Tag Archives: form and function

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.


Opera Houses

Opera was invented in Italy in the 16th century as soon as people had money and power and, for probably the first time in the history of the world, leisure because they weren’t constantly preoccupied trying to hang onto that money and power. And what did they do? They invented opera – a fusion of music, drama, singing and storytelling. And why not? In all fairness, what would you do in a similar situation?

To this day, opera is seen as a global symbol of western cultural values and the aspiration to them. It’s not for everybody. Like architecture, it’s not a popular form of entertainment.

This site has a brief history of opera. It’s full of stuff. Recommended. Me, my preferences hover around Italian bel-canto operas – Verdi, Bellini, a bit of Donizetti. Maybe a bit of Mozart. I’ve no time for Offenbach and complex recitatives in French, or anything Wagnerian. Musically, dramatically and architecturally, I prefer Verdi’s exhilarating invention of multiple perspectives of the same scene sung simultaneously. This next clip is a brilliant illustration of the device. We see it clearly because there’s no ornamentation.

It’s amazing how much joy five people and a piano can make. Even if your living room has a reverberation time of between 1.0 and 1.6, keep it real. It’s probably not going to happen there. That’s why people go to opera houses where they’ll also get some scenery, staging, lighting, costumes, an orchestra, a chance to dress up, see and be seen, and some drinks at interval. It all gets put together in this next clip. Stay with it, it’s wonderful. Focus.

Regrets, I’ve had a few but one is that I never saw Joan Sutherland or Luciano Pavarotti sing live. We forget how electric they really were. All this has been a roundabout way of saying that wonderful things can and do happen in opera houses. Here’s Milan’s La Scala.


Here’s its 2013-2014 season. I’m actually listening to Il Trovatore as I write this – insane story, beautiful singing.

la scala

Here’s Paris’ Opera National de Paris. Yep, that’ll be the Garnier building.


Here’s Paris Opera’s 2014–2015 season. It looks good.

paris opera

Okay then, so how about The Met?


New Yorkers are spoiled. That’s a very nice programme until early 2015. I hope Bluebeard’s Castle is sung in Hungarian for maximum opacity. The Met is a temple of opera. It exports its performances and makes them available online in real time. It’s a cultural giant, and a friendly giant as well.


It doesn’t matter that the New York Metropolitan Opera is housed in a Wallace Harrison [apologies to all] building that by all accounts does its job quite well.


It opened in September 1966, seven years before the Sydney Opera House.


Let’s go to to sydneyoperahouse.co, see what’s on and see if Sydney Opera House deserves to be called an opera house. (It’s not the fastest site on the planet, but) they’re doing Rigoletto from June 28 to August 14.


The fires are burning merrily in the Duke’s palace as beautiful people at magnificent candlelit dinners, party on into the night. Meanwhile, in the streets of Mantua, shadows tread softly. Words pass between hooded figures, their meaning drowned out by the sounds of drunken revelry. Are they whispering sweet nothings, or bitter secrets? Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference in the gloom. Verdi’s dark tale glitters with passion and suspense in this glamorous new production. Tell your jokes, lock up your daughters and trust nobody.

Sounds fab. I love a dark tale. The forseeable future is also fairly replete. 

opera australia

The building has had its own well-documented troubles in terms of functioning as an opera house but they seem to be making it work. Unfortunately, the Sydney Opera House started the fashion for opera houses to be added to cities as some kind of cultural bauble. It was the birth of the iconic building, the Guggenheim effect pre-Guggenheim. Opera houses were hot – until cities decided art galleries were cheaper and less hands-on. Not too many opera houses get built these days. Here’s one that famously didn’t get built for the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff


and here’s what did, but since it’s called an arts centre it doesn’t really count. The Centre comprises one large theatre and two smaller halls with shops, bars and restaurants. It houses the national orchestra and opera, dance, theatre and literature companies, a total of eight arts organisations in residence.

November 28 – Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, Wales, is opened. The Welsh seem to like it.

The Centre comprises one large theatre and two smaller halls with shops, bars and restaurants. It houses the national orchestra and opera, dance, theatre and literature companies, a total of eight arts organisations in residence.

This next one’s a new and dedicated one – Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House.


Not too many posts back, I linked to this video because it showed what went on inside an opera house. I forgot to say I really liked the central light feature in the auditorium. It’s perfect – a good call. I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere.

So let’s see what’s coming up! Operatically, it’s an assortment of the favourites you’d choose if you wanted to cultivate a culture of opera-going. There’s Madame Butterfly August 15-September 6,


The Tales of Hoffman [urk] October 2-25,


Don Giovanni October 18–November 4,


Carmen January 23–March 26,


The Barber of Seville December 21–February 20,


Lohengrin March 8–April 11,


La Traviata April 24–June 8 …


So now let’s go to the Guangzhou Opera House and see what’s on.


Here’s the 2014 season. If you want any opera then you’ve missed the three performances of Carmen June 27-28-29. What is it with Carmen by the way? Is it the “Spanish heat and gypsy passion” or is there definitely something that translates across cultures and languages?

Missed that? You’ll have to make do with July 13’s Whole Summer’s Fun 2014 Do-Re-Mi Pods’ Rainbow Dream The Ju Percussion Group Concert for Kids.


Or one of the six performances of Whole Summer’s Fun Dora the Explorer Live! Search for the City of Lost Toys in July. There’s no more opera indicated for the rest of 2014.


This post is not about cultural elitism, imperialism or suprematism. People can pay money to see what they like ONLY DON’T SAY IT HAPPENS IN AN OPERA HOUSE! Sure China has a big history of song and drama that’s usually translated as “Chinese Opera” because that’s probably how we’re going to understand it even though it contains ballet and a bit of acrobatics as well. Though audiences are thinning out these days, it’s always been a popular form of entertainment much like music hall, vaudeville and burlesque used to be out west.


What we are seeing around the world now are music hall acts filling buildings touted as opera houses.  Back in the day, an opera house was planned for Dubai. It was to have looked something like this.


But now it’s not. Instead

The city is set to make a lasting contribution to the performing arts and events sector with Dubai Opera, a 2,000-seat multi-format venue for opera, theatre, concerts, art exhibitions, orchestra, film, sports events and seasonal programmes, within The Opera District, the newest development by Emaar Properties in Downtown Dubai.

It will look something like this.


To be used for opera, theatre, concerts, art exhibitions, orchestra, film, sports events and seasonal programmes, Emaar said it would be the centerpiece of the district to promote the arts, culture and events scene in Dubai.

It’s a far more useful building than the sand-duney one and in a far more sensible location. It is however, a multi-purpose hall even though the area it’s going to be in is now being marketed as “The Opera District”.


It’s futile getting too huffy about it, but a building’s name should at least reflect its purpose.


The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.1~3.3

This is la veuve Cliquot.

la veuve

This past week saw another grande dame, Dame Zaha Hadid named Veuve Cliquot Businesswoman of the Year.


To receive this award one has to meet the following criteria.

  1. Entrepreneurship: founder / leader and driving force of a business through pioneering approach, business acument, dynamism, audacity, innovation, tenacity
  2. Financial Success: sustained profitable business growth with healthy balance sheet and minimum turnover of 3 million pounds
  3. Corporate Social Responsibility: genuine commitment to responsible and sustainable business practices such as workplace diversity, employee benefits, environmental policies, community schemes and relationships
  4. Role Model: mentoring, succession planning, pushing boundaries, able to motivate others, building relationships with colleagues / employees (especially women)

* * * 

I remember reading somewhere that “the mantle of architectural fame always rests with the shape makers, the form-givers” but, when I google it, all I can find is myself repeating it.

* * *

The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol.1 really begins with Chapter 3 as it seems like it’s where the author first began writing down his thoughts. The writing is fresher and more to the point, less of a sense of preamble. Chapter 3.1.1 gives us a quick overview of Luhmann’s theory once again, along with the author’s repeated hope he can convincingly associate it with his own conception of how architecture works. That hope seems misplaced. Inside the book, that is. For one.   

It remains to be seen how far architectural theory is able to take on key concepts and perspectives of the encompassing [!] ‘sociological (philosophical) discourse’. The ambition of the theory of architectural autopoiesis is that at least the rough skeleton of Luhmann’s reflection might be looped into architectural theory to become a part of a broader, more sophisticated self-awareness of architecture with respect to its place and function within the evolution of contemporary society, ie, the ambition and hope here is that some of the third order observations presented ‘stick’ to become second order observations within architecture.  [page 181]

I’m reading this book in instalments so I’m actually finding these repeatings quite useful, but this restating of premises and hopes halfway through the book is just more evidence that (what eventually became) Chapter 3 was written first. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s just annoying it’s so obvious. What then was the point of the previous 170 pages? To give the appearance of a magnum opus?


Niklas Luhmann (1927 – 1998)

Page 179 tells us of Niklas Luhmann’s theory of ‘functionally differentiated society’ as if we were hearing of the man and his theory for the first time. Chapter 3 also contains the first meaningful explanation of what a functionally differentiated society is. This is especially odd since everything that has gone before has depended upon us understanding what one was.

Another feature of Chapter 3 is that it has a lot to say about the autonomy of architecture – a subject that seems close to the author’s heart. NH is quoted saying “Every function system is burdened with autonomy because no function-system can fulfill the function of another”. PS continues,

This autonomy does not alleviate the mutual dependency of the various function systems. This is always a two-way dependency.  (p180)

To his credit, the author did ease my objection to this apparent contradiction by describing how a function system can be both autonomous and have a two-way dependency but the meaning of “autonomy” did become rather elastic. Function systems doing their own thing yet feeding off each other sounds more like mutual interdependency than mutual autonomy to me but later (p185) the author says that each system treats the others as a constraining environment, rather than a contribution to a common concern. This seems a better way of saying it. In a further flight of lucidity on p184, the author writes that

Political decisions can neither determine judicial outcomes, nor can they replace economic exchanges, scientific concepts or artistic paradigms

(– a sentence so good it’s repeated word for word seven pages on.) Nevertheless,

Any prolonged lack of sensitivity with respect to what goes on elsewhere in society spells irrelevance, leading to the withdrawal of attention and resources which in turn throws the respective function system into crisis.

Maybe or, then again, maybe not. This doesn’t seem to happen to the Art function system as it goes its own way. Or to the Politics function system which does the same, and not necessarily with the best interests of the population at heart – although individual political parties do often feign a concern for societal events. Like the Politics function system, the Religion function system is also by and large business as usual selling notions of its social relevance. And nor is much happening with our Economics function system that remains as adept as ever at causing crises whilst remaining immune to any sense of its own. But what about Architecture? It’s easy to imagine an architecture office’s business development section fretting over the business risks of their overly-adapted niche product. It’s not difficult to imagine The Profession going through one of its periodic crises (usually regarding the mismatch between the importance it gives to its product vs. the importance others do). But Architecture? Whenever I see Architecture capitalised and talked about like some sentient being, I usually stop and think what it is I’m being asked to believe in. I therefore hadn’t even had begun to worry about the future of Architecture when Footnote 7 p180 told me not to.

Such moments of crisis must – sooner or later – be resolved through a new sustainability beginning. Modern society depends on the mutually well-adapted functioning of all its great function systems.

Huh? “A new sustainability beginning.” This cleverly clumsy turn of phrase got my attention. Of course, the author means that when these function systems get it wrong, they’ll find their own level once again and carry on as normal. This is where this book actually started to make sense to me. The concepts mainipulated by Art, Politics, Economics, Law and Religion may have become more sophisticated along with their conceptual machinery for manipulating them, but I wouldn’t be so bold as to claim this represents advancement when it could just be a reflexive survival response. I think I now understand where the author is coming from, and can accept that we look at the same things from opposite sides of the fence. I’m neither converted nor coming around to the author’s argument because, after all, this book is an exposition of a hypothesis of a belief erected on a theory. The theory was Luhmann’s. The hypothesis is that Architecture can be regarded as a Luhmann-esque function system. The belief is that Architecture exists and can be talked about as an entity. All I can say is, “well, I can see how it might make the author happy to think about it like that” and read on. 

[Luhmann succeeded] in producing a general analytical scheme of types of communication structures that can be fruitfully applied to the analysis of all function systems. This schema, that captures the typical pattern of self-orgnization of the function ssytems, operates on a rather high level of abstraction, and from a rather specific perspective: the perspective of a function- or problem-oriented mode of system theoretical analysis. With this abstract perspective rather surprising, and surprisingly compelling, comparisons become possible. The theory of architectural autopoiesis, for the first time, allows architecture to participate in this matrix of comparisons.

Excited? I am a bit, but not because of the prospect of ‘rather surprising, and surprisingly compelling comparisons’ but more because that’s now second example of writerly styling I’ve encountered in 190 pages.

The remainder of this chapter concerns aspects of architecture that will be familiar to many and attempts to interpret these in terms of the autopoiesis of architecture. First up is  ‘architecture’s

radical shift in both the function scope and the openness in

the formal repertoire’ –

namely, ‘the shift from edifice to space’ and goes on to say that the ‘radicality of the transformation that is indicated and condensed in this conceptual switch cannot be over-emphasised.’ Before doing just that.

The theory of archtectural autopoiesis poses the switch from edifice to space as the decisive transformation that can be set in parallel to the liberalisation of the economy, the democratisation of politics, the positive turn in the legal system and the Romantic awakening of art.

And again.

All these parallel transformations imply a decisive increase in the versatility and flexibility of the responsiveness of the respective system in the context of an increased societal complexity. In the legal system the shift from natural law to positive law gives total openness with respect to the content of law and a decoupling from the premises of traditional stratified society. Even on the basis of these hints we can already see [grrrr] how, in architecture, the switch from the iteration of fixed, traditional building types to the openness of configuring space achieves a parallel advancement.

This is the language of lecture halls. At the end of this earlier post I had to raise my hand and say I didn’t really agree about the spatialisation of architecture being such a momentous, one-off thing. It was going to happen sooner or later.


Many people will most likely think of some image like these to illustrate this thought.


For me it’s a reinvention rather than a revolution, but no more or less important than how elimination of ornament was attractive to new clients with both money and sense. For me, the ‘spatialisation’ of architecture was just “the subject matter of architecture” readjusting to access this new money. I very much doubt any architect in the latter part of the previous century said “hey wouldn’t it be a great idea to get rid of ornament?” and waited for a client to come along wanting an office building or a department store to realise their dream. More likely some potential office building or department store owner came along and said “hey I’m not paying for truckloads of that crap …

non-19C example for purposes of illustration only

non-19C example for purposes of illustration only

… but you can put some bay windows on it for additional floor area.”


Enough of all that. Get this! [p183]

However, within today’s complex society it is no longer enough to rely on the general level of experience and education that can usually be expected from architects to guide the assessment of the societal demands and challenges posed to architecture’s evolution.

Here I have to raise my hand again. More questions from the back of the room.

  1. Is today’s society really all that complex? Might it not just be a conceit of ours that we  like to think so? 
  2. Why is it no longer enough to rely on … etc. etc. ? Is there something lacking in the general level of experience and education of architects? 
  3. Did such a situation ever exist?
  4. Do architects actually guide the assessment of societal demands and challenges to architecture’s evolution or is this just another conceit? 
  5. Is there such a thing as architecture’s evolution? Might it just not be the development of new means to satisfy the same realities? Whatever happened to Post Modernism?  
  6. In earlier chapters we learned that Architecture excludes all buildings but those produced by starchitects, so why should anyone (let alone society) seriously care about what the future trajectory of its concerns should be?
  7. Given that, why should anyone trust any designer who claims they are thinking on behalf of people?

These to me, are questions that should be asked. And that’s just this one sentence. Architectural theory, like movies, pop music and other media commodities, can never be without something to hype. The Autopoiesis of Architecture fills no gap in the market. It fills a gap in time when nothing much is happening in the theory department. It’ll do. Unchallenged, it may in time become an academic truth by citation, or (like The International Style and The Language of Post-Modern Architecture) an historical truth by virtue of merely being of its time.

* * * 

But in the here and now, there’s definitions to compare, and conclusions to try not to jump to. I’ve already mentioned my underwhelmedness re. ‘the spatialisation of architecture’. Whatever it was, it’s small beer compared to the discovery of The Higgs Boson.

Beauty and utility had to come up sooner or later. I’d been looking forward to this way back when I first flipped through this book, but now I’m here, it’s disappointing. (Don’t you hate that?) Apparently, each major function system has a primary guiding distinction that takes the shape of a binary opposition. Science has true vs. false. The legal system has lawful vs. unlawful. The economic system has profit vs. loss. Religion has, I guess, belief vs. non-belief. The author believes that architecture has three such oppositions. First there is the code of utility which takes the form of functional vs. dysfunctional. Then there is the code of beauty which he defines as formally resolved vs. formally unresolved. And there is also the code of novelty (original vs. conventional) – but only starchitects need to worry about that one. The guy’s consistent. I’m unsure if he really believes what he’s writing. He may just be embedding some controversiality in case anyone actually reads this book. 

But let’s forget utility and, rashly, head straight for beauty! My first thought is that formally resolved vs. formally unresolved seems rather limiting, simplistic rather than simple. It also goes against the code of novelty if all those formal rules are meant to be continually challenged and broken. Logically, this makes no sense unless the author is proposing one set of rules for starchitects and a different set for everyone else – which he is, actually, as non-starchitects can’t do novelty, or at least not in his novel new sense. The conclusion is that it’s the duty of starchitects to propose new rules for formal resolution. Again, I can see what the author finds attractive about this idea.

It also ties in well with the author’s notion of environmental constraint (p186) by which each system chooses what it wants its relevant environment to be. “The system constructs its own world, seeing and taking from its environment only that which it needs to sustain itself.” [FUN GAME! Level 1: Substitute the words “the author” for “the system”. Level 2: Substitute “Zaha Hadid Architects” for “architecture”.] I can understand what the author likes about these constructs, and why it leads him to declare (p188)

There can be no external determination imposed upon architecture – neither by political bodies, nor by paying clients – except in the negative/trivial sense of disruption.

The author shifts into “royal we” mode to state

We shall have to explain why it is important to maintain some degree of disciplinary and professional autonomy, namely precisely in order to take on the tasks posed by society, or rather co-posed by society and architecture, or better still – posed by an architecturally challenged society.

Here’s what he says.

The tendency towards architectural autonomy might be understood as a moment of an overall societal process of differentiation, whereby social communication fragments into a series of autonomous domains, – the economy, the poli …

… but continue on p190 if you really care. Read quietly. But just when you start to think the author might not really care about society at all, he writes

Architecture’s autonomy within society does not imply indifference to society. Rather it is a necessary mode of contribution to society with sufficient flexibility and sophistication.

“I love you that’s why I’m ignoring you.” Yeah right.

Architecture too can only appoint itself, and define its own purposes, both with respect to the identification of the most urgent architecturally relevant social tasks and with respect to the appropriate selection of architectural means to tackle such tasks. Although each individual architect is confronted with little choice over his/her commissions, and his/her concrete tasks are thus set by his/her clients, the starchitect discourse is autonomous in setting the themes of its defining debates, and in selecting which projects should exemplify the defining tasks, responding to the supposed key societal challenges.

I find this rather horrifying. It’s not even a subtext. It’s up there in the real text. The concept of openness through closure is floated to give this disdain an air of respectability. Openness through closure is when a system continuously adapts, but only to changes in its environment that serve its own purposes. Nice. Trust me, I’m an architect. It’s not just society that gets short shrift.

Architecture has to react to societal and technological changes. But the definition of functionality, ie, the reference to external social needs, remains an internal system operation subordinated to the proper procedures (structures) of the discipline: the communication structures of the discipline that form the core of this book.  


This chapter started off being fresh and informative but dissolved into explanations of explanations to come. What’s left to come are:

more on beauty and utility: it seems that we will be proceeding in line with the conventional assumption that these two are contradictory opposites – not because they necessarily have to be, but because this is how they are commonly defined and this is the way they are commonly understood. It is more important that the author fit these concepts into his theory as they are commonly understood, than to provide some new way of understanding either or both of them.

design decisions: are (suggested as) the basic communicative operation which characterises the autopoiesis of architecture. Look forward to that. In the meantime, perhaps revisit Chapter 1 where it was claimed that “the building artefact itself” constitutes only a small portion of architectural communications.

form vs. function: “is what defines the discipline (and has universal relevance with respect to all communications within architecture)”. We shall see about that. Taster:

In architecture all communications revolve around the question whether a certain form can fulfil a certain function.

On the surface, this looks like there might be something to agree with but, with this book, I’ve learned to distrust any statement I think the author might think I might agree with. I fully expect this section to be this book’s Room 101 – a heroic struggle to cling to what one knows to be true and useful whilst being constantly told that 2+2=5.

world reference vs. internal reference: this is form vs. function, restated. There’s even a diagram so he must see this as important evidence for his analogy! If we accept the form vs. function conumdrum then the fit is neat, but it’s clever rather than elegant and, if you come out of the form vs. function section unbroken, you’ll see what the author finds attractive about this idea.

incommensurability went away for a while but is now back. Frequently. More than ever.
regressive totalitarianism is what happens when starchitects aren’t allowed to do their thing.
design rationality is a spectacular oxymoron when defined as something that can neither be reduced to, nor controlled by, any other than its own logic.


financial success: sustained profitable business growth with healthy balance sheet and minimum turnover of 3 million pounds

Architecture in Motion, Again


You mean like this?

haha no. I meant how architecture keeps re-presenting the same stuff as new again, to make us think it’s still relevant.

So what’s new? Richard Rogers inc. suddenly want to design more [more?!] social housing? Zaha Hadid inc. found a new boundary to push? Norman Foster inc. flogging a new airport?

No, that’s just business as usual. I mean a supposedly new kind of space – those don’t come along every day!

Tell me more. But make it quick – your posts have been getting a bit long lately.  

Agreed. Do you remember this Japanese house from the early 1980s?



I’m not that old! Are those things computers? Where’s the house – inside that white box? Can I go now?

Yes, the housey bits are inside the white box and yes and no, the rest of the house is both inside that white box yet also exists in one of these new fangled interstitial spaces I’m going to tell you about.

What’s so new? 

Exactly! An interstitial space is the gap when one building is inside another building. It’s just the same as a dome. Like this one, the US pavilion at Expo er… ’67 in Montreal. It’s obvious that the building inside can be anything. 


I was thinking more the Millennium Dome London, 2000 – if you build it, they will fill it. 


There’s also Foster + Partners’ decidedly yurty tent thing in Khazakstan –


And the Esplanade Theatres in Singapore … 


I guess you’ll be telling me a theory’ll come along soon and announce this gap as the next big thing.

It already has, my friend! In his book, “Living in the End Times“, currently in-your-face philosopher Slavoj Žižek namechecks Alejandro Zaera Polo’s essay “The Politics of the Envelope”, (in “Volume”, Issue 17) Specifically …

“While most other aspects of the architectural project are now in control of other agents (e.g. project managers, specialist contractors) that ensure the efficiency of the project delivery, the increasing facelessness of the client gives architects license to invent the building’s interface. The envelope has become the last realm of architectural power …”

Even if this isn’t true, it will become truth. What we are witnessing here, is the birth of theory. Theories like this don’t predict the future, they merely lend an air of inevitability to embryo trends. Many many posts ago I mentioned the “Chicago School architects” and suggested that they might not necessarily have wanted to “express” any structure at all, and that perhaps they were just following the money in order to get something built. I see something similar happening again.

What can one say?

Hmmm, depending on who’s present and how you feel, you can say

  • I like what I see.
  • Looks good, on the surface.
  • There’s more to this than meets the eye.
  • Market needs dressed up and trotted out as theory.
  • Total bollocks.
  • An example of what even Žižek calls a “filler chapter”

Architecture vs. Building

This post will deal only with Architecture and Building: Chapter VIII of “The International Style” by Hitch & Johnno. Back in 1932, people didn’t use the expression “vs.” other than to describe boxing matches. They should’ve, because H&J describe architecture and building as a type of confrontation that could go either way. You can sense this throughout the entire book but in this chapter in particular.

In 1932 America, the new, functional architecture that was coming from Europe, didn’t really require “introducing” for it had already been introduced in magazines such as Popular Mechanics. (I mentioned this two posts back, but Enrique Gualberto Ramirez can tell you more.) But Popular!? Mechanics!? Egad! What Hitchcock and Johnson did was repackage functionalism as a style, rebrand it as the International Style, and position it as something modern and progressive to aspire to. Today, we recognise these as the standard processes of marketing. Albert H. Barr gets in first, in the preface.

The section on functionalism should be, I feel, of especial interest to American architects and critics. Functionalism as a dominant principle reached its high water mark among the important modern European architects several years ago. As was to be expected, several American architects have only begun to take up the utility-and-nothing-more theory of design with ascetic zeal. They fail to realize that in spite of his slogan the house as a machine á habiter, Le Corbusier is even more concerned with style than with convenient planning or plumbing, and that the most luxurious of modern German architects, Mies van der Rohe, has for over a year been the head of the Bauhaus school, having supplanted Hannes Meyer, a fanatical functionalist. “Post-Functionalism” has even been suggested as a name for the new Style, at once more precise and genetically descriptive than “International”.

Barr is suggesting that architecture is more than ‘convenient planning and plumbing’ and that being stylish (Le C) and luxurious (Mies vd R) is more important than fanatical functionalism. Hannes Meyer’s name is never again mentioned. His is the unspeakable name of European functionalism. We never get to find out who the several naked-functionalist American architects are. Albert Khan? He seemed to have impressed Gropius in 1928. [Gropius was Bauhaus director until exactly 1928. Was he already shopping around for a job even though he didn’t leave Germany until 1934? I’ll have to check up on that.]

Albert Kahn ford factory 1924

Probable misfit Kahn designed, in 1917, the massive half-mile-long Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. The Rouge grew into the largest manufacturing complex in the U.S., with a force that peaked at 120,000 workers. According to the company website, “By 1938, Kahn’s firm was responsible for 20 percent of all architect-designed factories in the U.S.” [W]

Barr’s commenting on whether “Post-Functionalism” might have been a better name shows his naïvety regarding how important this styling of styles actually was. It suggests that Functionalism was once a serious contender as the new and valid way to build. The general tone of the book is to downplay functionality unless it can be used to justify some stylistic effect. Calling this new style “Post-Functionalist” would have made functionalism look old, but kept it alive forever. (If creating a pseudo-link with philosophy and literature hadn’t been more important, we would have had Post-International and not Post-Modern architecture.)  But let’s see now what Hitchcock has to say about architecture and building.

The wider the opportunity for the architect within the limitations of structure and function to make judgments determined by his taste and not merely by economics, the more fully architectural will be the resultant construction. There is no rigid classification, building, quite devoid of the possibility of æsthetic organization. Yet buildings built at minimal cost with practical considerations dominant throughout may be held to be less fully architectural than those on which the architect has more freedom of choice in the use of materials and the distribution of the parts. [Barr is incapable of imagining that a choice of materials or a distribution of parts might be determined by  building performance, or cost-benefit, or by anything in fact except how it looks. Or, to put it the other way around, beauty costs money. Corollary 1: If you can’t afford beauty, then you are poor. Corollary 2 (and this is where the marketing comes in): If you can afford the new beauty, then you are both rich and have taste.] 

Under whatever conditions buildings are built, they tend to be more architectural as they serve more complicated functions. The more specialized the combination of functions served by a building, the more opportunity there is for the architect to achieve a design controlled by æsthetic as well as practical considerations. The more simple and repetitious the functions of a building and the more it resembles in purpose other buildings, the less likely is the architect to reach a solution of his problems formed by his own taste. Building quite devoid of architectural character would be æsthetically neutral no matter how good it was merely as building. For in contrast to the general low level of building, the European functionalists usually reach the level of architecture, despite their refusal to aim consciously at achieving æsthetic value. [So what’s his problem then? Shouldn’t everybody be happy if this is indeed the case? There seems to be a contradiction with the next sentence “Architecture is seldom neutral aesthetically. It is good architecture or it is bad.” Let’s sort this out before moving on.

Building quite devoid of architectural character would be æsthetically neutral no matter how good it was merely as building.” From this it follows that “architectural character” is never  aesthetically neutral. However, if “Architecture is seldom merely neutral aesthetically” then Architecture has “architectural character”. Or, if it doesn’t have “architectural character”, then it is not Architecture.  This seems to be his position. 

Architecture is seldom merely neutral aesthetically. It is good architecture or it is bad. When it is bad, the extreme contentions of the functionalists appear an essential denial of the important spiritual function which all art serves. [Here we go! His strongest argument is that all buildings have some aesthetic content, but his dislike of functionalists seems to stem from their desire to have no part in selling snake oil.]

The functionalists, approaching architecture from the materialistic point of view of sociology, go behind the problems that are offered to the architect and refuse their sanction to those which demand a fully architectural solution. [You know? I can see how he would say this. He really doesn’t get what functionalists like Hannes Meyer were attempting to do. They were suggesting an alternate agenda for how to build by refusing to inflate their apparent value and real cost with dubious style or expensive materials. I can understand Hitchcock and Johnson disgust at that but I’m still amazed they felt so threatened that they try to undermine its moral basis over and over.] 

In their estimation, the modern world has neither the time nor the money required to raise building to the level of architecture.  [Unless of course, this raw material of functionalism is what is going to be rebranded and marketed as The International Style for rich people and rich companies – this is America, after all.]   

The question passes outside the field of architecture into the field of politics and economics. The arguments of the functionalists are not based on the actual situation in the contemporary world outside Russia. [Here, Hitchcock seems to be taking a lot of trouble to argue against somebody whose voice we never hear. Why is he bothering to even mention these people who nobody would otherwise have even known about? I’m sure there were plenty of people in 1930’s America who would have appreciated some inexpensive housing that does the job. My guess is that Hitchcock And Johnson are just poisoning the ground to make sure that the social aspects of functionalism fail to find critical acceptance. As I’ve remarked before, Charles Jencks was to do the same again, 50 years on. ]

Whether they ought to or not, many clients can still afford architecture in addition to building. [Here, I’m surprised at the “whether they ought to or not” because it gives the impression that this question is being debated. This might be a writerly trick to set up a false argument for the reader who then defers to the writer’s excellent judgment. If so, it worked.] 

The European functionalists who now disown Le Corbusier, and Oud, and Gropius and Miës van der Rohe first learned the science of building from them. [This is a rather sweeping statement and I can’t imagine who is being referred to. Hannes Meyer? Needs checking.] 

The most significant work of Gropius and Oud, among the leaders of modern architecture, has been in the field of inexpensive building, which they have raised to the level of real architecture. [They produce no examples of inexpensive building for Gropius, but four for Oud. Here’s what they have to say about them.] 

Does a continuous balcony carried around some curved shops underline [accentuate? contrast with? relieve?] a simple rhythm of some windows? You be the judge.

Oud 1

Do projecting balconies and the screens for vines separating the houses lighten the design? Are you appreciating the added interest? Or did you miss it?

Oud 2

There are other things about these houses that could have been mentioned – like how  the projecting balcony also gives some degree of shelter and identity to the front entrance but Hitchcock only sees it in how much “interest” it adds.  We have some more interest in this next image where a “curve continues a wall surface around a corner”. ! ! ! Henry Russell Hitchcock is known as a historian. This book, The International Style, is said to have been widely influential.

Oud 4

This one’s my favourite. The photograph above is on the right page and this next image is on the left. The shops in the photo above, are at the two pointy corners to the right of the image. But have a look at the plans. These houses presumably sleep six people because there are six dining chairs. The three bedrooms are 4.4m2, 7.2m2 and 7.5m2.  There is no bathroom. There is nothing to do upstairs except sleep. There is nothing to do downstairs except sit, and occasionally eat. This is Rotterdam, not Russia. Whoever lived here needed some housing and couldn’t pay that much for it. Hitchcock has nothing to say about this apart from the the unfortunate heaviness of the thick wooden window frame is minimised by the treatment of the windows as a continuous band.

Oud 5

It’s easy to imagine that whenever these people were not sleeping or eating, they were working. And that on the day or half-day they did have off, they went to church. Here’s what Hitchcock has to say about the ‘community building’.

Oud 6CONCLUSION: With “The International Style”, Hitchcock and Johnson have been accused of downplaying, neglecting or overlooking the social agenda of Functionalism. This is not true. They actively ripped its balls off and flushed them down the toilet.

POSTSCRIPT: If you googlearth Kiefhoek, you will get to here.

De Kiefhoek

In September 1990, the Sikkens Foundation supported the restoration of the Kiefhoek by J.J.P. Oud. The original houses were all opened up to comply with the modern requirements of hygiene and comfort. However, one house was restored to its original condition. The furnishing of this “museum house” was funded by the Sikkens Foundation and was accompanied by a publication. [More pics here.]


Learning From Flying Saucers

This post is about buildings that look like flying saucers. First up, is Matti Suuronen’s Futuro House from the late 1960s. They say only 100 were ever built but wherever I go in the world I seem to see one in some state of disrepair, and I’m not that well travelled. Weburbanist has some ultrafab pics.

And thanks mischief, for the floor plan – I’d never seen it before. Very Jupiter II*!

Next, meet the Evoluon – “a conference centre and former science museum erected by the electronics and electrical company Philips in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, in 1966″. They’ve got the look. Saucerish, strut-like supports, small and regularly-spaced peripheral windows, central domey skylight spacelight. Metallic. Even more Jupiter II-ish.

You’d think many other examples would be from the 60’s as well, but no – these alien buildings are still here among us, PERHAPS EVEN MORE SO! Here’s the Singapore (“To Superintend the Administration of Justice in Singapore”) Supreme Court by (“the building takes its cue from the scale of the neighbouring civic buildings, offering a modern re-interpretation of their colonial vernacular to convey an image of dignity, transparency and openness”) Foster & Partners, circa 2000. What can one say? – “Welcome, alien overlords!”

This jolly little building is the Biblioteca Sandro Penna (2004).

What generally turns people away from libraries is the ‘character’ of the buildings that contain these spaces, frequently evoking an idea of separation, of exclusivity and often a dusty and melancholic idea of literature. By contrast, Italo Rota’s Perugian library, which takes the shape of a large disc, presents itself as a foreign object, though a gentle and delicate one: it is similar to the optimistic 1980s vision of the extra-terrestrial ET. Its form and use of colour, its transparency during the daytime, and the light it emits at night create a new landscape.

Thanks – nice one Mimoa! Keep it up, Italo Rota! Next up, the Shanghai Expo Cultural Centre (2000). Who designs these things? Oh, here were are – Shanghai architect Wang Xiao’an. He won a prize, it says.

I like the way he evokes that “Close Encounters OT3K” lighting effect. Awesome.

More recently (2012),

Roberto Sanchez Rivera built his home in Puerto Rico to look like a spaceship, with lights and audio effects.

Back in high school, he decided that one day he would build a house that was unlike any other. And after getting a degree in fine arts and studying industrial design, he had the ability to do that. [!]

Thank you, New York Times Home and Garden. And thank you, Roberto. Party on!

* * *

What’s one to make of all this? OK. Flying saucer buildings are classic examples of Shape to Alienate. The idea of ‘flying saucer’ itself is an idea that contains a notion of being different – of not being from Earth, and also an idea of not being a what it is – a building, in this case. Whenever these two types of ideas occur together  without any visual OR conceptual unity, what we are left with is the appearance and feeling of “alien”. The idea of flying saucers itself isn’t novel, but comes into and goes out of fashion. It endures however, because ‘not from here’ has meaning for anywhere, anytime. Moreover, the idea of ‘flying saucer’ can be easily evoked by:

  • Colour (by making it metal and shiny)
  • Pattern, (by giving it round windows around the periphery)
  • Shape (by making it saucer-shaped, duh!)
  • Position (by making it look as if it’s just extended its landing gear)
  • Alignment (by making one direction no more important than the others)
  • Size (by either making it mothership large or captain-and-crew small)

Obviously [!?], the attributes of craft capable of intergalactic, interstellar or even interplanetary travel are unlikely to resemble those we expect of mere buildings. The environment in space is far more extreme than anything we can manage here on Earth. The most challenging environments we have down are occupied by structures such as oil rigs,

and polar shelters,

whilst the closest thing we have off Earth is the International Space Station.

None of these are saucer-shaped or streamlined to reduce heat build-up upon re-entry. However, all are designed to allow human beings to survive and function normally in environments that are hostile to human life. We might want to think more about this.

* * *