Organic inspirations The Monumental Impulse: Architecture's Biological Roots by George Hersey. MIT Press, 1999. 244 pp. £24.95
Those crude popular epithets applied to modern buildings such as 'erotic gherkin', 'pregnant armadillo', or even our old friend the 'carbuncle', may in fact be subliminally accurate if we accept the propositions offered by The Monumental Impulse.
George Hersey, emeritus professor of art at Yale, traces architecture's biological roots in natural forms, from both flora and fauna as well as anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. As he admits, the idea is not new. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks consciously imitated plant forms in their structures and decoration, Vitruvius thought architecture derived from bird's nests, Medieval churches celebrated and stylised nature, Art Nouveau was inspired by sinuous vegetation, and Expressionism often adopted organic forms in their entirety.
In our own time, the influential work by D'Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form (1942), showed how modern engineering structures relate to biological equivalents in cells, vertebrae and plants. Bernard Rudofsky included images of animal buildings in his Architecture Without Architects (1964), while Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller consciously adapted organic/mathematical principles in their designs, as does the Post-Modernist High-Tech school today (Grimshaw, Coop Himmelblau).
Hersey, however, claims that the analogy is far more fundamental than mere similarity in structural appearance or principle. There are 'genetic homologies' between us and other species that build - birds, crustaceans, ants, termites, bees - no matter how distant they might seem.
Thus the DNA double helix can be found in staircase designs by Leonardo, constellations of cells in early dwellings, and virus configurations in lunar modules (subliminally imitated). This is a fascinating theory and might be linked to archetypal symbolism in art and architecture, but the promise is not really fulfilled in the book.
Hersey goes on to examine flowers, shells, insects, birds and mammals, concentrating on appearance in an admittedly original way, although some of his comparisons seem forced (is the Oval Office really an egg symbol where plots are hatched and chicks chased?).
The section on analogies to male and female sexual organs - phallic tower- blocks and obelisks, womb-like caves, ovular eggs and breast-shaped domes - is highly entertaining, and again claims deeper meaning than the purely visual. Skyscrapers do not just look like male organs but their cladding symbolises the layered-skin configuration of the penis, while elements such as lifts and services shoot up from testicular-like plant rooms. The chambers and tunnels in Egyptian pyramids imitate female reproductive organs with the sarcophagus as the male member contained in the vagina.
The book presents its findings as fundamental and wide-ranging, but in fact this is a fairly narrow, art-historical interpretation of architectural form, concentrating on single-cell structures (temples, churches, concert halls, museums) which are appropriate to the biological analogies. The rectangle, the basis of most architecture, is not discussed, except when it appears in computer models of, say, protein soup, which is cheating rather.
Other factors which impinge on architecture - politics, culture, function or finance - must of necessity be omitted since they do not fit in with the deterministic theories. Nonetheless, Hersey's book is an entertaining read, if taken with a large pinch of sodium-chloride crystalline structure.