Guillermo Sánchez Sotés, Christiane M. Herr, and Thomas Fischer
This project examines cross-disciplinary appropriations of natural scientific theory and terminology in architecture. It focuses on the biological theory of autopoiesis, developed by Chilean neuro-biologists Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, and Ricardo Uribe in the early 1970s. In the context of biology, the theory of autopoiesis describes the capability of living systems to perform processes of self-reproduction and self-maintenance. At the same time, their constituent elements are subject to disintegration.
The project was motivated by the experience of fast-developing urban spaces in China and a desire to examine strangely obvious-yet-vague connections between such spaces and biological systems. What exactly do we mean when we say that informal street markets, for example, emerge, nurture, or develop like cellular tissues, colony organisms, or coral reefs do?
Since its inception in biology, the theory of autopoiesis has been applied to phenomena beyond biology, most notably in sociology by Niklas Luhmann and, based on that, in architecture by Patrick Schumacher. As the principal architect of the leading architectural firm Zaha Hadid Architects, as a writer, and as an educator at multiple architecture schools, Schumacher is equally active and prominent in both architectural practice and architectural academia. In 2011 and 2012, Schumacher published his two-volume treatise on ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture. Notably, however, his appropriation of the theory of autopoiesis in architecture has led neither to a broader, structured discourse nor to a coherent critique, begging the question: What currency do appropriations of biological notions have in rigorous design research?
To investigate this question, this project employs the method of discourse analysis to (primarily Schumacher’s) architectural appropriations of the theory of autopoiesis. It employs close reading to systematically test individual references to autopoiesis against different modes of language use (such as metaphor, analogy, metonymy, synecdoche) and inferences to underlying motivations that best explain each reference in particular, in aggregate, the appropriation of autopoiesis theory in architecture overall.
Through this analysis, the project sheds light on the relationship between the domain of architectural practice and the domain of architectural academia. Specifically, it shows that patterns of reasoning and language used by which architectural academia may inform architectural practice, and vice versa, are subject to asymmetrical in-principle limitations. Applicable wherever strangely obvious-yet-vague connections between design and natural-scientific theory are drawn, the analysis shows how an understanding of these in-principle limitations answers the question of ”What currency do appropriations of biological notions have in rigorous design research?”
Keywords: autopoiesis, appropriation, purpose, discourse, discourse analysis