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INTERVIEW: THE AUTOPOIESIS OF ARCHITECTURE
Patrik Schumacher in conversation with Loreto Flores
Published in: revista de arquitectura, numero 23, Arquitectura escrita – Written architecture
Facultad de arquitectura y urbanismo de la Universidad de Chile, primer semester 2011
Patrik Schumacher is partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, director of the Design Research Lab (DRL) at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and professor in several European universities. During almost 15 years he has developed these activities in parallel, which has enabled him to think experiment and practice architecture on the avant-garde side. This experience encouraged him to write “The Autopoiesis of Architecture”. This is a comprehensive treatise –he stated – whose main purpose is to attempt a complete discourse analysis of architecture. His stimulus was an amalgam of writings and face to face conversations with students, professors, colleagues, and partner Zaha Hadid. However the crucial inspiration came from outside architecture, from the work of sociologist Niklas Luhmann and the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana y Francisco Varela. He stated: “The book, although of true significance to architects, might also be able to resonate within different disciplines interested in architecture and design as expressions of contemporary culture”.
P. Sch.: Before answering your interesting and insightful questions I would like to express my admiration of the work of Maturana and Varela. The concept of autopoiesis and Maturana’s expansion of the concept of cognition has been extraordinarily productive. The same goes for Varela’s concept of the embodied mind.
1) LF: You have stated that the spirit and mission of “The Autopoiesis of Architecture” is to produce an impact in the architectural arena by the presentation of a comprehensive theoretical system. Why is important to create this systematization and which are the implications in today’s international architectural scene?
P. Sch.: The urgent need for a new great systematization of the discipline’s intellectual resources is related to the ambition to push the current convergence in architecture’s avant-garde – Parametricism – into the mainstream. Going mainstream implies taking full responsibility for the further development of the built environment. This requires a comprehensive reflection and reassurance of architecture’s fundamental values, methods and repertoires, on the basis of an understanding of architecture’s societal function. This also requires us to theorize how this general function poses concrete tasks in the current historical context: Post-fordist network society.
The fact is that the autopoiesis of architecture - architecture as discourse, academic discipline and profession - has not stamped its imprint on the global built environment since the demise of Modernism. Thirty years of experimentation in the avant-garde segment of architecture have yet to produce results that decisively impact world civilization.
My systematic and comprehensive treatise is supposed to embolden and guide the current avant-garde in making a bid for mainstream hegemony.
2) LF: If architecture is constituted by its own autonomous discourse, Why the decision of using terms from other disciplines? Which is the advantage of understanding architecture as an autopoietic system?
P. Sch.: Architecture’s autonomy implies architecture’s discursive self-determination. Neither philosophers, scientists, politicians, nor clients, can command architecture. The discipline is autonomous in its effort to keep itself relevant and productive. However, in order to survive the discipline indeed has to stay relevant and productive for society. This is what Luhmann terms “openness through closure”. The discipline has to observe and interpret its societal environment, in order to respond pertinently, on its own terms. Autopoiesis, self-referential closure, is a precondition for more sophisticated, productive responses to the challenges of society. A similar relationship of observation and interpretation holds also between architecture and philosophy, as well as between architecture and science. Architecture observes these disciplines with a view towards finding inspiration and guidance for upgrading its own intellectual capacities. Especially philosophy is a great resource. In fact, philosophy acts as an intellectual exchange hub for intellectual resources, for conceptual schemata, methodological principles etc. Philosophers abstract and generalize the most advanced schemata and tropes from the various individual disciplines. Architecture cannot insulate and exclude itself from the general intellectual development. However, when it adopts concepts and forms of argumentation it does so on the basis of its own needs, interests and criteria of relevance. Adoption is here always interpretation and adaptation. What counts is that the imported concepts make sense within the field. This is judged internally, within the autopoietic discourse of the discipline, without appeal to outside authority. The same applies to the specific adoption of the concept of autopoiesis in my discourse. The responses within architecture matter now, not the authority of experts on auotopiesis theorist outside of architecture. This stance and insight is the very insight/stance Luhmann formulated via his appropriation of the autopoiesis concept into sociology. What the advantages are of using the concept as basic concept within an architectural self-description cannot be summed up in a few words. Certainly, architectural self description on the basis of communication theory benefits from the theoretical power of Luhmann’s theory of society.
Ultimately the achievement/success of the book as a whole must tell us.
3) LF: You mentioned that “the attempt to construct a unified theory across a field of special theories is testing the field for consistency” What is your first conclusion about this after you have finished the first volume of the book?
P. Sch.: No, a unified theory is not testing the whole field for consistency; it can only test the author’s views and ideas or perhaps a certain movement’s ideas. Although architecture is a single system of communications it is full of conflicting opinions and theories. A system of communications exists as long as all these conflicting communications and contradictory theories reference each other and debate with each other. A unified theoretical system is another matter. It is a matter of selecting a coherent subset from the totality of circulating theories. This subset should be comprehensive in the sense of covering all aspects, questions and tasks of the discipline. I believe, until challenged and proven wrong, that I have succeeded in constructing a unified theory in this sense. The lynchpin of the system is the explication of architecture’s societal function.
4) LF:“A comprehensive and coherent perspective is what is required to offer effective leadership to a large firm working innovatively across the full spectrum of programmatic tasks“ Is this lack of coherence what has reduced the importance of architects in contemporary urban process? How do you conceive our role as professionals nowadays?
P. Sch.: Yes, this is my assessment. Architecture lacks impact and importance because our avant-garde is not yet fully geared up to make its mark globally. A confident, comprehensive and coherent perspective is what is required to regain impact and importance. Within Zaha Hadid Architects we have achieved a coherent agenda of innovation across programmes and scales. But a single firm, or a small group of firms, cannot shift the physiognomy of the global built environment. We need the discipline as a whole - or at least significant segments of it - to progress in the direction mapped out by us and others working within the new paradigm of Parametricism.
5) LF: “Architecture as a system of communications is neither a mere collection of artifacts, nor a mere form of knowledge, nor merely a particular professional practice. Rather it encompasses all three categories: artifacts, knowledge and practices – all understood as communications that connect to each other in an ongoing recursive network.” However our way to communicate with society and as you also said our way to serve society is trough buildings. How can we also give importance to our theoretical discourse?
P. Sch.: Architectural theory is only for architects, it is a part of architecture’s internal discourse. I do not expect that a broader audience takes much interest in architectural theory. Architectural theory is an expert discourse. I wrote my book for architects and architectural theorists only (as well as for all designers). There is no need for the general public to understand architectural theory. Architects communicate to wider audiences via buildings and designed spaces. Buildings and spaces constitute a very specific type of communication: they are ordering and framing communications that act as framing premises and priming invitations for (face to face) communicative interaction between people co-present in space.
The societal function of urban and architectural design is the innovative ordering and framing of social communication.
6) LF: According to the theory of architectural autopoiesis –classical antiquity marks the first emergence of architecture but the Italian Renaissance is the historical moment that marks the true onset of the autopoiesis of Architecture. Following this, Do you consider vernacular constructions as part of the autopoietic system of architecture
P. Sch.: No, vernacular constructions do not belong to architecture. I strictly distinguish between tradition bound building and architecture as an innovative, theory-led discipline based on the separation of design and construction. This separation happened with the Italian Renaissance. Only then did architectural design emerge together with drawing, theory and named architect authors. This was the big bang of architecture’s arrival delivering an enormous acceleration of the evolution of the built environment in line with the rapid development of society. Never before were buildings fully designed and discussed on paper. The move into the medium of paper and the utilization of perspective allowed for the emergence of a critical, speculative design discourse. Buildings are architectural communications only insofar as they are embedded in and respond to the discipline’s discourse.
A vernacular structure or system of construction - although per se not architecture - can be brought into the discourse if an architect or architectural theorist references such structures within his/her discourse. This happened for instance when Bernard Rudofsky published his book “Architecture without Architects”. It takes an architect or architectural theorist to bring vernacular buildings into the domain of architecture. There can be no architecture without architect/author as its point of reference.
7) LF: Why should Architecture Schools become experimental laboratories? What is their role within the autopoiesis of architecture?
P. Sch.: The role of some (but not all) architecture schools is to conduct architectural design research and so to contribute to architecture’s avant-garde segment. (Those schools that are merely providing training without innovative contribution belong to the education system rather than to architecture.) Since there are no dedicated research institutes within architecture it is the schools as well as avant-garde firms that have to take on the task of research and experimentation. Only via the differentiation into avant-garde and mainstream can architecture cope with the accelerating demand/pressure for future adaptive innovations while delivering established state of the art practice with respect to all immediate tasks.
8) LF: “The limits of our design language are the limits of our design thinking. How we represented architecture determines how we anticipate (design) architecture.” Is Parametricism the latest extension of our limits of architectural thinking and also designing?
P. Sch.: No, Parametricism is a style rather than a design medium. It is the design medium that defines the limits of our design thinking. However, Parametricism depends on the new design media and it is (therefore) the style that makes the most of the expanded universe of possibilities afforded by the new media. The new computational design media have indeed shifted and expanded the limits of our design thinking. I am talking about subdiv and nurb modeling, about dynamical (quasi-physical) systems like fluids, hair dynamics or cloth. More importantly, I am talking about the whole world of associative modeling. The idea and possibility of scripting associations (dependencies) between the variables of a parametric model opens up a whole new universe of design thinking – the thinking in terms of variations and correlations, as well as in terms of geno-types that contain the virtuality of an infinite variety of pheno-types. The very status and meaning of a design representation or model changes: it is just a fleeting moment or point in a co-present continuum of possibilities, a pheno-type of an underlying geno-type that is the topological and logical structure of the model.
9) LF: If Parametricism produces an open and more flexible design process; Can it be recognized as a more democratic way to design? Which are the differences with Modernism?
P. Sch.: I would not say that Parametricism is a more democratic way of design. I’d rather say it is a more versatile and adaptive way of design. It can (but must not) work via bottom up, emergent processes, e.g. when using generative scripts or agent based systems. Modernism is always a deliberate top down process, whether it is moving via aggregation from the inside out or via substraction and division from the outside in.
Modernism’s compositional primitives are the same as those of classical architecture: rigid geometric figures like cubes, cylinders, hemi-spheres and pyramids. Modern compositions are always restricted to a handful of these figures.
In Parametricism all elements of architecture become parametrically malleable. This allows them to be adaptive to each other as well as adaptive to contextual conditions. Instead of repetition Parametricism promotes iteration and differentiation. Instead of mere juxtaposition Parametricism promotes correlation. Every action calls forth a reaction. In this way deformation encodes information. All this has contributed to Parametricism’s great achievement: the intensification of relations both within the building and between the building and its context. This intensification of relations is architecture’s answer to society’s increased complexity and increased demand for communication.
Post-fordist network society is characterized by an increased diversity and complexity of communication scenarios. It is the latest/current stage of modern, functionally differentiated society. To remain productive within this society requires a new level communicative intensity from every individual. Everybody’s path must be continuously coordinated and updated within a complex network. The pertinent architectural expression of this is the field of simultaneity, i.e. urban spaces where a rich variety of communicative offerings are simultaneously presented. The visual field is layered in all directions, in front, above, below. This rich manifold is ordered according to gradients and laws of correlation so that hidden layers can be inferred from visible layers. Navigation and orientation are key, as well as the atmospheric priming of social interaction. This poses three key aspects of architecture’s task, the aspects of organization, articulation and signification, together constituting architecture’s core competency. This leads us from modern space to parametric fields.
10) LF: Considering today’s global agenda, How does Parametricism address sustainability issues?
P. Sch.: The ecological challenge referred to above is among the defining moments of our epoch. Its impact on contemporary architecture and urbanism is second only to the challenge posed by the dynamic and complexity of Postfordist Network Society. Indeed, the general paradigm of “eco-systems” applies to both, and is embraced as founding paradigm of Parametricism. The same design concepts, techniques and tools of Parametricism that allow contemporary architects to ramp up the communicative complexity of the built environment are also congenial to the agenda of optimizing architectural forms with respect to ecological performance criteria. Morphological output variables can be programmed to respond to environmental input parameters. For instance, a data-set like a sun exposure map that maps the radiation-intensities a facade is exposed to during a given time period can become the data-input for the adaptive modulation of a sun-shading system. As the system of shading elements wraps around the façade the spacing, shape and orientation of the individual elements gradually transform and adapt to the specific exposure conditions of their respective location on the façade. The result is a gradient, continuously changing façade pattern that optimizes sun-protection relative to light intake for each point on the façade. At the same time, this adaptive modulation gives the building an organic aesthetic that also makes the orientation of the building in the environment legible and thus facilitates the comprehension and navigation of the urban environment. The differentiated articulation of the façade contains and transmits information about its position rather than remaining indifferent and blind. The same principle of conspicuous, adaptive variation and correlation is being applied to the activity and event parameters of the urban life process. The disorientating, generic neutrality and monotony of Modernism gives way to the ecologically adaptive eloquence of Parametricism.
11) LF: How Architecture can be an autonomous system and at the same time socially innovative?
P. Sch.: Only as autopoietic system can architecture be innovative. That’s a fact of history. Before the emancipation of architecture the built environment was reproduced in the uncritical form of tradition bound building. It was suffused in the general reproduction of society and its institutions. At that stage of history - in the era of feudalism - political power, legal power, economic power, ideological power as well as control over the built environment were all together concentrated at the top of a stratified order. The emancipation of architecture emerged together with the emancipation of the other domains that now structure functionally differentiated society, i.e. together with the emancipation of the legal system, the economic market system, as well as science. All these systems are autopoietic systems. Since their emancipation (differentiation) the innovative development of society accelerated. Each system can develop its own dynamic without being held back by the other systems but with the obligation to adapt to each other, each on its own terms, and each finally judged (accepted or rejected) by the others.
12) LF: Before the launch of Volume I, you conducted a series of lectures for students. Which were the objectives and conclusions of those encounters? Do you aim for the book to be also material of discussion in architectural schools?
P. Sch.: Certainly, the book will be most relevant for those schools of architecture that see themselves as active, creative participants in architecture’s progress rather than mere training institutions. The book addresses itself to architecture’s avant-garde. This includes the most ambitious students.
The lectures were in fact seminars that allowed for a lot of feedback and questions. I think they were a learning experience for all those who participated, including for me. Volume I was finished but the discussions had a certain impact on Volume II which is now also finished.
13) LF: As the main thesis of the books states, architecture is a closed system that communicates with other subsystems, Do you think that this book will enable our discipline to be understood by others more clearly? Have you received any feedback related to this?
P. Sch.: I think the internal discourse within architecture is most important. However, it would be beneficial if our closest collaborators - the engineering disciplines that contribute within our design teams - would get a better sense of architecture’s specific raison d’etre and societal function in distinction to their own role and concerns. Further one might hope that some interest develops in the broad field of cultural studies and cultural history. For me personally recognition within sociology would give me a lot of satisfaction. After all, the book contains a kind of sociologically informed discourse analysis of the discipline as societal function system. Sociologists could very well be interested. In fact, shortly after the publication of Volume I, I have been engaged in a long e-mail correspondence with the German sociologist Dirk Baecker. Baecker is sympathetic and spent time to read and discuss my ideas. After hard arguments, it seems, I could convince him of the general thrust of my account of architecture. His judgment is especially interesting as he was one of Luhmann’s closest disciples and remains one of his most potent and original followers.
14) LF: “The Autopoiesis of Architecture”, Volume II will be available this autumn. Can you give us an advance outline of the main issues that will be addressed in this second part? Did you make any change or include new topics after the feedback from Volume I?
P. Sch.: Volume I - subtitle: A New Framework for Architecture - introduces a new theoretical framework within which architecture may analyze and confront itself in terms of its most fundamental concepts, methods and values. Volume II - subtitle: A New Agenda for Architecture - continues to analyze architecture’s discourse and proposes a new agenda for contemporary architecture in response to the challenges and opportunities posed by current societal and technological developments. The Volume ends with a manifesto for the new style of Parametricism, promoted as candidate to become the unified, epochal style for the 21st century.
The theory of architectural autopoiesis is a reflection-theory or self-description of architecture formulated from within architecture. As such its purpose is to contribute to the necessary self-steering of the autopoiesis of architecture. Like all reflection theories - e.g. economic theories, jurisprudence, the epistemologies formulated within science, political theories etc. - the theory of architectural autopoiesis oscillates between descriptive and normative modes of theorizing. By necessity, as committed inside communication, it is simultaneously a descriptive and a normative theory. By describing, conceptually systematizing, and reconstructing the rationality of architecture’s history and current state, the theory gathers the necessary internal connectivity to make normative claims and projections plausible. The tension between descriptive and normative moments permeates the totality of “The Autopoiesis of Architecture”. However, the balance between the two moments is struck differently in the two Volumes. From Volume I to Volume II, as we move from framework to agenda, the balance shifts towards the normative pole, and indeed includes more projective, speculative moments.
The manuscript of Volume II was closed early this year. Therefore there was not much time to react to criticisms. However, some of the feedback I got in response to Volume I allowed me to clarify and reinforce some points. But no fundamental challenge emerged that made me change my position. Critique mostly focused on Parametricism. Some critics regretted that I did push Parametricism within my general theoretical treatise. It is true that, as a general theory of architecture, the theory of architectural autopoiesis could be separated from Parametricism and indeed has value independent from any commitment to Parametricism. However, for me, the references to Parametricism afford an important (contingent but compelling) concretization. Theories need to be fertile, they must be probed and driven to make a difference for design practice, i.e. they have to intervene in the debate about the future direction of architecture. In Volume II the commitment to Parametricism becomes even more prominent and explicit, also offering specific guidance for the further innovative development of Parametricism. But, once again, most of the insights and arguments unfolded in Volume II can be appreciated and upheld without buying into my commitment to Parametricism.
Patrik Schumacher, “The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume I – A New Framework for Architecture”, John Wiley & Sons, London 2011
(1)Patrik Schumacher studied philosophy and architecture in Bonn, London and Stuttgart, where he received his Diploma in architecture in 1990. In 1999 he completed his PHD at the Institute for Cultural Science, Klagenfurt University. He joined Zaha Hadid Architects in 1988 and is currently a partner.
In 1996 he founded the "Design Research Laboratory" with Brett Steele, at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, and continues to serve as one of its co-directors. Since 2004 Patrik Schumacher is also tenured Professor at the Institute for Experimental Architecture, Innsbruck University. Currently he is a guest professor at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. His extensive theoretical writings are available on www.patrikschumacher.com
(2) Loreto Flores, Architect University of Chile and MArch Design Research Lab, Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA). Her work has been exhibited at the Beijing International Biennale, AA Projects Review and AA Open Jury exhibition in London and it has been also published in AD Magazine, “Collective Intelligence in Design” (2006) and “Architextiles (2006). “Netlab”, her March thesis was awarded with the FEIDAD Design Merit Award 2006. She joined Zaha Hadid Architects in 2006 and since then she has been involved in several projects and competitions in France, Spain, China, Singapore and Egypt.
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