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The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.3~3.4

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Chaps. 3.3~3.4 veer off into topics conventionally associated with architecture but, as it does so, becomes increasingly – and possibly strategically – vague about whose idea of architecture is being talked about. Chapter 3 is meant to be the meat in the sandwich so whatever is going to happen ought to have its basis here. This chapter can’t be dealt with sequentially as its various themes are too disordered so I’ll group my thoughts according to what I see as the main problems.


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Whose architecture is it anyway?

I’ve already mentioned how I suspect Chapter 3 was written first and the preceding chapters later. There’s more evidence for this. Chapter 3 deals with questions such as beauty and utility and form vs. function that, like it or not, are a part of “everyday” architectural discourse. Every architect understands them in their own way as they go about their work. The ‘Architecture’ that Chapter 3 talks about, isn’t that different from the what you or I might imagine. This is a lot different from Chapter 1 where it was stated that the only buildings that can be considered Architecture are those informed by a “thorough” program of research and “solid” theory. Nothing else mattered. Nothing pre-Alberti [p82] and nothing of vernacular or conventional buildings with all their embodied intelligence. Nothing of the Gothic even (because nobody wrote about it). This definition occurred early in Chapter 1 as we were still settling into our chairs yet now, in Chapter 3, the ‘Architecture’ that’s being talked about is the one we’re know.

So let’s get this straight. Our architecture has concepts of beauty and utility and our architecture occupies itself with questions of form and function. If the author’s Architecture does not recognise functional or client constraints (except as “irritations” [p193-195]) then why is he discussing them at all?  Having buried these concepts in Chapter 1 as far as his definition of Architecture is concerned, why dig them up in Chapter 3? Using something one doesn’t believe in, to push the case for something one does, seems neither logical nor ethical. In the light of his earlier pronouncements re function is for losers, can one even trust what this person has to say about function and utility? I could be reading too much into this. Maybe the author just got his lecture notes in a muddle. Or simply forgot what he had written earlier. Or is hoping we have.

* * *

All Over The Place

Books are linear things. You start at the front, and the knowledge you pick up along the way builds into a coherent and convincing argument. However, with this one, constant forward references refer you ahead to knowledge to (presumabaly) better understand where you’re up to now. It’s a bit like trying to read Wikipedia by following each link as you come to it. I’ve mentioned this before, but it really starts to grate in the section on Design Decisions.

Architecture is a systematic communication process that communicates about design decisions. [p197]


The preferred medium in which design decisions are exercised and communicated is the medium of the drawing.

The drawing is advanced via a sequence of design decisions.

Design decisions build upon design decisions and require/provoke further design decisions.

THUS at the core of the autopoiesis of architecture we find self-referentially enclosed systems of design decisions prompting and constraining further design decisions. [p200]

Have you got that? By the way, in this post, I’m using magenta to denote sentences with particularly toxic logic. Interestingly,

the code of utility (functional vs. dysfunctional) and the code of beauty (formally resolved vs. formally unresolved)

have suddenly become Truth but footnote 41, p202 refers us forward to Chapter 3.5.2 Utility and Beauty as the Double Code of Architecture. In the same vein,

The progress of architecture proceeds as a procession of styles.

but if we want to find out if this means anything more than

Styles are principled systems of design. They involve both formal and functional design principles. New styles are new systems that re-order the way architecture handles the external societal demands that confront the discipline via the commissions and the briefs posed

then Footnote 43, p203 refers us forward to 3.6 Architectural Styles and 3.7 Styles as Research Programmes. Lastly, this next bit is cute. It’s an insight into the author’s way of writing. Any fact, whether contrary to the thrust of the argument or blindingly obvious, gets pulled into service. [p200] 

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Curiously, footnote 39 refers us forward to 3.9.2 The Difference between Themes and Projects but it’s unclear why we should want to go there at this stage. The difference between this and a dictionary is that with a dictionary you know where you are.

Dragging Everything Into Service

The quote above is also an example of how anything that can possibly be used to bolster the author’s argument, is. I suppose any theory of an Architectural Everything (however restricted that ‘Everything’ may be) should cover what are perceived to be the basics, but has anything actually been explained in that quote?

  1. Design decisions are premises for further design decisions. (Okay, true.)
  2. … self-referentially enclosed systems of design decisions prompting  and constrain further design decisions. (This is another way of saying it)

This is just restating a known fact in authorspeak without justification for linking the two with “Thus at the core of the autopoiesis of architecture….”  There is no logical link between something that is blindingly obvious, and the author’s restatement of it. It’s just word substitution.

Page 201 has a grander example. This time, the author drags (the recursive aspects inherent to) Christopher Alexander’s pattern language into service to bolster his argument, forgetting that he dissed it back on page 81 for relating too much to the intelligence of vernacular architecture and not enough to the kind of architecture he’s promoting.


Maybe one man’s dysfunction is another man’s modernity? It only matters if either of both are making a claim to The Soul of Architecture.

Let’s take a restful green break from Chapter 3 and meditate upon this. I’m happy with a functioning architecture being inherently well-adapted to the ways of an unselfconscious culture. Remember that book “Architecture Without Architects”? It seems a long way away now in time and space. The author’s stance couldn’t be more opposite. Not only is there no architecture without architects, but there is no architecture without Zaha Hadid Architects plus a few selected others. Of these others, the author consistently mentions Greg Lynn’s name as an(other) theory-driven avant-garde trailblazer. To add a bit of sparkle to this post, here’s some of Lynn’s  avant-garde trailblazing jewelry designs for Swarovski. 


But I wonder what this “take-off into modernity” could mean? Is it something we should want? Maybe it is a functioning architecture inherently well adapted to the ways of a selfconsious culture. One would have to go along with that. Whatever the product is that ZHA are delivering, it is well adapted and functioning on some level for the certain kind of selfconscious client that commissions them to produce it. Or the product of BIG. Whatever one may think of them, their product is well adapted and functioning on some level. It is not a product of an unselfconsious culture. If this is what we’ve come to, then we just have to accept it. But we should also ask, what is this “modernity” of which the author speaks? Given his past performance, I’d say he’s using the word as a synonym for “highly-evolved” – the pinnacle of human achievement at any given time, as part of an ongoing quest for perfection. I’m inclined to side with Alexander.

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Contempt for Clients

I should say that nowhere does the author directly say he has contempt for clients, although you could have inferred it from his previously expressed disregard for program and function. This is essentially what’s being said (again) on page 201.

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One side-effect of all this talk of codes and flow of communications is to downplay, if not obscure, which way the money flows.


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The rest of page 236 expands upon this, or at least uses more words to repeat it. But is it really okay to have such little respect for clients? Is it even professional according to the spirit, if not the letter of the RIBA, or even the ARB, Code of Conduct?

It’s true that all this might not have much bearing upon an architecture well adapted to times of economic boom but recent history (2009) has shown us that as soon as the well-heeled, high-roller clients start to get a bit thin on the ground, the buildings tend to sharpen up quick smart.


* * *

I’ll be interested to see if The Autopoiesis of Architecture will be translated into Chinese.


Or Russian?

russia house

I doubt it for this book is about building a reputation, not a business. It is linked to the getting of clients, but only those rich ones attracted by a reputation for imagery, not theory. To some extent, I can see why the author has such contempt for clients like that but, as we say in English, “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”.

The Lead Distinction 

If anyone has a copy of this book lying around unread, then Chapter 3.4 [p204] is a good place to start. Page 206. I summarise. Luhmann wrote that the great functions systems all have what he terms a “lead distinction”. In the legal system, for example, it is the distinction between norms and facts. In the science system, it is the distinction between theory and evidence. The author proposes that the equivalent lead distinction in architecture is between form and function. OK? Now, in the legal system, norms cannot be deduced from facts. In the science system, theory cannot be deduced from evidence. Therefore, the author (now) says, in architecture, forms cannot be deduced from functions. [page 206]

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Of course, this doesn’t square with all design decisions revolving around whether a certain form can fulfil a certain function, as mentioned above. The author surely can’t be drawing a distinction between architecture and design decisions for that would undermine his thesis. Perhaps, just perhaps, the premise was wrong and form and function are not the lead distinction in architecture? Pre-empting a ruckus, Footnote 51,p207 reminds us that

The lead-distinction concerns the conceptual constellation of form vs. function and thus does not hinge on the utilisation of the terms/words ‘form’ and ‘function’. The distinction within architecture is older than the establishment of this particular pair of terms as its primary verbal vehicle.

Ooo, touchy! It’s not the verbal vehicle I object to, but the driving and where it’s taking us. But meanwhile, in the front seat, there’s a reference to the endless “tug-of-war” between

the twin evils of a one-sided Formalism and a one-sided Functionalism … is itself the clearest evidence for the thesis proposed here that the distinction between form and function is the lead-distinction of architecture/design and thus a fundamental, permanent communication structure of architecture’s autopoiesis.

Now, did we not read that theory cannot be deduced from evidence? Or did that only apply to reasoning within the Science system? Is it possible to use a difference to prove a similarity? All these words, so little sense.

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Form vs. Function

If you are just dipping in and out of this book for the ‘good bits’ then next stop is page 207. 

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Architectural discourse is organized around the lead-distinction of form versus function. [p207]

All design decisions, and only design decisions can be questioned and criticized with respect to their functional and formal consequences. [p208]

Try saying that backwards. The author does.

Form vs. function is the primary distinction of architecture. [p208]

But what follows is important as it at last offers some definitions. Full attention!

If all architectural communications [aka “design decisions”, remember?] have to respond to both concerns of form and concerns of function, it should not surprise that these are very broad general terms: ‘form’ has a wide domain of application; the term might refer to the overall layout (‘parti’) of a building, to its three-dimensional massing, to its stylistic articulation and manner of decoration, to a particular motif or to its overall expressive character etc. The term ‘function’ is equally wide and refers to the broad assignment of programmatic categories, to schedules of accommodation, accounts of the activities and the communication processes to be accommodated (for example, in terms of the need for separation/connection etc.), and finally performance specifications for the material building components.

And tellingly,

The term has also come to include the orienting and representational functions of architecture. 

I guess we have post-modernism to thank for that.

Thus, the total domain of architecture – the totality of its issues – is dissected by the distinction of form and function. All architectural aspects of a space or building refer either to a functional or a formal aspect of the space or building. The whole building has both a function and a form, and so has each space and each architectural component.

It’s easy to read one’s own meanings into these fairly large statements and mistakenly think one’s on the same wavelength as the author and that this book is actually talking to you. My biggest problem with all this form vs. function stuff is that I don’t believe the author believes it. I can’t reconcile any of these form vs. function statements with the buildings produced by the practice where his own functional differentiality is that of academic legitimiser. I’ll have more to say about this further on. In the meantime …

The idea that form and function are among the foundational concepts of architecture is hardly original.

dum de dum …

the form-function distinction is the constitutive, defining distinction of the discipline, in the sense that this distinction concerns all the design communications and only the design communications

la di da …

There can be no full-blown theory of architecture that refuses to address the question of how the promoted forms promote functions. [p204]

eh? Did you see what happened there? The problem is not what function can do for form but what form can do for function. This seems to be the popular judgment of the buildings produced by the functionally-differentiated practice the author is associated with. Two pages later however, the author is talking about our architecture again, holding up a mirror up to the reader’s expectations.


hmmm … Something’s gotten rotten. If all design decisions are architectural communications and if all architectural communications revolve around whether a certain form can fulfil a certain function, then all design decisions must revolve around whether a certain form can fulfil a certain function. Really? (Did no-one edit this book?)

Any pure theory of architectural form can only be considered a partial theory without the power to establish and defend a new style.

This is simply a statement. It’s impossible to even try to extract meaning from it without having to argue every word, possibly including ‘a’ and ‘the’.

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Self-Reference and World-Reference

This is kind of cute. The following diagram mercifully explains the analogy in a few words.


The idea of function is actually a crucial part of the author’s analogy. What was it again?

The term ‘function’ is equally wide and refers to the broad assignment of programmatic categories, to schedules of accommodation, accounts of the activities and the communication processes to be accommodated (for example, in terms of the need for separation/connection etc.), and finally performance specifications for the material building components.

Now let’s assume this is what it means to the author for, if we don’t, we can’t really proceed – although I don’t think we are talking about performance specifications for material building components here. Rather, when the author conclude that Architecture forms functions in the same way that Science theorises about evidence and the Economy prices values and Art renders subject matter, he seems to be talking about functions as a spatial program – something he has previously denied. What’s wrong with that? Well, suppose that architecture “forms” functions and suppose that a function is a performance specification for a material building component. We can’t say that architecture gives form to a performance specification for a material building component. The performance specification for a material building component does not require form to express it.


OK? Now consider this. Some president of some country with a name ending in “-stan” wants a building that conveys the image of “culture”, “modernity” and “prestige” that he wishes to be associated with himself and his country. This is the true function of the building. Its spatial program is irrelevant. The performance specifications of its materials building components are irrelevant. The enabled activities and the accommodated communication processes are irrelevant. However, architecture can come to the fore and give form to the true function of this building. As a word and as a concept, “function” is notoriously slippery. With high-end architecture, I just assume the primary function is “to articulate the possession of power, wealth and property”. Just to be on the safe side. So yes, in that sense, architecture forms functions (and spatial programs are for losers).

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In the table, the qualifier “before 1900” has been added because modern art doesn’t actually need subject matter (a world reference). Previously, the author had gently chided Luhmann for thinking that architecture was a part of the Art system.  In its contempt for functional niceties, I’d say that Luhmann was right and that a certain type of architecture IS a part of the Art system. Or tries to be. In fairness, the author says as much.

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And has some damning things to say about its viability. But in that list above there is also mass media. Does Mass Media really report events? Isn’t it all just entertainment – even the news? This part of the book might have been a good place to talk about Architecture as infotainment.

The Poverty of The Language Used to Describe Architecture 

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I couldn’t agree more! It is a problem. But a larger part of that problem is the elitist nature of those communications.

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And the desire to keep those communications elitist. An enriched language for the creative advancement of form-function relationships is not going to do anybody much good if its use is limited to those permitted to participate in exclusive architectural discourse. 

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One gets the feeling that any enriched language that might be forthcoming, is not going to be an egalitarian one. Or maybe we’re expected to bemoan the lack of this language now so we can applaud its arrival later in Vol.2? Just a thought.

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Novelty as an Essential Quality

The lengthy discussion on novelty made me think back to architecture as media event, entertainment, infortainment and news. We really need to talk about this.

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The author’s stance is that only starchitects can do novelty. They have a duty, a social oblication to keep coming up with the new goods, regardless of who the client is.

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Novelty has been around since 1960 the author states without much pause for reflecting upon whether the pursuit of novelty alone is a good thing for architecture – or for anyone really.

Untitled 12Also note that this idea of novelty has been conflated with the idea of innovation and the idea of evolution as if novelty is a force for the good. This conflation relies on the popular use of the term “evolution”. Going back to basic Darwin, random genetic mutations can prove beneficial for the adaption and subsequent survival of a species in a changing environment. For a species, there is no ultimate goal other than a never-ending process of adapting to survive. Not unlike some architects, really. Frank Lloyd Weight’s career can be viewed in terms of continual mutation and adaption in order to remain relevant. He remained relevant, the buildings less so.

* * *


irritation: something that attempts to draw your attention towards a problem that needs solving but, unless you can see something in it for you, you ignore it

verbal vehicle: the words used to express a meaning, aka “words”

abstraction and openness: Bugger it! Like the author, we have bigger fish to fry for, on the next page, is 3.6 Architectural Styles. and that’s really what the author wants to talk about. Meet you there next time!