Leftist leanings

Thursday’s shoot-out/debate between Jeff Kipnis and our own Bob Somol brought an interesting follow-up to my rant about the superficiality of the vision of architecture advanced at UIC. Both of the supposed duelists stood on the side of architecture’s political engagement through form, rather than the “leftist” and “functional” attitude of trying to change people’s lives through the built environment. Since both they and I see a political role for architecture, I had to think why I find their attitude dissatisfying and superficial.

The easiest way to explain this is to compare these to the way various political organizations engage in politics. I think that the Kipnis/Somol is most like that of a Washington lobbyist – lots of hot air, wheeling and dealing, pressuring politicians with public relations and publicity stunts, but with the sole aim of advancing the power base of a small group of interested parties (here their brand of architect and architectural critic) to allow them to engage in more hot-air blowing and political lobbying, since that’s the only thing they’re interested in. What I envision is more of an architectural Greenpeace (though not as an institution, but an approach) – where the public fireworks are aimed at a specific social/environmental agenda and aren’t simply an end in themselves.

Despite the Kipnis/Somol rhetoric, the underlying seriousness of this attitude doesn’t mean that it has to end up with the stuffy guidelines of a New Urbanism. The idea is for the work to think more about how it affects people’s experiences, both aesthetically and functionally, instead of leaning lopsidedly only towards the visual. In the end it’s about recognizing the fact that architecture is an an art that should not be compared to sculpture, as it often is, but rather to other applied arts that have to take practical considerations into account to maintain their very identity. You can’t seriously call yourself an architect if you design only the formal fireworks of mega-scale sculptures.

Dig deeper

I’m beginning to understand why I haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye with most of the UIC faculty – they’re mainly concerned with finding new forms and new ways of generating form, while I’m interested more in the social engineering side of architecture.
This really came to the forefront at yesterday’s debate between Paul Preissner and Alex Lehnerer, in which they covered a variety of subjects, which all, however, revolved around form. Intrigued by the one-dimensionality of the discussion, I asked Paul (I don’t know that much about Alex’s work, but judging by what he said he’s as much of a formalist as Paul is) what he proposed to present to the new audiences he created with his slick and often beautiful forms. The gist of his answer was “nothing” – he has no ambitions for his architecture beyond the purely formal. None.
That’s more or less what I suspected, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment. The school purports to be innovative, but it’s still stuck in the Peter Eisenman mode of architectural autonomy of the 1960s. Architecture for architecture’s sake. Frankly, I find that pretty boring.
For me the promise of great architecture is the creation of a better world. That means architecture that doesn’t limit itself to museums, theaters and rich people’s houses. If it is to have any relevance in the future beyond providing eye candy for architecture fans, it has to deal with the street, with the city, and with the everyday environment. It has to face current issues, with environmental concerns chief among them. Without a deeper substance beyond the flashy facades, it cannot hope to stir a deeper interest, to keep the new audiences its bold forms may be gathering, and it certainly will not have a very significant place in history once the novelty wears off.

Form and function

Functionalism is dead, at least as far as the UIC School of Architecture is concerned. However, having been accused of “secret formalism” by our director, R.E. Somol, a.k.a. Bob, I thought I would examine that accusation. Not that I ever really made a big secret out of my functionalist leanings – buildings have to have a purpose outside the cultural discourse, otherwise they become nothing more than works of art.

There are two main arguments against functionalism, the best I can see. One is that the function of a building can and often does shift during its lifetime, while its form is likely to remain the same. A school can be turned into a prison, a church can become a warehouse or a night club, without changing its form significantly. The second, (somewhat related) is that function in fact has no relationship to form – the same function can be served by radically different formal arrangements. All true. However, does this mean that function becomes irrelevant? Is form the be-all and end-all of architecture? Shouldn’t architects take the needs and wishes of their buildings’ future occupants into consideration?

Best as I can understand it, Bob’s answer is “no” – that an architect should control the organization and form of a building without reference to the occupants, whose needs will change over time, not to mention the fact that the occupants themselves will too.

Obviously at some level this is a purely academic debate, as in the real world few architects get to impose their will on a project entirely. In most cases the client has plenty to say about what a building will look like in the end, or at least how it will function. Still, is an outright rejection of function as a factor in designing buildings, as per Peter Eisenman, a reasonable approach? I think not.

Eisenman once wrote that the factor that separates architecture from sculpture is “wallness”. Poppycock, I say – the difference between sculpture (“pure art”, let’s call it) and architecture is its inhabitability. Sweet and simple – if you can’t live or work in the final goal of your work, you’re not doing architecture.

In order for a building to be inhabitable, it has to take into account at least the basic needs that humans have. That means that spaces meant for them must have certain features without which a building is no longer a building, but a collection of surfaces and systems that have some other purpose – ergo, not architecture. Therefore, architecture by definition has to be functional, and if so, its functionality is a valid point for architects to consider, whether the idea is currently passe or not.