Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In defence of functionalism


Disclaimer: The following are some slightly random, no doubt rather jumbled thoughts about function and use in architecture. Some of the conclusions might seem a bit rich coming from a Po Mo enthusiast, but there you go.

Is there a more unfashionable term in architecture than functionalism? Like the similarly reviled 'facadism', it is usually prefaced by the pejorative adjective 'mere'. To be functional is to be drab, cheap and unexceptional. "It's functional, put it that way", someone might say about an unloved or unlovely bit of design.

Despite this most architects would sign up to the idea that good buildings should be functional. But functionalism on its own is rarely seen as enough. Architects justify their work by referring to other things; qualities of space, material or abstract values to do with composition or light. This is where the art of architecture lies we believe. Functionalism is a kind of degree zero, the base camp from which we begin our ascent to more noble achievements. But what if it weren't? What if the art of architecture lay in how well a building worked, in how competently it went about its business?

What does it mean for a building to be functional? Buildings aren't like machines. They don't 'work' or 'not work'. When they fail it is usually in small, localised ways that might impede the smooth operation of what happens in them but doesn't stop it entirely.  Buildings provides spaces in which other things - machines and people - do the work. Which means that buildings that declare their functionality overtly usually do so by trying to look like a machine.

(Image: Valerio Olgiati, National Park Centre, Switzerland)

It's interesting in this respect to look at the work of Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati. His buildings have a typological autonomy and disinterest in function, appearing aloof from practical, pragmatic concerns. Take the staircase of his National Park Centre building, pictured above, a willfully perverse doubling of function that seems to confront the visitor with a disorientating equivalence - the opposite of pragmatic spatial organisation.

Olgiati's work* seems to be about the opposite of functionalism. His double stairs are functionally redundant, useless even. They appear extravagant and wasteful. Waste can mean different but connected things. Is it something we no longer want that needs to be discarded? Or is it something that, like Olgiati's staircase, isn't necessary to start with? Is waste the rubbish we expel or the excess that we desire?

The word waste permeates our culture right now. It is the mantra of the coalition, who maintain that the state is inherently wasteful. Money can be saved if we cut out waste, we are told, even though doing so is largely a euphemism for literal redundancy. Human waste in other words. And waste is also the inevitable by-product of capitalism, which creates desires for things that we don't really need: luxury waste.

Writing in the late 1970's, Bernard Tschumi defined architecture as "useless" but "radically so". For Tschumi, architecture's lack of necessity - its excess - was its most vital quality. Tschumi's formulations deliberately cut against the functionalist justification of International Style modernism. He was attempting to excavate a different legacy, one that drew on surrealism, Dada and futurism and explored the irrational, the erotic and the psychological experience of architecture. He cited André Breton's statement that "Beauty will be convulsive or not at all" and referred to spaces of murder and obsession.

(Image: Co-op Himmelblau, JVC New Entertainment Centre, Guadalajara)

Of all the so-called deconstructivist architects of the '80's, Tschumi was the only one to declare an explicitly political agenda. Yet his words led to an embrace of excess and extravagance in architecture. Deconstructivism proved to be an architectural style unsuited to anything but large, vanity projects and the opulent excesses. It's functional redundancies, pointless complexities and indulgent whimsy were radical only in the most childish and attention-seeking sense. It is another form of luxury waste.

Perhaps we should look again at the 'value' of function. In attempting to describe what they do as adding value to buildings, architects hope to make themselves more valuable, at least in commercial terms. Commerce seeks to locate the value of objects so that it can sell them. That is, their value is an external one applied retrospectively to the object. In a sense, how those objects actually work is unimportant. Similarly, the genuine complexity of buildings is assumed as a given, the easy and unglamorous part. But what if the really valuable thing about buildings was the way they work, the genuinely useful things that they do?  This would require a shift in our thinking, one which is perhaps more political and economic than aesthetic. Architecture should be useful. Perhaps even radically so.

* I should point out that I really like Olgiati's work and think that his particular relationship to function is an ambiguous and interesting one.


Anonymous said...

this is mere antifashionism. :-P

Charles Holland said...

bit harsh. i was actually trying to think seriously about functionalism. maybe that didn't come across.

Design Elements said...

just found your blog...w o n d e r f u l!

Anonymous said...

ha sorry my comment was meant to be mere facetiousism

Architectuul said...

Great post! I have the following take: for the past century architects struggled to find an equilibrium between form (style, aesthetics, etc.) and function (type, program, use etc.) Unfortunately this led over time to dogmatic debates and formalistic solutions. Instead what really matters in my opinion is the in-between. It is the interaction between all stakeholders that can make architecture "useful", the process to research and discuss different use patterns and come up with sustainable solutions for clients and users. Aesthetics and function are part of this process, a process which is dynamic and constantly changing a process which requires the collaboration of all parties involved with the architect as a mediator. Architecture has to be useful AND beautiful AND answer to the changing needs of clients and users. To negotiate these moving targets in a collaborative process is probably unglamorous, but in today's obsession with signatures it's radical.

Charles Holland said...

thanks for your comment architectuul...nice to have a non-facetious one. i think you're right and this idea of use as a value in itself that escapes the reductive logic of the market is what i was trying to get to.

Architectuul said...

You are welcome. I agree and I think there is a younger generation of architects willing to go down this route.