The seemingly inevitable causality between form and function, one following the other like a shadow, and equally inevitable equality between a house and machine, were the two received wisdoms with which we entered the profession of architecture in the sixties. We were told that Form follows Function and a house is simply a machine to live in.
These were not simple statements of facts or instructions to the young architects to help them find their future direction. These were slogans and like all slogans ideologically loaded. By elevating technology to the level of ideology and by making a building form valid only to the extent of its capacity to contribute positively to the activities it contains, the authors of these slogans were projecting a new classification of the external environment; a classification predicated upon the values of efficiency, universality and the linear progression of history, all basic, primary tenets of rationalism. It is interesting to note that during these past twocenturies, these values have become so implanted in our mind that we have begun to think of them as eternal values. Efficiency in terms of a ratio describing a relation between the efforts spent and the benefits gained, universality in terms of the capacity of the human endeavour, including architecture, to transcend culturally gained identities and be universally applicable, (which reduces all cultural values to frivolity) and linearity of history implying a direction and aim of all human endeavour towards an utopia founded with the most efficient and the most universal elements.
Now architecture is a mode of knowledge; a way to conceptualize and internalize the external world. In other words, it is a system by which the external world, both animate as well as inanimate, consisting of things as well as relationships, with all its multitude of information, is classified and made knowledgeable into comprehensible categories by the way we organize our built environment. The criteria of this classification are provided by culturally accepted norms and values at any given time. Through the method implicit in those slogans architecture was to concretize, and thus make cognizant the ideas and values which had their origin in the Cartesian Rationalism.
The Cartesian apprehension of the reality of lived experience, an apprehension not only of appearances but also of an intuitive sensing of the essence of being, subtly eroded and undermined the traditional object of architecture as a discursive activity throughout the 18th and 19th century to end up in the early 20th century merely as a mode of building predicated on the precepts of economically determined functionalism, the metaphor for which was to be the proverbial machine.
Walter Benjamin, a sensitive observer of the 19th century, was the first to take note of this. Explaining a rather complex relationship between ideas and their material manifestation, Benjamin wrote in 1928, "To the form of the new means of production which to begin with is still dominated by the old (Marx), there correspond images in the collective consciousness in which the old and the new are intermingled. These images are ideals, and in them the collective seeks not only to transfigure, but also to transcend, the immaturity of the social product and the deficiencies of the social order of production. In these ideals there also emerges a vigorous aspiration to break with what is outdated - which means, however, with the most recent past. These tendencies turn the fantasy, which gains its initial stimulus from the new, back upon the primal past. In the dream in which every epoch sees in images the epoch which is to succeed it, the later appears coupled with elements of prehistory - that is to say of a classless society. The experiences of this society, which have their store-place in the collective unconscious, interact with the new to give birth to the utopias which leave their traces in a thousand configurations of life, from permanent buildings to ephemeral fashions".
"These relationships", Benjamin goes on to explain with an example, "became discernible in the utopias devised by Fourier. Their innermost origin lay in the appearance of machines. But this fact was not expressed directly in their utopian presentation; this derived both from the amorality of the market society and the false morality mustered to serve it. The Phalanstery was to lead men back into relations in which morality would become superfluous. Its highly complicated organization resembled machinery. This machinery, formed of men, produced the land of Cocaigne, the primal wish symbol that Fourier's Utopia had filled with”1.
Thus machines, those clockworks and the cooling towers, not only provided new forms to enrich architecture but also provided the analogy, an active metaphor, with which architecture was to express, in sensuous forms, a new classification, a reorganization of society based on the values of efficiency, universality and progress. So overwhelming and so powerful was the inspiration of machine that it did not occur to the authors of the new slogans that this entailed a far more fundamental change, a shift in the conceptual system of architecture and not merely a substitution of new symbols for the old. The use of machine as a metaphor in architecture presupposes a method of designing which involves a) splitting an architectural entity into its various components, b) analysis of the nature of these components independent of each other and c) their reconstitution as a problem solving whole.
The fact that the architectural implications of such a method were not obvious in the beginning is understandable. The 19th century had not only been the age of technology and of what Carlyle sarcastically called Victorious Analysis; it had also been the century in which science supposed it had established its intellectual foundations. This was the when the method of science was “the manipulation of exact measurements" and when the philosophy implied by that method, the philosophy that took not only the components of physical entity but also matter and mind as "independently existing substances", was the philosophy of scientific materialism and determinism. I think it was Lord Kalvin who proclaimed the faith which scientists have long since renounced though, alas, it has still remained as the credo of some members of our own profession: "if you can measure that of which you speak and can express it by a number you know something of your subject. If you cannot measure it, your knowledge is meagre and unsatisfactory". Science, in Bronowski's words, "came to be admired as the puritan guardian of literal truth, whose aim it was to describe the material world visibly to the last decimal point".
The application of analytical method, however, depends on two conditions. The first is that the interactions between components be nonexistent or weak enough to be neglected. Only under this condition can the various components of a system be "worked out" actually, logically and mathematically. The second condition is that the relations describing the behaviour of parts be linear. Only then is the equation describing the behaviour of the total the same as that describing the behaviour of parts.
We will have to take this to a higher level of generality to perceive its implication to the activity of designing. What this implies is a discontinuity, a separation, between classes of objects or institutions, a series of activities within a given culture, which usually demand to be treated in terms of their formal co-existence and interdependence. In other words, the various super-structural manifestations of a culture, such as architecture, literature, philosophy, i.e. a system of thought and beliefs, technology, religion, mythology all these have a relationship of interdependency and are complete or make sense, only to the extent that they are inseparable from each other. But the acceptance of analytical method to study cultural phenomena presupposes that all these activities be treated as component parts of the culture and can be separated from the totality and contemplated on independently. It also implies that they can be studied only on the basis of certain universally applicable categories. Thus, architecture, which unlike other activities, has an objective presence came more and more to be studied on the basis of certain visual qualities of the object and its instrumentality, i.e. its capacity to serve certain utilitarian ends. Once alienated from its cultural context architecture can only be justified by criteria from within, that is to say from its own history.
The point that I want to make here is that the categories of efficiency, universality and preoccupation with history not only presuppose each other but are also inherent in the initial act of installing machine as a metaphor in architecture.
The process of installing machine as a metaphor in architecture found another expression in the fact that buildings came to be increasingly designed not only to resemble machines in their operations but also their shapes were determined by the operational capacities of the machine, that is, by what the highly mechanized construction processes could produce most efficiently. The discussion of the whole problem of technology, that is, of the transformation of city and world through the introduction of the machine has been strangely led astray through an all-too-exclusive concentration upon the service or disservice the machine renders to men. This discussion is based on an assumption that the primary function of all tools and implements of mankind is to extend the efficiency of human limbs and to make human labor less painful. The instrumentality is understood exclusively in this anthropocentric sense. "But the instrumentality of tools and implements", as Hanna Arendt has pointed out "is much more closely related to the object it is designed to produce and their sheer 'human value' is restricted - to the use the animal labourans make of them. In other words, man the tool maker, invented tools and implements in order to erect a world. Not, at least not primarily, to help the human life process. The question therefore is not so much whether we are the masters or the slaves of our machines but whether machines still serve the world and its things, or if, on the contrary they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy world and things.
To be sure, the myth of the "optimum efficiency" of the human hand guided by the human brain was shattered soon enough by the continuous process of automation. John Diebold, for example, told us in 1952, that "the greatest pitfall to avoid is the assumption that the design aim is reproduction of the hand movement of the operator or laborer”. But more important was the fact that the continuous automation process has also done away with the assumption that the things of the man-made world around us should depend upon human design and be built in accordance with human standards of "utility, beauty and firmness." The 19th century had already seen the inherent equality of utility, beauty and firmness, in the original Vitruvian triad, shifted to a new equation where - by beauty was seen as a function of utility and firmness. It was only necessary now to replace the dual standards of utility and firmness with a singular standard of process. In place of utility, beauty and firmness, which are standards of the world, we have come to design products and buildings that still fulfill certain basic functions, the functions of the human animal's life process, and are firm enough to stand but those shape will be primarily determined by the operation of the machine.
The effort to place process or change, in the center of architectural theory has led to the distinct formal attitudes of our time. The increasing preoccupation with change and growth in the mid-20th century has produced an aesthetics of process. This sought to project an image of the changing world by distinguishing between various elements of the building as those which are relatively constant or stable and those which are likely to undergo programmatic or formal change. At best this produced, as in the case of the Berlin Free University, an order expressing the dynamics of life. At worst it spawned a whole series of "plug-in" architecture, either of the Japanese "metabolist" variety or that of the British "Archigram", reducing architecture to a frivolous game, like lego blocks, whereby elements of a building are conceived of as not only potentially changeable but in actuality their replacement when they become outdated, is already planned for; a kind of planned obsolescence. The fact that some of the images produced by the "Archigram" group resembled parts of human anatomy or that the Japanese called themselves the "metabolists" indicated the biological basis of their thinking - the Japanese were at least more explicit. It also meant, in retrospect that machine as a metaphor in architecture was, in a subtle way, being replaced by something far closer to human anatomy. It is my contention here that the biological underpinning of those movements of the sixties has survived and found expression in the more recent "Post-modern" discipline of formal composition, which accepts the increasing fragmentation of life as given and seeks to present an image of it through a composition of equally fragmented architectural forms extracted from our academic dictionary and plugged in, as it were, in a new relationship.
Let me elaborate and explain this. The modern consciousness has been shaped, more than anything else, by the increasing rate of change. No one knows this better than those of us who live in or around New York City in this fourth quarter of the 20th century. Rushed by the cumulative momentum of science and technology, the tension and vibration and volume and so-called progression of society are incalculably greater today than they were at the turn of the century. Nothing defines our age more than the furious and relentless increase in the rate of change. Science makes, dissolves, rebuilds, and extends our environment every day.
It has meant above all, that life is perceived as motion and not as order; that the universe is seen not as complete but in process of creation. The aesthetic ideal of the west from the ancient Greeks through the 19th century has been to see life steadily and see it whole. That possibility was one of the first casualities of the increasing velocity of history. Seeing life at once steadily and whole was plausible enough when the artist and his environment had a stable relationship over time. But when the artist found himself traveling, so to speak at a thousand miles an hour across a landscape constantly taking new forms and colors, when time changes from an unexamined assumption into an interferring force, it was no longer possible both to see life steadily and see it whole. Gertrude Steine well described the 20th century as "a time when everything cracks, where everything is destroyed, everything isolates itself".
The modern consciousness, compelled by changes in the external environment to a vivid awareness of time, mutability, novelty, chance and inter-connection, saw the universe as open, indeterminate and interrelated with time, in Bergson’s phrase, as the "vehicle of creation and of choice". The search for techniques expressive of the fragmentation wrought by the increasing acceleration of life characterizes much of modern architecture as it does much of modern painting, music, sculpture and literature. It is recalled by such words as apartness, discordance, incongruity and irresolution. It accepts as its basis an assumption that, in the words of Peter Eisenmen, "disharmony might be part of the cosmology that we live in and that "the role of art or architecture might just be to remind people that everything is not all right". In other words, to present life and reality as it is; at best a passive role for an architect.
But the fragmentation was inherent in the contradictions built into the initial assumption. To design objects for the operational capacities, or limitations, of the machine instead of designing machines for the production of certain objects which would constitute the man-made world, or to put it differently, to install process as a Source of validity for the formal qualities of a work of architecture, would indeed be the exact reversal of the means-end category, if this category still made any sense. But more disturbing than the loss of the means-end category is the fact that the reciprocity and inter-dependence between nature and culture, between the world of man-made things and the things as nature provides them is fast disappearing. It is in a way a reversal of the 'from nature to culture" phenomena for which the means-end category is a precondition.
Instruments, tools, machines belong to the activity of producing things which surround us and which transcend and outlive the actual process of producing. Process itself has no presence. Whereas it is in the nature of being to appear and disclose itself, it is in the nature of process to remain invisible, "to be something whose existence can only be inferred from the presence of certain phenomena"2. Thus, without the existence of the means-end category, it is obvious that the crucial distinction between nature, the repository of all processes including the life process, and culture - the repository of all man-made things, would itself disappear. When Louis Kahn said that "man is born of nature but is not nature" he was referring to the reciprocity between man and nature, and the need to sustain this distinction between the world of man and the world of nature. As Hanna Arendt said in 1958, "without taking things out of nature’s hand and consuming them, and without defending himself against the natural processes of growth and decay, the animal labourans could never survive. But, at the same time, being at home in the midst of things whose durability makes them fit for use and for erecting a world whose very permanence stands in direct contrast to natural life, this life would never be human”3.
This gradual coming together of nature and culture has taken many forms. Since the discovery of processes by the natural and social sciences, the natural evolution of a single life process from the lowest forms of organic life, to the emergence of the human, animal and the historical development of a life process of mankind as a whole - has coincided with the discovery of introspection in philosophy, it is only natural that the biological process within ourselves should eventually become the very model of the new concept. The crudest expression of this is the modern superstition that "money begets money" or probably the sharpest political insight that "power generates power". There are many other such expressions which owe their plausibility to the underlying metaphors of the natural fertility of life, a phenomenon not to be found in the world of man-made things, which require the intervention of human hand to make anything.
Only under one condition can the biological process be objectified, made visible, and that is by devaluating or debasing the man-made things of the world, including the tools, instruments, machines from their position of things that make up this world to commodities of consumption. Because “only by being a part of the never ending natural process of man’s metabolism with nature, by acquiring an exchange value in the cycle of consumption and regeneration, can the objective worldsymbolize process”.4 Claus Oldenberg's proposal to erect a giant banana as a monument in the middle of Times Square not only is a comment on the values of a society which predetermines what is trivia and what is profound, but also it draws our attention to the increasing trivialization of that which is profound. The increasing subjectivization of the objective world of things, that is the need for possessing, consuming, handling and constantly renewing the gadgets, instruments, cars, buildings, etc. has elevated the element of novelty to the level of profound. This and the so-called consumer economy have created a second nature of man which ties him "biologically" and aggressively to the commodity form. Biological in the sense in which inclinations, behaviour patterns, and aspirations become vital needs which, if not satisfied, would cause dysfunction of the organism. Herbert Marcuse has said that "if biological needs are defined as those which must be satisfied and for which no adequate substitute can be provided, certain cultural needs can "sink down" into the biology of man." We could then speak, for example, of some aesthetic needs as having taken root in the organic structure of man, in his "nature" or rather "second nature."5
This amounts to a fundamental devaluation, or debasement, of the objective world around us, and by implication, of man himself. The man-made world of things, buildings, cities which constituted the public realm by its relative permanence can no more guarantee this permanence if it is seen as potentially consumable. Cities, and buildings and things which are the result of man's effort to build a world which distinguishes him from nature are meant to outlast their authors and in this relative permanence lies the objective qualities of the public realm without which man cannot be human. To deprive architecture of this world the capacity to carry any public ideas, that is, to deprive it of its qualities as a discourse, is to deprive man the very public realm in which cultures are built from the raw materials of nature. This discursive quality had already suffered a severe blow in the early 19th century when as a result of the inspiration of machine, form was seen valid only to the extent that it contributed positively to the operations within the building. Building as a use object, a “clockwork" but even as use objects they do constitute the objective world, the world that can unmistakably proclaim the presence of man on this earth. But the use of this imagery of machine in architecture, as we have seen earlier, was subtly and gradually replaced by a far more biological imagery. And the very possibilities opened up by the machine itself has something to do with it.
Man has always dreamed of freeing himself from nature. This has often been misinterpreted in terms of an adversary relationship between man and nature, while the desire was always to express, through his cultural "constructions" a reciprocity with nature, which requires a degree of independence from nature rather than a superiority over her, it was felt that the emancipation of man from the laboring process of producing his food from nature, consuming it and excreting the remains back into nature which tied man metabolically with the natural cycle of creation, growth and decay, this emancipation would free man from nature. The abundance of consumable objects and commodities achieved partly through the productivity of machine and partly through violence over nature, seemed to realize the age-old dream of this emancipation.
But the commodity character of an object is far more integrally tied up with the exchange value of an object in the market place of man than with the use-value, its instrumentality. With the various world exhibitions around the globe the enthronement of the consumable, exchangeable commodity, a loaf of bread, as a new deity, in place of the useful machine, was complete. The exhibitions quickly became the places of pilgrimage to the fetish commodity, and were "festival of emancipation" for the working class.
As Walker Benjamin has noted, "Fashion prescribed the ritual by which the fetish commodity wished to be worshipped." The fantasies of the advertisement transmitted this commodity-character on to the universe. "Fetishism, which succumbs to the sex-appeal of the inorganic, is its vital nerve; and the cult of the commodity recruits this to its service".6
This reminds me of an advertisement some years ago, in an American magazine. It was an advertisement for a house for sale. It showed a picture of an ordinary, not untypical middle class suburban house, with carefully manicured grounds around it. Fair enough. But in addition it also showed, standing there in front of the house, parked in the driveway, a sleek and sexy looking expensive car and, to complete the image, there was, leaning against the car, in a provocative pose, a beautiful lady. All the images which had nothing to do with the house except that they invoked the "sex-appeal of the inorganic." In one simple stroke, the lady, the house as well as the car were all devalued, debased and presented as commodity of consumption; each became a loaf of bread.
But we must ask here if the dream of the emancipation has been realized by relying upon the commodity character of the human products. The loaf of bread that he produced out of the elements of nature did not free man from nature because it was consumed as soon as it was produced and thus, did not constitute the objective world. But the tools and instruments, which helped him produce the bread, did outlive the consumption of bread and began to erect and constitute a world which nature herself could never have produced without the help of man. Still neither the loaf of bread, which is also a product of man, nor the tools and instrument constituted a public realm in the sense that neither of them carried, in their reification, a recognition of the presence of another human being. Man can go on making bread and can even have instruments to help him in this endeavor, but will still remain tied to nature so long as this activity is confined to the satisfaction of his biological needs. It is only when the things he makes transcend their instrumentality and derive their validity instead from moral and ethical considerations that man can truly be free from nature without being antagonistic towards nature. Thus to rely upon the abundance of consumable objects and things to realize man's dream of freedom leads not to freedom but only an illusion of freedom. Because the irony of the situation is that the dream of emancipation through abundance of commodity can be realized only by turning his own built world, which distinguished him from nature, into a commodity of consumption, like a loaf of bread, and in the process merging himself with nature more than ever before. This dream can have a charm of its own so long as it is a dream, but turns into a Fool's Paradise as soon as it is realized.
It is obvious that a significant detour, in the history of architecture, occurred when it was felt that architecture must be accountable to the strictly rational qualities of mind. This coupled with an almost narcissistic concern with the comfort of human body and pleasures of the senses displaced the objective of architecture from that of building "good" buildings to merely "beautiful buildings". Whereas "good" implies both aesthetic and ethical dimensions, merely "beautiful" is, strictly speaking apolitical and extra-moral. It is interesting to remember here the comment of Walter Benjamin quoted earlier about Fourier's Phalanstary which he said "has to lead men back into relations in which morality would become superfluous". But morality resides in the public realm. "Having a moral end in view", says Romaldo Giurgola "implies having a public end in view, both imply a rededication among architects to their proper role in society."7 But such rededication as Giurgola demands, is by no means a matter of course. Against it stands the conviction of those whowould judge architecture in terms of its usefulness to supposedly higher end - to make the world more "useful" and more "beautiful" or to make life easier and longer. They would probably incline to denounce any consideration of architecture as a work of art, as idleness or vagueness. But all great architecture of the past, including that of the past two centuries, came to be as a result of a desire to make good architecture first and foremost. They are the places where "aesthetics and ethics were inextricably joined in the same practical system which provided the basis both for the construction of buildings and the creation of works of art”.8 This quality comes about when an intense identification with the essence of the materials of nature, in the sense that Dante implied when he said "everything that is, desires its own being”, this identification of the recognition of the fact that “the human sense of reality demands that men actualize the sheer passive givenness of their being not in order to change it but in order to make articulate and call into full existence what otherwise they would have to suffer passively anyhow", come together in an initiative from which no human being can refrain and still be human. It is this initiative which is always present in a work of art. It is also present in a simple porch around a peasant's house, in a Mexican town, or in a courtyard surrounded by verandahs in an Indian Haweli and equally in a farmer's barn in the middle of an American farm.
When these images are fragmented and the pieces are thrown around, like in the case of a recently built Playhouse in an American University which sports a facade of a barn, what they convey is not so much the image of a fragmented, high speed life but an image of a society which has, somehow, lost any memory of a beginning, that initiative which impregnates, and makes meaningful, all places of human accommodation. These partial images borrow only the formal qualities of their prototypes and exclude any question of why they were made the way they were made in the beginning. In other words they take a neutral, extra moral, non-ideological position and justify it by interpreting the role of architecture as that of merely reflecting, indiscriminately like a mirror, the complexities and meanings of a supposedly fragmented and high speed culture.