Tag Archives: Is it worth reading Patrik Schumacher’s The Autopoiesis of Architecture?

The Autopoiesis of Architecure Vol. I

In the March 2015 post Inflationary Tendencies, I tried to make some sense out of the second last chapter of The Autopoiesis of Architecture (Vol.1). How time flew! Last year’s The Massively Big Autopoiesis of Architecture post was an omnibus edition intended to prime readers and myself for an end-of-year finale that never happened. It’s just as well as there was some unfinished business. I’ll be brief.

In the penultimate chapter there was some talk about 1) The Architect’s Project, 2) The Client’s Project, and 3) The Contractor’s Project and how they’re not the same thing. Basically, the architect can use a Client Project to design The Architect Project that satisfies his/her own agenda that we, perhaps naïvely, assume is a design agenda. This thinking had been introduced earlier and was no surprise. It would’ve been a good opportunity for the author to mention something I shall call The Media Project but no. The Media Project exists because advance visualizations and set text for The Architect Project will be part of a press release bounced around the internet with no time lag. The Media Project is the portion of The Architect Project we get to see. What we don’t appreciate is that The Media Project exists without a building to back it up. It exists whether or not The Client Project is ever realized. Or ever existed. 

The author says the architect is only concerned with The Architect’s Project – and that’s their perogative – but it’s The Media Projet we always get to hear about. A good question is “Why are these people always in our faces if their only concern is industrious research and The Architect’s Project?” The Media Project is what makes The Architect’s Project real and, I suspect, what gives it meaning. Can we say something is even architecture if it isn’t promoted endlessly in media, social media, lecture halls and various bi or trienalli?

Despite seeing architecture as a system of communications, this volume only acknowledges the existence of The Media Project once and provides no account of how it relates to the production and consumption of architectural imagery in the name of architecture or, rather, architecture as media perception. 

I’m left with that by-now-familiar feeling of being left out of the loop, of being talked at rather than to. Perhaps the information is classified. The author regards his readers with the same condescension he does clients.

I’ll return to this matter of architecture as media perception. Now, as I approach the end of my autopoietic journey, it’s time to pause yet again to reflect upon what’s been learned. Stuff was generated, mostly out of nothing as is claimed to be the way. Furthermore and, as if to prove the author’s thesis, this stuff generated even more stuff. We know it’s already generated a whole slew of posts from me and a second and 70% fatter Volume II from the author but first let’s get this one over with.

The final chapter of The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I is like the last day of a vacation spent revisiting highlights in an attempt to make sense of it all and engender a feeling of a journey well travelled and time at least not wasted if not well spent. I sensed the author trying to bring it to a satisfying conclusion with firm insights and suggestions of where to go next. The end in sight, there’s a few images as well as a welcome quickening of pace. Either the author was as glad to be nearing the end of the book as I was or the final chapter was written before the ones preceding it. The prose never becomes lucid but the tone does loosen. On p.405, a passage where the author gushes about the importance of Zaha Hadid is particularly icky.

The final chapter is titled The Societal Function of Architecture and we rightly expect to be told why architecture exists. I don’t think I’ll be spoiling it for anyone if I reveal the societal function of architecture turns out to be TO FRAME COMMUNICATIONS.

This is neither a complete surprise nor completely expected. The reader should know by now how the author uses the words societal, function, architecture, and communications. I’m reminded of Bill Clinton’s infamous “It depends upon what your definition of is, is.” I’m also reminded of Dorothy Parker’s pithy observation “Everything he writes is a lie, including a and the.”  To frame communications. What does it mean?  

The simplest and most benign interpretaton is to provide structures for human activity to take place and I see nothing wrong with that.

The author would though for, somewhere prior, he’d written something along the lines of “a person can take shelter inside a hollowed out tree trunk therefore the provision of shelter is not something architecture need concern itself with.” [italics mine] Logic\dead. You can have fun making your own parodies. The first that came into my head is “A person can chew their fingernails therefore food production is not something agriculture need concern itself with.”

Providing structures for human activity to take place may be a decent enough definition of building but it says nothing about architecture and making explicit the true function of architecture was the stated point of this exercise. Throughout the 400-odd pages of Volume I, we’ve been told repeatedly that architecture is more than building so perhaps the societal function of architecture is the provision of “structures” and not necessarily or even solely structure per-ses? Despite all its post-modern question-begging, I can go along with this too for some structures not only accommodate human activity but go further and at the same time articulate something intangible about that human activity. It’s easy to bring this interpretation into our understanding and say things like Villa Savoye’s ramp frames the activity of Mme. Savoye and her guests moving from the front door to the living room. We can convince ourselves it makes sense.

But what if frame doesn’t just mean to provide structures but to set boundaries or to define limits? It’s also what frames do, is equally possible and, given what we’ve learned about the author and his ideological bent since this book was published, probably more likely. If we take frame to mean to control then everything begins to make a new kind of sense and we can reformulate the sentence as The societal function of architecture is to control communications (human activity). [c.f. Burden of Proof

Nowhere is it said or implied those communications are two-way.
Nowhere is it said that open and diverse communications are an indicator of a healthy society, or even that a healthy society is a goal. 

I see the author’s view of the societal function of architecture as framing communications as being in alignment with the agenda of authoritarian rulers throughout history and, come to think of it, entities wielding power in the present. As ever, The societal function of architecture is to remind people who their oppressors are. [c.f. The New InhumanismAt this point I would normally mention the Heydar Aliyev Culture Centre but there’s no need when we have the latest Google, Apple or Facebook headquarters and are forced to applaud not only the buildings but their creators as well.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. On p9 was the sentence. “Society has to be grasped in its broad historical trajectory in order to identify the architecturally relevant aspects of the societal tasks ahead.” Individuals are irrelevant, humanity absent.

• • •

For the past two years or so the question of how architecture has adapted [since 1965, by my reckoning] to facilitate the neoliberal agenda has been gaining attention and, since this book was published, the author has probably done more than anyone else to have some light shone on this unsavoury connection and I suppose we should thank him for that. I’m glad reading and digesting this book has taken so long because, knowing what we do now about the author and his beliefs, some oddities I flagged along the way and that didn’t gel on first passing can now be viewed with hindsight.

Modernity and Progress

The entire thust of the book is that society is evolving and that modern (as in functionally differentiated) societies are superior to those that aren’t. The implication is that the future will be even more modern and superior and, by extension, that we need a brave new architecture to tell us so. Throughout the book is a persistent over-concern for where society is going and a belief, an insistence, that architecture in the form of the built environment can guide society. [If only there were some evidence for architectural determinism!] The author never gives any basis for his unquestioning belief in modernity and progress or, more disturbingly, what constitutes it.

We might think we have a lot on our plate right now trying to come to grips with the neolibearal economy that, after fifty years of inattention, now has us securely in a stranglehold. Neoliberalism will have an end but it won’t be pretty because it kills that off which it feeds. A more sustainable version of hell is proposed by the Accelerationists who maintain that simply faster is better.


The author set out to prove that Architecture is a Great Function System and not a subset of the Art Function System. He doesn’t succeed for throughout the book he uses the Art system to validate his arguments for Architecture being one. The late Zaha Hadid’s architectural legacy seems to be coalescing around the importance of some early paintings rather than what they were harbingers of. Suggesting as the author does on p406 that a new conception of architectural space can arise from painting contradicts the formalist unto-itself architecture the author is claiming.

Stray Thought: If art is anything that posits a conceptual space in which an artefact can be viewed as art, then what of architecture? It’d suggest a situation where something becomes architecture merely by virtue of someone saying it is. Shockingly, this isn’t as shocking a concept as it ought to be. It also implies Patrik Schumacher was wrong to criticise Luhmann for suggesting architecture is a subset of the Art Function System rather than an autopoietic function system in itself for, once clients, construction, budget, functionality and so on are removed from the theory of architecture, all that’s left is using the idea of a built structure as a medium for the pursuit of artistic pursuits – something art could always do with impunity.

Media communications

How architecture as it is presented and played out in the mass media and social media is one glaring omission of this book and, because the author makes a point of ignoring it on p365, most likely a valid one. The author recognises that buildings “circulate as active communications within the autopoiesis of architecture” and the example given is “when a building is visited, photographed, critiqued or otherwise referred to by architects within the expert discourse of architecture.”

But what about all the Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts that insist on making these buildings and their instigators real to multitudes of persons outside the expert discourse of architecture? Despite dismissing this aspect of communications, without explanation, by saying “It is the first of the two cases distinguished here that is the focus of this section on the societal function of architecture” the subject of mass communications crops up again two pages later on p369. The paragraph marked with pencil below is a litmus test. If you’re an optimist you might think it describes mass communications as a means for the enlightenment of society but, cynical readers will see it equally well describes mass media as propaganda machine for social control. This is a sinister ambiguity. How shared is shared?

I’ve similar reservations about the other paragraphs but won’t go into them, apart from saying it’s telling that the role of the Art system is left till last and that its societal function is not so different from what’s being claimed for architecture. It’s not that art can’t be used as propaganda. Ayn Rand’s novels, for example, were propaganda for a very specific worldview. Paragraphs like these make it clear the author sees architecture as propaganda promoting his very specific worldview.

If you’ve read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, you’ll take consolation in the fact our mass media haven’t yet developed into an Orwellian propaganda machine that stifles our capacity to think critically. It’s cold comfort though, as what we have instead is a Huxleyan entertainment machine that stifles our desire to think critically. 


Since the publication of this book, the author has done more to discredit his thought experiments than I could ever have. The world has moved on but, alarmingly, in general alignment with the premises of his thinking, if not necessarily this book. This is neither to his credit nor ours. One major difference is that Zaha Hadid is no longer alive. Once all the posthumous projects are out of the way, we’ll have to ask ourselves if her saying “I like curves” was ever sufficient reason to overheat so many microprocessors to produce infinite iterations of random doodles – that, much like Savalor Dalí canvasses, we don’t know how many are still out there.


Luhmann’s model upon which the author structures his analogy places Religion as one of the great function systems of the world on equal footing with Education, Law, Politics and Art, etc. However “the author finds it difficult to accept that religion should be theorized as one more indispensible function system of modern, functionally differentiated society. Perhaps, religion should be theorized as a (tenacious) rudiment. The anachronistic persistence of this rudiment indicates that the logic of modern, functionally differentiated society has not (yet) succeded in its drive towards pervasiveness.” [p74 footnote 6]

One good thing for religion, or at least the Abrahamic ones, is that they were egalitarian – everyone had an equal shot at heaven or hell. The neolibereal doctrine updates religion and brings it down to earth by preassigning heaven on earth to the 1% and hell on earth to the remainder. 

The author suggests Architecture is a great function system and, leaving aside questions of belief and leaps of faith, not only produces a dogmatic ideology to back up his case but adopts the techniques, formats and formatting of Religion to communicate it. [c.f. The Mystery of BeautyI believe the author’s wanting to dismiss religion is not because it is irrelevant to his argument, but because it is all too relevant.

If the unique societal role of Architecture is to frame communications and if, as the author claims, Architecture only came into existence with Alberti, it would follow that communications were left unframed pre-Alberti. Not so. Communications were being framed by Architecture well before Alberti and for the same purpose of reminding people who their oppressors are.

The simpler and more credible reason for the author’s choosing to disregard Religion is that it treads on his patch. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs, there’s no doubting that the societal function of Religion is to frame communications. What’s more, Religion’s claim to it is more legitimate for not only does it frame interpersonal communications but it includes some extra-personal communications as well. It claims to frame not just those communications taking place in assigned spaces but all communications everywhere. As if that isn’t enough, it’s also done it for more people and for longer.

Choosing Alberti as the beginnings of Architecture removes from consideration all architecture that framed communications as a part of Religion’s role of framing communications. Religion was thus the dog and Architecture the tail it wagged but the author wants and needs us to see Architecture as the tail that wags the dog. And to then forget about the dog. Schumacher’s architecture may be a lesser religion or religion substitute or a new belief system for secular times but that doesn’t make it benign. It still requires a leap of faith as well as repeated noisy assertions that that faith is genuine.

Such demonstrations of faith aren’t necessary. Post-Alberti can be easily reconciled with pre-Alberti by admitting that the role of architecture is to articulate the agenda of the dominant power structure of an era – something I’ve previously and crudely described aswho one’s oppressors are”. It’s not as crude as saying “Architecture follows the money” and that’s not as crude as Philip Johnson’s “I’m a whore”. Call it framing communications if you like but If architecture didn’t articulate the agenda of the dominant power structure of an era, then why else would it be necessary? We’d be living and working in comfortable buildings and generally getting on with our lives untroubled by architecture. We’d probably still be checking our social media but we wouldn’t be caring about their parent company headquarters any more than we do their server farms.

The Autopoiesis of Architecture

What I’ve learned over again is that the meaning of words depends upon what an author chooses them to mean. On the opening page readers were warned they may experience a sensation of “intellectual vertigo”. Now, after having finished Volume I, I can say I did but it was more like leaning over a bottomless pit of darkness than ascending too high into the stratosphere. The true value of this book is the queasiness it causes. It didn’t get better towards the end but I did. I made decisions about what I believed in and what I won’t tolerate. Try it. You may never want to read another book about architecture or trust anything a starchitect says ever again and that’s what I hope will be the lasting legacy of this book that now, courtesy of Wiley, has two hardcover copies planted in universities around the world.

If you do read it I doubt you’ll be convinced Parametricism is the way architecture should be. You’ll be encouraged to think of Parametricism as the name of a style and, in a sense, this has come to pass as students now routinely use the term “parametric curve” to describe what we once used to call a curve. Parametricism is not so much a style of building but a tool, a technique that takes parameters and synthesises them into options in a process not dissimilar to BIM.

Parametricism vs. BIM is the eternal Architecture vs. Building divide restated for our times. This iteration has architectural parameters being put to use for aesthetic exploration for no purpose other than to advance the cause of architecture and these are in opposition to BIM parameters that can be used to refine interrelating building science variables to provide safe structures that might perhaps be more comfortable or take less time to build, use fewer resources more efficiently and at the same time provide an enclosure that improves somebody’s quality of life. The question then becomes one of an architecture with no moral or ethical purpose vs. an architecture that has. The only question that matters is which one we want.


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 commercial behemoth 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 conundrum-in-waiting 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. 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 one 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 boldface.

  • 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. Unlike me, he finished 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 don’t think 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 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, they tend to feel 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 1
chart 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.

Hm. Let’s stop that there. But even if architecture is a major function system of society, then at least it’s 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 and 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 in 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 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 2

but, 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.


Did 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.

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 Architecture is one and, by association, present himself as a deliverer of truth.


I’m still not seeing the light.


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.


The 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.


Everyone 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 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 who 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 actor 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 doesn’t have to as the brand’s pretty much secured. Theory’s not really had much to do with her particular 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’d 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.
  • 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 things as-built. 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.



Love You Long Time

Or not – it seems, if you believe The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 3.8.1: The Historical Transformation of Aesthetic Values. We begin this academistic overview in some unidentified pre-Greek time where ‘aesthetic’ responses were dogma if beneficial to society or taboo if not.

All archaic societies and cultures institutionalized ‘aesthetic’ values in the form of rigid distinctions between good and bad that were taken for granted and did not tolerate questioning. [p302]

Already, we can see where this is heading. We soon lose the quotation marks and ‘aesthetics’ becomes aesthetics. Later on the author goes on to say that the society of the ancient Greeks did ‘evolve’ a bit more

although the beautiful, the good and the true were still felt to be correlated.

status update
villa cornaro
Chiswick house

This tells us a lot about the author – most of which we knew already. Like how he thinks the beautiful and the virtuous ought not be connected. Having ridded beauty (for aesthetics now equals beauty) of any connection to morality, the author then attempts to bind it to functionality because functionality can’t be as glibly dismissed. It has to be dealt with head-on. Let’s not forget that he and his boss are rather sensitive to claims of “not working” or “not properly thought through” or “looks pretty but what about X?”. Here’s what he does. To strengthen his claims for “the hidden rationality of aesthetic values”, the author writes that the beauty seen in the famous proportions of Palladian interiors articulate a formula for better daylighting and ventilation. OK – here’s a well-ventilated Palladian interior. Pleasant. Airy. Here’s what’s on the other side of those well-proportioned windows. Clearly, we’re not in Venice where the buildings across the via are six feet away. The amount of light coming through a window might also depend on what’s outside that window. Just a thought. So was Palladio’s endgame to provide rich Renaissance landowners with better ventilation? We may never know. Neo-Palladians certainly didn’t pick up on the Palladian virtues of adequate ventilation. They probably thought it a bit drafty. Instead, they added chimneys.  We don’t think of Palladio now as the grandfather of passive design any more than we think of the roof of the Parthenon for its drainage properties. [p303] Personally, I think the author’s thesis of aesthetic value = performance is highly suspect and probably A Convenient Untruth. I also suspect Palladio was the next design con-man after Alberti whom the author claims, really began this thing called architecture. That’s probably true, if you buy into the author’s claim that the Egyptians, Goths and assorted civilizations and cultures didn’t actually produce any architecture because they weren’t aware they were producing architecture. A quick re-cap.

  1. Archaic societies thought beauty and morality were the same thing.
  2. Greeks were still getting it wrong as they thought beauty and goodness and virtue were still connected somehow. Losers.
  3. “The Classical aesthetic regime lost its rationality and became a hindrance to the further development of the built environment.” [p303] I assume he’s talking about the Chicago School.
  4. The necessary battle to overcome Classicism “was waged and won by the heroes of Modernism. The technological and social revolutions called forth an aesthetic revolution, establishing and aestheticizing non-Classical proportions, new compositional (organizational) patterns and new tectonic features.

The author finds extra validation in Tafuri but I see this in terms of architects just following the money and giving the new breed of client what they want. This ‘reading’ of mine chimes with point 3, above. Early department store owners for neo-Classical ornament when all they wanted was inexpensive and quick-to-build large boxes with lots of windows? Likewise the patrons of International Style architecture. There’s nothing particularly heroic about it. Client pays architect to design a building that makes a statement about them and/or their business or country. Here’s the Tehran Hilton, 1961.

Teheran Hilton 1965

I admit to being stumped by the closing paragraph of this section. We sort of end where we were last chapter (and post) and are reminded that the function of aesthetic codification is to economize on functional analysis and performance testing. What comes after is interesting.

Untitled 3
Untitled 9

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

I don’t understand. If, as the author’s been saying, aesthetic values have an underlying performativity, then that performativity would still remain regardless 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 even if their 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 big scaling-up 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 don’t think we’ll be hearing any more about ventilation and roof drainage.

Ananchronistic values get in the way of progress.

I can see how they might, but that depends upon what you want to call progress.

Outdated, reactionary aesthetic sensibilities need to be exorcised.

If they linger, there must be a reason why. Maybe everyone’s not convinced by the alternatives on offer.

Thus aesthetic revolutions are a necessary complement to societal evolution.

This is not as untrue as it sounds for societal evolution usually does bring with it a new set of clients for architects to work for. Even history can be reduced to marketing and cashflow. Not a popular viewpoint, I’ll admit.

* * * 

This notion of societal evolution has been running through this book from the beginning and I’m still not sure what it is. Here’s my top three societal evolutions I think we are / the world is currently experiencing.

  1. The computing thing. All sorts of buildings are needed for this. I just re-read Green Computing and the Smart Shed. Here’s what a Facebook data centre looks like. Somebody’s designing them. It’s an aesthetics-free zone. Aesthetics only come into play for pet PR projects.Facebook-to-Build-a-Second-450-Million-Data-Center-2
  2. Increased globalisation and increased international opportunities for architects to make a name for themselves in upstart countries. (I’m not going to name names.) This is the type of client that would find beauty in an architecture devoid of moral virtue.
  3. Increased global poverty has not made a huge impact on architects’ bottom lines.
  4. Displaced populations. We’re seeing more temporary communities displaced by extreme climatic events or war. Organisations such as Make It Right aim to restore communities as quickly as possible in spite of the intervention of architects.make it rightCommunities displaced for other reasons remain well off the radar. This is Azraq, one of the world’s newest cities.133214337_13957982889211n

These are what spring to mind whenever I read “societal evolution”. As a theory, the Autopoiesis of Architecture must fulfil some function (because it exists) but as a way of making sense out of how and where society is evolving, I don’t really think it’s up to the task. I’m sure the task will get redefined to suit, possibly in the next chapter
3.8.2 Aesthetic Values and the Code of Beauty.


Sordid Mechanics

if on a winter's night a traveller

There’s a chapter in Italo Calvino’s piss-take of Deconstructivist literature, If on a winter’s night a traveller, where a woman – Ludmilla’s sister Lotaria, I think – is a member of a book club and each person receives a single page of the novel for discussion the following week. Calvino is drawing attention to the absurdity of the fragment containing all the information necessary to re-construct the whole. Buildings don’t have DNA either, but the notion of the fragment embodying the whole was the only one that “successfully” translated into architecture that bore the monicker Deconstructivist. Remember all that Libeskind traumatecture with one corner looking much like all the other corners (as if that’s not the case for most buildings?) and where one building looked much like all the other Libeskind buildings? This was the time of shattering and exploding buildings ostensibly retaining an inkling of the shapes they were once supposed to have been. It was an idea. It’s not like architects thought of it. Or like the world was waiting for buildings to be crude analogies of that idea. But it was an opportunity for architecture to appropriate the gravitas of literature for a change, instead of art. Until the shattering and exploding of buildings got real, that is. Shattering and exploding or otherwise upsetting an imagined stability was never going to play well with today’s clients for starchitecture. If I had my own autocratic regime or was shopping around for an architect on behalf of one, the only thing I’d want architecture to represent is a sense of endless continuity, of seamless transitions from one highlight to the next. I’d pay good or, more likely, bad money for an architecture that gave the appearance of dynamic movement but went nowhere, and with neither beginning nor end. And this is what we now have.


Such an architecture appeals to conservative regimes whether they be Oxford colleges, the powerplayers of Azerbaijan, Russian oligarchs or the masters of Guangzhou. if I were an architect I’d develop an architecture and market it to these people having in blissful abundance those three preconditions for all buildings – money, land and a desire to build. The Deconstructionists might have have a point though for it was Calvino and Lotario I thought of when I ventured further into the darkness that is The Autopoiesis of Architecture 3.8 The Rationality of Aesthetic Values.  My scanner’s on my desk now as there’s such a lot to share. First para’s a beaut – on page 300/436 if you’re looking. I’m including the titles just in case you think I’m making it up. Para 2’s also a whopper. I love this academistic book – it’s so rich, such fun. As with overhearing casual racism or casual sexism, I just want to shout “Man, you can’t say that!”  Huh – something’s rational inasmuch as it’s intuitive?! I won’t go into that for, if we wanted, I suppose we could always just map some brain activity and find out which hemisphere fires up when asked to make an aesthetic judgment. If ever there was too much rationality in the world, then irrationality would have the useful function of stopping things getting excessively rational. I don’t think the author’s that stupid. His endgame is to make a case for his company’s architectural stylings and to not want us to look at it all too rationally.

“Just say whether you like it – trust us on the performativity!”

page 301

What those 104 words are doing is reducing aesthetic responses and aesthetic judgments to likes and dislikes. Are you okay with that? I’m not. It just might be that that’s all aesthetic judgments really are, but you can’t simply say they’re better than informed evaluation because they’re quicker. It’s all a question of Reliability vs. Speed, it seems. The author is saying it’s OK to judge a book by its cover. I wonder what his mother would think. But why would he say that? Here’s the future of aesthetic judgments. Don’t you think this theory of his dovetails a bit too well with the internet? I could choose many examples but here – let’s choose this one where ZHA re-invents the sphincter for our evolved Post-Fordist society. 921 likes and 142 tweets represent an evaluation of sorts although I confess to not knowing the threshold for amazing – or even good. But if it’s in our consciousness (as sending something to ArchDaily usually guarantees), it’s good enough so it seems that’s probably all it needs to do. Conclusion: If aesthetic worth is going to be measured in impulsive clicks then it’s not worth much. What I find more interesting is why the author thinks we need to have an aesthetic response to his company’s product and product placement in the first place. I mean, why take such trouble to attract our attention unless that is actually the endgame? If so (and it probably is so),  it probably is the architecture for our times – even though 1980s was all about the look as well. We just took it a bit more seriously then. The buildings presented to us as architecture these days are simply the shoulder pads for our times. Part of me dies. Here’s paras three and four, p301. Upward social mobility can be applied to countries as well. But I agree with the organism bit for I too am repulsed by what threatens life and am doing the best I can to articulate that repulsion. Without getting too distracted by the aesthetic appeal of athletic bodies … oh allright then, here you go … … I do understand the biological function of aesthetics – symmetrical facial features as an indicator of good genetic stock and such. Granted, we do happen to live in a time where fit = “fit” or at least = “tidy”, but the author glibly equates that to mean the aesthetic evaluation of a building is also an indicator of how well it performs. That’s quite a claim. To be fair, the author does have more to say about aesthetic values = performance later, and so will I in another post. For now though, that’s all the author has to say about the supposed rationality of aesthetic values. I’m unconvinced. Lots of other forms of animal and bird life – and probably fish and bacteria as well – no doubt operate by exactly the same genetic indicators as humans but all this says nothing about the evaluation of inorganic, non-sentient, artificial cultural artefacts such as paintings or buildings. Section 3.8 should have been a major section of this book and should have discussed the reasons why we like the things we do. Instead, it offers nothing except how it slots into ZHA’s business plan and the author’s fantasies. If I’m to be convinced aesthetic values are worth having at all, then I expect more than two pages and a spurious analogy with the natural world. I suspect the reason why architects rush to associate their buildings with Nature is because Nature has no agenda. Nature is apolitical. Nature is popular. It’s the great neutralizer, the stopper of further questioning. Appeals to Nature forestall serious inquiry into the sordid mechanics of what really appeals to clients and why. When architects say “Nature”, I feel like Mussoini said he felt upon hearing the word “Art”.