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The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol.2: A New Agenda for Architecture

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The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol.2: A New Agenda for Architecture

Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol.2: A New Agenda for Architecture, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., London 2012

Introduction to Vol. 2

This is the second volume of the Autopoiesis of Architecture. The two volumes together present a complete outline of the theory of architectural autopoiesis, a systematic treatise on architecture. This treatise proceeds via a comprehensive discourse analysis of the discipline, and on this basis tries to steer the discipline’s self-conception and development.
Volume 1 introduces a new theoretical framework within which architecture may analyse and confront itself in terms of its most fundamental concepts, methods and values. Volume 2 continues to analyse 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. To be credible, a unified style must be backed up and guided by a unified theoretical system that is able to integrate many partial theories: a theory of architecture’s societal function, a theory of the discipline’s self- demarcation, a theory of the avant-garde, aesthetic theory, media theory, process theory etc. The theory of architectural autopoiesis presents such an integrated theoretical system. It is nothing other than the rational reconstruction and systematization of the discursively evolving discipline, made explicit as unified theory and opened up to criticism and constructive elaboration. Selective rational reconstruction and systematization is necessary to give coherent guidance to a comprehensive architectural practice that covers the totality of the built environment and its contemporary adaptive challenges.1
Architecture is one of the great function systems of modern, functionally differentiated society. 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, juris prudence, 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 1 to Volume 2, as we move from framework to agenda, the balance shifts towards the normative pole, and indeed includes more projective, speculative moments.2

The elaboration of architecture’s agenda in Volume 2 proceeds in 6 parts, parts 6 – 11:

Part 6 The Task of Architecture sets out the general task of architecture in the terms of architecture’s lead-distinction: to give form to function. An adequate concept of how to understand and address functions within contemporary architecture is proposed. Architecture’s task is then elaborated along two dimensions: organization and articulation. To meet contemporary challenges architecture must enhance its capacity in both dimensions. Theoretical resources that contribute to this enhancement are brought to bear: network theory, gestalt theory, and semiology. In particular, an axiomatic framework for re-invigorating the semiological project within architecture is provided. The elaboration of spatial complexes as systems-of-signification is promted as a core competrency of architecture.

Part 7 The Design Process elaborates the second item on the agenda: the enhancement of architecture’s design process reflection. Here the achievements of the design methodology movement are recuperated. Design rationality is challenged by the expectation of continuous innovation as well as by the increasing complexity of architecture’s task domain. Many design tasks are new and complex. This double burden demands a new theoretical reflection concerning the methodological credentials of design processes as rational decision processes. The theory of architectural autopoiesis offers a conceptual apparatus for the description and analysis of design processes, promotes innovative design process heuristics, and attempts to formulate adequate contemporary criteria of design rationality.3

Part 8 Architecture and Society addresses the necessity for the autopoiesis architecture to update and upgrade its internal representation of society in line with society’s development. Luhmann’s conception of a polycontextural, functionally differentiated world society is - once more - offered as adequate conceptual horizon for architecture’s orientation. The dialectical relationship - co-evolution - between the autopoiesis architecture and its societal environment is addressed in Luhmann’s terms. Then the reflection goes deeper and touches on the fundamental dependency of society’s emergence and ongoing development on the built environment as the indispensible substratum of socio-cultural evolution. Finally, the investigation turns to the manifold societal conditions and institutions on which the autopoiesis of architecture depends.

Part 9 Architecture and Politics addresses architecture’s relationship with one of the subsystems within its societal environment: the political system. Architecture’s relationship with the political system is singled out for indepth analysis not because of the inherent importance of this relationship but because of the widespread, disorienting illusions that abound concerning this relationship. The theoretical clarification of architecture’s systemic position relative to the political system becomes the premise for the attempt to define an adequate, productive role for avant-garde architecture in relation to contemporary politics.

Part 10 The Self-descriptions of Architecture presents key treatises that have been seminal in the historical evolution of architecture’s autopoiesis. This agenda item - architecture’s self-descriptions - reflects the general requirement that architecture, like all function systems of society, must reflect its own constitution with respect to its societal function in order to effectively steer itself in the absence of authoritative directives from outside. Comprehensive theoretical treatises are the most adequate form this necessary reflection can take. Three key texts have been selected and subjected to a detailed, parallel analysis: Alberti’s treatise from 1485 4 , Durand’s treatise from 1802-5, and Le Corbusier’s treatise from 1923. These treatises are confident, comprehensive accounts of the discipline, each reflecting architecture’s societal function and arguing for principles, methods and repertoires that should guide the discipline in discharging its function. Each of these texts had been seminal in inaugurating or representing one of the epochal styles of architecture: the Renaissance, Neo-classicism, and Modernism respectively. The analysis of these three texts has been structured by the conceptual grid that underlies and organizes ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture’ itself, thus directly confronting the theory of architectural autopoiesis with these prior attempts at providing architecture with a comprehensive self-description. Here thus arises another occasion of autological self-inclusion for the theory of architectural autopoiesis: an occasion of the theory to analyze and historisize itself as an attempt to provide architecture once more with a viable self-description, this time expounding the emerging epochal style of Parametricism.

Part 11 Parametricism – The Parametric Paradigm and the Formation of a New Style moves beyond the general theory of architectural autopoiesis5 and utilizes the theory’s conceptual apparatus and theses to distill, analyse, and evaluate a powerful new tendency within contemporary architecture. The author is himself a contributor to this tendency, as designer, teacher, and author.6 Parametricism is expounded as candidate to become the new epochal style with global reach and universal scope.

Patrik Schumacher, London, February 2011

The Autopoiesis of Architecture - Vol.2  - A New Agenda for Architecture


Contents Volume 2
6. The Tasks of Architecture       
6.1 Functions
6.1.1 Functions versus Capacities            
6.1.2 Substantial versus Subsidiary Functions    
6.1.3 Tectonics 
6.1.4 The Categorization of Function-types        
6.1.5 Problem-types (Function-types) vs Solution-types (Arche-types)
6.1.6 Patterns of Decomposition/Composition 
6.1.7 Functional Reasoning via Artifact-action-networks              
6.1.8 Limitations of Functional Expertise             
6.2 Order via Organisation and Articulation        
6.2.1 Organisation and Articulation: Historical and Systematic  
6.2.2 Architectural Order             
6.2.3 A Definition of Organisation for Contemporary Architecture          
6.2.4 Complicated, Complex, Organized, Ordered           
6.3 Organisation              
6.3.1 Relating Spatial to Social Organisation       
6.3.2 Territorialization and Integration 
6.3.3 Systems, Configurations, Organisations    
6.4 Supplementing Architecture with a Science of Configuration             
6.4.1 Set Theory              
6.4.2 Harnessing Network Theory (Graph Theory)            
6.4.3 Excursion: Network Theory (Graph Theory)             
6.4.4 A City is not a Tree              
6.4.5 Space Syntax: Concepts and Tools of Analysis        
6.4.6 Space Syntax: Theoretical Claims 
6.4.7 From Organisation to Articulation: Taking Account of Cognition    
6.5 Articulation
6.5.1 Articulation vs. Organisation          
6.5.2 The Problem of Orientation and the Problematic of Legibility        
6.5.3 Articulate vs Inarticulate Organisation       
6.5.4 Articulation as the Core Competency of Architecture         
6.5.5 Generalising the Concept of Function        
6.6 The Phenomenological vs the Semiological Dimension of Architecture
6.7 The Phenomenological Dimension of Architectural Articulation       
6.7.1 The Perceptual Constitution of Objects and Spaces
6.7.2 Cognitive Principles of Gestalt-perception
6.7.3 Parametric Figuration        
6.8 The Semiological Dimension of Architectural Articulation   
6.8.1 The Built Works of Architecture as Framing Communications         
6.8.2 Analogy: Language and Built Environment as Media of Communication     
6.8.3 Signs as Communications 
6.8.4 Territory as Fundamental Semiological Unit            
6.8.5 Sassure’s Insight: Language as System of Correlated Differences  
6.8.6 Extra-Semiological Demands on Architecture’s Medial Substrate 
6.8.7 Syntagmatic vs Paradigmatic Relations
6.9 Prolegomenon to Architecture’s Semiological Project           
6.9.1 The Scope of Architecture’s Signified         
6.9.2 The Composite Character of the Architectural Sign
6.9.3 Absolute and Relative Arbitrariness           
6.9.4 Natural and Artificial Semiosis      
6.9.5 Designing Architecture’s Semiological Project       
6.9.6 Cognitive and Attentional Conditions of Architectural Communication     
6.9.7 Speculation: Expanding the Expressive Power of Architectural Sign-systems          
6.10 The Semiological Project and the General Project of Architectural Order   
6.10.1 The Semiological Project in Relation to the Organisational and the Phenomenological Project    
6.10.2 Realtionship between Architectural Languages and Architectural Styles 
6.10.3 The Requisite Variety of Architectural Articulation           

7. The Design Process
7.1 Contemporary Context and Aim of Design Process Theory   
7.2 Towards a Contemporary Design Process Reflection and Design Methodology          
7.2.1 Method vs Process              
7.3 The Design Process as Problem Solving Process        
7.3.1 The Design Process as Information Processing Process      
7.3.2 The Structure of Information Processing Systems 
7.3.3 Programmes          
7.3.4 The Task Environment and its Representation as Problem Space  
7.3.5 Problem Solving as Search in a State Space              
7.3.6 Planning Spaces   
7.3.7 Heuristic versus Exhaustive Problem Solving Methods
7.4 Differentiating Classical, Modern and Contemporary Processes       
7.5 Problem Definition and Problem Structure 
7.5.1 Wicked Problems
7.5.2 The Structure of Ill-structured problems   
7.5.3 An Information Processing Model for Information-rich Design Processes 
7.6 Rationality: Retrospective and Prospective 
7.6.1 Rational in Retrospect: Observing Innovative Design Practice        
7.6.2 Prospective Rationality     
7.6.3 Processing the Three Task Dimensions of Architecture      
7.7. Modeling Spaces    

8. Architecture and Society        
8.1 World Architecture within World Society    
8.2 Autonomy vs Authority        
8.3 Architecture’s Conception of Society             
8.3.1 The Crisis of Modernism’s Conception of Society 
8.3.2 Social Systems Theory and the Theory of Architectural Autopoiesis            
8.4 Architecture in Relation to other Societal Subsystems           
8.4.1 Architecture in Relation to the Economic System 
8.4.2 The Economy and the Design-principle of Economy of Means        
8.4.3 Economic Conditions of Architectural Discourse   
8.4.4 Architecture and Education             
8.5 Architecture as Profession and Professional Career
8.5.1 Authorship, Reputation, Oeuvre  
8.5.2 Centre-periphery Differentiation within Architecture        
8.5.3 The Absorption of Uncertainty      
8.5.4 The Architectural Design Studio as Organization   
8.6 The Built Environment as Primordial Condition of Society   
8.6.1 The Built Environment as Indispensible Substrate of Social Evolution        
8.6.2 From Spatial Order to Conceptual Order   
8.6.3 Beauty and the Evolution of Concepts of Order     

9.  Architecture and Politics       
9.1 How is Political Architecture possible?         
9.1.1 Political Vacuum  
9.1.2 Normal vs. Revolutionary Politics
9.2 Theorizing the Relationship between Architecture and Politics        
9.2.1 The Incommensurability of Architecture and Politics          
9.2.2 Architecture Responds to Political Agendas – Three Scenarios       
9.2.3 Service Provisions between Architecture and Politics        
9.3 Architecture adapts to Political Development           
9.3.1 Modern Architecture calls on Politics         
9.3.2 The ABC-group: Political Agitation within Architecture      
9.3.3  The Vicissitudes of Political Polarization 
9.4 The Limitations of Critical Practice in Architecture
9.4.1 General Political Critique and Macro-political Ambitions
9.4.2 Architecture’s ‘Micro-political’ Agency: Manipulating Non-political Power              
9.4.3 Who Controls the Power-distributing Capacity of Design?
9.4.4 Public Competitions as Structural Coupling between Architecture and Politics
10. The Self-descriptions of Architecture            
10.1 Theoretical Underpinnings               
10.1.1 Reference as Self-reference        
10.1.2 Levels of Self-reference 
10.2 The Necessity of Reflection: Architectural Theory as Reflective Theory      
10.2.1 Continuity vs Consistency             
10.2.2 Categorical vs Variable Structures of Communication      
10.3 Classic Treatises    
10.3.1 Alberti’s De re aedificatoria         
10.3.2 Durand’s Précis des lecons d’architecture              
10.3.3 Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture        
10.3.4 The Autopoiesis of Architecture 
10.4 Architectural Historiography            
10.4.1 History of Architecture’s Autonomization and Internal Structuration        
10.4.2 History of Architectural Styles as Responses to Epochal Shifts in the Societal Environment            
10.5 Architectural Criticism        

11. Parametricism  -  The Parametric Paradigm and the Formation of a New Style            
11.1. Parametricism as Epochal Style     
11.1.1 Historiographical Sketch: The Epochal Alignment of Styles            
11.1.2 A Unified Style for the 21st Century          
11.1.3 The Maturity of Parametricism    
11.1.4 Polarized Confrontation: Parametricism versus Minimalism         
11.1.5 Styles as Design Research Programmes
11.2 The Parametricist Research Programme     
11.2.1 Conceptual Definition of Parametricism 
11.2.2 Operational Definition of Parametricism: The Defining Heuristics of Parametricism         
11.2.2 Geneology of the Parametricist Heuristics             
11.2.3 Analogies: Emulating Natural Systems
11.2.4 Agendas Advancing Parametricism           
11.2.5 The Agenda of Ecological Sustainability  
11.3 Parametricist vs Modernist Urbanism         
11.3.1 Simple Order, Disorder, Complex Order
11.3.2 Implementing Parametricist Urbanism    
11.4 Elegance

12. Epilogue – The Design of a Theory   
12.1 Theoretical Foundation: Communication Theory vs Historical Materialism?              
12.2 The Theory of Architectural Autopoiesis as Unified Theory of Architecture               
12.3 Notes on the Architecture of the Theory
12.4 The Theory as the Result of Contingent Theory Design Decisions   

Concluding Remarks
Appendix 3: The Autopoiesis of Architecture in the Context of Three Classic Texts         
Appendix 4: Theses 25 – 60        
List of Images   


1 The coherency a unified theory helps to avoid self-contradiction in addressing the different theoretical and practical questions a multi-faceted discipline like architecture poses. A unified theory gives one’s various statements and practical engagements consistency. Without such a guidance one is prone to get into one’s own way, blocking yesterday’s achievements with today’s efforts. A unified theory is necessary give leadership to the discipline. It is of practical urgency with respect to giving consistent leadership to a large firm like ZHA operating globally across all programmes and scales.

2 The fact that every ambitious self-description enters an ideological battleground concerning the discursive culture and direction of the discipline/profession is more palpable in Volume 2. However, aggressive polemics have been deliberately avoided in order to allow the elaboration of a coherent theoretical system to take precedence. The hope is that the analyses, theses, and forward projections deliver a package that convinces without polemical battles.

3 Adequacy here means that the criteria allow us to critique and enhance design proposals without imposing sterile and unrealistic ideals.

4 Alberti’s ‘De re aedificatoria’ was written in 1450. It was first circulating as a hand-copied manuscript and then published in 1485 as the first printed book on architecture.

5 The theory of architectural autopoiesis does not stand or fall with the success of Parametricism. Its scope and validity is broader. As a general theoretical framework it might be embraced by theorists and architects that do not agree with the author’s evaluation of certain contemporary architectural tendencies.

6 The author has first coined the label ‘Parametricism’ in 2008 during the Venice Architecture Biennale, and then further expounded the style in a series of articles and lectures.

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