Wednesday, December 1, 1993

After Functionalism

Written December 1993
© David Cohn. All Rights Reserved.

This was my stab at a theory of contemporary architecture, written in 1993, which helped clarify many of my thoughts and intuitions. I proposed it as the introduction to a collection of my articles, for which it could still serve, with some revisions, today.

The revolution in architecture announced by books such as Aldo Rossi's The Architecture of the City and Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (both 1966) changed the course of postwar Modernism. But after twenty years of post-modern movements and styles, from North American Historicism and European Neo-Rationalism through Contextualism, Critical Regionalism, Eclecticism and lately, DeConstructivism, the strongest trend to have emerged in contemporary architecture is the irrepressible return of the Modern. What then in architecture has actually changed?

In retrospect, it is clear that the Modern Movement Rossi and Venturi attacked was a shadow of its prewar self. Compared to the avant-garde manifestos of the beginning of the century, the corporate headquarters, airports and shopping centers of mainstream postwar Modernism represent a notable failure of nerve. The vital energy of early Modernism was fueled by a progressive collective project or vision, be it Marxist or Fascist or ambiguous or self-invented, that after the war --after a war inflamed by such ideas-- was untenable. Postwar architecture joined the other arts in a strategic retreat from collective ideologies -- to an existential uncertainty on the one hand, or to science as the model for a collective, more than individual coherence on the other.

Just as postwar art generally spoke only of agonizing subjective experience (Mark Rothko) or through the alienated, objectified voice of scientific observation and demonstration (John Cage), postwar modern architecture withdrew into the theoretically "scientific" concept of functionalism, the idea that an objective, rational language of architecture could be developed from the clear, logical expression of the functional and structural requirements of a building.

Functionalism was not new to modern architecture, but after the war it was applied with a new single-mindedness. The most sophisticated architects interpreted functionalism in organic sociological terms (Jacob Bakema, Georges Candillis) or used functional elements in dramatic sculptural compositions (James Stirling and other Brutalists, in what we could call a functionalist mannerism, precursor to High Tech), while more conservative American practitioners tended towards a more abstract and geometric formalism. But the general tendency of functionalism, and what made it such an easy target for the first post-modern critics, was to reduce architecture to a purely instrumental status. Between the work of Mies van der Rohe and his postwar Chicago followers such as C. F. Murphy or Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, an essential dimension of architecture had been lost.

Ironically, this situation is comparable in many ways to the historic conditions that gave rise to modern architecture in the first place. The industrialization of England at the end of the 18th century and the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment gave rise to a rationalization of human work and thought as seen, for example, in the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, a concept which produced the complementary principle, as stated by John Ruskin, of the "inutility" of art.

In the applied arts, the division between utility and art was expressed in the eruption of ornament in the first machine-produced goods, such as those displayed at London's Great Exhibition of 1851. From this point, modern architecture emerged as the effort to reintegrate the concepts of utility and art, from Louis Sullivan's search for the organic nature of the tall building to Adolph Loos' famous essay Ornament is Crime.

What had occurred at the end of the 18th century in England, and re-occurred in the aftermath of the Second World War, was the exile of what we here call "art" from the world of work and reason, or, to put it simply, from the world of fact. The emergence of English Romantic poetry in the same period is perhaps the clearest example of this division. If the project of the Enlightenment in England (with its positivist and empiricist colorings) is taken to mean the secularization and rationalization of thought, the banishment of untested belief and superstition, the reduction of what can be considered "real" to what can be empirically confirmed by the scientific method and deduction, to the laws of nature and logic (a reduction of language, we might say, in favor of fact), then the imaginative realm of Romantic poetry in the 19th century, from William Blake onwards, surges from this radical reduction of the world of meaning like a phantom amputated limb. In Romantic literature, sentiment and desire are displaced to the past, the mythical, the distant and exotic. Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary describes the alienation of romantic displacement, and the corresponding poverty of a "realist" present, the catastrophic consequences of the rupture of language.

In the United States, the first critical reactions to functionalism sought to humanize the overly instrumental and reductive aspects of postwar practice. Charles Moore and his colleagues, in books such as The Place of Houses and Body Memory Architecture (with reading lists, following Nobert-Schultz's Intentions in Architecutre, including Piaget, Bachelard, and Heidegger), sought to construct a humanistic bridge to an apparently abstract formal language, emphasizing the structural polarization of space by the human body, in phenomenological, perceptual, and psychological terms. This work, like the contemporary theories of Aldo van Eyck, Herman Hertzberger or Christopher Alexander, still maintained a "scientific" approach to architecture, seen in terms of sociological insights or in the isolated experimental units of the "human body" and "perception". Architecture was conceived as an instrument of social form, adapting functionalism to a broader, more sensitive view of human necessity.

But the short life of the post-modern movement in the United States, from the actual buildings of Venturi and Moore to Michael Graves and the corporate skyscraper architects of the 1980s, could be attributed to the fact that the Americans sought to realize this humanistic program through the same ornamental strategy used in the 19th century.  The much-celebrated irony of Venturi and Scott Brown's use of pop-scaled "sign" ornament was charged with the same alienation and distrust of non-objective language as the paintings of Jasper Johns or the stacked bricks of Carl André. The scenographic, ephemeral (and poorly constructed) quality of Moore's output failed to engage the real issues of the production of buildings, while at the other extreme, the later work of Graves and the commercial post-modernists abandoned all interest in a critical project. Only Alexander remained faithful to the logical consequences of his theory, as developed in A Pattern Language, a revolutionary design method as appropriate to luxury residential compounds as it is to the Third World.

Aldo Rossi, in the concept of type proposed in The Architecture of the City, challenged functionalism in different terms. Just as in the early formalism of Peter Eisenman or the twelve tone system in music, Rossi's early work could be described as a quasi-scientific investigation into the "constituent elements" of architectonic language. But in his case, the basic elements were determined not so much by the natural laws of physics and geometry as by the laws of memory and the imagination. In the concept of type, Rossi began to address an idea about what we might call the "mental reproduction of images," how images might multiply and transform themselves in the memory and the imagination in a semiotics of nostalgia and desire.

Manfredo Tafuri's harsh criticism of Rossi in the History of Italian Architecture, 1944 - 1985 underlines the radical nature of Rossi's approach and its challenge to the (Enlightenment, Marxist) project of reason:
"The imagined project concerned a new collective need in a universe that was robbing individual action of its element of fantasy. But whoever immerses himself in imaginary realms today --as Blanchot has warned us-- is forced to annul space and time, to send them deep into the nothingness of "literary space". This annulment is indecent and provocative. It has nothing to do with the classical Entsagung; it is based on the amoral principle of abstention." (1)
While Rossi's own architecture seems, as Tafuri observes, to end in a paralyzing reductivism, the radical potential of his idea can be interpreted in terms diametrically opposed to Tafuri's analysis: to open the "imaginary realms" of "literary space" to a world otherwise determined by instrumental reason or functionality, to release the powers of the imagination from an "indecent, provocative" postwar exile.

The parallels between Rossi's architecture of the 1970s and other contemporary movements in art are obvious, from the ritualized stage sets of Robert Wilson to the ideologically-charged paintings of Anselm Kiefer. It is no accident that the image of the theater is a favorite Rossian theme, for theater offers a model of realism diametrically opposed to the factual representations of, say, photography, a realism which can be composed of symbolic rather than literal elements (the type characters of Bertold Brecht, for example, adapted from popular folk literature and employed in a context of social realism). Here symbolism is used not to create imaginary worlds but as a tool in the analysis of the "real", or even, we could say, in the composition of the real.

Behind the figure of Rossi in Europe and Venturi in the United States, the influence of Louis Kahn is of course decisive. Kahn's dialectic of served and serving spaces, developed from the Brutalism of the 1950s, and his formal dialectic of repeated and deformed geometric volumes and patterns, helped to distance his method from functionalism, and provided the essential outlines for Rossian type and Venturian deformation.

More difficult to assimilate at the time, but perhaps equally decisive for the present, was Kahn's disturbing spiritualization of architecture. The elevation of traditional modern values such as light, space and the "honest" use of materials to a transcendent, spiritual plane went against the grain of postwar doubt. Worse, it seemed to echo the fatuous, vaguely Heideggerian exaltation of the everyday which Theodor Adorno denounced in The Jargon of Authenticity. For at the same time that Kahn was asking the brick "what it wanted to be," French post-structuralists were examining the semiotic unmasking of God as an effect of language, the absent referent of an empty sign. But the thought of Heidegger is reflected more concretely in the writings of Rossi, Venturi, and later, Christian Norberg-Schulz and others, where a Kahnian spirituality is rationalized in terms of psychology and semiotics (Rossi, for example, following Gaston Bachelard, calls his childhood reminiscences A Scientific Autobiography).

If we were to substitute the problematic word "spirituality", which comes to us from a broken world of absolute values and faith, for another word, "poetry," which is specifically an attribute of language, we might be able to identify the essential change which the work of Rossi and Venturi, and behind them Kahn, brought to architecture, a change which has not only affected the present, but which has also changed our historical understanding of the first modern architects. Poetry can refer, of course, to many different things. But if we imagine the poet as a sensitized observer of the world, reflecting, comparing, associating, imagining, remembering and feeling through the weave of language, and if we associate these qualities with the architect, who follows the same process through the weave of form and the building's functional circumstances, that is, its role in the entire social sphere, we find ourselves with an architecture which brings a new dimension of meaning to the languages of functionalism and abstract form: the dimension of language in its fullest, most human and relative sense, open to the powers of memory, dream and projection, the power to create a "fiction" of the present and future, of fact and imagination, to propose a (partial, poetic) project as a fundamental dimension of the real.

In this sense, poetry has replaced science at the end of the twentieth century as a model for a cohesive structure of thought, to such a degree that science itself, particularly in advanced areas of physics and mathematics, is often referred to today as a kind of poetics, a concentrated, contingent linguistic weave, without for that reason being any less rigorous or verifiable.

The direct stylistic impact of post-modernism may not be as evident today as it was in the 1970s and 80s. But the more general shift to a poetic concept of language has spread through all the branches of architecture in the past twenty years, from the more obviously poetic work of John Hejduk or Álvaro Siza and signature artists such as Frank Gehry or Richard Meier, to include the architectural invasion of fields previously surrendered to technology: in the city planning theory of Oriol Bohigas, the engineering works of Santiago Calatrava, or the High Tech buildings of Norman Foster. We can speak once again of an architecture that represents public aspirations (the Trés Grands Projets of François Mitterand, the public building programs of new democratic administrations all across Spain), of an architecture that, with the right patrons, can represent a collective project, even in the old Enlightenment terms. And in retrospect, how do we now understand the work of the Russian Constructivists, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Bauhaus, Italian Rationalism or the Dutch Neo-Plasticists but in these same poetic terms?

Architecture meets the needs of the present but also creates the world of the future, consciously or no. To consciously seize the powers of imagining and creating the future world would seem to be the present goal of a renewed public and private architecture, and the most important legacy of the post-modern revolution.

Note 1:
Manfredo Tafuri, History of Italian Architecture, 1944 - 85, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1989, page 137.