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Tectonics - The Differentiation and Collaboration of Architecture and Engineering
Patrik Schumacher, London 2012
Contribution to the catalogue/book ‘Stefan Polonyi – Bearing Lines – Bearing Surfaces’, published by MAI - Museum für Architektur und Ingenieurkunst NRW e.V., Ed. Ursula Kleefisch-Jobst et al., Edition Axel Menges, Stuttgart/London 2012


There is no doubt that progress with continuously increasing performance  - in relation to the built environment as well as elsewhere in society -  implies the need for an intensified collaboration of interdisciplinary expert teams. Interdisciplinary efforts do not run counter to the principle of functional differentiation (division of labour), they rather constitute the necessary complement of an intensifying functional differentiation, especially if expectations demand an ever accelerating innovation. Interdisciplinary work does not promote the dissolution of disciplinary boundaries. Exactly the opposite is the case: Effective interdisciplinary work demands that the different competencies that are expected to contribute to the overall success of the project are clearly demarcated.


The Demarcation of Architecture against Engineering

With respect to the innovative design of built environments the design team is structured along the demarcation line of design versus engineering. The same basic dividing line exists with respect to product design, and indeed all design disciplines including fashion design. With respect to the built environment the engineering side of the project is internally differentiated into an ever increasing number of different engineering specialisms. However, the primary dividing line is here the differentiation into architecture versus engineering. This dividing line emerged over the last 200 years and finally resulted in two distinct, autonomous, even incommensurable discourses, or to be more precise, in the terminology of my theory of architectural autopoiesis1, autopoietic systems of communications. Architecture and engineering  - or more generally the design disciplines versus the engineering sciences -  constitute distinct domains of competency that can now be sharply defined, each with its own unique responsibilities, concepts, methods, values and criteria of success. These discursive domains can be subsumed under Niklas Luhmann’s category of societal function systems (Funktionssysteme)2. According to Luhmann modern (‘functionally differentiated’) society is operating as the co-evolution of autonomous, self-referentially closed systems of communications, such as the economic system, the political system, the legal system, the system of the sciences, the art system etc. Each of these function systems serves a unique, societal function and claims exclusive and universal responsibility/competency within its respective domain.  It is one of the premises of the theory of architectural autopoiesis that architecture (together with the other design disciplines) constitutes a great, societal function system in the precise sense Luhmann had defined with respect to the other societal domains listed above.3 This implies that the demarcation between architecture and engineering is to be drawn much sharper than the (internal) distinctions that might be drawn within design disciplines or within the engineering disciplines. Architecture might temporarily fuse with interior design and furniture design, which in turn might morph into product and fashion design. Here demarcations are a matter of degree and individual emphasis. The key concepts and values are basically the same. The same overlap condition applies to the distinction of e.g. structural and facade engineering, or between services engineering and sustainability engineering. Again, the concepts and values are basically the same in all engineering disciplines. In contrast, the demarcation between architecture/design versus engineering/science is sharply drawn and ultra-stable. We should not expect any discursive synthesis here. Instead we should expect and work towards the clarification and further sharpening of the demarcation, in terms of the distinct competencies and criteria of success of each side. For instance, in recent years the engineering support also routinely involves façade engineering. Engineers now also get involved in the technical detailing of the interior surfaces. These aspects had some years ago still resided in the domain of the architect’s expertise. This demonstrates that the distillation of architecture’s inalienable core competency continues.


The Societal Function of Architecture

How then should we define the unique societal function of architecture/design and thus its core competency? If my demarcation thesis is correct, architecture must be defined in terms that cut across any potential confusion with engineering. Before presenting such my definition let me gather some of its readily recognizable moments/implications. While engineering is (should be) primarily (exclusively)  concerned with issues of technical feasibility, architecture is (should be) primarily (exclusively) concerned with social functionality.4 While architects are always invested in the formal resolution of the project and place value in aesthetic concerns, engineers do not claim competency in this respect. This is an indication of the fact that architects are prone to reflect their designs with respect to its impact on users understood as sentient, socialized actors while engineers consider the safety and comfort of users understood only as physical/biological bodies. This implies that the essential function/contribution of (the discipline of) architecture is no longer the provision of physical shelter. This is now the responsibility of the engineering disciplines. To grasp the unique contribution of architecture we must understand another, less obvious but more profound contribution of the built environment to the evolution of society, indeed a crucial contribution to the very emergence of mankind from the animal kingdom.
Society can only evolve with the simultaneous ordering of space. The elaboration of a built environment, however haphazard, precarious and based on accident rather than purpose and intention, seems to be a necessary condition for the build-up of any stable social order. The gradual build-up of a social system must go hand in hand with the gradual build-up of an artificial spatial order. Social order requires spatial order. The social process needs the built environment as a plane of inscription where it can leave traces that then serve to build-up and stabilize social structures that in turn allow the further elaboration of more complex social processes. The evolution of society goes hand in hand with the evolution of its habitat understood as ordering frame. The spatial order of the human habitat is both an immediate physical organising apparatus that separates and connects social actors and their activities and a mnemotechnic substrate for the inscription of an external ‘social memory’. These ‘inscriptions’ might at first be an unintended side effect of the various activities. Then given spatial arrangements are functionally adapted and elaborated. Then they are further marked and underlined by ornaments which make them more conspicuous. The result is the gradual build-up of a spatio-morphological system of signification. Thus emerges a semantically charged built environment that provides a differentiated system of settings that help social actors to orient themselves with respect to the different communicative situations that constitute the social life-process of the community. The system of social settings as a system of distinctions and relations uses both the positional identification of places (spatial position) and the morphological identification of places (ornamental marking) as props for the social communication process. Indications for this formative nexus between social and spatial structure abound within social anthropology, attesting to the crucial importance of cross-generationally stable spatio-morphological settings for the initial emergence and stabilization of all societies.5 Appropriately designed places regulate social communication by helping to define the situation, reminding the actors about who they are, ordering the actors into their appropriate relative position, for example, the place at the head of the table for the focal communicator of the group etc. The semiological dimension of the built environment is already coming into play here. As the built environment develops from the state of vernacular tradition to the state where it is advanced by the architecture as academic discipline and sophisticated, theory-led profession, the task of conscious semiological articulation arises. The importance of the spatio-morphological setting as defining frame for social communication has also been recognized within sociology. Erving Goffman, for instance, was very much aware of the need for frames and ‘assemblages of sign-equipment’ that structure social communication: ‘First there is the “setting”, involving furniture, decor, physical layout, and other background items which supply the scenery and stage props for the spate of human action played out before, within, or upon it. A setting tends to stay put, geographically speaking, so that those who would use a particular setting as part of their performance cannot begin their act until they have brought themselves to the appropriate place and must terminate their performance when they leave it.’6 This is still true under the condition of contemporary network society. The built environment remains a powerful tool of organization, sorting and ordering people and their activities/communications. The built environment plus the more mobile artefacts such as furnishings, tools, clothing etc. together engage in the staging of social interaction processes. Architectural settings are to be designed as framing communications, as permanent broadcasts that function as constraining/enabling premises for all further communications that are to be expected within the respective space. Architectural settings are communications that help to define and structure social institutions. Every society needs to utilize articulated spatial relations to frame, order and stabilize social communication.
This leads to the following formula/definition:
The autopoietic system of architecture within modern functionally differentiated society has taken up this societal function: to frame social communication, or more precisely, to continuously adapt and re-order society via contributing to the continuous provision and innovation of the built environment as a framing system of organized and articulated spatial relations.


Tectonic Articulation

Above we distinguished the technical functioning of the built environment from its social functioning. While the technical functioning considers the physical integrity, constructability and physical performance of the building in relation to its users understood as physical-biological bodies, architecture must take into consideration that a building’s social function, i.e. its function as ordering and guiding communicative frame, functions via its appearance and legibility. The core competency of architecture is thus the task of articulation. Legibility involves two aspects: the perceptual tractability/palpability and the semantic-informational charge. Accordingly we distinguish phenomenological articulation and semiological articulation. The theory of architectural autopoiesis thus poses the phenomenological project and the semiological project as the two key tasks of architectural articulation.7
The relationship between the technical and the articulatory dimension of the build environment leads to the concept of tectonics, here understood as the architectural selection and utilization of technically motivated, engineered forms and details for the sake of an articulation that aims at legibility.  There are plenty of examples in the history of architecture where architectural elements and features with technical functions become the object of articulatory (“ornamental”) endeavours. This is the domain of tectonics. For many architectural theorists tectonics is the very essence of architecture. However, for these theorists the point of tectonics is the didactic, visual clarification of the building’s material and technical constitution. The theory of architectural autopoiesis rejects this understanding of tectonics as a distraction from architecture’s societal raison d’etre. In what follows tectonics is given its appropriate station within the discipline’s rationality.
How can a designer articulate the social function of an architectural space or element? What becomes the material substrate of his/her effort of articulation? Above we distinguished the technical and social functions of buildings. This classification of types of function or functional dimensions is important to order the competencies of the interdisciplinary design team as well as the design team’s  search for functional equivalents. One and the same building element  - e.g. a particular wall – might operate in both dimensions: It has many technical functions (load-bearing, thermal insulation), as well as ordering and articulatory functions (separating/distinguishing social domains, giving recognisable identity, and a characteristic atmosphere). In each dimension the designer can search for different possibilities for the wall’s functional substitution. These might or might not coincide again in a single alternative artefact. The load-bearing capacity of the wall might be taken up by columns, the separation of domains might be handled by a transparent partition wall, or perhaps only by a level change, and the atmospheric characterization of the space might be given over to the change of floor surface material or the ceiling design etc. The design process might proceed in the following sequencing of concerns: spatial ordering, technical performance/materialization, articulation. (It is only the second concern – the technical performance/materialization -  where engineering input must be integrated.) The materialized organization, materialized according to the concerns of technical efficiency, produces a certain morphology with a certain appearance. Before adding an additional material layer for the purposes of articulation, it thus makes sense to investigate whether this technically given material morphology is suited to serve the wall’s required articulatory function.
A technically efficient morphology thus assumes also an articulatory function. This initially unconscious, evolutionary, historical process becomes a conscious design strategy under the banner of tectonics, albeit often with the tendency to hypostasize the tectonic expression as an end in itself rather than as a means to articulate the substantial (social) function of the artefact/space in question. Structural expressionism as primary design agenda is an example for this hypostasis of tectonic expression. However, this kind of hypostasis of a valid design strategy does not invalidate the design strategy as such. If we define tectonics as the strategic utilization of an element’s technically induced morphology in order to address social functions in the articulatory dimension, then tectonics can be redeemed and integrated within contemporary notions of handling form-function relations. We might call this strategy of utilizing technical details tectonic articulation.
The engineering logic of adapting member sizes in proportion to stresses can be taken up within an architectural strategy of articulation. For instance, the skeleton of a tower might be expressed on the outside as exo-skeleton. It might be differentiated along the vertical axis describing a gradient transformation from massive to filigree. This structural logic might be correlated with an occupational logic and the structure’s articulation might in turn come to signify the occupational distribution.
Historically the transformation of a technically motivated form into an articulating motif has tended to conventionalize and fix the form. The articulatory function comes to dominate. It often unfolds its own developmental dynamic. Eventually the technical realization of a motif might change, i.e. a certain motif loses its original technical raison d’etre. (At this point, contemporary sensibility would suggest the abandonment of the motif.) This happened to the details of the classical orders as they moved from wood construction to stone construction. In this case the motif’s articulatory function remains in operation. It is not ‘mere decoration’ without function. (Ornament functions as signifying device.) However, it does no longer constitute tectonic articulation in the sense defined here.
The theory of architectural autopoiesis recognizes the rationality of tectonic articulation as strategy of articulation. It is no self-serving pursuit and must remain subordinated to the concern of facilitating social functions. The advantage of tectonic articulation is that what is required anyway, for technical reasons, is utilized as convenient means of articulation. The agenda of articulation selects the final solution from all technically viable solutions according to the phenomenological and semiological requirements. A certain drawback here is that the articulatory repertoire is thereby somewhat constrained, so that this strategy might not succeed if the task of articulation is very complex. For instance, the exposure of the primary structure can be very effective in giving an identifiable character and atmosphere to certain spaces. The internal ordering of large spaces might be further facilitated by the lawful differentiation of the structural system: the different (longitudinal versus transversal) directions of the space might be indicated by the direction of the primary beams. The centre of a large space might be indicated by the greatest depth of the beams etc. These features might serve as orienting clues within a large, otherwise visually partitioned space like a large market space. However, if a rich network of different and differently related spaces needs to be articulated then the enlistment of the (technically relatively homogenous) structure might not be feasible by not being versatile enough. (It might lack the requisite variety). On the other hand, to force the structure into articulatory differences might become too forced and cost-wise prohibitive. In such cases the structure might be covered by a suspended ceiling which should be more pliable (with more degrees of freedom) and thus better able to serve the agenda of articulation. Therefore tectonic articulation cannot be made an absolute priority. Articulation as such, by any means necessary, has precedence. However, tectonic articulation is more satisfying than “free” articulation. The articulatory integration of the morphological consequences of technical requirements is always the more elegant solution than the attempt to fight and deny them by hiding or obfuscating them. In order for architects to pursue tectonic articulation they need to guide and orchestrate the engineering investigations and then select the engineering options that most suit their primary task, namely to fulfil the posed social functions via framing communications. The adaptive differentiation of structures as well as the adaptive differentiation of volumes and envelopes according to the building’s environmental performance (with respect to its exposure to sun, wind, rain etc.) afford many opportunities for differential tectonic articulation. A thus lawfully differentiated built environment would be much more legible and navigable than the modernist, isotropic order of repetition. With the development of sophisticated computational design tools  - both within architecture and within the engineering disciplines -  the scope for nuanced tectonic articulation  has much increased. The adaptation of structural morphologies to the force distribution within a structural system offers a fantastic opportunity for architectural articulation. In turn the more complex architectural orders proposed within contemporary architecture are reflected and potentially accentuated by sophisticated, adaptive structures. The realization of this potential requires an intensified collaboration between innovative architects and engineers. The contemporary avant-garde style of Parametricism8 is pushing in this direction. Although there can be no doubt that architecture remains a discourse that is distinct from engineering, a close collaboration with these discipline’s as well as the acquisition of reliable intuitions about their respective logics are increasingly important conditions for the design of contemporary high performance built environments.
The ability to navigate dense and complex urban environments is an important aspect of our overall productivity today. Post-Fordist network society demands that we keep continuously connected and informed. We cannot afford to beaver away in isolation when innovation accelerates all around. In order to remain relevant and productive we need to network all the time and coordinate our efforts with what everybody else is doing. Everything must communicate with everything. In terms of urban environments this implies that we should be able to see and participate in as many events as possible, always remaining exposed to many further choices to select our next move. This is facilitated best, if the visual field presents a rich, ordered scene of manifold offerings and also provides clues and anticipations about what lies behind the currently visible layers. The speed and confidence with which one can make new experiences and meaningful connections is decisive. The design of environments that facilitate such hyper-connectivity must be very dense and complex and yet highly ordered and legible. As urban complexity and density increase, effective articulation becomes more important.
Every talented/successful designer adapts to and intervenes intuitively within the spontaneous and historically evolving semiological system of the built environment. The aim of architectural semiology  is it to move from an intuitive participation within an evolving semiosis to an explicit design agenda that understands the design of a large scale architectural complex as an opportunity to design a new, coherent system of signification, a new artificial architectural language (without relying on the familiar codes found in the existing built environments). The maturing style of Parametricism is geared up  - in terms of its computational techniques and attendant formal-spatial repertoire -  to build up and order unprecedented levels of spatio-morphological complexity.

1 See: Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 1: A New Framework for Architecture, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., London 2010

2 Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems, Stanford University Press 1995, original: Soziale Systeme: Grundriss einer allgemeinen Theorie, Frankfurt 1984 ; see also: Niklas Luhmann, Die Desellschaft der Gesellschaft, Vol.1 & 2, Frankfurt am Main 1998

3 Luhmann failed to recognize architecture/design’s unique discourse and societal raison d’etre. He committed the anachronism of categorizing architecture as one of the arts within the art system. However, art and architecture finally (and decisively) severed their (formerly indeed united) discourses during the first half of the 20th century.

4 What should be exclusively the concern of the respective discipline is until now only a primary (and not yet the exclusive) concern.

5 In the analysis of the social structure of primitive societies, the drawing of the village plan often serves as the most succinct summary and point of reference.

6 Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Anchor Books (New York), 1959,
Penguin Books (London), 1990, p 33.

7 See: Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 2: A New Agenda for Architecture, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., London 2012, in particular: section 6.6 The Phenomenological vs the Semiological Dimension of Architecture

8 See: Patrik Schumacher, Parametricism - A New Global Style for Architecture and Urban Design, Published in: AD Architectural Design - Digital Cities, Vol 79, No 4, July/August 2009, guest editor: Neil Leach, general editor: Helen Castle.

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