The Architect as Ornament

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

This was Louis Sullivan in “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” in Lippincott’s Magazine March 1896. It became part of Functionalist if not Modernist credo.The notion that Architecture is some combination of Form and Function has never really gone away although it has been restated in different ways over the years.

“A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture. Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.”

This is Nikolas Pevsner in “An Outline of European Architecture” 1942. Pevsner is making a distinction between buildings driven by objective concerns and those that appeal to our subjective sensitivities/prejudices. He is equating Building with Function and Architecture with Form. He made it easier to think of Building and Architecture as opposites and more difficult to think of an architecture in which Form follows Function yet with a view to aesthetic appeal. This depends of course on what you call aesthetic appeal and, in 1942, people probably believed in a Beauty more absolute than we might today.

In the 1970s the meaning of Form and Function shifted again and it was common to describe Architecture as a combination of The Arts and The Sciences. Architects believed it and in all sincerity described their profession in this way to others. Believing them, students undecided on an Arts major or a Science major would choose Architecture. There was nothing misleading or sinister afoot because The Arts were understood as a creativity something akin to Sculpture and Science was understood as Building Science which was about being good at math(s). It seemed like a happy marriage – a fusion – of two things both considered worthwhile. Seeing Architecture as a fusion of “The Arts” and “The Sciences” restated Sullivan’s Form [as ever] Follows Function but without the deterministic link. The notion that Form and Function Are One gained ground but this only proved the two were indeed opposites that needed not fusing or “reconciling” but conflating.

And in this century, young whippersnapper Patrik Schumacher updated the false opposites of Form vs. Function as the false opposites of Beauty vs. Function and claimed it was the core opposition of Architecture. And maybe it is, but we must remember that reaffirming peoples’ entrenched beliefs is the leitmotif of our era. I smell a rat, especially when Schumacher tells us Beauty is unknowable and this is precisely where its usefulness as a concept lies. [c.f. The Mystery of Beauty] The only use I can imagine for a concept that has no standards by which to measure it is to justify a system that has no standards.

But let’s substitute Art for Beauty and Science for Function and see how opposite they really are. Science pursues scientific knowledge for its own sake and without regard to the application of that knowledge – that’s the job of Applied Science. (Fine) Art is not much different. The belief is that (Fine) Artists are compelled to produce art for the sake of it and without thought to any application including the commercial – for that’s the job of commercial artists and all manner of designers. There’s no such field as Applied Art although there is commercial design and graphic design. (Fine) Art and Science are each driven by their own internal goals and with no obligation to contribute to the well-being of humanity. The seventies notion of architecture as a fusion of Art and Science suddenly doesn’t seem so benign. It opened the door for an architecture detached from ethics and social responsibility.

In 1981 Ronald Munson wrote a paper titled “Why Medicine Cannot be a Science” in response to what he thought was a disturbing trend to consider it one. Munson says the core internal aim of Science is To further knowledge for its own sake as opposed to Applied Science that uses that knowledge to produce some benefit to humankind. However, the internal aim of Medicine is To promote health in individuals and in populations. Medicine therefore needs patients and populations if it is to achieve its core internal aim. There is such a thing as Medical Science, but there is no such thing as Applied Medicine. Unless it’s applied, it’s not Medicine. In short, Medicine has this controlling ethical principle that’s absent in Science.

Munson acknowledges there is much in medicine that is scientific but there is also much that is not, but both are still in agreement with Medicine’s core internal aim of promoting health in individuals or populations. Research into the causes of a disease without concern for how that disease can be eradicated is Science, not Medicine. The emergency administration of a drug that has been known to work but without completely understanding why it works is Medicine, not Science. 

In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Schumacher argues for an architecture for architecture’s sake, devoid of ethics and social and professional responsibilities. Such an architecture is akin to both Art and Science and not at all like Medicine. If only Architecture were less like Science and Art and more like Medicine.

There is such a thing as Building Science but it’s outside the realm of architecture and is the task of consultants, not architects. Research into how to make buildings more comfortable for their occupants or how to building them more inexpensively or more efficiently in order for their benefits to be made available more widely and more readily is an ethical goal and, as such, has more in common with Medicine than it does with Art or even Science. This suggests that Medicine is a better analogy for Architecture than Science – the big “if” being that Architecture has anything to do with providing benefits for humankind.

I don’t think many would disagree if I said the internal aim of Architecture is To enhance the quality of life for this aim is sufficiently wide to include those whose life would be enhanced by any kind of structure or shelter. Many things are wrong with stating this as an internal aim of Architecture but the most glaring is that this aim is not unique to architecture. It could apply equally well to Art or Music yet it is on these grounds that Architecture as an specific artistic pursuit is justified without stating what particular quality of the quality of life it enhances.

Restating Form and Function as Art and Science got us precisely nowhere but we can see a general trend to have all qualitative (and primarily aesthetic) concerns being the realm of Form/Architecture/Beauty/Art and all the quantitative ones in the realm of Function/Building/Science. We can even restate this false opposition as Parametricism vs. BIM with the former taking one set of parameters while Science takes on a different set. The only thing differentiating Beauty and Function now is that one has subjective parameters [?!] subjectively evaluated [??!!] while Function, as ever, has objective ones objectively evaluated. Again, we are back to where we started.

The apparent irreconcilability of Form vs. Function suggests it is not a true opposition but a convenient one whose continued existence serves to deflect further scrutiny of how form and function operate. If we take a look at the architects responsible for forming our perception of architects, we see their main role is not to design but to justify design. Somewhere along the line we gained an awareness of architecture as a kind of branding exercise that usually (but not always) involves buildings. If the main role of the architect is to provide perception management then the accolades accorded those who are good at this tells us where the real Art lies.

What then of Function? Development Gain is what all the planning and layout and other conventional skills of the architect have been reduced to. In a former era, Development Gain would have meant making buildings less expensive so more people could benefit from them but this is still an ethical driver. [Having an ethical driver was the unspoken “crime” of Modernism and what Post-Modernism was invented to put an end to.] In our miserable times, Development Gain is whatever makes a project more attractive to developers and investors. If it’s efficient planning so well and good but if it’s a marketable image then even better.

Perception Management follows Development Gain

This explains the Rem Koolhaases, the Zaha Hadids and the Bjarke Ingelss. The magic of these people was to present development gain as perception management, and Bjarke (“Yes is More”) Ingels stated it most clearly. Development Gain was what it was all about and Art was reduced to convincing others it was clever or novel.

This is perfectly illustrated by this next building that, as we know, is called New York by Gehry. Art is debased when the primary role of the architect is as a perception management and marketing tool. Equally bad is that function is reduced to development gain and left to the architect of record to sort out as many single-aspect apartments off double-loaded corridors as possible.

We know this is the most efficient way to configure an apartment block for maximum spatial efficiency. [c.f. The Big Brush] This is not the maximum spatial efficiency for the social good of providing more housing for more people, and it is not even the maximum spatial efficiency whereby occupants have more useable space in their apartments. The notion of even the functional aspects of a building having a social or ethical component to them has been stripped away or not producing a short-term return on investment. All that remains is development gain. In effect, we have an architecture where form (for what it’s worth) and function (for what that’s worth) are performed by two different parties but for the same ends. I doubt we will ever escape the single aspect apartment along a double-loaded corridor.

This is disheartening but it does explain why planning an apartment or a floor layout is no longer taught at universities. It’s not something architects need to know.

Education is not behind the curve. It’s already adapted with less emphasis on traditional knowledge and skills and more emphasis on the presentation and perception management side of things.

If ever you wonder why there’s no desire to teach or learn about the geometry of planning or the history of architecture it’s because these are not things expected of the modern architect. Giving separate grades for content and presentation is the extension of giving separate grades for the now antiquated function and form. Strelka Institute has announced a new postgrad course called The New Normal. 

Drawings may still be used in the offices of architects of record but they are already obsolete in the offices of perception management architects. The value of education is now shifting to the ability to manipulate the tools of perception management. “Projects will include spatial and architectural proposals, but the Strelka programme also emphasises software, cinema, and strategy as valid and relevant urban design outputs.”

It’s not just the traditional skills of architects that have have been sidelined and relegated to consultants as part of the downgrading of Function. We once thought sustainability and energy performance might change the way we thought about buildings, how they behaved and even how buildings looked but they quickly became the tasks of consultants paid to “make things work”. But sustainability and better energy performance are long-term benefits that produce little short-term development gain. Greenwash is sufficient for the purposes of perception management. Greenwash is perception management in action.

This next project one could easily be Bjarke Ingels but it’s by Winy Maas in Mannheim. Ostensibly for social housing, this demeaning project lowers expectations of both housing and living. When nothing says “Home” like H-O-M-E, what’s the point looking for a place to call home? If it didn’t come with perception management problems, H-E-L-L would’ve been more truthful and a tad easier to build.

Here’s a new Foster+Partners building currently being fast-tracked in Dubai. The real art is the non-spatial development gain resulting from office space coming online earlier.

Architecture is absent apart from the cosmetic diagrid trope, the only function of which is to remind us that Norman Foster is the sole ornament of this building. Once we begin think of name architects in this way then a whole lot of things begin to make sense. I don’t know if people still use the term starchitect but architects as ornament is what they were. Unlike the building above that seems to have been thrown up in eight months, this next one still refuses to be born after a decade of perception management. And when it is it will be known as “a Zaha Hadid building” as if that’s its only worth – or the only worth deemed important – which it seems like it will be.

If we step back a bit and squint at the career meta-trajectory of Rem Koolhaas – Zaha Hadid – Bjarke Ingels, it’s possible to identify a steady cheapening of even the architect as ornament. Until somebody comes along and does it even more brazenly, Bjarke Ingels and BIG are the cutting edge. When Development Gain is the only Function in town, the only role of Perception Management is to present it as Art.

It’s all very nice to think of evolution as having a positive endgame but the reality is the inbreeding of mutants adapted to thrive in newly toxic environments.


Ultimately though, the famed architects of yore, the more recent starchitects, branding in general and the perception management of now are all manifestations of the same thing. The meta-trend is for there to be less and less content of value other than development gain. If famous architects today appear just as big and just as famous as those of the past, it’s only because Architecture has gotten small. I’m finding this notion of The Architect as Ornament and the paired concepts of Development Gain and Perception Management a useful way of understanding the last sorry half century of Architecture.