A week in the Pacific archipelago that inspired the theory of evolution also inspires thoughts about survival and extinction in the architectural world

Last week I was walking on a beach on Santiago Island, one of many islands that make up the Galapagos. I was amazed by so much and taken aback at the emotions, ideas and parallels those lands evoked in me.

Nowhere else on earth is survival of the fittest so evident despite the benign social structures of the animal kingdom there. It is difficult to imagine an island where there are no predators so that even the smallest, wild bird does not flinch in the human presence – but this is the condition in the Galapagos despite the volcanic landscapes creating the most extreme and inhospitable conditions for plant and animal life.

Only those animals who have successfully adapted to these conditions survive. There is virtually no fresh water and the sun is scorching throughout the year. Some animals, like the sea lions that languish and roll in the sea and sand all day long or the different coloured, prehistoric like iguanas who so cleverly disguise themselves, have no need to adapt further as they have evolved so perfectly in response to their habitat. They are, if you like, the classics of their society. Their lifestyles appear idyllic and hedonistic – they are undemanding yet all their needs are met and nothing about their form is extraneous.

Darwin’s theory of evolution provides a tool with which to understand the natural world but much of the landscape in the Galapagos was so extraordinary I could only really appreciate it by seeing in it something other – by using visual analogies. There were brown and ochre cliff faces that appeared like paint applied by a knife to a cubist canvas; mounds of writhing iguanas camouflaged so brilliantly you could barely distinguish them from the contorted rocks of black lava, like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Even the light was different; eerie, equatorial moonlight reflected on the dark, night water that glistened like the lacquered paint of old masters’ seascapes. Never has art seemed so important as a means of making sense of our world. “You see art in everything,” said a friend – but it is art that makes us see.

The parallels in art made me think about the parallels in architecture. As in the Darwinian animal kingdom, shouldn’t only the fittest buildings survive? But how do you define the criteria of the fittest? Much of English Heritage’s post-war listings have been thematic rather than particular and if you look at the Buildings at Risk register there are many examples that are architecturally unremarkable. Retaining buildings that are frankly uninteresting to anyone other than academics with a forensic knowledge of their period, just results in a propagation of an acceptance of mediocrity. That I’m afraid this is still what makes up much of our city. We are failing to learn from evolution.

Retaining buildings that are frankly uninteresting to anyone other than academics just results in the propagation of an acceptance of mediocrity.

If a building can no longer be used or adapted, and this is true of many 20th-century examples, then we need to make room for the next evolutionary phase. Buildings are no longer designed to last hundreds of years. Of course there are great and seminal structures of the 20th century that are as celebrated now as they were when they were built. These must be preserved, but we don’t need to keep a bit of everything. One of the characteristics of the modern world is a greater and faster change in our urban landscape. We should celebrate that and make sure we create enough space for the future. Darwin explained what has evolved but not what will. That is up to us.

There is so much else to learn from Darwin’s observations and analysis – not just about evolutionary perfection but about the meanings given off by plumage, colour and form.

His most revolutionary theses were to do with sexual selection which is itself one of the tenets of successful evolution; it helps to answer the question “why do living things show the hallmarks of design?” On the Galapagos there were strange birds with blue feet and others with red puffed up beaks – all designed to attract the opposite sex. Of course buildings communicate through these same attractors and as we are constantly reminded, in our society beauty still counts for a lot.

During my week in the Galapagos the modernist notion of ornament as crime never felt so outmoded.