Co-evolutionary Architecture

Book-project in slow progress since 2019 –


Architecture evolves through mutual influence and adaptation between culture and nature, life and technology, time and matter, theory and practice, the abstract and the concrete, the detail and the whole, the formal and the informal. As William Blake (2014: 6) said: “Without Contraries is no progression”.

This investigation of co-evolutionary architecture imparts a combination of experiential, propositional and theoretical knowledge that is developed in a process in which concrete experiments, critical discussions, evaluation of experiences, theoretical studies and the development of visions evolve one another. The results are conveyed in book format.

About the project

A pentalogy of books including a theoretical introduction to the concept of co-evolution and its possible meaning and relevance in architecture; investigations of the possible application of the concept in practice, research and education, respectively; and a discussion of the possible co-evolutionary integration of theory, practice, research and education in architecture.

Each book is made up of two parts that are reciprocally evolved like the co-evolution between the butterfly and the plant it pollinates and from which its larvae feed. This relationship between the butterfly and the plant is, however, affected by many other factors, including the individual co-evolution of each organism with predators and parasites. Similarly, the two parts of each book are co-evolved with the parts of the other books.

And, because co-evolution occurs through interaction between distinct groups of organisms, each part differs from the other parts: one part being visionary and another reflective; one part being based on personal experiences and another on theoretical arguments.

The pentalogy differs from most other books about architecture in that the focus is on the processes of architecture rather than on the results. It is about how to conceive, create, study and teach architecture rather than about what is conceived, created, studied or taught. In that sense it also differs, in that the focus integrates theory, practice, research and education rather than focusing on only one of these areas.

The project seeks to connect two major strands of the current debate about architecture,[1] i.e. how to make architecture more socially inclusive[2] and how to make it more environmentally sustainable,[3] suggesting that the two questions are interrelated and might be answered through a co-evolutionary approach.

Co-evolutionary architecture is about the possible application of a specific aspect of the evolutionary theory, namely that of co-evolution, in architecture. It is not about the architectural imitation of or the human affiliation to nature, though it does indeed have certain affinities with the theories of biomimicry and biophilia.

1. Architecture is understood here as a collective expression of humanity.
2. The United Nations define social inclusion “as the process of improving the terms of participation in society, particularly for people who are disadvantaged, through enhancing opportunities, access to resources, voice and respect for rights” (Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2016: 17).
3. Environmental sustainability has been defined “as a condition of balance, resilience, and interconnectedness that allows human society to satisfy its needs while neither exceeding the capacity of its supporting ecosystems to continue to regenerate the services necessary to meet those needs nor by our actions diminishing biological diversity” (Morelli, 2011).


The concept of co-evolution, i.e. “the process of reciprocal evolutionary change that occurs between pairs of species or among groups of species as they interact with one another” (Rafferty & Thompson, 2009), was described by Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species (1859) but was not popularized until a hundred years later by Paul Ehrlich and Peter Raven (1964).[4] It has since become an important concept in complexity theory and has been applied to several other fields apart from biology.

To the best of this author’s knowledge, however, no other publications rigorously discuss the possible application of co-evolution in architecture. The one that comes closest, perhaps, is CO-EVOLUTION: Danish/Chinese Collaboration on Sustainable Urban Development in China (Valeur, 2006), which this project is critically reassessing and vastly expanding on.

A co-evolutionary approach to architecture is closely associated with the concepts of collaboration and participation. Co-evolutionary architecture is, however, not the same as co-creation, co-design or co-production etc. While the latter approaches are limited to solving a specific problem or developing a specific product through collaboration between, say, the producer and the consumer, a co-evolutionary approach is intended as an open-ended learning process in which many collaborating (or participating) parties may inspire and impel each other to rethink not only a specific problem or product, but the very purpose and methods of their own practice.

The co-evolutionary approach is thus based on long-lasting, complex processes of human interaction that may have deep and broad, albeit uncontrollable and unpredictable, transformative impact on both the individual and the collective.

In contrast to conventional architectural practice, which seeks to create order, either by maintaining the existing order, by reestablishing an old order or by proposing a new order, the co-evolutionary approach of architecture seeks to create change. Not a one-time change, like the erection of a new building that changes the neighborhood, but constant change like that provoked by drift, migration, mutation and selection in natural evolution. And it is not about changing something else, like that neighborhood for instance, though it may do that as well, but about self-change. A co-evolutionary architecture is an architecture that changes itself, constantly. Because only by constantly changing the way in which architecture is conceived and created, and only in this process of constant change itself, which, ideally, involves all of us, will we be able to make architecture more democratic and environmentally sensible.

Creating change through long-term collaboration and participation is also what action research is about. And since the latter is sometimes referred to as “a family of approaches” (Reason & Hillary, 2008: 7) we might talk about the co-evolutionary approach as a new member of the action research ‘family’.

Co-evolutionary action research, then, distinguishes itself from the rest of the ‘family’ by engaging with cross-communal and cross-cultural change rather than with the change of a particular community or culture.

The notion of co-evolution has been adopted in teaching at some schools of architecture, though it has been applied in quite different ways. At the School of Architecture, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, the program, Political Architecture: Critical Sustainability, defines a co-evolutionary approach as “a process of interaction between two distinct paths of investigation, one pursuing academic critical thinking through scholarly method, the other developing individual interest driven architectural propositions from thinking through heuristic production” (Petersson & Grønbek, n.d.). Meanwhile, at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University, the program, Testing Ground, defines a coevolutionary approach as a design practice that engages students, volunteers and members of the local community in practical, experimental work aimed at “establishing dynamic processes of learning between users and designers” (Farmer, 2017: 18).

While the definition differs fundamentally – at the one school, it is about a single individual using two different approaches and at the other school it is about two, or more, individuals using the same approach – co-evolution, in both cases, is seen as a means of making architecture more sustainable and, in the latter case, it must be assumed, more inclusive.

Facing multiple and evolving crises, in which architecture is, more often than not, a complicit, what is needed are not more glossy architectural renderings of a ‘perfect’ future but a radical re-conception of architecture.

4. Without uttering the actual word, the French philosopher Henri Bergson speaks about co-evolution as well when he says that: “Intellectuality and materiality have been constituted, in detail, by reciprocal adaptation.” (1911: 109). So does the Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys when he says that: “The environment in which we live influences our activity, but reciprocally this environment is a product of our creative activity” (1959).


The pentalogy is primarily aimed at students, teachers, researchers and practitioners of architecture, including landscape architecture, urban design and urban planning, but it may also be of interest to other disciplines within the arts and humanities.

The intention is to stimulate debate about and provide inspiration for practice, research and education. As such, it may be used as text books in the aforementioned fields, but it is not intended as such. A basic understanding of architecture, biology and sociology, as well as an ability to make complex associations, is required of the reader.


1. In theory
The first part of the first book introduces the concept of co-evolution, as it has been developed in modern biology by Charles Darwin and others; how it relates to the thinking of ancient Eastern and Pre-Socratic Western natural philosophers like Zhuangzi (369-286 BCE) and Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) and modern process philosophers like Henri Bergson (1859-1941); and how it has recently been applied in complexity science, development studies, ecological economics, political ecology, organizational theory and social geography.

The second part of this book discusses the possible meaning and relevance of co-evolution in architecture. This discussion is based on the previously established synthesis of evolutionary and complexity theory, process and natural philosophy; and on the author’s own thoughts, ideas and experiences as a practitioner, researcher and teacher of architecture.

2. In practice
The second book includes an introduction to and a critical discussion of the project COEVOLUTION: Danish/Chinese Collaboration on Sustainable Urban Development in China, which proposed to face the environmental challenges and developmental opportunities related to rapid urbanization in China through creative cross-cultural collaboration between academics and professionals from both China and Denmark. While the exhibition was successful in terms of acclaim and promotion, the results were less convincing in terms of achieving the stated objectives regarding long-lasting collaboration and new visions for sustainable urban development.[5]

Based on these experiences, a new vision for a co-evolutionary approach in practice is developed. This vision involves collaborations between participants representing a multiplicity, rather than a duality, of cultures and communities.[6] Rather than planning and designing for other people in an office space located somewhere else, the participants immerse themselves in that concrete environment in which they want to engage. They do so in order to develop an understanding of the local ecologies, histories and cultures that goes beyond that of the tourist gaze. Through critical reflection and creative imagination, the multiplicity, which includes people living there, will attempt to transform not only the physicality of that environment but also the mentalities of each other.

The multiplicity is a self-organized network in which decision making and responsibilities are distributed horizontally. This is not to suggest that the participants don’t contribute differently and that different contributions don’t have different value but rather that each contribution is enabled – and made more valuable – by the contributions of others.

One of the advantages of the multiplicity is its extensive diversity of knowledge. But how is this to be brought together? How are people with different backgrounds and perspectives enabled to think and imagine together? On the one hand, different expectations and experiences have to be balanced and, on the other, different ideas and inspirations have to be integrated in a process of creativity far-from-equilibrium.

5. Even though the participants proposed a number of sustainable solutions, including the use of renewable energy, passive heating and cooling, water recycling and soil remediation, promotion of sustainable means of transportation etc., none of them questioned – or proposed alternatives to – the economic growth-agenda that drives contemporary processes of urban development and may be regarded as the very reason why this development remains unsustainable.
6. A multiplicity, as construed by Henri Bergson, is, at the same time, both heterogeneous, in the sense of representing a diverse range of realities, and continuous, in the sense that these realities interact and overlap. “Many philosophers today think that this concept of multiplicity, despite its difficulty, is revolutionary. It is revolutionary because it opens the way to a reconception of community” (Lawlor & Moulard-Leonard, 2016). Maybe of culture too?

3. In research
The third book discusses the purpose of architectural research, as seen from diverse perspectives, and the need for unconventional research methods in architecture.

While a lot of architecture-related research, such as research of building materials and construction methods, can be carried out in a conventional (positivist) scientific manner, research about the practice of architecture and research that seeks to enrich that practice can not. The reason for this is that the architectural practice is based on creative processes that are not entirely rational but depend on intuition and instincts too. Moreover, these processes thrive on complexity as they seek to synthesize multiple and frequently shifting inputs and ideas, restrictions and opportunities, wishes and demands. The creative processes of the architectural practice are thus opposed to conventional (reductionist) research methods.

A case is made for co-evolutionary action-research in architecture. The case is a project on the transition to green mobility and the creation of green streets in Copenhagen, which involved activists, artists, entrepreneurs, experts, researchers and local citizens.

Architectural research already includes various unconventional methods such as research by design and practice-based research. These methods are related to action research in the sense that the researcher is no longer seen as a neutral observer but rather as an active participant.

While the means (collaboration and participation) and the ends (change and development) of action research can make the conventional researcher quite uneasy, they sit well with the creative processes of architecture and are similar to those of the co-evolutionary approach to architecture. In contrast to conventional action research however, co-evolutionary action research does not focus on the relations within a single entity, a community or an organization, but rather on the relations between different entities.

4. In education
The fourth book looks at the architectural education in a historical perspective: how it has evolved, or not, in different places and in response to different circumstances; and how it may respond to common contemporary challenges and possibilities through a co-evolutionary approach. It includes references to the educational theories of critical thinkers like Henri Lefebvre, Paulo Freire and Achille Mbembe, as well as personal observations of educational practices in China, Denmark, India, South Africa and Sweden, and the author’s meditations on challenges and possibilities related to pervasive natural, cultural and technological transformations.

In response to the questions arising from this – such as how past and present forms of colonization[7] impact the architectural education, how it can be counteracted, and how curriculum and pedagogy can remain relevant and coherent as the education confronts an ever wider array of diverse and shifting contexts and challenges? – a co-evolutionary approach to the architectural education is proposed. This proposal is presented as a program for a combined summer and winter school on Moving cultures and resilient communities, intended to take place in Greenland, during summer, and the Arabic Peninsula, during winter. The participants would consist of students of art and creativity from Nordic and Arabic countries, who would study the culture of the Inuits and the Bedouins, respectively, and its relevance in relation to contemporary challenges.

The proposal for a co-evolutionary approach to the architectural education calls for the establishment of relationships of reciprocity between the student, the researcher and the teacher; academics from different disciplines; the academic community and communities outside of academia; people from different strata of society and from different parts of the world, as well as between theory and practice. In order for these relationships to evolve, the ‘classroom’ should be located outside of the university because the traditional academic institution may alienate or intimidate people.

The aim of the multiplicitous dialogues of the co-evolutionary approach is to ensure that both the content and the methods of the architectural education are continuously evaluated and evolved. And to ensure that the architectural education relates to both particular and temporary situations as well as to enduring issues of general relevance. Paradoxically, perhaps, it may also help make the architectural education more resistant: to external power pressure and to internal power playing; to racism, sexism and other forms of oppression and exclusion; and to conformity and complacency – by enhancing independent, critical thinking, curiosity, creativity and compassion, as well as skills of communication and collaboration.

7. Colonization is interpreted here as a process by which the free spirit of the human being is being subjugated to a system of control that serves to maintain unequal power relations.

5. Integration
The fifth and final book discusses the possibilities of integrating theory, practice, research and education in architecture, through a co-evolutionary approach, and the potentialities related to such an integration, which, it is believed, can help make architecture more thoughtful, and therefore more socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable, because evolution – natural as well as cultural – creates not only change but consciousness (Bergson, 1911) and complexity (Kauffman, 2016) too.

The co-evolutionary integration of theory, practice, research and education in architecture might be realized through self-organized and self-sustaining processes of ‘change through learning’ and ‘learning through change’. Such processes may involve people representing different cultural backgrounds and aspirations, as well as different kinds of theoretical and practical knowledge, and may take place in spaces of contrasts, contradictions and potential conflicts, because such spaces offer opportunities for both change and learning.

This approach to architecture may also provide a possible answer to the broader questions of how to create understanding, and how to pass on wisdom, between different cultures and communities – in an era characterized largely by social segregation, division of labor and specialization of knowledge?[8]

8. As Norgaard (1994: preface) puts it: “I now recognize that understanding cannot be an individual undertaking. To the extent modern peoples understand the dilemmas of modernity, it is through the sharing of different understandings. And our modern faith in Tightness over sharing is the major obstacle to better understanding and the resolution of modernity’s environmental problems.”


Bergson, H. (1911, French original 1907) Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. New York, Henry Holt and Company.

Blake, W. (2014 [1790]) The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Projekt Gutenberg e-book.

Boyarsky, N. & Murphy, N. (2001) Architecture and Urbanism 1: Action Research. London, Black Dog.

Darwin, C. R. (1859) On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London, John Murray.

Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2016) Leaving no one behind: the imperative of inclusive development. New York, United Nations.

Ehrlich, P. R. & Raven, P. H. (1964) Butterflies and Plants: A Study in Coevolution. Evolution, 18, 586-608. DOI: 10.2307/2406212.

Farmer, G. (2017) From Differentiation to Concretisation: Integrative Experiments in Sustainable Architecture. Societies, 3, 35. DOI: 10.3390/7040035.

Healey, P. (1997) Collaborative Planning. Vancouver, UBC Press.

Jones, P. B., Petrescu, D. & Till, J. (eds. 2005) Architecture and Participation. London, Routledge.

Kauffman, S. A. (2016) Humanity in a Creative Universe. New York, Oxford University Press.

Lawlor, L. & Moulard Leonard, V. (2016) Henri Bergson. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archive. Zalta, E. N. (ed.):

Morelli, J. (2011) Environmental Sustainability: A Definition for Environmental Professionals. Journal of Environmental Sustainability, 1, 1, 2. DOI: 10.14448/jes.01.0002.

Nieuwenhuys, C. (1959) Forum no. 6, special issue on Fusion of the Arts and ‘Integration? … of What?’ In McDonough, T. (ed. 2009). The Situationists and the City. London and New York, Verso, pp. 110-111. Trans. Tom McDonough from French version published in Mercier, L. (ed. 1997) Archives situationnistes, vol. 1, 25-28.

Norgaard, R. B. (1994) Development Betrayed: The End of Progress and a Coevolutionary Revisioning of the Future. London and New York, Routledge.

Petersson, D. & Grønbek, N. (n.d.) Political Architecture: Critical Sustainability. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation:

Rafferty, J. P. & Thompson, J. N. (2009) Coevolution. Encyclopedia Britannica:

Reason, P. & Bradbury, H. (eds. 2008) The SAGE Handbook of Action Research – Participative Inquiry and Practice. 2nd ed. London, Sage Publications.

Valeur, H. (ed. 2006) CO-EVOLUTION: Danish/Chinese Collaboration on Sustainable Urban Development in China. Copenhagen, Danish Architecture Centre.