duck sex, beauty, and architectural evolution

9780385537216The reading list on this trip has been Richard O. Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us.  It’s made a host of year-end top ten lists, and I’ll chime in by saying it’s engaging and convincing—if you can stand a few raunchy bits and a truly terrifying account or two of sexual behavior in wildfowl.


As someone who uses Origin of Species and (more to the point) D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form to model how innovation occurs in construction and design, I also think that Prum’s argument has some consequences for how we think about architecture, and in particular the way we talk about structural or functional ‘honesty.’  Darwin is often interpreted, Prum explains, in strictly adaptationist terms.  In other words, for any physiological or behavioral feature, we should be able to find a demonstrable benefit that enables an organism to better fit its environment than it would if that feature were lacking.  This works fine for finches’ beaks, opposable thumbs, and bird songs, but it always runs up against, say, the peacock’s tail—which Darwin himself admitted gave him fits.

peacockPrum notes that there are several adaptationist theories that go some way toward explaining that tail.  It’s often been explained as a signal that the male in question is so fit for his environment that he can afford the material expense, and the implications for running speed and (lack of) flight that comes with it.  Alfred Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary and interpreter, picked up this theory and, according to Prum, it’s been evolutionary biology dogma ever since.  But Darwin himself suggested that, in fact, there may be no good adaptationist explanation for that tail, or for the elaborate mating rituals of bowerbirds, for instance, which spend enormous amounts of time and energy building structures that are used only for courting females.  It may be, instead, that female choice and male physiology are both involved in a self-reinforcing spiral.  Females that, for whatever reason, happen to prefer big tails will select males with bigger tales, thus passing on those genes to their offspring, who will, in turn, attract more females who prefer bigger tales.  There’s no tangible benefit, necessarily, to a big tail—it just happens because there’s—wait for it—an aesthetic preference that ends up being instantiated in actual physiology.

nautilus-e1332253871149There are interesting consequences here for a model of technical and stylistic development in architecture.  “Strict adaptationist” theories of architectural expression—especially structural expression— are best illustrated by Louis Sullivan, whose “form follows function” is the adaptationist gospel distilled into a pithy aphorism.  D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form blows this up slightly, pointing out that the functional benefits of a physiological feature (or, let’s assume, a behavioral one) have to be balanced with the investment of material and energy it takes to grow that feature—thus his emphasis on efficient forms like the radiolarian’s microscopic geodesic skeletons, or the statically-tuned arm bones of vertebrates everywhere.  Thompson also emphasized that the amount of information it took for an organism to create such a structure had to be efficiently stored and recalled as well, meaning that algorithms and patterns are critical in physiology.  The Nautilus shell is his most jaw-dropping example, but he also explains the spiral patterns of sunflowers and pine cones by showing how individual seeds emerge and compete for space according to mathematical rhythms.  It’s not miraculous that such patterns emerge—it’s inevitable.

All of that makes for a pretty compelling argument that engineers and architects follow, more or less.  We favor similar processes of functional, fabricational, and algorithmic efficiency when we can.  And in addition to being sufficient to the task desired (structural or otherwise), and efficient in getting that task accomplished, we know that there’s a process of signaling that fitness to purpose and to means that is often a key element in mate selection in the natural world, and in architectural expression in the human world.  In nature, this might be a physiological sign of strength, or fecundity.  In design, it’s more a promise of functionality or durability, what Donald Norman calls “affordances.”  We select, for instance, one branch or another when climbing a tree based on how robust it appears as a structure, or we select a shelter based on whether it looks like it will resist an oncoming storm.  This translates even to less survivalist instincts—we’ll more quickly choose an implement that more apparently fits the hand, or that looks less likely to break under use.

Prum’s argument, though, offers a powerful parallel process of selection that rings true in the design world, as well.  Aesthetic selection means that some instincts end up becoming engrained even though they offer no additional benefit or purchase on the world out there.  “Beauty happens,” is his distillation of this effect into a Sullivanesque aphorism.  And, sometimes, this comes at the expense of actual function or efficiency in the natural world, though more often it’s something of an adjunct.  It’s difficult to imagine this beauty instinct overwhelming common sense mate selection—the peacock’s tail is about as far as the natural world goes in producing beautiful though maladaptive physiology.  But it certainly explains any number of adaptations that don’t have an immediately apparent functional or efficient cause.

For a while now, I’ve taught basically a strict adaptationist version of construction history.  We look at ‘adaptations’ such as groin vaults, or curtain walls, or iron framing, as developments that have some basis in experimental iteration, that get deployed in a competitive (usually economic) milieu, and that prove themselves against a range of existing, proven techniques—at least until a development comes along that better fits the same environment, or until that environment (financial, social, political, sometimes) itself changes.  The “beauty happens” argument rings true, though, in that this story only covers so much—it can only suggest some origins, for instance, of the classical language, and even then what it comes up with is pretty speculative (see, e.g., Viollet-le-Duc’s skewering of the supposed “origin” of the Doric column).  A Prum-ian theory of architectural development would suggest, instead, that a lot of what we see through construction history—groin vaults and their ilk—do follow a strictly adaptationist model.  But there’s also plenty that simply occurs because of initial tastes or preferences or even modest successes that, because of their popularity, evolve on a more or less separate, purely aesthetic path.

So, we have three models now:  the Alfred Wallace argument, which states that every form has and is adapted to a purpose; the D’Arcy Thompson argument, which states that every form has and is adapted to an efficient method of growth or assembly; and what Prum argues was Darwin’s original argument, which states that sometimes forms are the result of purely aesthetic preferences, and that these evolve according to their own logic.  To which the obvious response is “no kidding,” but this adds some evolutionary weight to the influence of style—fashion, even—in design.

Sobering for an architectural ‘pure adaptationist?’  A bit.  But I think there are good reasons to stick to one’s guns.

First, there’s an interesting parallel here with a problem that any good A.I. fanatic in the field will cop to.  When using a genetic algorithm program like Galapagos, which develops solutions to parametric problems and then interbreeds these to develop new and, one assumes, more efficient solutions, the software will often fool itself into thinking that it’s found the best possible solution, when in fact it’s been sidetracked into a solution that is locally best, but that might not be as good as other, untried solutions elsewhere in the design space.  (Think of this as a table surface with several funnel-shaped depressions of different depths.  That’s the design space.  Throw a bunch of marbles onto the table, which represent attempts at solving the problem. Some of them will find the deepest funnel, but some will also settle into shallower funnels and, from their perspective, their job will seem like it’s done).  In other words, the distinction that Prum makes between adaptive solutions and aesthetic solutions may be a very blurry one, and the presence of localized, aesthetic solutions doesn’t preclude either the logic or attractiveness of much more convincing or attractive solutions elsewhere in the design space, whether that space involves organisms, bridges, can openers, or buildings.

marcellus 1Second, if we re-read a bit of architectural theory, we already know that this is the case.  We call some things beautiful that are, as Alberti suggests, “proper and innate and diffused throughout the whole,” as opposed to “something added and fastened on.”  [De re Aedeficatoria, Book VI].  This is echoed by Viollet-le-Duc, who saw this as the explicit difference between Greek and Roman architecture (“Greek architecture may be best compared to a man stripped of his clothes, the external parts of whose body are but the consequence of his organic structure…. Roman Architecture may be compared to a man clothed…. the dress may be good or bad…but it forms no part  of the body.” [Discourses, III].  And, of course, it recalls Sullivan’s organic philosophy.

30c525bc1836b1f4bf36ef69ae3d4626--this-little-piggy-barnyard-animalsBut there have been plenty of theorists who’ve argued precisely for Prum’s aesthetic selection—that is, for beauty in architecture that has nothing to do with fitness or even signaling of fitness.  Both Edmund Burke and John Ruskin refuted the notion that fitness to purpose and beauty were necessarily linked.  Burke, famously, pointed out that the snout of a pig is perfectly suited for “digging and rooting,” yet hardly (by the day’s standards, anyway) ‘beautiful.’  “’High art,” thought Ruskin, “differs from low art in possessing an excess of beauty in addition to its truth,” suggesting that Ruskin, too, thought beauty was something added to the fitness of a painting to its model, or (extrapolating here) a building to its function or materials.  Neither writer was able to come up with what, exactly, this was, but that’s sort of Prum’s point—there’s no accounting for taste, we either feel something is beautiful or not, independent of any objective standards, and the feeling, the pleasurable and pretty well inexplicable firing off of satisfied neurons, is closely linked to how we and many other species end up selecting our mates.

Prum speculates on evolution in art (if not architecture, per se) in his final chapter.  Spoiler alert: there are intriguing parallels between what he identifies as the “desire/display” feedback loop in sexual selection, especially in birds, and the dialogue of artistic production and criticism that forms what philosopher Arthur Danto called the “artworld.”  Prum uses Mozart as an example, noting that he “transformed his audiences’ capacity to imagine what music could be and do.”  These transformative experiences among those who experienced such innovation “then fed back upon future composers and performers to advance the classical style.”  Expectations are changed or raised by one innovative artwork, and then future artists not only have slightly larger creative reservoirs from which to draw, they also have those raised expectations to meet, or further challenge.  I think this applies to technology, too, though the ‘audience’ for innovations like metal framing or plate glass windows has been composed not just of culturally interested specimens, but of financially interested ones, which can only make the process more intense and more critical.

calatravaNot sure where this is all heading, but it’s a nice kick in the head and a great read.  I think it still leaves open the ethical critique of projects that stray far from adaptationism—we may regard Calatrava’s PATH station as a remarkable, sensational, and even beautiful space, but the resources that went into it could have been spent toward more purposeful ends, e.g.   Prum nicely encompasses all kinds of discussion about beauty in the human world—whether it is an inherent quality that ornament draws out (Alberti), or whether ornament alone can achieve it, an idea that starts rumbling in the Baroque and emerges full-blown in Rococo architecture.  Worth adding to the holiday reading list…

stadio flaminio

IMG_8646A chilly, grey morning in Rome yesterday where, thanks to the persistence of the team leading the Getty Foundation-funded project on the preservation of Nervi’s Stadio Flaminio, I got to see this smaller Olympic stadium first hand, without having to jump a single fence.  There’s a lot of work to be done if the stadium is to be salvaged, but there’s promising news in among the abandoned spaces and spalling, waterlogged concrete.


The stadium was built from 1957-59 within the footprint of an existing 1911 structure.  Nervi was constrained not only by the physical space available to him, but also by the pending Rome games in 1960.  The stadium seating consists of an ingenious matching of poured-in-place frames, each with a similar central portion and cantilevered arms, and pairs of precast spanning beams.  One of the beams in each case was cast to form a seating bench, the other to fit underneath and channel water to drainpipes along each of the main frames.  The most spectacular element, though, was the flying cantilever roof over the grandstand.  To save weight and time, Nervi fabricated this roof out of ferrocemento elements that taper from a deep eve-shape at their root, to a thin edge at their ends.  Steel pipes filled with concrete provide sloping struts toward the back of the roof, minimizing the number of obstructed view seats while adding a structural grace note to the whole composition.  Circular porthole windows allow daylight to filter down to the pricey seats below, but they also eliminate a considerable amount of dead weight around each vee-shaped element’s neutral axis, a classic Nervi integration of structure, construction, fabrication, and architectural effect.

IMG_8620Underneath the seats is a world of small gymnasia that slide between the main spans of the poured-in-place framing elements.  The most famous of these is the piscine, or swimming pool, that is the best preserved of these.  For years after the Olympics it served as a neighborhood leisure center, a rare example of a purpose-built stadium for the Games that actually went into community service.  But it, too, is now abandoned, though only recently.  Here, again, Nervi was clever enough to mediate the pure structural form of the sloping frames with an architectural touch, angling the perimeter walls to more gracefully meet the seats above, and then filling these walls with glass panels to maximize the amount of daylight the space received.  (Among other uses, one of these undercroft gymnasia served as a warmup gym for boxers, who fought preliminary rounds in the neighboring Palazetto dello Sport.  One of those boxers was a young Kentuckian named Cassius Clay…)


The stadium was last used by Italy’s national Rugby team, though this relationship ended when plans to expand capacity beyond its current 32,000 seats were nixed.  While the stadium served as home for the team, it was renovated to meet code and league standards, which required each ticket holder to have an actual seat.  Plastic seats were bolted into Nervi’s elegantly profiled precast benches, and–unconscionably–the drainage system was sealed off, allowing water to stand on the surfaces of the upper precast.  Meanwhile, the thousands of bolt holes drilled into the benches have allowed water to infiltrate into the now-sealed space below, leading to percolation throughout the spanning structure that’s evidenced by efflorescence and surface moisture and discoloration throughout.

IMG_8704The good news, such as it is, is that the structure is at least intact.  Expansion plans would have violated the graceful curves Nervi was able to achieve that maximize seating between the end zones.  What use the stadium might be put to is a good question–rugby’s popularity has died off in Italy since 2010, and the team now plays in a much smaller stadium near EUR.  Serie A football demands larger seating capacities–Flaminio’s would max out at its originally intended 55,000.  Minor league football is an option, but the best argument for preservation might be the gymnasia on the lower level, which could all serve the growing, gentrifying neighborhood around it.


Whatever uses may be out there, the urgency right now is to document the structure’s health problems, and to convince the municipality of Rome that there’s a useful, historic building that’s worthy of its investment here.  Elisabetta Margiotta Nervi, of the PLN Project, and Francesco Romeo, from the Università di Roma, are leading the Getty-funded project, and have asked me to contribute a history of the stadium and its relationship to sporting culture and stadium architecture of the 20th century, as a way of showing that the innovations on display here were culturally and socially important, in addition to their architectural and engineering legacies.  It’s a beautiful, though now slightly haunting, place, and after years of trying it’s both thrilling and humbling to poke around its ruins, imagining what it once was, and what Rome might be able to do with it.


stadio giovanni berta

torre maratonaIn 2012 I spent a month in Italy scoping out what would become Beauty’s Rigor.  I found Nervi buildings and archives throughout the country that all proved important in the research–and in convincing the American Academy that I had a serious proposal.  Some were easy–the Palazetto dello Sport in Rome is well-known, and basically open to the public as it’s the home of the city’s professional basketball team.  Others, like the Gatti Wool Factory, took some doing and some professional help.

One that should have been easy was the Stadio Giovanni Berta, in Florence, which is still home to the city’s iconic soccer team, Fiorentina.  But the weekend I spent there was also the weekend of a Madonna concert.  “È chiuso,” the cop at the gate told me.  “Molto chiuso.”  I settled for some long shots for reference, and ultimately went with archival images from MAXXI for the book.

I’m in Rome this week and next for hastily (and happily) arranged meetings with the team of engineers, architects, and historians working on a Getty-sponsored preservation plan for Nervi’s 1960 Stadio Flaminio in Rome, and I thought a good introduction to the trip would be to–finally–get inside the Stadio Berta, now renamed the Stadio Artemio Franchi.  Fortunately, connections paid off, and I spent this morning walking around it with Marco Scannerini, the stadium’s director, who knew quite well the structure’s history before, during and since it’s 1931-32 construction.

main stair westThe stadium is known for its looping helical staircases on the later, east stand, but Marco started our tour in the entry hall of the original, west stand, pointing out that Nervi build an enclosed helical stair before the daring exterior ones.  This one was structurally simpler, since it can rely on the curving wall behind it for support.  But it’s an interesting design moment, too. The stadium complex is really a mashup of influences that shows clearly the aesthetic confusion latent in fascist era design.  There’s something for everyone–classicism, futurism, and point-blank modernism–in Nervi’s work, some of which was forced onto him by local architects hired by Luigi Ridolfi, a wealthy local, keen supporter of Mussolini, and financier of Fiorentina from its beginning.  Giovanni Berta was a fascist martyr, allegedly beaten to death by a communist mob in Florence, and the entire enterprise was part of Mussolini’s plan to build a stronger populace through sport.

ext main entranceSo, Nervi’s staircase and evocative structure were all hidden behind a wrapper of stripped classicism straight from the fascist’s playbook.  Note the window patterning–definitely not Nervi’s, and a clear sign in 1931 that Ridolfi was at least a quiet supporter of the Italian/German axis.

main standThe main stand has been kitted out with luxury boxes and an extended roof, all of which clutter up Nervi’s original, expressive cantilever.  The field, too, has been lowered, so everything to the right of the walkway in the photo above is new–all for the 1990 World Cup.  It’s a fine looking stadium, but nothing like the purity of the original:

Berta Stadium West StandMarco told me–and I really hope this is true–that when the last of the scaffolding in the back was removed, none of the laborers on the job site would stand under the roof–only Nervi and the city building official were willing.

The diagrammatic cantilever of the west stand is iconic enough, and it represents Nervi’s first real foray into structural expression.  But it’s the east stands, build the next year to accommodate the growing crowds, that shows Nervi’s burgeoning lyrical sensibility.  In addition to the futurist Torre Maraton (Antonio Sant’Elia was a student at Bologna at the same time as Nervi…), the east stands feature a much more finely tuned structural frame, with members of surprising slenderness connected to one another by expressive, flaring moment connections.  The frame is probably the least interesting part of the stand, but it’s beautifully done and maintained, an essay in structural logic and beton brut detailing a generation before its time.

new stand under

The greatest moments of the whole complex, though, are the still-astonishing helical staircases that provide access to the top of the east stand–correcting a problem that Nervi had noticed in the original, since early arrivals coming in from the bottom of the stand would occupy the best seats, closest to the pitch, and block access from later arrivals who had to climb past them to reach the remaining seats at the top.  By bringing in all patrons at the top of the new stand, Nervi improved circulation.  But he also gave himself an opportunity for true pieces of engineering art, helical staircases that cantilever out from a twisting support beam that itself is braced by an equally-sized cross beam.  More than eighty-five years later, it’s still a compelling piece of static gymnastics.

stairs from below

If the Stadio Flaminio is in grave danger after being abandoned for nearly two decades, the Florence stadium is in reasonably good shape.  It’s patchy, but those patches are signs of constant maintenance–over two million Euros a year, according to Scannerini.  But there are clouds on its horizon.  Fiorentina, enjoying a resurgent audience for Serie A football, has plans to build a larger, roofed stadium on the city’s outskirts.  It would cater to a generation that demands greater comfort for higher ticket prices; a roof, Scannerirni notes, is necessary for a sport for which attendees actually sit in their seats for most of the match, unlike American sports, where a seat often serves as more of a parking spot between runs for food, drinks, games, etc.  If Fiorentina leaves for the suburbs, it’s difficult to imagine how Nervi’s stadium–even with its World Cup updates, which are now approaching thirty years old–will be put to use.  It could suffer the same fate as the Flaminio, its necessary upkeep budget unfunded by a successful professional team.  Here’s hoping that the American fad for nostalgic ballparks (at least in one of our national pastimes) translates, and that Italian football fans find some comfort in the relative discomfort of an aging, but classic, stadium…

new stand from west

tuition and income inequality

Indulge me a quick break from construction…much more Nervi later this week, in particular…

As many readers know, my day job involves teaching at one of the original land grant universities in the midwest.  Founded by the Morrill Act of 1862, the federal land grant program gave states large parcels of undeveloped land to sell, with the proceeds going toward the foundation or improvement of universities that would:

“…teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

For the past generation, tuition at our university and many other public universities has made it harder and harder for the “industrial classes” to take advantage of these institutions.

As perhaps fewer readers know, I’m not only a land grant employee, but also a land grant alumni, and even a land grant kid–I went to high school at the University of Illinois’ laboratory school, and my father worked at the U of I and taught higher education policy and finance at other public universities.  When Iowa State made me a Morrill Professor a couple of years ago, it specifically referenced the land grant mission, and thus had particular resonance for me.

Over the last couple of weeks, my father and I put together some numbers that show in some detail how rising tuition is pushing Iowa State away from the land grant ideal–basically, poorer counties in the state have been sending fewer and fewer students per capita to ISU than wealthier counties as tuition has risen and state funding has dried up.  No surprise, but my anecdotal experiences of watching the demographics in my classes change is–sadly–confirmed by these numbers.

Together, we wrote an op-ed piece that ran in this weekend’s Des Moines Register that detailed these findings, and it seems to have resonated.  Architecture and engineering, like many other fields, benefit most when the pool of talent they can draw from is broadest, and the continuing assaults on public education will hurt us, in the long run, just as they hurt many many other businesses and industries.

OK, back to your regularly scheduled blog.  I’m touring two Nervi stadia in the coming weeks as part of the Getty Keeping it Modern grant to put together a preservation plan for Rome’s Stadio Flaminio, and I promise some good concrete here soon…