Function Follows Form: Rethinking the ‘Function’ of ‘Form’ in Architecture

“[Life] is a property of form, not matter, a result of the organization of matter rather than something that inheres in the matter itself.

-        Christopher Langton, Artificial Life, p. 41

“There is… a well-defined difference between the magical and the scientific imitation of life.  The former copies external appearances; the latter is concerned with performance and behavior.”

-        Grey Walter, The Living Brain, p. 115

The importance of form is perhaps one of the most contentiously debated subjects in contemporary architectural discourse.  However, the conceptual divide between those (like the author of this essay) who question the validity of “formalist” architecture, and those who embrace form as a fundamental aspect of architectural production, need not (and should not) represent the equivalent of an ideological impasse.  For both, form matters; what is in question is how and why it matters.

While the roots of this debate may have sprung from the seed of proto-modernist architects, like Viollet-le-Duc, who, in his defense of the structural principles of Gothic architecture and their potential application for iron construction, anticipates the arguments of the European avant-garde of the early 20th century, the debate itself begins in earnest with the functionalist claims of this latter group.  The dictum “form follows function,” repeated ad nauseum over the century since its first articulation, is the symbolic nexus around which arguments pertaining to form have been organized ever since.  It remains relevant only insofar as it is precisely the function of form that remains contested.

The inherent contradiction of the “functionalist” argument lies in the incommensurate equation of specific architectural responses (forms) to abstract social behaviors.  This contradiction is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of social “functions,” resulting in the over-generalization of nuanced forms of cultural production (work, leisure, home), that simultaneously ignored the temporal dimension of social interaction – how different kinds of work, leisure and domestics change over time.  Following this logic, the modernists were compelled to create highly generic spaces, like the office tower, which have proven insufficient both formally and functionally.  Were it not for the inherent adaptability of people to spaces, the only resolution to such forms would be to follow the Futurist recommendation that cities change their buildings as frequently as people change their clothes.

The response to this kind of functionalism came swiftly; originating in Team X’s response to the urban planning strategies of CIAM, which emphasized the importance of different sorts of social interaction over the highly formalist separation of functions supported by the Athens Charter.  By the late 1960s, there was a full-fledged rejection of modernist principles.  Formulated in the wake of semiotics, this rejection re-positioned the function of form as the expression of cultural signifiers.

Consumed with the post-structuralist analysis of “texts,” the post-modernists emphasized the nature of architectural forms as cultural signifiers.  The underlying argument of their work relied on re-interpreting the architectural lexicon in ways that created symbolic associations and fissures with the past.  Laboring under the compendious critique of literary theorists, like Jacques Derrida, the post-modernists focused on systems of elision, through which cultural referents were utilized in ways that essentially problematized their ultimate meaning (or reading).  This kind of highly semantic re-contextualization was applied both to traditional, historically recognizable and/or popular architectural forms (Venturi), and to modernist forms alike (Peter Eisenman), and represents a re-orientation away from the “form follows function” paradigm of modernism, towards a ethos best articulated as “form follows meaning.”

The architectural production of the late twentieth and early 21st century is remarkable for its theoretical impenetrability, and represents a refocusing away from general tenants pertaining to either form or function, and towards the individual exegesis of what the historian Charles Jencks (equally notable for his description of post-modernism) has called iconic architecture.  Reliant upon the supposed “genius” or talent (the cultural cache) of the architect, this kind of architecture is remarkable for its theoretical opacity – it remains open to criticism, but not to critique, unless that critique is based on its lack of any critical/social foundation and/or formulation.  In response, there has been a resurgence of theories that attempt to re-establish the cultural importance of architecture as a genre enacted in the public sphere, and retaining a degree of societal importance above and beyond the (more often than not) unrealized commercial goals conceptually premised upon the existence of iconic buildings designed by equally iconic architects – the “Bilbao effect” is as infrequently reproduced as it is frequently attempted.

As a result, one can only understand this production as a period of transition, during which traditional principles of design were momentarily suspended, as a generation of arguably exceptional architects came to terms with the new tools at their disposal, preparing, in their way, for a new paradigm shift.  This shift incorporates a unique re-instantiation of the modernist functionalist paradigm, based now on powerful new means for architectural modeling – parametric design.  Parametric design is, in many respects, a hybrid – it attempts to recreated the potential for iconic design, within the matrix of a series of pseudo-scientifically derived principles.  On the one hand, there is a trend towards optimized form, based on highly probabilistic strategies of weather, structural wear and movement pattern (social interaction) prediction, anticipation and accommodation.  On the other hand, there is also a trend towards “morphogenetic” design, based on equally probabilistic paradigms derived from theories of complexity originating in the biological and physical sciences.

In either manifestation, the formal resolutions of contemporary parametric/biomorphic design mimic Grey Walter’s definition of the magical predisposition cited at the beginning of this essay.  They produce the image of principles, rarely explored in any depth, and thus frequently misunderstood, and thus misrepresented; they produce forms, more or less new, divorced from any original reflection on the importance of form in the production architecture.  Ironically, and despite a resurgence in interest in the works of mid-century modernists, like Buckminster Fuller, who emphasized the inherent relevance of form as it pertains to structure and information, the contemporary emphasis on form tends to obscure the fundamental importance of form in its own right.  As a result, contemporary theorists fail to recognized the necessary inversion of the original formalist argument implied by theories of complexity, and dominant in contemporary biological discourse; form does not follow function, rather function follows form.

This inverse relationship between form and function is representative of the work of post-war cyberneticists, like Ross Ashby and Grey Walter, both neurophysiologists by training, and finds strong representation in early theories of computer science, propounded by John von Neumann (who developed the concept of parallel computing, or von Neumann architecture).  It also forms the basis of later work on complexity, chaos and Artificial Life, propounded by the founder of the latter, Christopher Langton in the quote at the beginning of this essay.   The work of all of these precedents emphasizes the way in which functions are derived from the formal matrixes that make such functions possible (it is the massively parallel inter-relational architecture of the brain, for example, that results in its incredible functionality as a matrix of thought); and while cybernetics has historically found few architectural proponents, and the work of its inheritors has been refocused from material interaction and (re)organization to computational systems that model or enact these systems in a digital environment, the importance of this paradigmatic shift away from the preeminence of function to that of form should not be ignored.

The early influence of cybernetic ideas on the discourse of architecture is best represented in the work of Cedric Price, which, embracing a paradigm of emergence and expectance, eschewed formalism, for infrastructural a-formalism.  Price understood that the creation of new social/cultural paradigms implied that the formal articulation of these paradigms could not follow existent ones, but had to create conditions by means of which they would be reinvented, resulting in architectural systems amendable to reorganization, and hence emergence.  In many respects, what he lacked was the technological, material and computational means to design such spaces, and these we have today, in spades.

However, architects seem intent on systems of formal imposition, rather than on those of emergence, ad hoc social interaction, spatial redefinition, and the formal articulation of potential rather than stasis, of invitation rather than exclusion, and invention rather than context; the sign of the architect, as creator, as the originator of sufficient forms, imposes a system of formal articulation that, in its nature, is antithetical to emergent paradigms of space creation at the level of individual interaction and behavior, thus sublimating the importance of form as a functional determinant.  It also frustrates the importance of form that lies at the foundation of theories (like complexity) from which contemporary architecture so liberally borrows.  As a result, architectural production remains within the realm of magic described by Grey Walter, forced to embrace superficial similes, rather than the formal principles that lie behind their scientific precedents.  The ego of architecture thus represents the frontier of meaningful formal production; following the flawed model of Ayn Rand’s prototypical egoist Howard Rourke, a creator of temporally constrained, socially ineffectual models of cultural production, embodied in the individualist formal vocabulary of a passing fad.

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2 Responses to Function Follows Form: Rethinking the ‘Function’ of ‘Form’ in Architecture

  1. Shemme says:

    what is function follows form?

    • ajacoblevin says:

      Hi Shemme,

      I would argue that it is when functionality is both premised upon and preceded by form. For example, the ‘functionality’ of the human brain is premised primarily upon its physical material composition and its organization. In a highly reductive way, it could be argued that a brain is a thing for thinking, however, thinking is an condition that emerges entirely out of the material and formal qualities of the brain, and which could not have been ‘design’ with the ‘intention’ of thinking, since thinking itself is preconditioned by the form and material that make it possible. A similar argument may be made about the ‘intentional’ objects of design; that a formal approach to design could reveal as yet unknown, or at least, unanticipated functions, premised entirely upon the form/material/organization of the designed object.

      It is a way of rethinking design around a less deterministic, and thus restricted, functional paradigm, and to use form as a means of exploring ‘emergent’ functions for as yet undefined conditions.

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