Architectural Design Profile No. 129, New Science New
Architecture (C. Jencks, ed.), pp. 44-51, Royal Academy of Art, 1997.
The New Age of the Organism
Bioelectrodynamics Laboratory, Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes,
MK 7 6AA U.K.
Organic space-time versus mechanical space-time
I am told the comet in our sky visited us 4000 years
ago. As it revolves once around the heaven, earth has revolved 4000 times
around our sun, and human beings have gone from stone age to space age in
160 life cycles. The comet looks like a giant eye in the sky, now within
our orbit and looking down on us, having seen, perhaps, many other worlds
in far-flung reaches of the universe during its space odyssey. Do any of
those other worlds contain beings that gaze back at it as we do? One
begins to get a sense of a multitude of space-times entangled with our
here and now. The here and now contains in its essence a myriad of there
and thens. That is the real sense in which the "fullness of time"
is to be understood. It is the reality of organic space-time that the
mechanistic worldview has flattened out of existence.
Mechanical space and time are both linear, homogeneous,
separate and local. In other words, both are infinitely divisible, and
every bit of space or of time is the same as every other bit. A billiard
ball here cannot affect another one there, unless someone
pushes the one here to collide with the one there. Mechanical space-time
also happens to be the space and time of the commonest "common-sensible"
world in our mundane, everyday existence. It is the space-time of frozen
instantaneity abstracted from the fullness of real process, rather like a
still frame taken from a bad movie-film, which is itself a flat simulation
of life. The passage of time is an accident, having no connection with the
change in the configuration of solid matter located in space. Thus, space
and time are merely coordinates for locating objects. One can go forwards
or backwards in time to locate the precise objects at those particular
points. In reality, we know that we can as much retrace our space-time to
locate the person that was 30 or 50 years younger as we can undo the
wrongs we have committed then. There is no simple location in space and
time (Whitehead, 1925).
Psychoanalyst-artist Marian Milner (1957) describes her
experience of "not being able to paint" as the fear of losing
control, of no longer seeing the mechanical common-sensible separateness
of things. It is really a fear of being alive, of entanglement and process
in the organic reality that ever eludes mechanistic descripion. And yet,
it is in overcoming the imposed illusion of the separateness of things
that the artist/scientist enters into the realm of creativity and real
understanding - which is the realm of organic space-time. Mechanical
physics has banished organic space-time from our collective public
consciousness, though it never ceases to flourish in the subterranean
orphic universe of our collective unconscious and our subjective aesthetic
experience. In a way, all developments in western science since Descartes
and Newton may be seen as a struggle to reclaim our intuitive, indigenous
notions of organic space-time, which, deep within our soul, we feel to be
more consonant with authentic experience.
Organism versus mechanism
The mechanistic worldview indeed officially ended at the
beginning of this century. Einstein's relativity theory broke up Newton's
universe of absolute space and time into a multitude of space-time frames
each tied to a particular observer, who therefore, not only has a
different clock, but also a different map. Stranger still - for western
science, that is, as it comes as little surprise to other knowledge
systems, or to the artists in all cultures - quantum theory demanded that
we stop seeing things as separate solid objects with definite (simple)
locations in space and time. Instead, they are delocalized, indefinite,
mutually entangled entities that evolve like organisms.
The profound implications of this decisive break with
the intellectual tradition of previous centuries were recognized by a mere
handful of visionaries. Among them, the French philosopher Henri Bergson
(1916), and the English mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead
(1925). Between them, they articulated an organicist philosophy in place
of the mechanistic. Let me summarize some of what I see to be the major
contrasts between the mechanical universe and the universe of organisms.
Separate, absolute time, universal for observer
(process)-dependent observers space-time frames
absolute space and Space-time inseparable,
Inert objects with simple locations in space and time
Delocalized organisms with mutually entangled
Given, nonparticipatory and hence, impotent observer
entanglement of observer and observed
The contrasts are brought into sharper relief by
considering the dif-ferences between mechanism and organism, or, more
accurately, the opposition between a mechanical system and an organic
system. First of all, a mechanical system is an object in space
and time, whereas an organism is, in essence, of space-time. An
organism creates its own space-times by its activities, so it has control
over its space-time, which is not the same as external clock time.
Secondly, a mechanical system has a stability that belongs to a closed
equilibrium, depending on controllers, buffers and buttresses to
return the system to set, or fixed points. It works like a non-democratic
institution, by a hierarchy of control: a boss who sits in his office
doing nothing (bosses are still predominantly male) except giving out
orders to line managers, who in turn coerce the workers to do whatever
needs to be done. An organism, by contrast, has a dynamic stability, which
is attained in open systems far away from equilibrium. It has no bosses,
no controllers and no set points. It is radically democratic, everyone
participates in making decisions and in working by intercommunication and
mutual responsiveness. Finally, a mechanical system is built of isolatable
parts, each external and independent of all the others. An organism,
however, is an irreducible whole, where part and whole, global and local
are mutually implicated.
I hope you are sufficiently persuaded that we need a
radically new way of understanding the organism, if not the whole of
nature, as Whitehead intimates. In this project, we - each and everyone of
us - are especially privileged, because we are ourselves organisms and
know in intimate, exquisite detail, what it is to be alive.
The vast majority of scientists as well as the general
public have remained untouched by this conceptual revolution. Quantum
theory itself sits uneasily and paradoxically between the necessary limits
of a mechanical description (in quantum mechanics) and the
elusive, organic reality that remains ever out of reach. Mathematics and
physics have recently broken out of the strict mechanistic mould to
explore the 'organic' realm (see Ho, 1993; 1996a, also Saunders, this
volume). In mathematics, computations have made accessible previously
intractable problems in nonlinear dynamics, fractal geometry and chaos. In
the mean time, physics has witnessed an astonishing inventory of empirical
successes - high temperature superconductivity, quantum coherence and
nonlocal quantum superposition of states - even as theoretical
descriptions have lagged far behind. It is precisely at the point where
theoretical description fails to capture the organic freedom of reality
that contemporary science is at its most captivating. It is the realm of
imagery where scientist and artist meet, and where no one who is not both
The end of mechanistic biology
Mainstream biology is left far behind. It is clinging
fast to the mechanistic era. The discovery of the DNA double-helix in the
late 1950s, which has made its permanent mark on the public consciousness,
was the climax to a century of mechanistic, reductionist biology - the
idea that the whole is the sum of its parts, that cause and effect are
simply related, and can be neatly isolated. The discovery ended the quest
for the material basis of the units of heredity - the genes - that are
supposed to determine the characters of organisms and their offspring,
thus firmly establishing the predominance of the genetic determinist
paradigm. The subsequent flowering of molecular biology gave rise to the
present era of recombinant DNA research and commercial genetic engineering
What few people realize is that the very successes of
recombinant DNA research have completely undermined the foundations of the
genetic determinist paradigm, at least ten years ago. There has indeed
been a revolution in genetics which exactly parallels the transition
between mechanical and quantum physics. The new genetics signals the final
demise of mechanistic biology, and is consonant with the diametrically
opposite, organicist perspective which has been emerging in the rest of
science. The contrast between the old, pre-recombinant DNA genetics and
the new genetics is presented below.
The Old Genetics
The New Genetics
Genes determine characters in a linear, additive way
Genes function in a complex, nonlinear, multidimensional network - the action of each gene ultimately linked to that of every
Genes and genomes are stable and except for rare random fluid, mutations, are passed on un- changed to the next generation
Genes and genomes are dynamic and they can change in the course of development, and as the result of feedback metabolic regulation
Genes and genomes cannot be changed directly in response to the environment
Genes and genomes can change directly in response to the environment, these changes being inherited in subsequent
Genes are passed on vertically i.e., as the result of inter- breeding within the species, each species constituting an isolated 'gene pool'
Genes can also be exchanged horizontally between individuals from the same or different species
The parallel to the transition from classical to
quantum physics is best illustrated by focussing on the concept of the "gene"
(see Ho, 1997a for details). In the old genetics, the "gene" is
a continuous stretch of DNA, with a particular base sequence, and a
constant, simple location in the genome, that specifies, via a
non-overlapping triplet code, the amino-acid sequence of a single protein.
The amino-acid sequence of the protein, in turn, determines its function
in the organism. The genetic code is universal, and there is a "one-way
information flow" from DNA to an intermediary "messenger"
RNA to the protein, and no reverse information flow is possible. This was
the notion of a definite, isolatable gene, specifying a function
independently of the cellular and environmental context.
The cracks in the old edifice first appeared when reverse
information flow was found to occur from RNA back to DNA. Then, the
genetic code was discovered to be overlapping and non-universal. Next came
a succession of revelations showing that the gene itself has no
well-defined continuity nor boundaries, the expression of each gene being
ultimately dependent on, and entangled with every other gene in the
genome. Far from the one-way information flow that is supposed to proceed
from DNA to RNA to protein and on to the rest of the organism, gene
expression is subject to influences and instructions from the cellular and
environmental contexts. The gene can be recoded, or edited by the cell, it
can get silenced, or converted to a different sequence. Genome
organization is infinitely variable, dynamic and fluid. Genes mutate
frequently, small and large rearrangements take place, genes jump around,
sequences are added or deleted, they get amplified thousands and hundreds
of thousands of times or they get contracted. These changes may take place
as part of normal development or they occur repeatably in response to
environmental challenges. Some of the genetic changes are so specific that
they are referred to as "directed mutations" or "adaptive
mutations". Genes can even jump horizontally, by infection, between
species that do not interbreed. Genes and genomes are in reality, dynamic,
delocalized, mutually entangled and part of larger wholes. In short,
biology has been catapulted, over the heads of the old guard, into the new
age of the organism.
I have given a good indication of what the new "physics
of the organism" might look like in an earlier book (Ho, 1993) and in
other recent publications (Ho, 1995,a,b; 1996a,b). In the rest of this
paper, I shall outline a theory of the organism, ending with a few remarks
on certain key aspects that are most relevant to organic, as opposed to
mechanistic forms: organic stability, organic space-time and the integral
delocalization of organic forms.
A theory of the organism
There are 75 trillion cells in our body, made up of
astronomical numbers of molecules of many different kinds. How can this
huge conglomerate of disparate cells and molecules function so perfectly
as a coherent whole? How can we summon energy at will to do whatever we
want? And most of all, how is it possible for there to be a singular "I"
that we all feel ourselves to be amid this diverse multiplicity and
To give you an idea of the coordination of activities
involved, imagine an immensely huge superorchestra playing with
instruments spanning an incredible spectrum of sizes from a piccolo of 10-9
metre up to a bassoon or a bass viol of 1 metre or more, and a musical
range of seventy-two octaves. The amazing thing about this
superorchestra is that it never ceases to play out our individual
songlines, with a certain recurring rhythm and beat, but in endless
variations that never repeat exactly. Always, there is something new,
something made up as it goes along. It can change key, change tempo,
change tune perfectly, as it feels like it, or as the situation demands,
spontaneously and without hesitation. Furthermore, each and every player,
however small, can enjoy maximum freedom of expression, improvising from
moment to moment, while maintaining in step and in tune with the whole.
I have just given you a theory of the quantum
coherence that underlies the radical wholeness of the organism. It is
a special wholeness that involves total participation, and maximizes both
local freedom and global cohesion. It involves the mutual implication of
global and local, of part and whole, from moment to moment. It is on that
basis that we can have a sense of ourselves as a singular being, despite
the diverse multiplicity of parts. That is also how we can perceive the
unity of the here and now, in an act of "prehensive unification"(Whitehead,
1925). Artists like scientists, depend on the same exquisite sense of
prehensive unification, to see patterns that connect apparently disparate
In order to add corroborative details to my story,
however, I shall give a more scientific narrative involving some easy
lessons in thermodynamics and quantum theory. It begins with energy
The thermodynamics of organized complexity
Textbooks tell us that living systems are open systems
dependent on energy flow. Energy flows in together with materials, and
waste products are exported as well as the spent energy that goes
to make up entropy. And that is how living systems can, in
principle, escape from the second law of thermodynamics. The second law,
as you may know, encapsulates the fact that all physical systems run down,
ultimately decaying to homogeneous disorganization when all useful energy
is spent, or converted into entropy. But how do living systems manage
their antientropic existence?
I have suggested (Ho, 1996a,b) that the key to
understanding how the organism overcomes the immediate constraints of
thermodynamics is in its capacity to store the incoming energy, and in
somehow closing the energy loop within to give a reproducing, regenerating
life cycle (see Figure 1). The
energy, in effect, goes into complex cascades of coupled
cyclic processes within the system before it is allowed to dissipate to
the outside. These cascades of cycles span the entire gamut of space-times
from slow to fast, from local to global, that all together, constitutes
the life-cycle (see Figure 2 for an intuitive picture). Each cycle is a
domain of coherent energy storage - coherent energy is simply
energy that can do work because it is all coming and going together, as
opposed to incoherent energy which goes in all directions at once and
cancel out, and is therefore, quite unable to do work.
Figure 1 here
Figure 2 here
Coupling between the cycles ensures that the energy is
transferred directly from where it is captured or produced, to where it is
used. In thermodynamic language, those activities going thermodynamically
down-hill, and therefore yielding energy, are coupled to those
that require energy and go thermodynamically uphill. This coupling
also ensures that positive entropy generated in some space-time
elements is compensated by negative entropy in other space-time
elements. There is, in effect, an internal energy conservation as well as
an internal entropy compensation. The whole system works by reciprocity, a
cooperative give and take which balances out over the system as a whole,
and within a sufficiently long time. The result is that there is always
coherent energy available in the system. Energy can be readily shared
throughout the system, from local to global and vice versa, from
global to local, which is why, in principle, we can have energy at will,
whenever and wherever it is needed. The organism has succeeded in
gathering all the necessary vital processes into a unity of coupled
non-dissipative cycles spanning the entire gamut of space-times up to and
including the life-cycle itself, which effectively feeds off the
dissipative irreversible energy flow (see Figure 3).
Figure 3 here
But how can energy mobilization be so perfectly
coordinated? That is a direct consequence of the energy stored, which
makes the whole system excitable, or highly sensitive to specific
weak signals. It does not have to be pushed and dragged into action like a
mechanical system. Weak signals originating anywhere within or outside the
system will propagate throughout the system and become automatically
amplified by the local energy stored, often into macroscopic action.
Intercommunication can proceed very rapidly, especially because organisms
are completely liquid crystalline. Let me explain.
The liquid crystalline organism
Several years ago, we discovered an optical technique
that enables us to see living organisms in brilliant interference colours
generated by the liquid crystallinity of their internal anatomy. We found
that all live organisms are completely liquid crystalline - in their cells
as well as the extracellular matrix, or connective tissues (see Ho et
al, 1996; Ross et al, 1997). Liquid crystals are states of
matter between solid crystals and liquids. Like solid crystals, they
possess long-range orientation order, and often, also varying degrees of
translational order (or order of motion). In contrast to solid crystals,
however, they are mobile and flexible and highly responsive. They undergo
rapid changes in orientation or phase transitions when exposed to weak
electric (or magnetic) fields, to subtle changes in pressure, temperature,
hydration, acidity or pH, concentrations of inorganic molecules or other
small molecules. These properties happen to be ideal for making organisms,
as they provide for the rapid intercommunication required for the organism
to function as a coherent whole. Some images of live organisms taken from
video-recordings are shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4 here
What you are seeing is the whole of the organism at
once, from its macroscopic activities down to the long-range order of the
molecules that make up its tissues. The interference colours generated
depend on the structure of the particular molecules, which differ for each
tissue, and their degree of coherent order. The principle is exactly the
same as that used in detecting mineral crystals in geology. But, with the
important difference that the living liquid crystals are dynamic
through and through, as the molecules are all moving about busily
transforming energy and material in the meantime. So, how can they still
Because visible light vibrates much faster than the
molecules can move, the tissues will appear indistinguishable from static
crystals to the light transmitted, so long as the movements of the
constituent molecules are sufficiently coherent. Actually, the most
actively moving parts of the organism are always the brightest, implying
that their molecules are moving all the more coherently. With our optical
technique, therefore, one can see that the organism is thick with coherent
activities at all levels, which are coordinated in a continuum from the
macroscopic to the molecular. That is the essence of the organic whole,
where local and global, part and whole are mutually implicated at any time
and for all times.
These images draw attention to the wholeness of the
organism in another respect. All organisms - from protozoa to vertebrates
without exception - are polarized along the anterior-posterior axis, or
the oral-adoral axis, such that all the colours in the different tissues
of the body are at a maximum when the axis is appropriately aligned in the
optical system, and they change in concert as the axis is rotated from
that position. The fruitfly larva has cleverly demonstrated that for us by
curling its body around in a circle (Figure 4 c,d).
The coherence of organisms and nonlocal
As said before, intercommunication can proceed very
rapidly through the liquid crystalline continuum of cells and connective
tissues that make up the organism. In the limit of the coherence time
and coherence volume of energy storage - the time and volume
respectively over which the energy remains coherent - intercommunication
is instantaneous or nonlocal. There is no time-separation within the
coherence volume, just as there is no space-separation within the
coherence time. Because the organism stores coherent energy over all
space-times, it has a full range of coherent space-times, which are
furthermore, all coupled together. Thus, there is a possibility for
nonlocal intercommunication throughout the system. In the ideal, the
system is a quantum superposition of coherent activities, constituting a "pure
coherent state" that maximizes both local freedom and global
cohesion, in acordance with the factorizability of the quantum
coherent state (Ho, 1993, 1996a,b). Factorizability means that the
different parts are so perfectly intercorrelated that the
intercorrelations resolve neatly into products of the self-correlations.
So the parts behave as though they are independent of one another. This is
the radical nature of the organic whole (as opposed to the mechanical
whole), where global cohesion and local freedom are both maximized, and
each part is as much in control as it is sensitive and responsive.
The "whole" is thus a domain of coherent
activities, constituting an autonomous, free entity (see Ho, 1996a), not
because it is separate and isolated from its environment, but precisely
by virtue of its unique entanglement of other organic space-times
in its environment. In this way, one can see that organic wholes are
nested as well as entangled individualities. Each can be part of a larger
whole, depending on the extent over which coherence can be established.
So, when many individuals in a society have a certain rapport with one
another, they may constitute a coherent whole, and ideas and feelings can
indeed spread like wildfire within that community. In the same way, an
ecological community, and by extension, the global ecology may also be
envisaged as a super-organism within which coherence can be established in
ecological relationships over global, geological space-times (see Ho,
The ideal quantum coherent state involving the whole
system is a global attractor to which the system tends to return
when it is perturbed, but as the system is always open, it will invariably
be taken away from the totally coherent state. So here is how space-time,
as well as entropy or time's "arrow", is generated (see Ho,
1993). It is generated in proportion to the incoherence of actions
taken. The more the actions taken are at odds with the coherence of the
system, the more time, and entropy, is generated, and the more the system
ages. Thus, the biological age of an organism may literally be quite
different from the age as measured by external clock-time. In the same
way, the earth itself can be aging much faster on account of our
incoherent actions within it. On the other hand, we may indeed enter a
state of delocalized timelessness when we achieve a high degree of
coherence. Some of us get an inkling of that during an aesthetic
experience, or alternatively, a religious experience.
Several people have asked me whether it is possible to
get younger. My first reaction was no, because for all real processes,
according to the textbook, entropy is greater than or equal to zero. On
further reflection, however, I think the answer has to be yes. It follows
from the principle of internal entropy compensation in an organic system,
where negative as well as positive entropy can be generated, and also
because past and present, as well as present and future, can be
nonlocally interconnected. The challenge is indeed to set ourselves
and the earth back on a possibly rejuvenating, or at any rate,
anti-entropic and self-sustaining course (see Ho, 1997b).
Organic space-time and fractal space-time
Organic space-time is tied to activity, and as
elaborated above, these activities are fundamentally anti-entropic on
account of their tendencies towards coherence. The organism is thus a
coherent space-time structure engendering nonlocal interconnectedness.
What is the nature of this structure?
There are several lines of recent evidence converging
to a new picture of the "texture of reality" (see Stewart, 1989)
suggesting that organic space-time does have a structure, and that this
structure is fractal. One of the most exciting discoveries in recent
years, which has given rise to the "science of complexity" is
that natural processes and natural structures have fractal
dimensions. That means they have dimensions in between the one, two or
three to which we are accustomed. Fractals capture a new kind of order
characterized by self-similarity - the similarity of part to whole over
many different scales. Snowflakes, clouds, ferns, coastlines branching
patterns of blood vessels, and the "cytoskeleton" inside each
cell are all examples of fractal structures. Natural processes, from
weather patterns to the healthy heart-beat and electrical activities of
the brain, similarly, exhibit "chaotic dynamics" that when
spatialized as a "Poincaré section" (see Stewart, 1989),
gives rise to "strange attractors" that again have fractal
dimensions. If space-time is indeed generated by processes as I have
proposed here, then it should also exhibit fractal dimensions, or more
accurately, multi-fractal dimensions. This is the basis of the "space-time
differentiation" of organisms (see Ho, 1993).
According to Nottale (1996) and others, the whole of
present day physics relies on the unjustified assumption of the
differentiability of the space-time continuum, which stems from the
classical domain, whereas Feynman and Hibbs (1965) have already shown that
the typical path of a quantum particle is continuous, but nondifferentiable.
This is the failure of present-day physical description to capture the
organic quantum reality that I have alluded to earlier. For the
description is still based on a mathematical representation of space-time
as continuous and homogeneous, i.e., as infinitely divisible or "differentiable".
It so happens that a structure that satisfies the requirement for
continuity and non-differentiability is also fractal. Nottale (1996)
"Giving up the hypothesis of differentiability has
an important physical consequence: one can show that curves, surfaces,
volumes and, more generally, spaces of topological dimension DT,
which are continuous but non-differentiable, are characterized by a
length, an area and, more generally a DT
measure which becomes explicitly dependent on the resolution at which they
are considered, ... and tends to infinity when the resolution interval
tends to zero. In other words, a non-differentiable space-time continuum
is necessarily fractal....This result naturally leads to the proposal of a
geometric tool adapted to construct a theory based on such premises,
namely, fractal space-time."
The author then proceeds to describe a new approach
that generalizes Einstein's principle of relativity to scale
transformations. Specifically, the equations of physics are required to
keep their form under scale transformation, i.e., to be scale covariant.
It allows physicists to recover quantum mechanics as mechanics on a
fractal space-time, in which Schrödinger's wave equation is a
I wonder if that is not the beginning of an approach
towards the quantization of space-time which, I believe, is a necessary
consequence of the quantization of action that Planck's constant already
involves. This quantized space-time is also Bergson's "duration",
which expresses the indivisibile multiplicity of our subjective experience
of organic process (see Ho, 1993). It is the experience of processes
cascading through the continuous scales of fractal space-times that are
all coupled together or entangled through the coherence of the "ground"
or asymptotic state, over which the scale covariance is defined.
What would an organic architecture be like?
Organic architecture is nothing new. As Jencks (1995)
points out, "'Organic unity, where not a part can be added or
subtracted except for the worse' are injunctions that have rebounded
through the halls of building sites for 2000 years." The artists have
been well ahead of scientists after all. Jencks touches on some of the
themes developed in this Chapter in his grand panoramic sweep of how the
new "science of complexity" is changing architecture and
culture. However, as with quantum theory itself, much of the science of
complexity is still mechanism aspiring towards organism. So, perhaps there
is an excuse for me to give in to the temptation of trying to imagine what
organic architecture would be like, based on the new view of the organism
just presented, and to make connections with some well-known and lesser
known concepts in established organic architecture.
Organic stability versus mechanical stability
One question which arose (for some of us) in the wake of
the discoveries of the new genetics is, how do organisms and species
maintain their stability when genes and genomes are so mutable and fluid?
That is a question on the nature of organic stability in general.
The conventional, neo-Darwinian explanation is that
natural selection is always at work to select out those that are unstable,
and hence "unfit", so only those that are sufficiently stable
remain to propagate offspring like themselves. A neo-Darwinian account of
architecture, might similarly explain that buildings are selected for
stability - those that were not stable simply fell down and eliminated
themselves, leaving the stable ones for us to admire and to imitate.
I do not know how that explanation fares in
architecture, but it certainly fails to account for the responsiveness of
organisms, including their genes and genomes, to environmental and
physiological changes (see Ho, 1997a). The stability of organisms and
species is dependent on the entire gamut of dynamic feedback
interrelationships extending from the socio-ecological environment to the
genes. Genes and genomes must also adjust and respond, and if necessary,
to change, in order to maintain the stability of the whole. As said above,
the stability of organisms is diametrically opposite to the stability of
mechanical systems. Mechanical stability - which includes that of
so-called "cybernetic" systems - belongs to a closed, static
equilibrium, maintained by the action of controllers, buffers or
buttresses designed to return the system to set points. Organic stability,
on the other hand, is a dynamic balance attained in open systems far away
from equilibrium, without controllers or set points, but by means of
intercommunication and mutual responsiveness. The stability of organisms
depends on all parts of the system being informed, participating
and acting appropriately in order to maintain the whole.
Organic stability is therefore delocalized throughout
the system, via symmetrically commuting parts, each of which changes in
response to all the others and to the environment. I am reminded of Cecil
Balmond's constructions (this volume), his "free forms" which
defy gravity. Organic stability is in the dynamic integrity of the
whole. I can imagine the stresses and strains distributing and
ever-shifting from one part to another in cycles of correlated
reciprocity. If these forms were made of transparent, liquid crystalline
material, as living organisms are, one might see a beautiful display of
ever-changing colour patterns reflecting the shifting patterns of stresses
and strains, as the structure communicates with its environment, just as
one can see in real organisms.
Organic forms are supported and sustained by their
relationship to the environment. Liquid crystals, in particular, are
constantly evolving embodiments of their changing environments, their
surfaces are invariably curved and flexible, hence the study of their
structure is referred to as "flexi-crystallography" by
crystallographer Alan MacKay. Liquid crystals go through many abrupt phase
transitions, each "phase" being itself a continuum of more
subtle variations. The phases are all minimum energy surfaces separating
an "inside" from the "outside", though the inside and
the outside can be so thoroughly interdigitated that it becomes a major
problem in topology to disentangle them. The infinite variety of
intricately sculpted exoskeletons of radiolarians are mineral deposits
templated by different liquid crystalline formations. Liquid crystalline
structures have already inspired certain architectural designs, such as
the carpark in the National University of Mexico (Alan Mackay, personal
Organic space-time and organic architecture
Whereas a mechanical form is located in space
and persists (or not) in time, an organic form, by contrast, is a
space-time structure; to be exact, a coherent space-time structure. An
organic form creates space-time, increasing its space-time
differentiation in the course of development and in evolution. Being in
an organic form is to partake of its distinctive space-time, and its
possibility for nonlocal interconnections over multiple dimensions. Jencks
(1995) points out that virtually all those who referred to 'organic
architecture', including classicists such as Vitruvius and Alberti, and
modernists, such as Gropious and Wright, insisted on work that shows
fractal self-similarity, or 'unity with variety'.
I have proposed above that organic space-time is
fractal because it arises out of natural processes which are fractal.
Fractal architecture, therefore, are unique creations of organic
space-times that extend and enhance our experience as organisms. I am
captivated by Bruce Goff's plan of his Bavinger House (see Jencks, 1995,
p.45). It exhibits the dynamic, nonlocal inter-connections and the
multiple resonances of the fractal, organic whole, simultaneously
unfolding and enfolding, diverging and converging in the gesture of life
itself. I imagine sounds taking on added dimensions of musicality and
coherence within this structure.
Another aspect of organic space-time is its complexity,
or space-time differentiation (see Ho, 1993). This corresponds, I think,
to Jencks' (1995) concept of the "organizational depth" of an
architecture - the "density with which things are linked" -
which counters the 'depthless present' of modernist architecture by "building
in time". The depth of organic space-time is not just a nestedness
but a special kind of superpositionand entanglement. A fine
example of space-time entanglement is Rem Koolhaas' library in Jussieu
University, Paris (see Jencks, 1995, p. 87). It is a continuous linear
route traversing a stack of near-horizontal planes connecting one level to
the next; the whole floor is one unbroken multi-level ramp through which
weaves "a grid of columns and randomized incidents".
Of course, organic architecture is not restricted to
fractal constructions, just as organic processes can undergo global phase
transitions or catastrophic changes. In terms of space-time structure,
phase transitions would correspond to major reorganizations of the system,
giving rise to a new Schrödinger's wave equation, or new "geodesic"
(see above). Jencks has explored nonlinear and catastrophic forms to much
effect in his interior and exterior designs and in landscaping.
The integral delocalization of organic forms and organic
Finally, it must be stressed that an organism is an
unique embodiment of its environment, that arises out of an uninterrupted
act of "prehensive unification" (Whitehead, 1925), a Bergsonian
duration. Put in another way, the organism is an unique, integral
space-time entangling a multitude of space-times. It simultaneously
creates its own space-time while being constitutive of other space-times.
As a work of art, the organic architecture is more than an icon or a
symbol. It is a coherent superposition and entanglement that gives
nonlocal access to the diverse multiplicity of space and times that
constitute its integral whole. That may be the real challenge to organic
This essay benefited from stimulating discussions with
Charles Jencks and Cecil Balmond, and with Alan Mackay. Philipe Herbomel
drew my attention to Nottale's papers on fractal space-time by kindly
sending the xerox copies. Part of this article was first presented as a
public lecture "A theory of the organism and organic space-time"
at a Conference on Time and Timelessness, Dartington Hall, April 9-13,
1997. I was much inspired by the occasion, by the responses of the
audience, and by composer and scholar, Edward Cowie, who introduced my
lecture. Julian Haffegee exercised great skill in preparing the colour
images of Figure 4.
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Figure 1. Energy flow, energy storage and the
reproducing life cycle.
Figure 2. The many-fold cycles of life coupled to energy
Figure 3. The organism frees itself from the immediate
constraints of thermodynamics
Figure 4. The liquid crystalline organism. Images are
still frames from a video-recording of live organisms viewed with a
special polarized light microscopy technique which detects liquid
crystalline regimes, a,b, successive frames of a first instar fruitfly
larva about to hatch; c,d successive frames of the first instar fruitfly
larva shortly after hatching; e,f successive frames of the trunk region of
the brine shrimp.