Tag Archives: formalism in architecture


Sigmund Freud is generally regarded as the father of psychoanalysis, that revolutionary circa 1900 idea that aimed to externalize and give expression to people’s innermost feelings in order to gain an understanding of them and, if not a happier life, at least a life less torn by anxieties and insecurities.

The Expressionism of the late 19th and early 20th century was all about the expression of realities formerly hidden beneath the surface. It was a heady time to be Alma Schindler/Mahler/Gropius/Werfel (1879-1964) and regarded as the most beautiful woman in Vienna.

Her first kiss was from artist Gustav Klimt but we don’t know exactly when or even why we know this. A citation is lacking but Klimt didn’t tell and, befitting an independent and. progressive lady, Alma’s diaries are famously unreliable. We do however know that Klimt was still painting kisses in 1906 some years after the event.

Alma’s first lover was Alexander von Zemlinksy, the man who taught her music composition. She would’ve married him but her family (apparently) said he wasn’t sufficiently famous so instead, when she was 23 in 1903, she married Gustav Mahler who was 20 years older but already famous for his powerful symphonies with their sudden and dramatic changes of emotion. Mahler didn’t encourage Alma to continue with her compositions but Freud suggested that maybe he should. Mahler followed the great psychoanalyst’s advice but, by that time, Alma had had an affair with some young man called Walter Gropius. Alma would later write, “He was obviously in love with me, and expecting me to love him back.” Mahler found out about the affair and demanded Alma choose between them. She chose Mahler, but Gropius would soon go off to WWI, Mahler would shortly die and Alma would move back in with her parents.

One day, her well meaning father introduced her to a talented young artist who would paint her portrait. She and the artist Oscar Kokoshka became lovers almost immediately. Kokoshka was to paint more than one portrait of Alma but Alma’s diaries paint Kokoshka as too possessive or controlling and so, for one reason or another, Alma’s attention turned back to Gropius who was now becoming famous after having completed along with Adolf Meyer, buildings such as the Fagus Works in 1913 and the Model Factory for the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne. Alma and Walter married in 1915.

They had a child or, more correctly, Alma had the child of Expressionist author and poet Franz Werfel. This seems to have been common knowledge in Vienna at the time so the Gropiuses divorced and Alma married Werfel and they relocated to the US and had further adventures, as did Walter Gropius and new wife Ise, but none of this matters.

What matters for this post is that Alma wrote she was only attracted to – I paraphrase – “creative geniuses who can change the world”, and there was no shortage of them in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Her lovers and husbands were all Expressionists in their various fields. von Zemlinsky was an emotive late-Romantic composer something like Mahler but in the style of Schoenberg, if you can imagine that. Mahler was an emotive late-Romantic composter too, but in the style of Mahler. Klimt was all emotion. Werfel was an Expressionist writer not dissimilar to Kafka, and Walter Gropius was revealing things like staircases hitherto hidden behind masonry at the corners of buildings.

Later, Gropius and Adolf Meyer would go on to design the Dessau campus of The Bauhaus with its internal organization expressed on the outside with separate volumes for the teachers’ accommodation, the technical school teaching rooms, the Bauhaus studios and the admin offices. Articulated, we like to say.

When something to do with the inside of a building is expressed on the outside of a building it’s not trying to represent some inner human state. It just so happens that buildings also have an inside and an outside. They have an external appearance they present to the world and internal realities that govern how they function in that world. These realities are intrinsic to buildings. Buildings wouldn’t be buildings if they had only an outside.

I’m still not sure if something with only an inside is a building. It could be a false question because, for a person inside this house, the outside still exists as an idea. Or, equally conceptually, in this case it could be that everything not a void is the outside. Either way, no internal realities are getting expressed.

Earth House / Black Space, Kazuo Shinohara, 1964

Expressing internal realities on the outside of a building isn’t representation, zoomorphism or personification. It’s just formalism and, as with psychoanalysis, the question isn’t what can be expressed but what helps us to make sense of the world. The Dessau Bauhaus building tells us something about its internal organization while The Mauritius Commercial Bank expresses nothing directly, although its mute organization and facade imply both solidity and security.

By the same logic, we might think Sou Fujimoto’s House NA or Philip Johnson’s Glass House express too much of their inner lives but revealing is not the same as expressing.

If we think of structure as a internal skeleton that’s normally hidden then we will think of skeleton-like structures on the outside of a building as “expressed” even though we don’t look at load bearing walls and think of them as exoskeletons as we would for a lobster. The structure of a building is something that can be on the inside of a building or the outside or on both. This is just structure being structure and nothing to do with expression. Expression for the sake of expression isn’t formalism but a mannerism or possibly a new Baroque.

Circa 1850, the servants in an upper-class London townhouse carried coal up to the fireplaces and ash back down. They carried hot water for baths, emptied chamber pots, refilled lamps and replaced candles. The servants and the servants’ stairs at the back of the house were the equivalent of plumbing, ducts and conduits. These inner workings of buildings were largely concealed until Hi-Tech made them (along with exposed structure) part of the external expression of the building. Again, one person’s natural expression was another person’s contrived mannerism.

Function can be also expressed in non Bauhausian ways. Frank Gehry’s Work Residence and Winton Guest House both express the idea of an internal functional diversity on the outside of the building even if we don’t know what the particular functions are.

The structure, services, organization and function of a building never go away but the choice to make them visible and express some truth about the building can go out of fashion and, usually as a result, out of sight. We can say the same for materials and construction. All buildings are the result of their materials and the processes of their construction. Some buildings are no more or less than this, while the point of some other buildings is to deny this reality.

We’re currently in a period where it’s unfashionable for buildings to look as if they’re constructed out of things called materials, or as if they’ve been organized according to what happens inside them. For a while now, the skin-deep, visible qualities of shape and complexion have been all that’s left. We can’t completely blame post-modernism for this. The internal organization of this next building is expressed to more or less the same degree as Dessau Bauhaus or the two Gehry projects above.

Kazu Shinohara’s 1983 House in Yokohama and his 1987 Tokyo Tech Centennial Hall were two examples of his new machine style with their assemblages of different parts where we don’t know what the parts mean or even what the parts are. It expresses something. We just don’t know what.

Still, the inside is the spatial negative of the shape we see on the outside and, were we inside the building, we’d make a correspondence between the spaces we are in, and what we remember of the outside. This isn’t saying much. Many buildings do do the same thing but with more conventional parts.

Appearances can be deceptive. Some buildings have extraordinary external appearances at odds with their mundane internal realities. This is where the metaphor of psychoanalytic expression of thoughts and feelings and the external architectural expression of internal realities breaks down. One way of keeping the metaphor alive is to understand this deceptive impression as a kind of repression, but this implies it might be as unhealthy and undesirable in buildings as it is in people.

Any building envelope has a correspondence between inside and outside. As with Shinohara’s House in Yokohama, we understand Frederick Keisler’s 1958 Endless House as a house with various spaces of sizes we associate with rooms and what we imagine happens in them. It’s still a house and its spaces are reassuringly domestic in size if not shape.

Large shell structures still have a correspondence between inside and outside but the problem is that it means nothing. All that remains is two sides of a dehumanized shell lacking indicators of materials, construction, function and scale (as in human). Such shells are said to be expressive but of what, other than the wealth of their clients and the eagerness of predatory practices to access some of it?

There’s probably not much that can be done about. An envelope lacking indicators of materials, construction, function and scale on the outside lacks even a notional interior to express. People are conceptually removed and, even when they’re admitted, are made to feel insignificant and irrelevant to the requirements of architectural expression. The architecture of neoliberalism operates exactly as expected.

Non-Referential Architecture

Sometime around the 5th of August 2020, I saw a reference to a book called Non-Referential Architecture and thought it sounded interesting but, as I was just about to leave Dubai, I never ordered a copy. A few weeks ago the book found me. The front cover tells us it was ideated by Valerio Olgiati, and the back cover tells us it was written by Markus Breitschmid. I’m not sure what this means.

Ideate seems like one of those words that’s been invested with more meaning than it can carry – much like what happened to curate. I understand the relationship between ideated and written in much the same way as I do architect and architect of record despite the use of “we” in the preface.

The preface lays the justification for the book and the approach the authors – let’s call them – took when writing it. We’re told there are no citations and few names unless it seemed absolutely necessary to orientate the reader. I suppose this makes it an exercise in non-referential writing. What’s more, images are avoided as much as possible so their “thesis of a non-referential architecture will not be interpreted as a stylistic recipe. Instead, it allows for the emergence of multiple formal possibilities in the mind of the reader”. Ugh – but okay. I’m invited to make of it what I will. So I shall.

Introduction to Non-Referential Architecture

Non-Referential Architecture

The first two sentences were a bad start. We live in a non-referential world. Therefore, architecture must be non-referential”. The third sentence restated the first two. “Non-referentiality is the only way to conceive buildings that make sense in a world in which simple attributions of meaning no longer exist”. It’s easy to object to this and ask why architecture should mirror the world, and it’s only when I remember Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock saying “an architecture without an aesthetic still has an aesthetic” that I check myself. The ideological roots of non-referential architecture are in the 20th century and the first of those simple attributions of meaning was the social mission of modernism, now seen as no longer existing. The authors probably aren’t wrong on that. The other simple 20th century attribution of meaning was of course post-modernism and its flatulence of references. Me, I still believe a social mission is not some “simple attribution of meaning” but the bigger question is in what sense do we want our buildings to make sense?

The authors object to “imbuing buildings with meaning from extra-architectural sources” and I agree but what’s an extra-architectural source? They exclude the economic, the ecological and the political as the chief bases for making an architecture they see as “imbued with relevance and moral righteousness.” Hmm, but if you can’t acknowledge the political, the economic, and the ecological, then there’s not going to be much left to work with. I’m assuming the word ecological is being used as a catch-all for energy performance, thermal comfort, selection of materials and their efficiency of use but aren’t these all intrinsic rather than referential? They’re only referential if it’s greenwashing. Before I forget, for a building to refer to its context is a no-no.

“Architecture is first and foremost the conception, construction and building of rooms; it deals with scenography and movements through rooms” p.15

“… a building, for and by itself, has the innate capability not only of being purely architectonic, it can also be sense making. In that respect, non-referential architecture relies on and is justified by the basis of the most fundamental quality and characteristic of what a building can be, namely, it is its own sense-making thing”. p.19

Nor do they recognize “building as an overly artistic endeavour by means of permeation with esoteric-rhetoric concepts” for even the artistic approach “cannot be the answer either because it propagates that the precise and well-conceived existence of architectonic order alone will engage human being in a meaningful way”. (I’m not sure the authors don’t contradict themselves later on this question of order.) On p.29 we learn what “gives a building its spatial and formal sense-making expression“. “We say that the best thing about buildings is that one can physically experience their rooms. Such experience of space is the “raw” material with which any building must deal. It is the key to non-referential architecture”. Now we’re getting somewhere, even if space and rooms aren’t always interchangeable.

“… the forms of rooms – both inside and outside – ultimately remains the most general architectonic of a building. It is form that brings to people an added cultural value and it is form that sets individuals and society in motion.” [p.30]

“… non-referential architecture can only be of general validity if it expresses something that is real and actual, as generally valid as possible, and as close as possible to be true … non-referential architecture is a question of form, namely, the conceiving of rooms on the outside and the inside.” [p.30-31]

I have no problem with these either, although this book might just be one of those texts that lets you read into it anything you like. I think Adrian Forty said in Words and Meanings that “whenever you hear the word form, you can be fairly certain you’re listening to a modernist discourse”. I’m still onboard if the authors use the word form to mean no more than some configuration of building elements in space. If they’re not, then it means we’re talking about art after all.

The conceiving of rooms on the inside and outside, how we experience that inside and outside, and what sense we make of it is what the 1,700 words of last week’s Architecture of Sharing post were all about. I’m maybe a fifth of the way through this book now. I understand what a non-referential architecture is for me. It’s an architecture that doesn’t refer to things outside of the experience of rooms and spaces. Although, in my case, it’s not about the rooms or the spaces but the walls and floors that create them, which side of those walls and floors you are on, and how you know and experience that. I’ve made my peace so, I’ll skim the rest of the book for the author’s position on how they imagine us experiencing these non-referential rooms and spaces. I won’t be sensitive to what “sense” those spaces make or don’t make, but to what sense they make to persons inside them or outside them. For me, it’s all about what inside and outside mean.

After Postmodernity: Non-Referential World [p.32–41]

Nothing here, apart from the last sentence (that restates the previous chapter).

“With its independence of extra-architectural contents and its liberty from being a vessel of some moral paradigm, non-referential architecture can express – by means of its form – not only something that exists in actuality but also something that is as general as possible and as true as possible.” [p.41]

There’s that word form again! I’m wondering what counts as a moral paradigm, and I’m still lacking specifics on what “extra-architectural” is. Coming back to this idea of rooms or, to see it my way, the elements that configure those rooms, I don’t believe it’s possible for a room to not be a political statement. For one, in order for a room to exist, it is necessary to own the property and to have the resources to build it. This is fact, whether or not architecture is used to articulate it. And once that room is constructed, it makes a different sort of sense depending on whether you are inside it or outside it. And even then, that sense will differ according to whether you are that space’s owner, tenant or a squatter. None of this has anything to do with form, whatever it’s supposed to mean.

Geneaology of Architectonic Ordering Systems [p.42–50]

Here, we meet a sentence that reads “We can surmise that the formal space-constellation of buildings contains everything that is necessary to understand a building” and I wonder in what sense we’re to understand the word understand? It becomes slightly clearer when we see the sole image in the book, a plan of the Temple of Mitla in Oaxaca, Mexico.

We’re told the experience of the central, inner space is that it is higher than the lobby space because one doesn’t enter it on axis (i.e. within the “formal” organization of the building). I’m disappointed. Is this all there is? Presumably, that experience is a good thing. Or was to the authors who seem to have a thing about roofless buildings.

Doors that exist outside the formal organization of a space aren’t unknown in architecture. Look at the door, presumably to the waiters’ pantry, at Gio Ponti’s 1940 Professors’ Reading Room at the University of Padua. Or how about the door to the upstairs bedroom in Kazuo Shinohara’s 1966 House in White?

The Ponti door refers to a social hierarchy while the Shinohara one refers to a spatial hierarchy or, more to the point, his prioritization of living rooms over bedrooms or kitchens as carriers of (his) architectural meaning. Doors such as these may exist outside the formal organization of the house, but they aren’t independent of social references.

The authors tell us that the architectural experience of space is universal, even for persons of different cultures and educations and that understanding the history and context of a building has nothing to do with appreciation of its “space-constellation”. Not so fast! Even the off-axis door at the Temple of Mitla is off-axis because it is, after all, a temple. If I visited the Temple of Mitla, carrying my copy of Non-Referential Architecture, then I would wager that my experience of entering that centre space now would be very different than if I were a preist there 600 years ago, or the next in line to be sacrificed. There are more important things than the experience of architecture. I don’t claim to know what these are but the experience of oneself in society might be one of them if – one believes architecture can help mediate that.

The Idea in Non-Referential Architecture [p.51]

There are two qualities that an idea for a building must have: an idea must be form-generative and sense making. [p51]

Because we find ourselves in a situation in which these believable ideas do not exist in the non-referential world, tghe architect is no longer supplied with a set of guidelines on how to design a building. It is now the responsibility of the architect to author an idea for a building. The situation in which each building requires its very own idea is a consequence of the liberating non-referential world. [p.52]

As I said earlier, if we remove climate and context and social, political and individual circumstance from the equation, there’s not going to be much left to have architectural ideas about. Olgiati may well have achieved this with his own architecture. Without any references to people or why those building elements are there, it’s a bit dead to me.

The Principles of Non-Referential Architecture

I could at this stage complete the book and give you a run-through of what they are, but I’ll just provide a quick summary in case you want to give it a try.

  • First Principle: Experience of Space
    “In what way? And to what end?” And what of the virtual experience of space via images? It doesn’t make sense for a non-referential architecture to exist or even be virtually experienced as images.
  • Second Principle: Oneness
  • Third Principle: Newness
    Some of us might know this as its lesser cousin, novelty. The authors claim that Gaudi was too new, but Gehry was just new enough for his times. I won’t get drawn on that. The closing paragraphs of the book stress the importance of Authorship, and the sole creator, thereby placing the creation of non-referential architecture on the treadmill of artistic production.
  • Fourth Principle: Construction:
    Having said that, using a single material is better than multiple, presumably because to use materials in the way best fit for them would be to refer to specific materials rather than some formal-esque materiality.
  • Fifth Principle: Contradiction
  • Sixth Principle: Order (This seems to overlap “architectonic” and the grisly “space-constellation” of earlier.)
  • Seventh Principle: Sensemaking

Having reached the end, I still have doubts. Is designing a building that takes say, the climate or the context into account really about the introduction of extra-architectural matters into architecture? My thinking is that climate and context don’t need their real or imagined meanings referenced. Id’ve thought some tangible response to their physical realities more in order. This experience of space that’s so fundamental to the authors’ argument is a kind of aesthetic one-on-one contemplative experience so there’s nothing new there. What’s more, all this experiencing is never about how a different space might be experienced differently by different persons one inside and one outside the space, or by one that owns it and one who doesn’t. The possession of land on which to build, and the resources with which to build to me seem hardwired into the making of architecture and then, once it’s made, are equally hardwired questions of who gets to experience that space and how and from where? If we accept that all of this isn’t external to architecture after all, then wen might see it as the basis for a different, less formal, kinder kind of formalism.

The Edge of Space

Space that’s enclosed is different from space that’s not and, with caves, those spaces are defined by the inner surfaces of the cave and by the cave mouth. The cave mouth is the boundary between inside and outside because it’s the only surface that has an other side. If humans are supposed to have an innate biophilic preference for open savanna landscapes, then we might and with equal justification also have one for cave-like spaces not artificially and obviously defined by those modern inventions we know as load-bearing walls. I’m beginning to think I do. 

Whether humans are innately caveophilic or not, there was never going to be sufficient caves to go around. Their geographical distribution was uneven and their locations inconvenient. Sometime prior to 4000BC walls were invented to simulate the shelter advantages of caves but cave-like spaces continued to have a special hold on mankind. Dating from 4800BC, the Cairn of Barnenez is the oldest building in the world. It’s a series of tomb chambers created by piling and arranging rocks.

The Great Pyramid of Giza was built 2580-2560BC. Once again, a small mountain of rock was shifted into place, and again as a tomb. Once more, the shapes of the interior spaces have no relationship to the mass from which they are created.

This is the Temple of Abu Simbel from Egypt circa 1300 BC.

Badami Cave No. 3 dates from the 6th century and is dedicated to Hindu deity Vishnu. The columns can’t not support the mountain in some sense but it’s possible the ceiling acts as a monolithic transfer beam and the columns are there to structure the ceremony itself. [For how could one calculate their size and spacing? If they were empirically deduced by trial and error then we would expect to see a history of errors.] 

The geology of parts of northern China permitted people to dig into cliff faces and make artificial caves for living in. These houses are called yaodong

By Meier&Poehlmann – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11865159

There are also sunken yaodong for places not blessed with cliffs. Yaodong are lived in by some 40 million people and out of choice so they are more than some archaic curio. The 2013 post Architecture Without Architects has some more images. 

Kevin Poh https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

The spaces inside a sunken yaodong are identical to those of a cliff one, and this central space functions in the same way as would the outside, but is now a new type of space, neither fully-public nor fully-private – it is communal space that links and buffers between the houses and ground level public space. Many of the underground houses in the town of Coober Pedy in South Australia are hybrids of cliff and sunken.   

It is rare to have internal space conceptually as well as physically separated from external space. In 1964 Kazuo Shinohara presented House of Earth (Space in Black) as architecture and within less than a year completed House of Earth [aka House With an Underground Room]. The idea of an architecture comprised of internal space and nothing else is a fascinating one but an architecture that denied the exterior was never going to lead anywhere and Shinohara explored it no more. Tornado shelters and nuclear shelters are examples of spaces physically separated from the outside [and for very good reasons]. Survival has no need for art or architecture.

I can’t say what this next building is or when or where it’s from but I suspect Neolithic Europe, possibly (what we now know as) Scotland. [Dec.17: I’ve since learned it’s one of the Ġgantija Temples in Malta (c. 3600–2500 BC). Thanks David!] I also suspect it’s later than Cairn of Barnenez [4800BC] because

  • Although the spaces inside have no relationship to what we see on the outside, their axial symmetry implies the performance of some ritual or ceremony by the living.
  • In addition, the number of spaces suggest more than one activity taking place. 
  • The construction is more sophisticated as the greater part of the building mass is infill stabilised by rock “formwork” – a method that requires smaller quantities of premium materials.
  • The design is better suited to flat land as it does not depend upon digging into a cliff or making a cliff by excavating a hole.

We’re getting closer to the invention of that spatial separator we know as the load-bearing masonry wall. Even these proto-walls support themselves and at the same time define the boundaries of this new thing called “space”. 

In time, the edge of space would become synonymous with the elements defining it and produce what we know as inside and outside but it’s not as if the planet’s population suddenly discovered the joys of detached houses. Walls still required materials and labour that might be better used for other things and having fewer walls meant sharing them. Whereas the sunken yaodong created an artificial cliff around which the house was built, the courtyard houses of Mesopotamia or Egypt can be thought of as houses built around an artificial hole that didn’t need digging. On three of the other sides of the house were other houses that did the same. Space the other side of the party walls has no meaning other than the side used for access.

Egypt, 3000BC

The courtyard house permitted occupants adequate daylighting and ventilation and separating them by party walls meant denser settlements requiring less labour and resources for their construction. 

Middle Eastern houses still tend to be gated communities for individual families. 

The next step in the history of the wall was to inhabit it. Over in Europe, castles had courtyards for similar reasons whether for a single (extended) household or for multiple occupancy. Building castles in inaccessible locations and adding fortifications to them solved problems of security and permitted some openings on the outside. 

Spatially, the infill in the image (on the left) became inhabited space (on the right) with outside space on one side and courtyard space on the other.  

The idea of habitations forming a wall divided the world quite conveniently but it was not unique to Europe. The circular hakka houses of the Han people in southern China are houses built within a circular wall that originally served a defensive purpose.

Things improved over the years but it was still better to be on the inside rather than the outside in Florence circa 1450, especially if you were well-off. The outside of this building presents itself as a barrier between “civil society” on the inside and some still very real threats outside. 

The European courtyard house with its openings on both public and private sides is a refined inhabitable wall that readily upscales (back) to multiple occupation housing with public space on one side and communal on the other. 

One recent example had public space as the edge on one side and privatised (pseudo-public) space as the other edge.

As an invention, it wasn’t new but it needed rediscovering anyway.

I see now that my own explorations of the past year have been circling around this topic of the edge of space when the spatial divider is an inhabitable wall. It was present in this recent proposal for apartments overlooking a mall atrium in Living Above Shops

 and also in my proposal for The Uncompleted Apartment.  

This notion of an inhabitable wall as the edge of space makes sense of some of my favourite things despite their differing scales. In Milan’s Galleria the inhabitable wall is the edge of private space mediating between public and communal public space. In Walden 7 the inhabitable wall is again the edge of private space mediating between public space and communal private space. In Uncompleted House (and others such as Repeating Crevice) the habitable rooms are a wall of private spaces mediating between outside space and shared circulation space. Walden 7 has an imposing external appearance but all three have the primary architectural action on the inside edge of space.    

This notion of the inhabitable wall as spatial divider has the potential to be a more sustaining way of configuring the buildings we actually use and that have meaning for us in our daily lives. However, it’s not something that’s likely to happen on its own for it makes no sense for today’s architectural branding machines to devise architectural experiences resistant to capturing and propagating as images and visualisations. Regardless, it makes economic sense to confine architectural invention to the intensively used spaces that can’t be done away with, and it makes social sense to have a shared architectural experience reside in spaces shared by all users. 

• • •


The Formalist Canon

We all know what The Canon is but no longer know whether it’s taught because it’s important or important because it’s taught. Even the teaching is iffy if it refers to the perfection of ideas rather than the messy and imperfect realities of the buildings that represent rather than physically embody the grandiose claims made for them.

By perpetrating the notion that architecture is about the display of artistic genius, The Canon is about art and not architecture anyway and is thus invalid. I therefore propose The Formalist Canon (a.k.a. The Misfits’ Canon) as an alternate canon consisting solely of works by architecture misfits identified so far by this blog. All buildings in The Formalist Canon embody spatial or tectonic qualities unique to architecture. They don’t mimic those of sculpture, pretend to be those of music or allude to those of painting.

The misfit architects themselves are formalist in that they were preoccupied with buildings and their design, development and provision, and not with the fame and branding that characterises the non-architecture worlds of fashion, pop music and art. It is telling that none of these buildings or architects are “taught” today, or that it’s even thought they have anything to offer. To state the obvious: Formalist architects produce formalist architecture – buildings with characteristics that are unique to architecture. Everything else is churn for the sake of froth.

The Type F Apartment, Moisei Ginzburg and STROYKOM, 1927
Lesson: How to use minimal building resources to enclose useful building volume
Lesson: Imagining all aspects of the user experience

How to enclose useful space with the minimum of building resources will forever display the application of spatial and architectural intelligence. Vernacular examples abound but the Type F apartment illustrates how architects can apply themselves to the problem even if today’s conditions differ in elevators not being as prohibitively expensive as they were in 1927. If we are serious about the application of architectural intelligence to the problem of global resource depletion and how to manage what’s left, then we should be learning how to extract the maximum spatial and social benefit from the resources we have. The importance of the Type F is not that it can be objectified as a perfect object from its time and place but that it can teach us how we should be thinking.

How the floor and ceiling joists alternate to save building height and mitigate noise transmission is an example of how building construction can produce volumetric economies yet still embody consideration for the people who will live there.

The 20K House, Rural Studio, 2005–2017
Lesson: Incremental design improvement
Lesson: Economy of means
Lesson: Maximum efficiency of each element
Lesson: Integration of all components and elements
Lesson: Conventional technologies and standardized parts
Lesson: Design for minimal waste
Lesson: Identifying inefficiencies of process
Lesson: Architecture is about making life better for others

That’s a lot of lessons. These simple houses have much in common with high-tech fieleds of endeavour such as aircraft or spacecraft design that we are so proud as a society to associate ourselves with. These houses are prototypes but the incremental improvement of anything is not something that is or should be particular to any field. I only mention it because it’s curiously not a characteristic of architecture as we currently know it.

I’m told Rural Studio’s Andrew Freear is currently Loeb Fellow at Harvard GSD. The recognition is nice but I can’t help feeling homogenization at work. GSD students should be going to Auburn University rather than Auburn University instructors going to GSD.

Frais Vallon Housing, André Devin, 1955
Lesson: The application of spatial intelligence to produce variety within a system

I’m still not 100% certain I can attribute the design of this housing to André Devin but Devin was there at the right time. These plans are pure genius – a simple configuration enables four dual-aspect four-bedroom apartments to be accessed from a single corridor while leaving open the possibility of creating studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments. Moreover, all bedrooms are on one side of the building and all living rooms on the other.

This building has much to teach. Like the Type F, it shows how the application of spatial intelligence can produce building configurations in which minimal space (i.e. resources) is used to access apartments and to move around inside them. Again, this has implications for resource management but what’s also noteworthy here is that all apartments are decent and none is better than any other in any way. The only differences are whether one goes up to the living room or down to the living room, and whether the stairs enter the 4 sq.m of necessary circulation space at the living room end of the apartment or at the bedroom end. It amazes me that such a perfect configuration never found wider application, or even wider recognition. This project sets the standard for the social and humane application of spatial intelligence. People need to be taught to appreciate what this building is doing, in the hope that it will encourage some gifted student somewhere to aspire to someday improve upon it.

Casa Borsalino, Ignazio Gardella, 1952 
Lesson: How to reconcile construction expediency and enhanced spatial experience

Gardella is the master of extracting every square centimetre of tangible and intangible value from a plan. Architecture “grasshoppers,” look and learn! In Gardella’s Casa Borsalino, the angle of every wall and the placement of every window and door makes perfect sense. Nothing is gratuitous, nothing is accidental. Notice how naturally bathroom and kitchen items find the angles the need to accommodate them? See how walls are angled to guide people through the spaces exquisitely contrived to be wide where they need to be wider and narrower where they need to be narrower? These spaces are alive – they breathe. They are at the same time minimal spaces in that they are no more than what they need to be. It’s just that Gardella had a different idea of what they needed to be. It might even be the case that these slight angles subtract from the net amount of space to achieve some net economy of resources but I can’t tell where or how.

Lassen House, Knud Peter Harboe, 1954
Lesson: The beauty of generic solutions
Lesson: The intelligence of planning for modules and repetition
Lesson: Designing for simplicity and clarity of construction
Lesson: Rejecting the “cult of craft”

To be honest, this house would probably not have been the same without Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House or PJ’s Glass House putting the idea in people’s heads that small houses could be architecture too. There the similarity ends because Lassen House doesn’t exist on infinite property and is not the result of precious materials such as travertine or contrivedly precious mechanicals and construction processes that don’t actually work. We look at houses like this and think their humanity comes from a bit of polished timber or painted brickwork, but it goes deeper than that.

E1027 Eileen Gray, 1927
Lesson: All architects aren’t men.
Lesson: Vernacular construction is fine.
Lesson: Solar orientation has a sensual aspect to it.
Lesson: Good things happen by not being so uptight about architecture.

Eileen Gray – the original femisfit. E1027 – the house that so spooked Le Corbusier that he set up shack behind it so as to faciltate stalking it and its owner. I’ve always struggled with the psychology of that, especially the bit where Le Corbusier defaced the house with his dubious murals.

I guess one man’s wanton vandalism is another man’s non-consensual defilement. No-one’s asking, but if they did, I’d like to see the house restored to a time prior to the murals but what I expect is that they’ll be restored and presented as “part of the story of the house”. Apart from the moral wrongness of this, it’s also a crime of educational negligence because the story of E1027 is a distraction that teaches nothing of actual use and deflects attention from the many useful things the house itself can teach us. 

Aligning a house so bedrooms face east and main rooms face south is the right thing to do. Illuminating the living room by a shaft of horizontal sunlight signalling the day’s end (and alerting anyone still napping on the day bed) is a thoughtful and poetic thing to do.

The old maxim “Don’t experiment on guests!” refers to new recipes and dinner parties but the same applies to architecture. There’s a relaxing comfort to be found in tried and true methods of vernacular construction, and sun and ventilation control. These don’t need reinventing.

Casa alle Zattere, Ignazio Gardella, 1958 
Lesson: Respect what’s already there
Lesson: Lose the ego, do your job well

An essay* I wrote about a year ago began “Not many architects are asked to build in Venice …” Ignazio Gardella was one of the few and he took that responsibility seriously, and discharged it admirably and to the best of his considerable skill. The internal planning of this building is a feat in itself, with rooms distorted ever so slightly to guide (from behind) the attention of their occupants to the view of Il Redentore [Palladio, 1592] across the Giudecca Canal. This is the construction of space for reasons not to do with the space itself, but its effect on the people in the space. It’s a development of the principles in Gardella’s 1952 Casa Borsolino. In the image below, the angle of the wall at the rear of the primary rooms on the south-west corner is inclined to oppose that of the external wall directing people to look away from Il Redentore across the canal to the south-east. This is not a forgotten skill. It was never taught.

Such spatial manipulation is so rare it’s not even a topic. We might marvel at Michaelangelo’s distortion of perspective in the Laurentian Library but forget to ask why it was necessary. What we are really admiring is Michaelangelo’s brilliance. Gardella’s used the quiet power of mute walls to solve actual problems and enhance the user experience. Those problems are not even apparent to other architects.

But that’s just on the inside. The exterior of this building was designed to be merge and become part of Venice. I won’t expand here on the many ways it does that. The building is not denying its presence by hiding through copycat contextualism, but nor is it an ostentatious display of good manners. It’s a building both of its time and not. It’s never been understood, appreciated, or taught. It’s Baroque in its technique (in all the best ways) but prior to the arrival of complexity and contradiction (and all the bad ways). It’s just doing its best to relate to its neighbours and respect what’s already there. This is the genius of Italy. Living with architectural history means a sensitivity that whatever one does might be seen to be part of it. It’s time Gardella was remembered as the architect who didn’t screw up Venice. Architects are still faced with problems such as the one Gardella faced yet nobody is teaching anyone how to approach a solution. He used a technique, not a style.

Isolato tra via Albricci e piazza Velasca Asnago & Vender, 1958
Lesson: Respect what is already there
Lesson: Lose the ego, do your job well

In this next image are four Asnago Vender buildings. They’re the four connected ones in the middle – there’s a sliver of the fourth at the far end of the block. Let’s have a look.

The corner sliver building is mirroring – but not exactly – the building on the corner opposite, its 2nd and 3rd floors are borrowing the colour of the masonry and the glazing is picking up the proportions. The blank wall on the side wall is picking up the proportions of the blank wall of the chamfer wall opposite. But it holds its own – as does the building next to it. And as does the last building on the corner of via Albricci and piazza Velasca.

The earlier buildings on either side are remarkable in their own ways but this corner building is representative of Asnago & Vender’s attitude towards architecture, the city and history. On two sides of this corner, the architects are working within a context they themselves have made, although they could not have been certain they would be the ones to add the final piece. The corner building is not a simple extension of the earlier adjacent buildings because now there’s a new building across a new corner to consider. And consider it does with its eccentric window sizing and spacing differing in increasing degrees as the corner is approached along its slight curve. Two windows break the sequence and alert us to the fact there is in fact a sequence. This is not Victorian “incident” for the sake of it. These two windows are the event that marks the corner and are the culmination of everything that has been set up along both facades. It’s not shouting, but it’s not total silence either – it’s there for you if you notice it.

I confess I love this building but don’t want to objectify it. It contains clues for how to build in the city and how to approach any building on any site. That my last two examples of The Formalist Canon are Italian from the late 1950s is probably no accident. There was something good going on back then. It wasn’t lost or forgotten. It’s just that the world that followed had no need for an architecture that was timeless, that effortlessly became a part of its context, or that was devoid of ego.

• • •

The Formalist Canon still has use for buildings from the traditional canon. For example, Villa Savoye is a good case study to illustrate what happens when design management and client management go wrong, as evidenced by the design changing after construction, with attendant complications and compromises for drainage and er … sewage.

• • •

A New Formalism
The Types Study (The Type F)
Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio (The 20K House)
Detective Story (Frais Vallon Housing)
Architecture Misfit #18: Ignazio Gardella (Casa Borsolino)
Architecture Misfit #15: Knud Peter Harboe (Lassen House)
Architecture Misfit #3: Eileen Gray (E1027)
*A Rationalist in Venice (Casa alle Zattere)
Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago & Vender (Building on via Albricci)
Architecture Myths #20: The Villa Savoye


A New Formalism

This post relates to Architecture Myth #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else and more distantly to Architecture Myth #15: Intellectual vs. Romantic. It’s getting the separate treatment because it follows on from The New Inhumanism and our current Post Modern Revivalism. Its working title was Emotion vs. Reason.

The success of Olivetti’s 1968 Valentine typewriter is attributed to it being designed to encourage people to relate to it emotionally as something more than a mere instrument for typing. I’d agree with that – I bought one, around 1974. The first thing I typed was my Philosophy 100 essay, “Epistemology: What Can We Know?” The Valentine’s emotional appeal didn’t prevent the essay receiving an F later upgraded to a D after my protest more articulate than the original essay. The Valentine typewriter would also have negative emotional appeal for its designer Ettore Sotsass who didn’t like being best remembered for having designed it.

People forming emotional relationships with consumer products wasn’t new but, previously, had always occurred organically and mostly with respect to automobiles. VW’s Beetle, Morris’s Mini, Fiat’s 500 – the Bambino” and Citröen’s 2CV all hinted at some bond stronger than reason. The Valentine typewriter was the first product strategically designed to lure people into purchasing it on the basis of emotion.

By 1988 the method was perfected and along came the contrivedly retro Olympus O Product camera of which only 20,000 were made, each numbered. Demand was whipped up by having to register a month or so in advance in order to have the right to purchase one. With a name like O Product, Olympus knew exactly what they were doing and yes, I bought one, and in full knowledge I was being exquisitely suckered.


Since then the process has been updated and dumbed down. Not too long ago, Karla Welch, recent designer of a “revolutionary” T-shirt for Justin Bieber sternly informed us “You have to commit to this T-shirt!

It’s still sweet and naïve compared to what we’ve come to know as post-truthism and people relating emotionally to words and sentences rather than their meaning. Skilled salespersons, speakers, presenters or even politicians may occasionally make emotional appeals to our better instincts but the techniques are the same as those deployed for emotional appeals to our baser instincts.

Relating to things through emotions is one of the processes Post Modernism set in motion to pave the way for Neoliberalism.

This is being overlooked in the current media enthusiasm to reimagine Post Modernism. One of the three kettles below was not designed by Michael Graves. It makes no difference which, as all three were designed to appeal to emotions. Character-branded products and designer-branded products are at opposite ends of the snobbometer but are false opposites. They both exist to separate you from your disposable income. This is the deceit post-modernism has for the consumer. And when exactly did people become “consumers” anyway, defined by how much of what they bought? I’m guessing 1975, give or take a year.

Was it really important for me to relate emotionally to boiling some water? Or was it more important I unthinkingly yet emotively purchased an Alessi kettle? Somebody’s interests were being looked after but they weren’t mine. And yes, in 1991, I bought one. I threw it when it boiled dry one day and the stupid birdie melted.

If the Neoliberal mantra is “All that exists is good” then it’s safe to assume all that exists is suspect as well as the thinking and mechanisms that put it there. Encouraging us to see the world through the false opposites of as Modern/Reason/Nasty and PostModern/Emotion/Good does not lead to a greater understanding of the world because it is not meant to.

Example: Architecturally, Modernism was replaced by Post Modernism which unfolded into Folding architecture and then deconstructed first into shattered Deconstructivists and then into curvy Deconstructivists that recently revealed themselves as the Neoliberal Affectivists. If we see this sequence as the progression of visual styles we’re encouraged to, then each style is the opposite of the one before but, taken together, there’s a macro-trend unmistakably edging towards representation without meaning. Seeing recent history as a chronology of stylistic opposites has taught us nothing. How did that happen? On whose watch was that? 

William Curtis used Jensen-Klint’s Grundtvig’s Church (1927–1940) in Copenhagen to make the point that Post Modernism can be thought of as a reversion to a kind of pre-Modernism that continued a long tradition of buildings meaning things to people. This would be true if 1927 hadn’t already been the beginning of the end of Modernism’s social ideals.


Meaning-laden churches and other buildings projecting power and authority did little to alleviate housing crises in Europe and Russia but rational construction and removing the unnecessary did [with Oud in the Netherlands, Hannes Meyer and  Ernst May in Germany, André Lurçat in France, Josef Polášek in Czechoslovakia, and Lacherta & Szanajcę in Poland]. I don’t accept that people who finally had a decent place to live didn’t have an emotional attachment to their dwellings. 

Josef Polasek

It took global crises to make the provision of mass housing a concern that the application of focussed architectural skills could and did solve but the topic was dumped once the immediate crisis was averted. We’re so accustomed to believing architecture works for the greater benefit of society that it’s difficult to conceive of it as a mechanism that repeatedly and consistently works against it. Mass housing is no threat to architecture as long as it’s emergency housing in a foreign country.

Japan had a serious housing problem after WWII and Soviet apartments were taken as the model for rebuilding. That was barely underway when, in 1962, Kazuo Shinohara was to declare that houses are art. (I bought that too, by the way.) If houses were art it was a very elitist art but, had the idea stopped there, it would’ve done no more than ensure we had a constant supply of intruiging Japanese art-houses to beguile us.

However, the powerful attractiveness of such an idea for architecture is that once something is declared art it is placed outside of critical reason. Normal rules no longer apply and one can only talk about whether or not something is good art, and that’s tricky given our degraded vocabulary for talking about such things. All the same, it’s still valid to like or dislike something without having to give a reason. Problems only arise when people try to convince others to like the same thing.

Robert Venturi’s 1968 opener “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture” is a statement of emotion with 90 pages of reasoned observation attached. It must’ve been pleasant wandering around Rome and pondering its Baroque architecture but all we got out of it was the idea that architecture was an art that should stimulate our pleasure centres. This has left us with buildings claiming to be playful, inventive, witty and amusing. We’re also left with the odd belief that buildings exist to entertain us. 

I have no problem with either art or with architecture as art for one good thing art does is make us question our reality and re-evaluate our place in the world. In that sense, Roger Scruton saw art as a substitute for religion in increasingly secular post-Renaissance societies. I’m inclined to think so too, despite two adverse side-effects.

  1. The 1970s were the formative years of that intellectual construct, the starchitect. If architecture is art substituting for religion, then the media is no longer its galleries but its places of worship, and architects are not just artists and idols but prophets and deities. (This creates awkward moments when they age, become ill, or die.) 
  2. The other bad side effect is for architecture to be placed on a pedestal as something that can only be appreciated from a distance, and even then not by all. Pop artists produced expensive art that appropriated imagery from popular culture. Their art was neither popular nor for the people. This transfers exactly to architecture. Affordable housing is regarded with the same disdain as affordable art. Affordable architecture becomes an oxymoron.

If our likes don’t need to be justified but worth still needs to be quantified and claimed then we have a means tailored to do just that, with numbers of likes quantifying the degree of (varying degrees of) emotional impact in an open-ended scale of purported worth that has no opposite, not even the false opposite of reason. Emotion wins in a race of one and architecture always likes a winner. Reason has fallen by the wayside, probably dead. I know how this dog feels.


I’m warming more and more to the idea of a New Formalist mode of architectural criticism that probes how the tangible attributes of buildings are contrived to produce the intangible effects of architecture.

• • •

Oct. 9, 7:32pm: The above image is of a 1968 Olivetti poster by Milton Glaser. From this blog, I just discovered it’s a partial detail of a 1495 painting by Piero di Cosimo.

Further googling leads me to this site and the bigger picture. It is Piero di Cosimo’s Death of Procris, now ca 1500-1510

None of this lesses the power of Glaser’s graphic, or his skill in choosing this particular image, cropping it and tweaking its lines and colours. I’ve always thought images containing the four primary colours seem complete somehow, whole. I’m aware it’s just a visual trick that can be strategically employed to evoke the emotional response of something being complete and whole but it works for me. It remains a very seductive image. The typewriter is perfect product placement. Its red works too, and beautifully and contrivedly so with the pumped up red of the flowers at the top and that triangulated red flower bottom right.

The message seems to be that the typewriter is incidental but still an integral part in some greater drama, as it is in Glaser’s composition. I also learn that the painting is said to be the first depiction in Western art of an animal appearing to feel emotion. Knowing that, it become easier to think that embedding emotion into a product was some greater corporate brief of Olivetti’s rather and no one-off accident of Mr. Sotsass. Following that train of thought, the post-modern “referencing” of history (and any subsequent emotion evoked) was a strategy to engage a market more monied than those any prior more socially-oriented architecture had catered to.

• • •

30 May 2018: The colours of Glaser’s graphic are still gorgeous and seductive but the real seduction is the choice of this image and how the apparent emotional response of the dog is used to trigger our emotions and direct them to the typewriter. The typewriter comes between the dog and the object of its emotion. It is also aligned towards the object of emotion, as if the typewriter is feeling the same emotions as the dog. How could we not love this typewriter and want to have it as a loyal companion?

















Making Strange

Poetry is strange and poetic language is strange. Some words make pleasant or interesting sounds. Other words may sound peculiar while others may be similar – or different – in special ways. Still other words occur in unexpected positions or with some new role or roles. All these poetic devices fall under the general concept of making strange and they all call attention to themselves so we can see something in a new way. This is what poetry does and what art in general does.

Making strange is so intrinsic to poetry that its absence is also a way of making strange. There’s quite a famous poem called “This is Just to Say”. [1] Over the years, people have spent much time trying to work out what makes it poetry. 

If making strange in poetry is about words and language, then making strange in filmmaking is about film as celluloid. I remember De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves as having a scene in which a person walking up some flights of stairs has the same footage briefly repeated three times. The effect was “Did I just see what I think I just saw?” Then there was the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker in which two birds fly away across The Zone but only one of them is seen to have crossed it. It’s a powerful scene made strange by simply removing some footage. Both these techniques are specific to film.

I’ve written elsewhere [c.f. Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINEabout the Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis song Canʼt get you out of my head performed by Kylie Minogue. It’s a pop song made strange by beginning with chorus and a fade-in that allude to the upcoming lyrical content. In the spirit of repetition, let’s appreciate it once more for what it is.

[or vimeo]

Towards the end, the buildings in the background are made strange by lighting up as if they were VU meters, showing us a city made strange getting down.

Light show projections are a new form of public entertainment that shows us buildings in strange new ways even if only for short periods of time. More recent projections involve 3D mappings spectacularly combined with animation – a quality that’s very very strange for a building.

Like anything else that stimulates endorphins, increasingly stronger doses are needed if something is to be made strange and new over and over. In art, once a technique of art has been used to indicate something is art it can’t really be used again in the same way as it won’t be so strange anymore. It might still be art but it probably won’t be good art. This is why artists are under such pressure to continually outdo themselves.

In stage drama, making strange involves preventing the audience from becoming involved in a pretend story and faked emotions. Techniques such as wooden delivery, stilted dialogue, awkward silences, or having the actors carry the scenery onto the stage remind the audience they’re there to concentrate on the content of the play and not its superficialities. Bertold Brecht was the main proponent of this type of theatre. He called it Verfremdungseffekt. In English it’s known as the distancing effect, the alienation effect, the defamiliarization effect, or the estrangement effect. This last is apparently closest in meaning to the priyom ostraneniya (приём остранения) as understood and used by the Russian Formalists. [3]

Viktor Shklovsky was head of OPOJAZ – the Society for the Study of Poetic Language group (1910~1930-ish) was mainly concerned with technique and device. “Literary works, according to this model, resemble machines: they are the result of an intentional human activity in which a specific skill transforms raw material into a complex mechanism suitable for a particular purpose.” [4] According to Shklovsky, “art is a sum of the literary and artistic devices the artist manipulates to craft his work.”

The Russian Formalists’ literary criticism emphasised how literary or artistic devices unique to imaginative writing actually functioned. There’s an admirable purity to a literature that doesn’t aspire to be painting, a painting that doesn’t aspire to be music, a music that doesn’t aspire to be sculpture, an architecture that doesn’t aspire to be cinema, etc. In other words, Goethe was wrong. It makes no more sense to evaluate architecture according to rhythm and harmony than it does to evaluate music according to site conditions or climate. The Russian Formalists began by not allowing psychology or culture or history to enter into their evaluations of how well the writer used what they did to achieve they set out to do. It’s still a refreshing approach, as shown by Helen Vendler’s analyses of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. [c.f. Twelve Books on Architecture] It’s also the opposite of what we currently have.

Today, when we read a review of a piece of art, we’re almost certain to read a list of references to the choice of thematic material as filtered the artist’s reading of history, politics, gender studies and contemporary society. If no such context readily presents itself, then the fallback context is to discuss the work in terms of everything the artist has done before or is currently working on. [c.f. Conceptual Continuity] Everything seems worthy of our attention except how the artist has mastered the techniques and devices specific to their particular art form.

Understandably, the Russian Formalists were keen to determine exactly what is intrinsic to literary language. If we were to let such an approach transfer to architecture – and it could transfer directly and with better fidelity than the literary concepts of Post-Modern or Deconstruction ever translated – then it would have huge consequences for evaluating architecture.

  • It means harmony and rhythm are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Music.
  • It means composition and proportion are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Painting.
  • It means three-dimensionality and form are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Sculpture.
  • It means transparency and blurring are not valid concepts for producing or  evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Photography.
  • It means organicism and self-similarity are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re qualities intrinsic to Nature.
  • It means history, philosophy, psychology, politics and culture are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re not qualities that influence Architecture alone. Everything has a history or, more precisely, everything has many histories.

What’s left standing?

  • The notion of space seems to survive intact and I’m not the first to suggest it as a fundamental property of architecture. It may well be the real essence of architecture is the void and not the pretend solid enclosing it.
  • Following on from that, there’s moving through a space. The Acropolis and The Villa Savoye have been famously identified and described (yet never evaluated) as sequences of spatial experiences. Nonetheless, those sequences of spatial experiences are still distinct from the flashbacks, flash forwards and other devices intrinsic to Cinema and that evoke similar feelings of anticipation and suspense.
  • Materials, construction, and structure – but only at scales distinct from those of furniture and civil engineering.
  • As long as buildings are constructed objects, the senseable qualities of materials are as valid as their physical ones. This isn’t to argue for a touchy-feely architecture but just to say that, as long as buildings are constructed from materials with qualities, one quality is just as valid as any other.
  • Site.
  • The notion of function survives, in the sense that people still experience a space even if they’re not moving around admiring it.
perverted formalism

In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Patrik Schumacher claims function is not a fundamental quality of architecture. In a perversion of the Russian Formalist position, he states that people can use the space inside a cave or a hollowed out tree for shelter as they might a building. From this he jumpily concludes that function is a quality that can be satisfied by something other than architecture, and thus not a quality by which architecture should be evaluated. [p341, Vol I. if you’re keen.]

  • Watertightness, servicing, security, durability, sustainability, energy performance and so on, are all specific to Architecture [I know, I know …] despite their current relegation to The Art of Building.
  • The solving of many conflicting requirements together is integrated design and not unique to architecture, but solving the above set is. 

Schumacher would [and did] say that since all these can be solved by engineers, they are not a concern of architects. This is a distortion of a perversion of the Russian Formalist stance and also an example of either ecological fallacy or circular reasoning since what we’re trying to establish is what makes architecture architecture, not what makes architects architects. We can debate whether all architecture is made by architects but it’s contrary to both commonsense and logic to claim all architects make architecture. [5]

These candidates for qualities unique to architecture hit upon all the contentious ones. Why site and not context? If we admit context then why not historical, political and cultural ones? I don’t know.  Perhaps Asnago & Vender got it right by considering history as the site condition of What’s already there. [c.f Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago & Vender]

In some later post I’ll try to illustrate how this concept of making strange can be used to evaluate architecture and, by association, the efforts of architects.

To close, this concept of making strange shouldn’t be reduced to shallow novelty or narrowed to mean only aesthetic innovation. Something novel or innovative can only be considered to have been made strange if it employs a device intrinsic to architecture, and even then only until strange becomes the new normal.

If architecture is an art, then its devices must be capable of interrogation in the same way we can talk about painting not by its subject matter or what we presume the intent of the artist to have been, but by the hard and lasting evidence of brushstrokes, their colours and the patterns they make. Seeing architecture in a similar way might even prove useful in the long run. You never know.

• • •

  1. This is Just to Say was written in 1934 by Walter Carlos Williams.
  2. More on the distancing effect and its chief popularizer, Bertold Brecht.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_formalism This entry will probably tell you all you need to know about the differences between Mechanistic Formalism, Organic Formalism, Systemic Formalism and Linguistic Formalism. The differences hardly matter given our conceptual distance from any of these sub-stances.
  4. “Literary works, according to this model, resemble machines … ” Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. 1925. A poem became a machine for meaning about the same time a house became a machine for living. 
  5. The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I contains no reference to Shklovsky or even to Brecht but the question of what is intrinsic to architecture and nothing else is one Patrik Schumacher had to answer if he was to argue for the autonomy of architecture and for it being a great function system of society rather than a mere subset of the art system. His suggested answer is in the book’s final chapter I still haven’t gotten around to writing about.