Against Form/Function Schism: A Bifocal Postulate
More than hundred years have passed since Louis Sullivan coined the phrase, “Form follows Function,” no doubt influenced by the prodigious cohort of Rationalism, Horatio Greenough. To this day, notwithstanding the multifaceted advancements in the fields of technology, sciences and arts, we are still haunted by this dogma. To think that the entire array of memorable dictum thereinafter Modernism can be consummated in this singular phrase exemplifies how we have come to overuse this as an excuse or as a foil to legitimize motivations in any creative field: but particularly in architecture, Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is More;” Robert Venturi’s “Less is a Bore;” Philip Johnson’s “I am a Whore;” and now, the likes of Bjarke Ingels’ “Yes is More.” These are all inescapable orbitals spinning around what is a late 19th Century dogma, in which “Function” has metastasized into opportunistic and timely incarnations; from functions of sophisticatedly camouflaged structure-cum-ornamentation to historico-socio-cultural signifiers to pre-Koolhaasian surfing prowess to a more contemporary proclivity of charismatic entrepreneurial flourish. These are neither to be mourned nor rejected, since they are zeitgeist-like reflections of their respective critical “present.”
Now, the question is: what lies beyond “Form follows Function?”
To see the pseudo-teleological trajectory of our imminent future, our own history may provide us with Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs. Let us imagine that there was a moment when our predecessors left the protection of caves and searched for their habitat in the vastness of plains. Some structure akin to Terra Amata in Nice, circa. 400,000 B.C., might have been erected by utilizing twigs and branches laying around. This simple action of creating a primordial hut, evolving empirically over time, was the epochal moment humanity ascertained an ability as Promethean as tool making, wheel or linguistics. Cave was a naturally-formed place in which a sentient being can analyze the environ to determine the most optimal surfaces for a particular range of life-rituals, therefore arriving at one gross conclusion that “Nature shapes Behavior” or “Function follows Form.” Hut, on the other hand, was the place-object manipulated directly by intentionality, or what will be called a creative will, therefore predating yet another gross conclusion that “Behavior shapes Nature” or “Form follows Function.”
This hapless stream of consciousness does not dare to declare which is right or wrong. To the contrary, the importance lies in the exploring the hybridity or heterogeneity of Form and Function, once separated as forcibly as with the primordial man by Zeus in Aristophanes’ account. The technique of “bi”-fraction occurs – an ability to split anything into two seemingly antithetical ends to any given qualified spectrum – eases a convenient hierarchy, categorization, or better yet, a placement within the artificial Cartesian matrix. To say that one dictates the other, superior over the other, precedes the other, are resilient but infinitesimally decreasing ripples of an attempt to rationalize dichotomous order out of what is not.
Free from the bond of “what follows what,” and hence re-burdened with the resultant lack of gravity, any project ought to seek a bidirectional feedback system between Form and Function, bridged by the induction of various modalities of Formation, itself rich in internal content, processes and theorization. Perhaps one can call it Form, Formation and Function, similar to but without any indictments of parallel correlation to Analysis, Protocol and Synthesis.
First we must engage the Form and Function of any given subject. The emphasis should be placed on analyzing the relationship between Form and Function via architectural techniques of drawing, diagramming and analogous simulation. What is gained here are abstract and incorporeal forms of matter at hand, mainly that of information.
Secondly, we must process ascertained data and qualities of the subject into working machines vis-à-vis creation of protocols. These intelligent machines required an epiphanous moment that once sublimated information can be used in various processes of re-, de-, con-, pre-, sub-, mis-, super-, self-, and outright formation. Simultaneously, the evaluation of infinite formations reveals that, though the majority is extant or useless junk, there are undiscovered inventions or novel relationships. Often, one knowingly avoids this step because of its intimidating quantity and happily archives those with the rest of gibberish in the Babylonian vault, forever lost in obscurity.
Finally, it is necessary for us to have a thorough and rigorous control of Form, Formation and Function to synthesize the architectural project. Though it is a momentary instantiation of infinitely-perpetuating vicissitudes, like an ever-stretched salt-water taffy, the constraints of realities ground otherwise groundless intellectual masturbations into baby-step-like precariousness, unrefined, and of course naïve insinuations of a potential prototype. Like with any architectural project, bio-morphological or otherwise, one is confronted with the polemics of scale, program, materiality, signification, structure, environment and intentionality. Together with a manifesto, architectural prototype emerges faintly and far from its final maturation. This is said with utmost love and respect for the first brave step towards a construction of one’s a posteriori.
This summer at the Tokyo University incidentally provoked us with the topic of “ecologies” in Adaptive Morphology. Sota Ichikawa selected “swarm,” Keisuke Toyoda chose “bacterium,” and our unit occupied itself with “arthropod” to be specific. Not to be too pyrrhonic, but I want to be clear that I am neither an enthusiast nor dissenter to the whole bio-morphology or mimicry agenda. Yet, I understand the eminent need to dislocate one’s pedagogical stagnancy in order to encourage the freedom to imagine and engage in the apropos speculations. The “anthropod” decision was a mere catalyst for just that. To allow students to think about architecture differently in an unrealistically short amount of time and funding; (I myself had to confront how to teach a studio about “insects” which was a virgin topic for me) Nothing more, nothing less.
One hypothesis derived from this experiment worthy of ongoing research is, “More is More.” Meaning not the quantitative function of ornament or language or capitalism, but the fact contemporary architects must make an attempt to acquire more information, more insight, take more actions, more thoughts, more engagement to realities at hand. The more we understand the phenomenon, politics, ecologies of various scales, the more we surely would be re-folded back into the system that is actually shaping the world, for it is foreseeable that the ability to synthesize something out of chaotic sea of information will be indispensable. The superfluousness is then not just in the amount of information we will face, but also in the forms that will be engendered by them as a result. “More is More” is not about a superficial expressiveness, but a calling to reveal inherent complexity already embedded in stuff around us.
Even in a speck of bug.*
(*derived from a Japanese proverb indicating that there lies significant raison d'être, such as life and ecology, even in something seemingly as insignificant as an insect.)
Note: This is a tentative piece-in-progress as a result of the studio taught at the University of Tokyo in Fall 2013, and originally written on October 10th, 2013 for takram laboratory.