Custom Lane, 1 Customs Wharf,
Edinburgh, EH6 6AL, United Kingdom


Rowan Mackinnon-Pryde
Cameron McEwan
Rory Corr
Kieran Hawkins
Callum Symmons


Neil Gillespie
Brendan Higgins

Nicky Thomson


Samuel Penn
Penny Lewis



The AE Foundation was established in 2011 to provide an informed forum for an international community of practitioners, educators, students and graduates to discuss current themes in architecture and architectural education.



︎︎︎Samuel Penn



Each of our guest speakers will give a ten minute talk about Authorship and then we’ll open it up for discussion. Laurent, do you want to start?

Yes. My discussion will be on authorship and what happens at the end of authorship. I will first focus on the question of authorship then the question of the end of authorship. Then I will give an example and conclude with some theses.

I think when we speak about authorship we should distinguish how architecture deals with authorship and how society deals with authorship. For architecture, it seems clear. The phenomenon of modernity and the passage of understanding architecture as craft, to understanding architecture as art combine with the change in the status of the architect. This is an easier and primitive definition. But if we look to society it is much more complicated. French legislation does not admit or see an authorship. There is no definition or protection of the architect as an author in Switzerland or Germany. There is no copyright of architecture. What can be protected are: patents, technical inventions, designed objects; but it is difficult to protect a staircase, a balcony, a geometric invention, a square. It would be difficult for Ungers to patent his squares, Libeskind to patent his ‘zig-zag’, or Zaha Hadid to protect her curves. So once we accept this distinction we should reframe our discussion and say the discussion will have to be an academic discussion, a discussion between architects on architecture. That was the first point on authorship.

The second point is about the end of authorship. We can frame it historically. The question of the end is a typically modern question and the question of newness is also a modern question. Bounded to the question of newness is the question of the necessity of something to end: the beginning of modernity is the end of the Beaux-arts, the beginning of Postmodernism is the end of Modernism, the beginning of Deconstructionism is the end of Postmodernism, the beginning of parametricism is the end of deconstruction. Related to this is the frequent declaration of the end of architecture. In the 19th century it is the beginning of mechanical engineering and the end of architecture, in the 1930s it is the beginning of building, for instance with Hannes Meyer, and the end of architecture, in the 1970s it is the beginning of environmental design and the end of architecture, today as we see at the 2014 Venice Biennale, it is the beginning of fundamentals and the end of architecture.

Related to this is the third question about the end of the author. Here also we can have it as follows; the beginning of the builder and the end of the author, the beginning of participatory design and the end of the author, the beginning of generic authorship and the end of the author, the beginning of the creator, who is today more important than the architect or at least that is what is stated today. We can see this kind of beginnings and ends, this newness as the question that is recurrent in modern architecture. At the same time we know the author still exists. We know that architecture still exists. We know that Modernism is still powerful. So we see a slippery definition when we speak of the end.

I want to give one example. The declaration of the end of authorship is the beginning of digital architecture in the 1990s when a new paradigm begins. It begins a new discussion about iconic or signature building, which is exactly the opposite. 1990 is the end of authorship and at the same time we have a beginning of a new kind of authorship. Strangely it is the same person, Frank Gehry, who introduces computers really deeply into architecture and it is Gehry who wins the competition in Bilbao, which is considered today as the beginning of signature building where the author can be distinguished very quickly. What distinguishes this kind of signature building is the uniqueness of the building in the urban context, the attention that media pay to this building, the added value of this building as a successful financial operation. We could continue with examples, pointing out competitions where famous architects—not important, but famous architects—are invited for prizes as an author who has been qualified by this prize. So one could declare there was an end to the architect as author in the 1990s, but from the other point of view there was again a birth.

But what can we learn from this? There is some good news. There are as many rebirths as deaths. There is also the declaration of ends as moments of readjustments where the discipline redefines itself. In the 1850s there was the necessity of the architectural discipline to readjust to mechanisation. In the 1950s there was the readjustment to the society of consumption. In the 1970s there was the response to big corporations. In the last few years the response is to global business. There are so many prizes, competitions, corporate buildings being built. The third news is the question of architects by architects. The fourth element, that today there are so many authors, there will be an implosion and we cannot distinguish between the authors.

To understand the point it is necessary to turn the question around and not ask what is the author, but instead: why are we obsessed by the question of the author? The obsession with the question of the author is not expanding our discipline. It does not understand the architect as a builder, as a philosopher, who knows about hygiene, who has to know about mathematics. That would be the Vitruvian way of understanding the architect. Authorship is reducing the role of the architect to somebody who has a signature to sell. This is the worst news from this discussion because fighting for authorship is not fighting for architecture but fighting for the individualisation of architecture. It is fighting for the mediatisation of the architect and fighting for the commercialisation of architecture. To summarise the question of authorship; first, that it is an internal question, secondly that the question of the end is a relative one, third that with the end we also have a beginning, and fourth with the question, why do we speak so much of authorship today?

I will start by saying that I am rather sceptical about the idea of authorship in architecture. One way to tackle the issue would be to call upon literary concepts and evaluate potential analogies with the field of architecture. But before doing so, I would like to try to briefly point out the origin of authorship.

Authorship is a modern concept, which only appears at the end of the Middle Ages. Earlier in history, societies had mediators, speakers, would be praised not for the content of their sayings, but for the eloquence of their speech. In other words, what used to stand at the centre of attention was not the what but the how. The notion of authorship is later codified by English empiricism and French Rationalism and this accounts for the emergence of the individual, before becoming a dominant ‘ism’.

In Chapter Sixteen of his Leviathan, ‘Of Persons, Authors and Things Personated’, Thomas Hobbes defines the notion of person as such: “He whose words and actions are considered, either as his own or as representing the words and actions of another man.” He further delineates two subcategories of persons: that of the natural person, when the words and actions are one’s own, and that of the artificial person, when these are representing the words and actions of another.

From a linguistic perspective, Hobbes additionally examines the meaning of the term person, respectively in Greek and Latin, and states: “The Greek person defines a face, while the Latin one describes a mask or a disguise.” Persons being used in tribunals and theatres are therefore wearing masks and accordingly act rather than are. It may be of interest to see the parallel between the theatrical feature and its stage as a person is to be considered an actor, that is, an emulation of the person itself. The architect is consequently not an author, but a political actor.

Regarding the notion of authorship, Hobbes furthermore informs: “Of persons artificial, some have their words and actions owned by those whom they represent. And then the person is the actor, and he that owns his words and actions is the author, in which case the actor acts by authority, but is not the author. So that by authority is always understood a right of doing any act, and done by authority, done by commission or license from him whose right it is.”

With regard to the artificial person, it is thus possible to state that the actor is not the author as he has acquired an authority to perform a given act in the name and interest of. On the contrary, the natural person is the actor as well as the actual author as he not only performs but also takes ownership of his own words and actions. Through the lens of materialist philosophy one postulates that architecture is a political act. As the dominant agent of the settings of daily lives, space is to be considered as the primary place of interaction between people. In that sense, any architecture is an act of policy: the architect is an actor with authority, hardly an author.

The second hypothesis refers to Barthes’ essay, ‘The Death of the Author’ in which he begins by quoting Balzac and his general consideration of femininity and asks: “Who is the source and who is writing? Balzac, the man or Balzac, the author?” Is this universal wisdom or romantic psychology? Barthes replies by saying there is no way one can say for sure who is the author of the sentences for the very reason: “That all writing is the special voice to which we cannot assign a specific origin. Literature is the trap where all identity is lost beginning with the identity of the body that writes it.” As a practice, I personally see architecture in an analogical manner. A necessary disjunction takes place when the author, as Barthes would say, enters his own death and starts writing. Words, and one could say architecture, speaks. It is not the author who carries meaning but words themselves. The secret agenda lies in the killing of the author in order to restore the status of the reader, or the user in the case of the built environment. There are manifold examples dealing with this issue; Proust not describing his life but making his own life a work of art, surrealism and automatic writing trying to kill the author as well as the authorship itself. To write or to project, is to reach the point where language, architecture, alone acts and performs. Architecture is to be understood as a performative act rather than a peremptory artistic feature. The objective would be to reach the point where architecture alone acts and performs: projecting is not an act of self-affirmation, but one of alienation.

There is an assumption that the digital is the enemy to authorship. This is a commonplace assumption and this is to some extent true. It is true for technical reasons for the way the digital works. The digital is alien and opposite to authorship as we have known it. We cannot go into details here but all that is digital is scripted. Mathematical is scripted. In a mathematical script there are parameters. Parametricism implies the author of the script does not give an individual value to each parameter but leaves many parameters open for variation with the idea that parameters will be customised by someone else later on. This opens the way to what has been called a split authorship or a layered agency, whereby there is one primary author who designs a general script, then one or more interactors who customise the script to adapt the script for specific circumstances. They give a specific value to each parameter, a primary author and secondary interactors, which gives a participatory design environment.

The digital avant-garde has been testing this for twenty years. An example I often show is Bernard Cache’s Tableaux Projectile, which is more than fifteen years old now. It looks like a piece of industrial design but it is not. It is a digital design. It’s a table, but you can’t buy it. You can only co-design it. If you want to buy one of these tables you need to sit at a computer terminal, tweak it, customise it, fine tune it, hone it and when you think you like what you see on the screen you print it out. It will be something very similar to what you see on the screen, but never identical. So there is a primary author who designs the generic object and the end user who is the participatory agent who customises it.

This remains an embryonic experiment in post-industrial digital design but the spirit is quite clear if we look at media objects such as Wikipedia. Most entries on Wikipedia are collaborative works. Who knows who wrote the entries? Many people write the entries but no one in particular. Normally we would tend not to trust this. The last one who edited it could be a fool, so theoretically we should not trust it. Yet we do trust it because it works and sometimes it works surprisingly well. Against all odds we all use Wikipedia. We don’t know how it works and yet we use it.

In a sense, the spirit of Wikipedia, but only in a sense, is similar to that of Gothic architecture. Who designed the cathedral of Chartres? We don’t know who designed it. Many people designed it but no one in particular. A Wikipedia entry, like the Gothic cathedral, is a collective endeavour of the whole community working together, all together and no one in particular. So John Ruskin would like Wikipedia if Wikipedia existed in the 19th century and people who like Wikipedia should like Gothic architecture because both are collaborative, participatory, interactive endeavours. They are collective and anonymous without any author with a specific name.

However, as you know at some point in history Europe stopped building in the Gothic way and started building in the classic way. One of the persons who was responsible for this, Leon Battista Alberti, came up in the fifteenth-century with a very modern idea that a building is the materialisation of one idea, conceived by one person. There is no architecture without one single individual inventor, a creator, a designer, an author, an architect. Architecture is conceived in the mind, expressed through the drawing and executed without any change. Architecture is one idea, the idea of one person. Since the Renaissance we agree that without this individual authorship there is no design, there is no architecture, there is only building. If there is not one name, not one thinker, not one creator who had one idea, it is building. There is Gothic building but not Gothic architecture because architecture is predicated on modern humanistic authorship.

We can probably not conceive architecture without some aspect of authorship. Even the digital avant-garde, with few exceptions, has never tested the borders of participatory design, which is why we have Wikipedia and not Wikitecture, apart from some marginal and isolated experiments. With one exception, a software called Building Information Modeling (BIM), which has been strongly endorsed by the building industry. BIM is predicated on the idea that instead of drawings there are 3D models which are interactive from the beginning of the design process. The idea is that clients, designers and contractors work together in a happy, collaborative, collective, consensual way from beginning to end. To make this system work a new business model and a new legal framework has been tested called Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) whereby the clients, designers and contractors sign a covenant whereby they pledge to share the deal and profits of the design process. In this framework the architect as we know it does not exist anymore, which is why architects do not like BIM. Architects tend to think BIM is a Trojan Horse, a ploy of the building and construction industry to eliminate the humanistic role of the architect as we have known it since the Renaissance. Architects don’t like this. They don’t call it design by leadership; they call it design by committee, which never has a good reputation among design professions.

There is a proverb: “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” This implies that if a committee tries to make a horse, they make a camel, implying that a camel does not look good. It looks a bit strange. This proverb belies a contradiction because if you think of it, a committee will never agree to make a camel. A committee will easily reach a consensus to make a horse. To make a camel, a committee will never agree because a camel is a very intelligent and smart piece of deign. A camel is a horse customised for a very specific environment. If you want a horse to run and prosper in the desert you have to design it that way and a committee will never do that.

To design a camel you need an individual talent with the quirkiness, the individuality, the contrariness, the standoff-ness, the genius of an individual design. To make a long story short, the building and construction industry, using digital tools and using BIM, can make as many horses as they like, but as long as we need camels we cannot fear the death of authorship. So long as we need camels we will always need authors, regardless of technology.

I detest discussions about authorship. I hate them because they don’t seem to me to lead to the most interesting observations about buildings or works of architecture. Wherever you go in the built environment you find works of all sorts and those works may indeed have had authors, but inquiring into who those authors were and investigating them does not necessarily lead to any fruitful results. If we go somewhere like this street in Düsseldorf, we might be able to identify the authors of individual buildings, but that knowledge would not tell us much.

fig. 1
Düsseldorf 1979
Photograph by Thomas Struth


It would be unlikely to lead to an interesting discussion. There are many more productive things that we can extract from the built environment, from buildings and from works of architecture, than can be had from asking questions about authorship. I would prefer to leave discussions about authorship alone and concentrate instead on the many other sources of knowledge that buildings contain and may release to us. So that’s my starting proposition.

The fact that I am saying these things about authorship, about the worthlessness of authorship in thinking about the built environment, does not make me the author of them. I am not necessarily the author of my thoughts. Why do I say this? These thoughts come from my own formation as an historian. Circumstances may have made me appear to be an author, but much of what I think or say comes, ready formed, from elsewhere. The whole discipline of history, the science of history, was developed in the nineteenth century in order to get away from the notion that history was produced by individuals, and to show on the contrary that individuals are not responsible for the course of history.

There are larger processes at work that cause great events to come about. World War I did not happen because Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand. Why did it start? The science of history is dedicated to looking for ways of accounting for major events beyond the actions of individuals. As far as history is concerned, there is a nice statement by the British historian E.H. Carr: “The desire to postulate individual genius as the creative force in history is characteristic of the primitive stages of historical consciousness.” Carr’s message is that in the advanced stages of historical consciousness, to which I like to think I belong, one looks for causes other than those presented by the individual. Carr’s comment, and all that goes with it, is one reason why I am not the author of my distaste for authorship.

A second influence in my formation is from art history. The science of art history also developed in the nineteenth-century. One of the founders of the discipline, the German historian Heinrich Wölfflin, aspired to create an art history without names. As he saw it a really effective and valuable art history would deal not with individuals, but with trends, tendencies, styles, groupings and would think about movements in a broader sense than as being the outcome of the work of individuals, something larger was at work. What was it that led to Baroque or to Gothic? What brought these developments about? It was not individuals. Gothic cathedrals were the outcome of more complex social relations and processes than can be explained by reference to any individual or even workshop. It is the failure of an exclusive focus on individuals, even supposing you can find out who they were, to come up with any but the most banal insights that lies behind my reluctance to bother with authorship.

As a coda, we should remember that authorship comes from literature. When we think of authors, we think of works of literature, and when in architecture we talk of authorship, we are borrowing a concept from literature. The presumption is that in literature, books have authors. Yes, they do, but on the other hand the most successful book of all time, the Bible, does not have an author. Although we know the names of the evangelists who wrote the four gospels, the authorship of the rest of the Bible is uncertain. Although there is a branch of Biblical studies dedicated to the authorship of particular sections of the Bible, the results are never going to be of more than very minor interest. People do not read the Bible for the author; they read it for its content. The Bible is an authorless work, and there are plenty of other authorless works. Authorless works survive, often better than works with authors. I enjoy authorless works, I find the process by which they come into being fascinating. Take one example; The Admiralty Navigation Manual has no author. It is a cumulative work. It has been through many editions, rewritten and revised over the course of almost two centuries. The 1938 Edition, is full of knowledge and at times it is even witty, in a dry sort of way. There are many other books, some of them manuals of various kinds, that are authorless, but they are still nonetheless works. They are a bit like Gothic cathedrals. They have multiple authors and they have been assembled cumulatively over time. But their authorship is not important. Knowing if it was ‘lieutenant commander’ so and so, or ‘captain’ so and so, who wrote this bit or that bit would not add either to the utility of the work or to our appreciation of it. It is work that matters, not the author. So let us concentrate on works, not authors.


All presentations have had at their heart a scepticism of the contribution of the individual. Why?

We have authors because of the market. Authors are commercial instruments created for marketing and mediatisation purposes to brand projects. We are all, in different ways, uneasy about that. Perhaps this is the most immediate reason to be wary of the claims made for authorship: it is a marketing device. Anonymity does not sell, at least not in the world of bespoke products to which architecture belongs.

In the Middle Ages you can buy a copy of Cicero, but all manuscripts you find on the market are different, in the handwriting, the spelling and sometimes the composition of the text because of the scribe. Every scribe, when copying, never refrained from editing the text. He was manipulating by cutting passages he did not like, and since quotation marks had not been invented at that point, when you read the second edition you have no knowledge of what had been written by Cicero then revised by the scribe. In those times there was the opposite problem of authorship. People wanted to read Cicero, to know Cicero, not what the scribe had revised. While all scribe manuscripts were different, when they started to print books, most copies were all the same. There was a way to authorise the identical reproduction of letters that would be the same for each reader. Today we are now trying to undo the long process of recognising intellectual authority.


We feel there is a sense of people feeling frustrated that there is a lack of agency. There is an anxiety about our ability to act in the world in a technical and philosophical level. This frustrated agency has implications for architecture. Young people coming into this system feel they cannot act on the world. I’d like you to respond to this idea that authorship is not about copyright or the biography of the individual, it is about agency. How do we encourage people to act with intention?

One of the major problems of our time is the lack of models. The league of Gehry, and others, are aristocratic and cannot be followed. They never produce projects, only objects. The only way they can be followed is by producing exceptions and objects, which are mediatised. As architects we are always asked to produce exceptions and not models. There is a big difference from what we call ‘project’, and the German word entwurff, which implies something that is both yet to come and also goes away, is alienating. To project is to throw something forward. Today we do not produce projects, but objects. Today we do not sit within a repertoire of architecture, of things to be followed, but not followed one to one. I am not calling for a return to the École des Beaux-Arts, but they were able to produce a framework to which each architect can find their own ability. Today we seem unable to form a repertoire, a frame, because what we teach our students and what they see is promoted by the media and expected by the clients, beyond our own will. This is difficult to escape from because we are only asked to produce exceptions and nothing to be followed. We always have to stand outside of a repertoire in order to produce something that is striking. Architecture consists of more than just personalities, more than authorship. It addresses political space and anything but a self-conceived attitude.

I’d like to make a comment on the concept of the architect as an actor. The context from which this thought comes is Hobbes’ Leviathan, in which Hobbes was constructing a case for the right by which a king can hold authority over others. He wanted to establish in what respect a ruler is an individual and in what respects he or she was an agent of the state, an actor. There is a parallel here with the field of architecture. By what right do certain people do certain things and occupy certain roles, in the production of buildings and the built environment? This notion that we are dealing with architects not as artists but as actors is helpful. To talk of the architect as a facilitator is similar. The architect is someone who makes things happen. This seems productive. Calling the architect an artist is the death of the architect. Why must the architect be a genius? It burdens the architect with unrealistic expectations, and it is not necessary.

Now we are naming the author. I think it is quite useful to name and qualify things. The corpus of the author can be interesting, to follow the production of designs, the buildings and how they developed. As a methodological tool I would not kill the author. The author is extremely relevant as a way to use the author to understand the individual on one hand, and about history on the other. We need to reframe the author inside the analytical discussion.

We can make a difference between anonymity as a tool for looking at the past. For instance we are trained in long duration. We can use anonymous tools to examine history where we can identify periods of history with styles without names and there are periods when styles are more related to names. That is one approach. Another one is to look at things in the way they are made. If architecture exists, it was made, created. By whom? What was the decision process? Who invented it? In what ways? Was it individual, notational, collaborative? Technological or cognitive? At some point human beings made architecture happen. Maybe one, maybe many. It is part of a process and part of a decision making process that is technologically and culturally determined.  

Somehow we hate the author, but also must be concerned by authorship.


To parallel what Hobbes is saying, which is to create an authority in which the actor can act, Le Corbusier was creating an authority to construct a new architecture. Now we don’t have that authority so the reason why icons take off, for instance, is because we don’t have an authority to act on. I’d be interested in how you respond to that.

The interesting thing about Le Corbusier is he tried to codify architecture in his ‘five points’, which relate functional, constructional and aesthetic elements. We need to understand how we can systematise architecture and offer aesthetic answers.

        Are there any questions from the audience?


Can you say something about authoring as a system? I’m thinking of a system like Classicism, which offers a set of rules and relationships, a repertoire and a codification that lots of people can use.

It is paradoxical that given the situation we are in where there are countless laws, rigidity, regulations, rules, and yet we produce exceptions to rules as objects. How can we recover an ability to judge?


Can you suggest how one might conduct oneself as an architect in society when the quiet architect is not heard and yet that quietness is also an attraction?

We live in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. The world is outside our control. One of the roles that architecture has is to provide reassurance. Architecture has the role of assuaging uncertainty. We have buildings and we have authors. One of the devices through which architecture gives an illusion of certainty is by means of authorship. If buildings have authors they must be real. It is all part of the phantasmagoria. Could there be some other means of providing assurance that we need? Is there a way to give this assurance other than by relying on authors? How would we do it? It goes back to the question of what we require of architecture? Could there be an alternative way to provide stability and certainty through the built environment other than by the fiction of the author?


I still think there is confusion. Maybe the word authorship links too easily with talk of the icon and celebrity culture. What I was talking about is agency. Another question is about developing the idea of judgement, or helping people develop an idea about judgement. We are out of the habit of discussing history with students in a way that allows them to develop a judgement as cultured individuals. That’s why I’m interested in recognising the individual because society as a whole and scholars make judgements about works to decide what works and buildings are the best works that society produced at this time. Those individuals, through their ideas, are the best expression of what we can achieve at a particular time. The problem I have in the opposition to authorship is that it destroys our capacity to understand history in that progressive way.