I am a visual artist and I am certainly no architect, but I do love to look at architecture. More specifically, I love to look at architecture that has an organic or emergent quality. Emergence is the idea that complex systems can emerge from the bottom-up through a multitude of simple interactions rather than a top-down approach. I have always loved architecture in which the construction and development has more to do with the way a plant grows than architecture that is consistent with a pre-exsisting blueprint… Architecture that adds new areas as the lack of space deems them necessary… This type of architecture grows outward from a single point rather than from any overarching plan.
There are lots examples, but I want to start with my first memory of being fascinated with this… It was one of those psychedelic black light posters from the 1970’s and it was called “Tree House”… I was about six years old and I could never stop looking at this poster every time I was in a Spencer’s Gifts shop at the local mall… The house in the poster was a labyrinthine Gothic mansion built as a tree house in this old and gnarled tree… There was no rhyme or reason to the structure. It looked as if it had been added onto over and over until it seemed to take on a life of its own. It was forced to work with the existing tree rather than against it.
The next example was something I discovered when I was about eighteen. I was a beginning art student at a community college and found an issue of Art in America that someone had left in the room.
There was an article in it about a house built by a folk architect named Clarence Schmidt from the mountains around Woodstock, New York between the late 1940’s and the late 1960’s… He started with a one room cabin built into a mountainside, and then he just kept adding on and never stopped. The house grew into this seven-story monstrosity before it finally burned down in the late 1960’s… I was amazed that something like this actually existed, built by one person from salvaged wood and doors and windows over the course of twenty years. It reminded me of that old black light poster and I still wonder to this day if the artist who designed the poster had seen or was influenced by that house? I am hugely influenced by both.
My last semester of undergrad art school at UT Austin, I was fortunate enough to visit Italy for a summer session (which I am still paying for in school loans, btw). It was amazing, I was bombarded by historically famous architecture on a daily basis: The Pantheon, the Colosseum, Brunelleschi’s dome, etc… But, ironically, the architecture I found most influencial were the medieval Italian hilltowns. They came about more as a security measure than anything else. After the fall of the Roman Empire when the society was in a state of chaos, people were building these walled cities on the tops of hills as a form of defense in the lawlessness of the time. The architecture of these cities have a very similar organic ad-hoc feeling that Clarence Shmidt’s house did. Most of them have evolved over hundreds and hundreds of years; adding on as space is needed… And because of the hilly terrain, the existing geography must be taken into consideration. There can be no neat and clean grid-based layout of streets… By the way, the photograph above was scanned from a book called Architecture Without Architects, which is an amazing book about this very topic…
Another example of emergent architecture would be these 700 year old dwellings in Iran that have been carved into the side of a mountain. The fact that they are still utilized as homes to this day is amazing.
And lastly, I’ve only recently discovered this TED talk from the mathematician, Ron Eglash, who has been studying the prevalence of complex fractal geometry in the layout and architecture of traditional African villages spread across the continent. It is interesting that ideas such as fractal geometry can be so counter-intuitive to our western grid-based way of structuring things, yet can be so completely intuitive to another culture.