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

The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 3.7 – Styles as Research Programmes

I’ve missed this. Up for some more?

3.7 Styles as Research Programmes

Avant-garde styles are design research programmes. They start as progressive research programmes, mature to become productive dogmas, and end as degenerate dogmas.

I saw the word ‘avant-garde’ for the first time in a long while and my heart sank. Did you see what the author did there? Until now, it’s all been about the self-styled avant-garde (a term roughly synonymous with “starchitect”) and styles. Now, ‘avant-garde’ has suddenly become an adjective and we’re talking about starchitect styles. Keep that in mind.

Another thing to keep in mind is that this this cycle of “progressive” to “productive” to “degenerate” basically describes the fashion cycle of any consumer commodity including styles and assorted aesthetics. Chapter 3.6 attempted to breathe life into the antiquated notion of architectural styles. This chapter attempts to give them some meaning. The thing that Schumacher is (in all earnestness, I suspect) justifying is his boss’ continued position as a preferred purveyor of disposable aesthetic commodities. At least that’s how I made sense of this passage on p277.

page 277

It’s a very curious passage – very evangelical. Saying “A fully convincing candidate that could credibly pick up its function is not in sight” is akin to saying “God must exist for what would life be otherwise?” Compared with illogic such as this, it becomes reasonable to posit that “the function of styles is to keep people generating them”. An architecture without styles is the one thing this author does not want us to believe in.

The next eight pages try to create an analogy between stylistic research and design endeavour and scientific research programmes.


Science has completely new research traditions directed by theoretical frameworks that are fundamentally new. New architectural styles might be analogous to scientific research programs that are launched by new scientific paradigms that afford a new conceptual framework and offer new directions for further research work.

Then again, they might not be – especially because scientific research programmes usually have some end goal in mind, even if it has to be continually reconsidered in the light of newer insights and discoveries. The end goal of scientific research is not to produce an endless stream of new scientific research to keep scientists busy, although that is one of the results. Somewhere along the line, the objects of that research are either applied (as in chemistry), improved (as in biology), controlled or eliminated (as in medicine) or clarified (as in theoretical physics). Things get better. This is where it is wrong to bring history into it. The history of science can be a history of paradigm shifts or it can be a history of discoveries. Either way, things were made better. The history of architecture can and usually is written as a history of styles. It is most definitely not a record of continuous improvement of buildings. This is the difference. Scientific research programmes have the advancement of humanity as their goal. Styles as research programmes benefit no-one except the stylists.

The author’s extended analogy is based on Imre Lakaros’s The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (much like the extended analogy that is The Autopoiesis of Architecture is based on Niklaus Luhmann’s social systems theory). It is an analogy – a loose fit – nothing more, like a movie ‘based on fact”. One of the reasons why is that the idea of science as collecting data and making generations can be refuted (thanks to Karl Popper) in favour of science as “formulating daring hypotheses that actively pose questions and extract evidence rather than receive and collect evidence passively.” This is the analogy the author has identified and taken and run with.


The author’s reliance on Lakatos has a reason. It lets him write that, in science, a single invalidating experiment does not refute a hypothesis. After all, giants Newton and Einstein took some initial knocks. This means that …

page 280

The boundaries of what though? Accidents such as the discovery of radium do happen, but I’ll venture scientists generally have some goal that is explicit. What they don’t do is say “I have this idea, and here’s the results of some experiments that might go towards validating whatever it is but, even if they don’t, won’t invalidate it.” My objection to the author’s conception of styles, is that there’s no explicit goal. There’s no vision for how the world will be a better place. This raises problems for evaluation. If a failure cannot refute an experiment packaged in a style hypothesis, then how is one to claim success?

Unsurprisingly, the author feels that evaluation by everyone else’s standards a bit limiting and that we need to

formulate more flexible criteria for the evaluation of styles, criteria that measure up results, but that understand styles dynamically as advancing research programmes. [p284]

Perhaps stung by criticism of failed experiments, the author defends having an academic career on the side and gets Lakatos to back him up for, after all, theoretical physicists carry out their research programmes at universities don’t they?

page 284

Lakatos’ mention that science’s difficulties with developing research programmes are more mathematical than empirical is enthusiastically seen as a case for new architectural styles giving precedence to

formal over functional problems, “especially in the early productive surge of an emerging new style”. [p 286]

That’s a porkie, I’d say.


But I’m glad I’ve stuck with this book. I’m beginning to get impression the author actually believes what he’s writing and it’s a little scary. I was therefore glad to see, on page 285, a quick summary of what The Style is all about. Some of it you’ve probably guessed.

the elements of style

In passing, Heydar Aliyev’s son, Ilham Aliyev, current President of Azerbaijan and the effective client for this building (the stated client is the Republic of Azerbaijan – same thing) has won the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) inaugural Person of the Year Award. Royal Institute of British Architecture! – can we just accept that ethical architecture is an oxymoron?

Ilham aliyev

Anyway. The author suggests we evaluate the results of his research by the criteria he suggests.


This isn’t interesting in itself, but it does offer a preview (of TAoA Volume 2) of what counts as design in the author’s world.

  • Choose the parameters you wish
  • Relax some if you’ve made it too hard
  • Form follows function fieldspace
  • Put some things next to other things

For all the algorithmic computation supposedly happening, there’s still a lot of old fashioned design decisions going on. Not least of all is the decision for when to stop. “That’s it – ok boys and girls now work out how to build the fucker!”

* * *

I’m becoming a bit like the author, I think – convinced of my own correctness, biased in my viewpoint, and seeing everything in terms of how well I can put it to use for my argument. This became clear to me in sub-chapter 3.7.4 on the Great Architectural Styles.

What I’m saying is that the justification for the last (current?) style, Parametricism is a bit weak – it doesn’t fit, doesn’t follow the conceptual sequence that’s been set up.

Renaissance style through the eyes of a Parametricist:

The pre-capitalist society produced a new problem domain and the rediscovery of antiquity produced a new solution space.

Baroque style through the eyes of a Parametricist:

The Baroque society was faced with a new level of scale and complexity in the institutions that had to be accommodated and articulated. The task was to give an integral organisation and image to the large and complex administrative bureaucracies of the mercantilist state.

Neo-Classical style through the eyes of a Parametricist:

Laugier’s theory articulates the challenge of maintaining a sense of architectural order in the face of the onslaught of early capitalist urban expansion. … As Manfredo Tafuri has pointed out, Laugier’s naturalising architectural theory can be understood as aestheticisation of the morphological results of the free-wheeling urban growth of early capitalism.

Historicist style through the eyes of a Parametricist:

The 19th century oipened up the totality of the historical repertoire for organized redeployment. Typical alignments emerged between function types and specific historical styles. Law courts, banks and central government buildings were biased towards the Neo-Grec [?] style. Churches and town halls were biased towards the Neo-Gothic style. Private villas and town-houses were biased towards the Neo-Renaissance style.

Modernist style seen through the eyes of a Parametricist: 

Modernist architecture was faced with a veritable explosion of the problem domain as full-blown industrialisation was followed by social revolutions which – for the first time – [and the last!] introduced the masses [!] as new clients of architecture.  This explosive expansion of design tasks was paralleled by new solution spaces: the ready availability of new construction methods (steel and reinforced concrete), as well as the emergence of the new design resources that were delivered by abstract art opening up a hitherto unimagined realm of creative formal invention.

* * *

Me, I think Modernism was a bit more than that but, as a summary of how modernism is generally regarded today there’s nothing particularly novel about it. It’s Johnson & Hitchcock’s neutered account of Modernism. This next quote is rather long. I include it because it’s the most lyrical the author has gotten in 292 pages. The tone is direct and lucid, confident. Not desperate. It’s even passionate in places. It’s a summary, it’s cover notes, it’s a lecture in disguise. It’s 100% polemic.

Parametric style seen through the eyes of a Parametricist: 


Now, my problem with this is that nothing follows on from what went before. Prior to this passage was a quick trip through architectural history showing how new architectural inventions supposedly developed in line with new solution spaces to “cope with” increasingly complex problem domains. I don’t question that. Technology usually improves. It’s what it does. The misfits’ reading of history would say architects just chase the money at any given time. Renaissance nobility – Baroque mercantilists – Neoclassicism’s capitalists – Historicism’s bureaucracies – Modernism’s industrialists (it wasn’t actually ‘the masses’ commissioning those buildings).

But whose money is Parametricism chasing? Is there really ‘a new demand for diversity and complexity? Have globalisation and ‘lifestyle diversification’ (whatever that is) really shifted the problem domain of architecture? Or has it really just brought new countries and new clients online? The misfits’ reading of history is the history of clients who had the money, land and (a noble or ignoble) desire to build. It never fails to explain why things are the way they are. What kind of world does the author live in?

It’s true that Chinese developers, Russian oligarchs and Baltic tyrants are a feature of the modern world but they’re not what’s making it modern. It’s just new money in new places. I also fail to see a new problem domain. From the Renaissance onwards, the only architectural agenda has been the articulation of wealth and power. The sole historical aberration was the brief period of Modernism’s concern for ‘the masses’.

This is a long way from “abstract art opening up a hitherto unimagined realm of creative formal invention.”   

van doesburg

* * * 


  1. We must not be quick to find fault with Parametricist experiments.
  2. We must evaluate Parametricist experiments according to their own criteria.
  3. We must not expect boundary-pushing stylistic research to be perfect, or even burden itself with the baggage of usual architecture.
  4. We must not see failed Parametricist buildings as failures for they all pose further questions and drive further style research and building experiments.


  1. elaborate (verb, 4 times in 10 pages – the new ‘commensurate’)
  2. It’s not necessarily malicious, but giving the basis for analogies after a statement is made produces the impression the cited author would agree with said statement.
    “Lakatos observes the same seclusion into theoretical autonomy within the sciences: …” [p.284]
  3. It’s not really good to use an earlier statement to imply proof of the same statement rephrased.
    “The Renaissance style, as the first theory-led period of architectural design, represents the first architectural style that might be plausibly reinterpreted as design research programme, as a public, collective effort of recognized, individual author-architects. This assessment is consistent with the thesis that the Renaissance marks the onset of the independent autopoiesis of architecture. [p.287)
  4. Smoke and mirrors. The author has it in his mind that the twin concerns of beauty and utility are what guides architecture yet mentions Alberti’s belief that they might be the same thing to support his argument. Odd. This seems to be a case of understanding only what one wants to understand.
    alberti and beauty
  5. On page 292 we find this

    Modernist architecture was faced with a veritable explosion of the problem domain as full-blown industrialisation was followed by social revolutions which – for the first time introduced the masses as new clients of architecture.

“the masses”: Nothing like a bit of casual elitism is there? I think the term mass housing (as in mass transport) would have been more appropriate, more neutral. (What a prick!)     

Coming up next!:

3.8 The Rationality of Aesthetic Values
3.8.1 The Historical Transformation of Aesthetic Values
3.8.2 Aesthetic Values and the Code of Beauty
3.8.3 The Mystery of Beauty
[I can’t wait for this one]
3.8.4 Formal A Priori, Idiom and Aesthetic Values
3.8.5 The Necessity of Aesthetic Revolutions
3.8.6 Aesthetic Values: Designers vs. Users


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

Out of over 65,000 search terms 60,000 people have used to find and view over 200,000 pages on this blog, NOT ONE OF THEM has been “the autopoiesis of architecture”. So who’s searching this term? And where do they get their information? I may be stuck in a filter bubble, but here’s what I see – misfits appears first on the second page.

autopoiesis of architecture

Here’s those top links.

  1. http://www.architectural-review.com/essays/the-autopoiesis-of-architecture-dissected-discussed-and-decoded/8612164.article (4 March 2011)
  2. http://www.amazon.com/The-Autopoiesis-Architecture-New-Framework/dp/0470772980 (as you’d expect, from any book)
  3. http://www.patrikschumacher.com/Texts/Parametricism%20and%20the%20Autopoiesis%20of%20Architecture.html (as you’d expect, from any author)
  4. http://www.patrikschumacher.com/Texts/Summary%20and%20List%20of%20Contents_The%20Autopoeisis%20of%20Architecture.html (ditto)
  5. http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0470772999.html (the author’s publisher. Don’t take this as an endorsement. Publishers publish books. If the editor-in-chief thinks they’ll get two hardback copies into every university library in the world, it’s a go-er as far as they’re concerned.)
  6. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pqh77TnLoQ (Youtube?)
  7. http://marjan-colletti.blogspot.ae/2000/09/turbulences-ahead-book-review.html (An independent blogger – interesting! Here’s his CV and a bit of what he had to say, a lot of which I wish I’d said myself.

I think I’m right in assuming that AoA was mostly written on PS’s innumerable long haul flights and hotel rooms late at night. The super-structurisation of the book helps, but repetition (a considerable amount of it) still prevails. It sometimes feels tired and makes you feel tired. Sometimes this book felt jetlagged. This may sound harsh and my understanding of AoA as autobiographical thesis is perhaps incorrect, but it helped me to understand the existing preconceptions and ‘Naserümpfen’ [sniffy] reactions, which I think are superficial, especially if you have not read the book.

Well, after a year I’m still reading the book – Julie & Julia this is not – so it does seem a bit unfair to write that in April 2011, when TAoA was only published in November 2010. It ain’t no page-turner. I’ve been going at it on and off for over a year now and I’m really looking forward to the good bits. Chapter 3.6 – Styles – promised to be one of them, and it didn’t disappoint.

First you have to get past some repetition – the usual stuff. Page 241 gives a quick recap of where the author has been, is going, or wants to go.  Here’s a look.

thesisThe author feels something is needed to give some order to the problem of how to proceed. In the last sentence, the author states that architecture only progresses via a historical succession of styles. Styles then, seem to be a method of coping, of streamlining the design process. We are not told why. With no reason other than to increase throughput, what we have is a modern version of a conveyor belt and all that that tells about capitalism and production.

Instead, the narrative veers away from that and (after acknowledging The Renaissance as the first style), treats us to some definitions before giving us a summary of other Germans famous in Germany for their contributions to the concept of style: Heinrich Hubsch, Rudolf Weigmann, Eduard Metzger, Karl Bötticher and, finally, Gottfreid “In what style shall we build?” Semper. It all starts to get very Teutonic. Semper generally is a good guy, apart from the fact he failed to draw a distinction between passive, active and active-reflective styles. Reflexive, surely?


Anyway, from Semper it’s just a short step to Otto Wagner.

Wagner refers to Historicism and Eclecticism as failed attempts to cope with the initially overwhelming onset of the new tasks posed by the modern era, leading to the forceful demand that ‘modern art must offer us modern forms that are created by us and that represent our abilities and actions. p251

This all reads like some recycled dissertation but the quote above is the author’s basic argument. Complex world needs complex solutions that represent its very complex complexness. Oh, and our skill at representing it. I’ll come back to this bit.

From Otto Wagner it’s a short hop to the First World War, The Bauhaus and to what the author calls the first ‘epochal’ style of the century – Modernism. It’s also a short step to Philip Johnson who, although not German, was a Nazi empathiser during the thirties. I’m currently re-reading Dejan Sudjic’s The Edifice Complex – The Architecture of Power. On pages 102-121 you’ll find a description of Johnson’s political leanings at the time. It’s easy to conclude that Johnson’s objections to Hannes Meyer’s architecture were political as much as architectural. With all the smugness of a theist claiming atheism is a belief like any other, Johnson claimed the absence of a style was itself a style as much as any other. Equally threatened by the concept of stylistically-derived visual characteristics being irrelevant and wasteful, the author repeats this on page 262.

Untitled Don’t forget that Footnote 151!Untitled 2

And again on page 265.

hannes meyer discredit

The author seems to be giving a lot of credence to what a 25-year old dilletante had to say. What Johnson and the author have in common is that both want to be on the winning team. Sudjic mentions Speer and Hitler, Pagano and Mussolini, Stalin’s architects, Mao’s architects, Rem Koolhaas … He draws a strong correlation between the activities of architects and totalitarian regimes and the power to get things done. He notes Rem Koolhaas’ championing of China [p153 ibid.] although, to a lesser extent, the same can be said since of his activities in Singapore. Meanwhile, the business development directors of ZHA  are mining the lesser authoritarian regimes.


Annoyingly, just when it starts getting interesting, Chap 3.6 segues into yet another summary of what’s to come. On p254 the question is asked


Untitled 2 Here’s that buried footnote 142 and its cheeky “Incidentally …” beginning.Untitled 3

Since we’re unable to forget it’s impending arrival, this next table summarises how the author sees Parametricism and its place in things. It’s actually a fair enough classification.


I scribbled an alternative classification of Feudal styles, Elitist styles, Socialist styles (the first five Modernist subsidiaries) and finally, the Late Capitalist styles. I get the feeling an ‘epochal’ style is merely something that represents the dominant power structure of the time. Rather than ponder what Foucault would have said about that, it’s easier to think that architects merely follow the money. (I know I know – not all of them.)

On page 256, the author reverts to Luhmannspeak to explain why styles are necessary.

Within architecture[,] styles represent those necessary programmes that – at any instance – regulate the disposition over the two binary sets of values of the double code of architecture.  …

In other words,

Styles provide the guidelines and criteria that help us identify the beautiful and the useful.

Taken at face value, this means that style is all about representing beauty and usefulness rather than generating either or both. I don’t approve of this, but I can see some truth in it. Styles tell us what’s currently in vogue and what’s not. The link to usefulness is as tenuous as it is in the world of fashion. The probIem I see with talking about The Renaissance and Parametricism in the same book is that we falsely attribute them with similar levels of gravitas despite consumerism and mass media influencing and trivialising the concept of style since – oh, at least since Art & Crafts.

It’s not all a waste of time – there were a couple of genuinely interesting bits. The first was this.

Parametricism is looking for continuous programmatic variations rather than the repetition of strict funciton types. Instead of juxtaposing discrete functional domains this style prefers to offer all the in-between iterations that might be conceived between two function types, now considered as two extremes of a continuous spectrum of GRADUAL FUNCTIONAL MODULATION. Instead of accepting the need for separate programmatic zones the idea is that social boundaries and categorizations must be blurred. The style is looking for a density of connectivity and intense relatedness between programme components. p260


There you have it. This is what gives Parametricism its swooshiness. Instead of open space with, say, a room divider between the living and dining room, the roof swooshes down to modulate the infinite dining room-ness and living room-ness. Sounds expensive. But that, in a nutshell is how I heard the foyer of the Heydar Aliyev thingy described.

In my last post on this topic, I noted the facile point-of-purchase connectivity that Galaxy Soho supposedly makes a fetish of.

mega mall


But that still doesn’t explain the swooshiness of what are essentially single-function shells.

aggressive and banalhttp://www.bdonline.co.uk/aggressive-and-banal-zaha-hadids-serpentine-sackler-gallery/5061185.article

vag crit


I never got around to mentioning the other interesting thing in 3.6. Next time.

The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Pages 237~240

Before moving on to Section 3.6 and finding out why styles are essential if the very fabric of the architectural universe isn’t to be torn apart, I’d like to go back to these four pages. They seem important. They’re a partial summary of what’s gone before, but they also contain a rather dodgy justification for what’s to come – which, of course, is what the author really wants to trumpet – Parametricism. The One True Style. No Style but Parametricism. etc. 

Read this and see what you think.


I need some help here. Am I correct in understanding that the argument goes like this? (Dodgy statements in red.)

  1. Designing is difficult, there are many possibilities. We need a way to reduce the complexity/possibilities.
  2. 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’.) 
  3. But the idea of beauty does however reduce complexity because we no longer have to make random choices every time. 
  4. 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.

This argument is shameful – really shit, in fact. It’s no longer possible to take this book seriously. There’s more. Remember, the author is arguing for why a style is necessary to eliminate the need for time-consuming thought and application of skill and experience when designing. OK, OK, at least I know I’m prejudiced. Read this – the four reasons why we ‘need’ styles.

Untitled 2

  1. The author seems to have a bee in his bonnet about random fiat. I wish he’d explain what the fuck it is as I’m having to guess here. I imagine he’s talking about unguided design decisions or, circularly, ‘formist’ [I’m refusing to use the word ‘formalist’ as it contains a shred of authority] design decisions not guided by a ‘formist’ style. This is a pathetic attempt to knit what’s to come with what went before for, back on page 199, 3.3.1 Design Decisions, first sentence – ‘The elemental operation of architecture is the design decision.’
  2. Saying ‘And totally random design decisions may not be possible anyway.’ is probably true as it’s easy to imagine there is always some criteria, misguided or otherwise, for something being one way and not another. However, it’s still not a reason why a style is necessary to guide decisions that, unlike those decisions based on functional criteria, nobody would miss if they were not made.

  3. But no, for beauty often has a functional and economic logic. I agree. Oh dear. Since the beauty word has been mentioned, ART can’t be far away.


Here’s some snippets I knew would come in handy sometime. This is as good a time as any.

In response to the question ‘Why is art so expensive?’ art dealer Ernst Beyeler reportedly replied, ‘If I can’t sell something, I just double the price.’ 


‘Some people actually prefer to pay more than makes sense’…’I think very often the price paid for a work is the trophy itself,’ says Arne Glimcher, art dealer…’The people who are spending record amounts on art buy more than just that glow of prosperity. They’ve purchased boasting rights.

arne glimcher

So yes, I agree that beauty does have a functional and economic logic. Check out footnote 101 on page 238.

However, these rationales are not manifest, not communicated. The formal principles remain independent from explicit functional criteria.

I’m not so sure. It seems pretty clear what the game is. If architecture is Art and has its own collectors wishing to purchase boasting rights, then formal principles that produce architecture that is A) expensive and B) difficult to replicate would be more desirable. The contorted structures of ZHA and the highly contrived structures of OMA are both examples of formal principles fulfilling the perverse social and economic logic of boasting rights.

  1. Formist principles save time, enable rationalisation, benefit both the economy and the environment and also stop people from getting lost. This is getting crazy. Is white black? Functional or utilitarian principles do all this and without all the middlemen.

The problem of architectural design is to generate spatial forms that can fulfil desired functions and/or to propose appropriate functions to utilise any given spatial form.

Well, this makes sense, especially if form is just the manifestation of perverse function. Here, the author tries to throw us off the scent by advising us to appreciate ‘the co-creation and mutual dependency of form and function as correlates’ and explains that to not do that is ‘archaic’ and not in line with ‘current world society [that] operates on the basis of rather abstract criteria that, in their dialectic, potentially open up an infinite universe of possibilities.’ Check out page 239, paragraphs two and three.

I have a problem with the statement that functionality, like beauty, is historically and culturally relative. This is true, but doesn’t mean that, like beauty, it is subjective or arbitrary or, as the author says, abstract. In the last paragraph, choosing which functionality to focus on shouldn’t be that hard. Perhaps keep the rain out, maybe a certain level thermal comfort, not to difficult to move around in, etc. 

Untitled 3

Designing is like making mud pies, then. The last paragraph (the one spanning the page) introduces a new non-problem for which a non-solution will be forthcoming.  

Untitled 4

Did you get that? It is up to the designer to pick’n’mix between the two codes of beauty and utility. Utility then, is the subject of a design decision and is thus made into the creature of beauty. (This explains a lot.)

But don’t worry, because

  1. everything that claims beauty and utility is a part of architecture.
  2. formal principles and general functional criteria [as opposed to the perverse ones?] are orienting guidelines that facilitate decision making within the design process. [didn’t I tell you? – functional criteria are mere guidelines for design to act upon. Haven’t we come a long way from the beginning where function was for losers?] 

Now you can start to worry again, because

  1. No explicit criteria and guidelines offer water-tight mechanisms that could guarantee strictly predictable procedures and results.
  2. There is no way to calculate solutions.
  3. The problematic [sic.] of the design decision should rather be theorized as the dilemma of having to decide in the absence of sufficient information. A decision has to be made somehow. [my bold] 


An orienting decision making programme is required to steer the design process between indecision and random wilfulness. Within architecture these necessary programmes are called styles. The next section will be treating styles as fundamental structures

(and, before we too almost forget,)

of the autopoiesis of architecture.

And that’s it! I think that’s all the justification we’re going to get. The author’s impatience to talk about why building surfaces should be curvy has given us this bit of literary stitching. Inadequate as it is, it still manages to reveal a lot about the author’s biases – I won’t say intentions or motivations for writing this book because they are still obscure. By this stage, we can say that the book isn’t written with a desire to inform or educate but it is wordy and weighty and heavy going and that’s probably all it needs to be seen to be.

The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.3~3.4

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Chaps. 3.3~3.4 veer off into topics conventionally associated with architecture but, as it does so, becomes increasingly – and possibly strategically – vague about whose idea of architecture is being talked about. Chapter 3 is meant to be the meat in the sandwich so whatever is going to happen ought to have its basis here. This chapter can’t be dealt with sequentially as its various themes are too disordered so I’ll group my thoughts according to what I see as the main problems.


* * *

Whose architecture is it anyway?

I’ve already mentioned how I suspect Chapter 3 was written first and the preceding chapters later. There’s more evidence for this. Chapter 3 deals with questions such as beauty and utility and form vs. function that, like it or not, are a part of “everyday” architectural discourse. Every architect understands them in their own way as they go about their work. The ‘Architecture’ that Chapter 3 talks about, isn’t that different from the what you or I might imagine. This is a lot different from Chapter 1 where it was stated that the only buildings that can be considered Architecture are those informed by a “thorough” program of research and “solid” theory. Nothing else mattered. Nothing pre-Alberti [p82] and nothing of vernacular or conventional buildings with all their embodied intelligence. Nothing of the Gothic even (because nobody wrote about it). This definition occurred early in Chapter 1 as we were still settling into our chairs yet now, in Chapter 3, the ‘Architecture’ that’s being talked about is the one we’re know.

So let’s get this straight. Our architecture has concepts of beauty and utility and our architecture occupies itself with questions of form and function. If the author’s Architecture does not recognise functional or client constraints (except as “irritations” [p193-195]) then why is he discussing them at all?  Having buried these concepts in Chapter 1 as far as his definition of Architecture is concerned, why dig them up in Chapter 3? Using something one doesn’t believe in, to push the case for something one does, seems neither logical nor ethical. In the light of his earlier pronouncements re function is for losers, can one even trust what this person has to say about function and utility? I could be reading too much into this. Maybe the author just got his lecture notes in a muddle. Or simply forgot what he had written earlier. Or is hoping we have.

* * *

All Over The Place

Books are linear things. You start at the front, and the knowledge you pick up along the way builds into a coherent and convincing argument. However, with this one, constant forward references refer you ahead to knowledge to (presumabaly) better understand where you’re up to now. It’s a bit like trying to read Wikipedia by following each link as you come to it. I’ve mentioned this before, but it really starts to grate in the section on Design Decisions.

Architecture is a systematic communication process that communicates about design decisions. [p197]


The preferred medium in which design decisions are exercised and communicated is the medium of the drawing.

The drawing is advanced via a sequence of design decisions.

Design decisions build upon design decisions and require/provoke further design decisions.

THUS at the core of the autopoiesis of architecture we find self-referentially enclosed systems of design decisions prompting and constraining further design decisions. [p200]

Have you got that? By the way, in this post, I’m using magenta to denote sentences with particularly toxic logic. Interestingly,

the code of utility (functional vs. dysfunctional) and the code of beauty (formally resolved vs. formally unresolved)

have suddenly become Truth but footnote 41, p202 refers us forward to Chapter 3.5.2 Utility and Beauty as the Double Code of Architecture. In the same vein,

The progress of architecture proceeds as a procession of styles.

but if we want to find out if this means anything more than

Styles are principled systems of design. They involve both formal and functional design principles. New styles are new systems that re-order the way architecture handles the external societal demands that confront the discipline via the commissions and the briefs posed

then Footnote 43, p203 refers us forward to 3.6 Architectural Styles and 3.7 Styles as Research Programmes. Lastly, this next bit is cute. It’s an insight into the author’s way of writing. Any fact, whether contrary to the thrust of the argument or blindingly obvious, gets pulled into service. [p200] 

Untitled 2

Curiously, footnote 39 refers us forward to 3.9.2 The Difference between Themes and Projects but it’s unclear why we should want to go there at this stage. The difference between this and a dictionary is that with a dictionary you know where you are.

Dragging Everything Into Service

The quote above is also an example of how anything that can possibly be used to bolster the author’s argument, is. I suppose any theory of an Architectural Everything (however restricted that ‘Everything’ may be) should cover what are perceived to be the basics, but has anything actually been explained in that quote?

  1. Design decisions are premises for further design decisions. (Okay, true.)
  2. … self-referentially enclosed systems of design decisions prompting  and constrain further design decisions. (This is another way of saying it)

This is just restating a known fact in authorspeak without justification for linking the two with “Thus at the core of the autopoiesis of architecture….”  There is no logical link between something that is blindingly obvious, and the author’s restatement of it. It’s just word substitution.

Page 201 has a grander example. This time, the author drags (the recursive aspects inherent to) Christopher Alexander’s pattern language into service to bolster his argument, forgetting that he dissed it back on page 81 for relating too much to the intelligence of vernacular architecture and not enough to the kind of architecture he’s promoting.


Maybe one man’s dysfunction is another man’s modernity? It only matters if either of both are making a claim to The Soul of Architecture.

Let’s take a restful green break from Chapter 3 and meditate upon this. I’m happy with a functioning architecture being inherently well-adapted to the ways of an unselfconscious culture. Remember that book “Architecture Without Architects”? It seems a long way away now in time and space. The author’s stance couldn’t be more opposite. Not only is there no architecture without architects, but there is no architecture without Zaha Hadid Architects plus a few selected others. Of these others, the author consistently mentions Greg Lynn’s name as an(other) theory-driven avant-garde trailblazer. To add a bit of sparkle to this post, here’s some of Lynn’s  avant-garde trailblazing jewelry designs for Swarovski. 


But I wonder what this “take-off into modernity” could mean? Is it something we should want? Maybe it is a functioning architecture inherently well adapted to the ways of a selfconsious culture. One would have to go along with that. Whatever the product is that ZHA are delivering, it is well adapted and functioning on some level for the certain kind of selfconscious client that commissions them to produce it. Or the product of BIG. Whatever one may think of them, their product is well adapted and functioning on some level. It is not a product of an unselfconsious culture. If this is what we’ve come to, then we just have to accept it. But we should also ask, what is this “modernity” of which the author speaks? Given his past performance, I’d say he’s using the word as a synonym for “highly-evolved” – the pinnacle of human achievement at any given time, as part of an ongoing quest for perfection. I’m inclined to side with Alexander.

* * *

Contempt for Clients

I should say that nowhere does the author directly say he has contempt for clients, although you could have inferred it from his previously expressed disregard for program and function. This is essentially what’s being said (again) on page 201.

Untitled 2

One side-effect of all this talk of codes and flow of communications is to downplay, if not obscure, which way the money flows.


Untitled 8

Untitled 13

The rest of page 236 expands upon this, or at least uses more words to repeat it. But is it really okay to have such little respect for clients? Is it even professional according to the spirit, if not the letter of the RIBA, or even the ARB, Code of Conduct?

It’s true that all this might not have much bearing upon an architecture well adapted to times of economic boom but recent history (2009) has shown us that as soon as the well-heeled, high-roller clients start to get a bit thin on the ground, the buildings tend to sharpen up quick smart.


* * *

I’ll be interested to see if The Autopoiesis of Architecture will be translated into Chinese.


Or Russian?

russia house

I doubt it for this book is about building a reputation, not a business. It is linked to the getting of clients, but only those rich ones attracted by a reputation for imagery, not theory. To some extent, I can see why the author has such contempt for clients like that but, as we say in English, “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”.

The Lead Distinction 

If anyone has a copy of this book lying around unread, then Chapter 3.4 [p204] is a good place to start. Page 206. I summarise. Luhmann wrote that the great functions systems all have what he terms a “lead distinction”. In the legal system, for example, it is the distinction between norms and facts. In the science system, it is the distinction between theory and evidence. The author proposes that the equivalent lead distinction in architecture is between form and function. OK? Now, in the legal system, norms cannot be deduced from facts. In the science system, theory cannot be deduced from evidence. Therefore, the author (now) says, in architecture, forms cannot be deduced from functions. [page 206]

Untitled 2

Of course, this doesn’t square with all design decisions revolving around whether a certain form can fulfil a certain function, as mentioned above. The author surely can’t be drawing a distinction between architecture and design decisions for that would undermine his thesis. Perhaps, just perhaps, the premise was wrong and form and function are not the lead distinction in architecture? Pre-empting a ruckus, Footnote 51,p207 reminds us that

The lead-distinction concerns the conceptual constellation of form vs. function and thus does not hinge on the utilisation of the terms/words ‘form’ and ‘function’. The distinction within architecture is older than the establishment of this particular pair of terms as its primary verbal vehicle.

Ooo, touchy! It’s not the verbal vehicle I object to, but the driving and where it’s taking us. But meanwhile, in the front seat, there’s a reference to the endless “tug-of-war” between

the twin evils of a one-sided Formalism and a one-sided Functionalism … is itself the clearest evidence for the thesis proposed here that the distinction between form and function is the lead-distinction of architecture/design and thus a fundamental, permanent communication structure of architecture’s autopoiesis.

Now, did we not read that theory cannot be deduced from evidence? Or did that only apply to reasoning within the Science system? Is it possible to use a difference to prove a similarity? All these words, so little sense.

* * *

Form vs. Function

If you are just dipping in and out of this book for the ‘good bits’ then next stop is page 207. 

Untitled 2

Architectural discourse is organized around the lead-distinction of form versus function. [p207]

All design decisions, and only design decisions can be questioned and criticized with respect to their functional and formal consequences. [p208]

Try saying that backwards. The author does.

Form vs. function is the primary distinction of architecture. [p208]

But what follows is important as it at last offers some definitions. Full attention!

If all architectural communications [aka “design decisions”, remember?] have to respond to both concerns of form and concerns of function, it should not surprise that these are very broad general terms: ‘form’ has a wide domain of application; the term might refer to the overall layout (‘parti’) of a building, to its three-dimensional massing, to its stylistic articulation and manner of decoration, to a particular motif or to its overall expressive character etc. The term ‘function’ is equally wide and refers to the broad assignment of programmatic categories, to schedules of accommodation, accounts of the activities and the communication processes to be accommodated (for example, in terms of the need for separation/connection etc.), and finally performance specifications for the material building components.

And tellingly,

The term has also come to include the orienting and representational functions of architecture. 

I guess we have post-modernism to thank for that.

Thus, the total domain of architecture – the totality of its issues – is dissected by the distinction of form and function. All architectural aspects of a space or building refer either to a functional or a formal aspect of the space or building. The whole building has both a function and a form, and so has each space and each architectural component.

It’s easy to read one’s own meanings into these fairly large statements and mistakenly think one’s on the same wavelength as the author and that this book is actually talking to you. My biggest problem with all this form vs. function stuff is that I don’t believe the author believes it. I can’t reconcile any of these form vs. function statements with the buildings produced by the practice where his own functional differentiality is that of academic legitimiser. I’ll have more to say about this further on. In the meantime …

The idea that form and function are among the foundational concepts of architecture is hardly original.

dum de dum …

the form-function distinction is the constitutive, defining distinction of the discipline, in the sense that this distinction concerns all the design communications and only the design communications

la di da …

There can be no full-blown theory of architecture that refuses to address the question of how the promoted forms promote functions. [p204]

eh? Did you see what happened there? The problem is not what function can do for form but what form can do for function. This seems to be the popular judgment of the buildings produced by the functionally-differentiated practice the author is associated with. Two pages later however, the author is talking about our architecture again, holding up a mirror up to the reader’s expectations.


hmmm … Something’s gotten rotten. If all design decisions are architectural communications and if all architectural communications revolve around whether a certain form can fulfil a certain function, then all design decisions must revolve around whether a certain form can fulfil a certain function. Really? (Did no-one edit this book?)

Any pure theory of architectural form can only be considered a partial theory without the power to establish and defend a new style.

This is simply a statement. It’s impossible to even try to extract meaning from it without having to argue every word, possibly including ‘a’ and ‘the’.

 * * *

Self-Reference and World-Reference

This is kind of cute. The following diagram mercifully explains the analogy in a few words.


The idea of function is actually a crucial part of the author’s analogy. What was it again?

The term ‘function’ is equally wide and refers to the broad assignment of programmatic categories, to schedules of accommodation, accounts of the activities and the communication processes to be accommodated (for example, in terms of the need for separation/connection etc.), and finally performance specifications for the material building components.

Now let’s assume this is what it means to the author for, if we don’t, we can’t really proceed – although I don’t think we are talking about performance specifications for material building components here. Rather, when the author conclude that Architecture forms functions in the same way that Science theorises about evidence and the Economy prices values and Art renders subject matter, he seems to be talking about functions as a spatial program – something he has previously denied. What’s wrong with that? Well, suppose that architecture “forms” functions and suppose that a function is a performance specification for a material building component. We can’t say that architecture gives form to a performance specification for a material building component. The performance specification for a material building component does not require form to express it.


OK? Now consider this. Some president of some country with a name ending in “-stan” wants a building that conveys the image of “culture”, “modernity” and “prestige” that he wishes to be associated with himself and his country. This is the true function of the building. Its spatial program is irrelevant. The performance specifications of its materials building components are irrelevant. The enabled activities and the accommodated communication processes are irrelevant. However, architecture can come to the fore and give form to the true function of this building. As a word and as a concept, “function” is notoriously slippery. With high-end architecture, I just assume the primary function is “to articulate the possession of power, wealth and property”. Just to be on the safe side. So yes, in that sense, architecture forms functions (and spatial programs are for losers).

* * *

In the table, the qualifier “before 1900” has been added because modern art doesn’t actually need subject matter (a world reference). Previously, the author had gently chided Luhmann for thinking that architecture was a part of the Art system.  In its contempt for functional niceties, I’d say that Luhmann was right and that a certain type of architecture IS a part of the Art system. Or tries to be. In fairness, the author says as much.

Untitled 3

And has some damning things to say about its viability. But in that list above there is also mass media. Does Mass Media really report events? Isn’t it all just entertainment – even the news? This part of the book might have been a good place to talk about Architecture as infotainment.

The Poverty of The Language Used to Describe Architecture 

Untitled 4

I couldn’t agree more! It is a problem. But a larger part of that problem is the elitist nature of those communications.

Untitled 9

And the desire to keep those communications elitist. An enriched language for the creative advancement of form-function relationships is not going to do anybody much good if its use is limited to those permitted to participate in exclusive architectural discourse. 

Untitled 7

One gets the feeling that any enriched language that might be forthcoming, is not going to be an egalitarian one. Or maybe we’re expected to bemoan the lack of this language now so we can applaud its arrival later in Vol.2? Just a thought.

* * *

Novelty as an Essential Quality

The lengthy discussion on novelty made me think back to architecture as media event, entertainment, infortainment and news. We really need to talk about this.

Untitled 10

The author’s stance is that only starchitects can do novelty. They have a duty, a social oblication to keep coming up with the new goods, regardless of who the client is.

Untitled 11

Novelty has been around since 1960 the author states without much pause for reflecting upon whether the pursuit of novelty alone is a good thing for architecture – or for anyone really.

Untitled 12Also note that this idea of novelty has been conflated with the idea of innovation and the idea of evolution as if novelty is a force for the good. This conflation relies on the popular use of the term “evolution”. Going back to basic Darwin, random genetic mutations can prove beneficial for the adaption and subsequent survival of a species in a changing environment. For a species, there is no ultimate goal other than a never-ending process of adapting to survive. Not unlike some architects, really. Frank Lloyd Weight’s career can be viewed in terms of continual mutation and adaption in order to remain relevant. He remained relevant, the buildings less so.

* * *


irritation: something that attempts to draw your attention towards a problem that needs solving but, unless you can see something in it for you, you ignore it

verbal vehicle: the words used to express a meaning, aka “words”

abstraction and openness: Bugger it! Like the author, we have bigger fish to fry for, on the next page, is 3.6 Architectural Styles. and that’s really what the author wants to talk about. Meet you there next time!

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

This is la veuve Cliquot.

la veuve

This past week saw another grande dame, Dame Zaha Hadid named Veuve Cliquot Businesswoman of the Year.


To receive this award one has to meet the following criteria.

  1. Entrepreneurship: founder / leader and driving force of a business through pioneering approach, business acument, dynamism, audacity, innovation, tenacity
  2. Financial Success: sustained profitable business growth with healthy balance sheet and minimum turnover of 3 million pounds
  3. Corporate Social Responsibility: genuine commitment to responsible and sustainable business practices such as workplace diversity, employee benefits, environmental policies, community schemes and relationships
  4. Role Model: mentoring, succession planning, pushing boundaries, able to motivate others, building relationships with colleagues / employees (especially women)

* * * 

I remember reading somewhere that “the mantle of architectural fame always rests with the shape makers, the form-givers” but, when I google it, all I can find is myself repeating it.

* * *

The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol.1 really begins with Chapter 3 as it seems like it’s where the author first began writing down his thoughts. The writing is fresher and more to the point, less of a sense of preamble. Chapter 3.1.1 gives us a quick overview of Luhmann’s theory once again, along with the author’s repeated hope he can convincingly associate it with his own conception of how architecture works. That hope seems misplaced. Inside the book, that is. For one.   

It remains to be seen how far architectural theory is able to take on key concepts and perspectives of the encompassing [!] ‘sociological (philosophical) discourse’. The ambition of the theory of architectural autopoiesis is that at least the rough skeleton of Luhmann’s reflection might be looped into architectural theory to become a part of a broader, more sophisticated self-awareness of architecture with respect to its place and function within the evolution of contemporary society, ie, the ambition and hope here is that some of the third order observations presented ‘stick’ to become second order observations within architecture.  [page 181]

I’m reading this book in instalments so I’m actually finding these repeatings quite useful, but this restating of premises and hopes halfway through the book is just more evidence that (what eventually became) Chapter 3 was written first. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s just annoying it’s so obvious. What then was the point of the previous 170 pages? To give the appearance of a magnum opus?


Niklas Luhmann (1927 – 1998)

Page 179 tells us of Niklas Luhmann’s theory of ‘functionally differentiated society’ as if we were hearing of the man and his theory for the first time. Chapter 3 also contains the first meaningful explanation of what a functionally differentiated society is. This is especially odd since everything that has gone before has depended upon us understanding what one was.

Another feature of Chapter 3 is that it has a lot to say about the autonomy of architecture – a subject that seems close to the author’s heart. NH is quoted saying “Every function system is burdened with autonomy because no function-system can fulfill the function of another”. PS continues,

This autonomy does not alleviate the mutual dependency of the various function systems. This is always a two-way dependency.  (p180)

To his credit, the author did ease my objection to this apparent contradiction by describing how a function system can be both autonomous and have a two-way dependency but the meaning of “autonomy” did become rather elastic. Function systems doing their own thing yet feeding off each other sounds more like mutual interdependency than mutual autonomy to me but later (p185) the author says that each system treats the others as a constraining environment, rather than a contribution to a common concern. This seems a better way of saying it. In a further flight of lucidity on p184, the author writes that

Political decisions can neither determine judicial outcomes, nor can they replace economic exchanges, scientific concepts or artistic paradigms

(– a sentence so good it’s repeated word for word seven pages on.) Nevertheless,

Any prolonged lack of sensitivity with respect to what goes on elsewhere in society spells irrelevance, leading to the withdrawal of attention and resources which in turn throws the respective function system into crisis.

Maybe or, then again, maybe not. This doesn’t seem to happen to the Art function system as it goes its own way. Or to the Politics function system which does the same, and not necessarily with the best interests of the population at heart – although individual political parties do often feign a concern for societal events. Like the Politics function system, the Religion function system is also by and large business as usual selling notions of its social relevance. And nor is much happening with our Economics function system that remains as adept as ever at causing crises whilst remaining immune to any sense of its own. But what about Architecture? It’s easy to imagine an architecture office’s business development section fretting over the business risks of their overly-adapted niche product. It’s not difficult to imagine The Profession going through one of its periodic crises (usually regarding the mismatch between the importance it gives to its product vs. the importance others do). But Architecture? Whenever I see Architecture capitalised and talked about like some sentient being, I usually stop and think what it is I’m being asked to believe in. I therefore hadn’t even had begun to worry about the future of Architecture when Footnote 7 p180 told me not to.

Such moments of crisis must – sooner or later – be resolved through a new sustainability beginning. Modern society depends on the mutually well-adapted functioning of all its great function systems.

Huh? “A new sustainability beginning.” This cleverly clumsy turn of phrase got my attention. Of course, the author means that when these function systems get it wrong, they’ll find their own level once again and carry on as normal. This is where this book actually started to make sense to me. The concepts mainipulated by Art, Politics, Economics, Law and Religion may have become more sophisticated along with their conceptual machinery for manipulating them, but I wouldn’t be so bold as to claim this represents advancement when it could just be a reflexive survival response. I think I now understand where the author is coming from, and can accept that we look at the same things from opposite sides of the fence. I’m neither converted nor coming around to the author’s argument because, after all, this book is an exposition of a hypothesis of a belief erected on a theory. The theory was Luhmann’s. The hypothesis is that Architecture can be regarded as a Luhmann-esque function system. The belief is that Architecture exists and can be talked about as an entity. All I can say is, “well, I can see how it might make the author happy to think about it like that” and read on. 

[Luhmann succeeded] in producing a general analytical scheme of types of communication structures that can be fruitfully applied to the analysis of all function systems. This schema, that captures the typical pattern of self-orgnization of the function ssytems, operates on a rather high level of abstraction, and from a rather specific perspective: the perspective of a function- or problem-oriented mode of system theoretical analysis. With this abstract perspective rather surprising, and surprisingly compelling, comparisons become possible. The theory of architectural autopoiesis, for the first time, allows architecture to participate in this matrix of comparisons.

Excited? I am a bit, but not because of the prospect of ‘rather surprising, and surprisingly compelling comparisons’ but more because that’s now second example of writerly styling I’ve encountered in 190 pages.

The remainder of this chapter concerns aspects of architecture that will be familiar to many and attempts to interpret these in terms of the autopoiesis of architecture. First up is  ‘architecture’s

radical shift in both the function scope and the openness in

the formal repertoire’ –

namely, ‘the shift from edifice to space’ and goes on to say that the ‘radicality of the transformation that is indicated and condensed in this conceptual switch cannot be over-emphasised.’ Before doing just that.

The theory of archtectural autopoiesis poses the switch from edifice to space as the decisive transformation that can be set in parallel to the liberalisation of the economy, the democratisation of politics, the positive turn in the legal system and the Romantic awakening of art.

And again.

All these parallel transformations imply a decisive increase in the versatility and flexibility of the responsiveness of the respective system in the context of an increased societal complexity. In the legal system the shift from natural law to positive law gives total openness with respect to the content of law and a decoupling from the premises of traditional stratified society. Even on the basis of these hints we can already see [grrrr] how, in architecture, the switch from the iteration of fixed, traditional building types to the openness of configuring space achieves a parallel advancement.

This is the language of lecture halls. At the end of this earlier post I had to raise my hand and say I didn’t really agree about the spatialisation of architecture being such a momentous, one-off thing. It was going to happen sooner or later.


Many people will most likely think of some image like these to illustrate this thought.


For me it’s a reinvention rather than a revolution, but no more or less important than how elimination of ornament was attractive to new clients with both money and sense. For me, the ‘spatialisation’ of architecture was just “the subject matter of architecture” readjusting to access this new money. I very much doubt any architect in the latter part of the previous century said “hey wouldn’t it be a great idea to get rid of ornament?” and waited for a client to come along wanting an office building or a department store to realise their dream. More likely some potential office building or department store owner came along and said “hey I’m not paying for truckloads of that crap …

non-19C example for purposes of illustration only

non-19C example for purposes of illustration only

… but you can put some bay windows on it for additional floor area.”


Enough of all that. Get this! [p183]

However, within today’s complex society it is no longer enough to rely on the general level of experience and education that can usually be expected from architects to guide the assessment of the societal demands and challenges posed to architecture’s evolution.

Here I have to raise my hand again. More questions from the back of the room.

  1. Is today’s society really all that complex? Might it not just be a conceit of ours that we  like to think so? 
  2. Why is it no longer enough to rely on … etc. etc. ? Is there something lacking in the general level of experience and education of architects? 
  3. Did such a situation ever exist?
  4. Do architects actually guide the assessment of societal demands and challenges to architecture’s evolution or is this just another conceit? 
  5. Is there such a thing as architecture’s evolution? Might it just not be the development of new means to satisfy the same realities? Whatever happened to Post Modernism?  
  6. In earlier chapters we learned that Architecture excludes all buildings but those produced by starchitects, so why should anyone (let alone society) seriously care about what the future trajectory of its concerns should be?
  7. Given that, why should anyone trust any designer who claims they are thinking on behalf of people?

These to me, are questions that should be asked. And that’s just this one sentence. Architectural theory, like movies, pop music and other media commodities, can never be without something to hype. The Autopoiesis of Architecture fills no gap in the market. It fills a gap in time when nothing much is happening in the theory department. It’ll do. Unchallenged, it may in time become an academic truth by citation, or (like The International Style and The Language of Post-Modern Architecture) an historical truth by virtue of merely being of its time.

* * * 

But in the here and now, there’s definitions to compare, and conclusions to try not to jump to. I’ve already mentioned my underwhelmedness re. ‘the spatialisation of architecture’. Whatever it was, it’s small beer compared to the discovery of The Higgs Boson.

Beauty and utility had to come up sooner or later. I’d been looking forward to this way back when I first flipped through this book, but now I’m here, it’s disappointing. (Don’t you hate that?) Apparently, each major function system has a primary guiding distinction that takes the shape of a binary opposition. Science has true vs. false. The legal system has lawful vs. unlawful. The economic system has profit vs. loss. Religion has, I guess, belief vs. non-belief. The author believes that architecture has three such oppositions. First there is the code of utility which takes the form of functional vs. dysfunctional. Then there is the code of beauty which he defines as formally resolved vs. formally unresolved. And there is also the code of novelty (original vs. conventional) – but only starchitects need to worry about that one. The guy’s consistent. I’m unsure if he really believes what he’s writing. He may just be embedding some controversiality in case anyone actually reads this book. 

But let’s forget utility and, rashly, head straight for beauty! My first thought is that formally resolved vs. formally unresolved seems rather limiting, simplistic rather than simple. It also goes against the code of novelty if all those formal rules are meant to be continually challenged and broken. Logically, this makes no sense unless the author is proposing one set of rules for starchitects and a different set for everyone else – which he is, actually, as non-starchitects can’t do novelty, or at least not in his novel new sense. The conclusion is that it’s the duty of starchitects to propose new rules for formal resolution. Again, I can see what the author finds attractive about this idea.

It also ties in well with the author’s notion of environmental constraint (p186) by which each system chooses what it wants its relevant environment to be. “The system constructs its own world, seeing and taking from its environment only that which it needs to sustain itself.” [FUN GAME! Level 1: Substitute the words “the author” for “the system”. Level 2: Substitute “Zaha Hadid Architects” for “architecture”.] I can understand what the author likes about these constructs, and why it leads him to declare (p188)

There can be no external determination imposed upon architecture – neither by political bodies, nor by paying clients – except in the negative/trivial sense of disruption.

The author shifts into “royal we” mode to state

We shall have to explain why it is important to maintain some degree of disciplinary and professional autonomy, namely precisely in order to take on the tasks posed by society, or rather co-posed by society and architecture, or better still – posed by an architecturally challenged society.

Here’s what he says.

The tendency towards architectural autonomy might be understood as a moment of an overall societal process of differentiation, whereby social communication fragments into a series of autonomous domains, – the economy, the poli …

… but continue on p190 if you really care. Read quietly. But just when you start to think the author might not really care about society at all, he writes

Architecture’s autonomy within society does not imply indifference to society. Rather it is a necessary mode of contribution to society with sufficient flexibility and sophistication.

“I love you that’s why I’m ignoring you.” Yeah right.

Architecture too can only appoint itself, and define its own purposes, both with respect to the identification of the most urgent architecturally relevant social tasks and with respect to the appropriate selection of architectural means to tackle such tasks. Although each individual architect is confronted with little choice over his/her commissions, and his/her concrete tasks are thus set by his/her clients, the starchitect discourse is autonomous in setting the themes of its defining debates, and in selecting which projects should exemplify the defining tasks, responding to the supposed key societal challenges.

I find this rather horrifying. It’s not even a subtext. It’s up there in the real text. The concept of openness through closure is floated to give this disdain an air of respectability. Openness through closure is when a system continuously adapts, but only to changes in its environment that serve its own purposes. Nice. Trust me, I’m an architect. It’s not just society that gets short shrift.

Architecture has to react to societal and technological changes. But the definition of functionality, ie, the reference to external social needs, remains an internal system operation subordinated to the proper procedures (structures) of the discipline: the communication structures of the discipline that form the core of this book.  


This chapter started off being fresh and informative but dissolved into explanations of explanations to come. What’s left to come are:

more on beauty and utility: it seems that we will be proceeding in line with the conventional assumption that these two are contradictory opposites – not because they necessarily have to be, but because this is how they are commonly defined and this is the way they are commonly understood. It is more important that the author fit these concepts into his theory as they are commonly understood, than to provide some new way of understanding either or both of them.

design decisions: are (suggested as) the basic communicative operation which characterises the autopoiesis of architecture. Look forward to that. In the meantime, perhaps revisit Chapter 1 where it was claimed that “the building artefact itself” constitutes only a small portion of architectural communications.

form vs. function: “is what defines the discipline (and has universal relevance with respect to all communications within architecture)”. We shall see about that. Taster:

In architecture all communications revolve around the question whether a certain form can fulfil a certain function.

On the surface, this looks like there might be something to agree with but, with this book, I’ve learned to distrust any statement I think the author might think I might agree with. I fully expect this section to be this book’s Room 101 – a heroic struggle to cling to what one knows to be true and useful whilst being constantly told that 2+2=5.

world reference vs. internal reference: this is form vs. function, restated. There’s even a diagram so he must see this as important evidence for his analogy! If we accept the form vs. function conumdrum then the fit is neat, but it’s clever rather than elegant and, if you come out of the form vs. function section unbroken, you’ll see what the author finds attractive about this idea.

incommensurability went away for a while but is now back. Frequently. More than ever.
regressive totalitarianism is what happens when starchitects aren’t allowed to do their thing.
design rationality is a spectacular oxymoron when defined as something that can neither be reduced to, nor controlled by, any other than its own logic.


financial success: sustained profitable business growth with healthy balance sheet and minimum turnover of 3 million pounds

The Red Igloo vs. The Autopoiesis of Architecture

This post is a mashup of my 2010 architecture fable The Red Iglooand thoughts from Patrik Schumacher’s The Autopoiesis of Architecture.
Both purport to convey some kind of truth about architecture.

* * *

Once upon a time all Inuit people made igloos the same way.

Vernacular building relies on tradition, on well proven solutions taken for granted. The status quo does not require theory. vol.1 p35

They made them out of snow because snow didn’t cost anything, it was there, they had a lot of it, and there would always be more tomorrow. They made blocks out of snow and laid them one by one in a spiral that became smaller and smaller until it made a dome. They made a little entrance to keep the wind out. It always faced away from the wind. And they made a little hole in the wall to let the light in. It always faced the sun. It was as perfect as it could be. For a very long time, everyone made their igloos like this.    

The sole responsibility of the avant-garde architect is to mutate [to create mutations] and give innovation a chance. vol.1 p134

Every now and then there was a small change that made igloos even better. Putting a piece of plastic over the hole let the light in and kept the wind out better than a sealskin curtain. But mostly, igloos remained much the same. Nobody could really make them that much better.

Could [innovation] not be done by trial and error? Perhaps, trial and error is always involved. However, construction takes too long, and the material investment is too big to allow for an effective trial and error process unless the process is slowed down to the tempo of tradition by varying and improving in very small steps.

Inuit people still tell stories of a man called Biisaiyowaq. He is famous. He is part of the history of igloos. This is what happened. One day, when Biisaiyowaq was out hunting, he came across a dead polar bear. He took two bowls of its blood, mixed it with about a cubic metre of snow, and used it to make a red igloo for himself.


Architecture is a discourse that is geared to permanent innovation, keeping up with and promoting a dynamic society. The societal need for a permanently updated building environment – inevitable in a society that expands and transforms relatively rapidly – is first the evolutionary attractor for architecture’s crystallisation and then the selector for its further innovation.

A short time after, people came to look at what Biisaiyowaq had done. They all looked at his red igloo and thought the same thing. The first person to say it out loud was a child. The child said, “It’s red! Everything else is white. It’s DIFFERENT!”

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. vol.1 p99

Everyone was quiet for a while.  Then one of the adults suddenly said, “It’s NEW!” Almost at the same time, another said, “It’s MODERN!” Another shouted, “It’s BEAUTIFUL!” People were now all saying things at the same time. “You’re a GENIUS!” “It’s so ORIGINAL!” “You’re so CREATIVE!

One man holding a pencil and paper said, “IT IS A TRULY BOLD AND ORIGINAL ARTISTIC STATEMENT!

Accountability exists primarily with respect to the internal avant-garde expert audience that largely controls the system of architectural reputations. vol.1 p99

One old woman said, “I remember a story my grandmother once told me about a red igloo. You have brought this story alive, made it real for me. “It RECONNECTS US with our history!” Another person said, “People, we all know it’s not all white out there. There’s polar bear blood, whale blood, walrus blood and seal blood everywhere. Red is WHO WE ARE! Red is HOW WE LIVE!” While everyone was thinking this over, someone at the back said, “I don’t like it.” Another said, “Me neither. That IS NOT an igloo!” 

This evaluation of the mainstream in terms of … a compromise of tectonic/aesthetic principles misses the point – the raison d’être of the division of labour within the profession. vol. 1 p134

The man with the pencil and paper said, “Don’t you see? This red igloo opens up A NEW WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES for igloos! IT REDEFINES IGLOOS FOR OUR TIMES! IT MAKES US THINK AGAIN ABOUT WHAT AN IGLOO IS.”

The very act of publication implies the claim that the presented work is worthy of attention. … Published architecture always implies an ambition to act in the name of architecture, and always claims the mantle of contributing to the innovation of architecture. vol.1 p107

Bisaiyowaq went inside his igloo and sat down. He remembered how much EASIER it had been to shape the snow when it had polar bear blood mixed in. It had saved him a lot of time. He thought about all the time everyone else could save. They could spend that time hunting for more food, or inside their igloos eating ice cream and sharing stories with their friends and families. He remembered how much STRONGER the red snow had been. He hadn’t needed to use as much of the pure white snow. He had been able to leave more of it where it was, looking pretty. He remembered how polar bears stayed away from his red igloo and how much SAFER he felt because of that. He thought about how much safer everyone else could be too. He remembered how the red snow made the inside of the igloo WARMER. He didn’t know why, but he knew he didn’t have to use as much whale oil to keep it warm. He thought about all the whale oil the others would save. He thought about all the whales that would not have to be killed.

Experimentation requires a certain distancing from immediate performative pressures and the demand of best practice delivery. vol.1 p135

He remembered all these things but, most of all, he remembered how simple it had been. All he had to do was tell everyone to mix two bowls of polar bear blood into about a cubic metre of snow. He stood up and went outside.

There was a big crowd now. They all rushed towards Biisaiyowaq. “I want a red igloo!” “I want one too!” “We all want one!” “Please show us how to make them!”

They stopped talking when they saw Biisaiyowaq was about to speak. Biisaiyowaq said, “I’m sorry, I can’t teach you. This is something only I can do. You have to know how to choose the right polar bear and kill it in a certain way and at a certain time. I can’t explain how I know this, but I do. It’s an art. Trust me.”

The client’s immediate interests are served only inasmuch as they coincide with the new, generalizable interests of contemporary civilisation that the avant-garde exploration tries to address. vol.1 p134

Everyone was disappointed. One big person suddenly shouted, “It doesn’t matter! I’ll pay you to make a red igloo for me.” Another, bigger one, said, “I will pay you more!”

The man with the pencil and paper (who was actually bigger than them all) said, “Once I tell everyone else, you will be FAMOUS. You will never have to hunt again!” And he rushed off to tell everyone else.

Accountability exists primarily with respect to the internal avant-garde expert audience that largely controls the system of architectural reputations. vol.1 p99

And so it came to be that, apart from killing the occasional seal for blood to make his red igloos, Biisaiyowaq never had to hunt again

Success in the market and the new responsibilities that come with it sometimes prevent avant-gardist challenges from being taken up once more. vol.1 p104

Thus the theory of architectural autopoiesis identifies the innovation of the built environment of society as a defining aspect of architecture’s societal function. vol.1 p99