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The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 3.7 – Styles as Research Programmes

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I’ve missed this. Up for some more?

3.7 Styles as Research Programmes

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

I saw the word ‘avant-garde’ for the first time in a long while and my heart sank. Did you see what the author did there? Until now, it’s all been about the self-styled avant-garde (a term roughly synonymous with “starchitect”) and styles. Now, ‘avant-garde’ has suddenly become an adjective and we’re talking about starchitect styles. Keep that in mind.

Another thing to keep in mind is that this this cycle of “progressive” to “productive” to “degenerate” basically describes the fashion cycle of any consumer commodity including styles and assorted aesthetics. Chapter 3.6 attempted to breathe life into the antiquated notion of architectural styles. This chapter attempts to give them some meaning. The thing that Schumacher is (in all earnestness, I suspect) justifying is his boss’ continued position as a preferred purveyor of disposable aesthetic commodities. At least that’s how I made sense of this passage on p277.

page 277

It’s a very curious passage – very evangelical. Saying “A fully convincing candidate that could credibly pick up its function is not in sight” is akin to saying “God must exist for what would life be otherwise?” Compared with illogic such as this, it becomes reasonable to posit that “the function of styles is to keep people generating them”. An architecture without styles is the one thing this author does not want us to believe in.

The next eight pages try to create an analogy between stylistic research and design endeavour and scientific research programmes.


Science has completely new research traditions directed by theoretical frameworks that are fundamentally new. New architectural styles might be analogous to scientific research programs that are launched by new scientific paradigms that afford a new conceptual framework and offer new directions for further research work.

Then again, they might not be – especially because scientific research programmes usually have some end goal in mind, even if it has to be continually reconsidered in the light of newer insights and discoveries. The end goal of scientific research is not to produce an endless stream of new scientific research to keep scientists busy, although that is one of the results. Somewhere along the line, the objects of that research are either applied (as in chemistry), improved (as in biology), controlled or eliminated (as in medicine) or clarified (as in theoretical physics). Things get better. This is where it is wrong to bring history into it. The history of science can be a history of paradigm shifts or it can be a history of discoveries. Either way, things were made better. The history of architecture can and usually is written as a history of styles. It is most definitely not a record of continuous improvement of buildings. This is the difference. Scientific research programmes have the advancement of humanity as their goal. Styles as research programmes benefit no-one except the stylists.

The author’s extended analogy is based on Imre Lakaros’s The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (much like the extended analogy that is The Autopoiesis of Architecture is based on Niklaus Luhmann’s social systems theory). It is an analogy – a loose fit – nothing more, like a movie ‘based on fact”. One of the reasons why is that the idea of science as collecting data and making generations can be refuted (thanks to Karl Popper) in favour of science as “formulating daring hypotheses that actively pose questions and extract evidence rather than receive and collect evidence passively.” This is the analogy the author has identified and taken and run with.


The author’s reliance on Lakatos has a reason. It lets him write that, in science, a single invalidating experiment does not refute a hypothesis. After all, giants Newton and Einstein took some initial knocks. This means that …

page 280

The boundaries of what though? Accidents such as the discovery of radium do happen, but I’ll venture scientists generally have some goal that is explicit. What they don’t do is say “I have this idea, and here’s the results of some experiments that might go towards validating whatever it is but, even if they don’t, won’t invalidate it.” My objection to the author’s conception of styles, is that there’s no explicit goal. There’s no vision for how the world will be a better place. This raises problems for evaluation. If a failure cannot refute an experiment packaged in a style hypothesis, then how is one to claim success?

Unsurprisingly, the author feels that evaluation by everyone else’s standards a bit limiting and that we need to

formulate more flexible criteria for the evaluation of styles, criteria that measure up results, but that understand styles dynamically as advancing research programmes. [p284]

Perhaps stung by criticism of failed experiments, the author defends having an academic career on the side and gets Lakatos to back him up for, after all, theoretical physicists carry out their research programmes at universities don’t they?

page 284

Lakatos’ mention that science’s difficulties with developing research programmes are more mathematical than empirical is enthusiastically seen as a case for new architectural styles giving precedence to

formal over functional problems, “especially in the early productive surge of an emerging new style”. [p 286]

That’s a porkie, I’d say.


But I’m glad I’ve stuck with this book. I’m beginning to get impression the author actually believes what he’s writing and it’s a little scary. I was therefore glad to see, on page 285, a quick summary of what The Style is all about. Some of it you’ve probably guessed.

the elements of style

In passing, Heydar Aliyev’s son, Ilham Aliyev, current President of Azerbaijan and the effective client for this building (the stated client is the Republic of Azerbaijan – same thing) has won the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) inaugural Person of the Year Award. Royal Institute of British Architecture! – can we just accept that ethical architecture is an oxymoron?

Ilham aliyev

Anyway. The author suggests we evaluate the results of his research by the criteria he suggests.


This isn’t interesting in itself, but it does offer a preview (of TAoA Volume 2) of what counts as design in the author’s world.

  • Choose the parameters you wish
  • Relax some if you’ve made it too hard
  • Form follows function fieldspace
  • Put some things next to other things

For all the algorithmic computation supposedly happening, there’s still a lot of old fashioned design decisions going on. Not least of all is the decision for when to stop. “That’s it – ok boys and girls now work out how to build the fucker!”

* * *

I’m becoming a bit like the author, I think – convinced of my own correctness, biased in my viewpoint, and seeing everything in terms of how well I can put it to use for my argument. This became clear to me in sub-chapter 3.7.4 on the Great Architectural Styles.

What I’m saying is that the justification for the last (current?) style, Parametricism is a bit weak – it doesn’t fit, doesn’t follow the conceptual sequence that’s been set up.

Renaissance style through the eyes of a Parametricist:

The pre-capitalist society produced a new problem domain and the rediscovery of antiquity produced a new solution space.

Baroque style through the eyes of a Parametricist:

The Baroque society was faced with a new level of scale and complexity in the institutions that had to be accommodated and articulated. The task was to give an integral organisation and image to the large and complex administrative bureaucracies of the mercantilist state.

Neo-Classical style through the eyes of a Parametricist:

Laugier’s theory articulates the challenge of maintaining a sense of architectural order in the face of the onslaught of early capitalist urban expansion. … As Manfredo Tafuri has pointed out, Laugier’s naturalising architectural theory can be understood as aestheticisation of the morphological results of the free-wheeling urban growth of early capitalism.

Historicist style through the eyes of a Parametricist:

The 19th century oipened up the totality of the historical repertoire for organized redeployment. Typical alignments emerged between function types and specific historical styles. Law courts, banks and central government buildings were biased towards the Neo-Grec [?] style. Churches and town halls were biased towards the Neo-Gothic style. Private villas and town-houses were biased towards the Neo-Renaissance style.

Modernist style seen through the eyes of a Parametricist: 

Modernist architecture was faced with a veritable explosion of the problem domain as full-blown industrialisation was followed by social revolutions which – for the first time – [and the last!] introduced the masses [!] as new clients of architecture.  This explosive expansion of design tasks was paralleled by new solution spaces: the ready availability of new construction methods (steel and reinforced concrete), as well as the emergence of the new design resources that were delivered by abstract art opening up a hitherto unimagined realm of creative formal invention.

* * *

Me, I think Modernism was a bit more than that but, as a summary of how modernism is generally regarded today there’s nothing particularly novel about it. It’s Johnson & Hitchcock’s neutered account of Modernism. This next quote is rather long. I include it because it’s the most lyrical the author has gotten in 292 pages. The tone is direct and lucid, confident. Not desperate. It’s even passionate in places. It’s a summary, it’s cover notes, it’s a lecture in disguise. It’s 100% polemic.

Parametric style seen through the eyes of a Parametricist: 


Now, my problem with this is that nothing follows on from what went before. Prior to this passage was a quick trip through architectural history showing how new architectural inventions supposedly developed in line with new solution spaces to “cope with” increasingly complex problem domains. I don’t question that. Technology usually improves. It’s what it does. The misfits’ reading of history would say architects just chase the money at any given time. Renaissance nobility – Baroque mercantilists – Neoclassicism’s capitalists – Historicism’s bureaucracies – Modernism’s industrialists (it wasn’t actually ‘the masses’ commissioning those buildings).

But whose money is Parametricism chasing? Is there really ‘a new demand for diversity and complexity? Have globalisation and ‘lifestyle diversification’ (whatever that is) really shifted the problem domain of architecture? Or has it really just brought new countries and new clients online? The misfits’ reading of history is the history of clients who had the money, land and (a noble or ignoble) desire to build. It never fails to explain why things are the way they are. What kind of world does the author live in?

It’s true that Chinese developers, Russian oligarchs and Baltic tyrants are a feature of the modern world but they’re not what’s making it modern. It’s just new money in new places. I also fail to see a new problem domain. From the Renaissance onwards, the only architectural agenda has been the articulation of wealth and power. The sole historical aberration was the brief period of Modernism’s concern for ‘the masses’.

This is a long way from “abstract art opening up a hitherto unimagined realm of creative formal invention.”   

van doesburg

* * * 


  1. We must not be quick to find fault with Parametricist experiments.
  2. We must evaluate Parametricist experiments according to their own criteria.
  3. We must not expect boundary-pushing stylistic research to be perfect, or even burden itself with the baggage of usual architecture.
  4. We must not see failed Parametricist buildings as failures for they all pose further questions and drive further style research and building experiments.


  1. elaborate (verb, 4 times in 10 pages – the new ‘commensurate’)
  2. It’s not necessarily malicious, but giving the basis for analogies after a statement is made produces the impression the cited author would agree with said statement.
    “Lakatos observes the same seclusion into theoretical autonomy within the sciences: …” [p.284]
  3. It’s not really good to use an earlier statement to imply proof of the same statement rephrased.
    “The Renaissance style, as the first theory-led period of architectural design, represents the first architectural style that might be plausibly reinterpreted as design research programme, as a public, collective effort of recognized, individual author-architects. This assessment is consistent with the thesis that the Renaissance marks the onset of the independent autopoiesis of architecture. [p.287)
  4. Smoke and mirrors. The author has it in his mind that the twin concerns of beauty and utility are what guides architecture yet mentions Alberti’s belief that they might be the same thing to support his argument. Odd. This seems to be a case of understanding only what one wants to understand.
    alberti and beauty
  5. On page 292 we find this

    Modernist architecture was faced with a veritable explosion of the problem domain as full-blown industrialisation was followed by social revolutions which – for the first time introduced the masses as new clients of architecture.

“the masses”: Nothing like a bit of casual elitism is there? I think the term mass housing (as in mass transport) would have been more appropriate, more neutral. (What a prick!)     

Coming up next!:

3.8 The Rationality of Aesthetic Values
3.8.1 The Historical Transformation of Aesthetic Values
3.8.2 Aesthetic Values and the Code of Beauty
3.8.3 The Mystery of Beauty
[I can’t wait for this one]
3.8.4 Formal A Priori, Idiom and Aesthetic Values
3.8.5 The Necessity of Aesthetic Revolutions
3.8.6 Aesthetic Values: Designers vs. Users