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The Red Igloo vs. The Autopoiesis of Architecture

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This post is a mashup of my 2010 architecture fable The Red Iglooand thoughts from Patrik Schumacher’s The Autopoiesis of Architecture.
Both purport to convey some kind of truth about architecture.

* * *

Once upon a time all Inuit people made igloos the same way.

Vernacular building relies on tradition, on well proven solutions taken for granted. The status quo does not require theory. vol.1 p35

They made them out of snow because snow didn’t cost anything, it was there, they had a lot of it, and there would always be more tomorrow. They made blocks out of snow and laid them one by one in a spiral that became smaller and smaller until it made a dome. They made a little entrance to keep the wind out. It always faced away from the wind. And they made a little hole in the wall to let the light in. It always faced the sun. It was as perfect as it could be. For a very long time, everyone made their igloos like this.    

The sole responsibility of the avant-garde architect is to mutate [to create mutations] and give innovation a chance. vol.1 p134

Every now and then there was a small change that made igloos even better. Putting a piece of plastic over the hole let the light in and kept the wind out better than a sealskin curtain. But mostly, igloos remained much the same. Nobody could really make them that much better.

Could [innovation] not be done by trial and error? Perhaps, trial and error is always involved. However, construction takes too long, and the material investment is too big to allow for an effective trial and error process unless the process is slowed down to the tempo of tradition by varying and improving in very small steps.

Inuit people still tell stories of a man called Biisaiyowaq. He is famous. He is part of the history of igloos. This is what happened. One day, when Biisaiyowaq was out hunting, he came across a dead polar bear. He took two bowls of its blood, mixed it with about a cubic metre of snow, and used it to make a red igloo for himself.


Architecture is a discourse that is geared to permanent innovation, keeping up with and promoting a dynamic society. The societal need for a permanently updated building environment – inevitable in a society that expands and transforms relatively rapidly – is first the evolutionary attractor for architecture’s crystallisation and then the selector for its further innovation.

A short time after, people came to look at what Biisaiyowaq had done. They all looked at his red igloo and thought the same thing. The first person to say it out loud was a child. The child said, “It’s red! Everything else is white. It’s DIFFERENT!”

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. vol.1 p99

Everyone was quiet for a while.  Then one of the adults suddenly said, “It’s NEW!” Almost at the same time, another said, “It’s MODERN!” Another shouted, “It’s BEAUTIFUL!” People were now all saying things at the same time. “You’re a GENIUS!” “It’s so ORIGINAL!” “You’re so CREATIVE!

One man holding a pencil and paper said, “IT IS A TRULY BOLD AND ORIGINAL ARTISTIC STATEMENT!

Accountability exists primarily with respect to the internal avant-garde expert audience that largely controls the system of architectural reputations. vol.1 p99

One old woman said, “I remember a story my grandmother once told me about a red igloo. You have brought this story alive, made it real for me. “It RECONNECTS US with our history!” Another person said, “People, we all know it’s not all white out there. There’s polar bear blood, whale blood, walrus blood and seal blood everywhere. Red is WHO WE ARE! Red is HOW WE LIVE!” While everyone was thinking this over, someone at the back said, “I don’t like it.” Another said, “Me neither. That IS NOT an igloo!” 

This evaluation of the mainstream in terms of … a compromise of tectonic/aesthetic principles misses the point – the raison d’être of the division of labour within the profession. vol. 1 p134

The man with the pencil and paper said, “Don’t you see? This red igloo opens up A NEW WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES for igloos! IT REDEFINES IGLOOS FOR OUR TIMES! IT MAKES US THINK AGAIN ABOUT WHAT AN IGLOO IS.”

The very act of publication implies the claim that the presented work is worthy of attention. … Published architecture always implies an ambition to act in the name of architecture, and always claims the mantle of contributing to the innovation of architecture. vol.1 p107

Bisaiyowaq went inside his igloo and sat down. He remembered how much EASIER it had been to shape the snow when it had polar bear blood mixed in. It had saved him a lot of time. He thought about all the time everyone else could save. They could spend that time hunting for more food, or inside their igloos eating ice cream and sharing stories with their friends and families. He remembered how much STRONGER the red snow had been. He hadn’t needed to use as much of the pure white snow. He had been able to leave more of it where it was, looking pretty. He remembered how polar bears stayed away from his red igloo and how much SAFER he felt because of that. He thought about how much safer everyone else could be too. He remembered how the red snow made the inside of the igloo WARMER. He didn’t know why, but he knew he didn’t have to use as much whale oil to keep it warm. He thought about all the whale oil the others would save. He thought about all the whales that would not have to be killed.

Experimentation requires a certain distancing from immediate performative pressures and the demand of best practice delivery. vol.1 p135

He remembered all these things but, most of all, he remembered how simple it had been. All he had to do was tell everyone to mix two bowls of polar bear blood into about a cubic metre of snow. He stood up and went outside.

There was a big crowd now. They all rushed towards Biisaiyowaq. “I want a red igloo!” “I want one too!” “We all want one!” “Please show us how to make them!”

They stopped talking when they saw Biisaiyowaq was about to speak. Biisaiyowaq said, “I’m sorry, I can’t teach you. This is something only I can do. You have to know how to choose the right polar bear and kill it in a certain way and at a certain time. I can’t explain how I know this, but I do. It’s an art. Trust me.”

The client’s immediate interests are served only inasmuch as they coincide with the new, generalizable interests of contemporary civilisation that the avant-garde exploration tries to address. vol.1 p134

Everyone was disappointed. One big person suddenly shouted, “It doesn’t matter! I’ll pay you to make a red igloo for me.” Another, bigger one, said, “I will pay you more!”

The man with the pencil and paper (who was actually bigger than them all) said, “Once I tell everyone else, you will be FAMOUS. You will never have to hunt again!” And he rushed off to tell everyone else.

Accountability exists primarily with respect to the internal avant-garde expert audience that largely controls the system of architectural reputations. vol.1 p99

And so it came to be that, apart from killing the occasional seal for blood to make his red igloos, Biisaiyowaq never had to hunt again

Success in the market and the new responsibilities that come with it sometimes prevent avant-gardist challenges from being taken up once more. vol.1 p104

Thus the theory of architectural autopoiesis identifies the innovation of the built environment of society as a defining aspect of architecture’s societal function. vol.1 p99


  • So without knowing (or even with knowing) they introduced a new aspect of sustainable architecture into their igloo design, by recycling blood of bears and seals, instead of throwing it away, or just making sausages out of it, they used it to improve the build and therefore reduce the need of whale oil and other resources. With time the idea will seep to the point of general practice. With time meaning, until Biisaiyowaq and his peers invent something new to market upon the community.

  • Or did these eskimos decide the red igloo was better simply because they’d never seen a red igloo before? Did the red igloo builder promote his invention because he really believed it was better? If it wasn’t better would it have made any difference when it came to his deciding to keep his “technology” a secret? What happened when somebody else figured it out? Did this drive a price war of red igloo technologists?

    • All good questions Curtis – I’ll do my best.

      But yes, people saw the red igloo as better simply because it was outside their experience and knowledge. Its builder was of course aware of his igloo’s many performance benefits but, once he saw the demand for its single novel yet superficial characteristic, he chose to promote only that. He did for a while consider the benefits his technology would have for humanity but, ultimately, he chose not to diminish his new status or his future profits by revealing it. The technology remained unknown. No-one missed what they never knew was possible. Red igloo technologists never came into being. Some of the other igloo builders managed to make quite a decent living providing differently-coloured igloos.

      Thanks for these questions Curtis and the chance to test the limits of this 950-word fable-theory of mine. It’s a very cynical way of looking at things so, if you have any more questions, I’d be happy to test it to destruction.