independent of environmental factors. Philosopher Jean Gebser (1905-1973) developed a model of historically successive "structures" or states of consciousness that, paradoxically, can also occur simultaneously insofar as the "integral structure" comes to fruition in the individual. The mental structure, which is active in the rationalistic outlook of modernity, tends to suppress more primal modes of awareness. The integral mind represents a breakthrough in which the qualities of all structures become simultaneously accessible to awareness. Gebser's body of evidence consists of many examples, mainly from art history. Although architecture is not his core subject matter, Gebser does present modern architecture as an important area for the emergence of the integral structure:

The new conception of space based on the new valuation of time has led to what is today called a "free plan." Le Corbusier took the initiative and was the first to apply the diagonal, and in particular the free and non-geometric curve in his buildings … Rigid and spatially fixed ground plans give way to those which are open, free, and moving … In purely physical terms, the new architecture no longer builds rigid, circumscribed spaces but spatio-temporal continua (5: pp. 466-467).

Writing just years after the end of World War II, Gebser was not naive to the catastrophic potential of a zealous belief in technological progress. He includes the following disclaimer:

The apparent succession of our mutations is less a biological evolution than an "unfolding," a notion which admits the participation of a spiritual reality in mutation. … progress is also a progression away, a distancing and withdrawal from something, namely, from origin. … Once more, it should be emphasized that 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) … (5: p. 41).

To begin formulating a universal philosophy of architecture, I propose adapting Gebser's system to define five architectural types, each corresponding to an archeological era as well as one of Gebser's structures of consciousness. Each type is characterized by a particular use of form and material. Originally, archetypal shapes bubbled up from the collective unconscious spontaneously, whenever their time had come. Now, this innocence is lost. We act in the knowledge that our use of elementary shapes speaks of the structure and history of the mind.

structure (Gebser) archeological era type expression
archaic lower/middle paleolithic archaic Archeological remains of hearths and burials are the earliest proof for place-making activities by early humans. Today, point-like elements such as fountains, fireplaces or single trees provide focal points for contemplation and conviviality while meandering walks facilitate revery.
magic upper paleolithic nomadic/pastoral Round tables, rooms and plazas facilitate celebration and community. Although circular elements are generally fixed parts within today's architecture, they refer to an early phase in cultural evolution when nomadic life was the standard. Appropriate materials are animal hides, textiles, thatch, bamboo, wood, wattle & daub, cob, lime plaster, paint.
mythical neolithic domestic/rural 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. Typical materials are adobe, wattle & daub, brick, stone, timber, thatch, roof tiles.
mental bronze age monumental/urban 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 and straight lines. Typical materials: brick, stone, concrete, metal roofing, plumbing.
integral contemporary integral 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 establishes relationships between elements belonging to the foundational types, archaic, nomadic, domestic and monumental. The asymmetrical plans of early modernists signal the arrival of the integral in architecture. Asymmetry was needed to tear apart the arrogant certainty of rational order, characteristic of the Enlightenment, and create room for an interest in the vernacular, the organic, and the subconscious. Increasing scepticism regarding the myth of progress made architects integrate traditional fabrics such as brick, earth and timber with industrial elements; glass, structural steel and electrical appliances. The sampling attitude of postmodernism must also be seen as an expression of the integral sensibility.

implications for architectural design

I dislike a sentimental antiquarian attitude towards the past as much as I dislike a sentimental technocratic one towards the future. Both are founded on a clockwork notion of time … So let's start with the past for a change and discover the unchanging condition of man in the light of change …

Aldo van Eyck, The Interior of Time, 1968

Gebser gave us a balanced postmodernism which does not throw away the baby of rationalism with the relativist bathwater. His philosophy 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 challenge to which many artists and architects, under the banners of modernism and postmodernism alike, have already successfully risen since the early twentieth century (6). Still, contemporary architecture often seems stuck in a restless pursuit of novelty. According to Heinrich Engel, what is needed is the ability " … to incorporate an existing architectural form through post-interpretation into an existing framework of religion-philosophy and thereby essentially change its aesthetic meaning without necessarily altering its external shape" (4: p. 482). The notion of post-interpretation is a useful one since it immediately makes clear that our priority lies not with the invention of new forms but rather, the re-valuation of what already exists. Integral design, founded on a Gebserian notion of architecture in evolution, will typically be indistinguishable, outwardly, from (post)modern design. However, the designer, armed with a new awareness of evolutionary context, understands that he is "merely" creating spatial arrangements of elements sampled from four foundational types, archaic, nomadic, domestic and monumental (with the arrangement itself constituting the integral metatype). Freed from the tyranny of novelty, the designer is also at liberty to produce works that are singular expressions of either the archaic (the careful placement of a tree), the nomadic (constructing a temporary dome for a conference in a park), the domestic (renovating a nineteenth century barn) or the monumental type (re-creating an eighteenth century French formal garden). Such manifestations possess a timeless integrity, immune to the need for progressive improvement. In the evolution of life, bacteria preceded invertebrate animals, which in turn preceded vertebrates. The newly emerging forms of higher complexity never replace those of lower complexity, they are rather like embellishments placed on primeval foundations. Each level performs a unique and enduring role in the chain of being.


1. Jacques Cauvin, The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

2. Charles Jencks, Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in Architecture, The Monacelli Press, 2000.

3. Bruce G. Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations, A Comparative Study, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

4. Heinrich Engel, The Japanese House, A Tradition for Contemporary Architecture, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1964, eighth printing 1978.

5. Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, authorized translation by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunas, Ohio University Press, 1985.

6. Silvan Laan, Integral Analysis of Philip Johnson's Glass House, 2021.

Silvan Laan is a designer, schooled in Amsterdam in the modernist tradition. He is also an avid bird watcher. Currently based in Tennessee, Silvan Laan provides consultancy and architectural design services.

email: silvan dot laan at xs4all dot nl

Unless stated otherwise, text and images by Silvan Laan. All rights reserved. Last modified 12/23/2021