02.29.2012 / Christina Cogdell


Christina Cogdell is Associate Professor of Design & Art History at the University of California at Davis. Her 2004 book, Eugenic Design: Streamlining America in the 1930s, won the 2006 Edelstein Prize for outstanding research on the history of technology. She is currently working on a new book that examines “emergent genetic architecture” in light of recent scientific theories of self-organization, evolution, and complex adaptive systems. One goal of Cogdell’s research is to contribute to our understanding of the history of the relationship between computers and architecture, a topic which is only now beginning to receive attention.

Student Review: by Greer Gainer

Inspiring Emergent Thought Patterns

Like an apparition from the mist-shrouded world of academic fantasy, Christina Cogdell imparted her exceptional and humble sense of in-depth, cross-disciplinary scholarship onto those of us who were lucky enough to sit with her for her Forum presentation, Understanding Self-Organization in Complex Systems and Generative Architecture. Cogdell provided a glimpse into her current project, which revolves around an investigative critique of the discourse and resulting productive practices of generative architecture.

Generative architecture utilizes genes and genetics as a starting point for constructing a conceptual approach to the design process. As Cogdell discerns, the working concept of a “gene” changes depending on which portion of the academy one finds oneself, and the application of gene as a metaphor informs multiple lines of inquiry and production across many disciplines. In this way, gene becomes a multi-nodal working model; thus a major component of Cogdell’s work involves developing working definitions of gene depending on the group in conversation. For instance, a physicist will have one understanding of the characteristics and properties and processes related to genes, while an evolutionary biologist will utilize the governing processes of a gene within an entirely different systematic modeling. In order to truly understand the structure of a discourse, it becomes important to understand how a term is defined and applied; then, as Cogdell demonstrates, one can inject criticism into the application of a discourse, as she so cogently does into generative architecture.

The assumptions and applications of genetics in architectural discourse fit into Cogdell’s larger body of work, as she previously published Eugenic Design: Streamlining America in the 1930s (an expansion and refinement of her PhD dissertation) on the connections between eugenics and streamlining in industrial design. The primary concepts that Cogdell explores and complicates in her current project are emergence, self-organization and complex systems. These concepts emanate from the foundation of our scientific understanding of genetics, which has a long, circuitous trajectory in the sciences, and is ultimately and intimately tied to computers and their networked, coded, computational prowess. As described by Cogdell (in person and through a helpful hand-out of major term definitions), emergence is understood as a new property that comes about through the interaction of unrelated systems or system components (for instance, generative architecture comes out of the interplay between genetics and architecture). Self-organization is the principle that numerous interactions of components at a local level comprise large systems, resulting in a global pattern imparted by the local (something akin to the budding of fetal limbs and organs from stem cells). Complex systems are systems for which the interconnected parts exhibit traits that exceed those characteristics of the articulated parts alone (like the multiple circuitries and machinations of an automated assembly line, or the human body).

These concepts are discernibly related to our historic and contemporary scientific understanding of genes as the basic defining architecture for a whole smatter of living processes. However, as Cogdell points out, the process of DNA replication and genetic coding is not easily reduced to a simple combination of forces whose thrust can be easily translated into a multiple discourses without understanding the limitations and repercussions inherent in the transfer. This is where Cogdell lodges her criticism of generative architecture, as she demonstrates that architects are applying a reductionist and simplistic concept of the forces at play within the biological and physics-based models of genes, emergence, self-organization and complex systems. Though they have the terminology down, the conceptual approach and the resulting productive practices are void of any deep understanding of the teleological models from which they draw their bases as well as emerging scientific understanding. The result is a form-driven demonstration of the surface of understanding, rather than a deep, conceptual inquiry into the application of the scientific process. In order to speak coherently about generative architecture’s limitations, Cogdell is currently investing herself into graduate studies in the history and philosophy of science, evolutionary biology, architectural practice and software, and physics, which all inform her untangling of rhetorical threads.

As theoretical models jump into multiple discourses, the translation that occurs can have definite setbacks that speak to the transposition of thought as well as to the emerging discourse’s limitations. I would like to have heard more about how the concepts of emergence and self-organization could be applied in architectural practices in a way that would take into account a deeper understanding of the applied rhetoric and knowledge. Must a discourse take into account translated conceptual pinnings at full tide? Can a discourse ebb and flow through a translation of applicable concepts and still in some way remain ethically aware of the limits of its own application? What might this look like? These questions remain still unanswered in my mind, and they might become fleshed out as Cogdell finishes up her graduate studies and the related manuscript. Considering the breadth of her endeavor, I would imagine that she has come across some examples of more thorough and thoughtful applications of generative architecture, beyond those of her own workshop group at EmTech, one of the institutions she attended in her studies. Her EmTech group project served the purpose of highlighting her hands-on discovery of generative architecture’s limited grasp of the nuances of scientific research, and remained a highlight of her criticism. Her presentation was engaging and thought provoking, and she covered a wide conceptual territory in a limited time. Additional examples (of failures and achievements) would help bolster her close-to-convincing argument.

Cogdell continuously stressed that this is a work in process, and she also spoke to the intense frustration that she has experienced as she has moved into and through various academic disciplines in which she has limited experience or knowledge. From the outside, she appears fierce and brave, and though I have very little doubt of the intensity of these attributes, it is beyond refreshing to hear of her frustrations and fears. She does appear to have overcome many insecurities and setbacks in order to move through her work, and this imbues her work with vitality and an intense curiosity—she is willing to admit what she does not know and actually moves towards the unknown rather than staying within the confines of the recognized. That she is also able to remain a real human being, with qualms and self-questioning, is part and parcel with her inspirational presence. The feedback I consistently received regarding her visit was that this was our best Forum of the year. I believe this is due to her cross-disciplinary approach, her deep curiosity, and her willingness to admit to the difficulty of her work. At this point, she becomes relatable AND inspiring, demonstrating that from crossing the lines of academia emerges an entirely refreshing and acutely critical model of inquiry.