back to WRITINGS

The Societal Function of Architecture
Patrik Schumacher, Vienna 2011
Abbreviated transcript of Patrik Schumacher’s IOA Sliver Lecture 05.04.2011, Edited by: Robert Neumayr and Patrik Schumacher. Published in:  Wolf D. Prix & Kristy Balliet (Editors), Massive Attack – IOA Sliver Lecture Series: Selected Friends and Enemies, Edition Angewandte, Birkhaeuser Verlag, Basel 2015

Thanks a lot, Wolf [Prix], for the nice introduction.

So, the title of my lecture is “The Societal Function of Architecture.” It is the first time I am speaking about this particular aspect of architectural theory. I’ve only done a few lectures on my book so far, always supported by slides. To speak without any visual support is a rare experience, and that is why I feel more comfortable turning it into a seminar when I am about halfway through. I hope there will be some questions and a discussion.
The question “What is the social function of architecture?“ is, I think, a legitimate question. It is indeed a necessary and important question, important for the self-regulation and self-determination of the discipline. This relates to the key premise of the theory of Architectural Autopoiesis—namely that architecture is a self-regulating discourse with no authority governing it, neither politicians nor clients have authority over architecture. They challenge us with their demands, but without being able to instruct us about what architecture is or how it ought to respond to their challenges.
Well, what are we doing as architects? We produce buildings. What do buildings do?  The most general standard answer has usually been that architecture provides shelter, that it provides protection to keep us dry and warm. But is that what requires an academic discipline? Do we need Wolf Prix, Zaha Hadid or Greg Lynn to do that? I doubt it. So, what do architectural works really do for us? Are we perhaps creating beautiful buildings? So is that what it is? Are we artists, therefore? Or are we creating particularly well-functioning, technologically sophisticated buildings? Does that mean that we are engineers? Or are we just creating new original spaces? Does that mean that architecture is a kind of end in itself, a kind of play, autonomous like abstract music, as Eisenman and Kipnis sometimes assume? None of these answers are satisfying. I have a more convincing answer, and I will try to deliver it here today. For a complete argument you have to read my book.
I want to start by introducing an important distinction: the distinction between architecture and mere building. Architecture is based on an academic theory-based engagement and on innovative practice with future orientation. Building, in contrast, is just keeping the tradition alive and reproducing what has survived the test of time. And that has been the way the built environment has been reproduced for thousands of years until the big bang of architecture in the Renaissance where a self-consciously innovative, theory-based practice, first appeared, moving the discipline into the domain of paper, i.e. the domain of the drawing. For the first time we have fully designed architectures, circulating just as speculative constructs on paper.
But what architecture delivers through creative drawings and theoretical discourse is still tied up with what the built environment does for society. The built environment – artificial settlement structures – made a primordial contribution throughout history, for all societies, primitive, civilized, modern, and contemporary. What was and is the built environment’s crucial achievement, if it is not just shelter?  So, first of all, before we can understand the societal function of architecture as academic discipline, we need to understand the societal function of the built environment and I will argue that it makes a very profound contribution. It is a crucial factor, I would say, in the Menschwerdung (becoming human), in the emergence and becoming of mankind, escaping the animal kingdom via the construction of society.

I want to elaborate on this by reading a small excerpt from volume 2 of my book, The Autopoieses of Architecture, which just has been submitted to the publisher. The chapter I want to read is “The Built Environment as Indispensable Substrate of Societal Evolution”:

“Society can only evolve as a simultaneous ordering and articulation of space. The elaboration of the built environment, however haphazard, precarious and based on accident, rather than purpose and intention, originally, 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 therefore 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 then in turn allow a further elaboration of more complex social processes.“
So, “the evolution of society goes hand in hand with the evolution of its habitat, understood as ordering frame.” - and this is a very important category I’m introducing – the concept of framing. Let me read further:  “The spatial order of the human habitat is both an immediate physical ordering apparatus, that separates and connects social actors and their activities, and“, - and this is the second important dimension – “a mnemotecnic substrate for the inscriptions of social memory. This inscription might at first be an unintended side effect of the various activities, which unfold and produce these environments. Then given spatial arrangements are functionally adapted and elaborated further, then they are further marked and underlined by ornaments, which makes them more conspicuous.“, and that is also important. It becomes a kind of quasi-memory, as I would call it. Further: “The result is a 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 constitutes the social-life poesies of the community.“
“So the system of social settings, as a system of distinctions and relations, uses both, the positional identification of places, that means spatial position, and a morphological identification of places (ornamental marking) as props for the social communication process. Indications of this performative nexus between social and spatial structure are bound within social anthropology. They testify to the crucial importance of stable spacio-morphological settings for the initial emergence and stabilization of all societies. In the analysis of the social structure of primitive societies, the drawing of a village plan, for instance, often serves as the most succinct summary. So appropriately designed places regulate social communication, by helping to define the situation, reminding actors about who they are and ordering the actors into the appropriate relative positions.”

The semiological dimension of the built environment already comes to bear here, as the built environment develops from the state of vernacular tradition to the state where it is advanced by the outburst of architecture and when the task of conscious semiological articulation arises. The importance of the spacio-morphological setting as a defining frame for social communication is also recognized in sociology and social psychology. Erving Goffman, for instance, was very much aware of the need for frames and assemblages of sign equipment, as he calls it, that structure social communication. I’ll quote Goffman here. “First there is a setting, involving furniture, decor, physical layout and other decor items which supply the scenery and stage props for the space of human actors, 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 the act until they have brought themselves to the appropriate place and must terminate the performance when they leave it.
That goes for every single communicative interaction. And my whole theory is based on communication theory. I argue that architecture makes an exclusive and universal claim for the structuring of all frames for communicative interaction, i.e. for all communications operating between people present to each other. And this kind of interaction is always structured by a system of places or spatial frames, as well as by clothing, fashion systems, artifacts or props. When we include all the design disciplines, inclusive of product (gadget), graphic and web-site/communication design, then we can say that architecture and the design disciplines together frame all communications whatsoever, including books and all other telecommunications.
There is an enormous amount of embedded, accumulated intelligence and information within these systems of spatial frames, information and embedded knowledges and affordances we can retrieve via relatively simple response mechanisms. Indeed our complex lives rely on the retrieval of the information embedded in these richly layered and sedimented information structures. As Herbert Simon says, “The kind of complexity of the path of the ant is in the environment and not in the ant.” We are more complex, of course, but still my argument is that the complexity of social processes is to a large extent sedimented and encoded within the built environment.

So the built environment remains a powerful tool of organization, sorting and ordering people and their activities. The ordering capacity of spatial arrangements and the specific order provided is not an independent objective property of the respective built spatial arrangements, but crystallized only in the pattern of the utilizations that it catalyzes.

The complexity is always in the interaction and that is also how you can re-utilize and re-inscribe meaning into all these sedimented structures. But this is always a relatively slow process. There is a lot of redundancy and some degree of mutation and selection for further reproduction and innovation.

The built environment and the more mobile artifacts like furnishings, tools, clothes etc. together, engage in an inextricable metabolism of ecology, which isaccording to the theory of architectural autopoiesisbest described as a system of communication. As the built environment develops from the state of vernacular tradition”—that brings back the distinction between architecture and building—“to the state of architecture, the task of conscious semiological articulation arises. Architectural settings are to be designed as framing communications, as permanent broadcasts that function as constraining and enabling premises for all further communication, that is to be expected within the respective spaces and settings. Architectural settings are a form of communication that helps to define the structure of social institutions”.

At this point…I’m not finished yet…but are there any questions at this stage? Queries, challenges?

Q [Audience]: Why do you think that architecture is an autopoietic system? In a way any discourse could be approached in a relativistic way, claiming it was autopoietic. So why does architecture have a privileged status of being autopoietic?

You are right. Every social system is a kind of emerging autopoietic phenomenon. I’m not privileging architecture. It is one of various types of social systems. But there is one very important category of social communication systems. Niklas Luhmann calls it “the great function systems of society.” Societies where you find these great function systems are so-called “functionally differentiated societies”. And you could say that architecture is one of those systems, like the political system, like the legal system, like the economy, the art world, the mass media system. These are the major function systems of society, which have a few hundred years of history. Each of them has developed a unique discourse, a set of specific categories, values and methods, in accordance to the unique societal function or exigency each of them is addressing.
And that’s what my book is about. It looks at the autopoiesis of architecture, as this 500-year-old elaborate intelligent discourse, discipline and profession, which at the same time needs to be continuously updated to remain relevant and pertinent with respect to society’s progress. My fundamental thesis is that architecture  - together with the other design disciplines - constitutes a sui generis discourse, discipline and profession, and as such is one of the great function systems of society, in line with Luhmann’s key category, but in contrast with Luhmann’s own rather thin account of architecture as subsumed within the art system of society. With respect to Luhmannian function systems, you can ask: what is the societal function? What is the societal function of the political system? What is the societal function of the legal system? And as far as Luhmann is concerned, each of these has a unique societal function, addressing a unique problem or exigency, which all societies have to face. While all social systems, including families and firms, are autopoietic systems, these function systems form very powerful, important sub-systems of contemporary or modern societies, they are great function systems of modern, functionally differentiated society.

Q [Audience]: Can you be more specific about the evolution of the systems you’re referring to?

The distinction between architecture and building is important here. Before architecture arrived, the villagers built their structures themselves as they had always done, basically trying to repeat what had been done before, maybe with a bit of tinkering and perhaps integrating small improvements. And very slowly, through such a process of tradition bound building with small adaptive variations, you see certain more elaborate structures emerging, like in the case of the self-organizing morphogenetic processes of organic nature. Larger settlement structures emerge following local rules of adjacency but through this they develop and reproduce typical global orders. They generate a certain relative rationality through an evolutionary process of trial and error. All of this happens totally unconsciously and is reproduced by myopic repetition, by proceeding to build as it has always been done. And that’s what I call mere building, tradition bound building, in contrast to architecture.
And at a certain point in history, there was this big bang, which is the advent of architecture, where all of a sudden—and that is of importance here—architecture was conceived, drawn and visualized on paper first and through the circulation of drawings via printed books immediately became a point of discourse, criticism and innovation. The ideal city of the Renaissance was initially just a geometric rationalization of the concentric pattern that had evolved as the typical form of the unplanned medieval city. The innovation offered by the ideal city plans of the Renaissance architects was not that large, but once it had been drawn and became part of the paper domain of speculation and once architects started to write about it, talk about it, ask questions about it, there was a huge potential for further innovation. To propose innovations, one has to argue and engage in a discourse. Innovations require prior illustrations, explanations and justifications, and they invite criticisms.  This delivered a huge acceleration of the built environment’s evolution.  This kind of evolutionary acceleration is indeed the ultimate raison d’etre of each of these specialized intellectual enterprises, and discourse practices like the modern theory-led political system, the theory-led economic system, the system of the sciences, and the system of the design disciplines including architecture and urban design.
Lets take a look at the political system for example: initially you have spontaneous political orders, when small clans gather into tribes and discover ways of operating together. And as they evolve, at a certain stage—again at the same time, during the Renaissance—you suddenly have political criticism, political theory, ideas that become involved in projects of political reconstruction, the constitution of the USA is perhaps the first truly impressive result of this new theory-led political function system or discourse practice.
Bacon, Alberti, Machiavelli, Hobbes. These names coincide with the moment when the modern function systems were born, with discourses, with theory, with speculation, with self-conscious and the self-referential closure, as autopoietic systems of communication. They all then become sub-systems of a larger society, which suddenly has this enormous accelerator. This acceleration and the build-up of complexity are possible through what then becomes a functional differentiation.
Before that everything  - building, power, economy, knowledge - was much more fused. But these aspects of society differentiate—it is an evolutionary process—into domains of separated, specialized, self-referentially enclosed social systems, which at the same time have the obligation to continuously observe what’s going on around them and adapt themselves, to stay relevant. And that’s never guaranteed. Architecture has gone through a number of crises where this expert discourse made itself nearly irrelevant and had to be nearly rebuilt from scratch by new-starters, for instance, the pioneers of the modern movement after the 1st World War.
I hope that answers your question: how these contemporary sub-systems of society, called the great function systems of society, have evolved out of initially undifferentiated, tradition-bound cultural developments, which were happening without much foresight, without much reflection, without much critique and without conscious innovative intervention. Society’s ability to step back, observe, compare, critique and reflect, is one of the great evolutionary advances of modernity, on the basis of writing and print technology. Each of these function systems has developed a theoretical strand, a specialized literature. And what I  - following Luhmann - call the great self-descriptions of these function systems, - major treatises summarizing the reflective knowledge of the discipline -  is an important factor in the overall coordination and further evolution of these disciplines. As overall society evolves the practices of these disciplines run into crises of misalignment, requiring  the periodic reassessment of their task via new self-descriptions, a re-adaptation of the pertinent ways forward, and—in my terms—the development of a new style, which programs and reprograms the discipline's forward trajectory.
The competence of architecture is no longer a technical competence of putting together a construction. That is more and more being taken up by engineering specialists. We have become pure designers. And more and more the question becomes: what is our core competence? In my terms, it is the competence of organization and articulation. Organisation requires a repertoire of increasingly complex patterns of spatial distribution. Articulation requires an expertise of dealing with how these patterns and spaces are perceived and comprehended. And that implies a phenomenological and a semiological dimension in architecture’s competency.

I want to read a few remarks at this stage, which help us to demarcate architecture from science on the one hand and from art on the other hand, and lead us to the discussion of aesthetic values and of the constant category of beauty. My argument here is that design is neither art nor science. It is a sui generis competency. As opposed to engineering, architecture and design take the users of architecture into account as socialized, sentient beings. That is the critical point; engineers never do that. It has to be recognized that built environments function via perception and comprehension. This poses the task of articulation. Architectural order emerges from the components of organization and articulation as the two irreducible constituent components of architecture's task. Organization is involved as physical distancing, separation and connection of domains, and there is framing of communication by physically channeling movement and interaction. Articulation is concerned with orientation, and frames communication cognitively. Articulation is guiding movement and interaction via conspicuity and atmospheres, via perceptual as well as semiotic clues.

“Organization operates via social communication’s dependency on human beings as mobile bodies in space, while articulation operates via social communication’s dependency on human beings as perceiving comprehending subjects. The unique expertise or competency of architecture is therefore the establishment of order, of organizing, framing and priming of social communications and interactions.”

Framing supports the ordering and temporary stabilization of patterns of communication. As society evolves, more and more complex settings, which allow society to become ever more complex, more productive, need to be continuously upgraded.
Bill Hillier offers a “science” of organization. He calls it the science of configuration. My question is then: can there be a science of phenomenological and semiological articulation? That is all about upgrading the discipline and I think that can and should happen on all three dimensions of architecture’s task: organization, phenomenological articulation and semiological articulation, or more succinctly: organization, articulation, signification. We need to upgrade our organizational capacities, our phenomenological intelligence and our semiological expertise. There can be and must be a science-informed normative view of these dimensions but, and that is important, design is not a science. Organizationally, phenomenologically and semiologically informed design is a different practice from scientific practice. I am not turning architecture into a science. This cannot be done. Architecture is not true but useful/beautiful.
So here is another important component of my theory: the double code of utility and beauty that governs design is very different from the code of scientific truth and probability. The reason for this difference is that designers need to act and decide quickly in the face of uncertainty and incomplete information. Science in contrast never reaches closure. It has infinite time and patience to follow through the ramifications of hypothetical constructions. We as designers have to react whether we have enough knowledge, expertise or not. We are confronted with the necessity to quickly decide in the absence of a fully resolved theory or assessment of the situation. And that is why aesthetic values must come into play. They have to do with this necessity to act intuitively and to facilitate quick intuitive decision-making, both for the designer making design decisions and for users making decisions about which space to enter. The recognition of the beautiful is the instant perceptual recognition of the vital, the functional, identified on the basis of its mere appearance, prior to the verification of the entity’s functionality.
Therefore, the category of beauty cannot simply be opposed to rationality. Being attracted to beauty is not per se irrational. The discrimination of beauty versus the ugly is a culturally defined extension of the fundamental biological mechanism of attraction and repulsion. Organisms are attracted to what serves their survival and reproduction and repulsed by what impairs their survival and reproduction. Aesthetic sensibility is a constant universal feature of all human behavior and action. Some of its aspects I would argue might be hard-wired by biological evolution. In my theory, the attraction to order and the rejection of chaos constitutes a trans-historical invariant, sufficiently abstract to allow for a surprising and open-ended range of aesthetic regimes. Most concrete, detailed aspects are culturally evolved and imparted, yet other aspects might be based on individual conditioning, as we all make and are made by our own unique mix of experiences. But one thing is important: in an evolving society, which changes its patterns of communication, you continuously have to adapt and develop your aesthetic sensibilities, and also your moral sensibilities. Your aesthetic sensibilities might be dysfunctional in the sense that they prevent you from entering the most vital and actively productive arenas, because you are repulsed rather than attracted by these “ugly” spaces and social arenas. This would be a mistake, because you miss out on the most vital, highly productive interactions which take place only in those arenas. Those who perceive the metropolis as ugly and frightening will remain relatively unproductive.
This implies that aesthetic appeal can be subjected to rational analysis and criticism. We cannot trust our sensibilities blindly. They need to be subjected to a critique that queries their historical pertinence. For instance, I believe that I can demonstrate that the classical or modernist or minimalist sensibility is impairing the contemporary subject’s capacity to fully participate in the most advanced, vital and productive processes of today’s life. The question has to be posed: Do we have the right sensibilities? Can we rely on them to guide our life choices?
Aesthetic values encapsulate condensed collective experiences within useful dogmas. Their inherent inertia implies that they progress via revolution rather than evolution. We rely on them and we move with them, until we hit a point of crisis and are forced to change them and relearn what we should consider beautiful. Sometimes an entire culture is forced to relearn their aesthetic sensibilities, and the relevant specialized function system, the discourse of architecture/design, had to be revolutionized. The crisis of Modernism was one of such moments, and in fact people like Wolf Prix are the great revolutionaries of aesthetic sensibilities.
Aesthetic values must be revolutionized if societal conditions or technological tools change. Clients vote with their commissions, users vote with their feet. The crisis of Modernism simply meant that the audience was just going elsewhere. The formulae, aesthetic values, principles, methods and categories of discussing architecture were simply bankrupt at that point. The in-depth rational critique of aesthetic values is a matter of theoretical reflection, often triggered by a crisis—for instance, the crisis of Historicism after World War I, or the crisis of Modernism in the 1970s. Styles become canonized into useful productive dogmas and finally end up as degenerate dogmas, and need to be revolutionized.

Q [Wolf Prix]: I love the whole statement, but, you know, I heard a lecture of a young scientist and he argued the same way you do. That they do not know where they are going, that they are operating in a field of uncertainty and that they have to decide very quickly in order to get a solution. So why are you separating science from architecture and architecture from art? I understand it as a marketing tool, not in a bad sense, but just to explain the position of an architect, because we’re going under… We all know that our profession is not going to survive the next 50 years.

The distinction between art and architecture is an empirical reality. And I will try to explain what I mean. I’m looking at discourses, systems of communication, and I just notice that the art world constitutes a different group of people with a different language, with different set of categories, and different values, very different from the architectural scene.  And I don’t think that the most cutting edge contemporary works of art share the same discourse, agenda and criteria of success with the most innovative contemporary architectural projects. That is so not just according to my definition, that is a fact of discourse, that can be brought out by a descriptive discourse analysis. And it was not like this in the Renaissance or even the Baroque, nor during the Neo-classicism.  Michelangelo was the sculptor, the architect, the painter. The cathedral was a synthesis of all these arts. But art has now become something very different. And I think the bifurcation happened in the early 20th century. You can observe it at the Bauhaus, with the split, separation and elimination of the artist from the institution. And that is simply a fact. But I can rationalize it by saying that the artists have acquired quite a very different societal function. And it is a much more open-ended and vague function. As far as I am concerned, i.e. according to my theory (which is first of all descriptive but then also turns normative), the art system offers a freewheeling platform of experimental communication for all the other sub-systems of society. The mass media use the art system to experiment with new forms of electronic communication (internet art), new forms of filming techniques via video art etc. Designers and architects use the art system as well—and when you go into the art system, the success criterion is quite different. You actually have to avoid making any performative claims. You cannot say this is something pragmatic and useful. You just go in there and use resources to experiment with material techniques to see what is possible in terms of fabricating new morphologies, and you can gage audience sensibilities with respect to new aesthetic stimuli. That is how we use the art system, and we use it more in revolutionary and transitional periods and less in periods of higher self-certainty about where we are going. That is why in the transitional phase of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the assimilation of architecture and art was happening for a while, with figures like Tschumi, Prix, Hadid etc. but I feel it happening less and less now.

Q [Greg Lynn]: But I would say, critically, what you’re excluding from your discourse is building. What you’re including is anything that is architecture. But I honestly believe that your argument would exclude certain architects from the autopoietic project. I mean, is there anyone you would exclude? Like I would think you would exclude Rem [Koolhaas]?

No, no, absolutely not. Because there are key texts he’s been delivering, he has been a central node in the discourse. He has been coming to the AA every two years. He’s been teaching there…

Q [Greg Lynn]: But by his force of will, or by his residence in culture?

By what he lives, what he seeks, what he thinks his audience is, by what he wants to contribute to. He has been teaching the discipline about [John] Portman. I think he is very central. I would not exclude him. And I cannot exclude the mainstream architects either. The vernacular, the traditional building is outside. But any professional architecture, even in its most ‘commercial’ form, is produced on the back of and informed by an evolved theory-led discipline. Maybe commercial work is not participating in architecture’s latest, most advanced stages, but it is participating and these architects are delivering something which the discourse has made possible, and to a certain extent they are also picking up continuously from the avant-garde. Look at what KPF is doing, what SOM is doing—how versatile their repertoires have become, using more complex geometries to adapt to more complex sites. I’m not against that. You can criticize it, because it is not rigorously driven by the theoretical agendas we would promote, they are mixing advanced features with an overall more backward approach, but they are still participating. So I would exclude all vernacular, but all professional architects are included in the autopiesis of architecture.

Q [Greg Lynn]: Included as long as they have a discourse? Or even Michael Graves, John Hejduk?

Yes, they are for sure included. I am saying it is a contested field, what architecture is. It is not a settled issue. The autopoiesis of architecture cannot be reduced to its latest avant-garde movement. It encompasses all contributions to the discourse via built works, visualized projects, polemics, academic treatises etc. We have seen a convergence of a whole generation in the direction of what I recently started to call the style of parametricism, and I want more force to be brought behind our movement, because I think parametricism is still far away from transforming what happens out there in the built environment at large, because what happens out there is still largely modernist, neo-classicist, post-modernist or minimalist, and very little parametricism. So there is really a danger, that this project gets stunted. The institutional support has been withering away, with Columbia going elsewhere, with even the AA to a certain extent shifting direction more recently. So I do feel like there is a need to foster and promote the movement, trying to inject new energy into this movement, and perhaps we must start to criticize the outmoded alternatives much more vigorously. We need to insist that and explain why minimalism/modernism is irredeemably backward and intellectually bankrupt. But the autopoiesis of architecture is always the totality of the discourse, which also includes the Post-Modernists, includes even Roger Scruton, or anybody who is entering the debate, who has a voice, who puts up a show at the RIBA etc. And I’m in debate with all these characters, and the students are exposed to them, and demand engagement. And that is all part of the autopoiesis of architecture.

Q [Audience]: How would you integrate or exclude the capitalist project in the theory of autopoiesis and your Marxist reading of architecture? Because the capitalist project is intuitively forming the structures of society on many levels, not only economically but also psychologically, semiotically, and so on.

That is a very good question. My theory is not based on Marxism, but it’s based on social systems theory, which comes out of the tradition of complexity theory brought into sociology. But it has many similarities to the Marxist approach, in terms of its deep comprehensive historical approach. But the point is this: the difference here is that in Marxism the economy dominates society and in social systems theory the economy is just one of the co-evolving subsystems. And yes, our contemporary economy is a capitalist economy, it is a market economy. In fact the autopoiesis of the economy as differentiated function system coincides with the emergence of the market economy, and indeed early capitalism coincides with the emergence of architecture in the Italian city states of the 15th century.

Q [Audience]: You don’t consider capitalism a despotic system?

No, no, no, not at all. If I would think that we are living in a despotic system, where we would require a revolution to overthrow the system, then I wouldn’t be an architect. I realize that I have made the decision to work within our  contemporary advanced society. I do not think it needs radical overthrow. I think you can make progressive architecture in contemporary society. And one of the tasks of architecture is to observe and evolve and deliver to our given society, which has a dynamic, evolving capitalist economic system. The great transformation from the Fordist economic reproduction model to a Post-Fordist economic reproduction model is one of the key challenges for us architects. The architectural discipline has to adapt to our evolving world society and also to the co-evolving world economy. I have made peace with the market economy. The political system too emerges as a self-referentially closed subsystem, today it is mostly a democratic system, in the most advanced arenas of world society. Democracy is the contemporary state-of-the-art form of the political system of society; the Post-Fordist form of capitalism is the state-of-the-art form of the economy of society, so I am sufficiently buying into this. As a politically thinking citizen I am increasingly critical of our contemporary political and economic conditions, but I am certainly not an anti-capitalist. Rather, I would like to see more rather than less capitalism, more freedom for market processes and market solutions. However, as professional and academic architect I see my role as innovating the discipline’s engagement with built environment in adaptation to currently hegemonic political and economic realities and tendencies, rather than thinking I can innovate in all domains simultaneously.

Q [Audience]: What about Foucault’s concept —when you talk about discourses—and Foucault showed very well how power and power relations are very well assimilated within discourses. So you simply bracket out all these teachers in your theory?

Well, I believe to a certain extent in the rational side of the real. The collapse of communism, globalization, all these processes, which we have been observing for the last 30 years, coincide. There has simultaneously been an enormous increase in the level of productivity, technological innovations and new levels of freedom and communications, like the Internet. These advances exist within a global market economy, within a capitalist environment. I reject this the abstract utopian stance of radical critique, e.g. the denunciation of power, without any credible alternative, in the absence of a comparative framework.  I am not blaming Foucault for this because in the 1960s things were less clear. There seemed to be the potential for global world revolution and the establishment of a different order. But, you know, history has gone elsewhere. But that discussion would take me to volume 2 of my book, where I have a section entitled Architecture and Politics. I am making my position clear there.

Q [Audience]: It is a little bit surprising that you say that at the moment things seem to be very clear, when the whole of North Africa is in a state of turmoil, where nobody knows what the course of society is. And the other thing is, even if productivity is at levels it has never been before, it might also be so efficient that we kill the planet. If you only argue on this technological level, I think you are bound in a kind of tool discussion, but you don’t really discuss the answer.

If I look at, what is called the Arab Revolution, I don’t see radically different models appearing. I see just a catching up of parts of the developing world with the most advanced global models. Whether they will manage to achieve this, whether they have an understanding of all the necessary conditions  - like sophisticated rules of law, a multi-party democracy with institutional guarantees and processes etc. -  that I do not know. But the model they are looking for is just a catching up, an attempt to overcome a rather anachronistic regime. There is no different political system in view and there is no different economic system in view. But I think each of these systems evolves a kind of global best practice. We are in an era where all societal function systems are world systems: world science, world art, world architectural design, world economy, world politics, more and more. There are, I would argue, global best practices, of how to set up a well-functioning financial system, how to configure the ingredients of a proper political system, the ingredients of a proper economic system, a proper state-of-the-art science with an apt methodology and epistemology. And Parametricism, in a sense, I would argue, could be that state-of-the-art best practice in architecture, which would be the equivalent of a sophisticated, computationally empowered economic/financial system, or an upgraded multi-party democracy with permanent polling and voter feedback in the political system, or perhaps the equivalent of a contemporary medical best practice based on resources like the genome project that allows recommendations and therapies to be tailored to an individual’s genetic make-up.

Q [Audience]: So it is basically a scale-less operation, which would mean that it can be used for designing a building, a city, or a political system?

Well, the autopoietical political system is for politicians, parties, activists, operating their own autopoietically enclosed discourse, the discourse of politics. We can only observe and adapt our own terms to that.
But yes, architecture/design  - and therefore parametricism as its most advanced style  - operates across all scales of the built environment. I argue that in interiors, buildings, urban quarters, whole cities, even in all the design elements that fill our spaces, you can see the same values and principles at work, the same rejection of simple geometric primitives, like circles, squares, triangles. They have disappeared out of the design world; they have disappeared out of architecture, out of urbanism. I think that our new principles of parametric variation and association are universal, universally applicable across all scales, but at the same time they are very open. They offer degrees of freedom that are unheard of, and open up a new universe of creative design possibilities that are comparatively compelling with its internal richness and its open ended, unpredictable design trajectories. But all this richness can be found in a specific direction. But in this new direction – which was utterly unknown and hidden to all prior styles – we are discovering an incredible diversity of options and solutions, a richness of possibilities that is far greater than all the diversity delivered by all prior styles put together. So even after the termination of all other styles architecture’s versatility and solution space has much expanded through the discovery/creation of parametricism.

Q [Audience]: So how can it be specific?

Oh, one of its premises is: be specific. Be contextually sensitive. Be sensitive with respect to internal functional requirements. You cannot just start with a simple brief that  lists five stereotypical types of spaces. You need to unravel programs in terms of parametrically differentiated event scenarios, with multiple audiences, with multiple event parameters, in a dynamical system, and explore these parameters via crowd simulations. That’s the way we can and should work on program today. So that’s why I’m saying there is a particular way how our style is picking up, interpreting and handling briefs, which is very different from the Modernists, which again were different from the Classicists. These principles, in a sense, are very abstract. This is the most sophisticated best practice, which this discourse has evolved, and that’s the kind of struggle of ideas we’re engaging in. Explaining the rationality of our approach, its advantages, and clearing up worries and misunderstandings like expressed by you just now.

So shall we leave it at this? Okay, thanks!

go back to WRITINGS