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The style war continues

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Patrik Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects and evangelist for Parametricism has released volume one of his magnum opus. Steve Parnell gets stuck in 

The Autopoiesis of Architecture, by Patrik Schumacher. John Wiley & Sons, volume 1, Dec 2010, £29.99

 In the deliberately provocative piece that Patrik Schumacher wrote for the AJ last year, ‘Let the style wars begin’ (AJ 06.05.10), he declared war. At least with words. This book is a continuation of that piece. But it is much, much longer. ‘Parametricism aims for hegemony and combats all other styles,’ he wrote, ending with, ‘Parametricism is ready to go mainstream. The style war has begun.’ It is, Schumacher claims, ‘the great new style after Modernism’.

The publication of such a huge volume by the polemicist behind one of Britain’s most successful practices would always demand attention and, as such, would have the potential to direct the course of architectural discourse for the 21st century. Presumably we will learn about the theory of Parametricism and how it can be applied to our own architecture.

So what has Schumacher’s neologism got to do with that other titular neologism, autopoiesis? Autopoiesis was defined by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in 1972 in order to generate an abstract language to talk about the biological processes of life. This ‘cybernetics for biologists’ was found to be useful for discussing theories of self-organisation and systems in other disciplines; German sociologist Niklas Luhmann subsequently adopted it to describe theoretical frameworks for social systems such as religion, art, law, the media and so on. Note the absence of architecture in that list.

The term ‘autopoiesis’ has echoed around trendy units in architectural schools since the mid 1990s as a way of deliberating digital design, so the title of this book may suggest a generative theory for computational architecture. The term can be particularly potent when discussing genetic algorithms, for example, as autopoiesis is all about systems contained within boundaries that co-evolve inside an environment alongside other bounded systems. It’s a big word that basically translates in architectural circles to ‘seductively rendered Non-Uniform Rational B-Splines (NURBS)’.

Theoretical framework

Prompted by Luhmann, Schumacher’s inspired move is to apply autopoiesis to the institutionof architecture as a sociological entity. This would be a promising avenue of research for the theory, as architecture is forever trying to assert its institutional autonomy. However, its application here is confused by the obsession with Parametricism, as the book attempts to be an all-encompassing and unifying theoretical framework for the institution of architecture, and manifesto for this ‘great new style’ (Schumacher’s words). At 450 pages (and with only 18 images) it’s the first of a proposed two-volume work, making it surely the longest and, quite possibly, the most opaque manifesto in architectural historiography.

The theoretical framework and the manifesto are so closely intertwined that it is difficult to discuss one without the other. The link between the two is, of course, theory. Schumacher claims that ‘only theoretically informed building design constitutes architecture’. But he does not offer any definition of theory, or address what qualities a theory needs to qualify as the validator of architecture, only that innovation requires it and the status quo doesn’t. Instead we are subjected to a quasi-historical and confused account, which states that architectural theory began in the Renaissance – hence the beginnings of architecture at that point. Only three pages previously, however, Vitruvius’ treatise was cited as ‘the first emergence of architecture’ that ‘remains closely tied to religion and to the political order’.

Elsewhere, Schumacher repeatedly rejects the idea of religion due to it being an anachronism, demonstrating the difficulty he has in projecting his thoughts beyond his immediate world – religion is as relevant as ever to a large proportion of the world’s population and it’s only recently in the developed world that the credibility of the institution has been eroded. But this is petty argumentation when it comes to the real criticism of the book, the manifesto, which centres on the avant-garde’s (i.e. Parametricism’s) place in architectural history.

The avant-garde in architectural history

Aldo van Eyck is better known for his buildings than writing, but he is credited with this perceptive quote: ‘Not a single historical movement can be explained solely on the basis of its previous history; its subsequent history is also – and precisely – determinant for a proper understanding, no matter how hard such a movement tries to suppress the subsequent history.’

In other words, it’s impossible to write a history of the now because it’s impossible to know its effect on the future, which is as much a part of now’s history as its past. But this is precisely what Schumacher is doing in attempting to claim Parametricism as the great movement of the 21st century – he is asserting his movement as the culmination of the inevitability of progress. But a progress of styles, not of society. ‘Architecture advances as a progression of styles.’ If it can’t be rendered with shininess cranked up to 11, it’s not progressive.

Such a concept of progress is erroneous on several counts. Firstly, neo-Darwinian teleological arguments are deeply flawed because they explain past events only in terms of what they contribute to ‘progressing’ to the desired goal when, in fact, the past can only be evaluated in terms of its contemporaneous historical context. The future can lie in any direction at any time. Secondly, Parametricism may be state-of-the-art but it is not avant-garde. The field of avant-garde studies generally still accepts Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde(1974) as its seminal and most influential treatise. Bürger claims that one of  the key characteristics of the avant-garde is criticism of the institutional framework within which it sits. As Jencks has pointed out, trying to make an avant-garde movement hegemonic or even mainstream is the last thing on a true avant-gardist’s mind.

In Autopoiesis of Architecture, there is no criticism of, or resistance to, the architectural institution, only an aloofness from the mainstream, i.e. those who don’t use theory in their practice and therefore, according to Schumacher, don’t innovate. The practice that Schumacher consistently quotes as avant-garde is Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), of which he is a director, and which is the epitome of the architectural culture industry. This is no criticism of ZHA’s buildings, which historians will treat with the respect they deserve, but as a practice they are at the centre of this industry – as far from the edge as you can get.

Schumacher’s style

Schumacher is so unsure of the intricacies and nuances of architectural history that he resorts to employing Vitruvius’ tired firmitas, utilitas and venustas, combining the first two in order to form a binary codeof ‘utility’ and ‘beauty’, which is complemented by ‘novelty’ for the avant-garde. While this kind of language is more Robert Adam than avant-garde, the language employed throughout the sweeping generalisations in the book is bombastic and war-mongering, with assertion laid upon assertion in true manifesto style. In fact, the epochal styles that Schumacher discusses appear to be personified.

It is these styles that battle, breed, compete, evolve and mutate, of their own volition, in the absence of any human agent. They could be experimental cultures on a Petri dish, or indeed, instances of a class in an object-oriented genetic algorithm evolving on screen. Typically, he writes that ‘the Postmodern style that started to challenge hegemonic Modernism during the 1970s won the game during the 1980s, but without a lasting ability to progress the discipline. Its main proponents degenerated rather quickly into an irrelevant Neo-Classicism, while its progressive moments lived on in Deconstructivism, which in turn was relatively quickly superseded by Folding in the early 1990s. […] It is time to raise the stakes and claim leadership under a unifying banner: the banner of Parametricism as a new global style for architecture, urbanism and design in general. Parametricism is ready to step out of the protective quarantine provided by methodological tolerance.’ Throughout, it is the theory of theAutopoiesis of Architecture that insists these things with its own ‘will to power’. Resistance is futile.

What it could have been

Unfortunately, Parametricism is never defined, and the reader doesn’t learn what it is other than being the next great style and what the Architectural Association Design Research Laboratory and ZHA do. Ironically, Schumacher’s insistence on the deeply unfashionable notion of style could be his most potent contribution to an architectural avant-garde. Not a particular style, but the concept of style being valid as a subject of debate.

The other contribution this book makes to architectural discourse is the introduction of Luhmann and the potential to apply autopoiesis as a theoretical framework to help understand the neglected area of the sociology of architecture as an autonomous institution – its mediation, obsession with awards and hagiography of the stars, competitions, control by professional bodies, the sado-masochistic relationship between critics and architects, alongside its relationship with other institutions in the same environment with which it is structurally coupled (an autopoietic term), such as the property market. If the book had concentrated on this and left the style war manifesto for another time, it may have been more illuminating. As it stands, however, it’s as confused as any reader will be.

Steve Parnell wrote a postgraduate dissertation on “Autopoietic Architecture” in 2002 and is completing a PhD in architectural historiography at the University of Sheffield.


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