Thank you for listening - and stay connected for the next phase of cultural research on design, architecture and the creative arts:
The Shape of Things That Work.
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Here's a taste of The Shape of Things . . . - from the Introduction to a series of essays, which will also be the basis for continuing conversations in the cloud-based internet radio format!
The Shape of Things That Work
Architecture is the synthesis of all arts, all sciences, all human experiences. It is a solution, or an attempt at a solution, of serving humankind.
Lacking an objective standard or measure of beauty, our recent architectural school graduates also lack of measure of discernment. In a world beset by social promotion, where all are winners, none is a champion.
R. Buckminster Fuller once remarked "when I think I've solved a problem, if it's not beautiful I know I haven't solved it." His argument, then, is my premise – that to find some measure of beauty, or rightness of form, we must gain discernment by examining the shapes of forms that are not only beautiful, but beautiful in their utility, that solve problems.
And from that we can – because we must – recapture the essence of architectures that engage the spirit – and, which is most important – serve to elevate the quality of life.
Art cannot be useful. Architecture that is primarily art therefore cannot be useful. Where is the genius of the architect’s role as prime integrator of all technologies, all needs, all uses in that? Without this integration, this service to humankind, then architects become aesthetes and others – less well trained – will decide how our built environment is crafted.
What a pity.
Part I. The Elusive Spirit of Beauty
My mentor and teacher, the architect-poet John Q. Hejduk argued:
“The fundamental issue of architecture is: does it affect the spirit, or doesn’t it? If it doesn’t affect the spirit, it’s building. If it affects the spirit, it’s architecture.” He went on to say “An architecture doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the final form of a built building; a drawing, to me, is a completed piece of architecture, a building is a completed piece of architecture, a photograph of a[n] architecture is a piece of architecture. Each act is individually an act of architecture.” (1)
Consider these essays then, on our current state of architecture, as an act of architecture, an offering to the spirit of architecture, and an examination of spirit imbued with natural meaning.
I would like to take Hejduk’s argument one step further by examining how these acts of building, or of architecture – affect the spirit. How shapes and form work to improve or to impoverish the human spirit in ordinary life.
II. Quality and Meaning
Why are our recent architectural wonders so marked by their emphasis purely on visual form and not on utility, or function? What is the cumulative effect of buildings whose primary reason to be is to be novel? Where is meaning? Where is quality?
"Architecture has to have meaning, not just novelty. The biggest ambition can't be just to be different. When we only talk about what architecture looks like, its colour or what's in the lobby we are just becoming decorators. We have lost confidence in our ability to really do things. The conversation has become too introverted. How come there is such a disconnect between what architects think they are doing and how they wish to serve society and how they really serve society?. All good architects think they are making a contribution to society: why does society think architects are just a bunch of profiteering egotistical joyriders?" [my emphasis] So pronounced Sir David Chipperfield, director of the 13th Venice Biennale of Architecture in August 2014.
On a macro level, why do millions of us live no better than we did 40 or 100 years ago – our houses’ air quality as poor as when we cooked on coal-burning stoves; our outdoor air worse than in the days of wood-burning fireplaces? Is it the density of life? If so, what excuse is there for grandiose buildings that exalt the ego of the bad actors on the stage of our landscape – the for-profit developers, self-promoting cultural institutions, struggling civic governments seeking to achieve a degree of legitimacy, effectively saying: “Look at this grand colossus, isn’t it marvelous, are we not superb leaders?”
The form of buildings should do more than be visually stimulating.
This is not a new argument.
“Socrates writes in Pistias that the beautiful (eurythmon) in relation to a purpose is superior to the beautiful in itself,” note Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre in their 1984 essay “The Question of Autonomy in Architecture” (2)
They argue that this attitude marks the transition in western, Hellenistic thought from mystical or religious rules of order and form – to the rational urge to integrate form with useful utility. So I am scarcely original in this regard. Who amongst us is sufficiently Sophist to argue with Socrates?
Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, in his “Discourses on Architecture” (translated by Henry Van Brunt, 1875) declares:
“Art, therefore, must be recognized as one of the elements of [French] civilization; and if this civilization is on the broad road, not of decline, but of progress, her arts should naturally be in a flourishing condition; if they are not, the misfortune can only be attributed to the artists. Now, as regards architecture, I am convinced that we are far behind the times. In this respect we are just at the point where the West was in the time of Galileo in regard to science. Those who consider themselves the guardians of the eternal principles of beauty would gladly shut up, if they could, as a dangerous madman, any one who should undertake to demonstrate that such principles are independent of any particular form of expression, and that there is no reason why, because the principles are invariable, these forms should remain eternally unchanged and confined to certain traditional rules governing all detail and proportion.” (3)
So what are the reasons that directed and informed how and what we built in ages past? What lessons can be re-learned? Should we even look to the past, when our current technologies are so superior, so sublime, so advanced?
In 1896 the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan penned this famous sentiment:
“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law. [Emphasis by Sullivan in the original printing.] (4)
Handmaiden to utility is a belief in structural honesty. As recently as 1971 the Philadelphia architect Louis Kahn argued that structure be revealed and self-evident, writing:
“The structure of the room must be evident in the room itself. Structure, I believe is the giver of light. A square room asks for its own light to read the square. It would expect the light either from above or from its four sides as windows or entrances.” (5)
V. Formal bias
Certainly the radical modernists of the early 20th century thought that we should not look to the past; for them, the past was marked by centuries of war, of unparalleled poverty, of pestilence. For them, a total break from history was not only a matter of inventive necessity; it was also a political statement against monarchy and plutocracy, in favor of liberal ideas of freedom, expressed in new forms not beholden to tradition or historical habit.
In this sentiment I find resonance, but also a failure in method, for failing to carry forward basic knowledge inextricably tied in history.
The mid-twentieth century students of Walter Gropius – one of the founders and for a time the director of the legendary art school “Bauhaus” in Dessau, Germany – for example, were not taught architectural history, and in many schools of architecture still, students are in total ignorance even of the professions more recent experiments, successes and failures carried out in the name of this modern break from history; and therefore, are doomed to repeat cartoon versions of cartoon reiterations of ideas once well-meant, novel in their time, but which may not actually work, and whose appeal to the spirit has faded. I find recent graduates who know nothing about Brutalism, the Post-WWII social housing experiments carried out by Peter and Alison Smithson, the architectural evangelism of CIAM (the early 20th century Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne – influential proponents of modernism.)
So what, you say? We have trained barbarians, if we have not trained future architects with sufficient discernment to know what works and what does not work. We are left being no more than decorators.(6)
VI. So what?
Continuing in the spirit, if not the substance, of the Gropius/Bauhaus “out with history” approach to architectural design is a kind of computer-generated formalism, whose chief proponent has called “Parametricism” and claims this to be the emerging new style of modern architecture. Its adherents are Patrik Schumacher, along with his partner, the British-Iranian architect Zaha Hadid.
So, you might say: so what is wrong with computer-generated, algorithm-driven form making? Isn’t that scientific? It certainly is modern, in that such forms could never have been created before the advent of cheap computing power. Isn’t it wonderful to create novel shapes? Isn’t that progress?
I will argue that whether parametrically created (as in the practice of Hadid and Schumacher), or studied by use of physical models (as seen in the work of Cesar Pelli, most notably in the filigreed facades of Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur), or roughly sketched then translated into a CAD-CAM (Computer-Aided Design and Drafting to Computer-Aided Manufacturing) program (any dozens of buildings of Frank Gehry) – what has resulted is a style, not a fashion, of work that is placeless, free of any relationship to site, and certainly willfully ignorant of the realities of patterns of use, human habit, comfort, or ease. Resulting in buildings that could – and are – be found in Paris or New York or on the shores of Lake Michigan or in the deserts of the United Arab Emirates; therefore, buildings that are everywhere – and nowhere, created for no place in particular, and have nothing to do with where they’ve been plopped down, like so many Martian invasion vehicles.
So this is not my argument for a return to neo-Classicism, nor for “traditional” forms, but rather for creating Shapes That Work. In our architecture My goal is to indentify demonstrable solutions for improving the lives of those people who live in, work in, or visit.
Riffing on something that Buckminster Fuller once quipped – something to the effect that “when I’m done solving a problem and it’s not beautiful, then I know that I haven’t solved the problem,” I trust, and will prove if I can, that Shapes That Work are beautiful, not simply because they have utility, but because it is the nature of forms that work to be the elemental foundations of all we find to be beautiful.
But there are those (q.v: Dr Peter Eisenman) who will, and do, say that the purpose of architecture is only to create structures that elevate the spirit with form alone, irrespective of utility or function. That architecture is not a charitable enterprise, and cannot possibly engage issues of the common good in the ordinary sense of the quality of individual life, but only and most emphatically the common and communal life – through our contemporary temples of culture: our museums, the residences of the most economically favored, and our office towers – themselves, to adapt the jingoistic language and thought of Franklin W Woolworth – “the cathedrals of commerce.”
I refute the ego-monument-makers. I deny their legitimacy. I denounce their works as simply more of the “bread and circus” diversions of the Roman Empire. (Not an original thought; see Manfredo Tafuri’s “Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, MIT 1976”) For indeed, ours is an empire of capital that far exceeds the reach, if not the grasp, of that late empire, over two millennia past. And our circuses are just as sumptuous, diverting, and no less bloody.
It is time to face down the leering clowns, to demand an end to novelty.
I look to recapture a reasoned approach to architecture and design, an approach founded on the making of shapes that provide a function in service to the quality of life of the individual.
These are my arguments. And in making them one thing to which I most stringently commit: these arguments will not be made in the fashionable jargon of so-called architectural academicians. In closing, let us consider what Viollet-le-Duc had to say about this topic:
“Here for four hundred years we have been disputing about the relative value of ancient and modern art, and during all that time our discussions have turned, not upon essential principles, but upon quibbles and equivocations, upon details and principles, upon the authority for this, that, or the other form. The result is, that we architects, absorbed in an art half science and half sentiment, have succeeded in developing for the public only certain mysterious hieroglyphics which they cannot possibly understand, and so they let us wrangle among ourselves in the empty vanity of our exclusiveness. Shall we never have our Moliere to treat us as he did the physicians of his time? We too have our Hippocrates and Galen; must we harp on them forever?” (7)
Viollet-le-Duc, bound by his time in history has it almost right when he continues, saying:
“I am ready to agree with any one that pure invention is not necessary to architecture; that the duty of architects is not to create, but to analyze, combine and appropriate the traditionary forms at their disposal; that the art is so imperious concerning the means of execution, that we must take all the elements of design from the experience of the past. Architecture, in fact, requires two different operations of the mind, ––– the study and the application of precedent; application, because if all the masterpieces of the past were collected together in the brain of a single man, if he did not know how to avail himself of this knowledge, if he had no method to enable him to design properly by the aid of these masterpieces, he could only produce incongruous combinations of poor copies, mere limitations, which, in artistic value, would be far beneath the work of the barbarian who has no research, and has never studied the works of the past.” (8)
We do not live in an era in which there are barbarians at our gates. We are the barbarians who desecrate the landscape, “who [have] no research, and [have] never studied the works of the past.”
Again – so what? Or worse: won’t these researches stifle the levels of invention necessary to create new architectures? I think not, nor did Viollet-le-Duc:
“Enlarge your knowledge of precedent, form your judgment, learn to reason, and your faculty of invention will be increased.” (9)
I welcome thoughtful rebuttal.
Curtis B Wayne, Architect
(1) “Education of An Architect” Video, Michael Blackwood Productions, no date. Available for sale at: http://www.michaelblackwoodproductions.com/archs_cooperunion.php
Viewable online at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chEfhs-kEXQ
(2) A. Tzonis and L. Lefaivre “Architecture and Autonomy” Harvard University, 1984. Available online at:
(3) Discourses on Architecture, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Translated with an introductory Essay by
Henry Van Brunt, James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, 1875. Available on Google Books.
(4) “The Tall Office Building, Artistically Considered,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, a Popular Journal of General Literature, Science, and Politics. Volume LVII, Page 408 – Available online at: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b5213377;seq=423;view=1up;num=403
(5) Louis I. Kahn, 1971 American Institute of Architects Gold Medal Acceptance Speech, Detroit, MI June 24, 1971
(6) David Chipperfield, RIBA. “Chipperfield: More Community” Interview by Julie Iovine, Il Giornale dell’Architettura with The Architect’s Newspaper,
27 August 2012, page 6, in which Chipperfield is quoted as saying:
“Architecture has to have meaning, not just novelty. The biggest ambition can't be just to be different. When we only talk about what architecture looks like, its colour or what's in the lobby we are just becoming decorators.”
Available online at: http://issuu.com/archpaper/docs/biennale_27_agosto/7
(7) (8) and (9) Viollet-le-Duc, loc. cit.
Thanks to you all for listening - and: Keep the Faith (in making the world a better place through design!)