Tuesday, July 10, 2012

86.You don’t have to be good part 4: Form follows Taste

So in the last note in this series, I concluded that idea is king and that it trumps everything in contemporary architecture.  In other words, if your idea is interesting enough, you can bypass quality construction and rigorous design. So in this note, I will start with the question: 

What else is trumped by idea?

One of the first things I immediately thought about was this interview with Peter Eisenman.

In this video from  7 (Seven) Deconstructivist Architects, Eisenman’s arguments gives a sense of how he sees architecture: as a medium to express ideas even if it means subordinating function, people and wholeness to it.

When we think of stability in our society we think of architecture, for example when I work with Jacques Derrida, Jacques always say to me:
“What about people...but what about the functions”
and I said;
“what do you mean what about the people?... Do you ever worry about people who read your books?”
He said;
“no, those were books, this is architecture, this deals with shelter comfort things like that”
and I said;
“that's a really funny thing for the arch-deconstructionist to be concerned with shelter and comfort”
But you see what I said to Jacques was;
“You philosophers are very funny because it's alright for you guys to move the whole telos of the society around, but when it comes to an architect you say: oh no! that's got to stay in place. So that you guys can be radical, [while] architecture remains whole.”

So then the standard counter argument to Eisenman is:
Well if you are reading a philosophy book and you don’t like it, then you can close the book and put it away - even burn it if you like - but with a building, you have to live with it!

That’s my initial reaction as well, but here is another way to look at it: If a client wants to pay Peter Eisenman thousands of dollars to design a building that makes them uncomfortable and they are also willing to pay several millions to build it, then obviously they are motivated by his work and they are getting exactly what they want. That’s their taste.
As long as these ideas are not applied to urban design and city planning, why should that bother me?
Purposely ignoring the idea of form following function, Eisenman created spaces that were quirky and well-lit, but rather unconventional to live with. He made it difficult for the users so that they would have to grow accustom to the architecture and constantly be aware of it. For instance, in the bedroom there is a glass slot in the center of the wall continuing through the floor that divides the room in half, forcing there to be separate beds on either side of the room so that the couple was forced to sleep apart from each other. 

Upside down stair.

If you are of conservative taste don’t worry, this is a conceptual house built with the aim to spark discussion and debate about ideas. Don’t look to see anything like this as the future of housing.

Personally I am not convinced by the argument that Eisenman makes which essentially states that architecture is kind of like infrastructure in the sense that no one really pays attention to it. It is just there like background music in a film. In order for people to pay attention to architecture it has to basically confront them, do something unexpected, and make people uncomfortable. In doing so, they will be forced to pay attention to it and ask why? Why is this door placed in such an odd way, why is this building element sticking out like that? And so on.

To be honest, that does not inspire me to go and take up a book and read about deconstructivism. It would just annoy me. But that’s just me.

Eisenman however, makes a good point: Functionality is not, or should not be the end-all and be-all in determining architectural form. Neither should it necessarily be the most dominant issue in evaluating a work of architecture.

Another way to say that is: in architecture, ideas should be free to transcend function and comfort.

If we take this argument to its logical extension (...and especially in light of the previous notes in this series) then ideas should also be free to transcend just about anything: Quality construction and even good space.

I should at this point say that Eisenman's attempt to liberate form from function is not the same as Bjarke Ingel’s attempt to liberate form from quality detailing and construction or SANAA’s attempt to liberate form from quality space and rigorous design. Eisenman’s attempts are deliberate where Bjarke’s was more out of carelessness or capitulation to commercial interests and SANAA’s was more out of either laziness or timidity.

But to get back to Eisenman’s point: Form does not necessarily need to follow function in the strictest sense of the word.

Look at this chair below:

It is a very functional chair: It is a recliner chair with electric recline and massage features. This is perhaps one of the most comfortable chairs money can buy. Just look on the ear-to-ear smile on that lady’s face.

However, in my view, that chair reminds me of something I would find in my grandmother's home. It is not my style and I would not buy it or have it in my apartment.

Now look at these other chairs below:

It is called the One&One chair designed by Konstantinos Pamporis and is basically formed of two distinct pieces and based on the concept that each of the pieces symbolized one person in a relationship.

“The idea behind this project was to create a piece of furniture that symbolizes the relationship between a couple. A relationship is only possible when there exists dependence. The elements that come with dependence are “faith” and “risk”. Because of that fact, one chair has only on one side a leg which makes it automatically dependent on the other one. As soon as you become dependent on something we can talk automatically about might!” 

These are rather elegant in my opinion, and the concept is delightfully poetic, but I would not want to sit on it, especially the one with the pink edges.

Just like Eisenman’s house, this is a concept project.

These two sets of chairs represent two extremes in a goldilocks scenario.

  • The first one is was way too conventional; it discusses only function and lacks qualities of ingenuity, playfulness, or experimentation. It is too parochial for my tastes.
  • The second sits in the other extreme, it discusses a poetic idea but the notion of comfort and functionality is all but destroyed (albeit deliberately) as a byproduct of the concept.
My ideal chair sits somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. And that’s my point here; I said “my” ideal not “the” ideal.  And there in lies the heart of the matter. It is taste that drives ideas: Form follows taste.

Form does not have to follow function and the most important thing is not necessarily to make the most functional and user friendly everything. Sometimes it’s okay to give up some level of practicality or certain physical comforts for visual or other ones. It is something we all do whether we think we do or not.

How far we are willing to compromise practicality, functionality, good craftsmanship or quality construction for ideas (whether they are visual, philosophical, sociological, esthetic, etc) depends largely on our own personal taste. Consumers of the Mountain Dwellings would much rather give up some of the virtues of quality detailing for the cool and chic that comes from living in a BIG designed apartment, while the people behind The New Museum probably have no idea of what a quality and rigorously designed space looks like even if it fell on top of them like a brick, but they most likely do care about having the white hot Japanese design duo’s name behind their new building and are duly reaping the hype and publicity that comes along with it.

The craftsmanship and quality of the building itself are just there as a supporting substrate for your ideas. As Eisenman pointed out, this is all like infrastructure, stuff that nobody really pays attention to (maybe except for pesky little bloggers like me). What really matter are your ideas (and by logical extrapolation your taste).