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The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol. 1 – Preface, Introduction

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Welcome to Book Club! Please join me as I blog thoughts on volume one of Patrik Schumacher’s “magnum opus” as I read it. I’ve heard its 438 pages contain only 18 pictures – as if that’s a good thing! – so I already expect it’s going to be fairly hard going. This won’t be a review or a summary, just a series of notes whenever I come across something I agree with, disagree with, makes me go hmm, or think of something totally different. (I’ll clearly identify these last ones.) If anyone else out there is also reading, then feel free to join in, make your own comments, comment on my comments, or somehow add to the sum of all forms of architectural communications that the author claims constitue The Autopoiesis of Architecture.

Before I get started, I should say that this is not going to be some marathon post that does for blogging what Jack Kerouac did for typing. I should say now that my default attitude is to not trust anything an architect says or writes. I might be wrong.  


xi On the eighth line, PS implies that this work is in the tradition begun by Alberti. Bringing in the heavies already. A bad omen.

The concept of autopoiesis refers to the overall discursive self-making of architecture. This is a continuous historical process and, to remain effective, it continues to require new theoretical efforts at each stage of its ongoing evolution. It is my conviction that the successful continuation of architecture’s autopoiesis, now more than ever, requires an all-encompassing theoretical systemization that is able to clarify architecture’s historical challenges, capacities and choices within contemporary society.

Fair enough – after all, I’m still on the first page but this is the territory. The book exists because the author believes this concept of autopoiesis is a) relevant to architecture and b) therefore requires theoretical systemization for the sake of architecture’s “ongoing evolution”. Now there are two ways this can go. There will either be an attempt to convince me of a) before moving on to b) or I will get presented with a lot of b) and expected to see it as proof of a). It’s early days – either way’s fine.

When applied to architecture however, I have a problem with the term “ongoing evolution”. What does it mean? It seems to imply that architecture is moving towards some sort of perfection. If so, where is the evidence for it? Or perhaps it just means a process of ceaseless reinvention with no particular goal other than responding to the contemporary environment? To me, this more accurately describes the status quo. 

xii I notice the book is footnote-rich, and that much of the action seems to be taking place there. I agree that, when talking about theories, “elegance” describes the capacity to articulate complexity but, unlike what we’re being led to accept, I don’t think we should being led to accept/expect a lower degree of elegance just because something complex is being described. If a theory doesn’t have the capacity to articulate complexity, it ain’t elegant. Simple. I don’t see why an elegant theory can’t describe a (previously-thought-of-as) complex reality? That’s what elegant theories do. Inelegant theories are too ambitious, clumsy ones oversimplify. On the page before, I’d just read that “the conceptual apparatus that is being unfolded here is of considerable complexity” so I’m interested to see what degree of inelegance we’re going to be asked to accept.

I’d just like to include a shout-out to Dmitri Mendeleev for organizing the properties of elements into the Periodic Table. It organizes a lot of previously complex and apparently random information into a format that’s easy to understand, extremely elegant and very useful. The Periodic Table could even be used to predict the existence and properties of elements that weren’t even known. We should remember that Mendeleev didn’t write a book with one chapter describing each element in turn for that would not be very useful – he drew a table. The Periodic Table of Elements is a brilliant theory. Its brilliance does not depend upon words.  It was simple, it was elegant. 

Moving on, I bristled at the fourth paragraph. I don’t want to quote the whole book and then pick it apart but, this is the preface after all, and some rather grand claims are being made.

The task of theoretical unification involved the comprehensive recasting of the familiar architectural concepts in rather abstract terms. The peculiarity and distinctiveness of the theory of architecture presented here will therefore require an initial endurance of intellectual vertigo, perhaps even nausea. On the first reading the resultant text might seem to oscillate between the trivial and the obscure. It is hard to avoid this effect in an attempt to introduce a new theoretical vocabulary and build up a systematic theoretical edifice that is intended to cover and reinterpret the familiar theoretical apparatus, recuperate accumulated insights, capture emergent trends and produce new, original insights in order to steer architecture into pertinent yet uncharted pursuits.

I don’t appreciate being warned that I might not understand the proof because the author had to reinvent familiar concepts and the language to describe them.

The strangeness of the theoretical language is a necessary part of any genuinely new perspective.

Nevertheless, I believe this to be a true statement. Any genuinely new perspective necessarily requires language and concepts to be adjusted but strange language does not necessarily denote the presence of A New Perspective. Each time I read some strangeness of language, I will have to be convinced why the words and concepts we have are not up to the task. Wasn’t it Wittgenstein who said that “anything worth saying can be said simply”?

xiv) I skimmed the list of acknowledgements that began with intellectual influences and inspirations.  It was a long and impressive list with 31 philosophers – including (hello!) Wittgenstein. I wish I could say I’ve read all their works and synthesized their knowledge into something I could call my own. In practice, I’ve found that my more original thoughts have come from misunderstanding what other people have written. I have an equally impressive list of authors I’ve read and not really understood in the way they intended. If this book gets added to that list then it’s not a bad thing.

0. Introduction: Architecture as Autopoietic System

The term architecture is usually assumed to denote either a certain class of artefacts – the class of all (fine [!]) [!] buildings – or an academic domain of knowledge concerned with this class of artefacts or, finally, a professional activity directed towards the production of such artefacts.

The author then goes on to say that considering architecture as an autopoietic system means we can talk about all of these within the same theoretical framework and, for good measure, anything that is drawn, said or otherwise communicated about these. I like footnote 2, that includes the words

The substantial question whether architecture constitutes a single, unified system remains, in principle, open to debate.

but this was immediately followed by

Ultimately, this question can only be answered by an empirically based analysis and argument.

So it seems we will get presented with a lot of b) and expected to see it as empirical proof of a). The other thing on page 2 that made me think was

The theory offers a coherent framework that allows architecture to analyse itself in comparison with other subsystems of society like art, science and politics.

Here, architecture is being compared to these other subsystems that are presumably autoipoietic. As such, they too must be undergoing an ongoing evolution. I’m aware that the term autopoiesis has its roots in biology, but isn’t ongoing evolution just response to environmental changes in order to ensure survival of the species. Fashion changes, fashion survives. Art changes, art goes on. Politics adapts, politicians survive. Whether they evolve into something better or something merely better adapted is a valid question.

Two points. One. I don’t feel that survival alone is a sufficiently worthy endgame. “Evolution” implies adaption and survival but has no intrinsic worth other than that. The big question is “Is it necessary for the author’s concept of “Architecture” to survive?” Who wins? Who loses? Two. I think that science is different as it is about more than survival (although people do tend to cling to certain ideas). Every now and then, science throws away all its premises and rewrites them – it does evolve into something more sophisticated and elegant. So, back to point 1, even if architecture is an autopoietic system, is that necessarily a good thing?  Is it a system over which anyone has any control? I’ll have to wait and see but, in the short term, since I’m writing a blog about the reading of a book that someone wrote about architecture being a system of communications, I can’t deny the existence of a whole mess of communications that provoke other communications. It gives the author, you and me all something to do I guess. Cheers.

There’s something else back in the first paragraph. Like all good introductions, this one qualifies the problem. Inasmuch as we’re going to be talking about buildings, we’re only going to be talking about the “fine” ones. We won’t be talking about bicycle sheds oh no we won’t. The Victorian distinction between “polite” and “vernacular” architecture is being sustained. Indeed, footnote 3, states

Vernacular architecture is excluded from the definition of architecture proposed here. For a particular vernacular building or tradition to enter the autopoiesis of architecture a dedicated communicative effort is required, ie, there must be an architect or architectural theorist who poses as the spokesperson and point of reference for this particular vernacular building/tradition.

Am I being stupid, or does this theory of architecture exclude most buildings in the world? It will seem old fashioned of me to want to talk about buildings, when the conversation is obviously about AArchitecture, but it seems to me that the author might be about to build a garden within some very high walls and try to convince us that it is The Universe. As long as vernacular buildings are expressions of intelligent response to their economic and climatic contexts, then they’re part of my definition of architecture (although I can see how the author might care to differ.) The author may be right and Architecture may very well be a self-sustaining system of talking fancy talk about fancy buildings. If so, then, like Adolfo Nataliniit is time to reject Architecture as a concept, and find some new word to describe the bits of the built environment that matter to the rest of us. 

But that’s all by the by for now as I’m suspending disbelief, going along with the author, and assuming that architecture just might be an autopoietic system of communications. I understand that vernacular buildings are excluded on two counts. One, is that they are not “fine” (but we’ll just forget this for the moment) and the other is that there is no architect or architectural theorist to talk about them. However, the author notes, even a vernacular building can become a part of this grand system of communications as soon as an architect or architectural theorist talks about it. Am I wrong in thinking the author is probably an architect and an architectural theorist?

An empirical basis is always a healthy point of departure (and return) for a theory.

Agree, but

The ’empirical basis’ offered here has the status of an invitation to the reader to test the proposed concepts and theorems against his/her own immediate observations and experiences within the field of architecture.

So here’s the deal – “I have a theory but you have to find your own empirical evidence for whether or not it’s valid [for you].” In the meantime …

“The actual [!] ’empirical’ origin of the theory stems from the author’s own accumulated observations …” (9)

Footnote (9) states

The author’s continuous observation of architectural design communications and debates has long since been informed and guided by theoretical concepts. Evidence of this can be found in the 50 articles the author has published since 1996. See:

I remember one of them actually – although it was in AJ. It was titled “Let the style wars begin!” (In an exclusive text for the AJ, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects argues that the unified style of architecture for the 21st century will be parametricism.)

Throughout the history of architecture, the most ambitious architectural theory – for example, that of Alberti, Semper, Le Corbusier, or Koolhaas – has always understood that architecture has to theorize itself within a theory of society. Society has to be grasped in its broad historical trajectory in order to identify the architecturally relevant aspects of the societal tasks ahead. An architectural theory with the ambition to guide the discipline must be able to assess the prospect of the emerging social forces that are knocking on the door of architecture.

Well, first of all, the author sees himself in good company. I find it very odd that the word society is used in its widest sense yet the only buildings we’ll be interested in are those fine buildings that cause architects or architectural theoreticians to talk about them. (I hope that, later, there will be bits about the social relevance of architecture, as I’m still wondering about that.) All the same, it is hard to get used to this strange new language.

Perhaps the author is already talking about architecture as the system of all ongoing communications about buildings, talking about buildings, writing about buildings, talking about people writing about buildings, etc. If so, then this is starting to get interesting. Personally, I think Le Corbusier was a charlatan but, through his communications, he managed to spin a web, produce an aura, and generate and sustain a system of communications about architecture and his place at the centre of it. In that respect, I think Koolhaas has learned a lot from Le Corbusier. I hope this book turns out to be about The Fairydust of Fame. Explicitly, and not just its subtext.

page 14 I’d never thought about functional explanations vs. causal explanations before but the author mentions that both Marx and Luhmann place more importance on the former. A functional inquiry asks why a certain entity exists before asking how it came to exist. This reminds me of a past post that functionally explained “What’s the Point of Architecture?” In it, I explained why architecture exists and why it has to exist in that way. I don’t think it has to be that way, but I accept that that’s the way it is. Natalini was right.

page 16 expands upon functional explanations and goes on to say that

“the causes (precursors, influences, creative personalities) that lie at the origin of a particular style say nothing about why this particular style was able to gain hegemony at a certain time in history.”

I will be interested to see what the author does with this line of thought. After all these decades, the author surely can’t be talking about styles can he? He seems to be talking about styles. Why is he talking about styles? I agree with the author that

 “The transient existence of a phenomenon is accidental. Its persistence is what has to be explained.”

The Persistence of Ornament, for example, can be explained by carved stone neo-classical ornament being replaced by the cheaper bendy steel Art Nouveau ornament being replaced by the cheaper still absence of ornament (as ornament in itself). These days, we have ornamental structure, ornamental shape. In all cases, ornament has the function of showing people how much money clients have to waste.

The Modernist Discovery of Internal Space, as a subject of architectural display in the early 20th century was going to happen sooner or later, given increasing suburbanization and the declining number of country house clients. Architecture is never without a potential market for long.

Two Ongoing Forces in the History (a.k.a. the continual re-invention) of Architecture are the development of new ways to make buildings less expensive (for people have to live in something, no matter how small or simple to construct) and  the development of new ways to make certain buildings more expensive (for rich people like to show how much money they have). Both these parallel histories of architecture exist for a reason but the author only admits the latter as Architecture.

A comprehensive and coherent perspective is what is required to offer effective leadership to a large firm working innovatively across the full spectrum of programmatic tasks.

This is a reminder that this book and whatever theory it contains is, in the grand scheme of communications, a business asset with a commercial agenda.

page 19 has a curious footnote (34).

Ever since his discovery of Luhmann’s work the author has been ordering his thoughts, experiences and readings via Luhmann’s conceptual grid.

Basically, the author has himself convinced there are sufficient parallels between Luhmann’s function systems and architecture for a theory of architectural autopoiesis to be a goer and that a theoretical reconstruction of the discipline of architecture is possible in order

to orient the discipline’s forward thrust.

Me, I’m yet to be convinced that Architecture as a discipline is actually moving forward. Apart from technical advances that help to make buildings less expensive and perform better, it might actually be good to give the art bits a rest and let Architecture stand still for a century or two – all this focus on “modernity”, “contemporaneity” and “being in tune with the era” is a Victorian invention that has never been seriously questioned. I’m probably going to have to humour the author and suspend disbelief on the necessity for an oriented forward-movingness of Architecture. Anyway, we’re getting to the end of the Introduction now and, in 05 The Premises Imported from Social Systems Theory, the author lists the premises imported  …

I skipped that bit. It’s full of sentences such as

Any determinate distinction presupposes a certain conceptual field of horizon with which it is set.

This may be so, but if it’s that important, I’m sure it’ll become obvious later. Given my earlier comment about me being prone to misunderstanding stuff, I was amused by

A communication entails three constitutive moments or selections: impartation, information and understanding. Understanding here does not imply correct understanding. It includes misunderstanding, as long as the chain of communications continues, as long as connectivity is maintained.

This sounds cautious and academically precise but is not. Sure, we can’t assume that understanding is correct, but nor can we that the information is valid or correct in the first place or, even if it is, that it has been imparted in a way conducive to accurate understanding. It’s not always the recipient’s fault if something doesn’t make sense.

page 21 talks about the totality of social phenomena.

Society is defined as the all-encompassing social system. All communications are thus communications within society. There can be no communication outside society. Today there exists only one single society: world society, as the autopoietic system of communications.

Here again we have the word society being used in its big, grand, can’t-really-argue-with-that sense. The Structure (proposed by Luhmann) is going to be mapped to the walled garden of Architecture that the author has constructed for himself. Something that is probably universal and for all we know, true, is going to be mapped to something very very exclusive. The author believes that the result is also universal and true and it may very well be in his universe which is the global market for architectural communications, built or otherwise.

  1. “Why is this theory necessary?”
  2. “What is the real purpose of this theory?”
  3. “And why now?”

are three nagging questions of mine. Perhaps the following holds an answer (as, after all, this is the introduction).

Each function system [and Architecture is going to be one] operates autonomously and maintains its own criteria of proper participation and success. Each function system observes its (mostly societal) environment with its own apparatus of distinctions, for example, the legal system observes all acts and communications according to the distinction legal vs illegal, the economic system observes all acts of communication according to the distinction profitable vs not profitable.

I wonder what the distinctions for the system of Architecture will be? I would have thought that Architecture and not-Architecture would be one, but we’ve already had a pre-emptive judgment on that.

The last two pages of the introduction lists specific questions relating to how  Luhmann’s theory can be applied to architecture, as well as the chapters responding to those questions.

Footnote 40 includes urban design, architectural design, interior design and furniture design [wot – no landscape design?] as part of the function system of design. And, so as to not ignore the greater part of his famous colleague’s income stream,

the complete function system of design also includes fashion and product design, as well as graphic design.

Last paragraph.

The systematic explication of historical as well as ongoing practices within architecture opens a space of theoretical possibility within which new ambitions can be formulated, hopefully (re-) orienting the experimental as well as the critical branch of the discipline. 

Regular readers know Misfits’ stance on this. How do these new ambitions differ from the old ones? What is the nature of this experimentation of which the author speaks? Will it be new shapes and methods of designing them, presented as technological and metaphorical fittingness for the modern world? (I hope not, for that would be no different from how Architecture has sustained itself so far.) What will be the nature of criticism if all communications are inherently part of the same system and thus “all good” no matter whether or not they are valid, correctly imparted and correctly understood? Finally, who will decide what communications are of value and what merely adds to the noise that equally creates and sustains the system?


  • is there a comprehensible version?
    do we need the King Graham version?
    the sequence of theorists, to the undereducated, seems to run from intelligible and understandable to obtusification (i can invent words too) on red bull max.
    so how many many words are required to ensure that the bookshelf called home does in fact deflect.
    is dmitri in a cryogenic block ready to save the world?
    am I alone?
    reminds me of global average temperature vs number of pirates.

    • Nice! At the same time, I’m also reading Lawrence M. Krauss’s “A Universe from Nothing: Why is there something, rather than nothing?” Not only is it easier to carry around, it deals with actual universal phenomana. It also relies on empirical evidence but the author provides it to a couple of decimal places.

      Apparently, not only is the universe expanding but it’s accelerating as it does. This means that later (much later), the stars will disappear from the sky as they’ll be travelling away from us at faster than the speed of light. “Aha!” you may say, “nothing can travel faster than the speed of light!” I thought so too, but no. Nothing can travel through space faster than the speed of light but space itself can expand at whatever speed it likes, carrying the galaxies along with it. Or so I read.

      The book also states that nothingness is the default state of the universe even though pockets of somethingness (like the universe we currently find ourselves in) may come and go from time to time like bubbles in porridge. I found myself willing to accept all this as probably true despite the impossibility of me ever being able to empirically verify any of it. I’m quite happy to leave theorising about the origins of the universe to others with the experience, the access to the data and the desire to make some sense out of it and contribute to human knowledge.

      Architectural theory also seems to be moving away from us at increasing speed but its parallel universe abhors a vacuum. The limelight is in constant need of something to occupy it, much like THE FIRST MUST-SEE MOVIE OF THE YEAR! We are indeed alone. Dmitri where are you?