Autopoiesis in architectural thought
Student/s: Elena Boutsivari
Date: August 29, 2016
The research paper entitled “The autopoiesis in Architectural thought” is divided into three broad sections. The first concerns the introduction and description of the concept of Autopoiesis, the second is the correlation of the concept with Architecture and the third refers to selected architectural examples that show characteristic properties of the concept. Mechanics and Biology, and thus the machine and the biological organization, are related in such a way that the systems on which the welfare of living organisms is based on can be considered machines. This claimed in 1972 by two biologists Maturana and Varela that used not as a simple transfer of speech, but as an analogy that emphasizes strict symmetry and structured manner that expresses thoughts. A machine is described by a set of functions, which are combined so as to satisfy specific conditions. In more abstract and free terms, the concept of the machine can be assigned as a system of interconnections which is independent of the elements that realize it. A discussion of Chilean Maturana with a friend of his on the dilemma of Don Quixote of Cervantes to choose between the road of weapons (praxis) and the road of letters (poiesis), helped the biologist to understand the essence of the word “poiesis.” After that, he synthesized the word ‘autopoiesis’ together with his student and colleague Varela, which was what they needed to characterize their theory. Thus, the word autopoiesis means that a project is created by nature or by itself. The concept of autopoiesis is a parallel mode of the organization of living organisms to that of a machine. The machine is an entity that consists of individual items / parts, which in turn hold properties and are combined together aiming to reproduce the same machine, otherwise if these factors act independently and in a disconnected way the machine stops working. What is needed is “the components of the module to be well defined in space and to have properties that allow them to build relationships” (Maturana and Varela, 1980: 77). The essence of the machine is the elements that constitute and sustain it to be still fit for purpose, i.e. the machine continues to operate, not because of the parts of it or because it aims at a particular product, but what keeps it alive is the exchange of information through its elements. Maturana and Varela define Autopoietic machine as “a machine organized in such a way as to form a network that processes data, which through their interactions and their conversions reproduce the network of processes that produced them and make the machine a firm unity in space, specifying the topological role in the realization of this network “(1980: pp. 78-79). The definition of Autopoiesis shows Topology as the circumstance under which the network of interdependencies constitutes the machine. Beyond the topological description, there are behavioral tendencies that complement and compose the mechanism of autopoiesis. One of these is the capability of self-organization, while other features are autonomy, individuality, the formation of a unit and the absence of inputs and outputs. A system that is unaffected by the environment is able to make its own life cycle, shorter or longer, depending on the organization that distinguishes it and the means in its possession. An Autopoietic system can sustain itself obeying its internal structure and organization. “The self-organized systems have the ability to adapt to the appearance of change, i.e. the ability to respond to stimuli caused by the dynamic environment” (Hensel, 2006: 10). The more open a system is to accept stimuli and to be influenced by them, the easier it is to present change and adapt to new conditions. To better understand the relationships that make up the machine, you might think how what exits the machine is related to what goes into it, especially considering that it is not an invariant but an adaptive process (Spuybroek and Delanda , 2004: 12). For example in the case of man as a fairly complex Autopoietic machine, it is obvious that there are interdependencies in fixed networks such as the cooperation of muscles and bones during human development and in networks of external relationships such as feeding. The commonly accepted and perceptible meaning of the machine, from the moment of its occurrence until today, is described by the sum of features such as usability, efficiency, economy and purpose. The way of thinking and processing moves into frames of defined and unidirectional logic, following a process that has a beginning and an end and the desired outcome is the optimal product, the cheapest product that would meet the original specifications. A particular feature of the concept of the machine that follows the above logic is the “skin” which covers it. The external surface has usually the role of a wrapper with little or no utility at all, which surrounds the machine and hides the internal structures and processes, and its appearance is driven by fashion models and marketing. A similar logic in Architecture can come up if you consider the building as a ‘machine of habitation’ and its shell to define all the internal functions of users and the network of installations. In the information age, the “reading” of the shell, which has the place of a mask, classifies it as information and separates it from the human living of space that, along with Architecture, are experiences (McCarter, 1987: 8). According to the technological way of thinking, the optimum use of procedures and techniques, such as the standardization of the manufacturing system, opposes to the human use of space where the user will personally manage the architectural elements, by adjusting for example a sunshade.
The operation and efficiency of Architecture aims to meet the required standards and requirements to create the base, but then it must go beyond the purely utilitarian needs and establish emotional relationships. Le Corbusier was the one who first saw the building as a machine and said that “the residence is a machine of habitation» (Le Corbusier, 1986: 4). The synthesis of a dwelling is a problem to be solved and as such it should be specified in order to propose the optimal solution for it, characterized by economy of movements, energy and materials. Spuybroek proposed the self-organization of matter as a contradiction, whereby materials are active agents seeking only assist and they are based on a structure that is not imposed on them but emerges as a bottom-up process (Spuybroek and Delanda, 2004 : 7.8). The architect has been trained in designing movements, organizing them in plan and then lifting them off the ground as a picture. What he does is to modulate the action plan as a surface and to display it vertically in elevation as a sensing surface. A different approach would be to cease perceiving the walls and the floors as separate items, and within the spirit of a continuous, supple and tied Architecture, to manage together the movement and the image, as an operative curve that links action to perception and perception to action (Spuybroek and Delanda, 2004: 7). In this framework arises the connection with Autopoietic machine, a machine of a different kind, which appears to be able to keep up with new trends in Architecture. Its own data / components are reproduced inside the unit and the reason for their existence is to form and maintain the machine’s integrity. “The spatial relationships between the elements of an Autopoietic machine are identified by its network of production processes, and to meet this organization they are constantly changing” (Maturana and Varela, 1980: 80). The expressions of architecture until recently were largely a result of processing the idea for an optimal form. The inspiration and vision to address a problem was mainly guided by formalist searches (form deterministic), i.e. the architect managed points and surfaces to synthesize geometric blocks, within stereo metric rules. In this society, meaning in this period, the computer makes its appearance. The collaboration between Architecture and Computers is something that came suddenly, as cinematic tools, simulations and programming offered multiple options and attractive paved roads. By their initial appearance, multipurpose tools were found in countless hands leading to the translation of information into material not to be successful, but vague and poorly treated. “Today, after several experiments and applications either from institutions or by innovative architects a new, less stable and more intimate, relationship between technology and architecture is defined” (Meredith, 2008: 3). The search for new styles of morphogenesis and new morphologies is closely linked to the evolution of architecture. The nature of Architecture, as like any other Science, is to observe and study the Sciences simply seeking either stimuli or cooperation and methodologies. For example, Biology is associated with Architecture, since they both have as a thematic the environment and the ways it may be viable for humans. Architecture has always had a dynamic presence and was never a static and one-sided construct. It is continuously synthesized, shaped, formed and maintained by the human designer, engineer, user, and visitor. There are networks of human communication and experience of the space that traverse, surround and gradually define its role over time. Our contemporary architecture seeks and aims to self-reference to its organization. Self-reference not in terms that it is at the mercy of any decision, but that it follows a specific mode of organization under which it was designed and, through the freedom permitted, it reproduces this organization. This becomes clearer when one considers the interaction and communication that take place within the architectural structure, but also the correlation of user and space in a network of interdependencies. The goal is the experience and the living of space to be best suited to the given circumstances. There are already various recent year expressions of self-organized systems in architecture at either academic research or experimentation or through innovative primary examples, trying to identify and imitate characteristics of living and symbiotic systems. Below is given an example, not in order to prove the validity of architectural autopoiesis. This is not directly applicable since there is no pure example of Autopoietic Architecture and any similar creations are in experimental or academic stage. The intention is to present some of the spatial characteristics of Autopoietic machine. The D-Tower in Doetinchem, the Netherlands, is an outdoor installation of NOX, which took place between 1999-2004. The installation consists of the tower, which is a sculpture located in the city, a questionnaire and a website. The role of the tower is to visualize the answers to a questionnaire addressed to the inhabitants of the city, which is posted on the internet, through the website with which it is connected. As a result, each evening the tower was self-illuminated with one of four colors, depending on the prevailing questionnaire responses and reflecting the feeling that featured the most of the residents that day. This application is organized as an approximate Autopoietic system because the three broad elements, namely the tower, the questionnaire and the residents are a closed network of communication and feedback. Finally, there is cited criticism on the concept of Autopoiesis and some conclusions as to its applicability in Architecture.