The Autopoiesis of Architecure Vol. I
In the March 2015 post Inflationary Tendencies, I tried to make some sense out of the second last chapter of The Autopoiesis of Architecture (Vol.1). How time flew! Last year’s The Massively Big Autopoiesis of Architecture post was an omnibus edition intended to prime readers and myself for an end-of-year finale that never happened. It’s just as well as there was some unfinished business. I’ll be brief.
In the penultimate chapter there was some talk about 1) The Architect’s Project, 2) The Client’s Project, and 3) The Contractor’s Project and how they’re not the same thing. Basically, the architect can use a Client Project to design The Architect Project that satisfies his/her own agenda that we, perhaps naïvely, assume is a design agenda. This thinking had been introduced earlier and was no surprise. It would’ve been a good opportunity for the author to mention something I shall call The Media Project but no. The Media Project exists because advance visualizations and set text for The Architect Project will be part of a press release bounced around the internet with no time lag. The Media Project is the portion of The Architect Project we get to see. What we don’t appreciate is that The Media Project exists without a building to back it up. It exists whether or not The Client Project is ever realized. Or ever existed.
The author says the architect is only concerned with The Architect’s Project – and that’s their perogative – but it’s The Media Projet we always get to hear about. A good question is “Why are these people always in our faces if their only concern is industrious research and The Architect’s Project?” The Media Project is what makes The Architect’s Project real and, I suspect, what gives it meaning. Can we say something is even architecture if it isn’t promoted endlessly in media, social media, lecture halls and various bi or trienalli?
Despite seeing architecture as a system of communications, this volume only acknowledges the existence of The Media Project once and provides no account of how it relates to the production and consumption of architectural imagery in the name of architecture or, rather, architecture as media perception.
I’m left with that by-now-familiar feeling of being left out of the loop, of being talked at rather than to. Perhaps the information is classified. The author regards his readers with the same condescension he does clients.
I’ll return to this matter of architecture as media perception. Now, as I approach the end of my autopoietic journey, it’s time to pause yet again to reflect upon what’s been learned. Stuff was generated, mostly out of nothing as is claimed to be the way. Furthermore and, as if to prove the author’s thesis, this stuff generated even more stuff. We know it’s already generated a whole slew of posts from me and a second and 70% fatter Volume II from the author but first let’s get this one over with.
The final chapter of The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I is like the last day of a vacation spent revisiting highlights in an attempt to make sense of it all and engender a feeling of a journey well travelled and time at least not wasted if not well spent. I sensed the author trying to bring it to a satisfying conclusion with firm insights and suggestions of where to go next. The end in sight, there’s a few images as well as a welcome quickening of pace. Either the author was as glad to be nearing the end of the book as I was or the final chapter was written before the ones preceding it. The prose never becomes lucid but the tone does loosen. On p.405, a passage where the author gushes about the importance of Zaha Hadid is particularly icky.
The final chapter is titled The Societal Function of Architecture and we rightly expect to be told why architecture exists. I don’t think I’ll be spoiling it for anyone if I reveal the societal function of architecture turns out to be TO FRAME COMMUNICATIONS.
This is neither a complete surprise nor completely expected. The reader should know by now how the author uses the words societal, function, architecture, and communications. I’m reminded of Bill Clinton’s infamous “It depends upon what your definition of is, is.” I’m also reminded of Dorothy Parker’s pithy observation “Everything he writes is a lie, including a and the.” To frame communications. What does it mean?
The simplest and most benign interpretaton is to provide structures for human activity to take place and I see nothing wrong with that.
The author would though for, somewhere prior, he’d written something along the lines of “a person can take shelter inside a hollowed out tree trunk therefore the provision of shelter is not something architecture need concern itself with.” [italics mine] Logic\dead. You can have fun making your own parodies. The first that came into my head is “A person can chew their fingernails therefore food production is not something agriculture need concern itself with.”
Providing structures for human activity to take place may be a decent enough definition of building but it says nothing about architecture and making explicit the true function of architecture was the stated point of this exercise. Throughout the 400-odd pages of Volume I, we’ve been told repeatedly that architecture is more than building so perhaps the societal function of architecture is the provision of “structures” and not necessarily or even solely structure per-ses? Despite all its post-modern question-begging, I can go along with this too for some structures not only accommodate human activity but go further and at the same time articulate something intangible about that human activity. It’s easy to bring this interpretation into our understanding and say things like Villa Savoye’s ramp frames the activity of Mme. Savoye and her guests moving from the front door to the living room. We can convince ourselves it makes sense.
But what if frame doesn’t just mean to provide structures but to set boundaries or to define limits? It’s also what frames do, is equally possible and, given what we’ve learned about the author and his ideological bent since this book was published, probably more likely. If we take frame to mean to control then everything begins to make a new kind of sense and we can reformulate the sentence as The societal function of architecture is to control communications (human activity). [c.f. Burden of Proof]
Nowhere is it said or implied those communications are two-way.
Nowhere is it said that open and diverse communications are an indicator of a healthy society, or even that a healthy society is a goal.
I see the author’s view of the societal function of architecture as framing communications as being in alignment with the agenda of authoritarian rulers throughout history and, come to think of it, entities wielding power in the present. As ever, The societal function of architecture is to remind people who their oppressors are. [c.f. The New Inhumanism] At this point I would normally mention the Heydar Aliyev Culture Centre but there’s no need when we have the latest Google, Apple or Facebook headquarters and are forced to applaud not only the buildings but their creators as well.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. On p9 was the sentence. “Society has to be grasped in its broad historical trajectory in order to identify the architecturally relevant aspects of the societal tasks ahead.” Individuals are irrelevant, humanity absent.
• • •
For the past two years or so the question of how architecture has adapted [since 1965, by my reckoning] to facilitate the neoliberal agenda has been gaining attention and, since this book was published, the author has probably done more than anyone else to have some light shone on this unsavoury connection and I suppose we should thank him for that. I’m glad reading and digesting this book has taken so long because, knowing what we do now about the author and his beliefs, some oddities I flagged along the way and that didn’t gel on first passing can now be viewed with hindsight.
Modernity and Progress
The entire thust of the book is that society is evolving and that modern (as in functionally differentiated) societies are superior to those that aren’t. The implication is that the future will be even more modern and superior and, by extension, that we need a brave new architecture to tell us so. Throughout the book is a persistent over-concern for where society is going and a belief, an insistence, that architecture in the form of the built environment can guide society. [If only there were some evidence for architectural determinism!] The author never gives any basis for his unquestioning belief in modernity and progress or, more disturbingly, what constitutes it.
We might think we have a lot on our plate right now trying to come to grips with the neolibearal economy that, after fifty years of inattention, now has us securely in a stranglehold. Neoliberalism will have an end but it won’t be pretty because it kills that off which it feeds. A more sustainable version of hell is proposed by the Accelerationists who maintain that simply faster is better.
The author set out to prove that Architecture is a Great Function System and not a subset of the Art Function System. He doesn’t succeed for throughout the book he uses the Art system to validate his arguments for Architecture being one. The late Zaha Hadid’s architectural legacy seems to be coalescing around the importance of some early paintings rather than what they were harbingers of. Suggesting as the author does on p406 that a new conception of architectural space can arise from painting contradicts the formalist unto-itself architecture the author is claiming.
Stray Thought: If art is anything that posits a conceptual space in which an artefact can be viewed as art, then what of architecture? It’d suggest a situation where something becomes architecture merely by virtue of someone saying it is. Shockingly, this isn’t as shocking a concept as it ought to be. It also implies Patrik Schumacher was wrong to criticise Luhmann for suggesting architecture is a subset of the Art Function System rather than an autopoietic function system in itself for, once clients, construction, budget, functionality and so on are removed from the theory of architecture, all that’s left is using the idea of a built structure as a medium for the pursuit of artistic pursuits – something art could always do with impunity.
How architecture as it is presented and played out in the mass media and social media is one glaring omission of this book and, because the author makes a point of ignoring it on p365, most likely a valid one. The author recognises that buildings “circulate as active communications within the autopoiesis of architecture” and the example given is “when a building is visited, photographed, critiqued or otherwise referred to by architects within the expert discourse of architecture.”
But what about all the Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts that insist on making these buildings and their instigators real to multitudes of persons outside the expert discourse of architecture? Despite dismissing this aspect of communications, without explanation, by saying “It is the first of the two cases distinguished here that is the focus of this section on the societal function of architecture” the subject of mass communications crops up again two pages later on p369. The paragraph marked with pencil below is a litmus test. If you’re an optimist you might think it describes mass communications as a means for the enlightenment of society but, cynical readers will see it equally well describes mass media as propaganda machine for social control. This is a sinister ambiguity. How shared is shared?
I’ve similar reservations about the other paragraphs but won’t go into them, apart from saying it’s telling that the role of the Art system is left till last and that its societal function is not so different from what’s being claimed for architecture. It’s not that art can’t be used as propaganda. Ayn Rand’s novels, for example, were propaganda for a very specific worldview. Paragraphs like these make it clear the author sees architecture as propaganda promoting his very specific worldview.
If you’ve read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, you’ll take consolation in the fact our mass media haven’t yet developed into an Orwellian propaganda machine that stifles our capacity to think critically. It’s cold comfort though, as what we have instead is a Huxleyan entertainment machine that stifles our desire to think critically.
BUT WHAT TO MAKE OF ALL THIS?
Since the publication of this book, the author has done more to discredit his thought experiments than I could ever have. The world has moved on but, alarmingly, in general alignment with the premises of his thinking, if not necessarily this book. This is neither to his credit nor ours. One major difference is that Zaha Hadid is no longer alive. Once all the posthumous projects are out of the way, we’ll have to ask ourselves if her saying “I like curves” was ever sufficient reason to overheat so many microprocessors to produce infinite iterations of random doodles – that, much like Savalor Dalí canvasses, we don’t know how many are still out there.
Luhmann’s model upon which the author structures his analogy places Religion as one of the great function systems of the world on equal footing with Education, Law, Politics and Art, etc. However “the author finds it difficult to accept that religion should be theorized as one more indispensible function system of modern, functionally differentiated society. Perhaps, religion should be theorized as a (tenacious) rudiment. The anachronistic persistence of this rudiment indicates that the logic of modern, functionally differentiated society has not (yet) succeded in its drive towards pervasiveness.” [p74 footnote 6]
One good thing for religion, or at least the Abrahamic ones, is that they were egalitarian – everyone had an equal shot at heaven or hell. The neolibereal doctrine updates religion and brings it down to earth by preassigning heaven on earth to the 1% and hell on earth to the remainder.
The author suggests Architecture is a great function system and, leaving aside questions of belief and leaps of faith, not only produces a dogmatic ideology to back up his case but adopts the techniques, formats and formatting of Religion to communicate it. [c.f. The Mystery of Beauty] I believe the author’s wanting to dismiss religion is not because it is irrelevant to his argument, but because it is all too relevant.
If the unique societal role of Architecture is to frame communications and if, as the author claims, Architecture only came into existence with Alberti, it would follow that communications were left unframed pre-Alberti. Not so. Communications were being framed by Architecture well before Alberti and for the same purpose of reminding people who their oppressors are.
The simpler and more credible reason for the author’s choosing to disregard Religion is that it treads on his patch. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs, there’s no doubting that the societal function of Religion is to frame communications. What’s more, Religion’s claim to it is more legitimate for not only does it frame interpersonal communications but it includes some extra-personal communications as well. It claims to frame not just those communications taking place in assigned spaces but all communications everywhere. As if that isn’t enough, it’s also done it for more people and for longer.
Choosing Alberti as the beginnings of Architecture removes from consideration all architecture that framed communications as a part of Religion’s role of framing communications. Religion was thus the dog and Architecture the tail it wagged but the author wants and needs us to see Architecture as the tail that wags the dog. And to then forget about the dog. Schumacher’s architecture may be a lesser religion or religion substitute or a new belief system for secular times but that doesn’t make it benign. It still requires a leap of faith as well as repeated noisy assertions that that faith is genuine.
Such demonstrations of faith aren’t necessary. Post-Alberti can be easily reconciled with pre-Alberti by admitting that the role of architecture is to articulate the agenda of the dominant power structure of an era – something I’ve previously and crudely described as “who one’s oppressors are”. It’s not as crude as saying “Architecture follows the money” and that’s not as crude as Philip Johnson’s “I’m a whore”. Call it framing communications if you like but If architecture didn’t articulate the agenda of the dominant power structure of an era, then why else would it be necessary? We’d be living and working in comfortable buildings and generally getting on with our lives untroubled by architecture. We’d probably still be checking our social media but we wouldn’t be caring about their parent company headquarters any more than we do their server farms.
The Autopoiesis of Architecture
What I’ve learned over again is that the meaning of words depends upon what an author chooses them to mean. On the opening page readers were warned they may experience a sensation of “intellectual vertigo”. Now, after having finished Volume I, I can say I did but it was more like leaning over a bottomless pit of darkness than ascending too high into the stratosphere. The true value of this book is the queasiness it causes. It didn’t get better towards the end but I did. I made decisions about what I believed in and what I won’t tolerate. Try it. You may never want to read another book about architecture or trust anything a starchitect says ever again and that’s what I hope will be the lasting legacy of this book that now, courtesy of Wiley, has two hardcover copies planted in universities around the world.
If you do read it I doubt you’ll be convinced Parametricism is the way architecture should be. You’ll be encouraged to think of Parametricism as the name of a style and, in a sense, this has come to pass as students now routinely use the term “parametric curve” to describe what we once used to call a curve. Parametricism is not so much a style of building but a tool, a technique that takes parameters and synthesises them into options in a process not dissimilar to BIM.
Parametricism vs. BIM is the eternal Architecture vs. Building divide restated for our times. This iteration has architectural parameters being put to use for aesthetic exploration for no purpose other than to advance the cause of architecture and these are in opposition to BIM parameters that can be used to refine interrelating building science variables to provide safe structures that might perhaps be more comfortable or take less time to build, use fewer resources more efficiently and at the same time provide an enclosure that improves somebody’s quality of life. The question then becomes one of an architecture with no moral or ethical purpose vs. an architecture that has. The only question that matters is which one we want.