Turbulences Ahead. Book review: The Autopoiesis of Architecture (P Schumacher)

Turbulences Ahead
Book review of Patrik Schumacher's The Autopoiesis of Architecture, John Wiley & Sons
Published in Archithese 4.2011 Architekturkritik, Switzerland.

Patrik Schumacher’s Book: The Autopoiesis of Architecture On 11th of March 2011 at the Architectural Association, Patrik Schumacher stepped into the ring to defend his book against a most prominent and tightly scheduled list of guests. Pressured by the opponent’s eloquent punches he stumbled but did not fall. No one delivered the knockout, no one had really read the book. ‘I am still standing.'

Text: Marjan Colletti

The most common reaction by all the people in London to whom I told that I was in the process of reading The Autopoiesis of Architecture (AoA) could be summarised as ‘Naserümpfen’ [1] and raised eyebrows. I wondered why. Most of these people tend to spend much of their time around Bloomsbury, a central area in London where both the Architectural Association (AA) and the Bartlett School of Architecture are located.[2] Interestingly, the reactions were similar in both schools, thus do not suggest any institutional partisanship in the paragraphs below.[3]


Everybody, so it seems, already has an opinion about the book, or more correctly, about its author. Professor Patrik Schumacher (PS) is of course extremely well known not only around Bloomsbury in London: he is certainly one of the most talked about protagonists in the worldwide architectural professional and academic scene. Here in London, he practices as partner of the architectural firm Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) and teaches as director (and co-founder) of the postgraduate master course at the AA (AADRL); and from here he commutes to several other institutions (University of Applied Arts, Vienna, and Innsbruck University, both in Austria) and to innumerable building site visits and client meetings all over the world. He is an architect and educator with an impeccable personal curriculum and office portfolio and he is truly dedicated to architecture. Where then does the ‘Naserümpfen’ come from – considering that surely not all these people have read the book? I would put this down to several reasons, but there is space here to expand only on a few in more detail.

Parametricism is PS 

AoA did not come unannounced. Several articles and lectures[4] in many places and institutions have preceded the release of this book and the announcement of what PS claims to be the new ‘dominant, mainstream style ‘. PS has managed to glue his theories and doctrines to his own persona. Of course, many other universities – the AA in particular – as well as offices have pursued parametric briefs for a while. This publicity, plus envy, namely ZHA’s enormous expansion, and other ‘gossip ‘ – such as PS’s application for the Bartlett Professorship in December 2010 – have made him a ‘hot ‘ topic. But with this total overlap of manifesto and persona comes the disadvantage of mixing up professional and personal critique. Thus, despite the title of the book people associate Parametricism with PS. It just is inevitable: people’s comments may be directed at the theories of Parametricism, but end up being a personal and superficial dismissal of PS and his book.

Autobiographical theory
It may be wrong to describe this book as a manifesto; it is rather a monograph as Brett Steele suggested.[5] Or extending this thought, I would state that the book is an autobiography and AoA an autobiographical theory. It must be, as it is presented as auto-poietic, self-descriptive. Furthermore, it could be understood as autobiographical in its emergence from PS’s own ‘painful process [reconditioning his aesthetic sens-ibility], trying to overcome his Modernist/Minimalist predilections‘. An autobiographical evolutionary process of having had ‘outdated, reactionary aesthetic sensibilities […] exorcised.‘ Exactly what the book does.
     After such tribulation there is no space for irony or hesitation in AoA; it ‘does not end in a gesture of ironic selfdoubt‘. Such declared self-confidence and non-critique does not help promoting heuristics based on hard-core terms such as ‘dogmas’ and ‘taboos’. One should not be surprised that in the late noughties and early teens of the 21st century most people react with dismissal, sometimes disgust, to such terms. PS certainly walks his talk, but he makes the mistake of thinking that because Parametricism suits him – it should therefore suit everyone else. If you do not feel or want to be affiliated with it you may well react like those people: Naserümpfen!

However, I am convinced that there is always space for humour and absurdity. Hence the joke by students et al. of rebranding PS’s own brainchild to ‘Parapatricism’[6], again mixing manifesto and persona. Curiously, parapatric is a real term used in biogeography, ‘referring to organisms whose ranges do not significantly overlap but are immediately adjacent to each other’[7]. It means that organisms in a specific territory that enter a new niche differentiate, keeping similarity to the adjacent and original neighbours, but do not pursue exchange and hence probably diverge totally. Here, a cynical critic could intervene arguing that Parapatricism actually describes very well both PS’s agenda in ZHA as much as Parametricism in general: computer gigs, programmer and scripting architects find a particular niche, mutate (keeping original features) and eventually detach themselves from the original native environment. PS would probably call such a parapatric species the avant-garde segment of architecture. Hmmm, raised eyebrows?

Jetlagged avant-garde
PS’s avant-garde identikit is certainly a tricky one. It is biased towards a certain generation of digital architects (and here he loses half of the readers, I guess) who were certainly avant-garde and mostly in academia at the time the research began in the mid-nineties but have meanwhile managed to break into the market thereby loosing some of the ‘edge’. This list needs updating and further expansion of formal or functional (parapatric) specifications of the current avant-garde that nowadays flies first class and has frequent flyer status on several airlines. This avantgarde, which I truly respect, is perhaps too jetlagged. This has provoked a call for a slow-down in avant-garde work in regard to both design and theories. ‘The avant-garde discourse must alternate between pretentious and shallow periods.’ Here, the argument falters. It almost contradicts itself. If the function of the avant-garde is to break with past traditions, create friction and help evolve the internal and external communication systems of architecture, and eventually to inform the mainstream, the total disregard of anything non-parametric is unbelievable. Pursuing the autobiographical approach one can almost feel PS’s plea to let him slow down, to allow him to proliferate his skills / obsessions / expertise without the strain of constant revolution and neo-theorisation – and endless commuting. Possibly because I am writing some of these lines on an airplane myself, but when reading the book I could clearly hear it, the background noise of the book: jet engines and airport announcements. I think I am right in assuming that AoA was mostly written on PS’s innumerable long haul flights and hotel rooms late at night. The super-structurisation of the book helps, but repetition (a considerable amount of it) still prevails. It sometimes feels tired and makes you feel tired. Sometimes this book felt jetlagged. This may sound harsh and my understanding of AoA as autobiographical thesis is perhaps incorrect, but it helped me to understand the existing preconceptions and ‘Naserümpfen’ reactions, which I think are superficial, especially if you have not read the book. AoA is a lot more than a collection of essays on Parametricism. It is a substantial book, a difficult book: dense (but repetitive), thought-provoking, provocative, well researched. But then again, we are not even half way through: this is only the first of two books (the second book will be published later this year). The final project will consist of 2 books, 12 parts (5+7), 60 sections, 250 chapters, 1000 pages plus … Numerically seen, AoA is an achievement per se, and PS should be tired, rightly so. But wait, there is much more to come about Parametricism, as the second volume seems to be dedicated even more to the parametric agenda.

Autobiographical theories and parapatric irony aside, evolution lays at the core of AoA. This first book is in fact about introducing and delivering a theory of autopoiesis of and for architecture more than about Parametricism. The concept of autopoiesis, first introduced 1972 by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, describes the selfcreation of living systems, in particular focusing on function and structure (so does PS). Applied to architecture, the theory postulates unity and integrity of all architectural endeavours through self-description and self-reference.


Yes: any (!) architectural endeavours. Throughout the book, PS makes sure to emphasise the absolutist nature of what he presents. PS claims AoA to be a ‘comprehensive’, ‘coherent’, ‘total’, ‘fundamental’, ‘designed’, ‘upgraded’ thesis, a ‘general’, ‘full-blown’, ‘unified’, ‘single’, ‘sufficiently robust and flexible’, ‘domain specific’, ‘restless’ ‘super-theory’ capable of delivering a ‘fully self-conscious’, ‘hegemonic’, ‘epochal’, ‘dominant’ style. The function of AoA is to take ‘exclusive and universal responsibility’ in order to offer ‘leadership to a large innovative firm’, ‘to deliver coherent and effective’, ‘theoretical’ guidance to designers and to ‘gain hegemony within the avant-garde segment’ by persevering in ‘the creation of a unified world architecture.’ To me, such absolutist, fundamentalist language and tone are problematic. This, plus the repetition of statements, sounds too propagandistic. A true giveaway of PS’s ideological roots: Marxism, coupled with an immense admiration for Lenin, ‘the person he adores and loves most in the world’.[8]

The other main reference is not Marx though, but German sociologist Niklas Luhmann and his theoretical framework of social systems as systems of communications. These develop, evolve and specialise within modern world society into fully competent, differentiated, autonomous and variable systems with unique societal functions. In doing so, each system (i. e. economy, science, education, mass media, the political / legal / health system etc.) self-generates functions, operations, codes, media, tasks, programmes and finds its own ways of dealing with the ubiquitous and expanding complexity of society within its own domain. Where Luhmann saw architecture as part of the art system, PS clearly argues for a demarcation of architecture from the arts, engineering and the sciences in order to redefine its raison d’être: ‘the provision of spaces that frame communication’. The application of Luhmann’s theoretical construct to architecture constitutes the main bulk of the book and is described at length and in depth.  

     A succinct summary is given on the very last page of the book: ‘Architecture, as societal system, defines and demarcates itself in distinction to art, engineering and science. It communicates via its basic communicative operations – design decisions – that are oriented /structured by the lead-distinction of form vs function, which in turn sponsors the system’s (self-referentially enclosing) binary codes – the double code of utility and beauty. The code is programmed and thus made concretely applicable, at any historical moment, by the prevailing/ adopted style. The style in turn relies on the power of its unique medium of visual/geometric representation (drawing, modelling) …’[9]
      Let us dwell a bit on these few words. First of all: is PS right in applying Luhmann’s theories?

Speciation and specification
It would be useful to look at an institutionalised and clearly structured sub-system within architecture – and its communications – i.e. an architecture faculty as quick case study to evaluate Luhmann’s adequacy in this context. I think this is appropriate, since PS underlines the importance of such institutions as ‘incubation chambers’ for the avant-garde and high-end research.[10] If we were to look at the Bartlett Faculty for the Built Environment at UCL London, for example, clear boundaries and delineated fields of expertise can be found, as well as clear evolution and speciation: the first chair of Architecture was instituted 1841, the School of Planning in 1914, the Schools of Building and Environmental Design in 1965, and the Development Planning Unit in 1971. Today the faculty consists of seven schools, each with a specialised field of design, research, knowledge and expertise and offering over twenty taught Master’s courses.[11] None of them truly address engineering or the arts, or science / technology per se (such as computer science, material science etc.). It is evident that the faculty has undergone an astonishing process of speciation and specification to define and respond to more complex architectural tasks. Consequently, it can be stated that Luhmann’s argument has valid applicability in this case.
     Chapter 4 of the book, which analyses the autopoiesis of the medium of architecture, the drawing, is also a convincing description of the pertinence of AoA. It is indeed important to discuss the drawing! It is the vessel of design intelligence and thus, its contribution to the discipline is enormous. Without doubt, the potentiality of the drawing as a contemporary and future digital information package is truly exciting and open beyond the parametric model.

Personally, I totally support PS’s claim that design intelligence is an intelligence sui generis and that architecture is neither art nor engineering. But as we all know, design intelligence does not imply appeal: something intelligently designed is not a priori beautiful, or elegant, or pleasurable. While intelligence is possibly quantifiable by a set of criteria (for example structural efficiency, environmental impact etc.), delight is not. Here, Luhmann’s binary codes falter. There is always a third condition in a binary code: the error, the else, the other. There is also always a third condition to utility and beauty: the fetish as an expression of idiosyncrasy and pleasure; as the moment when the function of utility and the form of beauty implode, collapse. When the global systems of communications matter less. When the programme crashes. Where style as top-down operation stops.

Digitalism, not Parametricism 

Hence, the plethora of architectural expressions of contemporary architecture. Despite the fact that many practices use the same software, the same pool of consultants, the same engineers, architectural design can diverge tremendously. The same applies to architecture schools. Let us go back to Bloomsbury, where I spent most of the last weeks whilst reading AoA, attending crits at both schools, plus final portfolio reviews and external examinations[12] at my two London schools. The whole point of critting, reviewing and policing the student work is to constantly re-formulate what design intelligence is; to speculate about which criteria can apply and by which methods one evaluates those criteria.
      This year I experienced those reviewing protocols under the influence of AoA and was more attentive to the notion of style. Less concerned with the box-standardised, pseudo-functionalist, form-paranoid and pedestrian architectural mannerism typical to some of the UK schools as well as the reality of practice in this country, I noticed more than ever an anti-digital neo-historical revival. An error in the educational system?
     I am a deep believer in the potential of digitality; my own research and my studios are digitally driven, but not parametric per se (although the outsider, or uninformed observer, would put all computational work wrongly into the same category). Certainly, I am not into neo-postmodernism-historicism – although I do look at historical references such as the Baroque. Thus the question of style did arise in my head: is there a need for stylistic attribution, specification, canonisation? Perhaps there is, but I am sceptical about PS’ classification of styles: if there is an ‘epochal’ style it must be what could be named Digitalism! I would accept Parametricism as ‘subsidiary’ style of Digitalism. Dutch ‘Diagramism’ should then also be mentioned as a ‘transitional’ style.
     What is certain though is that with the revival of eighties PoMo, digital design has a new old enemy: historicism. PS’s enemies are for sure also pastiche architecture, hence historicism, and Minimalism (his first ‘love’ which he then rejected as ‘undialectical backlash’, ‘a degenerating design research programme, a stagnant style’ that ‘contradicts contemporary society.’ Does digital design then mean not to look back and to race ahead with blinders? Of course not: in my opinion digital intelligence is the only way of hybridising past expertise and future trajectories.


Problematic is the fact that ‘the theory of architectural autopoiesis is trying to think through the implications that follow when all the [… humanist, pragmatist or formalist] options are rejected in order to embark upon a consistently anti-humanist, systemic and radically Constructivist redescription and forward projection of architecture.’ This lack of humanism is no help in promoting digital design. I am also not convinced that a radical Constructivist approach suffices to adapt the discipline and society to the enormous tasks ahead to deal with complexities of economy, ecology and politics. We need formal and territorial expansion, technological development and bio-digital hybridity of digital design – not only the going-mainstream of the avant-garde. Also, totally introverted, incestuous self-definition and ‘methodological functionalism’ is exactly what historicism relies upon and what Parametricism could also be accused of: mimicry of the sixties Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller analogue computing and additive construction methods. There are many more things to be revisited from history. I am convinced that evolution proceeds also by looking in the rear mirror. AoA does that, but it is clear that PS has got a pre-defined destination. However, if someone was to sit in the driving seat, PS would be an obvious choice. Do not expect any ‘Pinkelpausen’ soon though.


Hence, PS’s over-protectionism of the ‘ultra-stable’ boundaries of the discipline (a term he does not particularly like, but which he uses to paraphrase ‘the self-referentially closed system of architectural communications’) is questionable. He is adamant about architecture as a ‘distinct’, ‘autonomous’ system of communications that should ‘abstain from importing theoretical resources from other discourses’. Consequently, he states that ‘the discourse thus protects the integrity of architecture by means of boundary management, denouncing incursions from neighbours such as engineers and artists who threaten to invade and blur the boundary and distinctiveness of architecture’; or that ‘any practice that is trying to heed this call [redefine architecture’s boundaries from the outside] is running up against a brick wall’.
     ‘The blurring of disciplinary boundaries is an idea rather than a reality’ claims PS. But why not follow that idea up? Architecture must evolve vertically but also horizontally. Boundaries can be blurred from the inside out, not only from the outside in, creating new interfaces, intrafaces.[13] In some instances, architecture may even totally shift to new territories. The same way that the drawing, for example, has migrated from paper to code. Although loosing Vitruvius’ firmitas, and introducing stylistic fluidity, liquidity, fieldness, malleability, swarming, morphing etc., AoA fails to describe architecture itself as fluid, as migratory. Such extreme stiffness may function as conceptual aid for the formulation of AoA. But is it a beautiful theory?
     With ‘brick wall’ boundaries, PS describes a super-static gestalt of the discipline. Fixed. This sounds surprisingly antiquated. But I almost forgot about the autobiographical nature of AoA. It is about PS’s particular vantage point. Considering how much time PS spends in the air at 30 000 ft, it must feel reassuring to know that something you really, really care about – and PS certainly does care about architecture – has some sort of solidity.


Author: Dr. Marjan Colletti (*1972, Bozen) is an architect, teacher, researcher and theorist. He studied at Innsbruck University and the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL in London where he also completed his PhD by Design. He teaches the diploma/master Unit20 at the Bartlett and taught the diploma unit10 at University of Westminster. Furthermore he has been guest-professor at several schools in Europe (Innsbruck, Oslo, Copenhagen, Paris), the US (UCLA, UTA) and Asia (Taiwan). He was editor of the Architectural Design 80th anniversary edition on Exuberance.

1 Naserümpfen = to sniff at something.

2 To the insider, this tells you a story about the real competitiveness, secret affinities and assumed incompatibilities between the two schools of architecture. In 2007 a slightly ‘staged’ Bloomsbury clash happened at Innsbruck University during a final crit of Patrik Schumacher’s parametric students and the more digital Baroque students of my studio as guest-professor at the same institute.

3 Just because I am affiliated with the Bartlett School of Architecture and the University of Westminster in London.

4 Some of these pre-launch public performances and texts are hard-core: Eric Owen Moss’ response to PS’s SCI-Arc lecture for example is sensational and some of the conversations during a day-long event at the AA coinciding with the book launch are entertaining.

5 www.aaschool.ac.uk//VIDEO/lecture. php?ID=1513

6 I have heard this plenty of times. For example Wolf D. Prix in conversation with PS.

7 From Wikipedia. More from http://evolution. berkeley.edu/evosite/evo101/VC1dParapatric. shtml accessed 18 June 2011: ‘In parapatric speciation there is no specific extrinsic barrier to gene flow. The population is continuous, but nonetheless, the population does not mate randomly. Individuals are more likely to mate with their geographic neighbors than with individuals in a different part of the population’s range. In this mode, divergence may happen because of reduced gene flow within the population and varying selection pressures across the population’s range.’

8 PS in conversation with Eric Owen Moss in Debating Fundamentals: www.aaschool.ac.uk//VIDEO/lecture. php?ID=1505, accessed 18 June, 2011.

9 p. 435. His Italics and Bold.

10 ‘The group of avant-garde designers who teach and theorise while trying to build their independent design studio is perhaps the hard core of what we understand to be the avant-garde segment of the discipline.’ P. 104. And: ‘Instead the discipline relies on two substitutes for explicitly institutionalized research: high profile architecture schools and practicing avant-garde architects.’ P. 133.

11 www.bartlett.ucl.ac.uk/general/admissions/ history.htm. Accessed 18 June, 2011. The 7 schools are Architecture, Construction & Project Management, Development Planning Unit, Graduate Studies, Planning, UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, UCL Energy Institute.

12 Most of the architectural schools in the United Kingdom are based on design unit or studio systems. Clusters of 14 – 20 students supervised by 1 – 3 design tutors who have the freedom to decide on the brief, trajectory, theoretical context, field trip etc. of their group. Such freedom comes with responsibility: to present and defend their students’ work. The pride and anxiety of such presentation escalates at the end of the year during portfolio reviews also called final tables. Further tension builds up during external examinations, where a group of architects, representing the professional boards, visit schools to examine the students (and the teaching staff). 

13 See marcosandmarjan, Interfaces/Intrafaces, Wien/NewYork 2005.