Niche Tactics – Architectural Design via Analogies of how Organisms Communicate with Their Surroundings

In my search for uncovering the nature of the relationship between a building and its context, I discovered a book that came out in 2015, Niche Tactics, written by the Director of the Cornell University Master of Architecture Program, Caroline O’Donnell. She presents an analysis of architectural design via analogies of how organisms communicate, share, and respond to their surroundings.

There are underlying subject matters that recur throughout the book, so I’m synthesizing her chapters into broader categories.



The primary goal of this book is to relay an analogy about ecological “bubbles,” or niches, to that of architecture, allowing contextual links to be absorbed into the design of buildings. The opposition to this contextual design process is referenced as Rem Koolhaas and his ilk, whose “provocation to ‘fuck context’ reinvigorated this tendency to favor programmatic, and thus interior-dominated, concerns (1).”

For O’Donnell, a more inclusive (selectively) approach is offered by a biologist’s model of an organism. “Von Uexkull imagined blowing a soap-bubble around each creature, representing the creature’s world and its own specific perceptions of that world (4).”  One can imagine a bubble around an organism, for example, a flower. Inside that bubble is the physical construct of the flower, the pollen, the petals, and, importantly, the linkages that attract bees: color, scent, and scale. It’s a metaphysical bubble, a poetic visualization tool for modelling how an object can be considered in harmony with its environs. O’Donnell offers an example:

To an animal, the affordances contained within its niche are things that are eat-able, drink-able, breath-able, shade-able, conceal-able, and so on. These affordances are linked to specific perceptual and functional components within the animal: the animal’s sense of smell as it relates to the affordance of eat-ability in an object, and that object relating to the shape and function of its mouth, stomach, and eventually to the entire organism, and back into the environment. In other words. . . “all the organs of plants as well as of animals owe their form and their distribution of materials to their meaning as utilizers of the meaning factors which come to them from outside.”  81



O’Donnell uses D’Arcy Thompson’s sequential diagrams to show the linked formal aspects of evolution-related fish, an obvious analogy to the changes of noticeable form in typologies over time.



The book also includes a substantial analysis of the giraffe as an analogy: an oddly sophisticated species, dissimilar in many ways to most mammals, yet intricately responsive to its biological needs and environment.

The giraffe is morphologically peculiar, without question: exceptionally long neck, huge arteries, and heart to sustain a sophisticated blood system that has to be pumped great distances to energize the head yet not explode the relatively delicate veins and arteries that feed its thin long legs. It is an engineering experiment that improbably succeeds – as do so many patently awkward animal organizations that seem massively inefficient. xvii

An alternative diagram looks at the giraffe instead as a system that includes not only the mechanical and material aspects of the form, but the relevant aspects of the environment too. The giraffe, thus, does not end at its skin, but draws in the essential world around it. Furthermore, what it encompasses affects those related aspects of its body, shifting form, material, and system into equilibrium with each other. 15

Importantly here, O’Donnell references a more “guerilla” like approach to evolutionary form. The giraffe is supremely different from its ancestors, and it is precisely its environmental connections (including gravity and blood viscosity issues) that determine its form. There’s a sort of “lean effectiveness” to the giraffe form – uniquely specific structural solutions – and very little superfluity.

There are multiple possible solutions for an animal – color, size, organs, etc. – and sometimes these solutions are in conflict with each other. A successful animal construct cannot respond effectively to all stimuli at one time. For example, O’Donnell considers an animal in a hot forested environment, where there are competing goals of providing camouflage – dark color – with the concept of thermoregulation – light color. An adequately moderated environmental response might produce a medium beige colored animal, neither providing appropriately dark camouflage nor appropriately adequate cooling. Helpfully for the animal, camouflage may supercede thermoregulation, and the resulting animal may be dark in color. And this resulting hierarchy of ideas is important architecturally as well as biologically:

Though nearly impossible to accomplish, the thorough, all-encompassing site analysis would lead to a nondescript hybrid of all species inhabiting one environment, like the greyish-brown blob of paint resulting from the mixing of many colors. 20

As architectural discourse has absorbed the evolutionary theory, she notes that it has not typically been very sensitive to what adjacent stimuli should be included in the design’s “bubble.”  Here she notes the limitations of algorithmic form-making:

As scripts have become capable of generating multifarious options, evolutionary terminology has crept into the language of architecture: words such as species, iteration, generation, variation, mutation, and autopoiesis have now become commonplace. While this interdisciplinary borrowing has enriched our ability to produce and accept the unexpected, and to think processually about architectural generation, developments have at times tended to neglect the contextual logics that underlie these evolutionary transformations. 13



By using Palladian villas as an example, O’Donnell runs through a series of contemporary analyses to highlight how context has affected design historically. George Nicholas Stiny’s sequential diagramming (below) has much in common with my firm’s presentation style for projects. Each stage of design can highlight a different contextual (or internal) force, offering a transparent understanding of resulting form.



To continue the architectural analysis of Palladio, O’Donnell notes that the “barchesse” are infrequently analyzed as part of the intact villas. She also discusses the environmental factors that have empirically been taken into consideration by Palladio – light, water, heat, and wind – which influence the programmatic distribution and architectural elements such as the partitions and the windows. Interestingly, the “pragmatics of the farm’s production” are also absorbed into each villa’s “bubble.”



O’Donnell notes two other contextual elements that aren’t usually mentioned in analyses of Palladio: the true north orientation of each villa’s plan, and the zoomed out view of the surrounding topographic context.>

Jumping a few centuries, O’Donnell chooses to analyze historic references to the “picturesque.”  She seems to be referring to the concept of micro-design, where one might imagine architecture as tiny british villages set amongst a pastoral landscape, I imagine like the town in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I believe the reader is meant to infer that it’s the micro-design moves – “irregular, compositional, and varied” – of the picturesque ideals that become contextually responsive.


Similarly, O’Donnell mentions the work of Udevale Price, where he “proposed that architecture should simply respond to the views and, by thus doing, a Picturesque architecture would be generated automatically.” It’s an interesting thought, that a views oriented architectural design would inherently become Picturesque, and therefore inherently contextual.


O’Donnell balances her architectural analysis with an historical analysis of urban planning. To O’Donnell, city planning was historically circular in form, where layouts were predominantly designed for military defense. She goes through a methodic description of how this circular ideal began to deform by allowing influences from topographic and civic features. “The heady array of non-platonic military plans pointed to a potential malleability and responsiveness embedded in the city plan (61).”

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Centuries later, O’Donnell presents Le Corbusier’s preference for the orthogonal city as opposed to what she terms “the donkey’s path”:

The Donkey’s winding path, an analogy for the existing continental city, derided as “the result of happy-go-lucky heedlessness, of looseness, lack of concentration and animality,” in contrast to the ordered city of the straight line and the right angle, which is “a reaction, an action, a positive deed, the result of self-mastery. It is sane and noble.”  88

O’Donnell goes on to highlight the resulting separation of culture from nature in Le Corbusier’s plan, especially later in his career when he lifts his tower onto columns with building’s such as Maison du Bresil, exaggerating that separation. Le Corbusier’s dissociation tactics is thusly presented as the opposite of the integrated landscape approach favored by O’Donnell and at Cornell. Though, oddly, I have distinct memories of learning both: we were taught that landscape was just another plane to manipulate.

Of course, modern evidence would point to the fact that the donkey’s path is where culture tends to blossom. What would Manhattan be without the whims of Broadway, and the resultant series of plazas that are created by the happenstance of its intersections?  Yet, architects continue to propose overwhelmingly geometric cities for some reason, ignoring contextual resolutions.

. . . regular geometries produced by architects, including Norman Foster’s Masdar and Richard Rogers’ circular Compact City in Lujiazui, Shanghai; to symbolic forms produced by developers, such as Nakheel’s The Palm, The World, and The Universe in Dubai – these contemporary urban forms reference geometric and symbolic figures inherently unresponsive to external forces. 69



O’Donnell laments the loss of vernacular architecture to international styles. She sees modernism as a universal language, guilty of relocating pre-imagined geometries to any locale. Besides always imagining a supremely flat generic site, Le Corbusier’s crime was to imagine culture and behavior as universal as well. Humans were imagined in abstract isolation and architects were allowed to determine how humans should feel in our spaces, and how they should subsequently act.

Whatever its intentions, [modernism] became a standardized and globalized style that smoothed out all special diversity and responsiveness, and it is from this idea of the generic, and all of its misinterpretations that proliferate today, that we are still attempting to recover. 22

Ironically, Rem Koolhaas, in his announcement of “Fundamentals,” the theme for the 2014 Venice Architectural Biennial, laments this sacrifice of “national identity to modernity” (a sacrifice that he himself propagated.) 7

She offer’s Laugier’s image, below, as an example of this pre-imagined idealism, even in a primitive context. “The image shows nature manipulated into the preconceived form of architecture’s most primary object: the hut. The image exists before the context and inevitably dictates the response.”


While the materiality of the hut seems appropriate, an honest discovery of form may not preface the standard gable roof.

With the advance of globalization, and the increasing loss of original local architectures, “the vernacular itself becomes a lost world.” . . Niche-thinking opens up physical form to the complexity and contingencies of contexts, in which the environment is not singular, but consists of different potential umwelten. 24

Um·welt (ˈo͝omvelt/) noun – (in ethology) the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.

Hence, flexibility to discover and research becomes a paramount exercise. To keep an open mind while designing, O’Donnell offers an analogy to shopping.

Tactical practices, nonetheless, are familiar, everyday activities: De Certeau describes, for example, the experience of grocery shopping in which the shopper “confronts heterogeneous and mobile data – what she has in the refrigerator, the tastes, appetites and moods of her guests, the best buys and their possible combinations with what she already has on hand at home, etc.”  Traditional design, via the plan, on the other hand, implies forethought: a shopping list with little or no possibility for on-site deviation. 25



O’Donnell defines what contextualism meant in the 1960s, and writes:

At its best, contextualism was a valiant effort to re-engage with the contingencies of the local – physically, culturally, and psychologically – to produce architecture in harmonious continuity with its surroundings. At its worst, however, despite pleas for pluralism and contrast, contextualism was understood as a conservative architecture of carbon copies; the subservient repetition of the building next door. 107

Copying physical traits from surrounding buildings without processing them is clearly defined as short-sighted. The impression is that the contextual harmonies had more to do with the literal recognition of decorative details, without analytical processing, especially considering her example project:

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But, then, sort of contradicting herself, she adds:

To be fair, though, true contextualists had been careful to reject one-to-one readings of existing situations. In a retrospective defense of the movement in 1987, [Stuart] Cohen defines contextualism as “the design of buildings by selectively choosing to related them to their immediate physical context.”  That is to say: not mimicking but extracting from a context and responding to that extraction. 107

To me, the term “extraction” does not imply analytical improvisation for redeployment. Here it means to selectively choose aspects from a vernacular to re-include in newer architectures, whereby O’Donnell’s proposition of a more careful analysis would be a vast improvement. She concludes with an example by Richard Meier in the Bronx. There, Meier introduces scaled components and a materiality which matches the surrounding buildings. But, the geometrical form of the building remains modernist at its core.


Perhaps what contextualism meant in the 1960s to 1970s is a sort of “add-on” to regular modernism, by including local references. However, I don’t think rejecting Meier’s work at Twin Parks is so easy. If we are comparing it as a reaction against the Pruitt Igoes multiplying around the world, potentially, it could be one of the best examples of public housing in the 1960s.

O’Donnell mentions regionalism as a subsequent movement: “whereas contextualism respected the existing fabric, critical regionalism favored the vernacular, the cultural, and the traditional.”  Considering she had just mentioned how contextualism employed the same ideals, it’s all a bit confusing.

With the original regionalism movement accused of blatant retrospection, and contextualism exposed as Modernism in disguise, its successor, critical regionalism, remains as perhaps the last possible bastion of resistance and a potential model for contextual thinking. 109

Of course, utilizing the term “critical” would imply the analytical reimplementation of vernacular elements, but O’Donnell doesn’t provide the evidence for that to be an objective, enforceable, distinction. This may be a tangent, but, it seems odd that O’Donnell doesn’t mention postmodernism in the entirety of the book. If not much else, postmodernism was a movement to include vernacular details in the design of modernist buildings, even if the architectural community would rather forget that entire decade. Anyway, O’Donnell concedes both contextualism and regionalism placed an emphasis on the familiar, and makes a great point about architectural arrogance:

Contextualist thought suggested that architects had a responsibility to produce an earnest reply to the following questions: “[1] Am I really building the most important building in my block? [2] Should my building rightfully differ from buildings around it in its urban type or should it continue the fabric of the city?” 111

The first question is supremely important for all architects to consider. Modesty could be an important component in making a contextual cityscape. The second question is a bit more ambiguous, and open to various interpretations about how one might fit a new building within a context.

To illustrate the point, O’Donnell utilizes a clothing analogy, “it means that if everyone has agreed that the occasion calls for a suit, to arrive in shorts and a t-shirt is either an act of ignorance or arrogance.”   She then adds: “Ironically the shorts and t-shirt alternative, while not matching the common style, may have been a much more context-responsive choice of garment, depending on the weather.”

Another tangent for me: clothing analogies, and their inherent fashion metaphors, are very difficult to utilize in architectural analysis. The inconsistencies pile up, there are always opportunities to find a part of the analogy to either agree or disagree with the thesis. Nevertheless, O’Donnell doubles down when she talks about dresses: “Given its overriding desire for individuality, it may in fact be the dress that takes the place of the suit’s opposite, desiring as it does, never to find its copy (112).”

Yes, but dresses have many issues: discomfort, impracticality, and aggressive adherence to style. All this is allowed in the dress typology because they are worn temporarily. A dress looks best when paired with high-heeled shoes, which, in my witness, cannot be worn standing for more than an hour without a shooting pain in the wearer’s legs.



Inherent in a discussion of fashion would be a discussion of aesthetics: both the pretty and the ugly. For O’Donnell, the ugly represents an opportunity for creating difference: “in producing art we aspire to produce the harmonious, the unified, and , therefore, the expected, or that which produces no reaction. . . Fundamentally, the ugly is interesting (178).”  Seemingly in contrast to imagining architecture through contextual inclusion, this point would imply that aesthetics is a form generator.

The field of architecture is struggling with this exact dichotomy, modesty vs spectacle. So enamored are we with difference, that we are not examining the visual forces that create our different forms. We should be moving to a critique that identifies what creates the spectacle by isolating it, identifying where our modesty as architects is most expressed or most ignored. In other essays of mine, I’ve noted the architectural use of gestalt or a viewer’s neurological referencing to introduce the difference that creates spectacle. For O’Donnell’s “fugly” example, we would be creating disharmony for purely visual effect and guttural human response.

And on to Brutalism. . .

The displacement and replacement of expected meaning through shifts in material, the lack of expected patterns, the lack of expected functions, the lack of expected inhabitation, and so on, caused the reactive force of the ugly. 180


She uses the example of Robin Hood Gardens, and with great timing, I had just watched a short documentary about them produced by architects advocating for their preservation. The issue there is similar to many brutalist housing projects all over the world. I would argue, isn’t it evidence enough that this particular ugly has produced an environment in which no one wants to live?   Those who admire brutalist buildings typically blame poor maintenance. But, top-down enforcement isn’t generally a winning long term strategy. People need to feel happy to live somewhere, which in turn inspires an encouragement to maintain – it’s potentially a synergy between active tenants and authorities. The vast areas of unprogrammed landscape and the sheer monstrosity of the building itself precludes this synergy. Advocates should argue for making the buildings partially market rate so that they could themselves live there, and create programming that could add to the desirability. Who knows, perhaps there are enough people that find those geometries endearing?

But, instead of identifying what makes buildings ugly – which can perhaps be approached from a neurological standpoint – O’Donnell seems to treat ugliness as a welcome mutation.

As ugliness becomes the norm, becomes no longer shocking, our expectations change. By provoking this constant readjustment of expectations, ugliness is a motor for change. As Asger Jorn writes, “An era without ugliness would be an era without progress.” 183

Perhaps, but what is the incentive for an architect or building owner to become a part of the ugly?  This reminds me of my “percentage argument,” that only a certain percentage of buildings can exhibit otherworldly character. Not every building should be a Petersen Museum, but perhaps 2-4% would be acceptable. The overabundance of the Los Angeles Dingbat proves these mathematics. Nevertheless, O’Donnell’s point is similar to her later discussion of mutation, in which ugly could sporadically inspire an evolutionary change in typology or tectonics.



O’Donnell provides a series of provocative questions, which preface that both contextualism and regionalism are a basis for her critical thought.

1 – Can contextual thinking occur without the dominating image of history?

Absolutely!  Great question. And, this distinction between historical and non-historical context provides a framework for my own type of analytical diagramming without begging for the association with a predominantly historical context. Val Warke, a professor at Cornell and a personal hero of mine from my travels with Cornell abroad, says “history is only one contextualizing operation.”

2 – Can context be thought of as more (or less) than existing built form?
“Expanding our conception of context, how might architecture point to and engage in a dialogue with the non-architectural world?”  Ok, but realistically, this is not a distinct question from the first question. I read “existing built form” as “history.”

3 – Can reading context be a process of extraction?

As I mentioned before, the term extraction never implies an analytical process prior to reuse. To the contrary, that term implies selective identical reuse. Extraction of ideas, however, is something that may be open to discussion, but O’Donnell doesn’t see to distinguish.

4 – Can a contextual/regional response be inappropriate?
Now that O’Donnell is clearly combining these two movements as one category, this new question is about whether a contextual approach to architecture could arrive at non-contextual solutions. Though seemingly a paradox, further examination would uncover that honest analytical problem solving from a site context standpoint could uncover theretofore undiscovered solutions, whereby the geometric form of such solutions is acontextual. “The revolutionary, exotic, alien might be generated, not for the sake of flamboyance but because a response to exterior forces might demand that of the project. . . . Thus, to a certain extent, we might claim that in order to be responsive, a certain disorderliness is required.”



O’Donnell’s first mention of collage:

In collage proper, developed more than fifty years earlier in the field of Art, although the fragment is cropped out of its former context, it is deformed only perceptually, not necessarily physically in its new context. 126

She relates this to an important clarification of Rowe’s ideology from Collage City, an interpretation I hadn’t thought of previously, and one that gives me pause when I mention that his contextual theory is important to mine.

The strategy advocated in Collage City is one that takes a perfect and contextless object and inserts it into a context, which deforms it just enough so that both the original pure form and the deformation imposed by its adjustment to its new site are legible at once. . . The emphasis is on the transformation and the adjusted, while the ideal itself remains uninvestigated. 123

And that too is an important distinction, that the originating form of the building in question is “uninvestigated.”  I’d argue, O’Donnell hasn’t proposed a process for “investigation” in her book either. But, it does shed light on the limitations of a purely Rowe-centric contextual theory. The vocabulary O’Donnell utilizes tends to elicit a recurring theme of the “acrobatic,” “reflex-minded,” or malleable object building. Rowe had made himself famous for his mathematical analysis of renaissance buildings, so it is perhaps obvious that Collage City may have been a reassociation of his earlier thoughts about the ideal rather than a reorganization of his thinking. Either way, Rowe never built any buildings, so it’s hard to really know how his viewpoints could have been implemented.

Rowe and his compadre Fred Koetter “propose a scenario in which figure and background are in dialogue in the urban context. They argue for an ambiguous reading of the architectural object at one moment as an object, and at the next as part of a background.”  For further evaluation, O’Donnell clarifies the triad of “subject, context, viewer.”  She then highlights an important bifurcation of contextual thought when viewed through the lens of collage: there are actually two contexts that are recorded from a design, the context of the former situation prior to isolation and the later imposition within a new landscape.

But does O’Donnell sometimes mean “montage?”  She references the Kuleshov Effect in her discussion of montage. Lev Kuleshov was a filmmaker in the 1910s and 1920s where he discovered that people have a tendency to associate a frame/scene within the context of adjacent frames/scenes. Our perception is thus altered by surrounding context. On montage, “meaning is invoked by juxtaposition rather than directly imposed by isolated shots or objects. . . the spectator perceives the intentionally created gestalt in which the relationship of shot to shot overrides the finer aspects of any actor’s performance.”

As an example of contextual readings, she cites the various visual adjacencies of the Statue of Liberty: where it was produced (in pieces), where it was installed in the late 1800s, and its complementary mini-model sited in the Seine near the Eiffel Tower. Culturally, we also have the historic context in which the Statue represents freedom “in a land where no woman has political liberty,”  the re-reading of the Statue in the early 20th century by its adjacency to Ellis Island, and how we see the iconography of the statue in the film Planet of the Apes.

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O’Donnell goes on to describe projects in which duplication is paramount, such as the US White House and its sibling chateau in France: same architecture, different representation. Or, is it?  One could argue that our reading of the White House as exemplary isn’t so much that it visually varies from a lord’s chateau in Europe, rather it’s that we elect the person inside of that building, it belongs to us all. I think a good example of montage would be something like New York New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where indeed there’s another Statue of Liberty, perhaps here defining our freedom to gamble.

But, O’Donnell notes that even the concept of duplication is subject to cultural context. Rightfully, she mentions how differently the Chinese culture views mimicry, where it is “equated with domination” and strength, going back decades and centuries to copied imperial palaces and soviet architecture, and more recently to Zaha Hadid’s SoHo and whole representations of european villages.

O’Donnell later references deconstructivist forms in her chapter Duck Jokes. Though she doesn’t clearly say this, there is an obvious attempt at relocation and reassociation of architectural elements in the deconstructivist dogma. On Eisenman’s Wexner Center (or his houses, or anything of his really):

Rosalind Krauss comments on the role of the context in this set-up: “The non-supporting columns is understood as a signifier (a signal or notation) whose significance depends, at least in part, on the knowledge of everything that it is not.”  165

This is an intellectual argument for architectural academics only, as regular humans who would occupy these buildings see only collage/montage. Deconstructivist buildings are unique and offer spectacle, but a regular person will not read a stalactite column by what it “is not.”  Their neurological references will likely be a bit more pragmatic, reading it as chaotic or decorative.

Though interestingly, it is possible to read deconstructivism through the lens of The Duck

This I didn’t know:

Of the very few examples of real revulsion produced by architecture, our best candidate must be Peter Eisenman’s Greater Columbus Convention Center, which apparently induced nausea in one early visitor because the multiple diagonal grids confused him and caused vertigo. Cousins defines the act of vomiting as the final and most extreme reaction to ugliness. 182


The discussion of juxtaposition leads O’Donnell to reference the construction of the human body, and how its parts can be classified programmatically.

Rather than classify bodily organs by the criteria of appearance and position, these naturalists [Adrian Forty] thought it more accurate to first identify a given organ’s function within the larger body of the organism and then determine its place in the system in order to understand the relationship of an organ to the sum of its parts. 79

Do humans see architecture in anthropomorphic ways?  Are we looking for common biology when we see a building: mouth=entry, eyes=windows, roof=hair, organs=program, circulation=circulation, heart=atrium, etc. If that’s the case, then what would it mean to add gratuitous geometries such as those found in deconstructivism: might that be akin to adding an appendix to hang from the ear? Or, is the decoration analogy more akin to fashion and clothing?  This might depend on how we see nature, certainly we expect clothing and “style” on other humans, but we don’t expect it on trees or giraffes. Indeed, we expect the spots on a giraffe to have practical purpose, though we remain unsure what is going on with the zebra.

I’ve been dying to figure out the difference between montage and collage. We never arrive at that point, sadly, though O’Donnell eventually calls them “parallel but distinct.”  The two concepts are never accurately compared within the same media – either art or architecture. The terms remain parallel for O’Donnell, each utilizing “extraction” techniques and re-deployment.



Apparently Greg Lynn was “one of the original proponents of evolutionary thinking in contemporary architecture.”  I wouldn’t have guessed that, as my awareness of his work is for research in algorithmic non-contextual form generation. But, herein is a clue where he took that tangent:

In Stranded Sears Tower, contextual features (the river, the city’s gridded structure, and various transportation lines) are considered to be transformative forces. . . Lynn’s break-out of formalism through evolutionary thinking was a radical change from the typological thinking that preceded it. 17


But, it’s abundantly clear these contributing features are external non-human forces, resulting in an abstract geometry, what I would call “non-purposeful.”  Using the Uexkull bubble analogy, I would consider such forces outside the environmental bubble of what creates the form of the organism. In other words, surely the approach of a pedestrian to a building from a transportation source is applicable to the architectural bubble. But, the actual nature of the transportation infrastructure has little logical reference to include in the design of the resulting building. I’m not sure why O’Donnell gives this a pass, but it illuminates the contrasting thinking of my firm and this particular algorithmic type of context form-making (Libeskind style, perhaps?).


Elsewhere in the book, O’Donnell furthers the discussion of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse by mentioning that over the span of several decades, his typological “towers in a park” started to deform to environmental issues such as sunlight and breezes. She also mentions that eventually he decided a few old buildings could remain, to reference an existing culture and to allow for moments of pause within the exhaustive orthogonality. (What a great idea for a studio project, which could also allow for various means of interaction and influence between the two objects, leading toward strategies for densification)

O’Donnell also runs through a comparison of two Italian churches: Santa Maria Consolazione, on the outskirts of the small town of Todi, and Sant’ Agnese, in Piazza Navona, Rome. One rural, the other urban, O’Donnell proposes how relatively similar geometries are transformed by site context.


O’Donnell presents her own Santa Maria Deformata, where she manipulates the form of the original church with contextual clues. It “takes the challenge – as set out by Lynn and Somol – of finding information for subversion-deviation/mutation-force, but finds it already contained with the church of Santa Maria itself. . . already partially revealed by tiny anomalies in the original structure.”  I think the key word here though is “tiny.”  O’Donnell’s point seems to be that a rural context can be just as deformative as an urban one. Who assumed it wasn’t?  Even if we accept the abstract Deformata proposal, the church remains as an object upon the landscape, instead of as a reimagination of the relationship between the church and the landscape (embedding, etc.).




O’Donnell offers Peter Cooks and Colin Fournier’s Kunsthaus in Graz as an example of a contemporary contextual thought process. I would offer that Bjarke Ingels Group and MVRDV are also prime examples of this design process, creating buildings without obvious visual “agreement” with immediate urban context.

. . . the Kunsthaus explicitly aims for a “provocative engagement with cultural/urban context.”  This engagement is described as an analysis of the urban context “not only in terms of built form but also in terms of land use and urban life, demonstrating that a contextual approach based on affinities in terms of social activity may be more effective than one merely relying on visual references. 117

One might have to visit the building to register the arguments for and against such an approach and the finished product. From the photographs, it would seem the project is certainly geometrically opposed to its context, as the Kunsthaus doesn’t match either the scale of the contextual forms or their openings. Neither does the design offer many human scaled architectural elements across its continuous facade.


The next example is OMA’s Whitney Museum Extension in New York (proposal). It

. . .maintains appropriate distance from existing buildings. . . . the openings in the facade are a secondary map of the collision of structural stress and programmatic needs. . . it is an awkward form that refuses to acquiesce to any preconceptions of “museum” or of the architect’s signature style. It shirks any responsibility to conventional notions of order, symmetry, or proportion. 118-119

O’Donnell concludes: “These are bold works that stand out from the urban fabric, but could not be located elsewhere.”  Agreed. “One might think of them, and others like them, as the very tentative beginnings of a new contextual trajectory; as dressed up , and with some place to go.”  Though, O’Donnell perhaps gets caught in her emphasis on the clothing metaphor, because i think she means that these particular examples are dressed up with some place to be. We are discussing contextual clues, not repositionable research. (Note: this isn’t merely semantic, O’Donnell titles the chapter “All Dressed Up and Some Place to Go”)



In evolutionary theory, a few monsters (mutations) eventually transition into the common gene pool, “from being outside of the species to being an integral part of it. . . If the mutation proves beneficial; if it is well suited to survive and propagate in its environment – if it fits – such a creature has been named a “hopeful monster.” (190)

Two issues: (1) mutation is usually scientifically categorized as a random occurrence. Shouldn’t Architects, as cognizant beings, produce an architecture that introduces difference through research? Mutations aren’t all “X-Men” purposeful. (2) We are still talking about a low percentage issue, which might spontaneously occur within architecture regardless. Designing “monsters” isn’t a thoughtful pedagogy. For teaching and critique, isn’t it better to emphasize an empirical approach, to openly analyze potentialities for performance?

She refers to a few examples of beneficial monsters, though I would argue these samples aren’t genetic oddities at all, but rather researched dynamic diagrams translated into built form. Her citations are getting very close to my own theory of dynamic diagramism. On James Stirling’s Neue Stattsgalerie in Stuttgart:

The heterogeneous nature of the fragments allows the building to act as a series of smaller urban parts, a neighborhood in itself that can be conceptually passed through, or alternatively as a piece of infrastructure that can be passed along and on. . . it has advantages over its neighboring like-types precisely because this particular mutation is beneficial in relation to the specifics of the context in which it exists. 195

Now, I don’t particularly like the building. In fact, when I walked by it from its western side, it was apparently so uninviting to me that I recall climbing the stairs to its plaza only to immediately turn around. I felt I was trespassing into a questionable environment. This building could therefore easily be critiqued for a lack of continuous sectional transparency. Viewed purely in plan form, however, one could argue that Stirling spent a lot of effort towards contextual integration. (note: one also has to forgive the post-modern aesthetic in the detailing). What I don’t understand is how O’Donnell refers to this as a mutation or an architectural theory of the subjective, rather than for what is ultimately a diagram project, emphasizing expected circulation patterns. It may have been hopeful in the sense that success is not guaranteed, but, it is hardly a spontaneous mutation.

17-niche-21 17-niche-22

Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp is the next mutation example. I would agree that this project did always seem like a singular project to me, not clearly resulting from site research or precedents. O’Donnell notes that Le Corbusier had been preparing curved projects for decades, but notably they had always been confined inside of a rectangular cage. By the 1950s though, it wouldn’t seem a crazy thought that he would liberate it. Rather than mutation though, it is probably easier to ascribe the curving nature of the form to a spiritual analysis, a focus of thought about light and water. O’Donnell goes on: “What makes Ronchamp a potential candidate for consideration as a hopeful monster is that its anomalies, its bulbs, its bulges, seem to say something that makes sense only in relation to its site. Again, how is empirical form a mutation?

The next example is Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard.

. . . This gesture of the public path pulled through the building, recomposed in Stirling’s museum, is one of the moves that allows both buildings to function hopefully, that is to be a monster in successful interaction with its site. In both projects, the trajectory is not forced but knitted into the fabric of the city.

How are these empirical projects monsters then?  For O’Donnell, “hopeful” is applied to circulation analysis. Does that mean she is doubtful that such research would be contextual in practice?  I suppose all buildings are hopeful in some manner, architects don’t expect their buildings to fail. Though she seems to “like” her example buildings nonetheless, it is extremely odd that these contextual projects are being singled out for their monstrosity.

Monsters cannot help but communicate. And their expressed codes contain information describing the generative relationships between the entity and its world . . . it is able to be continuous with its environment, not visually, but operatively and systematically. Above all, the hopeful monster can express, finally and demonstratively, the tactical relation between its body and its world. 204



O’Donnell shows the work of SMAQ. What at first appears as a garbage sculpture, is revealed as a vastly intelligent water heating spa and changing room, with few purely aesthetic decisions.


This thinking matches very well with my own thoughts on form generation. It’s similar to performative theories of architecture as well, but specifically relates to human usage, as opposed to Lynn’s external forces.

. . . Bow-Wow, specifically, align the key terms of our discussion quite explicitly. Their use of the term behaviorology in place of function, positions projects within an ecosystem of behaviors as elements which participate in spatial production. Contemporary Picturesqueness, then, might be described as architecture’s behaving in a given situation. 83

O’Donnell matches my own “purpose driven” search for architectural design with a reference to Nikolaus Pevsner.

First, that function is not necessarily something embedded in the architecture but exists as an affordance between the architecture and its environment, in the relationship between the two. And, second, that function is not a constant characteristic, but is something that is supple, and can be negotiated as environments and organisms change. The embedding of redundancy or of dynamism into the function of the object, the understanding of possible futures, of alternate interpretations, of re-labelling, of wit, guile, sneakiness, slyness and cunning, is at the heart of the ecological approach to the functional picturesque. 84

O’Donnell aptly compares the reflex-based/malleable architecture of the picturesque with an agile type of contemporary building, compiling it with the requirements of ecological resiliency as well. . . “a preference for action over ideals and aesthetics.”  She concludes the book with her own work. I’ve not frequently seen an Architectural theory book conclude with an advertisement, but it seems to work here.

[CODA’s] approach is situated in a territory somewhere between indexical formal theory – in which dynamic diagrams result in a static but legible form – and a material practice, in which change over time is fundamental. 208

Fair enough, I imagine my practice is similar. For me, the “indexical formal theory” requires a robust integration of material aspects and an attention to resiliency/longevity. The ability for a diagrammatic form to be flexible isn’t in opposition for me, flexibility can be part of the indexical diagramming.

If we needed to refer back to the niche and Uexkull’s bubble, O’Donnell says her MoMA installation “extracts the elements of the environment necessary to create its niche by projecting needs.”


Overall, the discussion of the book tends to emphasize reactionary forms, a sort of reflex-based architecture rather than a generative one. O’Donnell’s analogies and comparisons offer great visuals to support her niche tactics.  We can imagine an acrobatic building full of contextual formal efforts that all concern the external environmental/physical world.

Is it:

Diagram + Texture + Flexibility = Architecture?

or, similarly:

Formal + Material + Temporal = Architecture?


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