Innovation and Metaphor


...the lesson, I hope, is by now clear. New architectural concepts do not emerge independent of past associations, as the Founders of the Modern Movement believed, or liked to pretend, as some form of expression of the Zeitgeist. Nor are they independent of the language through which our experience as individuals and members of a shared culture is mediated. On the contrary, new ideas come into being by virtue of our being able to see the new in terms of the old, and it is our unique human language which makes the generation of such ideas possible at all, and which carries the history of such ideas in its forms.

From: 'The role of metaphor in changing architectural concepts'. In B. Evans, J. Powell and R. Talbot (eds). Changing Design. John Wiley, 1982, pp. 339-340.

What else may be gleaned from these alternative approaches and insights into the nature of tradition and innovation? First, both Kuhn and Kubler place the weight of responsibility for cultural cognition and transfer on the knowledge embodied in and acquired from concrete artefacts or exemplars. In essence, learning by example, rather than relying on explicit rules or theoretical formulations, is presented as the principal mechanism of cultural development.

Secondly, both writers also subscribe to a metaphorical theory of creativity, and, like other writers of the same mind, place analogical thinking at the centre of innovation: making connections between existing but previously unrelated 'matrices of thought', as Arthur Koestler describes it (note the similarity with Kuhn's later terminology), or seeing the new in terms of the old, as Donald Schon puts it.

Thirdly, both writers treat radical innovations as rare exceptions to the general rule. Change is normally characterized by a slow accretion of small variations on existing models, which, in Brodsky's account, never quite get lost, but, should circumstances warrant, have the potential to re-emerge in a new and sometimes even stronger guise.

In conclusion, significant innovation may be further characterized, after Brodsky, as an essentially integrative process. Far from creating a break with the past, what an innovator does is to reveal an emergent new order, which is at least partially rooted in prevailing traditions. In the same fashion, the most successful works in contemporary architecture are likely to be those that abstract from the past what is still relevant today, and at the same time, by process of analogy, project a vision of the future out of the present.

From: 'Tradition, Innovation and Linked Solutions,' in C. Abel, Architecture and Identity (1st ed), Architectural Press, 1997, p. 141.