A Screed About Style, Function
and
Postmodern Architecture



Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.
Le Corbusier -- Famous architect

The fashion game is fun for architects to play and diverting for the public to watch, but it's deadly for building users. When the height of fashion moves on, they're the ones left behind, stuck in a building that was designed to look good rather than work well, and now it doesn't even look good.
Stewart Brand -- How Buildings Learn

When architects design buildings for themselves, you invariably have an interesting time.
Robert Simha -- MIT facilities planner

I recently took a class at Stanford which looked intensely at the works of several contemporary architects, notably Stanley Saitowitz, Eric Owen Moss, Martha Schwartz, and Antoine Predock, with brief excursions into the worlds of Frank Gehry, Peter Walker, George Hargreaves, Charles Moore, and a few others. While this list doesn't even come close to being a comprehensive survey of contemporary architecture, it's enough of a cross-section for me to start discerning a few patterns. These architects' buildings and writings do suggest something about the character of contemporary architecture as a whole. The theme that's of particular interest to me is the conflict between an architect's roles as, on the one hand, the designer of an aesthetic object, and, on the other hand, designer of a functional structure and environment for human beings.

Whether or not we choose to label the work of these architects as "Postmodern" (with the capital "P"), it is clear that they all, to one degree or another, reflect a dissatisfaction with the blandness and sterility of the aesthetic standards which have dominated architectural design for a goodly portion of this century. Since those standards have generally been labeled "modern" by the critics, academics, and avant garde, "postmodern" (lower case "p" this time), oxymoronic though it may be, seems as good a label as any for what these more recent architects have been doing. Postmodernism, in this sense, is just a reaction to modernism. The reactions of most of the practitioners mentioned in the previous paragraph have all been surprisingly similar. I'll discuss this in a moment, but first I'd like to say a few words about modernism itself.

The definitive epigram for modern architecture was "form follows function". Considered apart from the historical context of the past century, this is an interesting, powerful, and, I think, valid notion. What the theorists of modernism did with it, however, is another thing entirely. Indeed, were it not for the evidence of the historical record, it would be quite incredible that one could start from "form follows function" and wind up with, for example, the International Style. Even with the historical record it's still somewhat of a puzzle.

What happened, I think, was that the theorists of modern architecture became entranced by the aesthetics of pure geometric form and new building materials. Function was the farthest thing from their minds. The ideal of function was incorporated as a post facto rationalization for aesthetic decisions that had already been made on artistic and ideological grounds. The notion of function itself was derived from a bogus machine aesthetic, reasoning backwards from a false syllogism:

1. Machines are spare, unadorned, and formed by purely technical considerations.

2. Machines are functional.

THUS: Buildings that are spare, unadorned, and formed by purely technical considerations will be functional.

QED.

Neither engineers, who understand what function is, nor anyone who has passed a first semester philosophy class, and thus understands what logic is, should be fooled by this, yet it drove architecture for much of this century. The theoreticians of modern architecture, however, were by and large not people who understood a lot about machines or logic. They were artists, aesthetes, and academics*.

Whatever the rationale for it may have been, modernism frequently produced buildings that are hostile, stark, ugly, or just plain dull, especially when viewed from the perspective of later years. But however much these buildings clung to their mechanoid aesthetic, they were not, as a class, notable triumphs of functionalism. While some of the worst of these, such as the Pruitt-Igoe housing development, were recognized as failures and demolished, we continue to suffer with numerous buildings that are only marginally less horrible.

It is not surprising, then, that a newer generation of architects should look back at modernism and respond with a different set of standards. Whatever else you may say about the designers who are the subject of this essay, few of their works would qualify as dull. However, a curious thing happened in the reaction to modernism. When they tossed the International Style out the window, they tossed its rationale with it, apparently still believing in the causal model claimed by modernist theory (in other words, the postmodernists rejected the modernists' conclusions but not their reasoning).

At a conference a few years ago I had a conversation with Marcos Novak, an architecture professor at the University of Texas, after he had just presented a paper in which he had shown a number of fascinating simulations of dynamic cyberspace buildings, virtual structures whose form would change over time. The designs were quite intricate and I was curious about some of the details. A piece of the conversation went something like this:

Me: Why are these structures constantly changing?

Novak: Well, they just do.

Me: Whatever happened to "form follows function"?

Novak: Nowadays we're trying to get away from that.

One might call this a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water--even though the baby was never really in the tub in the first place!

In rejecting the faux functionalism of the modern style, the postmodernists have also tended to reject true functionalism. This, of course, is completely unwarranted. Functionalism has become something of a blind spot for them. For example, ornament, complexity, "softness" of various kinds, traditional materials, and many other elements eschewed by modernist dogma all help address psychological needs of the human beings who would live or work in a building. Taking into account the cognitive (i.e., ergonomic) and emotional considerations of the inhabitants is entirely consistent with genuine functionalism; indeed, it is demanded by it.

Thus, while avoiding some of the worst mistakes of modernism, the postmodernists have a tendency to belittle a building's program, to downplay purpose. For example, Saitowitz says, "My thesis was on indeterminacy -- architecture without program, form without content -- hoping to act without intention or imposition". Moss' buildings seem to defy any sense of function at all, seeming instead to be the products of a psychotic sculptor. Landscape architect George Hargreaves openly worries that "landscape architecture is a service industry, solving problems..." (!)

In spite of this, these designers' buildings do seem more humane, for the most part, than was the norm for modernism, and thus can make a greater to claim to functionality. Partially this is due to the aesthetic approaches of these newer architects. In particular, while modernism was principally a visual aesthetic, postmodernism (at least as represented by this uneven sample of architects) seems more eager to embrace additional sensory modalities. Saitowitz' work seems to me to have an extraordinary tactile dimension, where surfaces express themselves in material and texture that is best touched rather than looked at. Predock's designs emphasize the kinesthetic experience of movement though them, which he explicitly acknowledges with reference to his early involvement in dance: "I think of my buildings as processional events, as choreographic events".

And too, I think all of these architects recognize, at some level, the need to address the practical and emotional considerations of their clients. When Saitowitz lectured to us he spoke with pride about the complimentary letters he gets from the inhabitants of his houses. Moss, talking about what he does, said "Ultimately, this is possible because there's a market for this kind of space." Schwartz said, "people should derive a sense or orientation in space that produces a subliminal sense of comfort and security."

And yet they all seem to be handicapped by the legacy of modernism, or rather by their need to escape the legacy of modernism, which blinds them to the full functional significance of what they do. Thus Saitowitz' surfaces look like they would be uncomfortable to rub against or bump into, Moss' spaces seem to lack any sense of human scale, and Predock's concrete looks just as brutal as Le Corbusier's.

There is much to be hopeful about in these works, but much too that suggests we still have a ways to go before the worst of modernism is behind us. I suggest that one place to start is a reconsideration of "form follows function" that admits the full spectrum of human experience to the definition of function.

* To add insult to injury, anyone who has studied the history of technology will confirm that the spartan, unadorned form we now tend to associate with machines was itself as much a consequence of modernism as a progenitor of it. Indeed, Victorian-era machines were often quite heavily ornamented, reflecting their creators' evident pride in them as demonstrations of their civilization's considerable accomplishments. Even today, all but the most extremely utilitarian devices incorporate some level of aesthetic design.