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“The Autopoiesis of Architecture” Patrik Schumacher’s Parametricism and Theory

Patrik Schumacher's Parametricism makes all the elements of architectural design malleable

Patrik Schumacher’s Parametricism makes all the elements of architectural design malleable


In his 2010 lecture at Sci-Arc, Patrik Schumacher highlighted the ideas from his multi volume critical text “the Autopoiesis of Architecture”. The premise of the novel is an attempt to create a comprehensive and unified theory of architecture. Regardless of your views on the importance of Parametric design or Schumacher himself, I challenge you to analyze Schumacher’s theory from a neutral standpoint. Let us begin by understanding what the Autopoiesis of architecture might be.

The Autpoietic system is a closed and self referential that reacts to outside sources as one

The Autpoietic system is a closed and self referential that reacts to outside sources as one


The concept of Autopoiesis refers to the overall discursive self-referential making of architecture. This is a continuous historical process and to remain effective, it continues to require new theoretical efforts at each stage of its ongoing evolution. An autopoietic system for architecture can only be realized at the hands of an all-encompassing theoretical system.

Schumacher lifted the Autopoietic system from Chilean biologist’s Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela who understood the peculiar closure of living systems, which are alive and maintain themselves metabolically whether they succeed in reproduction or not.

It is Schumacher’s opinion that Parametricism continues the autopoiesis of architecture and constitutes architecture as a discourse.

Schumacher's need for a unified comprehensive theory would be able to account and incorporate all styles: past, present, and future

Schumacher’s need for a unified comprehensive theory would be able to account and incorporate all styles: past, present, and future

The justification for such bold ambitions is offered by Schumacher in brief. “With a unified theory one is better prepared to manage the different designs, designers and approaches that run in different directions, fight each other, contradict each other and stand in each other’s way

The need for a unified theory, as Schumacher states, is first of all to eliminate contradictions within ones own efforts so one doesn’t stand in one’s own way all of the time.

The areas in which architects develop ideas and theories are manifold. Rather than develop a theory for each subset including phenomenology, aesthetics, societal functions and etc.

At a certain stage it makes sense to ask whether these things can be brought into a coherent system of ideas where they forge a kind of trajectory that has to do with guiding practice. You can only lead a coherent practice with a deep and comprehensive theory.

In volume one of Schumacher’s opus, he traces attempts at previous unified theories attempted by architects. Noting Le Corbusier’s five points, classical themes, and overarching designs.

He then evaluates the international style as a failed and exclusive unified theory. Heavily criticized for being “sterile” and disregarding localism.

Christian Norberg-Schultz is yet another target. His development of phenomenology in architecture and existential space is often disregarded for the writings of practicing architects.

Elsewhere I find parallels to Schumacher’s research in unified theories. I cite the NeoPlasticism movement in art and Jungian cultural anthropology.

But the only thing Schumacher can tangibly grasp in his practice is that all systems are frankly bankrupt.

From this point Schumacher summarizes several of his poignant theses from his Autopoietic theory. Starting with Thesis one:

The phenomenon of architecture can be most adequately grasped if it is analyzed as an autonomous network, or autopoietic system of communications.

It’s not simply a collection of buildings

It’s not simply a collection of buildings

It’s not an academic discipline

Rather, all of these activities joined into a communications system.

Thesis four simply states that there can be no architecture without theory.

Parametric Design: A Schumacher example of how the continuation and natural flow of natural elements and urban elements into an efficient parametric form

Parametric Design: A Schumacher example of how the continuation and natural flow of natural elements and urban elements into an efficient parametric form

Thesis six states that

“Self-referential closure” is a prerequisite of architecture’s effectiveness in an increasingly complex and dynamic social environment

Architecture as a discourse must define the purposes that guide us, or what is legitimate and meaningful, and how to pursue them

A network of communications determine this

And there is a call for a true autonomy

Thesis ten propositions that

In a society without a control center, architecture must regulate itself and maintain its own mechanisms of evolution

There can be no external determination imposed upon architecture

Especially by other self-regulating discourses

In Thesis sixteen Schumacher refers to style. He dictates

Avant-garde styles are designed research programs

Effort to redefine style as a valid category of contemporary discourse

Style is the primary understanding of architecture for the world at large, therefore there is a need to engage with style

Thesis seventeen states

Aesthetic values encapsulate a condensed collective experience within useful dogmas

Progress via revolution rather than evolution

Certain sensibilities must be fought and suppressed in order to adapt to contemporary life

In Thesis nineteen Schumacher negotiates that

Architecture depends on its medium enourmously

Depends on its medium in the same way economics depends on money and politics depends on power

Specialized media sustain a new plan of communication that depends on the media’s credibility

Need to upgrade architecture’s medium

Thesis twenty three attempts to incorporate newness yet again.

Radical innovation presupposes newness

Newness is the first of all just otherness

The new is produced by blind mechanisms rather than creative thought

But what sorts of theoretical sources allow Schumacher to work out his own comprehensive theory, in other words, what are the societal functions, or “reasons to be” for architecture in the world. For Schumacher, he finds said inspiration in Venturi and Jenck’s postmodernism, with its pluralism of styles and historical illusions.

In search of a credible theory for architecture, Schumacher stumbled across Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory. Luhmann’s fundamental premise is that all social phenomena or events depend on systems of communication, and society is the most encompassing social system. The system is defined by a boundary between itself and its environment.

Even the physical world only gets to you through systems of communication, Schumacher posits.

“You are always coping with social systems, your ability to communicate within them, to find a position within them”

“The concept of space in architecture is the equivalent of the democratization of the political system, or the liberalization of the economy…”

(ie. It can create a self-referential closed system, if it is understood as such)

It is through this unique comprehension of the physical world that form vs. function persists. Patrik Schumacher’s own thesis is that the concept of the spatialization of architecture is the equivalent of the democratization of the political system, the liberalization of the economy, among other examples. In only a few words, Schumacher believes that the spatialization of architecture is the equivalent of the developed self-referential systems in politics, law, economy, science and more.

Zaha Hadid Architects' MAXXI. Schumacher's paragon of Parametricism

Zaha Hadid Architects’ MAXXI. Schumacher’s paragon of Parametricism

Schumacher presents his audience several photos of his firm Zaha Hadid Architects’  MAXXI. Schumacher uses MAXXI to reveal that there is a certain credibility in realizing projects that follow the principles of which he refers to. MAXXI has a stringent formalism yet is very capable of adapting to contexts. It aligns itself in field conditions and in Schumacher’s opinion it does so with ease and elegance. Describing MAXXI as a proto-parametricist project, Schumacher praises the proliferation of lines, bundling, converging, and departing from one another, creating a field of space

So let’s define Parametricism


All elements of architecture are parametrically malleable

Advantage: the intensification of relationships both internally and with its context

But an operation definition from Schumacher’s manifesto of Parametricism reads:

“Parametricism is the great new style after modernism (that) aims to organise and articulate the increasing diversity and complexity of social institutions and life processes within the most advanced centre of post-fordist network society.”

Schumacher believes that architectural innovation proceeds by the succession of styles. And justly so.. from postmodernism, to deconstructivism, and now to Schumacher’s parametricism we have seen architecture evolve exponentially in less than a century.

In his analysis on the succession of architectural styles Schumacher references Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos as scientific and psychological foundations.

From Thomas Kuhn’s lessons on the paradigm shift, Schumacher reads his succession of styles.

From Lakatos, Schumacher specifically calls to attention the similarities between the avant-garde and scientific research programs.

Yet, what does this all-encompassing view achieve for architecture? Schumacher proposes that:

Replace outside philosophy (what inspired previous architects) with a universal theory.

This is a new stage

Every generation redefines what it means to be an architect

Architecture will never be stagnant, there will always be an avant-garde (or multiple)

Problem-solving provides purpose

Richness of formal vocabulary

Furthermore what does this achieve for Schumacher’s Parametricism?

Relocates the tenants of parametricism outside of their aesthetics

Establishes the parametric design process as more than a passing trend

Creates a more involved architect

Propels technological innovation


In conclusion, what are the significant broad strokes Schumacher wants to deliver.

That there can be a difference within this unity.

That form POWERS function

That spatial organization sustains social organization

If we succeed in a comprehensive unified theory, under Schumacher’s guidance, can we demonstrate, control, and predict what these differences, powers, and spatial organizations will be?

Overall, it is architecture that provides the necessary substrate of cultural evolution.

In closing I would like to pose these questions.

Will a universal theory hinder or inspire future architects?

How would a universal theory be accepted or taught?

Is schumacher’s insistance on parametricism and his belief in its longevity indicative of hubris?


If architecture becomes a self-regulated system, will there be the perceived conceptual bankruptcy as evident in the unregulated art market?






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