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The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chapter 2.4 – Architectural Research

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This book is taking a while to get going. I’m somewhere between a third and half-way through volume 1 and have concluded that taking it sub-chapter by sub-chapter is probably the best way to do it. Fortunately, sub-chapter 2.4 is a particularly rich one. It may even be the turning point of the entire book.

THESIS 8:  The avant-garde segment of architecture functions as the subsystem within the autopoiesis of architecture that takes on the necessary task of architectural research by converting both architectural commissions and educational institutions into substitute vehicles of research.

Like many things to do with this book, it seems straightforward but what does it mean? To summarise the story so far, the avant-garde   Sorry, I’m still having a problem with this self-labelling as avant-garde. There’s something not right. It doesn’t ring true. In previous posts I’ve suggested reasons why the author might have chosen this word but I’ve just thought that the real reason might because he didn’t want to use the obvious word “starchitect”. It’s a bit too popular. It’s a bit too descriptive. It’s a bit too closely linked to fame and fortune. But I’ve no such prejudices so, from now on, I’m just going to use the word starchitect instead of avant-garde architect. You won’t notice the difference.

Anyway, starchitects are the only architects daring enough to experiment and research and come up with different solutions that other people copy and keep architecture EVOLVING. We should thank them. However, they can’t do all this experimenting on their own. (Why not?) They need clients to fund their experiments because buildings are big and complex things.

One might therefore have expected that a dedicated, collective research effort would have been institutionalised within architecture, as a subsystem within the autopoiesis of architecture.  

However, neither as publicly funded university research nor in the form of research departments within the big architectural firms does there exist a clearly demarcated domain of architectural research distinct from design as application of such research.  Instead the discipline relies on two substitutes for explicitly institutionalized research : High -profile architecture schools and practising starchitects.

Now this could just be an example of “telling-it-like-it-is” or it could be an audacious attempt to justify and perpetuate one’s two major income streams. I suppose one’s entitled to do that. I just wish there was more outcry. Sub-chapter 2.4 is short but it’s as if this book has finally, belatedly, come alive. Perhaps the author supposes that anyone who has read this far will believe anything – the claims become more outrageous. This next is typical of an opening statement of a sub-sub-chapter. It makes one expect an explanation is forthcoming.

2.4.1 It is the avant-garde segment of architecture – comprising starchitects, theoreticians and teachers/students at high profile architecture schools – that can take on the necessary task of architectural research.

Similarly, the closing statements of sub-sub-chapters are strong yet vague statements that give the appearance of logical conclusion.  2.4.1 ends with

These lessons have been learned in architecture too – architectural avant-garde practice testifies to this – even if it has never been as clearly articulated.

This bookending is of course a writerly device but let’s look and see what’s inbetween. For once, the sandwich has some meat.

The commissions of starchitects have to function as vehicles of architectural research. Such commissions must afford a playing field for formal research and spatial invention where both functional and economic performance criteria are less stringent than in the ‘commercial sector’ of mainstream architecture. This is possible within a special segment of the architectural market – high-profile cultural buildings. In these special, mostly public landmark buildings, the discipline of architecture becomes conspicuous within society. Here society appreciates architecture as a contribution beyond the mere accommodation of the respective substantial function. Here society also recognizes the legitimacy of an extra investment over and above what technical necessity dictates.

This is a wonderful paragraph. The author seems satisfied that he’s amongst friends now, and can say what he really feels without feeling the need to fake humility anymore. The author is seriously saying that, because starchitects are the only people who can fulfil the allegedly important role of architectural research, then they have a natural claim to the most lucrative sector of the architecture market. There are many things wrong with this,  not just ethically.

The design of landmark buildings demands a certain type of architectural firm and a mode of working that is not easily adapted into the mundane mass of projects. The division of the profession into starchitects and mainstream is thus also reinforced from the architectural supply side:  there are starchitect firms and there are mainstream firms. It requires a world market of cultural project opportunities to feed a 100-200 strong crew specialized in creative work. This in turn, reinforces the globalization of architecture, the creation of a unified world architecture. 

Reading a book hasn’t made me feel this unclean since Bret Easton Ellis’ “The Informers”. True, there are more important things in the world to worry about than where ZHA’s three directors are going to get their next million.


The starchitect’s right to be successful has been mentioned in previous chapters and I’m certain it will be mentioned again.

The author is claiming that, because the autopoiesis of architecture is the way it is, the starchitects can ignore functional and economic constraints and design buildings that have no social use other than confirm their right to do so.

Does anybody else not have a problem with that? I’ll just quickly list some thoughts before moving on. 

  • Why should commissions of starchitects have to function as vehicles of architectural research? Nobody is asking them to do it? What’s in it for them?
  • And what exactly is this research anyway? I think we should be told. Is spatial invention really such a worthy topic for architectural research? Are there not more worthwhile topics? I accept that if it is a topic for architectural invention then it is probably because there’s a market for it. The good thing about research is that even if it never influences a single building, it can still be monetized as lectures, mediatized as marketing and branding, and consumed for its entertainment value as architectural imagery. Like Rem Koolhaas’ conveyor-belt booksies, it’s an end in itself.
  • Why should architectural research only flourish in an environment where functional and economic performance criteria are less stringent than in the ‘commercial sector’ of mainstream architecture? Shouldn’t our best and brightest brains be made to occupy themselves with more pressing problems? No, it seems. There should be no prizes for solving unrealistic problems. I think it may have once been said of the Farnsworth House that “perfection becomes possible when so few problems are considered.” (I’ll save this thought for some other time.) 
  • The use of the term “high profile cultural buildings” is telling. Why is it that the imagined spatial and expressive qualities of cultural buildings alone is insufficient – these cultural buildings have to be high-profile as well? It seems to suggest that media value is a factor.
  • The author sees the value of this in terms of society but neglects to mention that high-profile buildings are of enormous value for corporate marketing and branding. These special landmark buildings are not just conspicuous within the communities they serve. A simple music hall becomes an Opera House. Real buildings for actual users become the vehicle for virtual fame elsewhere. 
  • And all this is claimed to have the blessing of society for “contributing beyond the mere accommodation of the respective substantial function” and, again tellingly, for costing more than your average building. Does it matter how much a landmark music hall costs? The need it fulfils is not a local one, but one of city branding on a national or international level. This is nothing new. We all know this. We all agree 1) that there is a globalization of architecture, 2) that a unified world architecture is happening and 3) that a certain number of starchitects are hogging the market for the buildings that the new power-clients of ‘politicians’ and property developers demand to stroke their egos. Nothing much really changes in the world of architecture.
  • Besides, what exactly is it that society is appreciating?
  • It may require a world market of cultural project opportunities to feed a 100-200 strong crew specialized in creative work. I don’t know, but I am sorry for the people ZHA had to sack in order to improve their bottom line. (See image above). Other companies deal with this by developing new products suited to less profitable but stable markets. Just saying. Actually no – I’m not just saying. The notion and language of evolution constantly appear in the text. If an organism or company evolves to fit a specialised niche environment and that environmental niche disappears, then we all know what happens. It’s happened before. The market for Victorian country houses died so what happened? Commercial and transportation buildings became worthy subjects of architecture. Suburban houses became worthy subjects of architecture. Currently, high-profile cultural buildings are the last surviving ecosystem in which starchitects can survive. The particular value a starchitect adds cannot be justified in, say, an airport since the functional and economic performance criteria are more stringent.

All in all, I’m reminded of that proto-starchitect Ludwig Mies claiming $30,000 in architect’s fees for the Farnsworth House that, when he accepted the job, was not to cost more than $40,000. The Edith Farnsworth Journals make fascinating reading.



Anyway, back to how starchitects ignore functional and economic constraints as they exploit their clients for the sake of ‘experiment’ and ‘research’.  I’m not taking any of this out of context. In fact, it’s all repeated again on page 134.

The responsibility of architecture is split according to the division of labour between starchitects (high art) and mainstream (commercial).

The sole responsibility of starchitects is to mutate [sic.; invent mutations, presumably] and give innovation a chance.

His/her [ =) ] work is a manifesto, its value transcends the immediate task of the building at hand.

The starchitect turns his/her commission into a vehicle of research, resulting in a built experiment or built manifesto.

Architectural  principles, values and criteria of architectural progress dominate over the idiosyncratic [!] interests of the particular client.

To this extent the starchitect has to exploit the client’s resources for purposes that lie beyond the client’s narrow, private interest.

The client’s immediate interests are served only inasmuch as they coincide with the new, generalizable interests of contemporary civilization that the starchitect exploration tries to address.

In the absence of this coincidence, the client might find some compensation by exploiting the innovative thrust of the project for the promotion of his reputation. [Hey – who’s famous these days? OK, let’s get them!]

This kind of indirect funding of architectural experimentation via (private or municipal) marketing investments has the advantage of allowing formal research to reach the stage of built experimentation before its full potential has been realized.[I’m not really sure what this means, or could mean.]

However, it has the disadvantage of over-determining formal research in the direction of image production and sensationalism. This undeniable phenomenon has somehow obscured the profound importance of radical formal research.

That, my friends, is really the crux of 2.4.1. It is little wonder that starchitects have such contempt for their idiosyncratic and narrow-minded clients wanting only to satisfy their own interests. Those clients choose starchitects for their branding value and not for their innovative research and experimentation. Those clients may not care for innovation, experimentation or research, but they are prepared to pay for status of funding an expensive thing as long as the designer good retains that status value. Both parties are using each other, so to speak. And if the clients want image production and sensationalism, then that’s what gets delivered. The parasites outside this closed loop and who eagerly consume the sensational images and are profoundly impressed by the radical formal research are put to work generating the “fame” that attracts the rich clients (or rather, their advisers) and so sustain the food cycle.

Sub-chapter 2.4.1 is a joy. I’ve quoted extensively from it. It’s a sub-chapter that just keeps on giving outrage after outrage.

Experimentation requires a certain distancing from immediate performative pressures and the demand of best practice delivery.

I found that 2.4.2. ARCHITECTURE SCHOOLS AS LABORATORIES was more rewarding to read whilst wondering who pays who for what. The problem with clients is that their aren’t enough of them and the briefs they have are not sufficiently inventive. Universities (and their students) can therefore be exploited

to find architectural problems and define briefs even if no client has yet articulated them. This updates the agenda of architecture and thus helps architecture to anticipate challenges rather than waiting to be pushed by the client. …

Such research leas to the expansion of the general solution space available to any architectural design effort. Initially such research should be independent of any stringent brief or strict  criteria of instrumentalization.  The task is to chart potentials that might inspire the search for problems on the basis of discovered ‘solutions’.

There follows a discussion of whether solutions should go in search of problems or whether problems should go in search of solutions. Columbia University (Patrik Schumacher) and The Berlage Institute (Alejandro Zaera-Polo) were used to illustrate this contrast before concluding that both are okay. The AA Design Research Lab (PS)

established design research agendas that would allow the ‘solutions’ that were evolving within an ongoing formal proliferation effort to find appropriately circumscribed programmatic problematics [great term!] to demonstrate their performative prowess.

I recently read an article on International Art English as a type of insider language. A sample:

IAE always uses “more rather than fewer words”. Sometimes it uses them with absurd looseness: “Ordinary words take on non-specific alien functions. ‘Reality,’ writes artist Tania Bruguera, ‘functions as my field of action.'” And sometimes it deploys words with faddish precision: “Usage of the word speculative spiked unaccountably in 2009; 2011 saw a sudden rage for rupture; transversal now seems poised to have its best year ever.”

Presumably the use of such language in architecture is all part of the great system of communications. Misfits has written about this before. 

Page 140 offers the curious example of one particular design research agenda that attempts to link new management theory (?) with new architectural theory (!).

Recent corporate headquarters point towards the need for ever higher levels of overall spatial and visual integration. The insatiable demand for internal connectivity is catered for by the concept of a continuous office landscape. 

Rolex Learning Center EPFL sanaa
Rolex Learning Center EPFL sanaa (Photo credit: agallud)

I’m imagining something like Sanaa’s ROLEX effort, now made usable and legal with all sorts of disabled ramps and level work platforms. But when I see management theory and architectural theory in the same sentence I automatically think of solutions that are in need of CLIENTS. To my knowledge, all this research did not bring ZHA a rash of corporate clients. Rem Koolhaas is a more successful example of pre-emptive theory. Remember when theory was all about airports and shopping? 

The author’s example of corporate organisation spans four pages. We are presented with concepts such as simultaneity (spatial interpretations indicating the overlap of domains of competency, for instance departmental organisation overlaps with project organisation), multiple affiliation, smoothness and ‘space of becoming’ (some sort of ‘time-based space-sharing scenarios or similar demands for flexibility) .


carefully sequenced work method is crucial to any work claiming the title of design research

and, as the closing sentence for this sub-chapter

These formal principles have since been formalized and promoted under the banner of Parametricism.

So there we have it. I feel like skipping the next 300 pages and heading straight for Volume II but I won’t. I’m glad I read these pages but still can’t believe what I read. The author is not convincing me that starchitects fulfil some socially useful role. Sub-chapter 2.4 has increased my resistance tenfold. However, it’s become easier to see how the author might believe his perception of how things are – or even if he doesn’t believe it, how it would be to his advantage to want us to believe it.

“Culture spreads by proclamation”
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe