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The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap.1: Architectural Theory

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Continuing these meditations upon the reading of The Autopoiesis of Architecture, the inspiration for this post was Chapter 1: Architectural Theory. The Introduction mentioned that the phenomenon of architecture can be analysed as an autonomous network (and autopoietic system) of communications along the lines of that proposed by Niklaus Luhmann for social systems.  Let’s not forget that this is what the book is all about.

Thinking back to the introduction, most introductions are meant to let the reader know what to expect.  They’re usually the last part of a book to be finalised because the author has already been to the end and back and had feedback from friends, family, colleagues and editors. The introduction is an opportunity to address this feedback so the reader has a better idea of what to expect, take on board what the author has written, and perhaps read the book more productively. What I remember most from the introduction is that I was asked to suspend judgment on the conclusions until the end of the book yet AT THE BEGINNING was asked to accept that there will be some strangeness of terminology and a possible sense of intellectual queasiness. Why should I? The book will either convince or it will not. It may well be an exercise in preaching to the converted. 

Chapter 1 deals with Architectural Theory and its importance for architecture. The territory of the book continues to expand as the author’s definition of architecture shrinks to fit his premise of architecture as an autopoietic system of communications. In passing, I wonder if Religion is an autopoietic system system of communications? I just mention that because, as I read on, I get the distinct feeling I’m being asked to make some Leap of Faith that I find impossible.

Architecture, like all the other subsystems of society … (p31)

See what I mean? We’re trying to ascertain if architecture is a subsystem of society or not. Sentences like this ask me to buy into a premise I’ve yet to be convinced of. It does explain some phenomena however.

Architectural discourse  maintains the unity of architecture by means of boundary management, denouncing incursions from neighbours such as engineers and artists who threaten to invade and blur the boundary and distinctiveness of architecture. The discourse also polices against unsustainable overextension of architects into alien territory.

The mention of engineers and artists is telling. Architecture is the filling in the sandwich. The word unsustainable jars here for there seems to be no limit to the extent that architects can extend themselves into engineering and art. The author’s colleague, for example, has extended herself into traditional artistic fields such as sculpture and painting as well as visual art fields such as exhibition and performance space design as well as decorative art fields such as furniture and tableware as well as designer goods such as jewelry, footwear, perfume bottles and other trinkets. Rather than showing disrespect for boundaries, this is an example of incredible commercial savvy. Territory is only alien until it’s conquered. An architect has yet to release a fragrance, for example. “Rotterdam”, Herzog & de Meuron’s effort was tongue-in-cheek so doesn’t count.

The need to mention the need to demarcate architecture from engineering is an example of preaching to the converted. Why should it be? And what is this thing that needs to be?

The assumption that a term or title like ‘architecture’ denotes a cohesive unity is far from self-evident … (p28)

and the author (in footnote 1 chapter 1) does mention Reinhold Martin’s comment “We cannot universalize any single, historically or culturally specific set of disciplinary practices under the heading “architecture”. I thought this deserved a bit more time discussing but no, if we start talking about this, then there won’t be much left to talk about.

Architecture does exist. It is a phenomena of recursive social communication with real internal unity. This is not only the a priori stipulation at the beginning of the theoretical edifice to be developed here, it is also the conclusion of the accumulated experience of an architect working for 20 years in many different countries across the world, collaborating with local architects, lecturing, discussing and meeting the local representatives of world architecture.

Architecture then, is at least as real as religion. The next sentence follows then, I guess.

The question at any time is: who can act in the name of architecture? (p32)

Like with any rhetorical question, the answer is not too long in coming. Now, the whole point of this book is to organise architectural phenomena into Niklas Luhmann’s theory of the development of social systems. If it is going to to this, then there needs to be something to fit Luhmann’s evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection and retention. The avant-garde architect, it seems, is the generator of variation for it is only they who have

the audacity to experiment and operate the graphic apparatus in analogy to (and inspired by) abstract art. The avant-gardist architect assumes the role of original creator or form-giver. Experimental avant-garde practice – stirred by external pressures and stimulations – is thus the differentiated mechanism that is the first precondition for an accelerated evolution.

This provides a good insight into the mind and motivations of the author, and where the author sees himself in his grand scheme of things. Lumann’s category of selection is (naturally) provided by

an architectural theory that closely tracks the avant-garde movement  – selecting and reinforcing the results of experimentation via manifestoes and theoretical treatises. … The crucial point here is that any new, unusual practice tends to disappear quickly unless it is being selected and interpreted by architectural theory, and thus reinforced by being inscribed into the discourse.

Here, I’m reminded of what happened to Le Corbusier’s “avant-garde” “inventive” “variation” of brick walls and concrete slabs in Maisons Jaoul (1954-1956).

Stirling and Gowan – within the boundaries of avant-garde practice – used it for their Ham Common Flats (1958).

This invention was very useful and became mainstream and started to be used in British council housing from the early 1960s.

This new and unusual practice did disappear quickly because it was not being selected and described by architectural theory and reinforced by being inscribed into the discourse. From this I conclude that Architectural theory only selects and describes unusual practices that are value-adding and aspirational (for as long as they remain so, and no longer) and irrespective of their actual worth or utility. Nothing I’ve read so far has forced me to rethink this.

For me then, the third category of retention does ring true, but I don’t think it is A Good Thing.

As mechanisms of retention we can identify canonizing architectural histories of the recent past, ordinary schools of architecture and the inertia of mainstream architectural practice. Two exemplary retrospective canonizations that facilitated retention/reproduction were, for example, Hitchcock and Johnson’s The International Style and Jencks The Language of Post Modern Architecture.  Both works are insightful distillations that could look back upon a decade of accomplished avant-garde design and theory [!] …  Once certain innovations have entered the mainstream – with the initial help and continuous sustenance of canonozing histories and and supported by educational curricula – they tend to stay there until pushed out by new innovations brought forward by new avant-garde design and theory. Only when these innovations have reached the stage of reproduction should we speak of evolutionary achievements within the discipline of architecture.

Now, going back to my example of load bearing brickwork and exposed concrete slabs, this was avant-garde and innovative when Corbusier and Stirling did it – it was unusual and innovative and responsible for making buildings look different. However, as soon as it reached the stage of reproduction, it was replaced with some new innovation. What’s happened here is that load bearing brick walls and exposed slabs were fine as long as their theory was being reproduced in mainstream architectural discourse (by canonizing histories and educational curricula, etc.) but shunned as soon as they came to be reproduced in mainstream architectural practice (as council housing).  I conclude from this that The point of architectural theory is not to generate anything of tangible social utility. I have no problem with this. Nobody said that architectural theory needs to be useful. 

Actually, the author is.

Architectural theory is integral to architecture in general and to all architectural styles in particular: there is no architecture without theory.

I’m growing accustomed to the author’s definition of architecture so I don’t find this statement particularly bold or even outrageous anymore. How many of the following statements would you agree with? Give yourself a grade out of 10.

  1. Architecture as distinguished from mere building is inherently theoretical. 
  2. Architecture in contrast to mere building is marked by radical innovation and theoretical argument. [Tautology alert!] 
  3. Innovation questions the way things are done and requires an argument which transcends the mere concerns and competencies of building. Innovation requires theory.
  4. Every great work of architecture offers a radical innovation.
  5. Most great architects are also important architectural theorists. … Virtually every architect who counts within architecture was both an innovator and a theorist or writer. The most striking examples are Alberti, Le Corbusier, Rem Koolhaas and Greg Lynn.
  6. In contrast, vernacular building relies on tradition, on well proven solutions taken for granted. The status quo does not require theory.
  7. Innovation calls for theory to substitute for the assurances that were provided by adherence to tradition. Theory thus steps in to provide a necessary function that allows building to become architecture, thus providing etc. etc.
  8. The primary function of architectural theory is to compensate for the lost certainty of tradition, where the appropriateness and functionality of buildings were guaranteed by the fact that the new buildings consisted in nothing but the faithful repetition of long-since evolved and surreptitiously corroborated models.
  9. Only theoretically informed building design constitutes architecture.
  10. Architecture is a discourse that is geared to permanent innovation, keeping up with and promoting a dynamic society.

The gist of all this is that architectural theory is necessary to provoke innovation because the trial and error processes of tradition and vernacular architecture are too slow to tie in with the authors vision of a modern, functionally differentiated world society. Or global market. Ah what the hell

we cannot only be concerned with the objective side of architecture’s performance.

No, I don’t suppose We can. (Leave me out of this please!) The next ten pages are rather dull, consisting of a categorisation of past theories of architecture and how this one is going to be better than each of them as well as all of them combined. I started to wish this book had a few more pictures to illustrate the products of problematizing theories, generative theories and analytic-predictive theories.  Skipping to page 54 it starts to get interesting again. The author restates his hopes that Luhmann’s theory of social systems will provide the required flexibility and robustness for a theory of autopoiesis of architecture for, after all, it can be applied to politics, law, economy, science, art, education, mass media and such. (Fashion? Religion?)

Luhmann never had and direct communication with architecture, and he did not explicitly recognise architecture as one of the great function systems of society.

Luhmann consigned architecture to the art system.
(p55, footnote 52)

Why, I wonder?

Instead, Luhmann buried architecture in the art system, simply falling prey to older, still lingering societal understandings of architecture, including anachronistic architectural self-descriptions. (p58)

On the other hand, it could be that Luhmann was right and architecture is a subset of the art system. I can see why he might think that. After all, Chapter 1 has told us that “architecture” (as defined by the author) has the following characteristics.

  • It comes with a theory
  • It is concerned with authorship
  • It is concerned with the breaking of traditions for the sake of it
  • It is not concerned with vernacular traditions
  • It has a worldwide reach and market
  • There is always a next new and big thing
  • It likes very much to use the word “avant-garde”

All this sounds very much like art to me. I can see why Luhmann didn’t bother taking it further, but he died in 1998 so we’ll never know. But it does seem strange to have a primary source of inspiration for a theory and then suggest his intelligence and powers of insight failed him when it came to the place of architecture.

What I remember most of this chapter however, is the author’s attempt to place some distance between architecture and “mere” building. He uses the word “mere” three times, as if the building of buildings is something totally lacking in skill and intelligence or even the creative application of skill and intelligence. Misfits has stated the precisely the opposite many times, and in many different ways. 

However, I’m prepared to admit that the author’s thesis may very well prove true for his particular definition of architecture based on his own lingering (architectural) societal understandings of architecture, including anachronistic architectural self-descriptions. A final two words.

 Adolfo Natalini


  • In between the publication of part 1 and 2 of The Autpoiesis, Jeremy Till published Architecture Depends.

    From the author’s description of the book’s in the Introduction. Posted here for comparison.

    …architecture at every stage of its existence – from design through construction to occupancy – is buffeted by external forces. Other people, circumstances, and events intervene tu upset the architect’s best-laid plans. These forces are, to a greater or lesser extent, beyond the direct control of the architect. Architecture is thus shaped more by external conditions than by the internal processes of the architect. Architecture is defined by its very contingency, by is uncertainty in the face of these outside forces.

    …book is about the clash between these two truisms. the gap between what architecture – as practice, profession and object – actually is (in all its dependency and contingency) and what architects want it to be (in all its false perfection).

    …the book argues that we but bridge the gap by opening up to dependency not as a threat but as an opportunity. That the inescapable reality of the world must be engaged with and not retreated from. And that in that engagement there is potential for a reformulation of architectural practice that would resist its present marginalisation and find new hope.

    • Thanks Martin,

      I haven’t read Till’s book but I will. Although I haven’t got very far with Autopo of Arch. but it seems to me the author is claiming the right to speak on behalf of “Architecture” so I wouldn’t be surprised if people like Till also feel the need to offer an alternative point of view. In principle, I agree with Till if he’s saying that architects need to engage with ‘the inescapable reality of the world’ – as long as that is in some tangible and useful way and not just engaging with it as a source of inspiration for the avant-garde artist architect to represent it. As I said, I haven’t got very far with Autopo. but, in the Introduction and Chapter 1, PS seems to be setting the stage for Parametricism as The Way Things Should Be. We shall see. However, we shouldn’t forget that Zaha Hadid Architects is a large and slick global operation, perhaps not as large as Foster + Partners or as slick as OMA when it comes to self-promotion, but they are doing very well designing what all the rich clients in the world seem to be wanting. I’m not sure if this really counts as “avant-garde” but hey.

      • You are not much farther with AoA than I am, and I’ve basically left it as reading for some next vacation when I won’t have to move around. as carrying both AoA and a laptop will soon leave me going to a doctor. According to your description, I think you will like Till’s book.

        The closest I have come to understanding what Schumacher’s conception of architecture is from this article in the section “A new ontology for architecture: all architecture is communication”

        Communication processes are rule-governed, rule-reproducing, and rule-evolving. That is why we speak of autopoietic (self-referentially enclosed) communication systems.

        My claim with respect to architecture is: All architecture (and design) consists of nothing but communications.

        My understanding is that architecture = communication (this is where parametricism comes in through semiotically analysing the communication? (the previous sentence is admittedly a wild guess at this point)), but the communication is enclosed within its own network (hence the introduction you discuss in the article above). It seems a bit unintuitive, since normally when we discuss communication it’s about breaking barriers down, not putting them up. Anyway, time will tell, for both of us, as we read AoA.

        Lastly, the whole ZHA thing is a constant headache. Not because I’m particularly interested, but because for some reason or another, they always come up and frequently with contradictory viewpoints. For example, reading the book of interviews between Hadid and Hans Ulrich Obirst gives a rather different impression of what ZHA is after than this piece in Intelligent Life: