The Aesthetics of the Phenotype
An evolutionary psychology of architecture
Part 1: the identity of a skyscraper
by Obi Kaufmann


In many colonial insects, there is interface between individual and superorganism. There is sublimation and there is transcendence that certainly occurs to a similar end in the city-structures of humans. What would a map of this system, this social-mechanism, look like as aesthetic information? I see a telescoping effect of micro/macrocosmic projection, ramping up from cell-structure through to human-scale, to building/city-scale, out to planetary/cosmic visualization. How does the Geometric blueprint of urban consciousness inform and deconstruct our identity as specific beings or groups, or groupings of organelles? Are we ourselves collectives a mitochondrial quasi-beings? Are our own bodies merely strata for others that have acquiesced their sovereignty as entities to the greater good of us?  What is the visual language of “me inside of me” as it manifests and projects outward in the organization of my corporate community?


What if we were to take one, large building and visually-analyze its potential to be an archetype of this bridge between the one and the many, the circle of interaction? What inspiration can be found in infrastructure? What truths can be revealed be presenting this building-system as a phenotype of the superorganism of humanity, or at least one, twenty first century human community. The Hive and the Bee represent a closed loop where material, that is form, manifests out of evolution, a living architecture, a personality of organization.


To begin the investigation of aesthetics, we need to agree on a philosophy of aesthetics. James Joyce put forth the best, modern, working-model of aesthetic theory when he described the process of aesthetic arrest as spurred by proper and improper dynamics in art. Through this process, the act of perceiving beauty outside the field of time, the eye-of-the-universe perceives the thing-of-the-universe and a uniquely human (or as far as we yet know, uniquely human) apprehension occurs. It is my contention that by this modality, this leap in consciousness, the cognitive revolution happened nearly seventy thousand years ago, shaping the structure of the human mind up to the present day and thereby making possible, what are certainly the phenotypes of our daily experience: skyscrapers, air conditioners, the internet, et al.


To what degree were we influenced by forms in our natural community to invent and then to reflect those forms in the nature of modern design?  By modern I mean to say any artificial structure produced in the last seventy thousand years, and by design I mean phenotype, being the product of behavior as an expression of a genetic imperative. In my work with the California Field Atlas, I do the inverse of what I am proposing here with the single-building model/proposal. In that project, I examine spatial-reality on an ecological scale as it relates to identified system called California, and presenting it as a single narrative. Mapping California has become for me, a laboratory of aesthetic synthesis. The Field Atlas offers a deep-time perspective of how wilderness and culture have influenced an endemic identity across whole spectrums of biodiversity. I wonder how modern design was influenced by phenotypes we found in nature, for both their utility and their beauty, and what is the chicken/egg dynamic between what it useful and what is beautiful.


Now at the dawn of the Anthropocene, an age of the earth that is defined by humanity’s impact on it, and as we witness exponential population growth within our own species across the biosphere, the manifestation of natural systems into the fabric of our daily society and its structures may be a saving grace. By examining aesthetic inspiration, the history of how our environment influenced what I call modern design, and then by examining the outward creation of utilized expression by the nature of some deeper sense of self, we can begin to build an efficient vocabulary of how the two meet and from that balance, conceive what comes next. This model represents a progressive vision for Anthropocene urbanity. By using appropriated concepts in biology, specifically in evolutionary and genetic theory, and by exploring their aesthetic implications for both modern design and the aesthetic experience, we are near the core of human experience. The human experience forms human identity, both collective and individual and if we’ve got that, we may have a key to sustainability.