Architecture: Form and Function

My work on affinity spaces came about, in part, by thinking about space in virtual worlds, websites, and social media. Lately, however, I have been thinking about architecture.  Space for humans only exists once it has been enclosed, bounded, or channeled. Otherwise, unbounded space is like being in Outer Space with no directional points or signals.  The act of enclosing, bounding, and channeling people in and through space (or spaces) is, I suppose, “architecture” in a general sense.

Architecture as a “specialty” (with credentials and degrees) has long had a problem that a good many other professions are just now beginning to face: amateurs.  The vast majority of buildings across time, and even now, have not been built by professional architects.  So, too, today professionals in all sorts of other fields—whether media production, game design, news, advertising, or citizen science—face competition from amateurs, thanks to digital and social media and the self-organizing way people can now teach and learn together outside of schools.  Architecture as a profession just faced the “Maker Movement” earlier than these other areas.

By the way, architecture as a credentialed profession inside universities arose about the same time as English literature professors appeared on the scene, late in the 19th century. When the first literature professors arrived in universities, people wondered why we would need academic experts in literature when literature had been written and read without them for a good long time.  When writers had to begin making their livings as academics teaching writing in universities and no longer as amateurs living outside the Ivory Tower, it did not, to my mind, improve literature, much of which became focused on the ludic play of signs (or English Department politics) and not deep themes.  People could also have asked why we needed a credentialed specialist called an “architect” when people had been building, using, and assessing buildings for thousands of years without them.  One can wonder as well whether architecture as a specialized discipline has given rise, on the whole, to better or worse buildings, though no doubt there are examples of real excellence.

Books on architecture sometimes make a distinction between building for function and “architecture proper” which builds for function and aesthetics (human sensual, emotional, and cognitive appreciation).  Architecture proper is, it is said, an “art form”.  And, indeed, there is no doubt that many a “functional building” is quite ugly.  This distinction between “functional” and something else or more reminds me of a distinction long made (and now long dismissed, by many scholars) in literacy studies.  This is the distinction between “functional literacy” and whatever we are to call literacy that goes beyond mere functioning.  We never had a name for the latter.  Those who liked it called it “high literacy” (covering things like literature and essays) and those who didn’t, called it “elite literacy” (at one time “literate”, meant only “high literacy”, but now it more often means just a base functional literacy necessary for life in a modern society).

The distinction between “functional” and “something else or more” (e.g., art) in architecture and literacy studies seems to me wrong-headed.  Humans cannot function well—indeed cannot even think—without emotion and appreciation.  It is emotion and appreciation that help them know what counts, what matters, what is better or best, what is worth choosing, doing, or paying attention to.  Work in neuroscience has shown that without this function (yes, it is a core “function” of human thinking, doing, and being) humans cannot think or plan, because they cannot value and decide.  So, anything that was “functional” without triggering the human desire and need for emotion and appreciation would not really be functional.  When the human desire for emotion and appreciation is triggered in a deep and life-enhancing way we have something worthy of also being called “art”.

It goes both ways, though.  In architecture and literacy there is no art without functioning.  Above I said that we might think of architecture as the “act of enclosing, bounding, and channeling people in and through space”.  Let me change this just a bit to say that we might think of architecture as “the act of mindfully and designfully enclosing, bounding, and channeling human actions and activities in space”.  Actions and activities include not just bodily doings, but also “mental” things like meditating, reflecting, communing, engaging, focusing, and planning, all of which require a body, since for humans thought is embodied, often mediated by tools, and situated in context and place.  Actions and activities are human mind/body functions.  So all good architected buildings, whether built by professionals or amateurs, must suggest, afford, and emotionally and appreciatively charge human action/activity functioning, even if the humans are no longer there.  So, too, for literature, which is why Kenneth Burke called literature “equipment for living”.

It is interesting that the there is one important school in architecture called “Functionalism” (with a capital “F”).  Functionalism celebrates designing and building “forms” (structures) that perfectly fit the functions the forms will serve.  Anything in form that goes beyond or does not subordinate itself to function is excess, merely decorative.  Here the functional is celebrated as the “higher principle” for design, not as something “lesser” waiting for “art” to redeem it.

Le Corbusier—a famous "Functionalist" in architecture—once said "A house is a machine for living".  In my view, we humans do not need machines for living, but equipment for living (and, it is interesting that today we have people who want to replace teachers with machines for literacy instruction and other subjects).  Equipment is what we choose to take to a job or on a journey—including life’s journey—to enhance it, both in terms of performance and appreciation (joy).  No one thinks “equipment” will take over our human place in the world.  But machines might.  They tend to replace human craft, effort, design, cognition, and mindfulness if we are not careful. 

Note: I am aware, that modern professional architects often distinguish strongly between designing and building and have even argued that there may be a conflict of interest between the two (perhaps because they are often designing for a possibly litigious “client”).  But, of course, in history, design and building have often been intertwined, as they may well be again (in a different way) with Fab Labs, the Fab Movement, and the re-creation of craft.


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