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The Things Architects Do #8: Themes

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There’s only two and a bit chapters to go in The Autopoiesis of Architecture Volumo Uno. Every now and then I scare myself when the author inadvertently makes some terrifying kind of sense. It happened again with this bit before the penultimate chapter. It’s about projects and themes. Let me summarise – I’m getting better at it.

DON’T HAVE just projects,
HAVE themes as well as projects.


WORRY if your project doesn’t have a theme or if your theme can’t find a project.

Untitled 4

DON’T WORRY if the right project doesn’t come along to fit your current theme. You or someone else can always look back and find an “underlying implicit conceptual framework” somewhere – especially with those three helpful qualifiers.

Untitled 2
[Gosh, they’re keeping those Norwegians busy rendering what we imagine will be real :S]

AVANT-GARDE ARCHITECTS do too, but only to nurture their themes.

Untitled 3

DON’T SAY: “I’m working on my client’s house.”
DO SAY: “I’m working on new principles of habitation for the 21st century.” / “I’m using this luxury condo development / hotel / trophy cultural landmark / oligarch villa / mixed use development / stadium to test the limits of space as a gradient field-condition.”

Untitled 5

REMEMBER that the significance of the avant-garde architect’s work is a function of the originality, generality and epochal pertinence of the themes his/her projects are tackling.
DON’T FORGET to attach some cod narrative for public consumption when you upload your images to ArchDaily or Dezeen or wherever.

I’m not sure which is more destructive: pretentious opinion vs. poisonous practice? I’ll go with the latter.

  • If avant-garde architects aren’t solving particular problems posed by particular projects, then why pretend they are? Why not let us join the exciting journey? More to the point, why not share those themes so we can judge for ourselves if a particular articulation of a particular theme is or is not a success?
  • OR, IF, at some level, avant-garde architects are actually solving problems posed by particular projects then it’d be nice to be shown how they do it. But it won’t happen. Plebeian concerns must always be seen to be beneath the dignity of avant-garde architects. But, as I’ve always said,

“Even The Farnsworth House has a pipe to take the shit away.”
                                                             Graham McKay, misfits’ architecture


Unless there comes a day when self-styled avant-garde architects tell us what it is they’re attempting to do, this dysfunction will continue to affect, infect new generations of architects and further reduce the amount of good that can be done in the world.

Here’s three examples of how this dysfunction between projects and themes is killing the opinion people have of “Architecture”. “Architecture’s” on the defensive I think. People are on the verge of discovering they can live without it. I’ll have more to say on this.

Example 1

A recent Forbes article titled Architecture Continues To Implode: More Insiders Admit The Profession Is Failing caused a bit of a brouhaha recently. Personally, I wouldn’t quote Frank Gehry to strengthen my case or begin my article as I feel he’s more part of the problem than the solution. Gehry’s basically showing his disdain for any building that isn’t his or his 2% friends.

gehry problem

The article claims the Make It Right” charity program of post-Katrina housing was a failure. Here’s a 2008 Dezeen report from before we knew this. The housing, many designed by “avant garde” architects was weird, self-serving, unloved, expensive to build, difficult to maintain and, on the whole, not very designed or built. Here’s MVRDV’s effort. It doesn’t seem to have ever been built.


Here’s the project on their website.


This is what they say about it.

“MVRDV’s proposal reinterpres the classic shotgun house to be resistant to water.  Lifted in different ways, each house has its own quality, adding to the areas diversity while remaining safe.”

Maybe. Or it could just be MVRDV’s trademark house motif repeated 13 times.

Example 2

Here’s a project for a low-cost housing prototype. It seems to have an innovative and ingenious self-build model. It’s had moments on both curbed and on ArchDaily.

All photos © Alejandro Cartagena on ArchDaily.

ArchDaily says “this project aims to generate a typology of competitive and feasible housing for a low and medium income market.”

curbed says “With labor costs dissolved, the house then becomes more affordable, with a total cost of about $11,600 for materials and basic blacksmithing and glass installation services. The structure, built from non-overlapping concrete blocks, has a simple layout, with interior living spaces composed like “boxes within a box.”

misfits says

Despite the seemingly noble intentions of the architects and their innovative self-build model, the real theme of this project seems to be to make something that can be recognised as architecture. This is not the most original, general or epochally pertinent theme that ever was but it’s there and it’s there to the detriment of the project.

  1. I like stack bond as much as the next architect, but stretcher bond is stronger and needs little or no reinforcement. If you check the images above, stretcher bond was good enough for the stairwell balustrade and it was good enough for that fence. To use stack bond for the shell of low-cost housing seems irresponsible and contrary to the stated objectives of the project. 
  2. I also enjoy a bit of inside-outside interpenetration as much as the next architect but the installation of those large fixed glass panels is an identified high-cost item. They’re probably not the greatest use of limited money as far as the project’s concerned but, as far as the theme’s concerned … well, that’s another matter.
  3. With block construction, long horizontal windows require longer and more expensive lintels. The low-cost option is full height narrow windows much like those upstairs on the side elevation. A long horizontal window on the lower level at the front might be justifiable for some social, neighbourhood reason, but the same window for the bedroom above seems to be just an elevational device.
  4. The kitchen is concealed behind a curtain but I wonder what it is those two vents are venting? An exhaust fan or two could vent directly outside without the need for the retro-Meierism.
  5. Does a low-cost, three-bedroom family house really need four wcs, three showers and two living areas? The project seems to be designed so rooms can be sub-let.
  6. If so, the refrigerator is the owners’, behind that door that’s presumably lockable.
  7. “In this hotel apartment you have your own shower and toilet. We cook you dinner but you do your own laundry outside ¿comprende?

In return for a bit of income, the family still get to sleep in one room. Maybe that’s progress. If so, then tell us – we want to know.

Example 3

It won’t happen for that will mean crossover between themes and projects. The default stance seems to be to keep themes and projects well apart and to separately satisfy their respective clients/audiences. This is apparent in this next video. Click – it’s a link.


The occupants seem happy with the project but the theme of the project seems to be about the architects’ social engineering genius and how to convey a sense of it to us via an overproduced video.

Did you notice that any interaction the architects might have had with the occupants is distanced with stills? We never saw the architects actually talking to or interacting with the occupants? To be seen to be doing so would be uncool. What’s worse, in the final product, the architects don’t seem to take any pleasure from this good thing they supposedly did. ُShowing us they’re pleased it turned out okay should be a natural thing to do and not something to be ashamed.

All I took away from the video was a sense of creepy earnestness.


As the deluded and abused lover says, “He cares – he just has a problem showing it.” Don’t get me wrong!

  • It’s quite natural and right for architects to use their projects as advertising for future projects.
  • It’s less right but no less common for architects to select their projects in terms of their advertising potential.
  • It would of course be wrong for architects to take on projects with a potential for social good in order to be seen to be socially virtuous.

If proper architects are supposed to be fully occupied with pursuing their themes then it means they can never get any pleasure from a well-executed project that benefits its users. Now I think of it, when was the last time you heard an architect claim they were happy to have been of use to society? Or humanity (Pritzker excepted)? It doesn’t feature much in contemporary architectural communications, does it? Such signs of humanity as opposed to God-like qualities aren’t part of the psyche for architects to aspire to. I blame Wright, and then Corbusier, and then Koolhaas. Emotional involvement is irrelevant to the pursuit of the theme and being seen to be in pursuit of it.

The Elemental project above is a competent display of thought and skill and its users are proud and grateful for what they have. For the architects, this should be something to be proud of as human beings but no. The video is overproduced and oversincere and desperate for our approval. This is sick as well as sad. Dysfunctional.

• • •

It’s not right to pick on the little guys I know, but mismatches between Project and Theme are a sure sign of dysfunctional architecture. The smug “double coding” of Jencksian Post-Modernism has mutated into self-serving Schumacherian Project/Theme distinctions.

Once Post Modern double-coding was released into the ecosystem all hell broke loose. As soon as architects learned a project could convey architectural meanings separate from those of the project that hosted it, it was a matter of time before those architectural meanings moved away from general architectural references and converged on references specific to certain practices. Themes. 

Architects had USPs well before they were called themes but at least they had their basis in the projects and their implied benefits for users. It’s no surprise the branding advantages of separating them was globally understood by the commercial big boys and girl, but it’s shocking to see the lessons learned so quickly by smaller practices aiming for the big-time.

Despite architecture’s radical restylings, under the hood it’s still the same engine.

Patrick Schumacher identified themes as what proper architects are interested in. He sees this as a healthy thing for architecture despite an increasing amount of evidence suggesting otherwise.

• • •

It’s okay if you don’t remember this helpful table I scanned and posted June, 2013. 


In the 131 pages that followed, there was nothing to suggest any of the “other” major functions systems of society had anything corresponding to the themes and projects of architecture. Either the author’s going off-piste with this project-theme thing, or he’s conflating it with the form-function lead distinction he wrote of earlier.

A bit of both probably, but mostly the latter because if form is a theme, then any theme/project dysfunction will show as a form-function dysfunction. It’s a theory. But it fits the evidence. If this were true

  • We would have an architecture concerned with form and not function – imagine that!

So now let’s imagine what kind of world we would have if each of society’s major function systems had themes and projects. And if those themes were the primary areas of concern? And if a projects’ only worth was to test the validity of those themes?

  • We’d have an economic system that sets prices for commodities without regard for their value.
  • We’d have a scientific system in which phenomena are explained without recourse to evidence.
  • We’d have a legal system where laws are applied irrespective of facts.
  • We’d have a political system in which positions are taken irrespective of issues.
  • We’d have an education system concerned with teaching rather than students.
  • We’d have a mass media that focusses on reporting rather than events.

I’m getting scared here. But on the bright side, IF architecture is a major function system of society, then it’s at least no more dysfunctional than all the others. Science is the only example this has that this isn’t how the contemporary world works.

Niklas Luhmann died in 1998. Had he lived longer he might have arrived at the same conclusions.



  • says:

    I propose a new term for autopoeisis: Self-licking ice cream cone. Descriptive and appropriately disdainful.

  • Hi Graham,

    I’m an Architecture student and I have been immensely enjoying your blog for the last couple of weeks. You can’t imagine how eye-opening many of the stuff you wrote have been for me!
    Don’t really have much to say on this particular post but since comments are closed for almost all the posts that I’ve read, I’m just wondering if you are familiar with the series of essays published in the Architectural Review by Peter Buchanan titled “The Big Rethink”, and if so what your thoughts on them are.
    I don’t agree with everything he said but he seems to tackle certain important questions that you often talk about as well albeit from a different perspective (the point of architecture, the sustainability issue… etc).

    anyway keep up the good work and I’ll keep digging through the awesome posts!


    • Hi Abdu,

      Yes, I did read The Big Rethink although it was more than a year after it was first published. I read the first instalment with enthusiasm, thinking it was what I had been waiting to read. Even now, I don’t deny the dissatisfaction with the status quo or the need for change. It was an eloquent statement of where we are and the challenges ahead.

      I felt my enthusiasm fade a bit with the second instalment and its comparison of Corbusier’s Villa Fallet and Villa Savoye. Sure, they may be symbolic of some greater trend but to ignore the fact they were designed by the same person avoids asking certain questions we’re not used to asking about contriving an artistic “oeuvre”, having to come up with new artistic products that innovate and shock, having to force the appearance of artistic development with every completed project. The truth is, we don’t know and we can’t trust anything Corbusier wrote.

      The third instalment was some sort of Integrated Theory. I just had another look at it. It sounds good, taking everything into account but here’s where I started to lose interest. It might well describe how the world works but it was too much trouble to comprehend, a bit too brainy, and lacking in applicability. Many societies around the world have managed to make for themselves satisfying and ecologically sound built environments without the need for such cumbersome intellectual structures. What’s stopping us from doing the same? The total absence of architectural pretensions is what I love about all vernacular and industrial buildings.

      I think the fourth instalment was about what can be leaned from the masters (Wright and Corbusier) and it was here I totally lost interest. I don’t think they’re relevant to our situation today. I suspect they hardly were to begin with. Why should we talk so much about two houses only intended to be occupied on weekends in summer? If we’d spent the last several decades talking about more pressing and real questions, then a big rethink might not have been necessary. In my future posts there will be less if not zero talk about Wright, Corbusier and Mies as it’s all too far in the past now to be relevant. They were all distractions from what we should have been doing. In the same way, I’ll only refer to Post Modernism and Deconstuctivism and Paramtericism as newer examples of the same sickness.

      I’m starting to get a clearer idea of how it all fits together. It’s still a few posts away but I think I can summarise it in one.

      Thanks again,

  • The second project is actually an apparently more thoughtful project in Nuevo Leon, Mexico by S-AR [] and not Badih Kantar. If anything, S-AR’s approach by means of the Comunidad Vivex platflorm [], has pushed for a more traditional approach in a country with a huge housing problem without any contempt for traditions. The house is built for a very warm weather with a rainy season during summer. Perhaps it does have faults stylistically, but as a fact I believe some design principles were applied to follow this specific family needs, e.g. the reason there are several rooms is because traditionally Mexican families tend to live altogether for a long time, if not permanently: or else, laundry is done outside, as per tradition, sure, but also because the weather conditions allow it. In this specific case, the construction of this new house does mean progress as normally a family like this would have to live under worse conditions.

    The way I see it, at least in this case, is the problem with architects trying to post-rationalise their projects by turning a decent proposal into an “innovative” idea of a box within a box, and this is where this fails. And yet another one, for any other day, would be the definitive images we get from architecture features everywhere around. I believe this house would change prominently, if it has not been the case already, in the coming months and years, as self-construction projects do in its due course.