The Real Function of Form

The kickoff for this post was an infovertisement in June’s Architectural Review. Ostensibly, the issue was about criticism but there wasn’t much on show. Elsewhere, Michael Sorkin contributed a very long article criticising criticism. I’m still trying to digest it and when I do I’ll write an article criticising that. If ever it’s proved that architecture is actually a giant system of communications, I hope we also come to realize that most of it is bullshit. For now, I’m finding this article particularly offensive.

style and substance

It’s the kind of non-information that shows how print people and architects have to collude to shift units of their respective products. 

Evidence? Well, for a start, it’s called an interview but it reads like the interviewer and/or her people have supplied answers to a set of email questions. There’s nothing really wrong with that except they haven’t gone to much trouble to supply answers or information that are in any way interesting. It’s an interview-by-numbers as part of communication-by-numbers. This might be a new trend. By recently describing his De Rotterdam as “a vertical city”, Rem Koolhaas showed he couldn’t be bothered to properly pull the wool over our eyes anymore. Anyway, it’s an ugly transaction. Here. Read it all and have a shower after. Meet you back here.

Much reference is made to Harvard, seminars, students, research and previous publications. Let’s backtrack a bit to the first book, The Function of Ornament.

  • The Function of Ornament is a primer for the digital age, with Foreign Office Architects Farshid Moussavi demonstrating how the computer is as fine a form generator as any pattern book. —Wallpaper Magazine
  • A remarkable array of forms. —Metropolis Magazine
  • Undeniably powerful. — Architect’s Journal

You can go to your library or download a pdf (not that I’m condoning that) and in it you will find the following theory on all of thirteen pages. It’s an end-of-term paper. Here’s all 2,405 words.

The Function Of Ornament

Farshid Moussavi


Architecture needs mechanisms that allow it to become connected to culture. It achieves this by continually capturing the forces that shape society as material to work with. Architecture’s materiality is therefore a composite one, made up of visible as well as invisible forces. Progress in architecture occurs through new concepts by which it becomes connected with this material, and it manifests itself in new aesthetic compositions and affects. It is these new affects that allow us to constantly engage with the city in new ways.

This is wonderful rubbish, with its A-K-so-therefore-P logic. I couldn’t find a rating on Rate My Professor but there is a Harvard bio. Anyway, two dubious claims follow as well as an apparent grammatical error. She must have gotten some stick for that (for there’s a clarification in Vol. 2: The Function of Form). Basically, she’s using the word “affect” as a noun like Delueze used to. Or was it Spinoza? Let’s remember that English wasn’t their mother tongue either, but it will grate – I promise you. Basically, the function of form is to affect us and the way in which it affects us is an “affect”. Sad thing is, she got reviewers doing it too.

  • A compelling study of affect manifest in clearly presented case studies with savy representations of various architectural techniques. – Documents
  • A thoroughly and beautifully illustrated book that gives a broad overview of the various affects achieved by mostly contemporary buildings. – Archidose]

Just go with it for now. We’re still not done with Vol 1 so best save our strength.]

The aesthetic composition of buildings has been explored in various ways in history.

[What is the point to this sentence? “The sun will come up tomorrow”, but what’s the point saying so?]

In the twentieth century, Modernism used transparency

[It did not for it was never possible to begin with. However, it was always possible to spend a lot of money to attempt to create the appearance of transparency – or “floating”, for that matter.]

to achieve a “direct” representation of architectural elements of space, structure and program. But recent history contributed to making the use of literal transparency obsolete, prompting a discussion on the expression of buildings. Postmodernism used décor, and Deconstructivism used the geometry of collage, as styles in place of transparency

[Did it really?].

But style cannot easily adjust to changes in culture.

[Does anyone know what this might mean, apart from making you think that style perhaps adjusts all too easily? I suppose that if you had a culture of building office buildings or houses quite inexpensively and efficiently then attempts to make inefficient and expensive office buildings or houses would meet with a lot of cultural resistance. There’s also the separate question of should style do any adjusting at all?]


[I always distrust that word.]

a number of conditions require us


to reevaluate these previous tools for constructing building expressions.

[uh – why?]

These include a growing number of building types that are “blank.” Department stores, shopping malls, cineplexes, libraries, and museums do not require any relationship between inside and outside.

[Maybe we like them being blank. Maybe blank is good. Maybe blank needs a theory? Give blank a break.] 

Contemporary technology and the need for sealed and controlled environments necessitate bigger service voids, plant rooms, storage spaces, and server rooms, increasing the size of these buildings. In addition, the architect’s role is becoming increasingly specialized in the design of the outer shell, leaving the interior to other designers. This is particularly true of speculative developments where the tenants are not known at the outset of a project. New environmental regulations designed to achieve greater energy efficiency further contribute to this new condition. Glass alone is unable to provide effective levels of environmental control, and needs to be enhanced through layering or by providing areas of opacity that increase its thermal performance. This alters the use of glass in buildings in such a way that pure transparency cannot produce the building expression. 

[I think she’s obsessed with some image of transparency that never really existed. We argued about the supposed transparency of the Louvre Pyramid back in the day. Fifth Avenue Applestore is fairly transparent but it achieves this THROUGH AN ALMOST TOTAL LACK OF CONTENT. Transparency was a red-herring, an effect impossible to achieve no matter how much money you threw at the building. The Applestore is proving this. Here’s a recent image. Although I say lack of content, the only real content is the Apple logo for us to see and this is of course the point. Mousavvi has no choice but to object to this because it is branding at its purest and it does not involve the skills of an architect. The branding expression depends upon the building, but it isn’t about the building. It’s not going to work for your average department store in Leicester.] 

In all these cases, architects must


in effect give the building an expression that is independent from the interior yet contributes to the urban setting.

[This tells us that Moussavi thinks of urban settings solely in visual terms. The Fifth Ave Applestore is not much to look at maybe but in terms of city it is somewhere new for more people to go.]

The role of architects need no longer involve the entire fabric of buildings.

[err why not?]

It can now address in lesser or greater depth the synergy between the interior and the exterior, from the surface of the envelope through to the entire fabric.

[I don’t really understand this. Is she trying to say that architects don’t have to bother about everything as long as they understand the synergy between the surface and everything? I think we’re going to be hearing more about surface next.]

This radically alters the expression of buildings. Liberated

[This is wonderful! Remember it. To ignore a problem is to liberate your solution from having to deal with it. It’s an unusual but attractive way of looking at things.]  

from representing the interior, the opportunity is to find tools through which architecture can engage with the urban setting. It is clear that in a multicultural and increasingly cosmo-politan society

[Yes please!]

symbolic communication is harder to enact as it is difficult to gain a consensus on symbols or icons. Representational tools are less coded and unable to produce convergence with culture.

[I thinks some notion of representation is still contained in this new word convergence.]

Ornament as Contingent: Décor and Communication

Communication can be framed historically.


The relationship between the interior and the exterior of buildings range from the poché space of the Romans to the theatrical effects of the Baroque, from Gottfried Semper’s theory of ornament to Adolf Loos’s opposition to it. For Semper, the functional and structural requirements of a building were subordinate to the semiotic and artistic goals of ornament. For Loos, on the other hand, ornamentation was a crime.

[ornament? ornamentation? Am I missing something?]

In his view, ornament was used in traditional societies as a means of differentiation; modern society needed not to emphasize individuality, but on the contrary, to suppress it. Hence for Loos, ornamentation had lost its social function and had become unnecessary. Modernism brought to architecture an obsession with transparency.

[It’s kind of interesting how Modernism or some contemporary perception – or some impression of what a contemporary impression of it is – is still being used as a reference to make all sorts of wild statements as if nothing worth reacting against has happened in the past 100 years.] 

Transparency was meant to make architecture more “sincere,” in sharp contrast with the bourgeois practice of decoration. Architecture was no longer supposed to disguise functions, but to make them visible and to render the city and its buildings immediately readable. Such was the paradigm that dominated architecture and urban design well into the 1960’s.

A critique of this approach was formulated in the decade that followed. In the first instance, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown denounced the Modernist paradigm as cynical and dull, and proposed to replace transparency with décor.

For them, décor helped to integrate buildings within the urban realm and give them meaning in the eyes of the public. Their proposal endorsed a radical break between buildings as function and buildings as representation, accepting as a creative factor the contradiction between space, structure and program on the one hand, and representation on the other. Venturi and Scott Brown argued that architects, intent on generating expression out of the internal orders of buildings, ignored the “ready-made” cultural expressions that would enable architecture to communicate with a wider public.

However, Postmodernism fast became obsolete.

[Why are we reading this? How old are her students? That’s almost 10% of her 2,405 words since the beginning of this section.]

In the absence of a common language or system of understanding, the kind of communication proposed by Postmodernism could not reach the wider public.

[Of course now we know now that it was never meant to.]

Inherited symbols remain dependent on a particular cultural moment or context and cannot survive changing conditions. If architecture is to remain convergent with culture, it needs to build mechanisms by which culture can constantly produce new images and concepts rather than recycle existing ones. 

[I take the phrase “convergent with culture” to mean “to not disappear up its own arse”. So let’s see what she’s proposing.] 


Ornament as Necessary: Affect and Sensation

Many buildings of the twentieth century continue to effectively relate to culture by creating sensations and affects.

Similar to Sigfried Kracauer’s


suggestion that ornamental mass movements in a stadium “bestow form to a given matter,” these buildings

[the ones that will appear later in the book]

produce affects

[here, there’s absolutly no difference from the approved verb, effects]

that seem to grow directly from matter itself. They build expressions out of an internal order that overcome the need to “communicate” through a common language, the terms of which may no longer be available.

[Objection – conjecture!]

It is paradoxically in this way that building expressions remain resilient in time. 

[Objection – conjecture!] 

This book documents some of these experiments carried out by architects in constructing unique affects. These affects may start with found imagery or iconography as raw cultural material. However they do not remain as pure acts of consumption

[yeah right]

but rather are disassembled and reassembled to produce new sensations that remain open to new forms of experience.

[This dissassembly and reassembly is what occupied all this Harvard brainpower. Here’s what it looks like. Sorry, I was going to show some sample pages of The Function of Ornament but they’ve all been pushed off the internet by sample pages of The Function of Form. Same deal.


This then, is what she had her Harvard students research and draw. She seems a bit touchy about it in the Architectural Review “interview” for she takes the trouble to set the record straight.


Books don’t make themselves, you know! Somebody’s got to put their name to it! I suspect Moussavi must also have gotten some stick for the sheer lightweightness of TFoO (2006) – physically, not just intellectually – because The Function of Form (2009) is pre-Autopoietic in scale with 515 pages and at least 21 pages of writing that isn’t project description. It’s actually 55 more sides of paper than TAoA/Vol.1 (2011). Princeton lad then escalates with 774 pages for TAoA/Vol.2 (2012). To be fair, most of his pages have words on them.]

It is in this way that they are contemporary and committed to progress. Operating through direct sensations, they bypass the need for the codification of language and are able to shift across space and time.They may produce indirect analogies, but their primary purpose is to render the invisible forces in contemporary culture visible.

[”    “]

For example, recent experiments with data, diagrams, and other non-representational methods are effective in exploring an unmediated process to visualize technology as a cultural force.

[So ultimately, it’s all about representation. Making client companies or cities feel good about themselves.]

The cases studied in this book reveal an in-built sense of order, a consistency against which we can test our experience. Against the symbolic interpretation
of culture by Postmodernism, the dynamic nature of culture requires that buildings each time define their own ground and develop an internal consistency.

[What can one say?]

It is precisely through these internal orders that architecture gains an ability to perform relative to culture and to build its own system of evaluation. These orders are therefore not about “pure architectural expression,” removed from culture, of the kind that was dismissed by Postmodernism.

[I’m no fan, but isn’t that what they did?]

They are not about being pure, but about being consistent. They do not aim at being disconnected but, rather, contaminated with culture. Louis Sullivan proposed such a need for consistency and organicity in building expressions. In Sullivan’s buildings, like all the cases documented here, this organicity leads to ornament that grows from the material organization and is inseparable from it.

[We shouldn’t be surprised that Sullivan’s name gets invoked. I’m on Loos’ side.]

Ornament is the figure that emerges from the material substrate, the expression of embedded forces through processes of construction, assembly and growth.
It is through ornament that material transmits affects. Ornament is therefore necessary and inseparable from the object. It is not a mask determined a priori
to create specific meanings (as in Postmodernism), even though it does contribute to contingent or involuntary signification (a characteristic of all forms).

[This is telling. Whereas in Postmodernism, the author was smugly (and supposedly) in control of the meanings evoked, with this new ornament of meaning it’s all supposed to happen AS IF by accident.] 

It has no intention to decorate, and there is in it no hidden meaning.

[It is a popular ornament that is what it is – it’s free of all those ponderous and elitist double meanings but IT’S STILL ARCHITECTS WHO ARE PUTTING THEM THERE.]

At the best of times, ornament becomes an “empty sign” capable of generating an unlimited number of resonances. Whereas décor and representation promoted by Postmodernism correspond to a self-limiting movement from the possible to the real which cannot create anything new, ornament is in line with non-representational thought and the creative actualization of the virtual. Decoration is contingent and produces “communication” and resemblance. Ornament is necessary and produces affects and resonance. 

[I’ve just underlined those bits to come back to them later.]

Drawing Affects

The research in this book aims to show that ornaments [sic!] are intrinsically tied to architectural affects.

[I know, I know ….]

The Seagram headquarters carefully attaches I-beams to its cladding layer to build a vertical affect. The Ricola Laufen factory uses slats of different heights on its exterior cladding to build a weighted affect [sick]. The Prada Tokyo store uses a diagrid with carefully selected concave glass panels to give a quilted affect [ – ] to its exterior. The 30 St. Mary Axe office tower introduces a diagonal ventilation system, a diagrid, and two colors of glass to contribute a spiral affect to the form. None of these specific decisions are crucial to the operation of the building interior, but they are vital to the affects

[Please excuse me.   :-o<<<] 

they trigger in the urban landscape. Frits, laser-cut sheets, glass tubes, pleated floor plates, perforated screens, complex tilings, and structural patterns are some examples of our contemporary ornaments.

[Probably – they’re cheaper than carving rocks. When are we going to talk about department stores?] 


Our initial phase of researching the cases included here revealed that they have conventionally been documented in two opposing ways. At one end of the spectrum, there are glossy architectural magazines with exquisite photographs, which display the affects created by these buildings without showing why they are produced. On the other hand, there are sophisticated magazines that document the construction of buildings in detail, [see what she did there?] but rarely with any explanation of the motives that led to the specific choice or the resulting affect. The graphic approach to this research [my bold] aims to bridge this gap, discussing the construction of buildings and the production of affects as a seamless continuity, as two realms that are interconnected.

Each case is discussed over four pages on two double spreads. The first double spread is dedicated to the affect, while the second double spread is devoted to the material used to construct these affects. The “section perspective” is used to reveal the relationship between material and affect in each case. We have ascribed [:-o<] examples to three main classifications:

[You can skip the rest – in orange – if you like. It’s not very interesting. Unfortunately it’s the conclusions. I’ve added some images if you decide to go for it.]

The first classification is that of depth. It orders building components from the deepest to the thinnest: Form, Structure, Screen, and Surface. Ornament can relate to depth in a number of ways. It can work with the entire form, with the load-bearing structure, or exploit the sectional depth of the cladding. The Form category includes those buildings where the entire building organization is used to produce the resulting expression. The Structure category includes those cases that use the load-bearing structure. The Screen category includes those cases that operate through layers inserted between the interior and exterior, main- taining some visibility of the interior. The Surface category includes those cases that add an independent layer entirely detached from the building interior.


The second classification is that of material, ordered from the most intrinsic to the interior content, like program, to the most extrinsic, like branding. This reveals that architecture’s materiality includes visible as well as invisible forces. The manipulation of material in response to these forces structures the ornament.

The third classification is that of affect. The interplay between depth (form, structure, screen or surface) and a specific material (such as program, image, or color) produces the ornament (for example complex tilings, perforated screens, or structural patterns) which transmits unique affects in each case.

The research has revealed a number of tendencies:

[for which there are no doubt very obvious reasons we shall not be hearing about. This last bit is sort of interesting, but not on the surface. For me the only interest was wondering why this needed to be said, wondering what the argument was leading up to. It led up to descriptions of buildings followed by illustrations of buildings and the end of the book.]

Factories and retail typologies are mostly found in the Surface depth category. The IBM Training and Manufacturing Center,

Usine Aplix,

and Ricola Mulhouse

are all factories which, due to the radical disconnection required between interior and exterior, exploit the micro-depth of their surfaces to produce unique affects.

Towers are mostly found in the Form and Structure depth categories. In the same way that Sullivan suggested that towers need intrinsic expressions, Marina City is vertically fluted; the Capsule Hotel is aggregated; 30 St. Mary Axe is spiraling; Johnson Wax is banded; the Seagram headquarters is vertically decorated.

Same material can produce different affects depending on the ornament it creates. The Banque Lambert headquarters and the Beinecke Library, both of them designed by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM in the same period, have a similar “lattice” construction system on the exterior. The Banque Lambert

prioritizes structure over enclosure, setting back the glass and exposing the cast structural members to produce a directional tapered grid as ornament which emphasizes a latticed affect. Beinecke Library

clads the structural members in granite sheathing and marble panels to construct a translucent box as ornament which contributes to a textured affect. Two different affects are transmitted from two different ornaments that are generated from two different processes.


New systems of production have opened up possibilities for differentiation and customization. These are explored through investigations of patterns in the Structure, Screen and Surface chapters. These create different affects in each case. The Aichi Pavilion

is modular and is based on the geometry of the tile. The John Lewis department store is based on the seamlessness of a pattern at the edges of a simple square patch (very much like Escher patterns). Federation Square is based on a regular 2D geometry that is confused and masked by a series of extrapolations in 3D. The Serpentine Pavilion is based on a regular algorithm that produces an irregular pattern that is then cropped.

Differentiation is a contemporary affect repeatedly explored in many cases through different material. These materials include tiling, color, layering, pixelating an image pattern…

Examples in the four chapters of the book show a progression from historical to contemporary examples: 4 out of 6 cases in Form are pre-1990 (66%); 6 out of 9 in Structure (66%); 4 out of 16 in Screen (25%), and 3 out of 11 in Surface (27%). This reveals the specific emphasis in each period — on formal and structural expressions in Modernism, and on screens (especially) and surfaces in contem- porary examples. The screen category is larger than the others, perhaps because it lies closest to contemporary conditions, where architects are responsible for a smaller depth of the building. The “screen” might be the most contemporary category through which building expressions currently emerge. 

All that was 2,405 words of Harvard sanctioned and published research so it must be true. I started off marking up things I found particularly objectionable but skimmed the last bit. You probably did too.

* * * 

So then, apart from the books, what’s to show for all this research? How has it – as architects are wont to say – “informed the projects”? This was one of the questions but it’s more illustrative to look at the illustrations of the headlining building that accompany the interview.

Of all the problems in the world that someone with some architectural knowledge might research and contribute a more elegant or more efficient or less expensive solution, Moussavi chooses the problem of apartment balconies overlooking each other.

She uses Marina City and Aqua to illustrate the problem and the (her) Montpellier apartments to illustrate the solution.

the problem

Looking at the Montpellier image on on the right, the lower left and upper right balconies appear to be shared so her stated advantage of the lack of dividing walls is an untruth.

curved balconies

These captions seems fair enough but, on the 1-10 scale of human misery, overlooking balconies don’t really register. Over the page is the science.


In F it still looks like two balconies are shared. Maybe there’s no dividing wall? After all, if it’s shared, it’s not “overlooking” – it’s just looking.

looking up and down

True enough. But wait for this.

alternate copy

Here’s some floor plans I found on Dezeen. In these next plans, the dark grey bit is covered by the floor above, and the white bit is covered by the floor two up. After an hour messing around with multiple Photoshop layers I gave up trying to reconcile the various floors with the plans supplied. What I do know is that there’s quite a bit of lateral looking going on this floor (and again four floors up).

unit layout 4

In this next plan (again repeated four floors up) the top right and lower left apartments don’t have balconies at all.

unit layout 2
unit layout 3
unit layout 1

On these two floors, the top left and lower right apartments don’t have balconies at all. And on these two floors, four apartments share two balconies whilst the fifth apartment doesn’t get one. 

Here’s the plan used in the Architecture Review spread. It’s different again.


You’ll notice there are five apartments here and the two upper ones and the lower middle and lower right look like they are sharing the dark grey (covered) balconies. This can’t be right. My guess is that the dark grey balconies are actually shown for the floor below, yet possibly covered by the floor above (and corresponding to the “uncovered” balconies in this next image).


Therefore, from what I can make out Moussavi has solved that stated problem of laterally overlooking balconies by

  1. not giving 20% of the apartments balconies
  2. worsening vertical overlooking and
  3. by providing curtains (which would have solved her stated problems with the two case studies).
Untitled 2

The disconnected relationship between indoor and outdoor due to the indoor being rectilinear and the outdoors curvy can of course be solved by having a rectangular room and a rectangular balcony.  But that’s not the point.

If my interpretation of the plans and geometry of this building is correct, then

  1. eight out of 36 apartments have an overlooking condition that is no better than usual,
  2. eight out of 36 apartments have to share a balcony,
  3. maybe eight out of 36 are directly overlooked from above, and
  4. ten out of 36 apartments don’t have any balcony at all.

In other words, Moussavi has added value to ten out of thirty-six apartments, not added any value for eight, and reduced the value of at least another eight, possibly sixteen. Well done! There’s also some abysmal planning on show. I’ve just marked up a few things here.

The planning’s probably been done by anonymous minions but someone’s gotta put their name on it.

* * *

In the same way as people say “It’s not the system that’s corrupt – corruption IS the system,” I see more skill in Moussavi’s design and construction of her media profile than in the buildings supposed to validate it. This is another symptom of the sickness. When I read that Sou Fujimoto had also won a competition to design an apartment building in Montpellier, I thought that perhaps the competition had gone a bit Iraqi but no. There were two different competitions for two different buildings. Sou Fujimoto’s is very overlooky. Despite their superficial differences both buildings say “Look at me – there’s some architecture happening here!” And that, I’m afraid, is the real function of form.


(4,710 – 2,504 = 2,305 words)


3 thoughts on “The Real Function of Form

  1. Joseph Nederveld

    Is :-O<<< a vomit face? I enjoyed this critique, and your comment in the thread above about placing priority on liveability rather than shapeist experimentation. It's quite upsetting that most education emphasizes "standing out from the crowd" instead of designing buildings that actually work well, inside and out.

  2. Jonathan Strauss

    I am truly glad that you have the time to dissect the drivel being produced by those in the supposedly institutions of higher learning. I sometimes think I would rather continuous reruns of “I feel like chicken tonight” TV advertisement.
    The apartment planning is an abject fail.
    As far as the balconies twat, what is wrong with a square building with balconies on opposing sides?
    When is John White when you need him?

    1. Graham McKay

      The apartment planning offended me even more than the disparity between the identified problem and stated solution. I can accept that the “better” schools of architecture are teaching students how to manage their PR and market themselves. London’s AA was probably the first institution to hype style over substance. Moussavi is second generation. The people she’s teaching are third generation. Meanwhile, nobody’s minding the shop. That planning really shocked me. As well as miscellaneous internal grievances (cooker up against side wall, etc.) that’s one helluva nasty corridor. Quality of living is not a consistent priority. However, the fact that this building won a competition and will probably get built, suggests that some sort of value has been added for someone and that someone is probably the client. It is the architect and client who conspire to advance their respective marketing agendas. If any buyers feel special because they buy an apartment with good marketing but crap planning, then everybody wins I guess. I would like to see shapeist experimentation given less priority than liveability, comfort and energy performance but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. We’ll never know how much more space and comfort those apartments could have had if more financial resources had been diverted in that direction. Client and architect won’t know because it was a question neither asked.

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