Form Follows Fetish

Form Follows Fetish
Marjan Colletti, 2011, published soon in eVolo 5 AKA Architecture Xenoculture (ed. Juan Azulay, Benjamin Rice ), 2013.

Form Follows Fetish

Louis Sullivan’s dictum Form follows Function is certainly one of the most known and also misunderstood statements in architectural history. Falsely propagated as a dictate against ornamentation and in favour of functionalism, yet seemingly still in vogue. I am certainly not aiming at a Function follows Form counterargument here. But I will presume that the fulfillment of functions is not the goal, but just a requirement of architecture, and that there is much more at stake in architectural (digital) design, than compliance to program.

First of all it must be said that most often form outlives function. How many buildings perform other, different functions than originally planned for because it has become obsolete? Or because the program has evolved so much that it had to move out (because of size, politics, finances or performance)? The body of architecture is a given (and often underestimated) fact, and so its presence and experience. Is it fair to say then, that it is form that should ideally be more controlled/planned by the architect then function (as a description of required performance) to have more chances to survive societal change? Is form here to stay because it is the primary, and also ultimate, asset of architecture?

Secondly, the proliferation of digital techniques has brought a close to the seemingly enduring separation of function and ornamentation in architecture. Whether sculpted or scripted—this is of no importance here—small variations in software protocols and fabrication mechanics can result in the more or less exuberant articulation of ornate surfaces and volumes. Thus could one state that function has long lost its primacy as design purpose, scope and object(ivity) over, for example, complex, texturized geometric formations?

In fact, one can observe a twofold conceptual pursuit of a relationship of digital ornamentation and function, which I term the 'OrnaMental' and 'POrnamentation'.

Form follows Fiction?
The OrnaMental trajectory uses the computer to perform an intellectual task that goes beyond the simulation and representation of a given reality. The ornaMental is elegant. Its values are those of aesthetics and application (understood as bodiless decoration, as software programming, and as global applicability—as method). Without a body (or volume), the intellectual task of the ornaMental becomes, for example, the articulation of a fictitious (computational or mental) function (fiction not in the sense of narratives and story telling, but in the sense that design is by default about prediction).

Form inevitably follows Fiction: the term design originates from the Italian disegno, which means drawing, to draw, which itself incorporates the Latin signum [sign].[1] The concept of design in Renaissance Italy established a direct relationship between sign and idea, releasing architectural artistic creativity from the workshops into academia (the first academy, the Accademia del Disegno, was established by Giorgio Vasari in Florence in 1563). A similar mind-setthe notion of an architectural idea being present before construction and being communicated via drawingis expressed in the German word for design, Entwurf. As Wolf D. Prix explains, it is rooted in the verb werfen [to throw]: ‘We break up the word 'Entwurf' (design) into the syllable 'ent' and the word 'wurf’. Ent-wurf (de-sign). The prefix ent as in ent-äußern, to renounce, or ent-flammen, to stir up. Wurf like werfen, to throw.’[2] 

Accordingly, design and planning are related to premonition, prediction, projection. Hence, design conveys the intrinsic potential of creating into the future, throwing signs of a not yet established reality—fiction—onto paper/virtual space. In this light, fiction could be regarded as a positive, optimistic trajectory: the design intent is looking forward, at future scenarios, re-interpreting function and establishing a set of criteria that respond to the succession of design-specific queries, and not to fixed external given facts. Yet fiction could be also misinterpreted as simulation, and architecture as theatrical staging for a series of semi-predicted scenarios. In this sense fiction is also, of course, a function.

Form follows Ornament?
The other trajectory, POrnamentation, uses the computer to perform a sensorial task, that tends towards deformed and dissipated forces of bodies, of folded and distorted figures/shapes. POrnamentation is exuberant. Its values are of esthesis and performance (understood as task and as staging). Without an intellectual structure (or strategy), the sensorial task of pOrnamentation is for the body/figure to become the ornament, or for the ornament to become the body, the form. Under these circumstances, the sensorial task of the computer gains more relevance over its intellectual assignment.

Hence should Form follow Form? The Body? The Ornament? Ergonomics are surely valid design parameters. Often perhaps taken for granted, and sometimes overestimated (I do not fit Le Corbusier’s Modulor, do you?). The Neufert and the Metric Handbook (is 
somebody working on the Parametric Handbook?) flatten architecture and assume a normal body that hardly resembles the average person. Why not the Baroque contorted folded figure then? It is surely not the ultimate form-ulation, form-ation, form-alization of digital design, but I personally have a predilection for sinuous, curved, spiraling, contorted, convoluted geometries (this goes deep into my vocabulary and theories). Thus Form could follow Form, but I do not claim that it is a valid global position, a style.

Form follows GPS?
Does the above-mentioned forward-looking aspect of design need more than a trajectory, a pursuit? Does it need a target—not as much as an intention, but a real set (stylistic) destination? Does design, does form, need a GPS, a Global Positioning System? In his most recent book, for example, Patrik Schumacher claims his theory of the Autopoiesis of Architecture to be a ‘comprehensive’, ‘coherent’, ‘total’, ‘fundamental’, ‘designed’, ‘upgraded’ thesis, a ‘general’, ‘full-blown’, ‘unified’, ‘single’, ‘sufficiently robust and flexible’, ‘domain specific’, ‘restless’ ‘super-theory’ capable of delivering a ‘fully self-conscious’, ‘hegemonic’, ‘epochal’, ‘dominant’ style. Its function is to take ‘exclusive and universal responsibility’ in order to offer ‘leadership to a large innovative firm’, ‘to deliver coherent and effective’, ‘constructive, theoretical’ guidance to designers and to ‘gain hegemony within the avant-garde segment’ by persevering in ‘the creation of a unified world architecture.’ I have explained elsewhere[3] that such absolutist, fundamentalist language and tone end up being problematic. I have stated that it is clear that Schumacher has got a pre-defined destination, and that if someone was to sit in driver’s seat, I guess he would be an obvious choice. And I also asserted not to expect any Pinkelpausen soon though. What I did not realise, is that we are witnessing yet another attempt to sell to architecture a GPS map of design.

First of all I disagree that everybody should follow the same path, and furthermore I find a global positioning (rather than predicting) system for a future-looking discipline counter-productive. An example: it is quite difficult to tell your satellite navigation system to lead you ‘somewhere towards the ocean’. A knowledgeable person can, but not a GPS. You need to be more precise. It needs to know where to go. It goes unsaid that no designer ever would regard her/himself as a GPS system. Actually: perhaps those that follow strict methodologies may. Many others would surely respond that they ‘follow no preset routes’.

But again, here lays a simple logistic and strategic problem between a good intention and a clear destination: what if you really wanted to see the ocean? It is (up to) you how you react. Do you select a random beach nearby? Or do you give up and drive to the next petrol station to ask for directions for the best panorama point? Do you try to pinpoint yourself, to understand where you are and scroll the map, looking for hints? You may find out that something really interesting is nearby. Where, again, are we now…?

Form follows History?
 If you are less concerned with the box-standardised, pseudo-functionalist, form-paranoid and pedestrian architectural mannerism typical to some of the UK (but not only) universities and practices, you may nonetheless be alerted by an anti-digital neo-historical revival that is infiltrating those places. The 80s are back. With the revival of PoMo, digital design has a new old enemy: historicism, pastiche architecture. It goes without saying that I am a deep believer in the potential of digitality; my own research and my studios are digitally driven (but not parametric per se, although the outsider, or the uninformed observer, would put all computational work wrongly into the same category).

However, I try not to race ahead with blinders and tend to look into the rear mirrors more than necessary. I consider for example the Baroque (and its contorted forms) to be remarkably contemporary within a digital architectural debate because it discovered and also shattered a plethora of binary conditions, boundaries and frames. This seems to provide a historical analogy to today’s actuality-digitality feedback system. Yet the Baroque is also scandalous, because on the other hand it contrasted, in its harmony and fusion of the arts and the sciences, the structural ‘truthful’ efficiency of the Gothic, which—in digital terms—has experienced a revival under the premise of the parametric approach, of virtual scripts, and formal organicism (whereby the ‘organic’ is understood as evolutionary mimicry). And the truthful Gothic tectonic is often seen as the functional value to digital design. The one to follow.

Form follows Software?
If we looked at plenty of digital architectural production, and if we considered function as program, or better, application (say: tool, or technology, or technique) then we would find ourselves back into Form follows Function territory. It is save to say that all so often digital form follows digital application. Parametric techniques, in this sense, should be associated to Sullivan’s dictum. Have we not heard it often, the thesis that true digital design is the emergence of truthful computational functions (simulation, growth, algorithms, scripts etc.)? Many would argue that process is more important than form—essentially pure morphological emergence of methodological, or mathematical—procedures. Some other may respond that it is narratives that lead the design development. Applications and functions change, evolve, grow. It is therefore not a permanent solution to totally focus onto the capacities of software.

The Form follows Software strategy may put you on the radar, but it also positions you into a GPS logic: turn right at Rhino Avenue into Python Plaza; that is your place. What seems to work is that you can be found: where is Grasshopper Greens in South-West London? But Form follows Software is not really a long-term option. It may become un-original. Plus: it lacks magic. It lacks empathy. If in the experience of architecture ornamental feature are as valid as functional requirements, perhaps the Baroque system can provide a better—whereby not unique and certainly not perfect—setup for contemporary digital architecture to perform yes intellectual tasks beyond evolutional, algorithmic, self-reproducing genetic computational processes (instigating debate within a wider social, cultural and historic context) but also to broaden, both in text and image, the vocabulary of sensorial aspects of architectural design. That this may turn out to be exuberant, lavish and sophisticated, that makes it even more alluring. More sexy. More pleasurable.

Form follows Libido?
This sub-title is of course indebted to Sylvia Lavin’s book Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture, in which she offers a reading into Richard Neutra’s emphatic architecture, and his attempts to produce through [Wilhelm] Wundt a Sachlichkeit of the body and its perceptions’ rather than ‘to objectify the practice of architecture by rationalizing program and structure’.[4] The book invokes a critique of modernism based on its lack of intimacy and affective environment. The lack of integration of aesthetic and psychophysical aspects of pleasure and engagement in architecture (digital and non) is still uncommon. Hence my plea for digital design that synthesizes technological expertise and poetic expression. Experience, perception, and empathy; those surely are valid parameters by which architecture can be discussed.

Poetics (as in the poetic image) is potentially a fruitful way to establish a set of criteria that are fictional, sensorial, empathic. Libido is an essential part of a design process towards that instance when intuition and expression overlap, where vision and communication meet. Carlo Mollino described that moment as the ‘poetic image’ (a poetic image, which differs from Gaston Bachelard’s, but this would go beyond the scope of this text). Design intelligence and decision-making are constantly conditioned by beauty and pleasure. Libido is the drive; towards pleasure (intellectual fulfillment included). And how can a truly dedicated designer be disinterested in pleasure (sensorial satisfaction, conceptual gratification, physical bliss…)? Whether elegant or shocking, beautiful or grotesque, the pursuit and experience of design pleasure are insatiable drives of the avant-garde—or so I hope.

Form follows Fetish
If pleasure (and sometimes self-punishment) is the aim, then desire/libido is the force (and a most useful one) of design. And if libido is the force, the fetish is the object of desire, the ‘designed’ form that provides pleasure. The target. Of course desire can be a drive for innovation—a career, status symbol objects, originality, scale and size, primacy, detailing and materiality are desires. Also, pleasure can be an acceptable version of passion and dedication (even professionalism)—the novel, the unknown, the found, the aspiration towards desire provide pleasure. Even ecstasy rules the game—signature items, brands, luxury, and the satisfaction of desires inflame ecstasy.

But this is not about Form follows Beauty, about a discourse on aesthetic. It is about a new era of fetishization within (digital) architecture. About processes, protocols and rituals of aestheticization, and about objects of desire, lust and passion. The concept of fetish lays beyond the notion of form, but also of sexuality and style. It cannot be an architect’s most ambitious intention to shock and to provoke with explicit material, or for an archivist/curator to collect signature architecture. My curiosity is directed at the psychological and methodological background to architecture’s exuberant mannerisms, people’s very precise rituals, architects’ compulsive obsessions.

Perhaps we may then find liberation from all the digital neo-modern stylistic constraints of Form follows Function/Software/etc. manifestos. It is evident that it is impossible, and hence futile, to formulate a unique theory of values, especially within digital architecture. But there is certainly a powerful aesthetic and intrinsic psychological aspect to an individual definition of value, which may be theoretical, or objectified. The notion of fetish explores these (mostly unspoken) facets of design: it is not about ‘how to’ design and ‘what to’ consider, but ‘which subconscious drive’ initiates such processes and ‘which satisfaction feedback’ one aspires to. Retrospectively, my 2010 Architectural Design magazine Exuberance can be understood as a taken-to-the-extreme architectural statement on diversity, openness and confidence and an argument in favour of the value of language and vocabulary. If Exuberance was embedded within the tormented passions of a digital Baroque, Form follows Fetish is of a more spiritual, supernatural or sensual nature. What I propose with Form follows Fetish is a taken-to-the-extreme architectural statement on particularity, soft spots and obsession (but not of obscenity). Whereby I am aware that it is the fetish of method and theory, rather than the value of pleasure/gratification/empathy, that has been pursued by most digital architecture. Understood as process, object, form, material etc., the fetish becomes a sublime and extremely precise articulation of aspired perfection and a constant urge towards the satisfaction of such a need for (im)perfection—the fetish is usually perfectly exaggerated, un-ergonomic, over-adapted, even dysmorphic. It is carnevalesque and burlesque, or sublime and daunting.

On another level, the concept of fetish raises questions on ethnicity (think of ethnic art), religion (think of relics), underground culture (think of the burlesque) and provides thus an alternative argument on architectural design that is not bound within globalization, or design –isms. Or paranoia. Paranoia, yes, because paranoia and censorship lay–sadly—at the core of the teaching of architecture based on 'how not to do' architecture: how not to do this, not to look at that, not to make it collapse, not to copy them... Then there is the paranoia of the response of critical journalism.

No paranoia please! On the contrary, there is no generic GPS-ism, no Parametric Handbook to follow. Going ‘somewhere towards the ocean’ is today’s drive. Which way? There are plenty! Will we get there? Definitively maybe!

1. See Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design (London: Reaktion, 1999).
2. Martina Kandeler-Fritsch and Thomas Kramer (eds.), Get Off of my Cloud. Wolf D. Prix, Coop Himmeb(l)au, Texts 1968-2005 (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2005) pp. 20-1. Their italics.
3. Marjan Colletti: ‘Turbulences Ahead’. In Archithese 4.2011 Architekturkritik, Switzerland.
4. Sylvia Lavin, Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture, The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts and London, 2004, p. 35. A concept later developed by Neutra into what he would call bio-realism, p. 135.