Foundations/Formalisms

PEGGY DEAMER (Professor, Yale School of Architecture)

Form and the ability to manipulate it are the sine qua non of architectural production. If you don’t love form, you shouldn’t be an architect.

Rudolf Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, which told of Palladio’s cosmic/humanist rationale for proportions, let me know why I wanted to be an architect.

Heinrich Wöllflin’s Principles of Art History, which described the formal differences between Renaissance and Baroque form, offered the visual pull of the varying uses of line, recession, clarity and unity.

Peter Eisenman’s work in 5 Architects turned me on to the thrill of frontality, rotation, solids and voids.

But then Russian Formalism (Viktor Shklovsky and Vladimir Tatlin)—which explained not the rules of an object’s formal disposition but rather what that disposition said about the author, the author’s attitude regarding grabbing the reader/viewer’s attention, and the position of both author and viewer in “reality”—turned my head. What was foundational about architectural form then wasn’t what it yielded in the work itself; rather, it was how the work communicated something important—between the architect and the viewer/occupant—about being in the world.  

What is being in the world, though? John Ruskin offered new foundational perspectives: being in the world—architecturally and otherwise— is culturally specific, economically determined, and morally motivated.  The manner in which an architect designed buildings spoke of, sympathetically or ruthlessly, the system of labor executing the work of architecture. For Ruskin, medieval guild construction was morally enlightening, 19th century industrialization degrading.

But how to appreciate that larger insight without adhering to Ruskin’s Christian moralizing and conservative view of style? Adrian Stokes, then, put similar observations about design’s civilizing authority in psychoanalytic terms. In a language familiar to a Freudian-educated, 20th century audience, the position that Stokes advocated—a deep respect for the resistance that the world of objects puts up against our own psycho-formal willfulness—was, while not wholly political, one step away from being so for hinting that those objects operated in an (often untenable) economic and cultural context.

Enter the Frankfurt School, whose theorists analyzed cultural production in the age of advancing capitalism. Not only did these new foundational figures put a more critical spin on what capitalist-infused authors/designers were producing, but also showed how they lulled us into being good consumers. An architect, they let me know, had to be wary of whether the objects she produced were truly enlightening/liberating or merely consumable. The onus of “good” form–making was getting trickier. Could one think of program – or, rather the critique of normative programs—as the key to ensuring enlightenment?  Yes; a re-programmed building could destabilize sexist domestic roles or abusive work environments. But wasn’t an emphasis on program addressing only one half of the equation—the occupant – while leaving behind the often degrading and always pigeonholing roles of the makers/producers?

Thank you, then, Ed Ford, for making the following observation in your Details of Modern Architecture: that if 19th century architects had social concerns, they addressed the liberation of the constructors (think Ruskin) and if 20th century architects did, they addressed the liberation of the user. It was culturally determined, then, that we architects of the 20th century would forget to concern ourselves with the producers (builders, fabricators, subs, etc.) who actually built our buildings as we directed our attention to the consumers/clients. But if this were so, couldn’t 21st century architects think about both?

One of the lessons that Russian Formalism gave us was the impossibility of considering form independent of its material behavior, and that that material behavior is linked to its mode of production. They also made those observations in the context of a social revolution in which designers saw themselves as intimately linked to constructors and both as integral to shaping a new society. Today, can’t we consider our form-making in the same light and conceive of a corresponding new foundational formalism?

 

Thursday, September 7, 2017