The Massively Big Autopoiesis of Architecture Post

First some snapshots from the journey so far before moving on to the penultimate chapter. I plan to read the final one within a week or two and bring this autopoietic journey to an end. It’s time. At 439 pages it wasn’t such a long journey but, as I began reading the book in 2012, it wasn’t a quick one.

2012 October 26: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol. 1 – Preface, Introduction

We’re not even eight lines into the Preface and the author is saying he sees this work as continuing the tradition begun by Alberti in 1452. I have a bad feeling. 

2012 November 16: Architectural Theory

Most introductions let the reader know what to expect. They’re usually the last part of a book to be finalised because the author has already been to the end and back and has had feedback from friends, family, colleagues and editors. The introduction is an opportunity to assist the reader get more out of the book. This one asks you to suspend judgment until you reach the end of the book! It also asks you to accept that there will be some strangeness of terminology and a possible sense of intellectual queasiness. Indeed, there was quite a bit of both.

2012 December 1: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2 – The Historical Emergence of Architecture (1/2)


2013 January 2: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2.3 – Avant-garde vs. Mainstream

I suddenly realized the book probably is an accurate description of the world of architecture as the author sees it. For the first time, I had the distinct impression the author really believes what he’s writing. In an earlier post, I mentioned my doubts about the validity of the author’s self-description as “avant-garde”. Is it accurate? Why does he insist on using this word if not to evoke ideas of art and artists? Can a commercially successful practice ever be avant-garde? In section 2.3 it became clear that when the author uses the word “avant-garde” he really means “leaders as opposed to followers”. No-one will die because of this mislabelling, but it does make it easy to falsely attribute notions of some brave and heroic journey of artistic endeavour. The author, I imagine, would not be unhappy if this were to happen.  


2013 February 2: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chapter 2.4 – Architectural Research

“THESIS 8:  The avant-garde segment of architecture functions as the subsystem within the autopoiesis of architecture that takes on the necessary task of architectural research by converting both architectural commissions and educational institutions into substitute vehicles of research.”

Like many things to do with this book, it seems straightforward but what does it mean? I’m still having a problem with this self-labelling as avant-garde. There’s something not right. It just doesn’t ring true. In previous posts I’ve suggested reasons why the author might have chosen this word but maybe he didn’t want to use the obvious word “starchitect” because it’s too popular, too descriptive. It’s also a bit too closely linked to fame and fortune. But I’ve no such prejudices so, from now on, I’m simply going to use the word starchitect instead of avant-garde architect. You won’t notice the difference.

Apparently, starchitects are the only architects daring enough to experiment and research and come up with different solutions that other people copy and keep architecture EVOLVING. We should thank them. However, they can’t do all this experimenting on their own. (Why not?) They need clients to fund their experiments because buildings are big and complex things.

… a bit further on

“The commissions of starchitects have to function as vehicles of architectural research. Such commissions must afford a playing field for formal research and spatial invention where both functional and economic performance criteria are less stringent than in the ‘commercial sector’ of mainstream architecture. This is possible within a special segment of the architectural market – high-profile cultural buildings. In these special, mostly public landmark buildings, the discipline of architecture becomes conspicuous within society. Here society appreciates architecture as a contribution beyond the mere accommodation of the respective substantial function. Here society also recognizes the legitimacy of an extra investment over and above what technical necessity dictates.”

This says a lot. The author is claiming that, because starchitects are the only people who can fulfil the allegedly important role of architectural research, then they have a natural claim to the most lucrative and least restrictive sector of the architecture market. As I said, it says a lot. 

Around this time, I began to think these posts didn’t have enough pictures.

2013 February 7: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Volume 1 Chapter 2.5 – The Necessity of Demarcation


“THESIS 9: Any attempt to integrate architecture and art, or architecture and science/engineering, in a unified discourse (autopoiesis) is reactionary and bound to fail.”

Even though Luhmann, the person who put all these ideas in the author’s head, said that architecture existed within the great social system of art, in this sub-chapter (p148), the author says Luhmann only implied that architecture exists within the art system. Either way, the author is having none of it.

“This treatment of architecture has to be rejected today. It reflects the traditional classification of architecture among the arts.”

Hardly a powerful argument. Another reason the author claims it can’t be true is because the theory says it isn’t. Call me a cynic, but I still maintain it’s the job of theory to organise evidence, not refute it. Evidence doesn’t depend on theory.

“It is one of the central, historical theses of the theory of architctural autopoiesis that this treatment of architecture under the umbrella concept of ‘the arts’ is long since an anachronism – at least since the refoundation of the discipline as Modern architecture during the 1920s.”

Here’s some more “proof”.

“A sure empirical indicator for the factual, operational separation of art and architecture is the total absence of double careers. While Michaelangelo and Raphael, and even Schinkel, could still count and convince as both artists and architects this possibility seems to be excluded today.  Examples such as Le Corbusier’s paintings and Hundertwasser’s buildings are no countexamples but only confirm this impossibility.”

That’s a bit bitchy but, yes, Corbusier’s paintings weren’t about the pain, and nor were ZH’s for that matter. But what about her lucrative crossover secondary career in product design? Towards the end of the book, the author solves this latent conundrum by the belated introduction of the term, ‘designed artefacts’.


2013 April 09: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap.3 – Architecture as Autopoietic System: Operations, Structures and Processes

Since I began this book, I’ve managed to read books on the history of the universe, the origins of life on earth and the fallacy of progress, and also found the time to re-read “Portrait of a Lady” and “The Wings of The Dove”.

The Autopoiesis of Architecture is no page-turner. It’s difficult to pick up, and easy to put down. There’s never a right time to read it. It’s not something you read at the beach, in an airport, or carry around with you to read on a train or at lunchtime. 

It’s not just the content. Schumacher’s no Henry James but you’d think someone who’s written approximately 400,000 words would have developed some sort of a way with them. With “The Wings Of The Dove”, I was at first indifferent to the fate of poor Milly Theale but Henry James made me care in the end. Now, 170 pages and (how long has it been already?) six months into The Autopoiesis of Architeture, I really don’t care if architecture is or is not an autopoietic system of communications. I’m constantly questioning what I’m getting out of this book. Perhaps I’m hoping the author will teach me how to become a millionaire or how to make gold out of lead. 

The author must know a thing or two about such things since he trousered a third of a million GB£ from ZHA last year, presumably not including other income from publishing, teaching and other commitments and which are no doubt channelled through a separate company like those of his boss. I don’t expect this book, whilst being part of the process of architectural branding (and hence proving the author’s thesis in a sense), will reveal anything beyond that in the way of practical advice.

2013 May 4: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.1~3.3

la veuve

2013 June 15: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.3~3.4
2013 July 26: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Pages 237~240 (Chaps. 3.5.6, 3.5.7)

As I understand it, the argument goes like this. I’ve marked the dodgy statements in red.

– Designing is difficult, there are many possibilities. We need a way to reduce the complexity/possibilities.
– We can’t do this by getting rid of the idea of beauty because what’s left is insufficient. (‘The reference to performance criteria simply cannot constrain the task sufficiently’.) But the idea of beauty does however reduce complexity because we no longer have to make random choices every time.
– Using criteria of both utility and beauty is ideal because, if a designer doesn’t know what to do, he can resort to functional criteria and, for those times when something has been engineered rather than designed, a designer can come along and add some design to it.

2013 December 15: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 3.6 – Styles

vag crit

A quick shout-out to Marjan Colletti who reviewed The Autopoiesis of Architecture on his blog in September 2010. He’s the only other person I know of who’s admitted to having read the book, let alone finishing it the same year it was published.

2014 March 3: Styles as Research Programmes

van doesburg

About this time, I began to think readers might be being put off by the titles of these posts.

2014 May 30: Love You Long Time (Chap. 3.8.1: The Historical Transformation of Aesthetic Values)

“The performative vitality of any specific set of aesthetic values is historically limited.”

I don’t understand this. If, as the author’s been saying, aesthetic values have an underlying performativity, then that performativity would still exist irrespective of whether or not those aesthetic values were valued. It’s aesthetics that’s dependent upon performativity, not the other way around. I’m sure Palladian rooms remain well ventilated and their roofs well drained even if their particular architectural stylings aren’t so aspired-to these days.

“Aesthetic values should aestheticize those spatial patterns and architectural morphologies that perform well with respect to the vital life processes of contemporary society.”

This sentence is a huge up-scaling of the original idea. We’ve gone from air and rainwater to the vital life processes of contemporary society. I hope we get to find out what they are. I doubt we’ll be hearing any more about ventilation and roof drainage.

2014 June 12: The Chartreuse Ford

A stealth post pondering what was so wrong with Fordism since Post-Fordism certainly isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


2014 November 16: The Mystery of Beauty  (Chap. 3.8.6: Aesthetic Values: Designers vs. Users)

This post questions the nature of belief in Beauty and its essential unknowability, its value as a prime motivating force, and its need to be continually explained to us by dense texts having elaborate systems of numerical indexing and not many pictures.



“Attention to beauty and aesthetic values demarcates architecture from science and engineering.”

This doesn’t mean that Beauty is real but merely that some people like to believe in it. However, if they do believe in Beauty then they get to feel special – which is fine – but, as is often the case, superior to other people such as scientists and engineers following paths of evidence and fact.

2015 January 11: The Things Architects Do #8: Themes (Chap. 3.9: The Double-nexus of Architectural Communications: Themes vs. Projects)
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 only my hypothesis but, if it were true, we would have an architecture concerned with form and not function. Imagine that!
2015 March 29: Inflationary Tendencies (Chap. 4: The Medium of Architecture)


The first and, for the author, the only one of any importance is the first, the architect’s project and the medium (formerly, the drawing) that the architect uses to talk to himself about the design. The third is the drawings and structural analysis models that the engineers need to make it stand up. The fourth is the drawings that can be understood by the contractors who have to build the thing. It is the second – the client’s project – that I want to concentrate on. Illustrating the design to clients, potential users, or any other non-specialized interested parties is also something that requires specialised drawings that can be outsourced since they are of no concern to the architect who, you will remember, is busy conducting avant garde research. We’ve come across this attitude before in earlier chapters but that’s not the issue now. If illustrating the design to clients is not of any interest to the architects, then WHY ARE THEIR PROJECTS ALWAYS IN OUR FACES?

• • •

• • •

In the 362/439 pages I’ve read so far, there’s been a lot about how form vs. function is the “lead distinction” of architecture – what makes it architecture. I’ve also read how this is analogous to price vs. value as the lead distinction of the economy, norm vs. fact as the lead distinction of the legal system, teaching vs. subject as the lead distinction of education, and so on. I found this handy table on pages 438-439, alas, too late.

chart 1chart 2

It’s a tidy table. But, going back to this beauty vs. function thing, we never really resolved it did we – or at least not to the author’s level of certainty?
Shouldn’t the author update his thinking and restate beauty vs. function as perception management vs. development gain? It’s the same thing and though it won’t weaken his argument, it will deflate it somewhat. Another flaw is that none of the other Great Function Systems have a distinction comparable to architecture’s distinction between themes and projects.
What kind of world we would have if they did? If themes were their primary areas of concern, and if a project’s 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.
In the same vein, if these known function systems of society had a self-reference as detached from their world-reference as architecture’s then  
  • We’d have politicians that support peace as they engage in war.
  • We’d have governments that show their support for freedom by policing it.
  • We’d have an economics that creates wealth by causing poverty.
  • We’d have education systems that maintain pliable levels of ignorance.
On the bright side, even if architecture is a major function system of society, then it’s at least no more dysfunctional than the others. Science is our only evidence this isn’t how the contemporary world works although Bad Science and Pseudo Science are now out there making themselves known.
The title of the final chapter is The Societal Function of Architecture. It’s warning us to not confuse how architecture functions in a societal system with archaic notions of how it might function for society. This is especially meaningful in light of what we’ve come to know about the author.


• • • 
I’m now eager to get on with the final chapter of this lengthy thought experiment. I genuinely want to know if the author thinks the societal function of architecture is anything more than converting his softly-illuminated scribbles into grey goo to consume the planet and enslave mankind. Or anything less.


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