Category Archives: Parametric Tangents

thoughts prompted from reading volume one of The Autopoiesis of Architecture

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.


The Parametric Bottom Line

The ability to react quickly to design changes was one of the huge benefits CAD brought to this business of designing buildings. Even the clunkiest of programs automated drafting to manage it to some degree. It’s not that architects suddenly had time on their hands. The pace of work quickened and fast design became the new normal. BIM extended the reach of computational processes to outside architects’ offices to further reduce the risk of abortive design. Fast redesign became the new normal.


When New York by Gehry – formerly known as 8 Spruce Street formerly known as The Beekman – changed mid-crisis from apartments for sale to apartments for rental, the building was redesigned to have lower floor-to-floor heights that magicked an extra six or seven floors of rentable space into spreadsheets.


Parametric design made recalculating the cladding no more painful or costly than it would have been to redesign more conventional cladding. IF one is going to design curvy stuff then parametric design lessens risk if there’s a danger of a design changing. It has this advantage even if those parameters don’t define curves. Basically, it is insurance for architects.

This gives a competitive advantage to architects using such technologies and potentially attractive benefits for clients employing those architects for projects with a likelihood of change and abortive design work i.e. most.   


• • •

It irks purists when people conflate ‘true’ parametric design with algorithmic design and pimped-up BIM as I just have. They maintain algorithmic design deals with quantitative efficiencies whereas parametric design invokes the magic art fairies. It may all come down to a difference between parameters and linked variables which, if it exists, is all in our minds and I suggest we snap out of it. The general belief is that parametric techniques facilitate better design by allowing more ‘possibilities’ to be explored. Here’s that belief being propagated.

“If there’s one thing I learned from midterm, it’s that it’s hard as hell to explain these projects to a jury in less than six minutes, and unfortunately a lot of the discussions invariably include detours into how the process works and what exactly the parametric inputs and geometric objectives were meant to show. The general gist of the attached image is showing that after 23 generations of designs (100 designs per generation) the form started optimizing for structure and placed the columns at opposite ends of the space frame to minimize deflection. The columns include programmatic space and another goal was that they begin to clump together and cease to be columns, but begin to evolve into stalagmite forms hanging from the roof. The challenge moving forward becomes to begin to wrap the design possibilities into a coherent narrative regarding an airport in the completely insane site in Mumbai.”

The last sentence shows how the belief that design possibilities and the project brief are totally separate things is being propagated as well. Elsewhere, I’ve called this dysfunctional. However, if there are all these design possibilities then presumably they are the result of a design process but from where and what?

It used to be the case designers would select criteria they wanted to have influence the final result, and also decide how they would interact in the final result. Scripting is analogous to these processes designers traditionally did in their heads, perhaps with a sheet of paper to record steps of a process and its results. If we ignore the fact that some relevant criteria traditionally accounted for unconsciously and as a matter of course may still be resistant to scripting, then we can say that scripting is a true creative process and not the computers generating the universes of permutations as they did for our hapless student above. Despite being a true creative process, scripting is regarded as grunt work for realising the design inputs of a scribbler elite. This is called progress.

When to stop the computers generating those universes of permutations is another genuine design decision, and the process of selecting from amongst them is another. These too are tasks designers have traditionally and often at the same time processed in their heads to arrive a solution that works.


There are no statistics for comparative rates of success between these two approaches but what scripting has done is to make certain types of design idea easier to communicate, document and construct. What this has done is bring about an increase in the amount of architectural ideas that need scripting but I can’t see any improvement in the quality of those ideas or any change in the use to which those ideas are put. 

Yours truly, AR, April 2003

GM, AR, April 2003

This still holds. Parametric design simplifies the design production process by ordering architectural design into a Fordist production line of ‘inspiration’, selection (of criteria), translation, synthesis and selection (of solution). It all sounds very 20th century to me and still very much the same Model-T even though you can now have it in any colour. And shape.

What makes me think this is not too far from the truth is how little emphasis is placed on the creativity of scripting as codified mental selection and synthesis, and how much we’re encouraged to celebrate the design irritant said to begin the process. We hear much about the many ‘possibilities’ generated but little about the criteria for processing them. What good is a universe of possibilities if the scripting was inadequate? Or the initial irritant flawed or, God forbid, the wrong one?


• • •

There’s no such blind faith in this next example. These people know exactly what they want and how to get it. They’ve taken many of the thought processes of architectural and urban design as well and automated them to quickly arrive at a dense urban solution.

It seems genuine in that its design decisions are shaped by the same variables by which the project and its performance are to be judged. 

If it is found that something has been missed, then it can be incorporated to improve future outcomes. For example, you may’ve noticed some of the interior floor plans were a bit ropey but we can be sure a slicker mapping can now deal with floor plate and plan variations around columns and shafts. It all seems to work wonderfully if you want your town to look like a leaf and, apparently, we all do.


We also seem to like it when apartments of people above or below us don’t have the same floor plate. Pushing floor plates in and out presumably generates value-adding variations in line with latest market data. Much was also made of non-right angled blocks which also seem to be what value-adding ‘choice’ looks like these days. All it needs are some 3D-printed, bio-mimicking cladding and dubious screens and every trope of contemporary architecture will be represented. But not for me thanks. I’m a person, not a caterpillar.


This Ludwig Hilberseimer urban scheme uses an obvious repetition to save on design, documentation and construction costs for the purpose of delivering a product of controlled quality at lower cost. Both it and the previous scheme do the same thing but the former provides illusions of individuality, organic growth and, for what it’s worth, contemporaneity. It’s just that the cost difference between not providing those and providing those has shrunk. Were that cost difference to ever shrink to zero, something more classy will surely come along so we can continue to pay more for it. It’s what we do.

The associative design authors have been able to automate design, documentation and construction processes to lower overheads. I don’t know if those savings have been passed on to end users but they do seem to have made quite a successful practice for themselves in a very short time.


What we do know is that parametric design processes have made it easier and thus possible to produce designs that could not have been realised in previous decades, even if someone had or had wanted to conceive them. This has given many of its results a novelty value in the marketplace and in media space – a USP. Another is that, for a client, the lowered risk and potential savings of parametric design processes are very attractive in economies and markets susceptible to fluctuation – i.e. most. This is a virtue of process and not of appearance as we are led to believe.

Whereas a building having the economic advantages of prefabrication usually looks like a prefabricated building, one having the economic advantages of parametricism doesn’t necessarily have to look like a ‘parametric’ building.

Whether they do or not, designs that have followed a parametric design process have the ability to quickly respond to change up until the time construction begins. After that, they respond to change no more or less readily or happily than any other project. However, if they look ‘parametric’ they can continue to represent responding to change. Architecture as frozen parameters. (This is an after-effect of Post Modern sickness: representing something being more important than actually doing it or, in the case of Parametricism, continuing to do it.)


The killer potential advantage of parametric design is its ability to respond to economic factors. A lot of heartache could have been avoided if the universe of design possibilities for New Tokyo Stadium had been spewed out with a respective universe of costings but ‘parametric design’ isolates itself from any parameter of tangible value. (We have this in writing.)

The folly of this has been exposed. There are many other quantifiable parameters out there that could so enrich the parametric soup. Why not add environmental ones to both the concept and practice?

Clients already appreciate the risk management advantages that parametric design offers. After the Tokyo debacle, clients must be now demanding a degree of influence over the process of selecting final designs from universes of possibilities each with their respective construction, running and environmental costs. I see marriage on the horizon for parametric design, environmental performance engineering, quantity surveying and project management. They were meant for each other.

This paper, in Advanced Engineering InformaticsVolume 25, Issue 4October 2011Pages 656-675 by Michela Turrin, Peter von Buelow, Rudi Stouffs may help bring that about. It’s $39.95 for a better look.



I welcome this research despite it presenting commonsense as The Next Big Thing. My only misgiving is how the authors assume the goal is the alternative that offers the best performance. Commonsense says this ought to be so. I’m not convinced we’re there yet.

• • •


(Another design irritant defiantly rejecting the tyranny of graph paper.)

Inflationary Tendencies

Despite the internet having its wicked way with itbMZskuMwallpaper-7393991

this piece of Sufi wisdom is a reminder to be cautious and humble when times are good and, at the same time, a reminder that bad situations also have an ending. It’s not as lame as the English speaker’s “light at the end of the tunnel” or as preposterous as “every cloud has a silver lining”. It’s just a statement of fact. The good stuff doesn’t last forever and neither does the bad.


The Medium of Architecture is the next-to-last chapter in The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I. In a way I’m relieved as there’s little danger of anything substantial being said at this stage but, also wary lest the author think that, having numbed his readers into a state of acquiescent torpor, he can go on to say whatever he wants. If this book is an edifice then it’s dry stone wall construction. Thoughts are piled one on top of each other. Taking the place of mortar is the author’s conviction that everything’s arranged properly.


But “The Medium of Architecture”? I did want to know where this one would go.


I suspected the first meaning but couldn’t figure out what. Yet I couldn’t rule out the third meaning for the author does have a history of telling us he’s channeling the spirit of architecture. But no.


The medium of architecture turns out to be drawings. The chapter then rolls on with a description of how their production has changed over the years. Like a whodunit that doesn’t make you wonder who did it, you know the conclusion is going to be the blessing that is Parametricism’s parametric parameters. The potted history is brief as the author struggles to invent a progressive complexity for parametric digital models to be its culmination. The Renaissance gave us perspective. The Baroque produced complex projective geometries. Me, I think that perspective projections are more complex than the axonometric allegedly beloved by Modernists. The only ones I could think of were this

Herbert Bayer, Design for a Cinema, 1924-1925
and this (which doesn’t much strengthen the author’s case),

189_09 aju 03 Bryon

before remembering this.


However, if we’re going to bring art examples into play, there’s this Chinese axonometric from the pre-Modern, pre-Alberti 11th century when architecture didn’t exist, let alone the medium to draw it.

In this chapter we learn a lot about drawings that we had quite happy lives not knowing. It is true that a system of drawing constrains design thinking and this is not such a bad thing. The author confesses that Parametricism too has its “tropes” such as populating surfaces with parametric elements but could it be possible that this may not be a trope but the dissemination of techniques that may be of use? Busy beavering away at being avant garde, the author would be blind to such a possibility. As paths to happy futures go, I’m still unconvinced that avant garde screwing around is any better than sticking with something good and making it better. All this talk of paper and projections is necessary as it won’t do to cut oneself off from a history you want to be seen to be leading. “Drawings are dead! Long live the drawing!” Except it’s not a drawing anymore. “Drawing” and “digital model” are used interchangeably and I don’t have a problem with that. It still implies that the social function of architecture is to deliver buildings. What I do have a problem with starts on page 325 when the author borrows Luhmann’s distinction between media of communication and media of dissemination. A digital model is a medium of communication because it is what architects use to design and to communicate between themselves about that design. A medium of dissemination however, is any medium (e.g. the mass media) that is used to disseminate the results of the architectural communications. It’s on page 330 where it starts to get ugly.


In Smoke & Mirrors I noted how image is being promoted over substance – and even truth – and how any social function of architecture is being replaced by an architecture we construct in our minds from some fancy renders and supporting copy. There’s another concept from this chapter that I need to explain before putting the two together. It concerns the medium of architecture and where it fits in.


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 buy 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 Smoke & Mirrors, I was only concerned with images but animated visualisations accelerate this now-chronic dsyfunctionalism. For the moment it’s ironic but there’s probably some sinister reason why the more realistic the animation the more fantasy there is in what they depict. Animations aren’t walk-throughs – they’re fly-throughs and fly-overs and, in that sense, they’re actually better than experiencing the real thing.

Four seconds later at 0:39 you will see the sun set. This slightly cheesy animation within a animation has the effect of making the visualization look real. Just as tablet computers opened up the market for computing to people who couldn’t type, in 2013 with its Yes Is More comic book, BIG opened up the market for the disssemination of architectural imagery to the functionally illiterate.

ZHA/MIR have moved it on with this architectural cartoon and opened up the market for the dissemination of architectural imagery to the totally illiterate and, perhaps of more value to a global enterprise, the differently-languaged. The cartoon is the perfect global medium of architecture with which to establish a fan base. ZHA/MIR are very good at what they do. Hell\handcarts\going


But why was this new animation necessary? We knew all we needed to know. I sense a PR push. I get the feeling the Bee’ah Waste Centre Headquarters in Sharjah is going to be promoted like the Heydar Aliyev Culture Centre was. We won’t be allowed to forget it like we did, say, this.

Here’s another of MIR’s videos for ZHA. It’s on Vimeo.

ZahaHadid Cambodia Animation Final HQ

You can see how these videos are being used for storytelling, putting thoughts in our heads – and becoming more engaging as they do. SNAP OUT OF IT!!! We have to go to the website of the client, The Sleuk Rith Institute, to learn that “The site is located in the grounds of the Boeung Trabek High School in Phnom Penh, south of the city centre.” Here’s the Boeung Trabek High School.

Boeung Trabek High School

The author needs to re-read what he wrote on p329 regarding inflationary tendencies.

Untitled 4

I think ZHA and their Nordic render guys have crossed that line. Trust is lost. The medium is being abused and too many related parties are tuning a blind eye because of vested interests.

• • •

Here’s one last vid. It’s of the car elevators for the Porsche Tower in Miami. You can skip to the end as it does drag on a bit.

Other videos of this project exist as fly-throughs and such but all of them somewhere have an announcement like this.


In other words, what you have just seen is not a guarantee that it is what you are going to get. Property developers are more principled than architects in that respect. Decades ago, before “renders” and “visualizations” became the norm, proposed buildings were illustrated by something called an “artist’s impressions”. They were noted as that and meant nothing more than that.


Everyone understood the sky would never be as blue or the trees as green, and that real pedestrians and traffic would never populate the scene so picturesquely. We understood these to be ideal, if misleading, depictions. I’m not sure that distance is being maintained with this new batch of factually and ethically murky visualizations. When people start to comment on visualisations as if they were actual buildings then the video is no longer a medium of architecture but has become its actual content! This could all lead to some “keep it real!” backlash but, for now, it doesn’t bode well for the future if virtual experiences of an idea of architecture are more real than the buildings themselves. We need to ask ourselves three things.

  1. In what sense are they more real?
  2. Who’s making it that way?
  3. Why?

My best guess and answer to all three is that we, the consumers of architectural imagery, are the real end user. Furthermore, if this process exploits any available means to accelerate it, then it’s because someone has found a way to make some serious money from doing so. (This is not rocket science.)

Me, I can’t wait for my own personal holodeckThe experience of buildings can’t get any more virtual than it is now. Once I have my own holodeck and an internet of other content providers competing for my holocredits, architects are going to have to seriously lift their game. If animated pseudo-realities are where the hallowed soul of architecture is headed, architects are going to have to compete with gaming worlds that offer some real pleasure back in return.



The Things Architects Do #8: Themes

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. 

UntitledIn 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.

The Mystery of Beauty

We’d all like to believe in some everlasting unchanging measure of worth, architectural or otherwise, but it’s a losing battle. The old Vitruvian warhorse of Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas has been patched and updated for centuries now. Yet still it’s around.


Sure we can think of Firmitas in terms of structure and stability and Utilitas in terms of function or usefulness, but the third quality of Venustas (modernly mistranslated as Delight rather than the more accurate Beautiful because it is moral) is as distant as ever. It’s slipping away even further now no-one can believe in Objectivism.

Like most thinkers two millennia ago, Vitruvius was an Objectivist. He believed that certain works of art and architecture had this thing called Beauty that existed, like a spirit in a rock, independent of any observer. Later, Subjectivists maintained that Beauty is whatever people said it was and a particular brand of Subjectivists called Post-Kantian pluralists took this further and claimed anyone is entitled to have an opinion and, what’s more, it didn’t matter how much that view is shared by others. This seems to best describe the world as we experience it.

To show how modern they were and allow more scope for individual interpretation, Post-Modern architects loaded their buildings with multiple “readings”. They championed freedom of choice but maintained control of what the choices were.


One recent attempt to incorporate genuine subjectivity into Venustas/Beauty/Delight says it exists when a building communicates the spirit of its purpose. This sounds like it’s being defined in terms of function but to ‘communicate a spirit’ is subjectivity squared. And then multiplied, as we have to accept that buildings communicate different things to different people. There’s still the Post-Modernist smugness in the assumption those communications are always going to be of value at the one end, and accurately and passively received at the other, but the fact remains: If Delight’ exists when the spirit of a building’s purpose is communicated to a target audience, then it seems like it’s really just another name for another type of Utility.

These next bits come from A.C. Grayling’s “Philosophy 1” (Oxford University Press, 1998.)

Past attempts to explain architectural beauty have taken what was conventionally regarded as beautiful as their starting point and dissected them in terms of building elements manipulated to create qualities such as ‘harmony’, ‘proportion’, ‘rhythm’, ‘scale’ and so on.

Identifying what one likes about the things one likes is not a bad place to start, after all.

This classic philosophical stance assumes that beauty is the only, or at least the fundamental, aesthetic quality. Ugliness, blandness, mediocrity are defined negatively as the absence of those qualities. However, even within the same field of art, things considered beautiful are so diverse it’s difficult to imagine a single quality common to them all. This is often given as proof of the mystical and unknowable nature of beauty.

Objectivist philosophers like Vitruvius maintained that some works of art were inherently beautiful regardless of who is observing them. This implies that beauty is governed by rules.

Subjectivist philosophers believe that objects have no aesthetic qualities other than being able to produce certain responses in the person experiencing them. This is what Hume summed up as ‘beauty is no quality in things themselves – it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them’. Hume and, later,  Kant didn’t want to allow beauty to be completely subjective and suggested that differences of aesthetic opinion at least indicate the existence of a something on which opinions differ. They still had to describe the subjective character of aesthetic judgments without permitting a riot of aesthetic opinions.

Either way, the problem remains that 

if aesthetic judgments are to be distinct from mere likings and qualify in some sense as rational, then they must in some sense be open to justification. 

• • •


In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, the concept of Beauty makes its first appearance on page 157.


Two footnotes point us (forward, annoyingly) towards further explanation

Untitled 2but, for the time being, we’re meant to

  1. Believe in Beauty and that
  2. Beauty, in conjunction with Function, drives architecture.

No justification or evidence. We’re just asked to believe.

double code






The author is obviously an Objectivist at heart for, on the same page, he defines Beauty as “formal resolution” and so implies Beauty has rules that are followed to a conclusion called a “resolution”. It would be nice to be told what those rules are but I already know that we’re not going to, either here or in Vol II.

3.8.3 The Mystery of Beauty.

Here’s the first two paragraphs.

4Did you see that? “Attention to beauty and aesthetic values demarcates architecture from science and engineering.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that Beauty is real, 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 the path of more rational and provable truth.

Here’s the full chapter.

That’s all we get. The last sentence is particularly worrying. Apparently, reflecting upon what Beauty is can’t be done while designing, even though Beauty is guiding the design process by (supposedly) telling the designer when he/she/her Dameship has arrived at it. We end the chapter no wiser than we were at the beginning when the author stated “Beauty must be shrouded in mystery in order to fulfil its function in the design process … to bring the design decision process to conclusion …” This is not an argument. It is a statement of belief.

• • •

There’s a lot about this book that worries me and a lot of that has to do with creating the appearance of knowledge and the projection of authority. The methods aren’t new.

The plain cover: This implies that what’s inside is important enough in itself and does not need added fanciness. It’s all about the contents.


There aren’t any pictures: They say a picture’s worth a thousand words and we know what’s meant by that. But why use a picture when you can say it in a thousand words? Another way a book can convey an air of authority is by having a lot of words and by making it appear as if every word is essential.

An intricate system of numerical indexing: This is a way of creating the appearance that every word is not only essential but worth quoting and referencing. Making them easy to find implies they are important enough to be searched for. We’ve just seen what Schumacher 3.8.3 had to offer.

Length: I’m estimating The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I weighs in at 180,000 words which is about the same as the 181,253 of the New Testament, but the approx. 300,000 of  Vol. II is still half the 593,493 words of the Old Testament. A combined total of 480,00 for the Autopoieses against 774,746 for the Old and New Testaments. TAoAI+II is still short of The Good Book OT+NT, but it’s making a challenge.

Difficult to follow: A book of authority is not a page turner. It’s not even meant to be read sequentially. It’s not meant to be taken on holiday to wile away the time in pleasant surroundings. It commands complete attention and paying anything less is disrespectful. The continuation of that attention is challenged by contents that morph from thought to thought with scant regard for continuity. Books of authority are designed to be dipped into every now and then like your favourite box set when the fancy takes you.

Tone: In the same way as sadists and masochists, or the needy and the controlling unerringly find each other and call it love, imagined authority finds its natural partner with imagined inferiority. An authoritarian author will make a submissive reader feel stupid if they don’t understand, or that they’re lacking in intellect or dedication if the words they read pass before their eyes but the meaning doesn’t penetrate or their argument unfold. Writer and reader are locked in mutually symbiotic relationship.

To this list we can now add

Adopting the structures of religious texts: In The Mystery of Beauty, the author is asking us to:

  1. believe in something whose existence requires an act of faith, 
  2. allow that belief to guide our (design) behaviour and determine when we’ve done good and not bad,
  3. accept that that something we believe in can never be known and 
  4. that it all has to be that way in order for the system to work.

This sounds like a religion to me! The real narrative of The Autopoiesis of Architecture is to convey the weight of authority to people willing to believe. If it makes people feel happy and special, then this is not such a bad thing. Schumacher can believe whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t think other people are scum for not thinking the same. Except he does. Ref: Bad Form.

From the first witch doctor onwards, power has been linked to creating the impression of possessing privileged knowledge about how the world works – about what rules have to be followed and how. Mayan priests, for example, convinced their populations that a live person had to be sacrificed every morning if the sun was to rise. It turned out not to be so.

• • •

Early on in The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Schumacher dismissed the idea that Religion was a Great Communications System on par with art, economics, politics and law and went on to formulate his loose-fit extended analogy that intends to illustrate how architecture is one.


Footnote 6, p75

Back then, I didn’t understand why he felt that statement needed making. I still don’t. But if Schumacher doesn’t think that Religion is one of the great functions systems of society, then I don’t think he should adopt the look, feel, argument and purpose of it to claim that Architecture is one and, by corollary, position himself as a deliverer of truth.

Gods-SunriseI’m still not seeing the light.

Dubai Deconstruction Update

July 24, 2014: Today we’re going to make an eroded cube.

Actually, we started to do it back in 2007. When it’s finished, it’s going to be another of those buildings that was “ahead of its time a decade ago” so who knows what it’ll be in 2016 when it’s supposed to come online? In 2009 the cube was quickly put on ice until the property market heated up again :S Hence the current developer, media and architect impatience to see the bloody thing built so everyone can move on to more of the same.

Zaha-Hadid-Opus-Office-Tower-Abu-Dhabi-UAEAs with many buildings, you start with some columns and slabs. See how the cube will appear to be what passes for “floating” in the world of architecture? This is how it’s done. Have some recessed columns and then, when your building is sufficiently floaty, have big concrete corbels pick up the load of the columns above that are sufficiently out of the way to not lower the office rents, but not sufficiently up to the edge so they mar the essential cubeness. Best wait before deciding if it was worth the effort.

Those little bits of space between the column and the glazing can’t be used and so can’t be let. The area is usually deducted from the rentable square footage and the question is if the end aesthetic effect will enable this office space to be rented at a premium that compensates? It might. Photobombing Opus below is the O14 building by NY architects Reiser+Umemoto.

P1020122It’s got a load-bearing external wall with loads of holes and loads of steel around those holes. That load bearing wall is basically a “screen” that’s largely detached from the floor loads it carries, meeting the slab only where there aren’t holes. 50%?

Building a structural wall and then denying it half its opportunities to support the floors was never going to be a low-rent way to build. Nevertheless, the building’s mostly let at above market rates despite being over around the arse end of Business Bay.

Opus is located behind Executive Towers, across the road from the “Bay Avenue” car park, local supermarket and restaurants. It’s not a great place, but architects don’t usually get to decide what their clients want built and where.


Anyway, here’s where it was up to this morning.

P1020129It’s getting a bit shapey now. It’s basically two buildings that’ll have a steel bridge connecting them at the top at the front, and a glassy roof covering a large lobby between the two cores so you can admire the hole above. You start to get an idea how all this is going to join up.

P1020178Inside the internal curves will be corridors providing more opportunities to admire the hole. These’ll have to be the only corridors if there’s to be any hope of achieving a floor plan efficiency anywhere near 85%. I don’t think it’s going to look much like this image.


The crevice on the south side has been undeconstructed, presumably to claw back some value.

P1020180ZHA’s website has an image with the inside of the curvy bit all lit up like the Belarus National Library. That’s something we can look forward to.

435_BelarusNationalLibrary (1)

3 August 2014

Oops, Opus is an hotel now. Almost as an aside with the August 6 announcement of the lobby feature thing, was the mention that it will be an hotel without any acknowledgement that it was ever to have been otherwise. “It is an hotel. It has always been an hotel”.


Not that it matters. Property developers develop property and it makes no difference to them whether it’s retail, commercial, leisure or residential. One might have thought that difference might matter a bit to architecture, if not architects, but no. A lobby’s a lobby whatever the website. The function of the lobby art thing is A) to remind us to look forward to this building we’d forgotten about and B) to forcibly reframe the frame of reference in terms the architects are comfortable with.

We’re seeing more of the back in this current PR nudge. It’s never going to photograph well from the already over-exposed front view from Al Amal Street. When it’s completed, it’ll be interesting to see if Iwan Baan can make it look as fab as he did the Heydar Aliyev Monument to Dynastic Kleptocracy.




OPUS_Hotel_Bedroom_dezeen_468The render of the hotel room and view must be one they’d made earlier as it places the building 16km (10 or so miles) down the road in Dubai Marina – here, specifically –


and not in Business Bay in what would have been the shadow of the Signature Towers that never got to exist. I’m unsure if this is just sloppy work or that nobody could be arsed to get it right anymore once the PR value of Opus was compromised by its 2008 stillbirth. What we’re seeing is minimal effort to extract whatever value can be extracted before a brief fanfare of publicity and a Stirling Prize upon its opening.

Not that any of this matters either. It reminds me of Tom Heneghan‘s winning entry in the 1975 Japan Architect housing competition

with a house for Raquel Welch. What was a superstar, he reasoned, if not a media fiction? The house, therefore, existed only as a magazine article; the entry (non-conforming, of course) gave the fictional house from the compositor’s point of view. Image signifies image. It was so postmodern it was positively prescient.


SchoolWorkHenegan’s final entry showed the final (TIME) magazine article being read outside the stands. The mock article was illustrated with an image of a cottage something like this


and a Bruce Goff interior. It was brilliant and scary and true.

tumblr_lymw6wF2KJ1r7xcd6o1_500People put the two together in their heads to imagine something that didn’t exist and was never going to. Job done.

What I find interesting about OPUS is that the idea of it was put in our heads long ago and processed. Now, when we’ve processed it and mostly forgotten about it or otherwise dismissed it, it’s actually painful to watch the thing get built. In the great fiction that is architectural progress, whatever the design was supposed to do has already been done. All that remains to be seen is the reality bit.

The Chartreuse Ford

“You can have any colour you like as long as it’s black.”

Henry Ford

Oh the indignity of having your surname prefixed by “Post-“! Me, I never knew Post-Fordism existed until page 73 of The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol.1.

P73The first two sweeping statements are what happens when your aesthetics has no ethical dimension. Non-visual virtue is invisible. One of the original tenets of Modernism was to provide Post World War I Europe with decent housing. But I digress.

post fordism

Post-Fordism pops up again on p.305 in connection with flexible specialization and mass customization. Clearly, the author is not talking about mass housing anymore. He never was. He’s talking about the production of architecture and other products less essential to existence. This is sloppy thinking. Insulting, in a way.

Obviously, the drift is that Parametricism is an architectural adaption to the underlying shift blah blah but what kind of adaption is it? Lots of things adapt to other things, after all. And what exactly is an “architectural adaption”? An accommodation? A representation? A critical commentary? A reflexive roll-over?

Two posts back, I gave my reasons why I thought this curvilinear fluidity schtick might appeal to certain clients but I wasn’t talking about those for social housing. I was talking about specialty niche custom product for those who can afford it. These clients were never Fordist. Ever. Fordism and Post-Fordism are red herrings-isms.

russia house

  1. My overriding background objection is that surely there must have been other significant changes in society over the past 50 years more worthy for a new architectural styling to take its cues or clues from? Does the world really need an architectural style adapted to patterns of mass consumption that exist only because there is the production capacity to satisfy them?
  2. My second point is where exactly is this Post-Fordist society The Autopoiesis of Architecture is supposed to cater to?

There’s so much I don’t know about Post-Fordism. I do know a little bit about Fords.

P1010370Everyone knows the 1908 Model-T Ford only came in black. I have it on good authority (my father) that black was chosen because black paint dried the fastest. And it’s my father I remember repeating that quote “You can have it any colour you like as long as it’s black.” Mr. Ford is apparently more famous for the assembly line production that made the Model-T the world’s first affordable automobile. If that’s Fordism, then I’m inclined to think it’s not such a bad thing. Especially since we’re still waiting for it to happen with spatial enclosures.

Fords are still with us a hundred years on but this era of Post-Fordist specialization and mass customisation has been around for, say, about half that. It’s the Post-WWII age of the consumer, of individual choice, of have-it-your-way.

Did I just hear “… without a lot of waiting”? Yeah right.

I drive a 2010 Ford Focus. It’s black, because a black one was for sale and, I guess I must be a Fordist for I didn’t have any strong feelings about what colour my car should be. I don’t think the colour of my car says anything about me other than that. And nor do I believe it should. However, I go to my local Ford dealer every 10,000km or three months whichever comes first and have my Focus serviced.

Last time there was this 2014 Ford Mustang.


Curious to test-drive this new fancy Post-Fordism, I asked a salesman how long I’d have to wait if I wanted it in a custom colour – chartreuse. Not the pukey web CHARTREUSE GREEN #7FFF00 or the vile web CHARTREUSE YELLOW #DFFF00 but the colour of the liqueur that gave the colour the name in the first place. Green, preferably – cheers!


I was told it’d take twelve weeks minimum. This is our evolved Post-Fordist society in action 2014. You can have what you want, but until they finish making it your way you have to make do with nothing.

Post-Fordist society seems to all be about consumerism and shifting goods that sell for more because they’ve had questionable notions of personal status and self-esteem veneered onto them. I can see where any theory of architecture would backdoor into this as it’s not that different from what it architecture has always done. Prefabrication and repetition never fire the public imagination.

Prix Pictet Hong Hao My Things No 1

Slavoj Žižek recently had some things to say about this type of consumption. 

What we are witnessing today is the direct commodification of our experiences themselves: what we are buying on the market is fewer and fewer products (material objects) that we want to own, and more and more life experiences – experiences of sex, eating, communicating, cultural consumption, participating in a lifestyle. Michel Foucault’s notion of turning one’s self itself into a work of art thus gets an unexpected confirmation: I buy my bodily fitness by way of visiting fitness clubs; I buy my spiritual enlightenment by way of enrolling in the courses on transcendental meditation; I buy my public persona by way of going to the restaurants visited by people I want to be associated with.

Once, when I lived in Japan, I was asked to accompany someone to the birthday party of a Japanese actor since he was also “interested in architecture”. The interior of his apartment had been remodelled in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House. Imagine this, but without the space, the light or the height.

screen_shot_2012-10-07_at_84701_pm1349664446370 (1)

Many presents were Frank Lloyd Wright themed. A large Frank Lloyd Wright monograph, or a reproduction Robie House lamp such as this one, glad to be back in Japan.


A similar and more recent example of someone with highly-visible architectural enlightement experiences is Brad Pitt whose famous love of architecture goes as far as Frank Gehry and his Hove apartments,


but won’t say no to a Frank Lloyd Wright Massaro House. 

It’s now increasingly easy for architectural likings to bear no relationship to any virtues of the vehicle for those likings. Flaunting architectural likings has become a tribal indicator on par with being seen in an artisan coffee shop. 

The implications of this for architecture are enormous. If we’re talking about image, then the branding of architects is not a sideshow but the main event. When Rem Koolhaas or Patrik Schumacher talk about the integration of design and communications, they’re talking about the integration of design and personal branding. I doubt Zaha Hadid has read The Autopoiesis of Architecture. She’s no need to as the brand’s been pretty much secured. Theory’s not really had much to do with her star trek – and I wish her well and good luck! Guest speaker/judge/celebrity trumps university tenure/dull treatises anyday. We just want to be entertained.

So then, if what we like – or claim to like – either defines us or what we would like to be defined by, then IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER IF IT’S ANY GOOD. All it needs to be is something that is a carrier for aspirations for, in this day and age, it is a product! Every era has one. IT DOESN’T MEAN IT’S GOOD – I mean, who builds Art Nouveau buildings these days? Or even Post-Modern ones? Has anyone mentioned Deconstructivist and cutting-edge in the same sentence recently?

So then, in order to have popular keywords in the architecture communications space, we can conclude that:

  • Being perceived as cutting edge or avant garde or the Next Big Thing is a plus – a Good Thing. It never did any architect any harm. Even when you prostitute your early promise and whatever artistic credentials people once credited you with it’s no problem – people have short memories and don’t want to see you betray whatever they imagine to be left of them. They’ll ignore it as they’d rather pretend they’ve grown with you. A deadly circle. Early enthusiasts become later defenders.
  • Expensive is good. What appeals to the rich is always exclusive. Alberti knew it. Palladio milked it. Wren franchised it globally.
  • Unique, or the appearance of it, is good. Clients find it appealing – they find their self-worth in it. Sad-fuck website clickers will like it. Job done.
  • Academic incomprehensibility is nothing compared to the mystery of Art. (“I like curves.”) Curvy is good. And when we’re tired of that, angular will be good. You may think I dislike Zaha Hadid – I don’t. I met and interviewed her twice when she was wooing love-hotelier Kuzuwa-san about the time Azabu Juban Building and Tomigaya Building were possibly on the cards.

Anyway, when I met her outside the elevators in some Tokyo hotel, oooh 1991, I instinctively gave her a hug and a kiss. She’s done well with some attitude, some balls and some costume. To her lasting credit, the brand she’s created for mass consumption does what it’s designed to do without any huge amount of thinking and can stand alone without the parasitic theory.

In our culture of instant gratification, as long as I let everyone know a chartreuse Ford is an object of my desire, I don’t actually need to own one. (This is just as well as as I’d still be waiting.) I suspect this is why images of buildings are more useful for architects’ brands than the buildings themselves. If the internet is where all our aesthetic lifestyle posturing gets done, then all we need to do that is an image and an opportunity to show we like it. Such a situation is exactly what we have.