Provocation 2: Resurrecting the Form Follows Function Bugbear

Disillusionment with the modernist techno-utopian, deterministic paradigm of architectural design, embodied most famously in the dictum, “Form Follows Function,” came quickly on the heals of modernity’s most aberrant manifestations – the atomic bomb and the systematic genocide of Nazi Germany.  This does not mean that this branch of architectural speculation merely withered away in the atomic fallout of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or choked in the soot of European death camps; it lingered on in various forms, from the Geoscope projects of Fuller and McHale, to the wild utopian visions of the Archigram Group, to the cultural institution of the Pompidou Center, etc.  However, despite these rather virulent strains of late modernity, modernist dreams were largely disparaged, and by the early 1970s, the modern movement had become largely toothless (metaphorically, if not literally).

The reaction to modernity came in various forms, whether it was that of Aldo Rossi’s typological excurses, Bernard Rudofsky’s, Robert Venturi’s and Denise Scott-Brown’s extolment of vernacular forms, or Kenneth Frampton’s, et al., regionalism (all of which attempted to replace, in one form or another, the technological determinism of the modernists with historical, semiotically-inflected, design standards); or it was Reyner Banham’s critic of modernity as a largely formal exercise divorced from its original promise of technological liberation, or Peter Eisenmann’s and Bruno Latour’s denial that we had ever been truly modern in the first place.  The attack on modernity was ubiquitous, and polymorphous; eroding the edges of modernist accomplishments from all angles, until all that was left was a minute kernel of extent, and increasingly ignored, monuments to a much derided movement, that many had concluded, had seen its star descend into antipathetic near obscurity.

As a TA for Architectural History in the School of Architecture at UB, I also challenged my students to think critically about the promises of modernity, arguing against its zeitgeist theoretical articulation, and targeting, specifically, the simplicity of the “Form Follows Function” formulation.  I asked my students, simply, “What does a function look like?” and argued that, separated from the meaning imbued in various architectural types, the history of architecture teaches us that, in most instances, a well-serviced volume of appropriate size serves just as easily for a vast array of potential functions.  I then extended this critique to contemporary advances in parametric design, arguing that these embody, in certain respects, a re-assertion of the “Form Follows Function” argument, now dressed up as digitally determined monuments to optimization that only worked within the narrow spectrum of data that provided the final form.  In retrospect, it was like kicking a corpse for spite.

So, it represents a distinct evolution in my own thought, as well as a radical revision of my basic orientation, that I now find myself revising these assumptions, and arguing for the potential value of re-evaluating this much worn and weary phrase as a possible well for further architectural exploration.  This does not mean that I entirely disagree with my earlier positions, nor does it mean that I do not find fault with the simplistic way in which this particular pronouncement is frequently interpreted.  Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the essential limitations of both the original “Form Follows Function” paradigm, and of my earlier critique of it.  This is largely an issue of framing.

If “function” is framed in such a way that it becomes a synonym for “use,” then, in the main, my earlier critique remains relevant – there is no real reason why, in many instances, any volume whatsoever is not sufficient to hold (as a container) various general functions.  Absenting semantics, the meanings that various forms hold culturally and/or psychologically, there is no real reason why a church, a shopping mall, an office building, or a house, etc., need be anything more than a volume more or less sized to the appropriate number of expected inhabitants, and subdivided appropriately for the various uses they might hold.  However, this is a vary narrow definition of “function.”

If we return to another defining sentence in the history of modernist architectural speculation, we can begin extending the notion of function to its appropriate proportions:  “A house is a machine for living in.”  In this, Le Corbusier is, I think, mainly correct, even if his domestic designs reveal an interest more focused on formal articulation than on proper functioning, as Banham argues in “The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment.”  If we critique Le Corbusier, it is not because his idea was wrong, but rather because his realization of this idea was poor – he might have produced beautiful living machines, but they functioned badly as environments for “living in,” and this is largely because the form relates little to the function, or only to a limited number of possible functions.  For example, in his now iconic Villa Savoye, the car park works just fine, but the environmental servicing, not at all.

This said, let us linger on the potential merit of this statement, which has probably had more influence on architectural discourse than any of Corbu’s built work has; but let us resuscitate it through Banham’s critique of it.  The infrastructure of a house represents an incredibly complex set of systems (some of them cybernetic in nature), many of which are interconnected, and all of which (by today’s standards of building) define in large part the ultimate physical comfort of the space.  Sadly, for most architects, the environmental servicing of their structures represent a series of “black boxes,” supervised by the various professions which are tasked with developing and maintaining them.  Mostly, environmental servicing in architectural design is limited to a series of design conditions focused on making enough room for their implementation by other people in other disciplines – thus the walls and floors need to be thick enough to house chases capable of carrying HVAC ducts, water pipes and electrical conduit; and the outlets for at least some of this servicing generally protrude, like an ill-considered scars, from the design, as vestiges of something only tentatively and abstractly considered by the architect.  Rarely do we see any innovative and/or interesting use of infrastructure as an aesthetic attribute in itself, much less as a driver of meaningful formal innovation.

Of course, the isolated structure itself represents only a terminus for much larger and more complex infrastructural networks, providing gas/oil, water, electricity and communications to the building.  It is also part of a matrix of other buildings (to return to Rossi’s theory of type), which, combined, coalesce into an architectural context – a semiotic, aesthetic and environmental whole – an ecology, of sorts.  This implies a number of more abstract functions, largely legal in nature, and hinging upon property lines, easements, building codes, and in certain instances, specific aesthetic ordinances pertaining to the overall profile of the structure, its relation to pedestrian and vehicular transit infrastructures, etc.  Understood in this way, we can begin to see how any structure begins to embody a vast system of functions that are either largely hidden from view, or ignored by the contemporary architectural establishment as aberrant limitations on formal innovation (where this even factors into the equation).

Thus, the unique profile of a New York City skyscraper, for example, does not necessarily reflect its user-requirements, but rather its function as a part of the overall lighting conditions of the street.  However, this example introduces yet another set functional requirements with potential formal importance – including requirements of circulation, exodus in case of emergency, fireproofing, etc., much of which is handled with the same kind of essential indifference to the architectural articulation of the building (in form) as plumbing, HVAC and electrical infrastructure are at the smaller scale of the home.  So, on the one hand, we have machines, on the other hand we have volumes; but only in very rare instances do we have an integration of the two in terms of meaningful formal/functional interface and/or interpenetration.  For ignorance, or indifference, form and function are kept arbitrarily separate along professional lines, as finite frameworks determined essentially by legal accountability.

This is where a re-investment on behalf of the architectural community in the essential arguments of modernity, and in the cybernetic systems that evolved (in part) out of these arguments, might bear fresh fruit in terms of the reintegration of the form and its numerous functions.  Furthermore, this is where the relatively eclectic field of situated technologies might provide significant contributions to the emerging interest in sustainable design exhibited by the architectural community.  Sadly, separated as they are, situated technology research in the field of architecture commonly evinces an interest in high-tech designs with limited application in today’s architectural practice; esoteric in nature, and largely theoretically derived, situated technology research stands on the fringes of the architectural establishment, looking in.  Meanwhile, many environmentally-focused architectural efforts seem forever trapped in the way-back machine of the 1960s; providing luddite solutions that are both insufficient for today’s growing environmental concerns and exhibiting a gaze that is retrospective, instead of projective, in focus.

Some of these issues are cultural – situated technologies researchers don’t, necessarily, want to play second fiddle to the growing green movement, nor do they want to restrict the focus of their efforts to this admittedly narrow band of architectural activity; meanwhile, many contemporary self-consciously “environmental” architects see technology as part of the problem, not the solution.  However, this does not represent the extents of cultural entrenchment that essentially limit our potential as a discipline to contribute innovative solutions to ubiquitous problems.  Perhaps more damning than the divide between techno-utopians and luddite-leaning proponents of sustainability are the professional lines of division between the architect and the various servicing professions; not to mention the resistance of various manufacturers and bureaucrats to meaningful innovation in the field of architecture, which is often either seen as untested, and thus dangerous, or an open threat to the hegemony of the HVAC, plumbing and electrical industries, an argument forcefully advanced by Michelle Addington in her visit to UB two years ago.

Some of the questions this raises are:  How do we break the cultural/economic inertia of contemporary architectural/servicing/construction practices to reinvent all three in ways that begin to address current technological capacities and environmental needs?  How do we create the kind of synergetic bridges between fields requisite for meaningful innovation in building design?  How do we begin integrating the interests of situated technologies research with those of sustainability, without subsuming the identity of the one within the broader cultural momentum of the other?  How do we move from parametric design to performative/adaptive design in ways that do not sublimate formal architectural attributes by reducing architectural form to a scaffolding for integrated cybernetic systems, as in the Fun Palace; or how do we integrate cybernetic systems into architectural form in ways that express both? Finally, how do we debunk the bugbear of modernity in ways that bring the unrealized positive potential of modernity to the fore in contemporary architectural design?

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