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The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 3.6 – Styles

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Out of over 65,000 search terms 60,000 people have used to find and view over 200,000 pages on this blog, NOT ONE OF THEM has been “the autopoiesis of architecture”. So who’s searching this term? And where do they get their information? I may be stuck in a filter bubble, but here’s what I see – misfits appears first on the second page.

autopoiesis of architecture

Here’s those top links.

  1. (4 March 2011)
  2. (as you’d expect, from any book)
  3. (as you’d expect, from any author)
  4. (ditto)
  5. (the author’s publisher. Don’t take this as an endorsement. Publishers publish books. If the editor-in-chief thinks they’ll get two hardback copies into every university library in the world, it’s a go-er as far as they’re concerned.)
  6. (Youtube?)
  7. (An independent blogger – interesting! Here’s his CV and a bit of what he had to say, a lot of which I wish I’d said myself.

I think I’m right in assuming that AoA was mostly written on PS’s innumerable long haul flights and hotel rooms late at night. The super-structurisation of the book helps, but repetition (a considerable amount of it) still prevails. It sometimes feels tired and makes you feel tired. Sometimes this book felt jetlagged. This may sound harsh and my understanding of AoA as autobiographical thesis is perhaps incorrect, but it helped me to understand the existing preconceptions and ‘Naserümpfen’ [sniffy] reactions, which I think are superficial, especially if you have not read the book.

Well, after a year I’m still reading the book – Julie & Julia this is not – so it does seem a bit unfair to write that in April 2011, when TAoA was only published in November 2010. It ain’t no page-turner. I’ve been going at it on and off for over a year now and I’m really looking forward to the good bits. Chapter 3.6 – Styles – promised to be one of them, and it didn’t disappoint.

First you have to get past some repetition – the usual stuff. Page 241 gives a quick recap of where the author has been, is going, or wants to go.  Here’s a look.

thesisThe author feels something is needed to give some order to the problem of how to proceed. In the last sentence, the author states that architecture only progresses via a historical succession of styles. Styles then, seem to be a method of coping, of streamlining the design process. We are not told why. With no reason other than to increase throughput, what we have is a modern version of a conveyor belt and all that that tells about capitalism and production.

Instead, the narrative veers away from that and (after acknowledging The Renaissance as the first style), treats us to some definitions before giving us a summary of other Germans famous in Germany for their contributions to the concept of style: Heinrich Hubsch, Rudolf Weigmann, Eduard Metzger, Karl Bötticher and, finally, Gottfreid “In what style shall we build?” Semper. It all starts to get very Teutonic. Semper generally is a good guy, apart from the fact he failed to draw a distinction between passive, active and active-reflective styles. Reflexive, surely?


Anyway, from Semper it’s just a short step to Otto Wagner.

Wagner refers to Historicism and Eclecticism as failed attempts to cope with the initially overwhelming onset of the new tasks posed by the modern era, leading to the forceful demand that ‘modern art must offer us modern forms that are created by us and that represent our abilities and actions. p251

This all reads like some recycled dissertation but the quote above is the author’s basic argument. Complex world needs complex solutions that represent its very complex complexness. Oh, and our skill at representing it. I’ll come back to this bit.

From Otto Wagner it’s a short hop to the First World War, The Bauhaus and to what the author calls the first ‘epochal’ style of the century – Modernism. It’s also a short step to Philip Johnson who, although not German, was a Nazi empathiser during the thirties. I’m currently re-reading Dejan Sudjic’s The Edifice Complex – The Architecture of Power. On pages 102-121 you’ll find a description of Johnson’s political leanings at the time. It’s easy to conclude that Johnson’s objections to Hannes Meyer’s architecture were political as much as architectural. With all the smugness of a theist claiming atheism is a belief like any other, Johnson claimed the absence of a style was itself a style as much as any other. Equally threatened by the concept of stylistically-derived visual characteristics being irrelevant and wasteful, the author repeats this on page 262.

Untitled Don’t forget that Footnote 151!Untitled 2

And again on page 265.

hannes meyer discredit

The author seems to be giving a lot of credence to what a 25-year old dilletante had to say. What Johnson and the author have in common is that both want to be on the winning team. Sudjic mentions Speer and Hitler, Pagano and Mussolini, Stalin’s architects, Mao’s architects, Rem Koolhaas … He draws a strong correlation between the activities of architects and totalitarian regimes and the power to get things done. He notes Rem Koolhaas’ championing of China [p153 ibid.] although, to a lesser extent, the same can be said since of his activities in Singapore. Meanwhile, the business development directors of ZHA  are mining the lesser authoritarian regimes.


Annoyingly, just when it starts getting interesting, Chap 3.6 segues into yet another summary of what’s to come. On p254 the question is asked


Untitled 2 Here’s that buried footnote 142 and its cheeky “Incidentally …” beginning.Untitled 3

Since we’re unable to forget it’s impending arrival, this next table summarises how the author sees Parametricism and its place in things. It’s actually a fair enough classification.


I scribbled an alternative classification of Feudal styles, Elitist styles, Socialist styles (the first five Modernist subsidiaries) and finally, the Late Capitalist styles. I get the feeling an ‘epochal’ style is merely something that represents the dominant power structure of the time. Rather than ponder what Foucault would have said about that, it’s easier to think that architects merely follow the money. (I know I know – not all of them.)

On page 256, the author reverts to Luhmannspeak to explain why styles are necessary.

Within architecture[,] styles represent those necessary programmes that – at any instance – regulate the disposition over the two binary sets of values of the double code of architecture.  …

In other words,

Styles provide the guidelines and criteria that help us identify the beautiful and the useful.

Taken at face value, this means that style is all about representing beauty and usefulness rather than generating either or both. I don’t approve of this, but I can see some truth in it. Styles tell us what’s currently in vogue and what’s not. The link to usefulness is as tenuous as it is in the world of fashion. The probIem I see with talking about The Renaissance and Parametricism in the same book is that we falsely attribute them with similar levels of gravitas despite consumerism and mass media influencing and trivialising the concept of style since – oh, at least since Art & Crafts.

It’s not all a waste of time – there were a couple of genuinely interesting bits. The first was this.

Parametricism is looking for continuous programmatic variations rather than the repetition of strict funciton types. Instead of juxtaposing discrete functional domains this style prefers to offer all the in-between iterations that might be conceived between two function types, now considered as two extremes of a continuous spectrum of GRADUAL FUNCTIONAL MODULATION. Instead of accepting the need for separate programmatic zones the idea is that social boundaries and categorizations must be blurred. The style is looking for a density of connectivity and intense relatedness between programme components. p260


There you have it. This is what gives Parametricism its swooshiness. Instead of open space with, say, a room divider between the living and dining room, the roof swooshes down to modulate the infinite dining room-ness and living room-ness. Sounds expensive. But that, in a nutshell is how I heard the foyer of the Heydar Aliyev thingy described.

In my last post on this topic, I noted the facile point-of-purchase connectivity that Galaxy Soho supposedly makes a fetish of.

mega mall

But that still doesn’t explain the swooshiness of what are essentially single-function shells.

aggressive and banal

vag crit

I never got around to mentioning the other interesting thing in 3.6. Next time.


  • says:

    I am sooooo happy that you are reading this tome. The snippets you select still put me to sleep in themselves. Are the chapters a collective of verbalisations assembled by which ever intern was available?
    The leap between the words and the foundations of the fundamental design thought behind the product produced by the author seems galaxial. SS Enterprise required here. Beam me up, Scotty.
    I only wish it had been written in time for it to have been published as a talking book read by Peter Sellars.

    • Jonathan, I’m also continually amazed by the chasm between the universe that the author appears to be describing, and the buildings he is actively involved in the production and promotion of. I try to imagine Patrik Schumacher and Zaha Hadid (both still in their respective media characters) functioning in the same office. Whilst the author is writing two books to describe the corporate vision to academic chums, ZH is simply proclaiming to the press “I like curves – you don’t go to a park and ask yourself where the straight lines are.”

      Pre-emptively, the author accounts for this discrepancy on Vol.1 Page 273.

      First order pronouncements about the merit of a certain proposed building component [i.e. theory] need to be mediated by second order observations about the divergent codes of architecture and engineering [i.e. soundbites]. Similar precautions are required in the architect’s discussion with clients, or in the case of star architects in their dealings with the mass media. [my bold]. The successful architect has to be able to move similtaneously in several largely incommensurable [:)] discourses: he/she needs to stay on top of his/her own architectural expert discourse, find the right tone and language in addressing client’ concerns, and give the mass media what they need and all these incommensurable communications have to refer to the same underlying work.

      From this it seems ZH is the mass media interface and PS the brains behind the operation. Neither can do the job of the other. With this kind of functional differentiation at work, he/she truly are a team. With Rem Koolhaas and his other children, they’re the same person and that’s pretty scary as well.