Greg Keeffe: “the city will be born, not made”

Download a free pdf of Greg Keeffe’s book, Urban Evolutionary Morphology: The Vestige City

Focussing on the Greengate area of Salford (Manchester, UK), the book interrogates the city as ‘an evolutionary and emergent super-organism’ and puts forward four pro to-propositions for the:

  • exaptive city
  • spandrel city
  • atavistic city
  • phenotypic plasticity city

Readers of this blog may remember our reading loop discussions on exaptation and spandrels, prompted by our reading of Slavoj Zizek’s Living in the End Times

In Gould and Lewontin’s seminal critique of the adaptationist programme, the spandrel becomes a metaphor for Panglossian wrong thinking: the nose evolved as somewhere to put our spectacles, the legs so that we may wear trousers, and the spandrels of San Marco or King’s College chapel are there to be decorated.

The spandrel is the bit beside, the structural by-product, the connective material, the unintentional, the bit part between the arches. The arches are the attention seekers, pulling our eyes up to heaven. The spandrels are a quiet reminder that looking where you shouldn’t, at the extra, can be as compelling as the main act. The secondary acts of the San Marco mosaicists met an opportunity in the four spandrels between the arches. They made it possible for remainders to steal the limelight.


The spandrel can be a warning against the hubris of narrative itself. Our own stories could be mistaken for adaptationist theories of evolutionary cause and effect: ‘at that point I realised’, ‘if I hadn’t done this then that would never have’. In the end, we may be mistaking exaptation for adaptation. Best not get too attached to our own versions of things.

(Terry O’Connor, extract from ‘The Spandrel Opportunity’, 2011)

The spandrel – some ideas

Man’s superior part

Uncheck’d may rise, and climb from art to art;
But when his built spandril is but begun,
What reason weaves; by passion is undone.

Alexander Pope

The triangular space between the outer curve of an arch and the rectangle formed by the mouldings enclosing it, frequently filled in with ornamental work; any similar space between an arch and a straight-sided figure bounding it; also, the space included between the shoulders of two contiguous arches and the moulding or string-course above them. (OED)

Or, in Gould and Lewontin’s succinct definition: ‘Spandrels – the tapering triangular spaces formed by the intersection of two rounded arches at right angles – are necessary architectural by-products of mounting a dome on rounded arches.’

The spandrel, long since dredged from the architectural dictionary of terms, has been disparately appropriated by artists and scientists to subtly describe the folly of human myth-making. For Gould, reading the spandrel as an originary design and not, as one should, as a necessary structural by-product of building an arch, is an inversion of the proper path of analysis, and a logical error that is frequently made, not only by evolutionary scientists but by endless professionals who mistakenly understand the developments of the natural and civilized worlds. Complaining in this way is a happily productive mode for discussing the correct way of things, the way in which they originate and the weight of interest we should attribute to various factors and features. Outside the specifics of arch-building, spandrel spotting becomes noticeably more difficult. Looming outside the church the spandrel is perhaps more potent, but it is elusive. This volume asks: is the spandrel a necessary move in undermining backwards logic? Is spandrel hunting always appropriate? Can a spandrel self-containedly transcend the category of spandrel?

Ask not where the spandrel appears, but whether you can identify it. Ask not if it is a spandrel, but why it is spandrelised.

For more information on this section, contact Christine Arnold ( or Laurence Piercy (