Tag Archives: Avant-garde

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

Increasingly, I’m beginning to think that what the book describes is probably an accurate description of the world of architecture the author sees. In this chapter, for the first time, I had the distinct impression that the author really believes what he is writing. In a previous Book Club 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 commercially successful architects ever be avant-garde? From the first part of section 2.3, it becomes 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. 

Anyway, to paraphrase a page or two:

the avant-garde care what their colleagues think but the mainstream care what their clients think.

On the surface, this is true. However, even the most apparently non-commercial of architects are still selling something. Even the author has a product of which this book is but one part for, like any architect who writes, this book is advertising for the architectural products associated with it. This holds true until a certain threshold is reached. Once past that threshold, the architectural products are mere vehicles to sustain an aggressive campaign of global branding that can be more efficiently applied to market things that are not buildings. But this is another story.

To get back to the point, avant-garde architects are not starving in their attics for the sake of their art. The author mentions some examples of avant-garde architects and none of them have too badly. Professor Sir Peter Cook (Archigram) is still designing and lecturing. Adolfo Natalini (Superstudio) is still in business. OMA isn’t begging for work and ZHA aren’t desperate for work, at least not until we saw them in action for the Park Avenue job. [Here’s a link to information on ZHA’s latest company accounts – http://www.bdonline.co.uk/news/job-cuts-help-profits-rise-at-zaha-hadid/5048172.article.] Architects such as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind make a lot of media noise but have no place in this book since, according to the author, they don’t write or make any contribution to theory. This seems ungracious since Chapter 2.3 mentions that Parametricism is a development of “Folding” architecture and we can definitely accuse FG and DL of encouraging that. Foster + Partners, apparently, are both avant-garde and mainstream. Although F+P do not write or make any contribution to theory, they apparently have a section (= a few workstations?) reserved for “parametric research”.

The author’s definitions of avant-garde and mainstream are opposing yet symbiotic. The radical and brave avant-garde experimenters provide the ideas for the mainstream to execute and make mainstream. This thought was presented more credibly, albeit in a less positive light, by Robert Adam in his article Globalisation and Architecture (The Architectural Review of March 2008. Read.

Globalised commercial architecture has developed a symbiotic relationship with a new breed of global star architects. As cities, more than nations, now compete to attract global investment and global tourism, they seek brand differentiation and symbolic modernity. The commissioning of public buildings by star architects is now an established marketing technique. The buildings must be (in the literal sense of the word) extra-ordinary and designed by one of a small band of global architects whose nationality is more accidental than significant.

The names are familiar and include Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaus, Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava and Renzo Piano. The personal status of these architects is now so great and the demand for their presence so high – from students, the lecture circuit and competitions as well as the cities themselves – that their work is almost by necessity strongly conceptual and cannot rely on any detailed study of fine grain or culture of the locality. Indeed, as it is the intention that the building should be an iconic global product, local distinctiveness is often not a desirable characteristic.

The competitive marketing of these buildings by cities has set up an upward demand spiral. Out of the work of the star architects, design types and styles emerge and become identified with successful cities, even before they are built. As star architects are, by definition, limited in number, demand for symbolic and extraordinary buildings far outstrips the capacity of the star group to provide their own designs, however conceptual their original input may be. The conceptual nature of the star product allows global commercial firms (who have sometimes been acting as the executive architects for star architects) to clone the trademark design characteristics of the star product. The reproduction of the spiral or twisted forms, globular glass, planar intersection and so on is facilitated by the use of the same sophisticated computer graphics employed by the offices of the star architects to develop and present their concepts.

Having read this, it becomes easier to believe that an architect who gives the appearance of not caring about money and buildability is attractive to a certain type of client – they always have been. It becomes easier to see that avant-garde architects and mainstream architects are both swimming in the same stream but feeding at different levels. But how do you feel about this next statement?

Architecture and the design disciplines on the one hand and the sciences on the other hand are very different communications systems, differentiated by fundamentally different societal functions and specialised around fundamentally different codes: the code of truth (or perhaps the double code of truth-novelty, demanding new truth) in the case of the sciences and the double code of utility-beauty (or the triple code of utility-beauty-novelty), demanding new, functional beauty, for the avant-garde segment) in the case of architecture/design. The fact that both science and architecture, and indeed the art system as well, share the code of novelty does not dissolve the sharp demarcation between these autopoietic function systems.

I understand how science is interested in new truth, updated truth, better truth, deeper truth, but I’m not so sure what “new functional beauty” is or whether it being demanded (or even supplied) is a good thing. In science, new usually means better but I can’t say the same for architecture or art. I may change my mind when I learn more about what this “new, functional beauty” is but, for now, I simply don’t believe, can’t believe that “science and architecture, and indeed the art system as well, share the code of novelty”. I put a big wobbly red underline under that entire paragraph.

minor quibble: I think we should be told why “architecture/design” occur together.

minor quibble: I can’t let phrases like “… between these autopoietic function systems” pass without comment. The author is neglecting his duty to convince me that architecture is an autopoietic function system. I am not assuming it is and refuse to suspend disbelief, go along for the ride and see how I feel when I come to the end.

major quibble: For the following, we’re back to using the language of evolution again.

In architecture, the mechanism of selection that is interposed between variation and retention is operated by the early adopters that bring avant-garde results into the mainstream. This role is also played by avant-garde firms that mature and grow as their success in the avant-garde arena opens up wider opportunities towards participation within the mainstream.

I get the feeling that this book is going to be a justification for everything. It is of course fine for maturity and growth to bring success but why should “avant-garde” architects want it so badly? Time will of course tell how accurate this ‘avant-garde’ label proves. The word ‘starchitect’ could just as easily be used without too much forcing around the edges. So, in my opinion, having “avant-garde” pretensions is nothing more than an alternative way to enter the field where the big boys play for big bucks.

The individual names/careers often move from the avant-garde to the mainstream segment. This is frequently due to the combination of the very success of the respective architect and a further paradigm shift within the avant-garde.

Seriously, does anybody ever go the opposite direction? p104-105 make a cracking read. It’s difficult to take the author seriously. I can’t pretend anymore, even to myself, that I am the intended audience for this book.

Final thought: The average age of these avant-garde architects is about 60-65 isn’t it? Shouldn’t they be a bit younger? The whole thing reeks of a Philip Johnson-esque attempt to remain relevant within a system of branding and media feeding (call it the autopoiesis of architecture if you will) that PJ was largely responsible for perfecting. Will history repeat itself? Probably. These systems are self-sustaining, after all. That much is true.


I posted the above because I thought this chapter had too many thoughts for a single post. Here are some of the other parts I had a problem with.

p96 The crisis of Modernism – as symbolized by the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St Louis in 1972 only 17 years after its construction – required a radical rethinking of the values and methods of architecture.

Firstly, when did anything written by Charles Jencks start to become truth? I doubt the problems faced by the residents of Pruitt-Igoe were solved by ducks and decorated sheds.  What Charles Jencks succeeded in doing was killing of the remnants of any social agenda architecture might once have had, and that weren’t killed off by Johnson and Hitchcock 50 years earlier. About 2022, people might start to think once more that architecture should at least try to fix social problems. Watch out for the backlash!

p98 The ability to procure permanent innovation is a necessary prerequisite for the ongoing survival of the autopoeisis of architecture.

I prefer to view this need for change as the usual built-in redundancy that sustains production and consumption the global economy. For the first time I began to wonder if innovation in architecture is a good thing. If one accepts the author’s definition of architecture, then I don’t think that architecture is a good thing.

p99 The avant-garde work is primarily addressed to an expert audience of other architects, with only a minimal and indirect engagement with a larger, non-expert audience.


p105 contains an passage on how the avant-garde provide stuff for the mainstream to copy and ‘dumb-down’. The author puts it like this.

To the extent the avant-garde and mainstream are differentiated, this transmission of achievements from one to the other implies that the discursive embedding of the transmitted elements (concepts, techniques and formal repertoires) changes. This re-embedding implies a certain loss of meaning or ‘dumbing down’, ie a loss of certain discursive connections.  Although the recontextualized concepts, techniques and formal repertoires also gain specific new concerns and relevances, there is an overall net loss of meaning measure in terms both of the density of discursive connections and in terms of the thematic scope of contexts in which the respective innovations are embedded. This re-embedding also implies a reduction of complexity. This reduction of complexity should be no occasion for regret, but is rather an inevitable consequence – and indeed the raison d’être – of the division of labour that is structured by the differentiation of avant-garde and mainstream.

I don’t suppose then, that ZHA can complain about one of their China jobs being copied, even though I don’t think the author was thinking of such a literal ‘re-embedding’.

The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap.1: Architectural Theory

Continuing these meditations upon the reading of The Autopoiesis of Architecture, the inspiration for this post was Chapter 1: Architectural Theory. The Introduction mentioned that the phenomenon of architecture can be analysed as an autonomous network (and autopoietic system) of communications along the lines of that proposed by Niklaus Luhmann for social systems.  Let’s not forget that this is what the book is all about.

Thinking back to the introduction, most introductions are meant to 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 had feedback from friends, family, colleagues and editors. The introduction is an opportunity to address this feedback so the reader has a better idea of what to expect, take on board what the author has written, and perhaps read the book more productively. What I remember most from the introduction is that I was asked to suspend judgment on the conclusions until the end of the book yet AT THE BEGINNING was asked to accept that there will be some strangeness of terminology and a possible sense of intellectual queasiness. Why should I? The book will either convince or it will not. It may well be an exercise in preaching to the converted. 

Chapter 1 deals with Architectural Theory and its importance for architecture. The territory of the book continues to expand as the author’s definition of architecture shrinks to fit his premise of architecture as an autopoietic system of communications. In passing, I wonder if Religion is an autopoietic system system of communications? I just mention that because, as I read on, I get the distinct feeling I’m being asked to make some Leap of Faith that I find impossible.

Architecture, like all the other subsystems of society … (p31)

See what I mean? We’re trying to ascertain if architecture is a subsystem of society or not. Sentences like this ask me to buy into a premise I’ve yet to be convinced of. It does explain some phenomena however.

Architectural discourse  maintains the unity of architecture by means of boundary management, denouncing incursions from neighbours such as engineers and artists who threaten to invade and blur the boundary and distinctiveness of architecture. The discourse also polices against unsustainable overextension of architects into alien territory.

The mention of engineers and artists is telling. Architecture is the filling in the sandwich. The word unsustainable jars here for there seems to be no limit to the extent that architects can extend themselves into engineering and art. The author’s colleague, for example, has extended herself into traditional artistic fields such as sculpture and painting as well as visual art fields such as exhibition and performance space design as well as decorative art fields such as furniture and tableware as well as designer goods such as jewelry, footwear, perfume bottles and other trinkets. Rather than showing disrespect for boundaries, this is an example of incredible commercial savvy. Territory is only alien until it’s conquered. An architect has yet to release a fragrance, for example. “Rotterdam”, Herzog & de Meuron’s effort was tongue-in-cheek so doesn’t count.

The need to mention the need to demarcate architecture from engineering is an example of preaching to the converted. Why should it be? And what is this thing that needs to be?

The assumption that a term or title like ‘architecture’ denotes a cohesive unity is far from self-evident … (p28)

and the author (in footnote 1 chapter 1) does mention Reinhold Martin’s comment “We cannot universalize any single, historically or culturally specific set of disciplinary practices under the heading “architecture”. I thought this deserved a bit more time discussing but no, if we start talking about this, then there won’t be much left to talk about.

Architecture does exist. It is a phenomena of recursive social communication with real internal unity. This is not only the a priori stipulation at the beginning of the theoretical edifice to be developed here, it is also the conclusion of the accumulated experience of an architect working for 20 years in many different countries across the world, collaborating with local architects, lecturing, discussing and meeting the local representatives of world architecture.

Architecture then, is at least as real as religion. The next sentence follows then, I guess.

The question at any time is: who can act in the name of architecture? (p32)

Like with any rhetorical question, the answer is not too long in coming. Now, the whole point of this book is to organise architectural phenomena into Niklas Luhmann’s theory of the development of social systems. If it is going to to this, then there needs to be something to fit Luhmann’s evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection and retention. The avant-garde architect, it seems, is the generator of variation for it is only they who have

the audacity to experiment and operate the graphic apparatus in analogy to (and inspired by) abstract art. The avant-gardist architect assumes the role of original creator or form-giver. Experimental avant-garde practice – stirred by external pressures and stimulations – is thus the differentiated mechanism that is the first precondition for an accelerated evolution.

This provides a good insight into the mind and motivations of the author, and where the author sees himself in his grand scheme of things. Lumann’s category of selection is (naturally) provided by

an architectural theory that closely tracks the avant-garde movement  – selecting and reinforcing the results of experimentation via manifestoes and theoretical treatises. … The crucial point here is that any new, unusual practice tends to disappear quickly unless it is being selected and interpreted by architectural theory, and thus reinforced by being inscribed into the discourse.

Here, I’m reminded of what happened to Le Corbusier’s “avant-garde” “inventive” “variation” of brick walls and concrete slabs in Maisons Jaoul (1954-1956).

Stirling and Gowan – within the boundaries of avant-garde practice – used it for their Ham Common Flats (1958).

This invention was very useful and became mainstream and started to be used in British council housing from the early 1960s.

This new and unusual practice did disappear quickly because it was not being selected and described by architectural theory and reinforced by being inscribed into the discourse. From this I conclude that Architectural theory only selects and describes unusual practices that are value-adding and aspirational (for as long as they remain so, and no longer) and irrespective of their actual worth or utility. Nothing I’ve read so far has forced me to rethink this.

For me then, the third category of retention does ring true, but I don’t think it is A Good Thing.

As mechanisms of retention we can identify canonizing architectural histories of the recent past, ordinary schools of architecture and the inertia of mainstream architectural practice. Two exemplary retrospective canonizations that facilitated retention/reproduction were, for example, Hitchcock and Johnson’s The International Style and Jencks The Language of Post Modern Architecture.  Both works are insightful distillations that could look back upon a decade of accomplished avant-garde design and theory [!] …  Once certain innovations have entered the mainstream – with the initial help and continuous sustenance of canonozing histories and and supported by educational curricula – they tend to stay there until pushed out by new innovations brought forward by new avant-garde design and theory. Only when these innovations have reached the stage of reproduction should we speak of evolutionary achievements within the discipline of architecture.

Now, going back to my example of load bearing brickwork and exposed concrete slabs, this was avant-garde and innovative when Corbusier and Stirling did it – it was unusual and innovative and responsible for making buildings look different. However, as soon as it reached the stage of reproduction, it was replaced with some new innovation. What’s happened here is that load bearing brick walls and exposed slabs were fine as long as their theory was being reproduced in mainstream architectural discourse (by canonizing histories and educational curricula, etc.) but shunned as soon as they came to be reproduced in mainstream architectural practice (as council housing).  I conclude from this that The point of architectural theory is not to generate anything of tangible social utility. I have no problem with this. Nobody said that architectural theory needs to be useful. 

Actually, the author is.

Architectural theory is integral to architecture in general and to all architectural styles in particular: there is no architecture without theory.

I’m growing accustomed to the author’s definition of architecture so I don’t find this statement particularly bold or even outrageous anymore. How many of the following statements would you agree with? Give yourself a grade out of 10.

  1. Architecture as distinguished from mere building is inherently theoretical. 
  2. Architecture in contrast to mere building is marked by radical innovation and theoretical argument. [Tautology alert!] 
  3. Innovation questions the way things are done and requires an argument which transcends the mere concerns and competencies of building. Innovation requires theory.
  4. Every great work of architecture offers a radical innovation.
  5. Most great architects are also important architectural theorists. … Virtually every architect who counts within architecture was both an innovator and a theorist or writer. The most striking examples are Alberti, Le Corbusier, Rem Koolhaas and Greg Lynn.
  6. In contrast, vernacular building relies on tradition, on well proven solutions taken for granted. The status quo does not require theory.
  7. Innovation calls for theory to substitute for the assurances that were provided by adherence to tradition. Theory thus steps in to provide a necessary function that allows building to become architecture, thus providing etc. etc.
  8. The primary function of architectural theory is to compensate for the lost certainty of tradition, where the appropriateness and functionality of buildings were guaranteed by the fact that the new buildings consisted in nothing but the faithful repetition of long-since evolved and surreptitiously corroborated models.
  9. Only theoretically informed building design constitutes architecture.
  10. Architecture is a discourse that is geared to permanent innovation, keeping up with and promoting a dynamic society.

The gist of all this is that architectural theory is necessary to provoke innovation because the trial and error processes of tradition and vernacular architecture are too slow to tie in with the authors vision of a modern, functionally differentiated world society. Or global market. Ah what the hell

we cannot only be concerned with the objective side of architecture’s performance.

No, I don’t suppose We can. (Leave me out of this please!) The next ten pages are rather dull, consisting of a categorisation of past theories of architecture and how this one is going to be better than each of them as well as all of them combined. I started to wish this book had a few more pictures to illustrate the products of problematizing theories, generative theories and analytic-predictive theories.  Skipping to page 54 it starts to get interesting again. The author restates his hopes that Luhmann’s theory of social systems will provide the required flexibility and robustness for a theory of autopoiesis of architecture for, after all, it can be applied to politics, law, economy, science, art, education, mass media and such. (Fashion? Religion?)

Luhmann never had and direct communication with architecture, and he did not explicitly recognise architecture as one of the great function systems of society.

Luhmann consigned architecture to the art system.
(p55, footnote 52)

Why, I wonder?

Instead, Luhmann buried architecture in the art system, simply falling prey to older, still lingering societal understandings of architecture, including anachronistic architectural self-descriptions. (p58)

On the other hand, it could be that Luhmann was right and architecture is a subset of the art system. I can see why he might think that. After all, Chapter 1 has told us that “architecture” (as defined by the author) has the following characteristics.

  • It comes with a theory
  • It is concerned with authorship
  • It is concerned with the breaking of traditions for the sake of it
  • It is not concerned with vernacular traditions
  • It has a worldwide reach and market
  • There is always a next new and big thing
  • It likes very much to use the word “avant-garde”

All this sounds very much like art to me. I can see why Luhmann didn’t bother taking it further, but he died in 1998 so we’ll never know. But it does seem strange to have a primary source of inspiration for a theory and then suggest his intelligence and powers of insight failed him when it came to the place of architecture.

What I remember most of this chapter however, is the author’s attempt to place some distance between architecture and “mere” building. He uses the word “mere” three times, as if the building of buildings is something totally lacking in skill and intelligence or even the creative application of skill and intelligence. Misfits has stated the precisely the opposite many times, and in many different ways. 

However, I’m prepared to admit that the author’s thesis may very well prove true for his particular definition of architecture based on his own lingering (architectural) societal understandings of architecture, including anachronistic architectural self-descriptions. A final two words.

 Adolfo Natalini