Skip to content

The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Volume 1 Chapter 2.5 – The Necessity of Demarcation

Post date:

THESIS 9: Any attempt to integrate architecture and art, or architecture and science/engineering, in a unified discourse (autopoiesis) is reactionary and bound to fail.

Even though Luhmann, the guy who put all these ideas in the author’s head, said that architecture existed within the great social system of art, in this sub-chapter (p148), the author says Luhlmann only implied that architecture exists within the art system. Either way, the author is having none of it.

This treatment of architecture has to be rejected today. It reflects the traditional classification of architecture among the arts.

Hardly a powerful argument. Another reason it is not true is because the theory says it isn’t.

It is one of the central, historical theses of the theory of architctural autopoiesis that this treatment of architecture under the umbrella concept of ‘the arts’ is long since an anachronism – at least since the refoundation of the discipline as Modern architecture during the 1920s.

And here’s some more “proof”.

A sure empirical indicator for the factual, operational separation of art and architecture is the total absence of double careers. While Michaelangelo and Raphael, and even Schinkel, could still count and convince as both artists and architects this possibility seems to be excluded today.  Examples such as Le Corbusier’s paintings and Hundertwasser’s buildings are no countexamples but only confirm this impossibility.

That’s a bit bitchy but, yes, Corbusier’s paintings weren’t that great.

LC, defacing Eileen Gray's E1027, 1939
LC, defacing Eileen Gray’s E1027, 1939

And, although some people love them, neither were Hundertwasser‘s buildings. You know them.

hundertwasser (Photo credit: twicepix)

But I’ve always thought there’s something very dodgy about architects who pick up a paintbrush, especially if they say they use their “2D” work to “think ideas through”.

Will Alsop © image: Jason Alden
Zaha Hadid. Photograph: Alberto Heras
Karl Friedrich Schinkel - Schloß am Strom - Go...
Karl Friedrich Schinkel – Schloß am Strom – Google Art Project (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Schinkel actually comes out of this quite well. The author seems to be saying that architects are better at architecture than they are at painting, per se. However, it certainly doesn’t hurt an architect to have artistic pretensions. Most architects are content to just adopt the language and terminology of art  – “avant-garde” anyone? – especially when talking about “form” – and which is a lot of the time. But instead of being good at both architecture and art or even attempting to be good at both, some architects simply outsource their artistic pretensions to artists and achieve artistness by association.

7350177384_671408027e_zIt’s a two-way thing.

Herzog-de-Meuron-and-Ai-WeiweiBut going back to the text. Michaelangelo and Raphael were mentioned on page 146 and then I sort of blanked out for a while until they were mentioned again on page 148.

While during the Renaissance and Baroque figures like Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini and Borromini simultaneously worked in the domains of architecture, sculpture and painting, no such unifying careers exist today.

This is true on the surface, but we do have architects who go out of their way to make a name for themselves in designer goods. We’ve talked about this before. Designer goods are better than dumb sculpture and painting because they are reproducible. And if that somehow lessens their appeal then their price can be easily inflated by limited edition reproduction. It is true that not many architects go into art with the expectation of selling much, there are plenty who willingly attach their names to designer goods with the expectation of extending their brand and making a bit or a lot on the side. The author talks much about how architecture is different from “art” but similar to “design”. I see both art (then) and design (now) as opportunities for architects to extend their market reach. Would Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini and Borromini bother with art and painting when they could be designing tables, chairs, jewelry, shoes and silly things for Alessi?


This sub-chapter is all about defining boundaries but the discussion of differences with art takes up nine pages, differences with science take up four pages, and differences with engineering take up only three. The author is at his most amusing when he manages to convince himself.

Techniques like the construction of perspective were shared by architecture and painting, while marble was the material of choice for both architecture and sculpture. The increase of dynamic plasticity from Renaissance to Baroque is simultaneously observable across the domains of architecture, painting and sculpture. Today the defining distinctions, themes and problematics of each discipline have become incommensurable. Contemporary innovations in architecture (for example, the introduction of parametric modelling and scripting – comparable to the discovery of perspective in the Renaissance) have no counterpart (and therefore mean nothing) in the visual arts.


Architecture and the visual arts have to be described as independent autopoietic systems.

I’m always a bit wary when words like “clearly” are used in sentences in which the logic isn’t clear at all.

While the statues on top of a triumphal arch function hand in hand with the arch itself (early 19th century), it is less clear what societal function the design of an Art Nouveau style department store shares with a Symbolist painting (late 19th century). There is clearly a gap opening up between art and architecture.

Anyway, the author’s strongest argument for the separation of architecture and art comes from an unlikely source. This blog has spoken much about Hannes Meyer, so here I will only include a quote from page 151 here.

The development of the Bauhaus during the 1920s was characterised by a progressive shift of focus away from artistic practice towards a functionalist focus on industrial design and architecture. Finally, at the end of the decade, the new director of the Bauhaus, Hannes Meyer, was calling for architecture to radically distance itself from art and artistic practice: ‘all things in this world are a product of the formula: (function times economy). All these things are, therefore, not works of art: all art is composition and, hence, is unsuited to achieve goals. All life is function and is therefore unartistic.

This is not an argument for separating architecture from art but an argument for eliminating art from architecture.  Another reason architecture is different from art is that

Art experiments in a space that is bracketed off from the immediate pragmatic concerns the other function systems have to face and cater for.

So what’s it going to be? Now architecture is concerned with pragmatic concerns, after all? This isn’t what I was reading in the previous two sub-chapters. All in all, this is a confusing sub-chapter as conclusions seem to come before their arguments. Sub-sub-chapter 2.5.2 is about the differentiation between architecture and science but there isn’t much more to say apart from repeat what was said on p 101.

Scientific claims are regulated by the binary code of true vs. false (code of truth). Design decisions are regulated by architecture’s double code of beauty and utility: functional vs. dysfunctional (code of beauty), and formally resolved vs. formally unresolved (code of utility).

I would love to unpick this word by word, but I’ll start with the second sentence, ignoring the Jenckspeak “double code”. Essentially, what we have is this – I think.

  1. Design decisions are regulated by beauty and utility.
  2. Beauty is what is dysfunctional, as opposed to what is functional.
  3. Utility is what is formally resolved, as opposed to what is formally unresolved.  

I’m taking special care here because the word “beauty” is getting tossed around and I won’t admit to accepting the author’s meaning until I know what he’s talking about. Basically, he’s arguing that architecture and science are different.

Science and architecture/design are subject to two rather different systems of codes. The incommensurability [grrrr] of these codifications implies the incommensurability between scientific communications and design communications. There is no way that the beauty of a design solution can attain the status of a verifiable (or falsifiable) truth-claim.  

I wondered about this. How about crap/not crap? Anyway,

A scientific claim cannot be supported by appealing to beauty or utility … In turn, no scientifically verified truth has any bearing upon aesthetic judgements that address the code of beauty.  Things are different with the code of utility. Although utility is distinct from truth, scientific observation can be utilised for the assessment of specific aspects of functionality.

Basically, this means that science can tell you how much energy your building is wasting but it can’t tell you if you are getting aesthetic value for your money. The differences between architecture and engineering get discussed, but there is not much of interest.

The key difference between architecture and design on the one hand and the various engineering disciplines on the other is that the engineering disciplines lack the concern for articulation, ie, the concern for the artefact’s outward appearance (as communication).

Frei Otto gets a mention, but Calatrava and Balmond and their over-concern for over-articulations don’t. Here’s two true sentences (p 162).

The engineering discipline that is closest to architectural concerns is structural engineering. The primary loadbearing structure is often a key factor in the basic constitution and phenomenology of any building.

But then the author goes and wrecks it …

As far as the structure has a phenomenonlogical presence in the buildling, it enters the domain and perogative of the architect.  The extensive discourse around the concept of tectonic form/order, aiming at the legible articulation of the structural and constructive logic of a building, belongs to architecture and has no place in modern engineering. 

All the architect can do is perhaps choose between the various solutions offered by the engineer, if more than one solution is indeed offered. The architect has no final control over the engineering solutions. He is positing its initial problems.

I think that says it all.

Skip 2.5.4 and head straight for 2.5.4 The Specificity of Architecture Within the Design Disciplines. (Footnote 140 – “The fact that the author is an architect accounts for the privileging of architecture among the design disciplines.”) These final four pages argue for the architect’s right to get paid for designing anything that has a shape. Page 167 uses the word “incommensurable” three times and the word “commensurable” once.

Although the object domains of the various design disciplines – despite the identified zones of overlap – are quite distinct, there is no doubt that the various variants of the design discourse are fully commensurable.

Remember what I wrote about art vs. designer goods?

The oeuvre [art word!] of Zaha Hadid Architects moves from urban masterplanning, via buildings and interiors to furniture, and includes alls osrts of products from cars to cutlery, as well as fashion items such as handbags, shoes and jewellery.

This seamless move across the boundaries that separate the various design disciplines is possible because they all follow the same lead-distinction of form versus function.

Who knows what Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini and Borromini would be designing for us if they had been alive today? We will have to wait until Section 3.4.1 to find out about more about The Lead-distinction within Architecture and the Design Disciplines. For now, just remember that architecture is special because

architectural design is concerned with a category of artefacts that are marked out by the fact that they are somehow enclosing, that they can be entered into, and that they introduce the difference between inside and outside.

* * *

Now, when I’m approximately 3/8ths through this book, I should mention that I’m reading the paperback version and the binding is falling apart. The now-loose pages are falling one by one from the front like a paperback on the beach. Equally annoying is the number of times the word “incommensurate” was used in this sub-chapter. But I will  continue. It’s somehow comforting to feel I’m not that crazy after all. I’m getting more and more glimpses of the intellectual world the author inhabits. I can see how it must all make sense to him.  But then, to another person, so does Klingon.


Like any other language, the Klingon language has its own alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and rules of syntax. Internally, it’s no more or less logically consistent and/or inconsistent as many other languages. It’s possible to express thoughts in it and have conversations in it. It works – yes, but I can’t help thinking there’s something about it that’s fundamentally flawed.