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The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.1~3.3

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This is la veuve Cliquot.

la veuve

This past week saw another grande dame, Dame Zaha Hadid named Veuve Cliquot Businesswoman of the Year.


To receive this award one has to meet the following criteria.

  1. Entrepreneurship: founder / leader and driving force of a business through pioneering approach, business acument, dynamism, audacity, innovation, tenacity
  2. Financial Success: sustained profitable business growth with healthy balance sheet and minimum turnover of 3 million pounds
  3. Corporate Social Responsibility: genuine commitment to responsible and sustainable business practices such as workplace diversity, employee benefits, environmental policies, community schemes and relationships
  4. Role Model: mentoring, succession planning, pushing boundaries, able to motivate others, building relationships with colleagues / employees (especially women)

* * * 

I remember reading somewhere that “the mantle of architectural fame always rests with the shape makers, the form-givers” but, when I google it, all I can find is myself repeating it.

* * *

The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol.1 really begins with Chapter 3 as it seems like it’s where the author first began writing down his thoughts. The writing is fresher and more to the point, less of a sense of preamble. Chapter 3.1.1 gives us a quick overview of Luhmann’s theory once again, along with the author’s repeated hope he can convincingly associate it with his own conception of how architecture works. That hope seems misplaced. Inside the book, that is. For one.   

It remains to be seen how far architectural theory is able to take on key concepts and perspectives of the encompassing [!] ‘sociological (philosophical) discourse’. The ambition of the theory of architectural autopoiesis is that at least the rough skeleton of Luhmann’s reflection might be looped into architectural theory to become a part of a broader, more sophisticated self-awareness of architecture with respect to its place and function within the evolution of contemporary society, ie, the ambition and hope here is that some of the third order observations presented ‘stick’ to become second order observations within architecture.  [page 181]

I’m reading this book in instalments so I’m actually finding these repeatings quite useful, but this restating of premises and hopes halfway through the book is just more evidence that (what eventually became) Chapter 3 was written first. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s just annoying it’s so obvious. What then was the point of the previous 170 pages? To give the appearance of a magnum opus?

Niklas Luhmann (1927 – 1998)

Page 179 tells us of Niklas Luhmann’s theory of ‘functionally differentiated society’ as if we were hearing of the man and his theory for the first time. Chapter 3 also contains the first meaningful explanation of what a functionally differentiated society is. This is especially odd since everything that has gone before has depended upon us understanding what one was.

Another feature of Chapter 3 is that it has a lot to say about the autonomy of architecture – a subject that seems close to the author’s heart. NH is quoted saying “Every function system is burdened with autonomy because no function-system can fulfill the function of another”. PS continues,

This autonomy does not alleviate the mutual dependency of the various function systems. This is always a two-way dependency.  (p180)

To his credit, the author did ease my objection to this apparent contradiction by describing how a function system can be both autonomous and have a two-way dependency but the meaning of “autonomy” did become rather elastic. Function systems doing their own thing yet feeding off each other sounds more like mutual interdependency than mutual autonomy to me but later (p185) the author says that each system treats the others as a constraining environment, rather than a contribution to a common concern. This seems a better way of saying it. In a further flight of lucidity on p184, the author writes that

Political decisions can neither determine judicial outcomes, nor can they replace economic exchanges, scientific concepts or artistic paradigms

(– a sentence so good it’s repeated word for word seven pages on.) Nevertheless,

Any prolonged lack of sensitivity with respect to what goes on elsewhere in society spells irrelevance, leading to the withdrawal of attention and resources which in turn throws the respective function system into crisis.

Maybe or, then again, maybe not. This doesn’t seem to happen to the Art function system as it goes its own way. Or to the Politics function system which does the same, and not necessarily with the best interests of the population at heart – although individual political parties do often feign a concern for societal events. Like the Politics function system, the Religion function system is also by and large business as usual selling notions of its social relevance. And nor is much happening with our Economics function system that remains as adept as ever at causing crises whilst remaining immune to any sense of its own. But what about Architecture? It’s easy to imagine an architecture office’s business development section fretting over the business risks of their overly-adapted niche product. It’s not difficult to imagine The Profession going through one of its periodic crises (usually regarding the mismatch between the importance it gives to its product vs. the importance others do). But Architecture? Whenever I see Architecture capitalised and talked about like some sentient being, I usually stop and think what it is I’m being asked to believe in. I therefore hadn’t even had begun to worry about the future of Architecture when Footnote 7 p180 told me not to.

Such moments of crisis must – sooner or later – be resolved through a new sustainability beginning. Modern society depends on the mutually well-adapted functioning of all its great function systems.

Huh? “A new sustainability beginning.” This cleverly clumsy turn of phrase got my attention. Of course, the author means that when these function systems get it wrong, they’ll find their own level once again and carry on as normal. This is where this book actually started to make sense to me. The concepts mainipulated by Art, Politics, Economics, Law and Religion may have become more sophisticated along with their conceptual machinery for manipulating them, but I wouldn’t be so bold as to claim this represents advancement when it could just be a reflexive survival response. I think I now understand where the author is coming from, and can accept that we look at the same things from opposite sides of the fence. I’m neither converted nor coming around to the author’s argument because, after all, this book is an exposition of a hypothesis of a belief erected on a theory. The theory was Luhmann’s. The hypothesis is that Architecture can be regarded as a Luhmann-esque function system. The belief is that Architecture exists and can be talked about as an entity. All I can say is, “well, I can see how it might make the author happy to think about it like that” and read on. 

[Luhmann succeeded] in producing a general analytical scheme of types of communication structures that can be fruitfully applied to the analysis of all function systems. This schema, that captures the typical pattern of self-orgnization of the function ssytems, operates on a rather high level of abstraction, and from a rather specific perspective: the perspective of a function- or problem-oriented mode of system theoretical analysis. With this abstract perspective rather surprising, and surprisingly compelling, comparisons become possible. The theory of architectural autopoiesis, for the first time, allows architecture to participate in this matrix of comparisons.

Excited? I am a bit, but not because of the prospect of ‘rather surprising, and surprisingly compelling comparisons’ but more because that’s now second example of writerly styling I’ve encountered in 190 pages.

The remainder of this chapter concerns aspects of architecture that will be familiar to many and attempts to interpret these in terms of the autopoiesis of architecture. First up is  ‘architecture’s

radical shift in both the function scope and the openness in

the formal repertoire’ –

namely, ‘the shift from edifice to space’ and goes on to say that the ‘radicality of the transformation that is indicated and condensed in this conceptual switch cannot be over-emphasised.’ Before doing just that.

The theory of archtectural autopoiesis poses the switch from edifice to space as the decisive transformation that can be set in parallel to the liberalisation of the economy, the democratisation of politics, the positive turn in the legal system and the Romantic awakening of art.

And again.

All these parallel transformations imply a decisive increase in the versatility and flexibility of the responsiveness of the respective system in the context of an increased societal complexity. In the legal system the shift from natural law to positive law gives total openness with respect to the content of law and a decoupling from the premises of traditional stratified society. Even on the basis of these hints we can already see [grrrr] how, in architecture, the switch from the iteration of fixed, traditional building types to the openness of configuring space achieves a parallel advancement.

This is the language of lecture halls. At the end of this earlier post I had to raise my hand and say I didn’t really agree about the spatialisation of architecture being such a momentous, one-off thing. It was going to happen sooner or later.


Many people will most likely think of some image like these to illustrate this thought.


For me it’s a reinvention rather than a revolution, but no more or less important than how elimination of ornament was attractive to new clients with both money and sense. For me, the ‘spatialisation’ of architecture was just “the subject matter of architecture” readjusting to access this new money. I very much doubt any architect in the latter part of the previous century said “hey wouldn’t it be a great idea to get rid of ornament?” and waited for a client to come along wanting an office building or a department store to realise their dream. More likely some potential office building or department store owner came along and said “hey I’m not paying for truckloads of that crap …

non-19C example for purposes of illustration only
non-19C example for purposes of illustration only

… but you can put some bay windows on it for additional floor area.”


Enough of all that. Get this! [p183]

However, within today’s complex society it is no longer enough to rely on the general level of experience and education that can usually be expected from architects to guide the assessment of the societal demands and challenges posed to architecture’s evolution.

Here I have to raise my hand again. More questions from the back of the room.

  1. Is today’s society really all that complex? Might it not just be a conceit of ours that we  like to think so? 
  2. Why is it no longer enough to rely on … etc. etc. ? Is there something lacking in the general level of experience and education of architects? 
  3. Did such a situation ever exist?
  4. Do architects actually guide the assessment of societal demands and challenges to architecture’s evolution or is this just another conceit? 
  5. Is there such a thing as architecture’s evolution? Might it just not be the development of new means to satisfy the same realities? Whatever happened to Post Modernism?  
  6. In earlier chapters we learned that Architecture excludes all buildings but those produced by starchitects, so why should anyone (let alone society) seriously care about what the future trajectory of its concerns should be?
  7. Given that, why should anyone trust any designer who claims they are thinking on behalf of people?

These to me, are questions that should be asked. And that’s just this one sentence. Architectural theory, like movies, pop music and other media commodities, can never be without something to hype. The Autopoiesis of Architecture fills no gap in the market. It fills a gap in time when nothing much is happening in the theory department. It’ll do. Unchallenged, it may in time become an academic truth by citation, or (like The International Style and The Language of Post-Modern Architecture) an historical truth by virtue of merely being of its time.

* * * 

But in the here and now, there’s definitions to compare, and conclusions to try not to jump to. I’ve already mentioned my underwhelmedness re. ‘the spatialisation of architecture’. Whatever it was, it’s small beer compared to the discovery of The Higgs Boson.

Beauty and utility had to come up sooner or later. I’d been looking forward to this way back when I first flipped through this book, but now I’m here, it’s disappointing. (Don’t you hate that?) Apparently, each major function system has a primary guiding distinction that takes the shape of a binary opposition. Science has true vs. false. The legal system has lawful vs. unlawful. The economic system has profit vs. loss. Religion has, I guess, belief vs. non-belief. The author believes that architecture has three such oppositions. First there is the code of utility which takes the form of functional vs. dysfunctional. Then there is the code of beauty which he defines as formally resolved vs. formally unresolved. And there is also the code of novelty (original vs. conventional) – but only starchitects need to worry about that one. The guy’s consistent. I’m unsure if he really believes what he’s writing. He may just be embedding some controversiality in case anyone actually reads this book. 

But let’s forget utility and, rashly, head straight for beauty! My first thought is that formally resolved vs. formally unresolved seems rather limiting, simplistic rather than simple. It also goes against the code of novelty if all those formal rules are meant to be continually challenged and broken. Logically, this makes no sense unless the author is proposing one set of rules for starchitects and a different set for everyone else – which he is, actually, as non-starchitects can’t do novelty, or at least not in his novel new sense. The conclusion is that it’s the duty of starchitects to propose new rules for formal resolution. Again, I can see what the author finds attractive about this idea.

It also ties in well with the author’s notion of environmental constraint (p186) by which each system chooses what it wants its relevant environment to be. “The system constructs its own world, seeing and taking from its environment only that which it needs to sustain itself.” [FUN GAME! Level 1: Substitute the words “the author” for “the system”. Level 2: Substitute “Zaha Hadid Architects” for “architecture”.] I can understand what the author likes about these constructs, and why it leads him to declare (p188)

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.

The author shifts into “royal we” mode to state

We shall have to explain why it is important to maintain some degree of disciplinary and professional autonomy, namely precisely in order to take on the tasks posed by society, or rather co-posed by society and architecture, or better still – posed by an architecturally challenged society.

Here’s what he says.

The tendency towards architectural autonomy might be understood as a moment of an overall societal process of differentiation, whereby social communication fragments into a series of autonomous domains, – the economy, the poli …

… but continue on p190 if you really care. Read quietly. But just when you start to think the author might not really care about society at all, he writes

Architecture’s autonomy within society does not imply indifference to society. Rather it is a necessary mode of contribution to society with sufficient flexibility and sophistication.

“I love you that’s why I’m ignoring you.” Yeah right.

Architecture too can only appoint itself, and define its own purposes, both with respect to the identification of the most urgent architecturally relevant social tasks and with respect to the appropriate selection of architectural means to tackle such tasks. Although each individual architect is confronted with little choice over his/her commissions, and his/her concrete tasks are thus set by his/her clients, the starchitect discourse is autonomous in setting the themes of its defining debates, and in selecting which projects should exemplify the defining tasks, responding to the supposed key societal challenges.

I find this rather horrifying. It’s not even a subtext. It’s up there in the real text. The concept of openness through closure is floated to give this disdain an air of respectability. Openness through closure is when a system continuously adapts, but only to changes in its environment that serve its own purposes. Nice. Trust me, I’m an architect. It’s not just society that gets short shrift.

Architecture has to react to societal and technological changes. But the definition of functionality, ie, the reference to external social needs, remains an internal system operation subordinated to the proper procedures (structures) of the discipline: the communication structures of the discipline that form the core of this book.  


This chapter started off being fresh and informative but dissolved into explanations of explanations to come. What’s left to come are:

more on beauty and utility: it seems that we will be proceeding in line with the conventional assumption that these two are contradictory opposites – not because they necessarily have to be, but because this is how they are commonly defined and this is the way they are commonly understood. It is more important that the author fit these concepts into his theory as they are commonly understood, than to provide some new way of understanding either or both of them.

design decisions: are (suggested as) the basic communicative operation which characterises the autopoiesis of architecture. Look forward to that. In the meantime, perhaps revisit Chapter 1 where it was claimed that “the building artefact itself” constitutes only a small portion of architectural communications.

form vs. function: “is what defines the discipline (and has universal relevance with respect to all communications within architecture)”. We shall see about that. Taster:

In architecture all communications revolve around the question whether a certain form can fulfil a certain function.

On the surface, this looks like there might be something to agree with but, with this book, I’ve learned to distrust any statement I think the author might think I might agree with. I fully expect this section to be this book’s Room 101 – a heroic struggle to cling to what one knows to be true and useful whilst being constantly told that 2+2=5.

world reference vs. internal reference: this is form vs. function, restated. There’s even a diagram so he must see this as important evidence for his analogy! If we accept the form vs. function conumdrum then the fit is neat, but it’s clever rather than elegant and, if you come out of the form vs. function section unbroken, you’ll see what the author finds attractive about this idea.

incommensurability went away for a while but is now back. Frequently. More than ever.
regressive totalitarianism is what happens when starchitects aren’t allowed to do their thing.
design rationality is a spectacular oxymoron when defined as something that can neither be reduced to, nor controlled by, any other than its own logic.


financial success: sustained profitable business growth with healthy balance sheet and minimum turnover of 3 million pounds


    • Curtis that was great – thanks! I now see how this idea of autonomy has been around for a long time. It’s not going to go away. I liked the story of Socrates questioning why the merchant wanted him to pay more for some plates claimed to have better proportions. We don’t know if those plates functioned better. I imagine other merchants offering freeform plates, shattered and reassembled plates, plates that don’t look like plates … in order to justify their higher prices. I wonder what Socrates went home with?

      And Alberti! He’s routinely credited with arriving at the first theoretical foundation for architecture, so he has a lot to answer for. The Medici era was the first time for a long time that rich people didn’t have to spend all their time defending themselves. Artists rushed to paint them. Musicians invented opera to entertain them. I suspect Alberti invented architecture to immortalize them. History is silent.

      Sebastiano Serlio’s misfortune was to be alive when the game had moved on a bit. Drawing was the BIM of his time. I believe it was Serlio who said “To draw a building is to design it”. (I know I know. For Serlio, drawing probably meant a thorough understanding of geometry and proportion, but it’s still an unfortunate soundbite.) Serlio was modern in other ways though. I liked reading about the way he used illustrations – the internet of his time – to spread his ideas to less educated but well moneyed clients.

      This seems to have left him with a reputation as a populariser, of being the Salieri to Alberti’s Mozart, but one thing you can say about Serlio is that he wasn’t stupid. I enjoyed reading his ideas about regularity and irregularity, and how selective symmetry, placing the large spaces in the middle of the site and ordering the immediate spaces around them would make a viewer (or visitor) feel that the entire building and its site were regular. This was genius. (None of this, “let the site inform the building” malarkey for him or his clients.) Curious, I found this image.


      The sentence that really leapt off the page for me was “These exercises can also be seen as an ingenious set of suggestions for a new problem typical of an increasing number of clients who were faced with the short supply of regular city sites – that is, how to achieve, on an irregular site, new norms of perfection for their buildings as a way of bringing themselves closer to the status of the court.”

      Aha! What we have circa 1550 is a new and less perfect type of client with money, land and the need to project an image of themselves to themselves and others, and Serlio inventing an architectural product attractive to this new class of client. I couldn’t help thinking that all arguments – both historical and contemporary – for the autonomy of architecture, are really just fictions disguising the simple truth that Form Follows The Money.

      I’ve only mentioned here the parts that had most resonance for me but the paper certainly did what it set out to do and put this question of autonomy in architecture into perspective. I doff my hat to Liane Lefaivre & Alexander Tzonis. Recommended reading. Thanks again.

      • Graham, If you liked Liane and Alex’s essay – their work on the medieval poem “Hypnotermachii Polyphili” will totally blow you away – their obsession for lo these last 35+ years. Overtones of Plato, freemasonry – all those good things.