Architectural Theory of Modernism
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Architectural Theory of Modernism

Relating Functions and Forms

Ute Poerschke

  1. 242 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Architectural Theory of Modernism

Relating Functions and Forms

Ute Poerschke

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About This Book

Architectural Theory of Modernism presents an overview of the discourse on function-form concepts from the beginnings, in the eighteenth century, to its peak in High Modernism. Functionalist thinking and its postmodern criticism during the second half of the twentieth century is explored, as well as today's functionalism in the context of systems theory, sustainability, digital design, and the information society.

The book covers, among others, the theories of Carlo Lodoli, Gottfried Semper, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hannes Meyer, Adolf Behne, CIAM, Jane Jacobs, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Charles Jencks, William Mitchell, and Manuel Castells.

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Function is a key term in architecture. Architects had already appropriated this term in the eighteenth century, and in the twentieth century in particular they quite consciously employed it when pursuing very different, even contradictory, goals. During the past two and a half centuries, the term has been repeatedly reintroduced into the discussion of architecture as an inspiring concept, only to meet with immediate criticism and lose significance. The most recent interval ended around 1980. First, the High Modernism of the 1920s led to the term’s broad popularity, which lasted until the Functionalism of the 1960s and Postmodernism discredited it completely. Until just a few years ago, the observation that something was functional architecture would have been understood almost exclusively in the disparaging sense, as supposedly efficient readying of space and as the antithesis of an interest in form. There are now signs in the discourse on architecture, however, that there is a new interest—reflected in conferences and publications—in the subject of function and its relationship to form.1 One notices that the antithetical defense of function, on the one hand, or form, on the other, rarely plays a role anymore. Rather, there is an attempt to understand why the themes of the function–form relationship were able to exercise such an attraction for two and a half centuries and a discussion of how they can be invigorated with new meaning today. Function is a term that always came up in architecture when it was necessary to describe something new or a turning point. In view of the challenges architecture faces on practical and theoretical levels, in particular related to globalizing societies and changing natural environments, one might think that the idea of function–form relatedness is again well positioned as part of a paradigm shift for the era to follow star architecture.
In the past, what architectonic functions should be understood to mean was passionately discussed, but by no means settled. Hence, it is one essential goal of this book to show how they have been diversely interpreted. It will be instructive to follow the trails that led to the first applications of the term “function” in architecture as well as the various positions and counterpositions of the last two and a half centuries. The book concludes with observations about a revived discussion about the term that demonstrate its application to current ethical, technological, and aesthetic issues in architecture concerning globalization, digitization, and sustainability. All these themes relate to theories of systems and complexity, and they in turn are closely connected to the concept of function. What can architecture look like in complex local and global systems? How can we rethink the mutual dependence of functions and forms after they have been emptied of meaning in old-style functionalist and postmodernist discussions? These questions are being asked today not only by architects but also by art historians, historians of literature and concepts, theorists of science, and artists. Function is a concept that crosses disciplines.

On Terms

What does function mean in architecture? In the past, that question was usually asked when one was actually trying to clarify another question: What does functionalism mean? The latter question arose in architectural discourse in the 1930s. Although the word “functionalism” is found in isolated cases in writings in the 1920s, as the fourth chapter will show, its sudden spread can be dated relatively precisely to the year 1932. The famous 1933 meeting in Athens held by the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) was named “The Functional City” during the preceding preparations.2 In 1932 Alberto Sartoris published his famous book Gli elementi dell’ architettura funzionale, from which it has been said that “terminological talk of ‘functionalism’ originated.”3 And in the British magazine Architectural Review in 1932, one could sense the tone of contemporary architectural journalism:
You are a writer, a critic, you must find a word for this new thing, which disturbs your critical equilibrium. You look about, and find a word which is already an important one in the vocabulary of architecture—one which has been used too freely and too loudly, perhaps, by some vrai romancier—you add an “ist” or an “ism” to it, and you call it “functionalism.” The new word has a “modern” ring about it, it’s “smart” and “hard,” and perhaps a bit “bolshy” too. (That will be very useful later on.) And thus, for the time being, the critical balance is restored, by a fresh bright word.4
If you follow this quotation, the term “functionalism” seems to be due to the search for a powerful name that could cover as best as possible all the currents of the 1920s and had to remain correspondingly vague. Nevertheless, numerous authors in the 1950s and 1960s tried to define the content of the term more precisely. The strategy of doing so by going back to and interpreting the term “function” did not, however, prove very successful at first. The supposedly vague meaning of the word “function” was even used as a main argument why functionalism could not be defined. “The programmatic weakness of functionalism begins already with the nondefinition of the term ‘function,’” wrote Hartmut Seeger in 1968, for example.5 And Gerda Müller-Krauspe remarked in 1969 that “the dilemma of functionalism is not least that its early advocates were able to articulate succinct slogans for it whereas they never clarified explicitly what precisely should be understood by function.”6 In a broad sweep in 1988–89, Emmanuelle Gallo and Claude Schnaidt formulated eighteen different definitions of functionalism, and they too concluded: “The notion of functionalism lacks consistency. The ambiguity results from the lack of answer to an essential question: What is function?”7
The struggle not only with the term “functionalism” but also with the term “function” has continued to date. Some complain that the concept of function is too narrow, for example, Bruno Flierl, who in 1985 regretted that under the term only “material-practical tasks” had been codified and only later was it “also understood and postulated theoretically in the functionalist camp that the ideal-aesthetic is also part of the function of architecture.”8 Others pointed out that if the concept of function is broad enough “to include the aesthetic, the social, and the imaginative, then what is the term function and parlance of functionalism contributing that is new?”9 The most widespread and probably most pragmatic approach was and is, however, to interpret function as synonymous with purpose, and to derive from that an understanding of functionalism that is about the relationship of purpose and form. The texts in which all these interpretations are mixed do not offer any great insights, and ultimately this led both Adrian Forty and Andreas Dorschel, though independently of each other, to call for the term to be dropped entirely from the terminology of architecture. Forty claimed that it was finally necessary “to develop a satisfactory concept and appropriate terminology to replace ‘function,’ or else to purge ‘function’ of its biological and environmental determinist connotations.”10 And Dorschel proposed replacing the vague word with “purpose,” on the one hand, and “technology,” on the other, or to use it only when its meaning was clear.11
“It is difficult to talk about functions in architecture, since the usage is not clear and leads repeatedly to misunderstandings” was the cautious formulation of Eduard Führ in 2002.12 The question arises, however, also with Forty and Dorschel, of whether it is not precisely these misunderstandings that cause us to think further, so that in a sense they are also desirable and truly necessary. If we look at the discipline of terminological history, we learn that terms simply cannot be clearly defined—for good reason, since it is precisely the openness and flexibility of terms, the possibility of interpreting them differently, that lead to new ways of thinking. So our present study cannot be about defining function or functionalism, or to add one more to the many attempts to define them. Rather, it is about revealing different interpretations from the history of architecture, if possible wresting something timeless from them, and so arriving at new conclusions for architecture in today’s context.
This chapter is about the principal understandings of the term “function.” The quotation from Adrian Forty above, in which he spoke of its “biological and environmental determinist connotations,” points to one. Numerous architectural theorists have indeed referred to the biological concept of function. Others pointed to mathematics, sociology, or etymology. They attempted to approach the question of what an architectural function is by beginning with a different question, namely, what a function is at all. This approach via a very broad path leading through the history of culture and science turns out to be a very fruitful one. For, by looking at various disciplines over the past three hundred years, we can see that the idea of function fundamentally transformed the understanding of the world. René Descartes used the term “function” in natural history; Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz introduced it into mathematics; Georges Cuvier revolutionized the understanding of the relationship of function and form and thereby created the discipline of biology; and Herbert Spencer integrated the concept of function into his fundamentals of sociology. All of these thinkers used the concept of function to contribute to the founding or a renewal of their discipline. And architects too benefited from it by studying different disciplines and comparing their questions with architecture. The next section seeks to offer a first impression of how architects applied concepts of function from other disciplines to their own.

The Relationship between Scientific and Architectural Understandings of Function

Studies of functionalism in architectural theory often begin with a look at etymology. They explain that function comes from the Latin functio, which means performance. Here they immediately run into the problem of what a building or part of a building performs. “With inanimate objects, the term function is misleading, since they do not perform activities,” wrote the architectural theorist Werner Nehls, for example, in his 1966 article “Das Ende der Funktionalistischen Epoche” (The end of the functionalist epoch). He further observed that buildings were understood “as if they were living beings, capable of actions: the knife cuts, the wedge splits,” and concluded from that that “the literal application of the term function merely creates confusion. This also explains the many uncertainties and contradictions that result from its use.”13
If one searches for uses of th...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Table of Contents
  6. 1 What are Architectural Functions?
  7. 2 Function and Representation
  8. 3 Form and Function in the Structured Whole
  9. 4 Concepts of Function in High Modernism
  10. 5 Functionalism and Its Criticism
  11. 6 Functions and Forms in the Architecture of the Information Society
  12. Bibliography
  13. Image Sources
  14. Index