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.

Architectural project

I’ve been thinking what my long-term architectural project could be. I don’t care much about form, except as the icing on the functional cake, so to speak. Then again bad icing can spoil a perfectly decent cake. Though I’ve often been accused of being a functionalist, that’s not it either. Functionalism suggests that you either design only for function, which I’ve seen backfire too many times in various ways, or like Koolhaas and his bunch, the use of function/program to suggest a form. While some Koolhaasian architecture (the Seattle Public Library, for one) is admittedly really good, much of it gets stuck in gratuitously weird territory.

OMA’s Hyperbuilding project – fantastic or just weird?

Then there’s the issue of newness – is newness a good thing of itself? Should we strive to come up with “The New”? What’s the point of that? Being new doesn’t guarantee being good, though it hardly seems worthwhile to tread water repeating old patterns. Unless – wait – one understands the goal of architecture to be the design of functional, usable and esthetically pleasing buildings.

What I’m thinking is more of a typological approach – you get standard types, and depart from them only if something forces you to. For instance, an office building would be a typical open-floor stack of slabs dressed in glass, unless some requirement forces you to change something about it. In that instance aesthetics could be taken care of by elevation and interior design. Substantive departures could result from usage and environmental factors, but should be no greater than required to do the job they’re intended for.

I guess I am a functionalist at heart, though I’m thinking this is more of a “reduce-reuse-recycle” architecture than the Modernist version. But is “functionalism with a human face” good enough?

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.