Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A (belated) guide to the Autopoiesis of Architecture

About a year ago Patrik Schumacher's 'Autopoiesis of Architecture' was released. I read it and reviewed it for Icon here. What I also started doing was writing a detailed review, with the rationale that a work so ambitious needed at least to be given a proper look. The problem is, however, that I never managed to finish the bloody thing, being a) just a mere mortal, not a Herculean near-god like Patrik, and b) really bloody busy. That said, I've been getting a bit cagey about the general criticism that Schumacher gets from people who haven't read the book - I mean, they may well be right about it, but at the same time it's not a firm foundation for criticism. With this in mind, I went and had a look at the thing I had started writing, and realised that I had basically stopped after the exposition, which was more or less complete.

So I've decided to post up what I had completed by the 9th February 2011. It should hopefully function as a fairly neutral guide to what is contained in Schumacher's book, so may be of some help to someone who just has not the time to go through the bloody thing. Hope you find it useful.
Patrik Schumacher has written a book. Or two books. Well, sort of. He has written one book, which is so long that it has needed to be split into two volumes. Thus everything that I will write here is based upon the first half of the project. Whether or not this invalidates what I am writing is I suppose up to you to decide. I will refer to his book as if it were a complete work - I have no idea when the second volume will be released, so perhaps there will be occasion to read and write about that one when the time comes.
The book is titled 'The Autopoiesis of Architecture'. Autopoiesis is a neologism from the Greek, which means 'self-making' (it can also mean something else too, which I'll get to eventually). Schumacher has gotten the term from German sociologist/philosopher/theorist Niklas Luhmann, who in turn got it from biology. It's worth noting here that Schumacher reckons his work (henceforth AoA) is an application of the work of Luhmann to Architecture. If, like me, you've not had occasion to read Luhmann's work, then this puts you at an immediate disadvantage. I would go further and suggest that if somebody like me hasn't read Luhmann then very few architects at all will have done so. As a bit of background research I did ask about Luhmann in the company of a mathematician/theorist/political activist/nocturnal flying mammal, and the response was something like "OH! He's that crazy right-wing German systems theorist!" And sure enough, a cursory glance at the wikipedia page for Luhmann and it would seem that he was a social-ontologist, with a theory of emergent complexity, and was what you might call a 'relationist', in that his ontology seems to be structured more around the connections and less about the objects that make them up (OOO fans take note). In fact, his theories apparently have no room for subjects at all, and if wikipedia is to be believed, they have been criticised for being rather right-wing. The other thing that's worth noting is the gargantuan size of his theoretical edifice, which apparently is of a scale and scope that rivals Marx.
But, to go back for a second, who is Patrik Schumacher? He is partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, and is commonly thought of as Zaha's right hand man, and less charitably as the brains of Zaha's operation. Many of their designs of the last decade or more have been credited as 'Zaha Hadid with Patrik Schumacher', so you get the idea of his stature in the firm. He is also credited with being the main driving force behind the digitizing of Zaha's design process, which progressed from paintings to floppy shapes rather quickly from the late 90s onward, leading to much talk about pre-computer and post-computer Zaha buildings (Maxxi and the Evelyn Grace Academy are pre-computer, Guangzhou Opera House and the Aquatics Centre are post-computer, for example). As well as being at the top of the pile of the top of the league of 'starchitects', he has also been running the Design Research Lab at the Architects Association, which is, depending on your viewpoint, either one of the top post-grad programmes in all of architecture, or a fee-paying internship for those who want to work at ZHA. Schumacher seems to get a lot of flak from a number of directions, from old-school modernists, to environmentalists, to anti-theorists, to those who simply find his megalomaniacal pronouncements in public forums a little too much to take. I too have heavily criticised ZHA in my time, sometimes with more spite and venom than at others. I do not intend to be mean here - I will endeavour to be as reasonable as I can. I am approaching this as someone who has trained as an architect, has plenty of experience of digital architecture and its technologies, and some knowledge of the workings of parametric software. I am also reasonably well versed in continental philosophy and the history of modern theoretically influenced architecture. I am (overall) positive about the prospects of digital design in architecture, and also take theory to be more than fashionable nonsense. I would like to think that I am an ideal reader of this book.
So what the hell is AoA all about then? It is an attempt to provide a 'Grand Theory' of Architecture, and Schumacher's strategy is to utilise Luhmann's theory of society to explain architecture. Before we've even really started, Schumacher introduces us to Luhmann's theory of society as a series of autonomous networks of communications, for example economics, politics, law, the mass media, science and art. According to Luhmann, these networks function 'autopoietically', in that they emerge spontaneously as society becomes more complex, and then maintain themselves through internal communication networks, thus perpetuating the very complexity that gave rise to them. Schumacher has decided axiomatically that architecture, which in Luhmann is subsumed within the art system, deserves to be considered an autopoietic network by itself:
The comparisons and parallels that could be drawn between architecture and the various functional systems analyzed within Luhmann's oeuvre accumulated to the point where the possibility of a theoretical reconstruction of the discipline of architecture, set within this new encompassing theoretical system, seemed viable. This reconstruction is the core ambition of the theory of architectural autopoiesis. To orient the discipline's forward thrust is its purpose. [19]

We can see that there are already some grand claims being made about what is going on in the text - the notion of it being a guide to action rather than just an analysis is there from the beginning. But the fact that Schumacher is deviating from Luhmann is not lost on him, and the text is peppered with occasions where Schumacher is happy to tell us that he reckons that Luhmann was wrong, leading to the final admission that "Faithfulness with respect to Luhmann's work can thus no longer be claimed." [435] What is worth noting here is that for Schumacher, buildings themselves are only one kind of communication within the autopoiesis of architecture, indeed, buildings themselves are considered to be a 'negligible' [4] part of the theory. Instead, architecture is the discussion of architecture, the hypothesising of architecture, the speculation of architecture. An abstract render or essay can be as important as any building, if it connects up properly in the network, and makes allies which lead to further communications (we're very much in Latour territory here). What Schumacher is trying to do here is create a concept of architecture that would include all of the peripheral work that has been going on in academia over the last few generations to be uncontroversially counted as 'inside' the field.
Schumacher's first task in this vein is to stress the importance of theory in architecture. Rather than being a bunch of pretentious shits waffling at each other, as is sometimes claimed, Schumacher insists that theory is a vital aspect of the autopoiesis of architecture, giving the following trajectory of luminaries:
Virtually every architect who counts within architecture was both an innovator and a theorist or writer. The most striking examples are Alberti, Le Corbusier, Rem Koolhaas and Greg Lynn. [35]
Schumacher will insist that only self-reflexive architecture is worthy of the title:
Only theoretically informed building design constitutes architecture. [36]

            Schumacher will go on to discuss the difference between problematising (critical) and generative theory (inspirational), with Hannes Meyer an example of the former, and Eisenman the latter. Problematising theories are required when contemporary architecture is no longer adequate to the building tasks at hand, and once they have put standard practise into question, generative theories come along which begin to form methods in which these new problems can be solved. [41]
            As well as these distinctions, Schumacher insists that architectural theory must be
'autological' i.e self-reflexive, and senses that this occurred when architecture began to import ideas from 'post-structuralism'. In this sense it was important for architects to read Derrida at one point in order to increase the complexity of architecture theory - Schumacher feels that the increased complexity of an 'autological' theoretical system makes it more effective and able to contribute to its field. Schumacher feels that deconstruction becomes more of a hindrance to architecture at this point, because it "refuses this extensive system-building endeavour and therefore can never break the cycle of Deconstruction and counter-Deconstruction." [60] Schumacher states that the failure of deconstructive theory is in its inability to provide 'a coherent account of philosophy', and that this can only be achieved with a 'comprehensive theory of society' i.e. Luhmann's/his.[62] He seems a little disgusted with 'deconstructive' theorists, because he feels that they overstep the boundaries of architecture, and thus become if not irrelevant, then at least useless to the architecture's forward march. Basically, theory for Schumacher is utterly vital, but it is not worth a damn if it doesn't help architecture to 'innovate'.
            The next main section of AoA is historical. As you might have noticed, Schumacher is reframing the word 'architecture' slightly. Although he has set up the 'autopoiesis of architecture' as the emergent network within society, he already has a tendency to refer to it as simply 'architecture'. This is worth bearing in mind. Schumacher wishes to explain the 'historical emergence of architecture', ie the point when his 'autopoiesis of architecture' emerged from undifferentiated social complexity.
            Schumacher reckons that architecture didn't exist between antiquity and the renaissance. Gothic architecture isn't actually worthy of the name because it wasn't theorised, and so it is only with Alberti that architecture restarts, if you will. Renaissance architects allow architecture to emerge as an autonomous discipline, a status that has not regressed since. We are treated to a brief historical sweep through self-reflexive architecture, progressively differentiating itself from other function systems, right up until the differentiation from both engineering and art gives us modernism and figures such as Le Corbusier. [88]
            It is at this point that Schumacher brings in his notion of the avant-garde, which is to be differentiated from 'mainstream' practice. It is utterly vital for Schumacher that there is a separate subsection of architecture that is engaged in experimental research, and it is even more vital that they are protected from the constraints (economic etc…) of practice in order to better perform this role. The best place for this to occur, of course, is in academia. Schumacher's notion of the avant-garde is actually likened to scientific research, in the sense that creating a social vacuum around the avant-garde allows for a freedom to experiment that benefits society at large through the innovations it makes possible. [100]
            Of course, Schumacher must deal with the meanings that are already attached to the name 'avant-garde'. To do this, he divides the avant-garde into 'revolutionary' and 'cumulative' periods. Revolutionary periods are where many innovations are made very quickly, without necessarily working them out, whereas cumulative periods are when these innovations are systematically worked out. The proliferation of radical philosophy in architecture over the last 20 years was a symptom of a revolutionary period, which has receded now that avant-garde architecture is more interested in how to fit windows into curved walls. [122]
            No discussion of the avant-garde is complete without dealing with questions of utopia, and Schumacher doesn't disappoint. While stating the commonplace that utopian thinking about the future is out of the question, he goes on to suggest that what architecture can offer is the notion of 'latent utopia':
The radical architectural projects proliferating on today's computer screens do not offer themselves as utopian proposals in the sense of elaborated proposals for a better life. […] They are open-ended mutations that at best might become catalysts in the coevolution of new life processes. […] Who is to judge and deny a priori that a strange building will not attract and engender a strangely productive occupation. […] A decoded architecture - made strange - offers itself to inhabitation as an aleatoric field, anticipating and actively prefacing its own 'détournement'.[127]
            Did you get that? What is being asserted here is that the radical formal research conducted by the 'avant-gardes', by creating spatial configurations that are out of the ordinary, provide a necessary supplement to quotidian space that might possibly be taken up by an unforeseen new social arrangement.
            By far the longest section of AoA is the third, which goes into depth about architecture as an autopoietic system, and it is here where most of the 'theoretical heavy lifting' of the whole book resides. In this third section Schumacher first outlines exactly what it is that he thinks makes architecture architecture, and then proceeds into the elucidation of his own vision for architecture and its future. The former section contains an argument for architecture's autonomy, followed by an analysis of the process of architecture and the form/function distinction. The latter introduces the extra layer of the  beauty/utility distinction, before making an attempt to rehabilitate the notion of 'style'.
            It is worth quoting Schumacher's thesis about the autonomy of architecture in full:
"There can be no external determination imposed upon architecture - neither by political bodies, nor by paying clients - except in the negative / trivial sense of disruption."[188]
Now before you spit out your tea, there is actually a technical point being made here; 'Architecture', as the shorthand term for 'the autopoiesis of architecture', has to be autonomous as it is already defined as the emergent network of architectural communication. So technically (if a little tautologically) this is correct; for example, the cost of the building is an economic aspect of a building object, and by definition is not a part of the 'autopoiesis of architecture'. The budgetary constraint placed upon a building is not an architectural constraint, it is an external 'irritant' which can only be approached 'architecturally'.
            According to Schumacher, the 'elemental' architectural communication in architecture is the design decision, which is embodied in the elemental vector of architectural communication, which is the drawing. All of the external constraints that an architectural project must pass through are translated into design decisions, which are then communicated as drawings. The client of a building is not 'inside' architecture, but the pressures they exert must be translated into issues 'within' architecture.
            How are external irritants changed into internal architectural issues? Schumacher states that this is down to the 'lead distinction' of form/function. Any pressure that imposes upon the autopoiesis of architecture is transformed by forcing it through certain questions: "The total domain of architecture - the totality of its issues - is dissected by the distinction of form and function"[208]. Now, this might at first sound rather obvious, but there are interesting aspects to Schumacher's way of seeing form & function. First of all, this distinction understood this way doesn't have to be foundational - it can be seen as an emergent property, thus it is protected from idealism. It gives us a very simple way of mapping architectural communications, for example, the process of designing modernist buildings was obviously more strongly concerned with function, while postmodernism was far more concerned with formal questions. As the process of design proceeds, at any point one of the two terms can be used as a guide to move further on in the process; they help keep the complex activity of design moving forwards. Finally, if anything crops up that cannot be placed into this framework, then it is of no consequence to architecture. Form/function allows architecture to maintain its differentiation from other social systems.
            On top of this, Schumacher brings in a further binary here, that of the beauty and utility. This is the introduction of value into form/function. Beauty is good form, and utility is good function. Beauty & utility can be seen as two terms that all possible communications within architecture can be analysed with. As a metaphor we might think about how any point in two-dimensional space can be explained as the conjunction of an x and a y value. In the same way, a formal and functional analysis will place any design communication at a point in the autopoiesis of architecture. It's worth noting here that this is a rather significant deviation from Luhmann, who describes binary codes such as legal/illegal (legal system), or true/false (science). Architecture has what Schumacher calls a 'double code', ie, an architectural communication has to be fitted into 'beautiful/ugly' AND 'functional/dysfunctional'. This is Schumacher's own system, which he justifies by pointing out various failed attempts to eradicate one of the axes (for example, Hannes Meyer's functionalism or Peter Eisenman's formalism).
But this is still not enough; Schumacher introduces a third code into architecture, or at least the avant-garde section of architecture that he identified earlier. This is the code of novelty [228]. Schumacher's point is that although in the mainstream of architecture there are only two questions that can be asked (is it beautiful, is it elegant?), within the avant-garde there is a third question that puts itself forward: is it new? The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, according to his Luhmannian framework (which he is increasingly deviating from by this point), autopoietic functions inherently become more complex; it is in their very nature to do so (Schumacher explicitly claims that a society becoming less complex is commensurate with totalitarianism, a rather Hayekian idea if you ask me). Thus an extra code of novelty is seen to allow for greater accommodation of this very complexity. Secondly, Schumacher is drawing from his own experience of being an avant-garde practitioner; in his milieu, newness has been enthusiastically taken up for the last fifteen years or so, after the relatively atemporal period of 'pomo'.
There is also a third aspect to Schumacher's obsession with novelty, which is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book as a whole: Schumacher's analysis of the drawing. If you've bothered to read this far then you probably already know that Schumacher is one of the more prominent exponents of scripted/parametric architecture, and his expertise in the subject becomes highly apparent in this analysis. In keeping with the axiomatic character of AoA, Schumacher posits 'the drawing' as a singular yet typical medium for all of architecture, which provides a vital function within the autopoietic system of architecture:
Drawing has been developed as a medium of speculation that is able to depict an uncertain future state with a very convincing degree of internal consistency and detail. A drawing can cohere a large number of people around a new complex endeavour requiring long chains of coordinated activity, the results of which lie in the relatively distant future.[329]
Schumacher puts forward a very convincing argument about how the drawing simultaneously makes possible the creation of architecture as well as limits what is possible within it. He provides a brief history of the drawing that discusses what was geometrically & cumulatively possible as a result of the drawing techniques available. So the invention of the corner perspective greatly increased the ways in which a building could be composed, and the development of tracing paper allowed for a greater level of recursiveness in the development of a design. Now, with the rapid advances in digital modelling technologies, the possibilities to recursively edit a design are increasing almost exponentially, and the level of complexity that can be stored in a digital model that need not be fully worked out constantly is also vastly greater than it was, even one generation ago. The level of modulations that are made possible using parametric modelling software do indeed make possible a hitherto unseen level of flexibility in the design process in architecture. So the fact that brand new tools are consistently being made available to the practitioner means that if the avant-garde are to be worthy of the definition that Schumacher has given them, novelty must be their priority - it is their job to test out new and under-developed potentials.

All this novelty and exponential increase in potential options poses a problem of what the hell an architect is supposed to do with all this freedom. Schumacher's solution, and what will probably be the most controversial aspect of AoA is his rehabilitation of 'Style'. Schumacher wants to provide a functional analysis of 'style' in architecture as a guiding principle for formal decisions that allow the architect to resolve the massive complexity of the information that they have to process as they work through a design. It should be noted that he is primarily interested in large, overarching styles, rather than the individual styles of particular architects:
An epochal style is the dominant style of a particular civilisation within a particular historical era. It is primarily in this last sense that the theory of architectural autopoiesis uses the concept of style.[242]
As you've probably worked out by now, Schumacher's entire theory is not revolutionary. This is not such a problem, as no doubt he would prefer to think of his theory as evolutionary. His aim is not to reject previous theories but to include them in a more complex and more effective system. Thus, instead of reacting against stylistic concerns, he wishes to admit both previous stylistic theories as well as theories that have rebelled against style. He is attempting a reconciliation of ideas about architecture as divergent as eclecticism and functionalism, and the upshot of this is the familiar notion that a style is tied to the epoch that produces it, which is exemplified by this approving quote from Otto Wagner:
'Each new style gradually emerged from the earlier one when new methods of construction, new materials, new human tasks and viewpoints demanded a change or reconstituting of existing forms.' This lucid statement of the fundamental conditions and motive forces behind the development of architectural styles is as valid today as it was then. (With respect to our contemporary condition we only have to apply the now crucial factor of the evolving design media).[251]
At this point you might recognise what's coming along here. It's the old 'zeitgeist' argument:
Ephocal styles are those […] styles that demonstrate long-term viability because they offer a systematic solution to the essential problems and challenges of the respective epoch.[253]
Schumacher is convinced that there has recently been an epochal shift in the complexity of society, which is challenging architecture with new tasks and problems which the ordinary paradigm of architecture is ill-equipped to cope with. At the same time, new design technologies have sprung up which have made possible a new kind of formal expression in architecture. These two parallel processes make it possible for Schumacher to proclaim the following historical progression:


So - what is parametricism? Parametricism is what Schumacher believes has finally come along to rescue us from the half-century crisis that modernism has been struggling through. Postmodernism and Deconstructivism qua styles of architecture were both transitional rather than epochal styles, too attached to the critique of the overarching narrative of modernism to truly surpass it. But Parametricism, born out of the research that avant-garde architects have been conducting into new digital design technologies, has finally coalesced into the style that is ready to take architecture into the new generation. Thankfully for us, Schumacher has lucidly and simply expressed what constitutes the style of Parametricism [286]: formally it is that everything must be 'parametrically malleable' and correlated, while rigid forms and simple repetition of elements must not be allowed. Schumacher is saying that the new possibilities to construct complex shapes mean that older formal strategies in architecture must be avoided. This is in keeping with his quest for novelty.
As far as function is concerned it becomes a little bit stranger. Here, what is demanded is that the function of the building must be understood in terms of smooth 'fields' rather than fixed 'spaces' of function. This notion of field is explicitly drawn from Deleuze & Guattari's notion of 'smooth space' [424]. The 'field', to Schumacher, is a gradiated, almost liquid transition of forms and functions that undermine simple binary distinctions like figure/ground, and allow architecture to supercede the modernist fixation with space which can only lead to false simplicity and a denial of autopoietic complexity.

But after all this, WHY parametricism?
Schumacher states that:
In an evolving, increasingly complex and demanding societal environment each of the coevolving function systems is burdened with the requirement of continuous adaptive upgrading. This also includes the continuous adaptive upgrading of the respective specialised media: new forms of money and financial instruments, new mechanisms for social control and the administration of power, and new design tools and techniques within the medium of architecture. All of them are upgrading their capacity on the basis of the advancing technologies of computational information processing. [347]

What he means is that world society is so complex now that only buildings of the complexity made possible by parametric software are capable of accommodating it effectively. Modernism (a term which for Schumacher includes corporate architect of choice Norman Foster [297]) is not capable of properly articulating the complexity of a globalised, decentred, diversified world and its spatial requirements.

Parametricism is the great, new, viable style after Modernism […] Parametricism provides a pertinent spatio-morphological repertoire for architecture and urban design that is able to organise and articulate the complexities of contemporary (post-fordist) society. [129]

            I have now given you a (rather extended) ride through AoA. You might consider everything up to this point to be a disinterested guide to the book, one that takes the book at more-or-less face value, that has avoided making strident critiques. Hopefully this in itself will be useful for those who may not have time to read 400 pages but might just have the time to read 4000 words or so. But in reading the book I have also collected a number of criticisms which I think are significant, which I will now outline below:

And that's where I gave up.


Unknown said...
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Andrew Heumann said...

Thanks for this guide. I am currently working my way through the book, and I think your presentation of his arguments is spot on (and, in a way, performs some of the much needed editing to which you referred in your review for Icon). I would like to encourage you to continue, as I am very eager to hear your critiques - I myself have a long list amassed.

My particular interest stems from the fact that I am in the process of beginning my undergraduate thesis around the topic of design approaches utilizing parametric modeling. I am eager to distance parametric methodologies from his particular codification of parametricism as a style. While I think he frequently succeeds in drawing a coherent picture of how the discipline functions (if he sometimes tends too far towards absolutes, binaries, and totalities,) I think his proposal of a single, discipline-wide style-as-research-program falters both in its broadness of scope (it is never clear to me why it needs to be epochal instead of just for individual practitioners) and in the particular design heuristics he proposes (which depend on the assumption that complex social processes demand complex, fluid forms à la Zaha).

I look forward to your continuation of this post.

Andrew Heumann