The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap.3 – Architecture as Autopoietic System: Operations, Structures and Processes

Back – and with what must be the longest blog post title ever. We’re almost halfway through TAOA and now (after 170 pages!) coming up to what I hope are the good bits. 

This third part is the central and most extensive part of this book.

Since I began this book, I’ve managed to read books on the history of the universe, the origins of life on earth and the fallacy of progress, and found the time to re-read “Portrait of a Lady” and “The Wings of The Dove”. Admittedly, the latter was a bit of a slog to begin with but it finally got going and the journey was worthwhile. What I want to say is that  

The Autopoiesis of Architecture is no page-turner.
It’s difficult to pick up, and easy to put down.
There’s never a right time to read it.
It’s not something you read at the beach, at an airport, on a bus …

It’s not just the content, it’s the tone. Schumacher is no Henry James but you’d think someone who’s written 1,100-plus pages would have developed some sort of a way with words. With TWOTD, I was initially indifferent to the fate of poor Milly Theale but soon found myself caring. Now, 170 pages and (how long has it been?) six months into The Autopoiesis of Architeture, I really don’t care if architecture is or is not an autopoietic system of communications. I’m constantly questioning what I’m getting out of this book. Perhaps I’m hoping the author will teach me how to be a millionaire or how to make gold out of lead. Or the modern media equivalent thereof.

The author must know a thing or two about such things since he trousered a third of a million £ salary from ZHA last year, presumably not including other income from publishing, teaching and other commitments and which are no doubt channelled through a separate company like those of his boss. I don’t believe that this book, whilst being part of the commodification of the process of architectural branding (and hence proving the author’s thesis in a sense), will be revealing much in the way of practical advice for the hoi polloi.

Nevertheless, it may inadvertently reveal clues on how to generate a theory and monetize it and this is its attraction for me. I want to see what counts as theory these days. I want to see how a theory is made, how inspirations and references and name dropping and intellectual intimidation all get put together to hold ideas together long enough to sustain an intellectual product in the market imagination. It’s worth noting that, independent of its content, the book has the physical semblance of an intellectual product, It’s thick, wordy, obscure, one of two volumes, it has no colour, no cover photo, only two or three embedded line drawings and pretentiously few illustrations, and even those are contemptuously shoved to the back to not defile the arrogant imperative of the words. Perhaps this’s all an archibook has to be.

In which case I’ve been totally duped. Perhaps it’s part of a cunning plan. Architect productivity would certainly plummet if any were to spend time actually reading this book. For me, my obsession with content is just that. I want to see the logic and the workings behind those abundant sentences and ask myself “why is the author saying it this way and not some other way?” I want to see what the author isn’t saying, and try to deduce whether or not he’s aware of it. I want to see how low contemporary standards are, what outrageousnesses can be gotten away with, and what statements we’re expected to take for granted as some truth beyond question. I want to see how what begins as premises ends with the appearance of truth. And I want to document it all.

* * *

There’s always one or two things that stick in my mind from previous chapters, nagging until I can make some sort of peace with them. For instance, I’ve never made my peace with dividing architectural practices into mainstream and “avant-garde”. I said before that “avant-garde” has connotations of art and artists (particularly with respect to the performing arts where its usage is not strange) and suggested replacing it with “starchitects” to see if it made any difference. To the author’s mind, such a substitution would undeservedly include, say, Gehry and Libeskind as their work is allegedly not  backed up by formal research (whatever that is) or theory. But does it really make any difference? Aavant-garde or starchitect, all are very aggressive providers of communications that, at their most audacious, attempt to capture the popular imagination. In the UK, anyone who does not know of Dame Zaha Hadid does not read the news.

For me, I will read on and see if the author has anything to say about media stardom. If it doesn’t get at least a whole chapter, then the author is being very neglectful, if not wilfully blinkered and downright disingenuous.

* * *

My feeling so far is that this book represents an attempt by the author to inflate the value of his own communications – though, to be fair, what book isn’t? I doubt it matters as nobody actually reads books these days. As long as two hardcover copies are on the shelves of the library shelves of every university in the world with a Department of Architecture, then it really doesn’t matter what the book says – my friends, it’s a product. Au contraire? Consider “The International Style”. Ninety years on, it’s regarded as a classic, as having had enormous influence. It’s crap. If that’s all it takes to artificially alter the course of architecture for the sake of some personal agenda, then The Autopoiesis of Architecture is about 850 pages too long.

* * *

Chapter 3 promises to be good. It begins with an outline of what’s to come, and a recap of where we’ve been. Such reminders are sprinkled throughout the book. Here’s one I found on the 178th page, annoyingly (!) summarising the previous 170.

Luhmann’s theory is presupposed here as the conceptual framework within which architecture might be re-described. Architectural theory is thus able to draw on the resources of a sophisticated conceptual apparatus for the re-elaboration of its own self-description against the backdrop of the challenges of contemporary society.

Anyway, the outline introduces the three concepts of the title. The author says that operations sustain architecture as an integral system of communications and that

we [! grrrr] can identify the design decision as the defining communicative operation of architecture

and that

typical processes are “sequences of graphically mediated design moves” and the sessions that are strung together for the design process of the project.

Structures seem to be the types of operations and processes that are available for one to work with. Operations, processes and structures all seem to be interrelated. Ho-hum.

The operation of adding a line or two to a drawing (or the follow-on confirmation ‘this beautifully resolves the imbalance here’) is only a design decision (or a design critique) within the autopoietic system of architecture/design

Bored in class, I amused myself imagining the author saying “this beautifully resolves the imbalance here” while adding a line or two to a drawing ……. this system is advanced, specialised ……. continually evolving ……. contains a certain level of discrepancy and conflict …… I kept drifting off.

Moreover, it should be noted here, once again, that it is the final goal of the theory of architectural autopoiesis is to accelerate this evolution and to contribute to it with quite specific suggestions.

The theory sets out to explicate the systematic rationality of the current discursive arrangements with a view to promoting ambitious agendas that project beyond those prevalent arrangements, with the potential to reintegrate the evolving autopoiesis on an enhanced level of performance.

It is undeniable that this implies a selective filtering and highlighting the assumed systemic core of the discipline and of the currently emerging tendencies that are presumed to be the most promising.

The boldings are mine. I don’t know about you, but I find all this slightly ominous, not just for its giving me the reader a taste of what to expect of the remainder of this book (let alone  – shudder – Vol. 2), but for making me imagine an architecture guided by such thoughts.

The author has stated his intention of fitting all architectural communications into his reimagining of Luhmann’s theory and Chapter 3 is the make-or-break one. The respective “theses” (ugh!) are a good guide to what lies ahead.

In a society without control centre, architecture has to regulate itself and maintain its own mechanisms of evolution that allow it to stay adapted (within the ecology of co-evolving societal subsystems).

And nor is it the first time we’re told that starchitects are responsible to no-one but themselves.

There can be no external determination imposed upon architecture – neither by political bodies, nor by paying clients – except in the negative/trivial sense of disruption.

I’m neutral about this next one because I’m unsure what it could possibly mean.

The self-determination (autopoiesis) of architecture must provide credible criteria and processes that can absorb the risk of communicating design decisions that project into an uncertain future.

With this next one, we’re told about how important the distinction of form vs. function is. But whoa there boy! Is it a distinction? Is that “vs” valid? This chapter needs to be read very very carefully. Save for later.

The lead distinction of form vs. function defines the discipline and has universal relevance with respect to all communications within architecture. As the difference between architectural self-reference and architectural world-reference, it represents the difference between system and environment within the system.

This is as far as I’ve read ahead. I’m looking forward to this next one though. I’ll save it for a fine spring morning after a good night’s sleep for I want to be fully rested yet alert to learn what this beauty is, how it is created, and why utility and beauty are now two co-existing dimensions whereas form and function were in opposition.

All design decisions are evaluated along two dimensions: utility and beauty.

The next “thesis” mentioning style looks interesting, but not because I share the author’s sense of urgency. The word “style” is appearing more frequently now, and I’m surprised at this in a book that thinks of itself as somehow progressive. But then I’m not surprised because of the author’s 2010 pre-publication media-salvo article “Let the Style Wars Begin!


I expect the term has been brought back into use because it’s a convenient and easily-understood label that people are comfortable with. The author, confident he has hijacked the word and our understanding of it, begins to make increasingly outrageous claims such as this next one.

Architecture needs (new) styles to streamline the design decision process and to regulate (anew) the handling of its evaluative criteria (code values).

I’m looking forward to reading why architecture is a) personified and b) has special needs, and c) a self-appointed spokesperson to articulate them. What was the last “style” anyone can remember? Post Modernism maybe? Did PM “streamline” the design decision process any? Or did it merely arrest the development of solutions outside the newly invented orthodoxy? Before even reading more about this, I’d like to pre-register an objection.

Avant-garde styles are design research programmes. They start as progressive research programmes, mature to become productive dogmas, and end as degenerate dogmas.

Sure. And equally, avant-garde styles could just be expensive and non-downmarketable permutations testing the water to see if they meet client needs for status display. And finally, we have

Aesthetic values encapsulate condensed, collective experiences within useful dogmas. Their inherent inertia implies that they progress via revolution rather than evolution.

I haven’t the faintest idea what this means apart from being the end of Chapter 3.

* * *

The plot of The Autopoiesis of Architecture has now reached an exciting stage. In Chapter 3, the author must convince us readers that the main intentions of Vol.1 have been validated before moving onto Volume II which will (expansively) expand upon the author’s chosen stylistic product, Parametricism. 


Thus, in Chapter 3 and for the first time, the author tosses around concepts such as form and function and beauty and utility that everyone has their own understanding of. The author has no choice but to take our various understandings of these supposedly fundamental operations and distinctions and weave them into his theory whilst keeping their meanings amorphous yet intact. It would be fraudulent to fix their meanings in order to make them fit his theory yet, on the other hand, his theory would be no more than a clever analogy if it did not tell us something new about them. Tricky.

This is going to be amusing.

4 thoughts on “The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap.3 – Architecture as Autopoietic System: Operations, Structures and Processes

  1. John Mele

    The Autopoiesis of Architecture is no page-turner.
    It’s difficult to pick up, and easy to put down.
    There’s never a right time to read it.
    It’s not something you read at the beach, at an airport, on a bus …

    OUCH!! I find your review both advice worth taking and very harsh…but funny, too! As I perused the rest of your critique…the quotes seem to suggest the very thing I detest most in the conversation of architecture: “BlahBlahBlah Saying words with many letters without saying much!” Why can’t the grown up conversation about structure as art, architecture as dead or alive, and the various other topics that you cover be “enjoyably convenient”??? I am sorry that you are torturing yourself with the Auto-whateveresis of Architecture. Seems you should win an award for suffering this stuff for the rest of us. Carry on…or put it down altogether, my friend!

    JM of

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks John – I will carry on because I’ve read the 200 pages of preamble and now I’m curious to see what’s going to be done with it in Chapter 3. In some perverse way I’m enjoying attempting to get into the mind of the author, put myself in his place, and imagine what he finds attractive about this idea of his, what his motivators are and generally what’s in it for him. I’ve yet to read any critical analysis of the The Autopoiesis of Architecture so the best I can do is read it, attempt to understand it all in my own way, and hopefully clarify my own thoughts as a result. I get the feeling that, in the chapters to come, I’m going to be understanding more and agreeing with less.

      Wish me luck.

  2. Curtis Wayne

    Well put. It is said that Einstein said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it enough.” Or such. I’m presently working on my own attack on PS and his ilk. See attached. Keep up the fight!

    *Curtis B Wayne, AIA* Architect 850 Amsterdam Avenue New York, New York 10025 347.931.5322

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      As a lecturer, I appreciate (in my own humble way) where Einstein was coming from. “Or such” – exactly! Me, I’d always believed Wittgenstein said “If something can’t be said simply then it’s not worth saying” but now the internet dammit is attributing that thought to Lao Tzu. Sometimes it’s a link too far. We all know what we mean.

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