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Issue 14
ISSN 2634-8578
Curated By:
Ben Cain
Autonomy, Autopoesis, City Architecture
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Mereologies Open Seminar: Round Table Discussion
Architecture, Composition, Discussions & Conversations, Mereologies, Mereology, Open Seminars
Daniel Koehler, Mario Carpo, Emmanuelle Chiappone-Piriou, Giorgio Lando, Philippe Morel, Casey Rehm, David Rozas, Jose Sanchez, Jordi Vivaldi
University of Texas at Austin
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Participants: Emmanuelle Chiappone-Piriou, Jose Sanchez, Casey Rehm, Jordi Vivaldi, David Rozas, Giorgio Lando, Daniel Koehler with questions from the audience including Mario Carpo and Philippe Morel.

Daniel Koehler: The talks of the symposium were diverse and rich but also abstract, and intentionally external to architecture. At such a point it can be asked if, how, and what role Mereologies can play in architecture? For the discussion we are joined by additional architects with unique angles on composition and part-thinking in their work. Casey Rehm, a computational designer, Jose Sanchez, who is working actively with digital models of participation and Emmanuelle Chiappone-Piriou, an ecological thinker, experienced in the history of architecture. 

José Sanchez: My first reaction to the presentations is controversial. I think it presents well much of the work that is happening in architecture at the moment showing an interest in Mereology and discrete architecture. However, looking at the issue of parts is fundamentally a project where the idea of composition and the idea of structure is relevant as well. Patterns organised by parts can potentially deal with different forms of value. So, in a way, I find a surprising rejection in some of the ideas. 
Mereology seems to be giving us a framework for many different positions to coexist, and I think that we did an excellent presentation of a much clearer advocacy for a form of relations that we might desire that has to do with pre-production, more like an agnostic framework that allows to give us a vocabulary. Are we interested in having advocacy, in having that intentionality, or are we more interested in what the ontology should be or the framework that we are going to work in?

Daniel: I have learnt something from Giorgio’s book that when we define Mereology, it comes in different notions and ranges. On the one hand, you can see it as a distinct theory, as a specific project that has its own agenda. But also, and more crucial in the first place: you can take Mereology as a larger framework to talk about the relations of parts to wholes – simply compositions. OK, but you might ask: why don’t we use the term composition directly? Because, composition has a specific connotation in architecture and refers to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, classical means of relating objects. It was rejected by the Bauhaus, which promoted a different form of composition with modern means. We could continue this through the history of architecture. In architecture, composition is a specific style but not a history. How could we compare those different modes of architectural composition? Can we think of something parallel to morphology or typology which would allow us to compare a plurality of relations between parts and wholes without defending a certain style? When the formal readings of parts turn into their own project, it might be quite valuable that one can figure a figuration without predefining its value by imposing a structure. That might be Mereology as a project. But first of all, the question is how can we intentionally speak about parts? That would be Mereology as a methodology.

Giorgio Lando: I agree with Daniel that it is very important to distinguish various ways in which the word “Mereology” can be legitimately meant. In particular, the word “Mereology” stands in some cases for a specific theory of parthood and composition, and this theory may be such that structure has a role in it, or such that structure has no role in it. A historically important kind of mereological theory, Classical Mereology, is of the latter kind: it is deliberately blind to structure in providing existence and identity conditions for complex entities. In other cases, however, the word “Mereology” stands for an entire field of research, within which competing theories disagree about the role which structure should – or should not – play. If Mereology is seen as a field of research, then it is misleading to say that structure plays no role in it. This equivocation may explain some of José’s perplexities. 
However, some other perplexities are likely to persist even once we disambiguate the word “Mereology”, and we focus on Classical Mereology. Classical Mereology indeed includes some highly counterintuitive principles, and the usual reaction of the layman to these principles is to dismiss them rather quickly. For example, it might seem prima facie incredible that the order of the parts of something does not matter for the identity conditions of complex entities. However, this quick dismissal is usually determined by an equivocation: what is actually incredible is that the order of the parts of a building, or of a village, or of a car does not matter for its nature, for what that building, that village or that car is. However, this is not what Classical Mereology claims. What Classical Mereology claims is weaker and more reasonable: it says that the order of the parts does not matter for the identity conditions of complex entities, such as buildings, villages and cars. 
According to Classical Mereology, it never happens that there are two distinct entities which only differ because of their structure. Classical Mereology is not committed to the frankly incredible claim that structure has no impact on the nature of complex entities, but only to the more reasonable claim that complex entities are never distinct only in virtue of their structure. 
Moreover, this claim of Classical Mereology is restricted to single concrete entities. This might make the confrontation between Classical Mereology and other disciplines, such as architecture, troublesome, inasmuch as these disciplines are more interested in abstract types than in concrete tokens, more interested in repeatable entities than in their single, concrete instantiations. As far as I understand, when architects speak about the parts of a building or of a city, in most cases they are not speaking about a single piece of material and the way in which it is composed, but about a type of building and the fact that there are different types of buildings which result from the combination of the same types of architectural elements, differently combined. 
Once you move from this level of types and abstract entities to the level of concrete entities, the claim of Classical Mereology that structure has no role in the identity conditions of complex entities is much less incredible: consider a single, concrete building (not a type of a building) in a certain moment in time. In that moment, its parts are structured only in one way: the parts of a single, concrete building cannot be structured in two different ways at the same time.
Architects might legitimately retort that architecture is about repeatable types of buildings, about projects which can be applied several times. Given this approach, Classical Mereology is probably not the best tool for modelling repeatable types, and it is indeed desirable to look at different theories, which are not deliberately blind to structure. Mathematics is full of tools which can be employed to this purpose, including set theory and various kinds of algebras. Architects may legitimately wonder why philosophers focus on Classical Mereology instead, which is a serious candidate for the role of sound and exhaustive theory of parthood and composition for single concrete entities, but not for abstract types. The reason is probably a sort of deep-seated philosophical skepticism towards abstract entities, and the idea that fundamental reality consists of concrete entities, while abstract entities are less fundamental, or even a mere construct of the human mind.list or minimalistic inclinations
However, it is not the case that all the philosophers working on Mereology endorse the claims of Classical Mereology. In particular, in the literature of the last ten years, many prominent philosophers (such as Karen Bennett, Aaron Cotnoir and Katherine Hawley) have by contrast argued that Classical Mereology is completely misguided, and that we should also pay attention to structure within the realm of concrete entities. In my book I have defended the claim that, by contrast, Classical Mereology is a perfectly adequate theory of parthood and composition for concrete entities, but many other mereologists disagree with me. More in general, there is virtually no claim about parthood and philosophy about which every philosopher agrees! 

Mario Carpo: Giorgio, you have said that at some point Mereology merges with set theory. What exactly is here the overlay or intersection between Mereology and set theory? In reverse, where is Mereology separating itself from set theory, and where are the core differences?

Emmanuelle Chiappone-Piriou: Is there any way that relates Mereology to category theory?

Giorgio: For what concerns the relation between set theory and Classical Mereology (which, as we have seen, is a specific theory, which is mainly designed to characterise the realm of concrete entities and the way in which they are part one of another), the deepest difference consists in the transitivity of the relation: the relation of parthood in Classical Mereology is transitive, while the relation of elementhood in set theory is not transitive. Thus, if a first entity is part of a second entity and the second entity is part of a third entity, then – according to Classical Mereology – the first entity is part of the third entity. By contrast, it can happen that something is an element of a set, which in turn is an element of a second set, while that something is not an element of the second set. Sets are stratified: you have typically sets of sets of sets. In Classical Mereology, as a consequence of the transitivity of parthood, there are no stratified complex entities. 
While there are many interesting ties between set theory and Mereology, I am unaware of any connection between Mereology and category theory.

Mario: Can you give us maybe an example, like three inclusions in set theory and three inclusions in Mereology?

Giorgio: Consider the set of Italians. I am a member of this set. The set of Italians is also a member of the set of European people. However, I am not a member of this latter set, inasmuch as I am not a European people (I am not a people at all!). We thereby obtain a failure of transitivity of elementhood among sets. Nothing similar is admitted by Classical Mereology: I am part of the fusion of Italians, the fusion of Italians is part of the fusion of Europeans, and I am part of the fusion of Europeans as well.

Mario: So, in set theory, these don’t happen?

Giorgio: It does not happen in the sense that it does not always happen. There are indeed cases in which the same elements appear at different levels of the set-theoretical hierarchy, but this does not happen in general, and is not warranted by any principle of set theory. There are actually many varieties of set Theory, but in no variety of set Theory is elementhood transitive.

Philippe Morel: My feeling is that Mereology is a matter of “technicalities” about a relationship that exists in set theory. If you look at the inclusion as the property you are also looking for in Mereology, I don’t really get what Mereology brings on top of the purely mathematical “canonical” set theory. It gives me the feeling that Mereology is foremost a way (or a “trick”) for philosophers to take control of a theory that escapes them because it is a fully mathematical theory… So, this is why I have a bit of a problem with this notion because again, technically speaking, I still can’t make a clear distinction between the philosophical property and the mathematical property. It is like a layer of metaphysics that is brought on top of the mathematical theory and of course I can’t consider this as a great addition. My second issue is more of a general remark. Why don’t you speak about relational databases like SQL databases? At some point, to my understanding, it is a very practical implementation of what describes Mereology, because it is all about belonging, etc.
Though, I find the mereological approach interesting, especially if it prevents a reintroduction of composition, as I see a danger of bringing back this concept of composition in architectural discourse.

Giorgio: You are right: set-theoretical inclusion (i.e., the relation of being a subset) has precisely the same formal feature of mereological parthood. However, set-theoretical inclusion is not the fundamental relation of set theory: it is definable in terms of set-theoretical elementhood, while set-theoretical elementhood is not definable in terms of set-theoretical inclusion. Thus, the fundamental relation of set theory is elementhood and is not transitive, while the fundamental relation of Classical Mereology is parthood, which is transitive. 
There have been several attempts (for example in Parts of Classes, a book by David Lewis) to exploit the formal analogy between mereological parthood and set-theoretical inclusion in order to reduce set theory to Classical Mereology. The biggest obstacle for this project are set-theoretical singletons, i.e. sets with a single element. The relation between these single elements and their singletons is not easily reducible to Mereology: it is a kind of brute stratification (a form of structure), which has no place in Classical Mereology.
I agree with Philippe’s remark that Classical Mereology is nowadays a mathematically uninteresting theory, in spite of the fact that it has been originally elaborated by great mathematicians such as Stanisław Leśniewski and Alfred Tarski: it is simply a complete algebra without a zero object. The reason why philosophers discuss Classical Mereology does not depend on its alleged mathematical originality: some philosophers (including me) think that this very simple and unoriginal mathematical theory is the sound and complete theory of parthood and composition, at least in the realm of concrete entities. Thus, the reason to be interested in Classical Mereology is not its mathematical originality, but its plausible correspondence with the way in which parthood and composition really work.
As far as datasets are concerned, I think that it is prima facie preferable to construe them as sets rather than as mereological wholes. Indeed, the distinction between inclusion and elementhood is pivotal for datasets. This distinction characterises set theory, while there is no analogous distinction in Classical Mereology.

Daniel: I would like to extend on Giorgio’s point that Mereology offers mathematically an algebra without a zero object. Mereology starts with individuals without defining a set in the first place. In Mereology, you can’t have an empty set, a null set, a zero object. You can’t have a building without building parts. You need parts for thinking a building. This will become more dominant in future because with higher computing capabilities we are able to compute more and more without the need of abstract models. Take as an example the Internet of Things: a building environment where every building part has sensors and is connected. That means that very literally building parts can talk with each other. Such a building environment also participates, and will offer its own economy. Here, value begins with a building part as an active participant in the market. Already in daily BIM practice it is impossible to think of a building without its parts. So, we should also stop thinking of buildings as predefined sets.
To my understanding, a database is constructed on a very specific ontological worldview. Today’s databases take Composition-as-Identity. This principle says that everything is included in the distribution of data points. Nothing above the distribution of atoms exists, not any compound meaning. Whereas, compounds are fundamental to architecture. Just think of a typology; you can’t reduce a façade to windows. What does a courtyard actually exist of? This of course does not relate to math but to philosophy. It is controversial, otherwise it would not be philosophical. Every building is controversy, or call it multiplicitous, because architecture is pre-logical in a sense. We can’t reduce architecture to math. It is also the point where the discussions on beauty depart in architecture. With ease you can describe a building in the first instance through the distribution of its cells. You can describe a housing project just through the part-relation of a shared wall between two flats only. But how do you describe the mountain which Moshe Safdie designed by stitching together the shared walls of flats in such a way that their roofs turn into terraces? Architecture starts where it exceeds simplicity. Yes, we can design buildings with the use of databases with ease. We are able today to compute buildings without structures. But where are their compound meanings? It will be fundamental to find a way to compute what is common, what is collective between the parts. Therefore, I think we should be suspicious of databases or any kind of structural models which were thought without any compound meaning, so to say, without architecture in the first place.

Jose: I’ll re-bring some of the points that Jordi made to the conversation. Jordi, you brought up Graham Harman’s concept of a radical present. I find it kind of controversial that it seems to eradicate a form of speculation, a form of potential, a form of endless abstractness. If we’re moving from the classic Mereology towards a more abstract sense, I think that a lot of architecture production that we discuss especially with discrete projects – that has to do with parts – has to do with potential encounters of entities in that list and is not purely defined by the actual instantiation of the actual encounter of entities. So, we evaluate and design, also thinking that encounters might never happen. So, under the umbrella of that radical present, I wonder what do you see in them?

Jordi Vivaldi Piera: I would say that the term “potential” is misleading. Its meaning generally refers to its capacity to produce other realities, but at the same time it undermines the possibility of novelty because it assumes that an object already contains what it will become. In this sense, I emphasise radical presence in order to understand which object’s “actualities” permit the production of novelty, rather than understanding which are the hypothetical novelties that it contains and therefore at the same time undermines. In this sense, I interpret potentiality as a particular type of actuality.

Casey: I was interested in Daniel’s point; it reminds me of a recent article by Luciana Parisi called “Reprogramming Decisionism”, where she’s talking about machine learning, neural networks and that these technologies in essence assemble. With this, fact is accumulated, which says that something is probably something else. I’m interested in this relative to Mereology and also the statement that a human deals with abstraction but a machine deals with simple facts. How does the mereological project deal with probability? Is that something probably something rather than not? How does the part, certainly something like, you know, the models that you have shown us rely on clear logic? As I nearly understood there is a kind of model that you’re describing, but how does Mereology deal with improbability? I think it is also something that is going to face the design profession in relationship to the kinds of machines which deal with things. 

Giorgio: As far as probability is concerned, I do not envisage any specific, direct problem stemming from the interaction of probability and Mereology. A mereological claim can have a certain degree of probability, and the probability at stake can be either objective/statistical or subjective. In neither case are there specific problems: mereological claims are, from this viewpoint, on a par with other claims. 
While probability is not directly troublesome, there are some potential problems in the vicinity: Classical Mereology does not countenance the hypothesis that an entity is part of another, but only at a certain degree. Consider a cloud in the sky: the water molecules in the centre of the cloud are definitely parts of the cloud, and the molecules far away from the cloud definitely are not parts of the cloud. However, there seems to be a grey zone of molecules, which are neither definitely within the cloud nor definitely out of it. 
These scenarios can be treated in various ways, and the approach depends on the adoption of a certain theory of vagueness. According to the so-called epistemic theory of vagueness (set forth for example by Timothy Williamson), the fact that we are unable to identify the boundaries of a cloud depends on our epistemic limitations (we are unable to identify the boundaries of the cloud, but this does not show that the cloud has in itself no definite boundaries). According to the semantic theory of vagueness (in the version adopted for example by David Lewis), there are actually myriads of clouds and each cloud has precise boundaries; however, our discourses about the cloud are semantically underdetermined, inasmuch as we have not decided which among the myriads of clouds in the sky we are speaking about. Both the epistemic theory of vagueness and the semantic theory of vagueness are perfectly compatible with Classical Mereology, because they locate vagueness in our language or in our epistemic practices and not in reality: in reality, given two entities, either the former definitely is part of the latter, or the former definitely is not part of the latter.  
However, recently also the so-called ontological theory of vagueness (Michael Tye is one of the most ardent advocates of this approach to vagueness) has gained some traction. According to the ontological theory of vagueness, vagueness is in reality, and this happens also in the mereological case of the cloud: the molecules at the periphery of the cloud are neither definitely parts nor definitely non-parts of the cloud. The adoption of the ontological theory of vagueness indeed requires a revision of Classical Mereology. According to Classical Mereology, for example, two complex entities are identical if and only if they have the same proper parts (the proper parts of something are those parts of it which are not identical to it): but this principle is not applicable to entities which have no definite domain of proper parts. According to the ontological theory of vagueness, this is what happens in the case of the clouds and in similar cases. To sum up: probability and various theories of vagueness (such as the epistemic theory and the semantic theory) do not require any departure from Classical Mereology; only the ontological theory of vagueness requires a departure. 

Emmanuelle: It appears we are navigating and combining different sets of discourses that may or may not be consistent with one another, nor with Mereology as it appears here to be merge into a compositional paradigm: we are simultaneously addressing materiality and formal systems, social coherences and principles of governance, all at once.
I believe that, as in the 1950s and 1960s, architecture faces the risk of talking itself into an impasse, by resorting to certain languages and positions that may induce, and reproduce, a reification of social patterns. 
In this context I often think of a remark from Michel Ragon, the French architecture critic who wrote about and promoted experimental architecture in the 1960s. Looking back at those projects, twenty years later, he asked himself how a “life-like” macro-structure could be designed in advance, and if it could be designed at all, considering life is “rightly made of chance and unpredictability”. This remains a valid and important question, which is updated by our resort to instruments that allow us to think of, and manipulate, the world in terms of particles and parts. Quantum physics teaches us that there is irreducible uncertainty in our physical existence, an inherent contingency, and that there is a fundamental limit of precision with which you can actually measure a particle, hence a limit to the precision with which you can grasp the world. How is it that this uncertainty can be taken into account when dealing with matter or with information; and, when dealing with parts, how can we do so without first defining them? How can we account for interactions and relationality? How is it that we can account for change, for performance and transformation, all at once?
This brings me to a second point that stems from this a priori impossibility to capture the image of life without “to some extent captur[ing] life itself” (Ragon). I understand that Mereology makes a claim for exhaustibility and generality. But what if we take this claim into the architectural project? Do we think that we can actually design a system, a structure or a whole whose formal principles allow for it to be exhaustive? Following Gödel, I understand that you either have exhaustibility or consistency, but not both. 

Mario: Can I go back to the branch of theoretical philosophy to cover things? We more or less know why we in the design profession became interested in particles, and the relation between particles, in recent years. It seems he (Daniel) came across the term Mereology. He hijacked it and imported it into the architectural discourse. Like we always do. We take a more refined tool which comes from another discipline, and then we appropriate it and give it another meaning which means nothing to you (Giorgio). This we have been doing for a long time. This part of the story we know. The part of the story that we don’t know, that you can tell us in two lines is, does this happen with Mereology? Can you give us an outline of the history of analysis of Mereology in contemporary philosophical discourse? Because when I was a student nobody mentioned Mereology, and now everyone does? When did that happen? Where does this come from? And from a distance, from a critical point of view, why is it that you right now are talking about Mereology while many years ago nobody talked about it?

Giorgio: The word ‘Mereology’ is rather new and was made relatively popular by Stanisław Leśniewski at the beginning of the 20th century (according to Leśniewski, Mereology was more properly a branch of logic). However, philosophers (and in particular metaphysicians) have always used the notion of part and set forth theories about it. Plato’s theory of parthood has been recently analysed and defended by Verity Harte, while Aristotle’s theory of parthood is considered by several neo-Aristotelian metaphysicians a viable option in the contemporary mereological debate.

Mario: But, in math, there are fractions, proportions, modularity. These are all today discussed as mereological questions.

Giorgio: An important difference between many past theories of parthood (in particular in Ancient and Medieval philosophy) and contemporary Mereology concerns the expected domain of application: Plato, Aristotle, Abelard and Ockham were for example mainly interested in the parthood relation which connects a property with an individual instantiating those properties, or two properties one with another. These instances of parthood were important within metaphysics itself, for example when a theory of ideas or universals was elaborated. By contrast, contemporary Mereology is more focused on the concrete, spatio-temporal parts of concrete entities.
However, no matter what the original domain of application of the parthood relation was, the theories of parthood became progressively more abstract and formal: in some works of Leibniz (17th century), for example, it is possible to find a formally complex and highly abstract theory of parthood, whose principles are expected to hold irrespective of the domain of application. This is also the case of the theory of parthood developed by Bernard Bolzano in the 19th century. Thus, in spite of the fact that the word ‘Mereology’ became popular only in the 20th century, contemporary Mereology has solid roots in the history of philosophy. 
Nonetheless, it is true that – for example – forty years ago Mereology was much less popular than nowadays. This may have depended on the alternating fortunes of metaphysics (the wider branch of philosophy to which Mereology belongs) in analytic philosophy. Forty years ago analytic philosophers, in continuity with logical positivism, often despised metaphysics as an obsolete leftover from the past. This has changed dramatically in the later decades, thanks to the influence of thinkers such as David Lewis and Saul Kripke, and metaphysics is now back at the centre stage of contemporary analytic philosophy. The renewed popularity of Mereology is an aspect of the renewed popularity of metaphysics in general. This also depends on the fact that contemporary metaphysicians often attach great importance to the concepts of existence and identity. Classical Mereology has the ambition to provide existence and identity conditions for every complex entity. This makes Classical Mereology highly interesting for contemporary metaphysicians. 

Philippe: Let’s make a comparison with the discipline of architecture. In architecture, this last trend could be compared to what happened with Christopher Alexander, or before with Mies and then Peter Eisenman. The challenge for me is that I don’t consider Mereology an uninteresting philosophy in architecture, I just see it as a highly modernist theory.
My question is the following. According to you (Giorgio), in the field of philosophy, do you consider Mereology as a modernist philosophical trend or something that has nothing to do with philosophical modernism? Because in architecture, my feeling is that it directly corresponds to a highly modernist attitude, and the fact is that this modernist attitude is highly reductionist. It is defining what is the most elemental aspect of things, so it’s pure reductionism, and it’s still based on some concept of – maybe not order, but at least some attempt at bringing order into things (though sometimes “unpredictable order”).
For me, that is super modernist and my feeling is that we are living in a world built on this reductionist modernity. Right after this reduction – and we already had it in some form a hundred years ago –, let’s say after 1950 we were already going into the opposite direction: an explosion of models… That one is now based on statistical methods, on big data, as related by Mario in his book. So again, I’m not saying Mereology can’t be an important or at least a useful platform for debate, I am just wondering about the inherent nostalgia of going backward in the ordering of reality – in History. Maybe we can – and should – just accept absolute chaos and trillions of trillions of terabytes of data as a fact, without trying to put some order into that. So, my question finally on a purely philosophical level is: do you consider Mereology as modernist, or maybe as a new modern or late modern philosophical theory, or as something which has nothing to do with that?

Giorgio: There is indeed a modernist component in Mereology: the deliberate blindness to structure, which characterises Classical Mereology, is motivated by a form of “taste for desert landscapes”, which in turn might be seen as the outcome of a modernist appetite for order. However, it should also be considered that Classical Mereology includes either as an axiom or as a theorem (according to the way in which Classical Mereology is axiomatised) the principle of Unrestricted Composition, according to which – given some entities, no matter how sparse and gerrymandered they are – they compose something. Due to Unrestricted Composition, Classical Mereology is committed to the existence of all sorts of awkward entities, such as the fusion of my left arm, Barack Obama’s nose and the Great Pyramid of Giza!
On the other hand, a rather “modernist” thesis, which is often associated with Classical Mereology, is the thesis of Composition as Identity. According to the thesis of Composition as Identity, any whole is strictly speaking identical to its parts and is – so to say – no addition to being, with respect to them. This mereological thesis is expected to warrant a form of ontological economy, and can be seen, as a consequence, as the outcome of an appetite for order. 
However, Composition as Identity is not derivable from Classical Mereology, and is a highly problematic thesis in itself. A whole (for example, a chair) and its parts (the four legs, the back and the seat) are mutually discernible, inasmuch as – for example – the chair is one entity, while the four legs, the back and the seat are six entities. If they are discernible (i.e., if they have different properties), then it is not easy to make sense of the claim (entailed by Composition as Identity) that they are identical.

Casey: I think you have covered everything I want to say. Based on this I don’t think there is anything suggestively reductive about composition. I think that it is a ridiculous idea that unrestricted composition suggests that this property could be part of something.
My colleague Daniel is doing the mereological project, but it is certainly nothing reductive. I think it’s more that there is a very explicitness and straightforwardness about the roles and function of the thing, i.e. the function isn’t the exclusive part of the composition, especially according to the kind of lectures we saw today.

Mario: I have a suspicion. I see one main point of this symposium is that in the theory of parts of  today’s computation the parts we are dealing with are new in the history of architecture theory because they don’t need rules of application. These parts are different from Alberti’s or Eisenman’s because for the first time ever in the history of humankind or the history of design we can deal with parts without any rules or orders in them whether it is proportions, fractions, modules, geometrical symmetry, proportional symmetry, etc.
In the history of design, all these tricks and tools were needed to make sense out of parthood. We had to invent structures, like reductionism or data compression, to put some order into the chaos generated by the random accumulation of parts–to make order out of chaos; to manage parts in a “rational”, ie intelligible way: a way that made sense for the limited data-management skills of our own mind.  And now for the first time ever in many practical instances we are getting particles just as they are. We can put them flat on the table and each one of them stands, and that is all that we need. This the nobility of the parts that you’re dealing with. This is the novelty: parts without anthropocentric reduction and human-made intelligibility. 

Casey: Do you say that there are no rules for these parts or is it just that the rules are inherited in the parts and not applied to the total? I’m suspicious of saying that (the former) in dealing with parts. And again, we still have rules because we have generated something that is mereological. There are still rules but the rules are in the parts rather than trying to be imposed on them. And so actually, it is just where the rules are located in the design process. 

Mario: There must be rules of some sort somewhere, but the main difference, and again, I follow my suspicion, we no longer need rules to manage the accumulation of parts beyond the limit of computational (ie machinic) retrieval.  We don’t need to structure them in symmetrical parthood or any other strategy for part retrieval. We always needed some superposition over the structure to reduce the complexity of what was so big that we couldn’t deal with it. Now when dealing with something so big, we can just let the machines deal with it.  The generation process must have some rules somewhere, but my suspicion is these are no longer needed for any practical human purpose. Now we are capable of managing any messy random heap of disconnected parts–because if fact we don’t have to deal with that mess any more: we have machine to do it in our stead.

Emmanuelle: One simple question would be: what kind of parts are we dealing with? Are they not themselves wholes composed of other parts, entering into larger or different wholes? Are we talking solely about human-made parts, which designers can generate, craft and master, or we are considering opening up these wholes to other domains; thus, to what degree and within which limit are they potentially extendable?
You’ll excuse me for coming back to my previous point, regarding the notion of uncertainty and how it can be taken into account, and let’s hypothesise the wholes we consider are governmental ensembles. The researcher in philosophy of law Antoinette Rouvroy identifies how uncertainty and unpredictability are systematically considered as risk. She analyses how the cybernetic and algorithmic order that underlie our contemporary forms of governance attempt to systematically and preemptively tackle risk in order to eradicate it. On the other side, there is a reverse relationship to risk that, against risk management, consists in exploiting it and profiting from it, as you can see in high frequency trading. Risk here appears to be the motor of speculation, it plays with the asymmetric distribution of information within a system.
But if you consider chance, and hence uncertainty and unpredictability, as being not epistemic – as in both aforementioned cases – but objective, and furthermore, if you consider it to be at the source of all life in the biosphere – as Biology Nobel Prize Jacques Monod showed – how can it be taken into account and integrated in the elaboration of hybrid parts and wholes? Embracing this objectivity could allow us to conceptualise a commonality based on an open, decentralised notion of whole that is not subjected to social constructivism.

Giorgio: I owe an answer to Emmanuelle about unpredictability. Unpredictability can be either an epistemic phenomenon (it happens when some human subjects are de facto unable to foresee how things will go, and their inability to do so might be due to their contingent cognitive limitations), or a metaphysical phenomenon (there is metaphysical unpredictability when something is objectively indeterminate, independently of any fact concerning human subjects). If unpredictability is seen as an epistemic phenomenon, then it does not require any modification of Mereology: the fact that some human subjects are unable to determine whether x is part of y has no impact on the circumstance whether objectively x is part of y
The philosophical consequences of quantum indeterminacy are hard to interpret: according to some interpretations, it is indeed a kind of objective, metaphysical indeterminacy. However, as far as I can see, quantum indeterminacy does not concern mereological relations. Thus, it seems to me that neither epistemic nor metaphysical unpredictability have any specific bearing on Mereology.

Daniel: Unpredicted and indeterminant like a good building, it seems to me that Emmanuelle and Giorgio overcame the boundaries of the round table. I would like to use the moment to thank you all for your insights, contributions, and round up the discussion with an open ending.

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Daniel Koehler, 2020
Introduction to Issue 01: Mereologies
Architecture, Architecture Theory, Discrete Architecture, Mereologies, Mereology, Philosophy
Daniel Koehler
University of Texas at Austin
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Part relationships play an important role in architecture. Whether an aspect of a Classical order, a harmonious joining of building components, a representation of space, a partition of spaces, or as a body that separates us and identifies us as individuals. From the very outset, every form of architecture begins with an idea of how parts come together to become a whole and an understanding of how this whole relates to other parts. Architecture first composes a space as a part of a partitioning process well before defining a purpose, and before using any geometry.

The sheer performance of today’s computational power makes it possible to form a world without a whole, without any third party or a third object. Ubiquitous computing fosters peer-to-peer or better part-to-part exchange. It is not surprising then that today’s sharing represents an unfamiliar kind of partiality. From distributive manufacturing to the Internet of Things, new concepts of sharing promise systematic shifts, from mass-customisation to mass-individualisation: the computational enabled participations are foundational. It is no longer the performance or mode of an algorithm that drives change but its participatory capacities. From counting links, to likes, to seats, to rooms: tools for sharing have become omnipresent in our everyday lives. Thus, that which is common is no longer negotiated but computed. New codes – not laws or ideologies – are transforming our cities at a rapid pace, but what kind of parthood is being described? How does one describe something only through its parts today? To what extent do the automated processes of sharing differ from the partitioning of physical space? How can we add, intervene and design such parts through architecture?

The relationship between parts and their whole is called Mereology. In this issue of Prospectives, mereology’s theories and the specifics of part-relations are explored. The differences between parts and the whole, the sharing of machines and their aesthetics, the differences between distributive and collective, their ethical commitments, and the possibilities of building mereologies are discussed in the included articles and interviews.

Just as mereology describes objects from their parts, this issue is partial. It is not a holistic proposal, but a collection of positions. Between philosophy, computation, ecology and architecture, the texts are reminders that mereologies have always been part of architecture. Mereology is broadly a domain that deals with compositional possibilities, relationships between parts. Such an umbrella – analogue to morphology, typology, or topology – is still missing in architecture. Design strategies that depart part-to-part or peer-to-peer are uncommon in architecture, also because there is (almost) no literature that explores these topics for architectural design. This issue hopes to make the extra-disciplinary knowledge of mereology accessible to architects and designers, but also wishes to identify links between distributive approaches in computation, cultural thought and built space.

The contributions gathered here were informed by research and discussions in the Bartlett Prospectives (B-Pro) at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL London from 2016 to 2019, culminating in an Open Seminar on mereologies which took place on 24 April 2019 as part of the Prospectives Lecture Series. The contributions are intended as a vehicle to inject foundational topics such as mereology into architectural design discourse.

The Contributions

This compilation starts with Giorgio Lando’s text “Mereology and Structure”. Lando introduces what mereology is for philosophers, and why philosophers discuss mereological theses, as well as disagree one with another about them. His text focuses in particular on the role of structure in mereology outlining that from a formal point of view part relations are freed from structure. He argues that independence from structure might be the identifying link between mereology and architecture. The second article “From Partitioning to Partaking” is a plea for re-thinking the city. Daniel Koehler’s essay points to the differences between virtual and real parts. Koehler observes a new spatial practice of virtual representations that render previous models of urban governance obsolete. He argues that the hyper-dimensional spaces of a big data-driven economy demand a shift from a partitioning practice of governance to more distributed forms of urban design. In “Matter versus Parts: The Immaterialist Basis of Architectural Part-Thinking” Jordi Vivaldi Piera highlights the revival of matter in parallel to the discrete turn in contemporary discourses on experimental architecture. The essay gravitates around the notion of part-thinking in association with the notion of form. Fluctuating between continuous and discrete, the text sets out requirements for radical part-thinking in architecture. As a computational sociologist, David Rozas illustrates the potential of decentralised technologies for democratic processes at the scale of neighborhood communities. After an introduction to models of distributed computation, “Affordances of Decentralised Technologies for Commons-based Governance of Shared Technical Infrastructure” draws analogies to Elinor Ostrom’s principles of commons governance and how those can be computationally translated, turning community governance into fully decentralised autonomous organisations.

Departing from the Corbusian notion of a ‘machine for living’, Sheghaf Abo Saleh defines a machine for thinking. In “When Architecture Thinks! Architectural Compositions as a Mode of Thinking in the Digital Age” Abo Saleh states that the tectonics of a machine that thinks is brutal and rough. As a computational dialogue, she shows how roughness can enable posthumanism which, in her case, turns “tempered” parts into a well-tempered environment. Ziming He’s entry point for “The Ultimate Parts” is the notion of form as the relations between parts and wholes. He’s essay sorts architectural history through a mereological analysis, proposing a new model of part-to-part without wholes. Shivang Bansal’s “Towards a Sympoietic Architecture: Codividual Sympoiesis as an Architectural Model” investigates the potential of sympoiesis. By extending Donna Haraway‘s argument of “tentacular thinking” into architecture, the text shifts focus from object-oriented thinking to parts. Bansal argues for the limits of autopoiesis as a system and conceptualises spatial expressions of sympoiesis as a necessity for an adaptive and networked existence through “continued complex interactions” among parts.

Merging aspects of ‘collective’ and ‘individuality,’ in “Codividual Architecture within Decentralised Autonomous System” Hao Chen Huang proposes a new spatial characteristic that she coins as the “codividual”. Through an architectural analysis of individual and shared building precedents, Huang identifies aspects of buildings that merge shared and private features into physical form. Anthony Alviraz’s paper “Computation Within Codividual Architecture” investigates the history and outlook of computational models into architecture. From discrete to distributed computation, Alviraz speculates on the implications of physical computation where physics interactions overcome the limits of automata thinking. InSynthesizing Hyperumwelten”, Anna Galika transposes the eco-philosophical concept of an HyperObject into a “Hyperumwelt”. While the Hyperobject is a closed whole that cannot be altered, a Hyperumwelt is an open whole that uses objects as its parts. The multiple of a Hyperumwelt offers a shift from one object’s design towards the impact of multiple objects within an environment.

Challenging the notion of discreteness and parts, Peter Eisenman asks in the interview “Big Data and the End of Architecture Being Distant from Power” for a definition of the cultural role of the mereological project. Pointing to close readings of postmodern architecture that were accelerated by the digital project, Eisenman highlights that the demand for a close reading is distanced from the mainstream of power. The discussion asks: ultimately, what can an architecture of mereology critique? The works of Herman Hertzberger are an immense resource on part-thinking. In the interview “Friendly Architecture: In the Footsteps of Structuralism”, Herman Hertzberger explains his principle of accommodation. When building parts turn into accommodating devices, buildings turn into open systems for staging ambiguity.**

The issue concludes with a transcript from the round table discussion at the Mereologies Open Seminar at The Bartlett School of Architecture on 24 April 2019.


The contributions evolved within the framework of Bartlett Prospectives (B-Pro) at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. I want to thank Frédéric Migayrou for his vision, commitment and long years of building up a research program, not only by architecture but through computation. I would like to thank Roberto Bottazzi for the years of co-organising the Prospectives Lecture Series, where plenty of the discussions that form the backbone of this issue took place. Thanks to Mario Carpo for raising the right question at the right time for so many people within the program, thanks to Andrew Porter for enabling so many events, to Gilles Retsin, for without the discrete there are no parts, Mollie Claypool for the editing and development of Prospectives journal, and Vera Buehlmann, Luciana Parisi, Alisa Andrasek, Keller Easterling, Matthew Fuller, John Frazer, Philippe Morel, Ludger Hovestadt, Emmanuelle Chiappone-Piriou, Jose Sanchez, Casey Rehm, Tyson Hosmer, and Jordi Vivaldi Piera for discussions and insights. 

I want to thank Rasa Navasaityte, my partner in Research Cluster 17 at B-Pro, for driving the design research. Thank you for the research contributed by the researchers and tutors: Christoph Zimmel, Ziming He, Anqi Su, Sheghaf Abo Saleh, and to all participants, specifically to highlight: Genmao Li, Zixuan Wang, Chen Chen, Qiming Li, Anna Galika, Silu Meng, Ruohan Xu, Junyi Bai, Qiuru Pu, Anthony Alviraz, Shivang Bansal, Hao-Chen Huang, Dongxin Mei, Peiwen Zhan, Mengshi Fu, Ren Wang, Leyla El Sayed Hussein, Zhaoyue Zhang, Yao Chen, and Guangyan Zhu.

The issue includes articles that evolved from thesis reports conducted in the following clusters: Ziming He from Research Cluster 3 tutored by Tyson Hosmer, David Reeves, Octavian Gheorghiu, and Jordi Vivaldi in architecture theory. Sheghaf Abo Saleh, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, Anna Galika, Hao Chen Huang from Research Cluster 17 tutored by Daniel Koehler and Rasa Navasaityte. If not indicated directly, the featured images, graphics of this issue are by Daniel Koehler, 2020.

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Penrose block simulation allowing objects to interact with on a large scale and within three dimensions, forming a single whole object. Image: Anthony Alvidrez, Large City Architecture, RC17, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.
Architectural Computation Within Codividual Architecture
Architecture, City Architecture, Composition, Computational Design, Mereologies, Mereology, Urban Design
Anthony Alvidrez
University College London
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The design research presented here aims to develop a design methodology that can compute an architecture that participates within the new digital economy. As technology advances, the world needs to quickly adapt to each new advancement. Since the turn of the last century, technology has integrated itself within our everyday lives and deeply impacted the way in which we live. This relationship has been defined by TM Tsai et al. as “Online to Offline” or “O2O” for short.[1] What O2O means is defining virtually while executing physically, such as platform-based companies like Uber, AirBnb, and Groupon do. O2O allows for impact or disruption of the physical world to be made within the digital world. This has significantly affected economies around the world. 

Paul Mason outlined in Post Capitalism: A Guide to our Future (2015) that developments in technology and the rise of the internet have created a decline in capitalism, which is being replaced by a new socio-economic system called “Post Capitalism”. As Mason describes,“technologies we’ve created are not compatible with capitalism […] once capitalism can no longer adapt to technological change”.[2] Traditional capitalism is being replaced by the digital economy, changing the way products are produced, sold and purchased. There is a new type of good which can be bought or sold: the digital product. Digital products can be copied, downloaded and moved an infinite number of times. Mason states that it is almost impossible to produce a digital product through a capitalist economy due to the nature of the digital product. An example he uses is a program or software that can be changed throughout time and copied with little to no cost.[3] The original producer of the product cannot regain their cost as one can with a physical good, leading to traditional manufacturers losing income from digital products. With the increase in digital products, the economy must be adapted. 

In The Second Digital Turn (2017) Mario Carpo describes this phenomenon, stating that digital technologies are creating a new economy where production and transactions are done entirely algorithmically, and as a result are no longer time-consuming, labour intensive or costly. This leads to an economy which is constantly changing and adapting to the current status of the context in which it is in. Carpo describes the benefits of the digital economy as the following: “[…] it would appear that digital tools may help us to recreate some degree of the organic, spontaneous adaptivity that allowed traditional societies to function, albeit messily by our standards, before the rise of modern task specialisation.”[4]

Computational Machines

It is useful to look at the work of Kurt Gödel and his theorems for mathematical logic, which are the basis for computational logic. In his first theorem the term “axioms” is presented, which are true statements that can be proven as true. The theorem states that “If axioms do not contradict each other and are ‘listable’ some statements are true but cannot be proved.”[5] This means that any system based on mathematical statements, axioms, cannot prove everything unless additional axioms are added to the list. From this Gödel describes his second theorem, “A system of axioms cannot show its inconsistency.”[6] To relate this to programming, axioms can be seen as similar to code, yet everything cannot be proven from a single system of code. 

Allen Turing’s work on computable numbers is a result of these two theorems by Gödel. Turing was designing a rigorous notion of effective computability based on the “Turing Machine”. The Turing Machine was to process any given information based on a set of rules, or a programme the machine follows, provided by the user for a specified intention. The machine is fed with an infinitely long tape, divided into squares, which contains a sequence of information. The machine would “scan” a symbol, “read” the given rules, “write” an output symbol, and then move to the next symbol. As Turning described, the “read” process refers back to the rule set provided: the machine would look through the rules, find the scanned symbol, then proceed to follow the instructions of the scanned symbol. The machine then writes a new symbol and moves to a new location, repeating the process over and over until it is told to by the ruleset to halt or stop the procedure and deliver an output.[7] Turing’s theories laid down the foundation for the idea of a programmable machine able to interpret given information based on a given programme. 

When applying computational thinking to architecture, it becomes evident that a problem based in the physical requires a type of physical computation. By examining the work of John von Neumann in comparison with Lionel Sharples Penrose the difference between the idea of a physical computational machine and a traditional automata computation can be explored. In Arthur W. Burks’s essay ‘Von Neumann’s Self-Reproducing Automata’ (1969) he describes von Neumann’s idea of automata, or the way in which computers think and the logic to how they process data. Von Neumann developed simple computer automata that functioned on simple switches of “and”, “or”, and “not”, in order to explore how automata can be created that are similar to natural automata, like cells and a cellular nervous system, making the process highly organic and with it the ability to compute using physical elements and physical data. Von Neumann theorised of a kinetic computational machine that would contain more elements than the standard automata, functioning in a simulated environment. As Burks describes, the elements are “floating on the surface, […] moving back and forth in random motion, after the manner of molecules of a gas.”[8] As Burks states, von Neumann utilised this for “the control, organisational, programming, and logical aspects of both man-made automata […] and natural systems.”[9] 

However this poses issues around difficulty of control, as the set of rules are simple but incomplete. To address this von Neumann experimented with the idea of cellular automata. Within cellular automata he constructs a series of grids that act as a framework for events to take place, or a finite list of states in which the cell can be. Each cell’s state has a relation to its neighbours. As states change in each cell, this affects the states of each cell’s neighbour.[10] This form of automata constructs itself entirely on a gridded and highly strict logical system.

Von Neumann’s concept for kinetic computation was modelled on experiments done by Lionel Sharples Penrose in 1957. Penrose experimented with the intention of understanding how DNA and cells self-replicate. He built physical machines that connected using hooks, slots and notches. Once connected the machines would act as a single entity, moving together forming more connections and creating a larger whole. Penrose experimented with multiple types of designs for these machines. He began with creating a single shape from wood, with notches at both ends and an angled base, allowing the object to rock on each side. He placed these objects along a rail, and by moving the rail forwards and backwards the objects interacted, and, at certain moments, connected. He designed another object with two identical hooks facing in opposite directions on a hinge. As one object would move into another, the hook would move up and interlock with a notch in the other element. This also allowed for the objects to be separated. If three of these objects were joined, and a fourth interlocked at the end, the objects would split into two equal parts. This enabled Penrose to create a machine which would self-assemble, then when it was too large, it would divide, replicating the behaviours of cellular mitosis.[11] These early physical computing machines would operate entirely on kinetic behaviour, encoding behaviours within the design of the machine itself, transmitting data physically.   

Experimenting with Penrose: Physical Computation

The images included here are of design research into taking Penrose objects into a physics engine and testing them at a larger scale. By modifying the elements to work within multiple dimensions, certain patterns and groupings can be achieved which were not accessible to Penrose. Small changes to an element, as well as other elements in the field, affect each other in terms of how they connect and form different types of clusters. 

Figure 1 – Modified Penrose object simulation testing how individual objects interact and join together, forming patterns and connections through fusion. Image: Anthony Alvidrez, Large City Architecture, RC17, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

In Figure X, there is a spiralling hook. Within the simulations the element can grow in size, occupying more area. It is also given a positive or negative rotation. The size of the growth represents larger architectural elements, and thus takes more of the given space within the field. This leads to a higher density of elements clustering. The rotation of the spin provides control over what particular elements will hook together. Positive and positive rotations will hook, as well as negative and negative ones, but opposite spins will repeal each other as they spin.

Figure 2 – Penrose block simulation allowing objects to interact with on a large scale and within three dimensions, forming a single whole object. Image: Anthony Alvidrez, Large City Architecture, RC17, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

Through testing different scenarios, formations begin to emerge, continuously adapting as each object is moving. At a larger scale, how the elements will interact with each other can be planned for spatially. In larger simulations certain groupings can be combined together to create larger formations of elements connected through strings of hooked elements. This experimentation leads towards a new form of architecture referred to as “codividual architecture”, or a computable architectural space created using the interaction and continuous adaptation of spatial elements. The computation of space occurs when individual spaces fuse together, therefore becoming one new space indistinguishable from the original parts. This process continues, allowing codividual architecture of constant change and adaptability.

Codividual Automata

Codividual spaces can be further supported by utilising machine learning, which computes parts at the moment they fuse with other parts, the connection of spaces, the spaces that change, and how parts act as a single element once fused together. This leads to almost scaleless spatial types of infinite variations. Architectural elements move in a given field and through encoded functions – connect, move, change and fuse. In contrast to what von Neumann was proposing, where the elements move randomly similar to gaseous molecules, these elements can move and join based on an encoded set of rules.

Figure 3 – Codividual architecture using machine learning. Image: COMATA, Anthony Alvidrez, Hazel Huang, and Shivang Bansal, Large City Architecture, RC17, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

Within this type of system that merges together principles of von Neumann’s automata with codividuality, traditional automata and state machines can be radically rethought by giving architectural elements the capacity for decision making by using machine learning. The elements follow a set of given instructions but also have additional knowledge allowing them to assess the environment in which they are placed. Early experiments, shown here in images of the thesis project COMATA, consisted of orthogonal elements that varied in scale, creating larger programmatic spaces that were designed to create overlaps, and interlock, with the movement of the element. The design allowed for the elements to create a higher density of clustering when they would interlock in comparison to a linear, end-to-end connection.

Figure 4 – Barcelona super block simulation. Image: COMATA, Anthony Alvidrez, Anthony Alvidrez, Hazel Huang, and Shivang Bansal, Large City Architecture, RC17, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

This approach offers a design methodology which takes into consideration not only the internal programme, structure and navigation of elements, but the environmental factors of where they are placed. Scale is undefined and unbounded: each part can be added to create new parts, with each new part created as the scale grows. Systems adapt to the contexts in they are placed, creating a continuous changing of space, allowing for an understanding of the digital economics of space in real time.


[1] T. M. Tsai, P. C. Yang, W. N. Wang, “Pilot Study toward Realizing Social Effect in O2O Commerce Services,” eds. Jatowt A. et al., Social Informatics, 8238 (2013).

[2] P. Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, (Penguin Books, 2016), xiii.

[3] Ibid, 163.

[4] M. Carpo, The Second Digital Turn: Design Beyond Intelligence (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2017), 154.

[5] P. Millican, Hilbert, Gödel, and Turing [Online] (2019),, last accessed May 2 2019.

[6] Ibid.

[7] A. Turing, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, 1, 2-42, (1937), 231-232.

[8] A. W. Burks, Von Neumann's Self-Reproducing Automata; Technical Report (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1969), 1.

[9] A. W. Burks, Essay on Cellular Automata, Technical Report (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1970), 5.

[10] A. W. Burks, Essay on Cellular Automata, Technical Report (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1970), 7-8.

[11] L. S. Penrose, “Self-Reproducing Machines,” Scientific American, 200 (1959), 105-114.

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Daniel Koehler, 2020.
Editorial Note
Editorial Note, Mereologies, Mereology, The Bartlett
Mollie Claypool
University College London
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Welcome to Prospectives.

Prospectives is an open-access online journal dedicated to the promotion of innovative historical, theoretical and design research around architectural computation, automation and fabrication technologies published by B–Pro at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. It brings the most exciting, cutting-edge exploration and research in this area onto a global stage. It also aims to generate cross-industry and cross-disciplinary dialogue, exchange and debate about the future of computational architectural design and theoretical research, linking academic research with practice and industry. 

Featuring emerging talent and established scholars, as well as making all content free to read online, with very low and accessible prices for purchasing issues, Prospectives aims to unravel the traditional hierarchies and boundaries of architectural publishing. The Bartlett supports a rich stream of theoretical and applied research in computational design, theory and fabrication. We are proud to be leading this initiative via an innovative, flexible and agile website. Computation has changed the way we practice, and the theoretical constructs we use – as well as the way we publish.

Prospectives has been designed to be a part-automated, part-human, multiplicitous platform. You may come across things when using it that do not feel, well, quite human. You may not realise at first that you are looking at something produced by automation. And because every issue is unique yet sitting within a generative framework this may mean you see the automation behind Prospectives do things that humans may not do.

Furthermore how you engage with Prospectives is largely left up to the reader. You can read our guest-curated issue, and use the tags to generate your own unique issue – an ‘issue within an issue’ – or read individual articles. You can also suggest new tags to be adopted by articles. We hope this provokes new ways of thinking about the role that participation, digitisation and automation can play in architectural publishing. Prospectives in a work-in-progress, and its launch is the first step towards fulfilling a vision for new kinds of publishing platforms for architecture that play with, and provoke, the discourse on computation and automation in architectural design and theory research.

Issue 01: Mereologies

“Mereologies”, or the plural form of being ‘partly’, drives the explorations bundled in the first issue of Prospectives, guest curated by Daniel Koehler, Assistant Professor at University of Texas at Austin, previously a Teaching Fellow at The Bartlett School of Architecture from 2016 to 2019.

Today, architects can design directly with the plurality of parts that a building is made of due to increased computational power. What are the opportunities when built space is computed part-to-part? Partly philosophy, computation, sociology ecology and partly architecture, each text – or “mereology” – contributes a particular insight on part relations, linking mereology to peer-to-peer approaches in computation, cultural thought, and built space. First substantiated in his PhD at the University of Innsbruck, published in 2016 as The Mereological City: A Reading of the Works of Ludwig Hilberseimer (transcript), Daniel’s work on mereology and part-hood – as an nuanced interplay and blurring between theory and design – has been pivotal in breeding the ground for an emerging generation of architects interested in pursuing a new ethical and social project for the digital in architecture. The collection of writings curated here included postgraduate architecture and urban design students (both his own, and others), architecture theorists, designers, philosophers, computer scientists and sociologists. The interdisciplinary nature of this issue demonstrates how mereology as a subject area can further broaden the field of architecture’s boundaries. It also serves as a means of encapsulating a contemporary cultural moment by embedding that expanding field in core disciplinary concerns.

The contributions were informed by research and discussions in the Bartlett Prospectives (B-Pro) at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL London, from 2016 to 2019, culminating in an Open Seminar on mereologies, which took place on 24 April 2019 as part of the Prospectives Lecture Series in B-Pro. Contributors to this issue include: Jordi Vivaldi, Daniel Koehler, Giorgio Lando, Herman Hertzberger, Anna Galika, Hao Chen Huang, Sheghaf Abo Saleh, David Rozas, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal and Ziming He.


Prospectives has been a work-in-progress for almost 10 years. The dream of Professor Frédéric Migayrou (Chair of School and Director of B–Pro at The Bartlett School of Architecture) when he arrived at The Bartlett in 2011, I became involved in the project when I joined the School 1 year later. It has been a labour of love and perseverance since. It is due to the fervent and ardent support of Frédéric, Professor Bob Sheil (Director of School), and Andrew Porter (Deputy Director of B–Pro) that this project later received funding in 2018 to formalise the development of Prospectives. To the B–Pro Programme Directors Professor Mario Carpo, Professor Marcos Cruz, Roberto Bottazzi, Gilles Retsin and Manuel Jimenez: I am thankful for your guidance, advice and friendship which has been paramount to this project. Colleagues such as Barbara Penner, Yeoryia Manolopoulou, Barbara Campbell-Lange, Matthew Butcher, Jane Rendell, Claire McAndrew, Clara Jaschke and Sara Shafei have all given me an ear (or a talking to!) at various stages when this project most needed it.

Finally, it is important to say that schools of architecture like the Bartlett have cross-departmental and cross-faculty teams who are often the ones who breed the ground for projects such as Prospectives to be possible. The research, expertise and support of Laura Cherry, Ruth Evison, Therese Johns, Professor Penelope Haralambidou, Manpreet Dhesi, Professor Laura Allen, Andy O’Reilly, Gill Peacock, Sian Lunt and Emer Girling has been vital – thank you.

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View into a codividual interiority. Physical Model, Comata at the BPro Show 2019. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.
Towards a Sympoietic Architecture: Codividual Sympoiesis as an Architectural Model
Architecture, Autopoesis, City Architecture, Computational Design, Mereologies, Mereology, Urban Design
Shivang Bansal
University College London
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“…the rigour of the architecture is concealed beneath the cunning arrangement of the disordered violences…”[1] 

This essay investigates the potential of codividual sympoiesis as a mode of thinking overlapping ecological concepts with economics, contemporary philosophy, advanced research in computation and digital architecture. By extending Donna Haraway’s argument of “tentacular thinking” into architecture, it lays emphasis on a self-organising and sympoietic approach to architecture. Shifting focus from an object-oriented thinking to parts, it uses mereology, the study of part-hoods and compositions, as a methodology to understand a building as being composed of parts. 

It argues the limits of autopoiesis as a system and conceptualises a new architectural computing system embracing spatial codividuality and sympoiesis as a necessity for an adaptive and networked existence through continued complex interactions among its components. It propagates codividual sympoiesis as a model for continuous discrete computation and automata, relevant in the present times of distributed and shared economies.

A notion of fusing parts is established to scale up the concept and to analyse the assemblages created over a steady sympoietic computational process, guided by mereology and the discrete model. It gives rise to new conceptions of space, with a multitude of situations offered by the system at any given instant. These sympoietic inter-relations between the parts can be used to steadily produce new relations and spatial knottings, going beyond the most limiting aspect of autopoiesis, enabling it to begin to produce similar patterns of relations.

Tentacular Thinking

This essay extends the conceptual idea of tentacular thinking,[2] propagated by Donna Haraway, into architecture. Tentacular thinking, as Haraway explains, is an ecological concept which is a metaphorical explanation for a nonlinear, multiple, networked existence. It elaborates on a biological idea that “we are not singular beings, but limbs in a complex, multi-species network of entwined ways of existing.” Haraway, being an ecological thinker, leads this notion of tentacular thinking to the idea of poiesis, which means the process of growth or creation and brings into discussion several ecological organisational concepts based on self-organisation and collective organisation, namely autopoiesis and sympoiesis. It propagates the notion that architecture can evolve and change within itself, be more sympoietic rather than autopoietic, and more connected and intertwined. 

With the advent of distributed and participatory technologies, tentacularity offers a completely new formal thinking, one in which there is a shift from the object and towards the autonomy of parts. This shift towards part-thinking leads to a problem about how a building can be understood not as a whole, but on the basis of the inter-relationships between its composing parts. It can be understood as a mereological shift from global compositions to part-hoods and fusions triggering compositions.

A departure from the more simplified whole-oriented thinking, tentacular thinking comes about as a new perspective, as an alternative to traditional ideologies and thinking processes. In the present economic and societal context, within a decentralised, autonomous and more transparent organisational framework, stakeholders function in a form that is akin to multiple players forming a cat’s cradle, a phenomenon which could be understood as being sympoietic. With increases in direct exchange, especially with the rise of blockchain and distributed platforms such as Airbnb, Uber, etc. in architecture, such participatory concepts push for new typologies and real estate models such as co-living and co-working spaces.

Fusion of Parts: Codividuality

In considering share-abilities and cooperative interactions between parts, the notions of a fusing part and a fused part emerge, giving rise to a multitude of possibilities spatially. Fusing parts fuse together to form a fused part which, at the same stage, behaves as another fusing part to perform more fusions with other fusing parts to form larger fused parts. The overlaps and the various assemblages of these parts gain relevance here, and this is what codividuality is all about.

As Haraway explains, it begins to matter “what relations relate relations.”[3] Codividual comes about as a spatial condition that offers cooperative, co-living, co-working, co-existing living conditions. In the mereological sense, codividuality is about how fusing parts can combine to form a fused part, which in turn, can combine to form a larger fused part and so on. Conceptually, it can be understood that codividuality looks into an alternative method for the forming and fusing of spatial parts, thereby evolving a fusion of collectivist and individualist ideologies. It evolves as a form of architecture that is created from the interactions and fusion of different types of spaces to create a more connected and integrated environment. It offers the opportunity to develop new computing systems within architecture, allowing architectural systems to organise with automaton logic and behave as a sympoietic system. It calls for a rethinking of automata and computation.

Figure 1 – Computational experiments in Tentacular Thinking. Image: Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal and Haochen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

Codividual can be perceived as a spatial condition allowing for spatial connectivities and, in the mereological sense, as a part composed of parts; a part and its parts. What is crucial is the nature of the organisation of these parts. An understanding of the meaning and history of the organisational concepts of autopoiesis and sympoiesis brings out this nature.

Autopoiesis: Towards Assemblages of Parts

The concept of autopoiesis stems from biology. A neologism introduced by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in 1980, autopoiesis highlights the self-producing nature of living systems. Maturana and Varela defined an autopoietic system as one that “continuously generates and specifies its own organisation through its operation as a system of production of its own components.”[4] A union of the Greek terms – autos, meaning “self” and, poiesis, meaning “organisation” – autopoiesis came about as an answer to questions cropping up in the biological sciences pertaining to the organisation of living organisms. Autopoiesis was an attempt to resolve the confusion between biological processes that depend on history such as evolution and ontogenesis, in contrast with those that are independent of history, like individual organisation. It questioned the organisations of living systems which made them a whole.

Varela et al pointed out autonomy as the characteristic phenomenon arising from an autopoietic organisation; one that is a product of a recursive operation.[5] They described an autopoietic organisation as a unity; as a system, with an inherently invariant organisation. Autopoietic organisation can be understood as a circular organisation; as a system that is self-referential and closed. Jerome McGann, on the basis of his interpretation of Varela et al, described an autopoietic system as a “closed topological space, continuously generating and specifying its own organisation through its operation as a system of production of its own components, doing it in an endless turnover of components”.[6]

What must be noted here is that the computational concept of self-reproducing automata is classically based on an understanding of a cell and its relation to the environment. This is akin to the conceptual premise of autopoiesis, which is the recursive interaction between the structure and its environment,[7] thus forming the system. It must be noted that both the concepts start with a biological understanding of systems and then extend the concept. A direct link can be observed between the works of von Neumann, and Maturana and Varela. Automata, therefore, can be seen as an autopoietic system. 

The sociologist, Niklas Luhmann, took forward this concept into the domain of social systems. His theoretical basis for the social systems theory is that all social events depend on systems of communication. On delving into the history of social or societal differentiation, Luhmann observes that the organisation of societies is based on functional differentiation. A “functionally differentiated society”, as he explains, comprises varying parallel functional systems that co-evolve as autonomous discourses. He discovers that each of these systems, through their own specific medium, evolve over time, following what Luhmann calls “self-descriptions”, bringing out a sense of autonomy in that respective system.[8] 

Following Maturana and Varela’s explanation, an autopoietic organisation may be viewed as a composite unity, where internal interactions form the boundary through preferential neighbourhood interactions, and not external forces. It is this attribute of self-referential closure that Luhmann adopts in his framework. This closure maintains the social systems within and against an environment, culminating in order out of chaos.

The Limits of Autopoietic Thinking

Beth Dempster, as a contradiction to Maturana and Varela’s proposition of autopoiesis, proposed a new concept for self-organising systems. She argues that heuristics based on the analogy of living systems are often incongruous and lead to misleading interpretations of complex systems. Besides, autopoietic systems tend to be homeostatic and are development oriented in their nature.[9] Being self-producing autonomous units “with self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries”,[10] autopoietic systems show a centralised control system and are consequently efficient. At the same time, such systems tend to develop patterns and become foreseeable. It is this development-oriented, predictable and bounded nature of autopoietic systems that poses a problem when such systems are scaled up. 

Autopoietic systems follow a dynamic process that allows them to continually reproduce a similar pattern of relations between their components. This is also true for the case of automata. Moreover, autopoietic systems produce their own boundaries. This is the most limiting aspect of these concepts.

Autopoietic systems do not instigate the autonomy of parts, as they evolve on a prescribed logic. Instead, a more interesting proposition is one in which the interacting parts instigate a kind of feedback mechanism within the parts, leading to a response that triggers another feedback mechanism, and so on. Mario Carpo’s argument that in the domain of the digital, every consumer can be a producer, and that the state of permanent interactive variability offers endless possibilities for aggregating the judgement of many,[11] becomes relevant at this juncture. What holds true in the context of autopoiesis is Carpo’s argument that fluctuations decrease only at an infinitely large scale, when the relations converge ideally into one design.

In the sympoietic context, however, this state of permanent interactive variability Carpo describes is an offer of the digital to incorporate endless externalised inputs.[12] The need for sympoiesis comes in here. Sympoiesis maintains a form of equilibrium or moderation all along, but also, at the same time, remains open to change. The permanent interactive variability not only offers a multitude of situations but also remains flexible.


The limits to autopoietic thinking is what forms the basis for Dempster’s argument. In contradistinction to autopoiesis, she proposes a new concept that theorises on an “interpretation of ecosystems”, which she calls sympoietic systems. Literally, sympoiesis means “collective creation or organisation”. A neologism introduced by Dempster, the term, sympoiesis, explains the nature of living systems. Etymologically, it stems out from the Ancient Greek terms “σύν (sún, “together” or “collective”)” and “ποίησις (poíesis, “creation, production”)”. As Dempster explains, these are “collectively producing systems, boundaryless systems.”[13]

Sympoietic systems are boundary-less systems set apart from the autopoietic by “collective, amorphous qualities”. Sympoietic systems do not follow a linear trajectory and do not have any particular state. They are homeorhetic, i.e., these systems are dynamical systems which return to a trajectory and not to a particular state.[14] Such systems are evolution-oriented in nature and have the potential for surprising change. As a result of the dynamic and complex interactions among components, these systems are capable of self-organisation. Sympoietic systems, as Donna Haraway points out, decentralise control and information”,[15] which gets distributed over the components.

Sympoiesis can be understood simply as an act of “making-with”.[16] The notion of sympoiesis gains importance in the context of ecological thinking. Donna Haraway points out that nothing or no system can reproduce or make itself, and therefore, nothing is really absolutely autopoietic or self-organising. Sympoiesis reflects the notion of “complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems.” As Haraway explains, “sympoesis enlarges and displaces autopoesis and all other self-forming and self-sustaining system fantasies.”[17]

Haraway describes sympoietic arrangements as “ecological assemblages”.[18] In the purview of architecture, sympoiesis brings out a notion of an assemblage that could be understood as an architectural assemblage growing over sympoietic arrangements. Though sympoiesis is an ecological concept, what begins to work in the context of architecture is that the parts don’t have to be strict and they aim to think plenty; they also have ethics and synergies among each other. In sympoietic systems, components strive to create synergies amongst them through a cooperation and a feedback mechanism. It is the linkages between the components that take centre stage in a sympoietic system, and not the boundaries. Extrapolating the notion of sympoiesis into the realm of architecture, these assemblages can be conceived in Haraway’s words as “poly-spatial knottings”, held together “contingently and dynamically” in “complex patternings”.[19] What become critical are the intersections or overlaps or the areas of contact between the parts.

Sympoietic systems strategically occupy a niche between allopoiesis and autopoiesis, the two concepts proposed by Maturana and Varela. The three systems are differentiated by various degrees of organisational closure. Maturana and Varela elaborate on a binary notion of organisationally open and closed systems. Sympoiesis, as Dempster explains steps in as a system that depends on external sources, but at the same time it limits these inputs in a “self-determined manner”. It is neither closed nor open; it is “organisationally ajar”.[20] However, these systems must be understood as only idealised sketches of particular scenarios. No system in reality must be expected to strictly adhere to these descriptions but rather lie on a continuum with the two idealised situations as its extremes. 

It is this argument that is critical. In the context of architecture and urban design, what potentially fits is a hybrid model that lies on the continuum of autopoiesis and sympoiesis. While autopoiesis can guide the arrangement or growth of the system at the macro level, sympoiesis must and should step in in order to trigger a feedback or a circular mechanism within the system to respond to externalities. What can be envisaged is therefore a system wherein the autopoietic power of a system constantly attempts to optimise the system towards forming a boundary, and simultaneously the sympoietic power of the system attempts to trigger the system for a more networked, decentralised growth and existence, and therefore, creates a situation where both the powers attempt to push the system towards an equilibrium.

Towards Poly-Spatial Knottings

In sympoiesis, parts do not precede parts. There is nothing like an initial situation or a final situation. Parts begin to make each other through “semiotic material involution out of the beings of previous such entanglements”[21] or fused situations. In order to define codividuality and to identify differences, an understanding of classifying precedents is important. The first move is a simple shift from an object-oriented thinking to a parts-oriented thinking. Buildings are classified as having a dividual, individual and codividual character from the point of view of structure, navigation and program. 

Codividual is a spatial condition that promotes shared spatial connections, internally or externally, essentially portraying parts composed of parts, which behave as one fused part or multiple fused parts. The fused situations fulfil the condition for codividuality as the groupings form a new inseparable part – one that is no longer understood as two parts, but as one part, which is open to fuse with another part.

Fused Compositions

Delving into architectural history, one can see very few attempts in the past by architects and urban designers towards spatial integration by sympoietic means. However a sympoietic drive can be seen in the works of the urban planner Sir Patrick Geddes. He was against the grid-iron plan for cities and practised an approach of “conservative surgery” which involved a detailed understanding of the existing physical, social and symbolic landscapes of a site. For instance, in the plan for the city of Tel Aviv in Israel (1925–1929), Geddes stitches together the various nodes of the existing town akin to assemblages to form urban situations like boulevards, thereby activating those nodes and the connecting paths.

Fumihiko Maki and Masato Oktaka also identify three broad collective forms, namely, compositional form, megastructures and group forms. Maki underscores the importance of linkages and emphasises the need for making “comprehensible links” between discrete elements in urban design. He further explains that the urban is made from a combination of discrete forms and articulated large forms and is therefore, a collective form and “linking and disclosing linkage (articulation of the large entity)”[22] are of primary importance in the making of the collective form. He classifies these linkages into operational categories on the basis of their performance between the interacting parts.

Building upon Maki’s and Ohtaka’s theory of “collective form”, it is useful to appreciate that the architecture of a building can be thought of as a separate entity, and consequently there is an “inadequacy of spatial language to make meaningful urban environment.”[23] Sympoiesis comes out through this notion of understanding the urban environment as an interactive fabric between the building and the context. Maki and Ohtaka also make an important comment that the evolution of architectural theory has been restricted to the building and describe collective forms as a concept which goes beyond the building. Collective forms can have a sympoietic or an autopoietic nature, which is determined by the organisational principles of the collective form. Sympoietic collective forms not only can go beyond the building, but also weave a fabric of interaction with the context. Although a number of modern cases of collective forms exist, most of the traditional examples of collective forms, however, have evolved into collective forms over time, albeit unintentionally.

Figure 2 – Sympoietic urban fusion in the Uffizi corridor by Giorgio Vasari. Image: Shivang Bansal, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018-19.

The Corridor by Giorgio Vasari

An important case of an early endeavour in designing a collective form at an urban scale is Corridoio Vasariano by Giorgio Vasari in Florence, built in the year 1564. It can be understood as a spatial continuum that connects through the numerous important buildings or nodes within the city through a built corridor, resulting in a collective form. According to Michael Dennis, Vasari’s Corridor, in its absolute sense, is a Renaissance “insert” into the “fundamentally medieval fabric of central Florence”.[24]  As Dennis writes in The Uffizi: Museum as Urban Design (1980),

“…Each building has its own identity and internal logic but is also simultaneously a fragment of a larger urban organisation; thus each is both complete and incomplete. And though a
given building may be a type, it is always deformed, never a pure type. Neither pure object nor pure texture, it has characteristics of both – an ambiguous building that was, and still is, multifunctional…”[25]

Dennis’s description for the design of the Vasari’s Corridor brings out the notion of spatial fusion of buildings as parts. The Corridor succeeds as an urban insert and this is primarily for two reasons. At first, it maintains the existing conditions and is successful in acclimatising to the context it is placed in. Secondly, it simultaneously functions on several varying scales, from that of the individual using the Corridor to the larger scale of the fabric through which it passes. The Vasari’s Corridor is a sympoietic urban fusion – one that is a culmination of the effect of local conditions.

Stan Allen, in contrast to compositions, presents a completely inverted concept for urban agglomerations. His concept of field configurations reflects a bottom-up phenomena. In his view, the design must necessarily reflect the “complex and dynamic behaviours of architecture’s users”.[26] Through sympoiesis, the internal interaction of parts becomes decisive and they become relevant as they become the design drivers and the overall formation remains fluid and a result of the interactions between the internal parts.

Figure 3 – Poly-spatial knottings composed of parts. Image: Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal and Haochen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

Towards a Sympoietic Architecture

Another important aspect that forms a basis for the sympoietic argument is the relevance of information in systems. While Maturana and Varela explain that information must be irrelevant to self-producing systems since it is an extrinsically defined quantity, Dempster lays great emphasis on the relevance of information in sympoietic systems. Her explanation on the relevance of information is that it potentially carries a message or a meaning for a recipient. Information, therefore, is dependent on the context and recipient, but Stafford Beer hints that it is also “observer dependent”.[27]

In the architectural domain, it signifies that information or external data input holds no relevance in an autopoietic system. The system grows purely on the basis of the encoded logic and part-to-part organisational relations, and is unrestricted and free from any possible input. However, information or data in the sympoietic paradigm gains relevance as it activates the system as a continuous flux of information guiding its organisation. This relates to the concepts of reinforced machine learning, wherein the system learns by heuristics to evolve by adapting to changing conditions, and by also producing new ones, albeit it comes with an inherent bias.

The Economic Offer of the Codividual

From an economic lens, the concept of sympoiesis does not exist at the moment. However, with the rise in participatory processes within the economy and the advent of blockchain, it shows immense potential in architecture. Elinor Ostrom’s work on the role of commons in decision-making influences the work of David Rozas, who researches on a model of blockchain-based commons governance. He envisages a system which is decentralised, autonomous, distributed and transparent, a more democratic system where each individual plays his/her own role.[28] This idea is about bringing a more sympoietic kind of drive to blockchain. Sympoietic systems are based on a model that is akin to a commons-oriented or a blockchain-based economy that functions like a cat’s cradle with its multiple stakeholders being interdependent on each other. And as Jose Sanchez points out, it is the power of the discrete, interdependent system that makes this architecture possible. According to him, it offers a “participatory framework for collective production”.[29]

Figure 4 – Fused parthoods over sympoietic interactions. Physical model Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal and Haochen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019. Image: Rasa Navasaityte.

The fusion of parts leads to the creation of parts such that the sum of the parts becomes greater than the whole. A codividual sympoietic model can potentially resolve the housing crisis since it flips the economic model to a bottom-up approach. With tokenisation, autonomous automatisation, decentralisation of power and transparency, this blockchain-based codividual model can compete with traditional real estate models, thereby resulting in more equitable and fair-minded forms of housing. As Lohry and Bodell point out, such models can reduce personal risk and also make livelihoods more economical and “community-oriented”.[30] 


The ecological framework of the concept of poiesis, as already outlined, is based on the growth from the organisation of elements. In the context of autopoiesis and sympoiesis, it can be observed that “part-to-part” and even “part-to-whole” conditions gain significant relevance in these concepts. An appreciation of these conditions, therefore, becomes relevant to understand these kinds of notions. The idea of components, as described by Dempster and Haraway in the purview of sympoiesis, and Jerome McGann in the autopoietic context, could be extended to architecture in the form of part-thinking.

However, a mereological approach begins with existing entities or “sympoietic interactions” and proceeds further with a description of their clusters, groupings and collectives. Through codividual sympoiesis, the whole gets distributed all over the parts.[31] In this system, the discreteness of parts is never just discrete. It goes beyond the participating entities and the environment. In line with Daniel Koehler’s argument, the autonomy of the part ceases to be defined just as a self-contained object. It goes beyond it and begins to be defined “around a ratio of a reality, a point of view, a filter or a perspective”[32].

Sympoiesis evolves out of competitive or cooperative interactions of parts. As in ecology, these parts play symbionts to each other, in diverse kinds of relationalities and with varying degrees of openness to attachments and assemblages with other fusing parts depending on the number of embedded brains and the potential connectors. Traditionally, architecture is parasitic. When the aesthetic or the overall form drives the architecture, architectural elements act as a host for other architectural elements to attach to depending on composition. In sympoiesis, there is no host and no parasite. It inverts the ideology of modernism, beginning with not a composition but actually evolving a composition of “webbed patterns of situated and dynamic dilemmas” over symbiotic interaction. Furthermore, increasingly complex levels of quasi-individuality of parts come out of this process of codividual sympoiesis. It gives an outlook of a collective and still retains the identity of the individual. It can simply be called multi-species architecture or becoming-with architecture.

Figure 5 – Sympoietic Assemblages of Parts. Physical model Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal and Haochen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019. Image: Rasa Navasaityte.

Talking of transdisciplinary ecologies and architecture, we can foresee string figures tying together human and nonhuman ecologies, architecture, technologies, sustainability, and more. This also gives rise to a notion of ecological fusion of spatial conditions such as daylight and ventilation, in addition to physical fusion of parts. Codividual sympoiesis, thus, even shows potential for a nested codividual situation, in that the parts sympoietically fuse over different spatial functions.

Going over sympoiesis and mereology, it makes sense to look for parts which fuse to evolve fused parts; to look for architecture through which architecture is evolved; to look for a codividuality with which another codividuality is evolved. From a mereological point of view, in a system in which the external condition overlaps with an internal part in the search for another component, to give rise to a new spatial condition over the fusion of parts could be understood as codividual sympoiesis. Codividual sympoiesis is therefore about computing a polyphony, and not orchestrating a cacophony.


[1] M. Foucault, Madness and Civilization (New York: Random House US, 1980).

[2] D. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press,  2016), 30–57.

[3] Ibid, 35.

[4] H. R. Maturana and F. G. Varela, Autopoiesis And Cognition (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Pub. Co., 1980).

[5] H. R. Maturana, F. G. Varela, and R. Uribe, "Autopoiesis: The Organization Of Living Systems, Its Characterization And A Model," Biosystems, 5, 4, (1974), 187–196.

[6] J. McGann, A New Republic of Letters (Cambridge, Massaschusetts: Harvard University Press, 2014).

[7] A. W. Burks, Von Neumann's Self-Reproducing Automata; Technical Report (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1969).

[8] N. Luhmann, Art as a Social System (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 232.

[9] B. Dempster, Sympoietic and Autopoietic Systems : A new distinction for self-organizing systems (Waterloo: School of Planning, University of Waterloo, 1998).

[10] Ibid, 9.

[11] M. Carpo, The Second Digital Turn: Design Beyond Intelligence (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2017), 131–44.

[12] Ibid, 12.

[13] B. Dempster, Sympoietic and Autopoietic Systems : A new distinction for self-organizing systems (Waterloo: School of Planning, University of Waterloo, 1998).

[14] Ibid.

[15] D. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press,  2016), 33.

[16] Ibid, 5.

[17] Ibid, 125.

[18] Ibid, 58.

[19] Ibid, 60.

[20] B. Dempster, Sympoietic and Autopoietic Systems : A new distinction for self-organizing systems (Waterloo: School of Planning, University of Waterloo, 1998).

[21] D. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 60.

[22] F. Maki, and M. Ohtaka, Investigations in Collective Form (St. Louis: School of Architecture, Washington University, 1964), 3-17.

[23] Ibid.

[24] M. Dennis, "The Uffizi: Museum As Urban Design", Perspecta, 16, 62 (1980), 72.

[25] Ibid, 63.

[26] S. Allen, "From Object to Field,” Architectural Design, AD 67, 5-6 (1997), 24–31.

[27] S. Beer, “Preface,” Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living, auth. H. R. Maturana and F. Varela (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980).

[28] D. Rozas, “When Ostrom Meets Blockchain: Exploring the Potentials of Blockchain for Commons Governance” (2019),, last accessed 3 May 2019.

[29] J. Sánchez, “Architecture for the Commons: Participatory Systems in the Age of Platforms,” Architectural Design, 89, 2 (2019), 22–29.

[30] M. Lohry and B. Bodell, "Blockchain Enabled Co-Housing" (2015),, last accessed 3 May 2019.

[31] D. Koehler, “Mereological Thinking: Figuring Realities within Urban Form,” Architectural Design, 89, 2 (2019), 30–37.

[32] Ibid.

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TARSS. Image: Ziming He, Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.
The Ultimate Parts: A Mereological Approach of Form Under the Notion of Object-Oriented Ontology
Architecture, Architecture Theory, City Architecture, Form, Mereologies, Mereology, Urban Design
Ziming He
University College London
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Mereology is a formal concept which enters architecture as an additional formal category. Form is a rather ambiguous concept in architecture. So in this essay, first an investigation is conducted by contrasting two closely related concepts: shape and content.

Hans Trusack criticises the problem of shape for its shallow formalism and historical-theoretical indifference as a defensive strategy that evades the disciplines and difficulties of past and future.[1] The distinction between the terms “form” and “shape”, following Tursack’s argument, is a “matter of generative process”. Both terms point to the production of visual expression. Yet while shape refers to the appearance of an object, form reflects the logic of transformation and operation within historical and theoretical contexts such as political and religious ideology, economics and technological background. Tursack criticised the strategy of shape in architecture, stating its lack of reference, it being “plainly, and painfully, evident”,[2] and incapable of moving forward. Whereas form is difficult, disciplinary and requires historical and theoretical study, and yet promises the future. 

Form has the advantage of being able to deal with complex relations due to its deep and continuously evolving intervention with content. The term form derives from the Latin word forma, is understood as the combination of two Greek words: eidos, the conceptual form, and morphe, the physical form. The complexity of form can be attributed to these differentiated meanings, yet complexity is compatible with agencies and relations. This can emerge further by conducting a brief historical review.

Ancient Greek architecture pursues the ideality in mathematics and proportion. The efforts made by architects in designing the Parthenon provides evidence of this feature. These operations tried to approximate the physical shape of architecture to the “ideal” form. Form reflects the pursuit of ideality and perfection in this period. 

For Gothic architecture, there were more concerns about structure, and matter was pushed to its maximum capability to build as tall as possible for religious appeal. Consequently, structures were designed to be rigid and lightweight, and solid walls were replaced by glass windows, while flying buttresses supported the main structure to grow even taller. Consequently, astonishing space and fascinating transparency emerged.

Modernism claims that “form follows function”,[3] rejecting traditional architecture styles. The reality of matter and the logic of technology eschewed decorations, proportions, or any subjective distortion of matter. The emphasis on the term “function” illustrates an ideology of treating architecture as a machine. Each part is nothing more than a component that has a certain feature inside this machine, and redundant decorations and details are removed to deliver this idea clearly. Without distractions, space becomes evident.

In the shift to postmodernism, the uniformity and the lack of variety of modernist architectures were reacted against, and a great variety of approaches emerged to overcome the shortcomings of modernism. Parametricism, for instance, has been promoted by the thriving of digital technologies. Designers are capable of more complex formal production, and architectural elements have become variables that can be interdependently manipulated. In this formalism, rigidity, isolation, and separation are opposed, while softness, malleability, differentiation and continuity are praised.

From the examples above, form is the embodiment of the relations between architecture and its motive in specific historical scenarios, while for shape, only the results are accounted for – relations are ignored, and architecture is treated as isolated physical entities, incapable of producing new relations. Different methodologies of dealing with architectural form also imply the variation of ideology in compiling form with content.

Mereology – An Approach of Architectural Form

In recent philosophical texts, a third notion of form is brought forward. Contrary to a dialectic of form and content, here investigations deal with the resonance of parts: the description of objects by their ontological entanglement only. The writings of the philosopher Tristan Garcia are a strong example for such mereological considerations. In his treatise Form and Object: A Treatise on Things (2014), Garcia investigates the ontology of objects with two initial questions, “… what is everything compose of? … what do all things compose?”[4] The first question interrogates the internal, the elementary component of everything. The second interrogates the external, the totality of everything. For Garcia, the form of a thing is “the absence of the thing, its opposite, its very condition,”[5] form has two senses, the “beginning”, and the “end”, which never ends. Form begins when a thing ends, it begins with different forms; in the end, since it has “endless end”, form ultimately merges into one, which is “the world”. Garcia defines an object as “a thing limited by other things and conditioned by one or several things.”[6] The form of an object depends on what comprehends or limits this object. Every object is “embedded in a membership relation with one or several things”,[7] they can be divided by defining limits, which is also a thing distinguishing one thing from another. Garcia’s argument adapts the concept of mereology. Form has two extremes, one toward the fundamental element of matter, and the other toward the world, comprehending everything. All things can always be divided into an infinite number of parts, and they can always be parts of another thing. Identifying parts or wholes within a section we can operate on can establish a limit. The relevance between form and mereology opens a new opportunity to inspect architectural form from a different point of view.

One of the first discussions about parts and wholes in modern philosophy was posed by Edmund Husserl, in Logical Investigation (1st ed. 1900-1901, 2nd ed, 1913),[8] but the term “mereology” has not been put forward until Stanisław Leśniewski used it in 1927 from the Greek work méros (parts).[9] Mereology is considered as an alternative to set theory. A crucial distinction lies between mereology and set theory in that set theory concerns the relations between a class and its elements, while mereology describes the relations between entities. The mathematical axioms of mereology will be used as the fundamental theory of developing the method of analysing architectural form.

Figure 1 – Diagrams for Mereological Relation in Mathematics, Ziming He, 2019. Image credit: Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

Following Roberto Casati and Achim Varzi, the four fundamental mathematical formularisations of mereology are: “Relations are reflexive, antisymmetric and transitive. (…) First, everything is part of itself. Second, two different objects cannot be part of each other. Third, each part of a part of a whole is also part of that whole. Fourth, an object can be a part of another object, if both exist.”[10] 

Mereology can be a promising approach also for the reading of architectural form, as it emphasises relationships without reducing buildings to their appearance or function. However, such philosophical descriptions consider wholes and parts as mostly abstract figures. Therefore, a supplement could be developed to properly categorise the mereological relations in the field of architecture. Having the relations between form and mereology addressed, methodologies can be developed to access the analysis of architectural form. Mereology as a specific methodology for architecture is quite new. One of the first introductions can be found in Daniel Koehler’s book The Mereological City: A Reading of the Works of Ludwig Hilberseimer (2016). Here, Koehler departs from the modern city, exemplified through the work of Ludwig Hilberseimer to illustrate mereological relations in the modernist city. From the room to the house to the city to the region, Hilberseimer canonically drew the city as a hierarchical, nested stack of cellular spaces.[11] However, through the close reading of its mereological relations it becomes clear that political, economic or social conditions are entangled in a circular composition between the parts of the city. Recalling Garcia’s discourse, and resonating with Leon Battista Alberti’s thesis, Koehler shows that the cells in Hilberseimer’s modernist city are interlocked. A house becomes the whole for rooms; a city becomes the whole for houses. By considering the city and its individual buildings equally, “the whole is a part for the part as a whole.”[12]

Architectural Relations Between Parts and Wholes

Parts are not only grouped, packed and nested through different scales, but also in different relations. Specific relationships have been developed in different architectural epochs and styles. Mathematically, four general classes of relations can be drawn: whole-to-whole, part-to-part, whole-to-parts and parts-to-whole, while more specific subclasses can be discovered from each. 

According to the mathematical definition, between wholes there exist complex relations, the whole could exist on any mereological level, and the complexity of relations between multiple levels are also accounted for. Whole-to-whole relations can become complex when considering multi-layer interaction, and more relations can be identified: juxtapose, overlap, contain, undercrossing, transitivity, partition, trans-boundary, intact juxtapose, compromised juxtapose.

Figure 2 – Whole-to-whole relations. Image credit: Ziming He, Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

A first glance of New York, gives the impression that it is quite heterogeneous, but underneath there is a city grid underlying the heterogeneity, and while the relations displayed in the grid are rather simple, all wholes juxtapose with one another. In comparison, in Siena, an Italian city, the urban space is quite complex, where boundaries of all wholes negotiate with others, the gaps in between are carefully treated, the nesting relations are extremely rich, and multiple relations from the diagram above can be found.

Figure 3 – New York. Image: Jonathan Riley.
Figure 4 – Siena. Image: Cristina Gottardi.

The whole-to-parts relation studies what the whole does to its part, namely in terms of top-down rules. The mathematical definition does not involve specific situations that a whole-part condition holds. Distinctions within individual contexts make a significant difference in clarifying an explicit relation. The situations for the whole can generally be classified into following types: fuse, fit and combine.

Figure 5 – Whole-to-part relations. Image: Ziming He, Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

One of Zaha Hadid’s projects, Heydar Aliyev Centre, indicates the fusing relation. Architecture is represented as a smooth, fluid volume. The distinction between elements disappears, and this dominating power even extends to the external landscape. In order to maintain a continuous whole, parts are fabricated into a particular shape, having their unique unchangeable locations. The continuous whole excessively overwhelms the parts, yet not all parts are reshaped to fuse into the whole, and because the parts are small enough in relationship to the whole, the control from the whole is weakened, and parts are fit into the whole.

The third type is combining. An example for this relation is Palladio’s project Villa Rotonda. In this case, parts are obvious. The whole is a composition of the parts’ identities. However, the whole also holds a strong framework, in a rigorous geometric rule that decides positions and characters of parts. The arrangement of parts is the embodiment of this framework. 

Figure 5 – Heydar Aliyev Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. Image: Orxan Musayev.
Figure 6 – Diagram of fitting relation. Image: Ziming He, Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.
Figure 7 – Façade of Villa Rotonda. Image: Ziming He, Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

The parts-to-whole relation studies what the parts do to the whole, or the power of bottom-up relationships. The different situations of parts are also key parameters in validating a given relation. The classification of situations for parts are as follows: frame, intrinsic frame, extrinsic frame, bounded alliance, unbounded alliance.

Figure 8 – Part-to-whole relations. Image: Ziming He, Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

Emil Kaufmann thoroughly investigated the innovative works by Claude Nicholas Ledoux in Three Revolutionary Architects: Boullee, Ledoux and Lequeu (1952).[13] According to Kaufmann’s study, Ledoux’s works developed new compositional relations of elements from the Baroque. The characteristics of parts in Baroque architecture are rich, but tend to regulate the identities of all the elementary parts and fuse them together to serve the harmony of the whole, presenting the intrinsic framing. Ledoux’s work is an extrinsic framing, where the parts are relatively independent, with each element maintaining its own properties, and while consisting of the whole, they can be replaced with other identical components.

One of my projects in discrete aggregation of elements presents an unbounded alliance relation. The aggregation as a whole shows a form that is discretised (Figure 12), and does not pass any top-down instructions to its parts.

Figure 9 – Facade of Church of the Gesù. Image: Ziming He, Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.
Figure 10 – Façade of Château de Mauperthuis. Image: Ziming He, Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

Figure 11 – Discrete aggregation. Image: Ziming He, Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

Part-to-Part Without Whole – The Ultimate Parts

For part-to-part relations, local interactions are emphasised, and interactions occur at multiple levels of compositions, where the part-to-part relations in some cases are similar to that between wholes. It has following classifications: juxtapose, interrelate, contain, partition, overlap, trans-juxtapose, over-juxtapose, over-partition, over-overlap.

Figure 12 – Part-to-part relation. Image: Ziming He, Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

Architects have been working on the possibility of removing the whole by studying the part-to-part relations. Several approaches have been developed, mainly through computation. Neil Leach considers the city as a “swarm intelligence”,[14] bringing forward the potential of developing urban form with computational method. Leach encourages swarm intelligence for the interactions between agents (parts), which “offers behavioral translations of topology and geometry”,[15] while fractals, L-systems or cellular automata are all constrained by some limitation. However, although swarm intelligence is based on the interaction of individual agents, it is always treated as a whole; all cells of CA are fixed in the background grid, which is also a whole. For fractals and L-systems, they can be subdivided into infinite parts, a transcendent whole where all parts grown from still exist. In the mereological sense, none of these cases can escape the shadow of the whole – strictly speaking, they are part-to-whole relations. To discuss the part-to-part relation in more depth, more investigation is needed to clarify the concept of part.

In The Democracy of Objects (2011), Levi Bryant claims that objects constitute a larger object by establishing relations with others, but this doesn’t alter the existence of objects, as he says, “all objects equally exist, but not all objects exist equally.” In Bryant’s discourse, this independence suggests the dissolution of the whole. Bryant proposes a concept of “regimes of attraction”, that includes the “endo-relation” and the “exo-relation”. The endo-relation indicates that the proper being of an object consists of its powers or what an object can do”, not the “qualities” emerging within an exo-relation. An object possesses “volcanic powers”, the stabilisation of the regime of attraction actualises it into a specific state.[16] The concept of the whole reduces objects to this state, which displays only a section of their proper beings. The concept of regimes of attraction is against this reduction.

The regime of attraction can be linked to the notion of “assemblage” from Manuel DeLanda, however, there is a distinction between the two. Assemblage holds only the relation of exteriority, whereas regime of attraction maintains both relations of interiority and exteriority. In Assemblage Theory (2016), DeLanda reassembled the concept “assemblage”, which was originated from the French agencement. Created by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, this original term refers to the following meanings: the “action of matching or fitting together a set of components” – the process, and the “result of such an action” – the product. 

DeLanda emphasised two aspects, heterogeneity and relations. As he indicated, the “contrast between filiations and alliances”[17] can be described in other words as intrinsic and extrinsic relations. 

The nature of these relations has different influences on the components. The intrinsic relation tends to define the identities of all the parts and fix them into exact location, while the extrinsic relation connects the parts in exteriority – without interfering with their identities. DeLanda summarised four characteristics of assemblage: 1) individuality, an assemblage is an individual entity, despite different scale or different number of components; 2) heterogeneity, components of an assemblage are always heterogeneous; 3) composable, assemblages can be composed into another assemblage; 4) bilateral-interactivity, an assemblage emerges from parts interactions, it also passes influences on parts.[18]

DeLanda then moved on to the two parameters of assemblage. The first parameter is directed toward the whole, the “degree of territorialisation and deterritorialisation”, meaning how much the whole “homogenises” its component parts. The second parameter is directed toward the parts, the “degree of coding and decoding”, meaning how much the identities of parts are fixed by the rules of the whole. The concept of assemblage provides us a new lens of investigating these mereological relations. With this model, the heterogeneities and particularity of parts are fully respected. The wholes become immanent, individual entities, existing “alongside the parts in the same ontological plane”,[19] while parts in a whole are included in the whole but not belonging to it, and according to Bryant’s discourse, the absence of belonging dispelled the existence of the whole.[20]

From the study of regime of attraction and assemblage, this essay proposes a new concept – “the ultimate parts” – in which a proper “part-to-part without whole” is embedded. A part (P) horizontally interacts with its neighbouring parts (Pn), with parts of neighbouring parts (Pnp), as well as interacting downwardly with parts that compose it (Pp) and upwardly with wholes it is constituting which are also parts (Pw). This concept significantly increases the initiatives of parts and decreases the limitations and reductions of them. It doesn’t deny the utilities of the whole, but considers the whole as another independent entity, another part. It’s neither top-down, nor bottom-up, but projects all relations from a hierarchical structure to a comprehensive flattened structure. The ultimate parts concept provides a new perspective for observing relations between objects from a higher dimension.

Figure 13 – Diagram of “The Ultimate Parts”. Image: Ziming He, Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

One application of this concept is TARSS (Tensegrity Adaptive Robotic Structure System), my research project in MArch Architectural Design in B-Pro at The Bartlett School of Architecture in 2017–2018. This project utilises the features of tensegrity structures of rigidity, flexibility and lightweight. The difference is that rather than fixing parts into a static posture and eliminating their movements, the project contrarily tries to increase the freedom of parts as much as possible. The tensile elements have the ability to adjust their lengths collaboratively to change the general shape of the aggregation. Reinforcement learning is employed to empower the parts with objective awareness. The training sessions were set up toward multiple objectives that are related to architectural concerns, including pathfinding, transformation, balance-keeping, self-assembling and structural load distributing. This approach brings obvious benefits, as architecture design in this sense is not only about an eventual result, but about the dynamic process of constantly responding to the environmental, spatial or functional requirements. The premise is to treat parts as ultimate parts whilst retaining their objectivity and being able to actively interact at all mereological levels without limitations.

Figure 14 – Key images from the project TARSS. Image: Ziming He, Living Architecture Lab, RC3, MArch Architectural Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

The concept of ultimate parts brings forward a new relation of “part-to-part without whole”. This new relation belongs to a higher dimension. The details and essence of objects are simultaneously displayed, without being obscured by the compositional structure. Analogised with spatial dimensions, a 3-dimensional cube simultaneously shows all its faces and interior in 4-dimensional space. The significance is that it opens vast new perspectives and operational methodologies in the architectural design realm. Especially with the advancement in robotics and artificial intelligence, this type of new relationship enables greater opportunities by regarding machines as characters with immense potential to work with us, instead of for us. The role of designers would be very much like “breeders of virtual forms”,[21] who do not rule the form, but guide it towards the demands. This moves away from anthropocentric design by overcoming part-to-whole with part-to-part.


[1] H. Tursack, "The Problem With Shape", Log 41 (New York: Anyone Corporation, 2017), 53.

[2] Ibid, 50.

[3] L. Sullivan, "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered", Lippincott's Magazine (1896), 403–409.

[4] T. Garcia, M. A. Ohm and J. Cogburn, Form And Object (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 19.

[5] Ibid, 48.

[6] Ibid, 77-78.

[7] Ibid, 145.

[8] E. Husserl, Logical Investigation (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1970).

[9] Stanisław Leśniewski, O podstawach matematyki [trans. On the Foundations of Mathematics], I-V, 1927-1930, Przegląd Filozoficzny, 30 (1927), 164–206; 31 (1928), 261–291; 32 (1929), 60–101; 33 (1930), 77–105; 34 (1931), 142–170.

[10] R. Casati and A. C. Varzi, Parts and Places: The Structures of Spatial Representation (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999).

[11]  L. Hilberseimer, The New City: Principles of Planning (P. Theobald, 1944), 74-75.

[12] D. Koehler, The Mereological City: A Reading of the Works of Ludwig Hilberseimer (Transcript, Verlag, 2016), 182.

[13] E. Kaufmann, Three Revolutionary Architects, Boullée, Ledoux, And Lequeu (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1968).

[14] N. Leach, "Swarm Urbanism", Architectural Design, 79, 4 (2009), 56-63.

[15] Ibid.

[16] L. Bryant, The Democracy Of Objects (Open Humanities Press, 2011), 290.

[17] M. DeLanda, Assemblage Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 2.

[18] Ibid, 19-21.

[19] Ibid, 12.

[20] L. Bryant, The Democracy Of Objects (Open Humanities Press, 2011), 273.

[21] M. DeLanda, "Deleuze And The Use Of The Genetic Algorithm In Architecture" (2001), 3.

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Application of the Hyperumwelt concept in an urban proposal, Blockerties, 2018. Image: Junyi Bai, Anna Galika, Qiuru Pu, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018, photograph by Rasa Navasaityte.
Synthesising Hyperumwelten
Architecture, Building, City Architecture, Computational Design, Hyperobjects, Mereologies, Mereology
Anna Galika
University College London
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Object-oriented programming in blockchain has been a catalyst for philosophical research on the way blocks and their nesting are perceived. While attempting a deeper investigation on the composition of blocks, as well as the environment that they are able to create, concepts like Jakob von Uexkull’s “Umwelt”[1] and Timothy Morton’s “Hyperobject”[2] can be synthesised into a new term; the “Hyperumwelt”. The Hyperumwelt is an object that is capable of creating its own environment. By upscaling this definition of the Hyperumwelt, this essay describes objects with unique and strong compositional characteristics that act as closed black boxes and are able to create large scale effects through their distribution. Hyperobjects are able to create their own Umwelt, however when they are nested and chained in big aggregations, the result is a new and unexpected environment: the Hyperumwelt. 

In his book Umwelt und die Innenwelt der Tiere (1921) Uexkull introduced the notion of subjective environments. With the term “Umwelt” Uexkull defined a new perspective for the contextualisation of experiences, where each individual organism perceives surrounding elements with their senses and reinterprets them into its own “Umwelt”, producing different results.[3] An Umwelt requires two components: an individual and its abstracted perception of its surroundings. Based on this process and parameters, notions of parthood and wholeness in spatial environments, and the relations that they produce with interacting elements, become relevant.

Space as a Social Construction

For Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson these two parameters related to society and space, writing that “society can only have lawful relations to space if society already possesses its own intrinsic spatial dimension; and likewise space can only be lawfully related to society if it can carry those social dimensions in its very form.”[4] What Hillier and Hanson argue is that the relation between the formation of society and the space is created by the interaction between differing social environments. Hillier and Hanson essentially make use of a mereological definition of the environment that states that parts are independent of their whole, the way that society is independent from its space, but at the same time societies contain definitions of space. Space is therefore a deeply social construction.

As Hillier and Hanson outline, our understandings of space are revealed in the relations between “social structure” and “spatial structure”, or how society and space are shaped under the influence of each other. Space is a field of communication. Within a network of continuously exchanged information, space can be altered as it interacts with the people in it.[5] However, this approach can only produce limited results as it creates environments shaped by only two parameters, humans and space. At this point is where Hillier and Hanson’s theory fails, as this way of understanding the environment relies only on additive information produced by interactions. If we were to expand this theory into the kind of autonomous learning mechanism that is mandatory for processing today’s computational complexity, we would end up with a slow, repetitive operation between these two components. 

Hyperobjects to Hyperumwelt

Another perspective that is elusive from Hillier and Hanson’s understanding of the environment is how social behaviour is shaped by spatial parameters. Timothy Morton’s object-oriented ontological theory contradicts this anthropocentric understanding of the world. In The Ecological Thought (2010) Morton presents the idea that not only do we produce the environment but we are also a product of it. This means that the creation of things is not solely a human act non-human objects cannot partake in, but rather an inherent feature of any existing object.[6] For Morton, complexity is not only a component of society and space, but extends complexity to an environment that has objects as its centre and thus cannot be completely understood. He calls these entities ‘Hyperobjects”.[7]

While Morton uses the term Hyperobject to describe objects, either tangible or intangible, that are “massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity”.[8] The term can be reinterpreted to describe an environment, rather than an object, which is neither understandable nor manageable. This environment – a Hyperumwelt – is the environment constructed by Hyperobjects. A Hyperumwelt is beyond comprehension due to its complexity.

Figure 1 – Qualities of the Hyperumwelt forming at the urban scale, Blockerties, 2018. Image: Junyi Bai, Anna Galika, Qiuru Pu, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

The term Hyperobject is insufficient as it retains its own wholeness. This means that all components inside a  Hyperobject cannot be seen (as it acts like a black box of information) but can only be estimated. Morton described the Hyperobject as a whole without edges. This stems from Morton’s point of perception, as he puts himself inside of the object.[9] This position makes him unable to see its wholeness and thus it leaves him adrift of its impact, unable to grasp control of it. Here, also, the discussion opens about authorship inside the environments and what Morton suggests is that Hyperobjects have their own authority and there is nothing that can alter them or specify their impact on the environment.[10]

Figure 2 – Elements creating distributed patterns of information, creating their own environment, Blockerties, 2018. Image: Junyi Bai, Anna Galika, Qiuru Pu, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018.

A Tree in a Forest

Yet there is also no need for the Hyperobjects to be clearly understandable. In terms of the Hyperumwelt, Hyperobjects can remain vast and uncomprehended. What is now needed are the implications of distributing nested Hyperobjects, seen as black boxes, inside an environment. An Umwelt is an environment constantly altered by the perceived information. This makes the Hyperumwelt a whole with porous edges that allows the distribution, and the addition or subtraction, of information. Another difference is the external position that the Hyperumwelt is perceived from, meaning that there is no need for it to be part of the environment. Since what is important is the distribution of the objects within the Hyperumwelt, a distant point of view is needed in order to detect the patterning of the distributed objects. While it will remain difficult to decipher and discretise the components, the patterns that are created can be seen. 

Figure 03 – Zooming in on patterns to recognise familiar qualities that provide a better understanding of the composed whole, Blockerties, 2018. Image: Junyi Bai, Anna Galika, Qiuru Pu, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018, photograph by Rasa Navasaityte.

While the Hyperobject is a closed whole of parts that cannot be altered, a Hyperumwelt is an open whole of wholes that uses objects as its parts. So, while the Hyperobject gives us no authority over its consequences, the Hyperumwelt bypasses this in order for its wholeness to be controlled. Yet what is important for the Hyperumwelt is not the impact of one object, but the impact of multiple objects within the environment. This synthesis and merging of objects and their relations produces a new reality which may or may not be close to the reality of the single objects. A Hyperobject is looking at a black box – say, a tree – and knowing there is a pattern – such as a forest – and a Hyperumwelt is looking at the tree and knowing the impact that it has on the forest and the impact that the forest creates in the environment. 

Figure 4 – Application of the Hyperumwelt concept in an urban proposal, Blockerties, 2018. Image: Junyi Bai, Anna Galika, Qiuru Pu, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2018, photograph by Rasa Navasaityte.

[1] J. von Uexküll, Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (Berlin: J. Springer, 1909), 13-200.

[2] T. Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[3] J. von Uexküll, Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (Berlin: J. Springer, 1909), 13-200.

[4] B. Hillier and J. Hanson, The Social Logic of Space (London: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 26.

[5] Ibid.

[6] T. Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[7] Ibid, 110.

[8] T. Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolos, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[9] T. Morton, Being Ecological (Penguin Books Limited, 2018).

[10] Ibid.

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View into a codividual interiority. Codividual aesthetics forming a plural space. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.
Codividual Architecture within Decentralised Autonomous Systems
Architecture, Autonomy, Collectivity, Computational Design, Decentralisation, Mereologies, Mereology
Hao Chen Huang
University College London
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In mereology, the distinction of “dependent” or “independent” could be used to describe the relationship between parts and wholes. Using a mereological description, individuals can be seen as self-determining entities independently identified by themselves as a whole. On the other hand, the identities of collectives are determined by their group members which participate in a whole. Therefore, based on parthood theory, an individual could be defined as a self-determined “one in a whole”; in contrast, collectives could be seen as “a part within a whole”. Following the mereological logic, this paper surveys the new term “codividuality”, a word consisting of the combined meaning of “collective” and “individuality”. Codividuality preserves the intermediate values of individualism and collectivism. It consists of the notion of share-ability benefited from collectivism, and is merged with the idea of self-existence inspired by individualism. The characterisation of codividuality starts from individuals that share features, and are grouped, merging with other groups to compose new clusters.


“Codividuals” could also be translated into “parts within parts”. Based on this part-to-part relation, codividuals in the sense of composition begin with existing individuals and then collectives of self-identified parts. Parts are discrete, but also participating entities[2] in an evolving self-organising system. Unlike individuals’ self-determination, parts’ identities contribute by participating, forming a strong correlation in-between parts but preserving autonomy of parts. In codividuality, each individualistic entity obtains the potential of state-transforming by sharing its identity with others; as such, all parts are able to translate one another, and are irreducible to their in-between relationship. From an ontological perspective, the existence of a part is not from adding a new object but by sharing features to fuse itself into a new part. A new part does not contribute by increasing an entity’s quantity but through a dynamic overlap transforming over time. Since the involved entities fuse into new collectives, the compositing group will simultaneously change its form by corresponding to sharing features; as such, codividuality could be seen as an autonomous fusion.

Figure 1 – Mereological drawings of the chosen Precedents, bringing out the individual, dividual and codividual nature of buildings. Image: Hao-Chen Huang.

Metabolism: As One in Whole

According to the definition of individualism, each individual has its own autonomous identity and the connectivity between individuals is loose. In architecture, social connectivity provides insight on the relationship of spatial sequences within cultural patterns. Metabolism, as an experimental architectural movement in post-war Japan, emerged with a noticeable individualist approach, advocating individual mobility and liberty. Looking at the configurations and spatial characteristics in Metabolist architecture, it is easy to perceive the features of “unit” and “megastructure”[3] as the major architectural elements in the composition, showing the individualistic characterisation in spatial patterns. Megastructure as an unchangeable large-scale infrastructure conceptually served to establish a comprehensible community structure. The unit as a structural boundary reinforced the identity of individuals in the whole community.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower (1970) by Kisho Kurokawa is a rare built example of Metabolism. It is a residential building consisting of two reinforced concrete towers, and the functional equipment is integrated into the megastructure forming a system of a core tower that serves its ancillary spaces. The functional programmes required for the served spaces are extended from the core where the structure and pipes are integrated. The identical, isolated units contain everything to meet basic human needs in daily life, which expresses the idea of individualism in architecture that is aimed for a large number of habitants. The independent individual capsules create a maximum amount of private space with little social connectivity to neighbours.

Constructivism: As Parts in Whole

Collectivism could be applied to a society in which individuals tie themselves together into a cohesion which obtains the attributes of dependence, sharing and collective benefit. This is aligned to the principles of constructivism, proposing the collective spatial order to encourage human interaction and generate collective consciousness. In contrast to the Metabolists, constructivist architecture underlined spatial arrangements for public space within compressed spatial functions that enable a collective identification.

The Narkomfin Building (1928–1932) by OSA Group is one of the few realised constructivist projects. The building is a six-story apartment located in a long block designed as a “social condenser”.[4] It consists of multiple social functions that correspond to specific functional and constructive norms for working and living space within whole community. The main building is a mix-use compound with one part for individual space and another designed as collective space. The private and common space are linked by an exterior walkway as a communal rooftop garden. There are 54 living units, and each of them only contain bedroom and bathroom. Each flat could be divided into two, one in which contains a playground and kitchen; the other one, a collective function area, which consists of garden, library and gymnasium. The corridors linking the flats are wide and open, appearing as an urban street to encourage inhabitants to stop and communicate with their neighbours.

Compared with the Nagakin Capsule Tower, the concept behind the spatial arrangement of Narkomfin Building is the collectivism of all needed programs. The large-scale collective was proposed as a means to replicate the concept of the village in the city. Practically this allows for a shrinking of the percentage of private space while stimulating the social interaction within the collective living space. The concept of amplifying communal space aligns to the constructivist movement through the concept of reinventing people’s daily life by new socialist experimental buildings, reinforcing the identity of collectives within the whole community.

Figure 2 – (left) the Nakagin Tower metabolized by individualist parts; (right) the Narkofim constructed with collectivist parts. Image: Hao Chen Huang.

Codividuality: As Parts in Parts

In architecture, the word “codividuality” originally emerged in the Japanese architectural exhibition House Vision (2019) to refer to collective living in terms of the sharing economy, delivering a social meaning: “creating a new response to shared-living in the age of post- individualism”.[5] Economically speaking, codividuality expresses the notion of share-ability in sense of sharing value and ownership. Moreover, it offers a participatory democracy for spatial use in relationship to changing social structures and practices. The architectural applications of codividuality are not merely about combined private space with shared public facilities but reveal a new reality that promotes accessibility and sustainability in multiple dimensions, including spatial use, economy and ecology.

Share House LT Josai (2013) is a collective-living project in Japan, offering an alternative for urban living in the twenty-first century sharing economy. Due to the change of demographic structure and rapidly rising house prices, Naruse Inokuma Architects created an opportunity to continually share spaces with unrelated people by creating an interactive living community in a two-and-a-half-story house. The 7.2 square meter individual rooms are three-dimensionally arranged across the two and a half levels. Between the bedrooms are the shared spaces, including a void area and an open plan living platform and kitchen that extend toward identical private rooms. The juxtaposition of private and communal spaces creates a new spatial configuration and an innovative living model in the sharing economy. Codividuality obtains individuals’ autonomy and, on the other hand, encourages collective interaction. It is not an opposition to individualism nor a replication of collectivism, but a merged concept starting from individualism, then juxtaposing against the notion of collectivism. 

Figure 3 – Fusion of parts. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

Autonomy of Parts

In contemporary philosophy, “Object Oriented Ontology” (OOO)[6] proposes a non-human way of thinking, unshackling objects from the burden of dominant ideologies. Objects are withdrawn from human perception, thereby containing the autonomy and irreducibility of substance. Accordingly, what this autonomy is based on is the independence of the object itself. An individual object is not reliant on any other objects, including humans. Objects exist whether we are aware of them or not. Objects do not need to passively rely on human cognition to represent themselves, but self-evidently and equally stand in the world.

OOO enables a transition in architectural meaning from architecture as autonomous objects to interactive relationships between object and field, where indirect relations between autonomous objects are observed. In an ecological sense, the reason behind this shift could be understood as an irreducibility of the architectural relationship within the environment; in other words, an architectural object cannot be withdrawn from its relation to context. As Timothy Morton writes, “all the relations between objects and within them also count as objects”,[7] and David Ruy states in his recent essay, “the strange, withdrawn interaction between objects sometimes brings forth a new object.”[8] Ruy emphasises the relation between objects based on a dynamic composition interacted with by individuals that is not a direct translation of nature.

In an object-orientated ontology, architecture is not merely an individual complete object but fused parts. This could be translated into a mereological notion of shifting from wholeness to parts. As a starting point for a design methodology, extracting elements from buildings represents loosening the more rigid system found in a modernist framework, by understanding architectural parts as autonomous and self-contained. Autonomous architectural elements cannot be reduced to the individual parts that make up the whole. This shift opens up an unprecedented territory in architectural discourse. Autonomous architectural parts now can participate in a non-linear system involving not only input or output, beginning or end, or cause or result; architecture can be understood as part of a process.

Figure 4 – Sampling of infinite codividual parts shown as yellow. Parts with different states showing the machine learning process of identifying codividual combination. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

Architecture in the Sharing Economy

The rise of the sharing economy in the past decade has provided alternatives to the traditional service economy, allowing people to share and monetise their private property and shift thinking around privacy. In this context the following question arises: how could mereological architecture reveal new potentials beyond the inhabitation of buildings by engaging with the sharing economy? Due to the financialisation of the housing market and, simultaneously, the standardisation and lowering of quality of housing standards due to deregulation of the market, this question is even more pressing. Furthermore the bureaucracy of the planning system limits the architectural designing process by slowing development down and restricting innovation. In this context the reconfiguration of housing to emphasise collective space could be an alternative living model, alongside financial solutions such as shared ownership.

Decentralised Autonomous Organisation

The notion of a Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAO) seems fitting for furthering this discussion. In economic and technological terms, DAO is a digital organisation based on blockchain technologies, offering a decentralised economic model. As an alternative to centralised economic structures within a capitalist system, DAO benefits from blockchain technology as a digital tool for achieving a more transparent, accessible and sustainable economic infrastructure. This involves shifting decision-making away from centralised control and giving the authority to individual agents within the system.

In the Medium article “The Meaning of Decentralisation” by Vitalik Buterin, Buterin describes a decentralised system as a collective of individual entities that operate locally and self-organise, which supports diversity. Distribution enables a whole to be discretised into parts that interact in a dynamic computing system that evaluates internal and external connectivity between parts.[9] Through continuous interaction, autonomous discrete entities occasionally form chains of connectivity. In this process the quantities of parts at junctions continuously change. Over time patterns emerge according to how entities organise both locally and globally. Local patterns internally influence a collective while global patterns influence between collectives – or externally in a field of patterns – similar to Stan Allen’s notion of a “field condition”.[10] This creates global complexity while sustaining autonomy through local connectivity.

Figure 5 – Simulations of the interlocking chains training a machine learning model. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

Distributing Codividuality

Codividuality could be seen as a post-individualism, where a diverse self-organising system withdraws power from capitalist authorities. The process of decentralisation characteristic of DAO is key to codividuality for it allows repeated patterns to form in a connected network. Architecturally, in codividual space each spatial unit consists of an open-ended program and self-contained structure, which means that architectural elements such as walls or slabs exist not for a specific function but serve a non-representational configuration.

Through computing codividual connectivity, autonomous spatial units start to overlap with other units, generating varying states of spatial use and non-linear circulation. What this distribution process offers is an expanded field of spatial iterations, using computation to respond to changes in quantity or type of inhabitants. In this open-ended system, codividual parts provide each spatial participant the capability to overcome the limitation of scalability through autonomous interconnection supported by a distributed database.

Unlike conventional planning in a modernist framework, codividual space does not aim for a module system that is used for the arrangement of programme, navigation or structure but for a non-figurative three-dimensional spatial sequence. The interconnections between parts and the field enable scalability from the smaller scale of spatial layouts towards large-scale urban formations. This large-scale fusion of codividual space generates a more fragmented, heterogeneous and interconnected spatial order, balancing collective benefit and individual freedom. In this shifting towards heterogeneity, codividuality opens a new paradigm of architecture in the age of the sharing economy.

Figure 6 – Perspective of a codividual building proposal for a site in Lisbon. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.
Figure 7 – Perspective view into a codividual space offering a 3dimensional urbanity. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.
Figure 08 – Close-up into a codividual living area. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.
Figure 09 – View into a codividual interiority. Codividual aesthetics forming a plural space. Image: Comata, Anthony Alvidrez, Shivang Bansal, and Hao-Chen Huang, RC17, MArch Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2019.

[1] H. C. Triandis, Individualism And Collectivism (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995).

[2] “Mereological Thinking: Figuring Realities within Urban Form,” Architectural Design, 89, 2 (2019), 30–37.

[3] Z. Lin, Kenzo Tange And The Metabolist Movement (London: Routledge, 2010).

[4] D. Udovicki-Selb, M. J. Ginzburg, I. F. Milinis. Narkomfin, Moscow 1928-1930 (Tübingen: Wasmuth Verlag, 2016).

[5] "HOUSE VISION", HOUSE VISION (2019),, accessed 9 May 2019.

[6] L. Bryant, The Democracy of Objects, (Open Humanities Press, 2011).

[7] T. Morton. The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[8] D. Ruy, “Returning to (Strange) Objects”, TARP Architecture Manual: Not Nature. (Brooklyn, New York: Pratt Institute Graduate School of Architecture, 2015).

[9] V. Buterin, “The Meaning of Decentralization” (2017),, accessed 9 May 2019.

[10] S. Allen and G. Valle, Field Conditions Revisited (Long Island City, NY: Stan Allen Architect, 2010).

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An accommodating facade, between a terrace, a stair, and a balcony. Urban redevelopment Haarlemmer Houttuinen, Amsterdam, 1982. Image by Herman Hertzberger.
Friendly Architecture – In the Footsteps of Structuralism: An Interview with Herman Hertzberger
Architecture, Architecture Theory, City Architecture, Mereologies, Mereology, Urban Design
Herman Hertzberger, Daniel Koehler
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This interview took place on April 11th, 2017 at the office of Herman Hertzberger in Amsterdam, with questions by Daniel Koehler.

Daniel Koehler: After all your years as a teacher, maybe it would be a good departure for conversation if you can tell us what is your favourite exercise for teaching architecture?

Herman Hertzberger: Well, my favourite exercise is making a housing environment, where small children could live and play outside. This is an old-fashioned thing, but I am absolutely convinced that children should play in the streets in order to find out about the world and to learn about the good and the bad things that exist. I am afraid that today in urbanism you find high-rises, and the immense distance from the living unit to the street is a problem. Consequently, cities only have playgrounds with fences around, and there children are safe to play. But the world is not only about safety, the world is about finding out how far you can go in your life.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you began to communicate as a group during the beginning of structuralism?

We started a school! We had seminars for discussion, where everyone brought in something to discuss. And then we had the Forum editorial staff. There was Aldo van Eyck, Jacob Bakema and others who are less well known (Dick Apon, Joop Hardy, Jurriaan Schrofer and Gert Boon). There was an enormous amount of communication. Every Tuesday night we saw each other with no exception, where we discussed the next issue of the magazine.

And, what was the relevant media at the time you started to develop your ideas?

Magazines were very important. We used to have three or four Dutch magazines, two French, two English, one American, two Swiss, two Italian. They were all on the table. “Did you see that building? I think it is good.” And then we had a discussion. Today we still get some magazines, but today you get all the information from around the world in one click. That is fantastic, the possibilities today are just immense. It is more information, a lot of pieces of an enormous puzzle. But is it also possible to put it together? I hope the younger generation can.
The magazine Forum was for me a sort of postgraduate study. At that moment I started to see the work, the hands and eyes of real architects. That helped me to start thinking. And there were connections to many other architects from all over. There were conferences, and there you saw people. At Delft University, where I was teaching, we invited all the architects we were interested in. We are still doing this.

When one reads the current literature, one can draw two different issues. On the one hand a common critique of functionalism in architecture, and on the other hand, the influence of new ideas coming from sociology. Would you say that this enormous explosion of ideas and diversity of projects was a response to architectural problems or were these new concepts coming from other fields prescriptive to your projects?

First of all, there is nothing coming from sociology. I have little or no connection to sociology. Sociology is the science of human relations. But you do not need to go into this science as an architect. Architecture is a matter of using your eyes and ears to look into the world and see what needs to be done. But today, architecture is driven by algorithms and rules. All the rules, saying you should do this or that, you are supposed to not do this. Architecture is then reduced to problem-solving. You must be aware of that mistake. Architecture is not problem-solving. Of course, you have to solve problems, but this is only one aspect of architecture. It starts to be architecture when it provides more freedom to people, opening the possibility that things are getting better than they were before.

Can you give an example?

A dwelling needs to have a balcony. Why? To let people go outside, and there are rules about the size of your balcony. Most architects think: well, I included a balcony. But they should base the form and dimensions of a balcony on the needs of daily life. Such as sitting in a corner without being seen by others or not being disturbed while reading your book yet with the possibility of having contact with your neighbour. Second, you may want to be able to have a meal with your family. You maybe want to have flowers and plants. In a way, this is culture. Make that list, and when you design a balcony, be sure that all the points you have listed have also been fulfilled. In this way you increase people’s freedom. Most balconies do not do that. On most balconies all you can do is sit. Most architects don’t think, they don’t look at what is going on. And then, of course, the developer says, “It should not cost more, so we have to make it small.” So I have rules independent of the developers. For me, it starts to become good when those rules are going to be met. This method works for every part of the building, from a dwelling, to a living unit, to a street, to the school. In a school, you can design where the black board in a classroom is going to be. And you have to think about what a school might be. I don’t need sociologists for that. Sometimes, sociologists can tell you some interesting things, but you have to think, and in the first place, look for yourself.

Your communal spaces are famous for their human scale, like the doorstep. I think that this down-scaling of the city to elements of a building enables you to design the building as an open system. For me, it seems you draw a difference in creating a building as a building and designing a building as a city.

For me, city, architecture, and building are very much related. Aldo van Eyck believed that making architecture is always making things more inside than before. Aldo van Eyck said, “Whatever you do, it is supposed to always increase the inside quality.” When you want to go outside, you go to the fields. There you have the horizon, you have the clouds and the openness. A city is for exchange – exchange of goods, of ideas. Cities are mostly based on trade, and on having a cinema, having shops, having communal things, being together.
Aldo van Eyck also claimed that the city should be a big house. I think that is a dangerous thing to say because the city is not the house where you are yourself, or where you are enclosed. The city should never be enclosed but always open, in connection with the whole world. It is the place where you see the airplanes flying above you. But it is an inside space in relation to the open field. And a building is, in fact, a small city. Make a building as a small city to have the emphasis lay on communication and exchange.
But most buildings are private territories with public corridors. How narrow can a public corridor be? It cannot be a centimetre larger, because this would cost money. Means of communication are considered extra. You can sell the dwellings but not the corridors. As a result, most buildings have very beautiful apartments and very small corridors. I am pleading for buildings where the corridors are streets. I try to put more emphasis on the communal spaces in a building.

When you consider a building as an open system, what role does the boundary between inside and outside have? Do you think that these open systems have an outside or do you think of them as endless? What is their relationship to the context and environment?

City is not just buildings but the space in between the buildings as well. The edge of building is forming the space of the city. You have to conceive of the edge of a building not as an end where the outside starts. You must see it the other way around, as a wall in the interior space of the city. The idea of the building as city is to put buildings in such a relation that the space in-between them is as important. This is something that is completely lost. It is also considered nostalgic. But look to New York. In New York, you have these high skyscrapers, but you also have very nice streets. When I am in Manhattan, I feel quite enclosed. That is because of the very strict system of the grid, and the building lines by which the streets are defined, and the blocks in between are open.

In one of your articles [Open City, 2011], you rightly point out that most of today’s housing projects consciously exclude communal spaces, and focus only on the assembly of private areas without any spatial linkages between them. Private areas are protected to one another rather than connected. A common – and I think dangerous – justification for such a design refers to changed economic circumstances, and most cynically, to the death of the welfare state. Would you say architecture is so dependent on economics?

Every square meter is supposed to generate a fee, so public space will be reduced to a minimum. Architecture has become business. And that makes the position of the architects to contribute to better spaces and towns very difficult.

But then architects are even more important.

Important as long as you are able to be aware of what sort of culture you are living in. I cannot give you the answer what to do. You have to explain and fight. But you need clients who believe in the architect. Things are very materialistic today. But there are also very interesting initiatives. For example, in Rotterdam, you have these old industrial halls which could be reused without high costs. Add a little paint, and it works. There are ways today that are contradicting this idea of architecture as economics. There is a lot for you to invent.

When I told a friend that we will visit you as one of the main protagonists of structuralism, his response was: ‘Wait a moment! Herman Hertzberger is not a structuralist; he is a humanist.’

Can you not be a structuralist and a humanist at the same time? Is this contradictory?

I think what my friend was pointing at is that there is a difference between structuralism as a style and structuralism as modus operandi, as a form of organisation and composition.

Style has to do with aesthetics, but aesthetics is a pitfall. Most architects think making something beautiful is all that architecture is about. But you can’t make something beautiful, it is impossible. That doesn’t work. What you can do is make a painting which is striking, and shows you something you never saw before that makes you happy or fall in love with the painting, and then we decide this is a beautiful painting. But in architecture, don’t spend energy on trying to make something beautiful. Make it work. Then you may hope that someone says this is beautiful. For instance, the composer of music Arnold Schönberg said, “Do not do what others consider beautiful, but just what is necessary to you.” I like a building because it works. When someone if I think it is beautiful, then I say, when you are in love it is going to be beautiful. Beauty comes as a result. But you cannot say, now I am going to make it beautiful. Beauty is a pitfall for architects.
Structuralism means there are simple rules that enlarge the amount of free space that you can achieve. I took the grid as an example earlier. The very rigid system of the grid allows you to be more free in the blocks in between. All of the blocks can be different; some high, some low. It is an enormous mosaic of possibilities that is held together by the grid. When you know what rules you have to use, you can be creative. It is a misunderstanding that the one contradicts the other.

It is interesting that you describe a rule as a form of enclosure, as a form of an inside.

If something is not limited you create chaos. Rules prevent you from chaos, and within rules you can be creative. Noam Chomsky [the linguist] uses the words competence and performance. The structure of language is its competence, it is its capacity to express. And performance is what you are actually expressing with it. In language you have grammar, but every individual talks in his or her personal way using the same rules.

Would you say that you have a grammar and vocabulary then? Do you have certain elements that you are frequently using? You were talking earlier about balconies and streets. In your work do you consider elements repeat structurally, which can re-emerge in different styles, but with similar performance? Or do you begin each project with a new grammar?

I do not use the same grammar for every building. I could, but I want to try different things. There are many people who thought housing should be produced in a factory, like cars. It is such a simple idea. But it doesn’t work, because every location has its own needs, whereas a car is the same everywhere. So, you can not use the same grammar. I use another grammar for a school and another for housing for instance. Some things have a similar grammar, like how you make a door, which works in most cases. 

Do you have a particular vocabulary of elements that reappear during your career in different articulations and styles?

Architecture should accommodate people and things that people are concerned with. I use this everywhere. To give you a simple example: when I make a column, most of the time I design it with a base for people to be able sit on it. This is for me an accommodating device. It always works. This sort of thing is universal in my opinion: the idea of accommodation. Another example is the handrail of a stair. I always make a handrail that guides you where to go, making the end of it in such a way that even without looking you have the feeling that this is the end of the stairs. Everything I do tries to consider how it works for people. However the point is that it should be friendly to people, but not soft.

Friendly architecture! This is a wonderful conclusion. Thank you, Herman Hertzberger for sharing your time and thoughts with us.

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