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.

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The Crisis of Architecture and the New Imaginary

Architecture is in crisis, but this is nothing new; architects and architectural historians and theoreticians have been proclaiming the crisis of architecture now for over a century.  Essays, books, courses and projects have all focused, in one way or another, on the crisis of architecture, and yet little meaningful work has been done on resolving this crisis.  Perhaps this is because the perpetual crisis of architecture provides its practitioners with the latitude to produce provocative work premised on the crisis itself; the crisis has become the other without which architects can no longer critically assess their production; the acknowledgement of crisis has become the base condition to enact an unending critique, and finding meaningful responses to this crisis would deprive architects of an essential attribute of their practice.

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Domes, Films and Toys: The Role of Education in the Works of Bucky Fuller and Charles and Ray Eames

In Architecture or Techno-utopia:  Politics After Modernism, Felicity Scott maps the migration of military technologies into the popular imagination, focusing specifically on how these technologies became potent tools for the counterculture of the 1960s.  Not surprisingly, her lens is focused on the geodesic domes that Buckminster Fuller designed for America’s early warning air defense system, and the development of LSD as a tool for psychological warfare.  However, if the geodesic dome was transformed, through its application in environments like Drop City, into a symbol of countercultural zeitgeist, then the mind-expansion that many countercultural figures, like Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and Aldous Huxley, premised upon the ingestion of psychedelics, finds similar resonance in attempts to re-conceptualize systems of learning and behavior that were rooted, not only in the work of radical psychologists, like R.D. Laing, but also in attempts by both Buckminster Fuller and Charles and Ray Eames to develop a new educational paradigm.

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Buckminster Fuller, Mixed Metaphors and the Radiolarian

With the introduction of “Buckyballs” and “Fullerenes” into the scientific lexicon in 1985, Fuller’s conquest of the molecular milieu seemed complete, and his system of geodesic design gained the full weight of scientific legitimation.  This kind of migration, from the discipline of architecture to that of the sciences is rare.  In most instances, the movement of terminology works in reverse, with terms like “circulation,” originally used in the description of biological systems, slowly making its way into architectural discourse in the late 19th century.  This interaction between science and architecture continues today, with theories of morphogenetic design finding their way into contemporary architectural discourse, more often than not resulting in formally complex speculative projects based in parametric modeling, which tend to emphasize the image, rather than the concept behind it.

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Ecological Obsolescence – Towards Total Disposability

…obsolescence as a process is wealth-producing, not wasteful.  It leads to constant renewal of the industrial establishment at higher and higher levels, and it provides a way of getting a maximum of good to a maximum of people…The waste occurs where obsolescence is both too slow and too haphazard, where adequate information and adequate controls and systematic elimination are lacking.

–        George Nelson, “Obsolescence,” Perspecta, vol. 11, 1967

Technology implied change, and so a positive attitude implied a dynamic, living and progressive society rather than one which was stagnating with an outmoded culture and set of values.  Technology was the provider of material dreams.

–        Nigel Whiteley, “Towards a Throw-Away Culture, Consumerism, ‘Style Obsolescence’ and Cultural Theory in the 1950s and 1960s,” Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1987

No less than three generations of Americans have lived in an economy that has, in one way or another, embraced obsolescence as an integral aspect of commercial design; and no less than three generations of Americans have come to both expect and exalt in the apparently endless procession of “new,” “original” and “novel” commodities that are released every season, only to become outdated within another.  The penultimate condition of most Americans’ possessions is decidedly antediluvian.  We live precariously poised somewhere between the passing present and the promises of the immanent future; always becoming that which will be transformed by the transcendent objects that we alternately covet and consume.

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The Original Sputnik Shuffle – Reflections on the Apollo Spacesuit

I recently found the following clip on YouTube:

 

While this short video should be appreciated for both its humor and its strangeness, there is much more content behind it than appears at first perusal.  It seems to date from a period of exploration into spacesuit technology that is wonderfully documented by Nicholas de Monchaux in Spacesuit:  Fashioning Apollo; and the hyperactive movements of the dancing cosmonaut are probably designed to exhibit the range of motion of the suit (notice the clock-face motion towards the end of the clip, before the “running man.”)  More interesting is that this is an exhibition of soft-suit technology, at a time when NASA was primarily interested in the hard-shell suits being designed by prominent aeronautics and defense contractors.

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Buffalo Grain Elevators – The Future That Could Have Been; The Past That Is Disappearing

For whatever reason, whether it was because they were more interested in the systems of abstraction, purism and essentialism that were being developed in the arts at the time, or because the technical and cultural conditions of their era were not suited to the development of a functionally-determined architecture, the European modernists of the early 20th century never fully realized the promise of the techno-utopian, rationalist ideals of their early writings.  This failure is as clear in the works of Gropius and van der Rohe, as it is in that paragon of European Modernist functionalism – Giaccomo Matte-Trucco’s Fiat Factory in Turin, Italy, in which the turning radius of the roof-top test track is too narrow to accommodate the vehicles that it was designed to test.  However, while European architects were having a devil of a time designing to the standards of their rhetoric, American engineers and builders (whose model the European Modernists followed, up to a point) were realizing the modernist functionalist paradigm without relying on any form of rhetoric other than that of cost, program, material and expediency.

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