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On the autonomy and heteronomy of architecture

In the twentieth century architectural theory has swung between claiming the autonomy of the discipline of architecture and its alleged heteronomy. While it can be argued that the discipline, through the evolution of its stylistic languages, the building techniques and its theories, possesses the tools to develop an autonomous discourse; on the other hand, architecture is part of the complex system of distinct disciplines with which it is called to confront itself and from which to be influenced in the process of elaborating the architectural project.

Theorist Michael Hays explains the apparent paradox of a discipline simultaneously autonomous and heteronomous: "If politics or the economy doesn’t make architecture, we can also say that architecture can make itself. If on one side is important to maintain a certain degree of autonomy and professional discipline, on the other hand it cannot be said that architecture is, in its entirety, fully self-disciplined." [1]
Hays outlines the duality of a discipline at the same time open and closed but he lacks the intellectual tools to overcome its paradoxical nature.

The architect Patrick Schumacher in Autopoiesis of Architecture lays the foundation for a new architectural theory of the XXI Century. Claiming the vitality of contemporary architectural discourse as a self-generator of meaning, he identifies the basis for a new parametric paradigm as a new epochal style. Schumacher refers to the Systems Theory developed by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann in the second half of the last century. At the heart of Luhmann's thought there’s the elaboration of a social theory based on communication: in it the social systems are essentially systems of communication. A system (a field of knowledge, a discipline or a social group) is defined by its disciplinary boundaries, its "environment” that distinguishes and divides it from the outer complex and chaotic world. The interior of a system is therefore an area of reduced complexity. The communication within a system occurs by the selection of a limited set of information from the outside world. The criterion, by which information is selected and processed, is signification. Social systems operate through a process of signification.
Each social system and subsystem has a distinct identity which is constantly re-produced in its communication and depends on what is considered to be reasonable and what is not (Sinn in German, meaning). If a system does not keep its identity-meaning, ceases to exist as a system and dissolves into the environment from which it emerged. Luhmann calls this process of re-production of elements previously filtered from the complexities of the surrounding environment: autopoiesis (literally self-creation). The term was originally coined by cognitive biologists Varela and Maturana and their autopoietic theory about the nature of reflective control in living systems.

Social systems are autopoietically closed in the sense that, while using the resources from their environment, they do not become part of the way the system operates.
Architecture can thus be understood as a sub-system of the complex web of social systems within which it interfaces and from which it is variously permeated. What are those properties and intrinsic characteristics that make architecture an autonomous discipline?

Professor Jeffrey Kipnis offers interesting insights in his article In the mood for architecture [2].
Kipnis asks how architecture can produce effects that irreducibly and exclusively belong to it and are, in this sense, the form of its autonomy. In a sense, Kipnis explores the true nature of the discipline in search of its essential characteristics.

If we consider, on the contrary, the architecture as a heteronomous discipline, receiving from the outside the cause and the laws of its action, we can’t help but thinking of it as a technique bound to the problem of art as added value [3].
Architecture will contribute to the creation of value insofar as the project will establish a bi-univocal resonance with the social, the economic, and the environmental needs is providing answers to. So how can we think of architecture in terms of autonomous art and not as a simple added value? Is it possible, in other words, to interpret the discipline as essential and irreducible?
Posed in these terms the question of the alternative binary distinction between autonomy and heteronomy assumes connotations - and consequences - far more radical than initially envisioned.

On form and function
One of the essential features of architecture is certainly the dialectic relationship between the formal and functional characteristics of the building. Architects can be classified among those who favor the expression of form and those who care about the building's function. Broadly speaking we can say that the form is often seen as a self-referential construction: it’s often derived from arbitrary aesthetic considerations, often unfathomable to those who enjoy its space. The shape is often expressed as a direct reference to aesthetic and stylistic considerations. In contrast, the function provides adherence between the thing and the outer world.
More generally we can say that the first category (form) covers all aspects related to the articulation of the tectonic and morphological construction: the volume, the proportions, the decorations, the relationship between the parts and the whole, etc. In contrast the second category includes programmatic, legal, material, political and economic aspects.
From a historical point of view, the Modern Movement has established a two-way dependency between form and function: the claim that form follows function is nothing but the ideological apparatus on which the rational discourse finds justification. From a cultural point of view this assumption marks a point of no return in establishing the autonomy of the architectural discourse. Le Corbusier in his 5 points establishes the syntactic apparatus on which the new modernist narrative is built upon. He gives form to the function of the new machine for living.
The union between form and function, in essence, is the great criterion to judge the success or the failure of architecture. After the war, few design experiments steer in the direction of making this correspondence more ambiguous: the theme of flexibility became a desirable quality of modern architecture and programming became to be used as a design tool to provide specificity and efficiency in the definition and the use of space. In general, programming refers to a design process in which information relating to the project (the brief, the functional aspects) is scientifically analyzed and shown - graphically and computationally- in an attempt to better describe the spatial organization in relation to the use of space.
Functionalism advocated the perfect harmony of form and function leaving little room for improvisation. Flexibility was, rather, the margin of error in this equation. In this context the inconsistency of the rational cause-effect relationship between form and function leaves space to flexibility. An example is provided by Le Corbusier’s Venice hospital: here the Swiss architect explored programming as a tool to inject flexibility within the organization of the form in relation to its function: it was the birth of mat-building [4].

Place and Time
In terms of design, whereas architecture had historically established a direct relationship with the surrounding context, with the advent of modernist avant garde in the first half of the twentieth century, it began to make its way in the opposite direction. Swiss architect Le Corbusier affirmed the need to erect the architecture on pilotis. The architecture had conceptually and physically developed, if not an outright opposition, an attitude of indifference from the context.
The idea of an architecture bound to the place and its physical presence conceived as a form of phenomenological truth, leaves in this case space for an ideology that is based on time. The Genius Loci, the spirit of the place, is here abandoned in favor of Genius Saeculi, the spirit of the time. No coincidence that the Modern movement has often been termed as an expression of the Zeitgeist, a manifestation of the spirit of the time. Mies van der Rohe said: "Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space"; Le Corbusier speaks of architecture as, in fact, a machine for living.
The modern movement, therefore, through the appropriation of the spirit of the time, laid the basis for the formulation of a theory of architecture that, detached from the specificity of the context, had its linguistic autonomy as a flag.
In this context it’s interesting to notice how, unlike architecture, visual arts in the second half of XX Century have overcome its limitations by making spatial installations that articulate the specificity of the site. The work of artists of the like of Robert Smithson is a clear testimony (eg, Spiral Jetty in Great Salt Lake). The sculpture starts to control the space in which it is placed: the work of Richard Serra, Carl Andre and Robert Morris are witnessing this spatial sensitivity. While the artists feel the need to reconnect to the world, the architects put their works on a pedestal sanctioning the architecture’s otherness and its semantic independence.

Crisis of the Modern
After the war, the ideological thrust of the Modern enters a long period of crisis. All the possible variations of the modernist language were explored in an attempt to adapt the new architecture to the (semantic, social and organizational) complexity of the new post-Fordist society. The ideological manifesto of the Modern Movement crumbles in crisis.
In Visual Art, Andy Warhol sees in the new capitalist consumption an extraordinary reservoir of inspiration. He uses the readymade as an appropriation and a stylistic sublimation of mass consumption. The American artist re-interprets, to its logical extreme, Duschamp’s objet trouve purified of its Dadaist mystique.

In architecture, on the contrary, there’s a gradual re-appropriation of the Genius Loci. An interesting manifestation of this transition from the Zeitgeist to the re-appropriation of the context is exemplified by the difference between the books Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972), both by Bob Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The former book is focused on the functioning of the disciplinary language where the latter shows a renewed enthusiasm for the phenomenology of the context. The process of reification of the site finds its culmination at the Venice Biennale in 1981, with the installation Strada Novissima.

While the post-modern architecture seems to get in touch with the phenomenology of the world, drawing nourishment from it, the return to the Genius Loci is merely the development of an inclusive discourse within the disciplinary walls.

While the discipline opens itself to the world, the crisis of modernity is also expressed through the testing of the tectonic potentials left unspoken in the first half of the century. Peter Eisenman's research hinges on the tradition of modern rationalism. Strong supporter of the formal independence of the architectural language, Eisenman deconstructs and re-assembles Giuseppe Terragni’s syntax of composition, laying the foundations for a definitive overcoming of the concepts of place and time.

To explain his work Eisenman introduces the concept of lateness. For the American architect lateness is the manifestation of a late style compared to an age or a stylistic paradigm (an architecture of late capitalism or, in the words of American architect, the late modernism rococo’). At the same time Eisenman refers to lateness as the evolution of a personal language that is different and in which it is difficult to find those characters that have marked the previous production. He brings as an example the Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: a composition in which it is hard to identify the stylistic features of the great German composer to the point that the work becomes complex, different, and difficult.

Eisenman clearly operates within the boundaries of architecture as autonomous matter. The raison d'être of his work lies in the ability to ensure the maximum spatial freedom without being tied to functional constraints.
In this sense, his insistence on the absolute autonomy of architecture on one hand and the radical functionalism that sees architecture as the direct response to economic and political demands, are nothing but two faces of the same coin.
Thus no new architectural theory can be articulated in spite of the inevitable dialectic between utility and beauty. Overcoming the form-function dialectics requires an integral approach that holistically summarizes, without simplifications, these two aspects of architectural design.

Openness through the closure.
The autonomy of the architecture described so far does not mean indifference. The complex form of society requires contemporary disciplinary systems capable of formulating sophisticated and flexible responses. Patrick Schumacher, affirming the inevitable autonomy of the discipline, highlights the irreversible degree of complexity of the contemporary society.

The society that reproduces itself via the co-evolution of autonomous subsystems has been able to build up new levels of dynamic complexity that effectively exclude the reintegration of society into a single project governed by a single rationality. In this sense functional differentiation is irreversible: reintegration hits a complexity barrier.[5]

A social system endowed with an independent and diffuse intelligence is opposed to a model based on a unifying and omni-comprehensive rationality. A society organized in autonomous auto-poietic systems responsive to the influence of the surrounding environment, provides a degree of "structural" redundancy offering strength to the whole system.

A society in which the various fields of knowledge are distinct and autonomous, decentralized and permeable at a time, ensures greater resistance and adaptability to the changes of the complex contemporary society.
In an attempt to overcome the dialectical impasse between autonomy and heteronomy, Schumacher introduces the concept of openness through closure. This formula provides adaptability while, simultaneously, allows the discipline to stay independent in organizing its answers.

In this sense we can speak of the autonomy of architecture as a self-referential discipline able to develop responsive strategies of self-organization. This performativity of the architecture operates through the distinction between self-referential and world-referential aspects of which the dialectic between form and function is a manifestation.

An example of negative heuristic is proposed to us by the recent emphasis on sustainability: when architecture is called upon to provide straight responses to world-referential inputs, we witness the naive proliferation of techno-architectures whose spatial effectiveness is directly proportional to its rhetorical emphasis.

On the other hand, only through the elaboration of dynamic and inclusive architectural strategies, an effective, non-reductive response to the many contemporary challenges can be formulated.

Recent studies in contemporary biology showed us how, in nature, the form is nothing but the diagram of those forces acting upon matter (D'Arcy Thompson). The self-organizing logics of matter act through the interaction of a multitude of non-intelligent agents in non-linear systems.

In this sense, the cause-effect relationship between form and function and between the intrinsic and extrinsic logics of the architectural project, reaches a further degree of complexity: thus a new relationship between architecture and the shape of the world can be established. Through the development of auto-poietic and multi-parametric strategies we can rethink architecture and its relationship with the surrounding environment.

Technological development, through the development of algorithmic-parametric modeling tools, now offers us the possibility to actualize the paradigmatic shift taking place: the ability to handle a high volume of data and to establish interdependent relationships between them, opens the door to finally overcome the dichotomy between the internal disciplinary logics and the complex articulation of needs (programmatic, political, economic) arising from the outside world. A new epochal chapter is about to be written.




[1] K. Michael Hays and Lauren Kogod,  Perspecta Vol. 33, Mining Autonomy 2002
[2] J. Kipnis, In the mood for architectureAny, Anything, MIT Press 2000
[3] J. Kipnis, In the mood for architecture, Any, Anything, MIT Press 2000
[4] Hashim Sarkis, Paradoxical Promise of Flexibility, in CASE: Le Corbusier’s Venice hospital and the mat-building revival, Prestel 2002
[5] P.Schumacher, Autopoiesis of Architecture, Wiley 2011
[6] On growth and form , D'Arcy W. Thompson






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