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The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2.3 – Avant-garde vs. Mainstream

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Increasingly, I’m beginning to think that what the book describes is probably an accurate description of the world of architecture the author sees. In this chapter, for the first time, I had the distinct impression that the author really believes what he is writing. In a previous Book Club post, I mentioned my doubts about the validity of the author’s self description as “avant-garde”. Is it accurate? Why does he insist on using this word if not to evoke ideas of art and artists? Can commercially successful architects ever be avant-garde? From the first part of section 2.3, it becomes clear that when the author uses the word “avant-garde” he really means “leaders, as opposed to followers”. No-one will die because of this mislabelling, but it does make it easy to falsely attribute notions of some brave and heroic journey of artistic endeavour. The author, I imagine, would not be unhappy if this were to happen. 

Anyway, to paraphrase a page or two:

the avant-garde care what their colleagues think but the mainstream care what their clients think.

On the surface, this is true. However, even the most apparently non-commercial of architects are still selling something. Even the author has a product of which this book is but one part for, like any architect who writes, this book is advertising for the architectural products associated with it. This holds true until a certain threshold is reached. Once past that threshold, the architectural products are mere vehicles to sustain an aggressive campaign of global branding that can be more efficiently applied to market things that are not buildings. But this is another story.

To get back to the point, avant-garde architects are not starving in their attics for the sake of their art. The author mentions some examples of avant-garde architects and none of them have too badly. Professor Sir Peter Cook (Archigram) is still designing and lecturing. Adolfo Natalini (Superstudio) is still in business. OMA isn’t begging for work and ZHA aren’t desperate for work, at least not until we saw them in action for the Park Avenue job. [Here’s a link to information on ZHA’s latest company accounts –] Architects such as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind make a lot of media noise but have no place in this book since, according to the author, they don’t write or make any contribution to theory. This seems ungracious since Chapter 2.3 mentions that Parametricism is a development of “Folding” architecture and we can definitely accuse FG and DL of encouraging that. Foster + Partners, apparently, are both avant-garde and mainstream. Although F+P do not write or make any contribution to theory, they apparently have a section (= a few workstations?) reserved for “parametric research”.

The author’s definitions of avant-garde and mainstream are opposing yet symbiotic. The radical and brave avant-garde experimenters provide the ideas for the mainstream to execute and make mainstream. This thought was presented more credibly, albeit in a less positive light, by Robert Adam in his article Globalisation and Architecture (The Architectural Review of March 2008. Read.

Globalised commercial architecture has developed a symbiotic relationship with a new breed of global star architects. As cities, more than nations, now compete to attract global investment and global tourism, they seek brand differentiation and symbolic modernity. The commissioning of public buildings by star architects is now an established marketing technique. The buildings must be (in the literal sense of the word) extra-ordinary and designed by one of a small band of global architects whose nationality is more accidental than significant.

The names are familiar and include Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava and Renzo Piano. The personal status of these architects is now so great and the demand for their presence so high – from students, the lecture circuit and competitions as well as the cities themselves – that their work is almost by necessity strongly conceptual and cannot rely on any detailed study of fine grain or culture of the locality. Indeed, as it is the intention that the building should be an iconic global product, local distinctiveness is often not a desirable characteristic.

The competitive marketing of these buildings by cities has set up an upward demand spiral. Out of the work of the star architects, design types and styles emerge and become identified with successful cities, even before they are built. As star architects are, by definition, limited in number, demand for symbolic and extraordinary buildings far outstrips the capacity of the star group to provide their own designs, however conceptual their original input may be. The conceptual nature of the star product allows global commercial firms (who have sometimes been acting as the executive architects for star architects) to clone the trademark design characteristics of the star product. The reproduction of the spiral or twisted forms, globular glass, planar intersection and so on is facilitated by the use of the same sophisticated computer graphics employed by the offices of the star architects to develop and present their concepts.

Having read this, it becomes easier to believe that an architect who gives the appearance of not caring about money and buildability is attractive to a certain type of client – they always have been. It becomes easier to see that avant-garde architects and mainstream architects are both swimming in the same stream but feeding at different levels. But how do you feel about this next statement?

Architecture and the design disciplines on the one hand and the sciences on the other hand are very different communications systems, differentiated by fundamentally different societal functions and specialised around fundamentally different codes: the code of truth (or perhaps the double code of truth-novelty, demanding new truth) in the case of the sciences and the double code of utility-beauty (or the triple code of utility-beauty-novelty), demanding new, functional beauty, for the avant-garde segment) in the case of architecture/design. The fact that both science and architecture, and indeed the art system as well, share the code of novelty does not dissolve the sharp demarcation between these autopoietic function systems.

I understand how science is interested in new truth, updated truth, better truth, deeper truth, but I’m not so sure what “new functional beauty” is or whether it being demanded (or even supplied) is a good thing. In science, new usually means better but I can’t say the same for architecture or art. I may change my mind when I learn more about what this “new, functional beauty” is but, for now, I simply don’t believe, can’t believe that “science and architecture, and indeed the art system as well, share the code of novelty”. I put a big wobbly red underline under that entire paragraph.

minor quibble: I think we should be told why “architecture/design” occur together.

minor quibble: I can’t let phrases like “… between these autopoietic function systems” pass without comment. The author is neglecting his duty to convince me that architecture is an autopoietic function system. I am not assuming it is and refuse to suspend disbelief, go along for the ride and see how I feel when I come to the end.

major quibble: For the following, we’re back to using the language of evolution again.

In architecture, the mechanism of selection that is interposed between variation and retention is operated by the early adopters that bring avant-garde results into the mainstream. This role is also played by avant-garde firms that mature and grow as their success in the avant-garde arena opens up wider opportunities towards participation within the mainstream.

I get the feeling that this book is going to be a justification for everything. It is of course fine for maturity and growth to bring success but why should “avant-garde” architects want it so badly? Time will of course tell how accurate this ‘avant-garde’ label proves. The word ‘starchitect’ could just as easily be used without too much forcing around the edges. So, in my opinion, having “avant-garde” pretensions is nothing more than an alternative way to enter the field where the big boys play for big bucks.

The individual names/careers often move from the avant-garde to the mainstream segment. This is frequently due to the combination of the very success of the respective architect and a further paradigm shift within the avant-garde.

Seriously, does anybody ever go the opposite direction? p104-105 make a cracking read. It’s difficult to take the author seriously. I can’t pretend anymore, even to myself, that I am the intended audience for this book.

Final thought: The average age of these avant-garde architects is about 60-65 isn’t it? Shouldn’t they be a bit younger? The whole thing reeks of a Philip Johnson-esque attempt to remain relevant within a system of branding and media feeding (call it the autopoiesis of architecture if you will) that PJ was largely responsible for perfecting. Will history repeat itself? Probably. These systems are self-sustaining, after all. That much is true.


I posted the above because I thought this chapter had too many thoughts for a single post. Here are some of the other parts I had a problem with.

p96 The crisis of Modernism – as symbolized by the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St Louis in 1972 only 17 years after its construction – required a radical rethinking of the values and methods of architecture.

Firstly, when did anything written by Charles Jencks start to become truth? I doubt the problems faced by the residents of Pruitt-Igoe were solved by ducks and decorated sheds.  What Charles Jencks succeeded in doing was killing of the remnants of any social agenda architecture might once have had, and that weren’t killed off by Johnson and Hitchcock 50 years earlier. About 2022, people might start to think once more that architecture should at least try to fix social problems. Watch out for the backlash!

p98 The ability to procure permanent innovation is a necessary prerequisite for the ongoing survival of the autopoeisis of architecture.

I prefer to view this need for change as the usual built-in redundancy that sustains production and consumption the global economy. For the first time I began to wonder if innovation in architecture is a good thing. If one accepts the author’s definition of architecture, then I don’t think that architecture is a good thing.

p99 The avant-garde work is primarily addressed to an expert audience of other architects, with only a minimal and indirect engagement with a larger, non-expert audience.


p105 contains an passage on how the avant-garde provide stuff for the mainstream to copy and ‘dumb-down’. The author puts it like this.

To the extent the avant-garde and mainstream are differentiated, this transmission of achievements from one to the other implies that the discursive embedding of the transmitted elements (concepts, techniques and formal repertoires) changes. This re-embedding implies a certain loss of meaning or ‘dumbing down’, ie a loss of certain discursive connections.  Although the recontextualized concepts, techniques and formal repertoires also gain specific new concerns and relevances, there is an overall net loss of meaning measure in terms both of the density of discursive connections and in terms of the thematic scope of contexts in which the respective innovations are embedded. This re-embedding also implies a reduction of complexity. This reduction of complexity should be no occasion for regret, but is rather an inevitable consequence – and indeed the raison d’être – of the division of labour that is structured by the differentiation of avant-garde and mainstream.

I don’t suppose then, that ZHA can complain about one of their China jobs being copied, even though I don’t think the author was thinking of such a literal ‘re-embedding’.


  • As usual, thanks for your posts on the Autpoiesis. I’ll try to do a similar thing this summer when I go through it.

    One thing that really stood out for me was the passage on science, more precisely, the claims made about the way science operates, and how ‘novelty’ is something shared with architecture. This is word play.

    The ‘novelty’ of science and ‘novelty’ of architecture (or other «creative» disciplines) are do not map onto each other. The reason is simple, science (and math, and computing, etc) progress understood to be based on slight iterations and improvements to the respective fields (copernican revolutions are the exception, not the rule); whereas in fields such as art, progress is perceived and judged by novelty, difference and heroism.

    Of course, the question is if this drive for heroism is, in a net overall result, good.

    References for how scientific progress works:,_technology_and_society and related research since the 80’s

    • Thanks Martin – that bit about science got to me as well. Frankly, this was an irritating (sub)chapter. I thought I’d enjoy it more than I did. It was only about 40 pages but almost too much to process. I’ve just added some extra bits at the end of the post about extra things that I had to register an objection to. I’m looking forward to reading about this “functional beauty” that has been mentioned once or twice so far, but that’s at least 100 pages in the future!