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The Functionalist Deviation - Politics of building, aesthetics of anti-architecture

Functionalism is a vexed term. Denounced, claimed to be impossible, or a pejorative for the "merely functional". Yet for much of the twentieth century functionalism was, almost inadvertently, frequently used to denote the revolutionary socialist currents in architecture.

"Functionalism" has always been completely central to discussions of twentieth century architecture, where it is usually used to describe the Central European architecture of the 1920s, and more rarely, certain American and British currents in the 1960s. Yet no architect to my knowledge has ever described himself or herself as a functionalist, and as we will see, no unified movement known as "functionalism" has ever really existed as such.

Functionalism, then, has for the most part been a negative term, used to describe certain reductive, utilitarian or positivist strains in modernist architecture. What I’m going to argue here is that the critique of what is described as functionalism has frequently been an attack on the possibility of the intersection of architecture and politics as much as the intersections of form and function.

Louis Sullivan, Carson Pirie Scott Department Store, 1902

Whenever the term is given some sort of historiography, it is said to begin with the marriage of engineering and aesthetics in late nineteenth century Chicago. Specifically, in the work of Louis Sullivan and his partner, the engineer Dankmar Adler.

The placing of the supposedly non-aesthetic work of the engineer, quotidian, grubby and semi-proletarian, on the same plane as the rarefied artistic facility of the architect is the functionalist gesture before the fact, and the over-debated aphorism "form follows function" was first popularised by Sullivan.

More usefully for our purposes here though, "functionalism" begins with the aestheticisation of American engineering by European intellectuals. Under the auspices of the Deutscher Werkbund, Walter Gropius, the future Bauhaus director, collected photographs of grain silos and power stations. In the early 1920s these photographs would be reproduced in books by both Le Corbusier and the Russian Constructivist Moisei Ginsburg, alongside other engineering structures such as biplanes and liners, as exemplars of the architecture of the future – devoid of historical reference, futuristic, built for purpose rather than for abstraction, and devoid of what would usually be called architecture.

Architecture of the future, 100 years ago

The first major use of anything resembling the term Functionalism, however, comes with the book Der Moderne Zweckbau, translated as The Modern Functional Building, by the critic Adolf Behne. This book, written in 1923 although not published until three years later, was also perhaps the first programmatic statement of the German Neues Bauen.

It should be remembered exactly what the significance is of the term "bauen", building, here. There was rarely talk in the 1920s that a new style, or even a new architecture had been born, but a New Building: essentially, the self-abolition of architecture. And yet when Behne uses the term Functionalism – which he distinguishes from straightforward utilitarianism – it’s often to describe the biological rhetoric of architects like Hans Scharoun, hardly the stern technocratic anti-aesthetic the term usually evokes.

The illustrations that were featured in Der Moderne Zweckbau were from two distinct poles: the avant-garde and industry, bringing together Italian Futurism, American car factories, De Stijl and Soviet Constructivism. What we have here is aesthetes attempting to subsume themselves in production, a move which has led to accusations of concomitance with industrial ideology from the critic Manfredo Tafuri, who we’ll return to later.

Bauhaus Trade Union School

In 1932 a very different programmatic book was published in the USA: The International Style, by the critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock and the architect and active Nazi Philip Johnson. The title here offers a clue. The Neues Bauen was here being codified for transatlantic consumption into a style, and architecture, definitively separated from building in what they called the "aesthetic hierarchy" was remounted on an ornament-free pedestal.

The book has a chapter entitled "Functionalism", which critiques what is claimed to be a dominant idea among central European architects, that is, the belief that aesthetics should be purged from architecture, with function as the only design consideration. This view is ascribed to the second Bauhaus director, the Marxist architect Hannes Meyer, and to similarly politicised practitioners like Mart Stam. These are the people that Hitchcock and Johnson had in mind when they wrote of "fanatical functionalists" bent on designing for ‘... some proletarian superman of the future’.

So, let’s turn to the theory and practice of Hannes Meyer, the most prominent representative of the Neues Bauen’s left-wing: architects who mostly referred to themselves as Constructivists rather Functionalists.

Meyer undoubtedly tries to totally separate building from art. Art, for him as for the Russian Constructivists and the Dadaists, is to be entirely abolished and transcended. Architecture’s ascription to the realm of art mythologises it, gives it what Benjamin would have called an auratic function, objects for awed contemplation rather than for use and adaption. Meyer’s buildings are architecture without aura, which includes the nascent aura of the purist planes that would make up the International Style.

If there is a contradiction in Meyer’s theory, it is in the appeal both to the proletariat and to industry: to the bosses and the workers, put bluntly. Socialist architecture is to be made of standard, up-to-the-minute components, and at the same time is apparently an active part of the class struggle.

There are signs that this was bearing at least some fruit. The Trade Union School in Bernau was collectively produced by Meyer and the Bauhaus’ Building Department. The collective aspect was stressed: Meyer claimed that ‘the architect is dead’, and that ‘... my architecture students will not be architects,’ but a collaborative collective.

The school was both a technologically advanced environment, colour-coded, operated and adapted by a series of buttons and levers, and a functional structure designed for the use of the working class.

Nonetheless, the contradictions were clearly irresolvable in a capitalist context, and Meyer and many of his students and collaborators attempted to resolve this contradiction by moving, along with a "bauhaus brigade", to the USSR, where in 1931 he drafted some Theses on Marxist Architecture.

This text shows no let-up in the attack on art, but it is interesting in terms of the critique that his alleged functionalism left no room for the pleasures and effects of form. In thesis eleven, beauty is replaced by psychology, and the determinate effects of form in personality, much like the Soviet Constructivist Ginzburg, who posited that "form is a function". Colour, staircases and other elements are to be scientifically evaluated for a psychological effect that could easily be mistaken for an aesthetic one, in an echo of a Reichian/Meyerholdian biomechanical Marxism of stimulus-response.

This comes close to the problem of sight and spatiality as a valid question for socialist "building" – although thesis thirteen declares that ‘... for the Marxist architect, architecture is not an aesthetic stimulus but a keen-edged weapon in the class struggle’.

The stated aim of Meyer’s Bauhaus was to replace art with science, both in the social and industrial sense. That he failed in this in the USSR of the Five-Year Plans as well as in Weimar Germany is intricately linked with changes in their social and technological make-up.

Aside from Johnson and Hitchcock’s critique of the Functionalist deviation, there were other attacks that deserved to be taken more seriously. The first is that of the American "inventor" Richard Buckminster Fuller, whose 1920s work, contemporary with the Neues Bauen, stressed prefabrication and serial production.

In the 1950s, Fuller claimed that the Neues Bauen, or what he called, conflating the original and the recuperation "the Bauhaus international school", was based not on the utilisation of advanced technology, but on its symbolism. Technology would be represented by what looked like an emphatic product of a production line, but was in fact a finely wrought aesthetic object, fairly traditionally constructed, then rendered and buffed to give an appearance of industrial modernity.

Fuller pointed out that the "bauhaus international" designers never looked at the plumbing and drainage, which were neatly tidied away, and were prepared to have such truly functional elements delegated out to the contractors and developers. In a nutshell, they weren’t functionalist enough.

Actually, as Kenneth Frampton has pointed out, Fuller’s critique in this sense was very similar to that of Meyer and the Neues Bauen’s Marxist fringe. One of Meyer’s students later recalled that he wasn’t allowed to draw elevations, and certainly wasn’t allowed to hide the plumbing or the ‘... electro-mechanical installation, pipes and even chimneys’ – much as in Fuller’s Dymaxion house, organised around a central, exposed core of services.

Politically however, Fuller and the German leftist would seem to be poles apart, and Fuller always maintained an ostensible all-American political conformism. That conformism masked a conception of society and technology that strained at the limits of capitalism.

Emphasising the ability of technology to do more with less, Fuller’s voluminous works contain several retrospective attacks on Malthus and the Malthusian belief in the permanence of scarcity and inequality. Enough is produced to give a high standard of living to all, Fuller claims, and the "industrial equation" would, seemingly by itself, and independently of class and politics, arrive at such a system of redistribution.

Fuller’s dismissal of Marxism, which was clearly not based on extensive acquaintance with Marx, centres on the belief that automation made the working-class movement obsolete. In a passage that is rather poignant to the contemporary reader, he states:

‘The concepts of Karl Marx are typical of the erroneous and inadequate way in which men at first pondered the industrial equation. They thought of men chained to the machines and grievously exploited by the machine owners. With automation an increasing economic reality, we see now that the industrial equation was heading towards the complete elimination of man as a worker. The industrial equation will bring about a condition where, within a century, the word ‘worker’ will have no current meaning. It will be something you will have to look up in an early 20th century dictionary’.

Now, half a century after Fuller wrote this, if the word "worker" could in any way be said to be disappearing, it’s more to do with post-cold war sleight of hand than the changes in the productive process – in fact, automation has brought with it proletarianisation, with even non-productive countries like the UK reliant on menial call centre and temp work rather than the fusion of science and play that Fuller had envisaged.

This is no surprise, in a sense. Although Fuller loftily proclaimed socialism obsolete in the 1960s, in the next sentence he said the same about capitalism. His typological model is the space programme, in which the housing of the astronaut in the rocket is scientifically worked out to the minutest detail. The theory was that industry will at some point concentrate on the production of what he called "livingry" with the same assiduousness as weaponry.

Fuller is the twentieth century’s Fourier, a kind of utopian idiot-genius, and it’s quite telling that his major projects, as Manfredo Tafuri pointed out, although he meant it as a criticism, were almost all for international Expos. Like his English equivalents, Cedric Price, Reyner Banham and Archigram, who built even less, these were visions of a future which even Keynesian capitalism was incapable of realising; something posited but never to be actually realised.

Fuller’s domes, like his theories, are exemplars of what capitalism might once have promised but is utterly incapable of providing, and in that sense their utopianism is not merely ideological.

The other critiques came from architects and critics associated with the New York journal Oppositions, which ran through the early 1970s to the 1980s. The most sophisticated was Manfredo Tafuri’s.

While he generally dismisses the work of Fuller and his megastructural, futurist successors – Archigram, Cedric Price, Moshe Safdie – with one-liners, his analysis of the Neues Bauen was concretely politically and economically grounded. In a close analysis of the "functionalist" planning programmes of Frankfurt (by the architect Ernst May) and Berlin (under Bruno Taut) in the 1920s – another element of the Neues Bauen expunged from The International Style – he pointed out that while the Nazis sneeringly called them "constructed socialism", they were in fact realised social democracy, and as such enormously compromised and contradictory.

These were ‘... partial utopias of the plan’, which may have been impeccably scientific and socialist in their own context, but were merely peripheral to capitalism’s totality. Interventions at the outskirts, leaving the centre to multiply its contradictions. Indeed, this is surely what drove both Taut and May to follow Hannes Meyer to the Soviet Union, where these problems were ostensibly being rectified.

Tafuri is unforgiving though, and he sees these interventions as a prototype for the Keynesian project of rationalisation, which he rather naively presumed was an inextricable component of late capitalism – he was writing in 1973. Now that Keynesian capitalism has proven to have been a brief aberration based on a compromise between labour and capital, we can be rather more sympathetic to the German functional planners, if aware of their limitations.

Inside the Geodesic Dome - English Revisionist Functionalism

Of far less intellectual depth, but of far greater influence, was the critique of Peter Eisenman. In an editorial for Oppositions in 1976, he made the equation that functionalists, by which he referred both to the Neues Bauen and to the post-Fuller "English Revisionist Functionalism" of Cedric Price or Archigram, were really part of the ‘... 500 year-old tradition of humanism’.

The jusfifcation he gave for this was that they saw architecture as a "moral" pursuit. Morality, a term which appears to stand in for political commitment, is apparently the antipode to Modernism, which led him to make the rather extraordinary claim that architecture, because of this functionalist moralism and "ethical positivism" had never truly been Modernist, presumably before his own work.

This is apparently a Modernism distinguished by abstraction, autonomy and so forth: his admittedly erudite examples in this essay were Malevich, Mondrian, Joyce, Schoenberg, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling. Yet even Mondrian called for art’s abolition in favour of its subsumption into everyday life.

What Eisenman really meant by Modernism was Art, and his call was really for architecture to return to automous, asocial art. The reason given for this is interesting. What he called the substitution of the formal with the moral was irrelevant, because, quote, ‘... the moral imperative is no longer operative within contemporary experience.’

Reading between the lines a little, this can be taken to mean that in post-Keynesian capitalism the jobs are no longer being provided by municipal authorities or schools, but by big business and its museum culture. Go where the money’s going. The question always elided is what is being built, and for whom – and recently in Eisenman’s case the latter has been everyone from Opus Dei to Spanish Francoists.

Eisenman won’t leave it at that though. For him the critique within form is the only critique, and as recently as 2001 he wrote that ‘... architecture can only be critical when it displays the internal struggle between the process of abstraction and figuration and the requirements of the sign’.

The idea that architecture might be critical of society, as were the "partial utopias" of the Neues Bauen or Buckminster Fuller, is not even imaginable. Thirty years or so after Eisenman and Tafuri’s anti-functionalism, the contemporary conjuncture within the built environment rests essentially upon the following three poles:

  • First, the kind of self-critiquing, endlessly morphing form-giving exemplified by celebrity architects, from Eisenman to Frank Gehry.
  • Second, the actual lived environment, usually made up of either a timid Ikea Modernism or full-on Barratt Homes revivalism, both sheathing advanced technology.
  • Third, the utilitarian structures of production and consumption.

There is very little crossover between these three. The guardians of architecture, with their formal extravagance propped up by the innovations of engineers, are usually expensive cloaks for functions dating from the nineteenth century, from the office block to the museum. The functionalist deviation always concerned itself with building for new functions – whether the Bauhaus left’s new collective society or Fuller’s interstellar-utopian "livingry".

Fun Palaces for all

To conclude then, with a perverse suggestion.

The functionalists of the twentieth century were perennially inspired by the most advanced built forms of industry. In Patrick Keiller’s film Robinson in Space, a search for what might survive of Britain as an industrial country constantly comes up against strange, vast, unreadable structures, fenced-off and anti-architectural, processing vast amounts of commodities yet with no discernible workforce.

This is the landscape of the "big sheds", which the likes of Martin Pawley would claim as heralds of the architecture of the future. The vast, indeterminate, cheap and amorphous out-of-town buildings which for some fulfil the formal (but certainly not political) promises of Cedric Price. A Wal-Martopolis of constant, additive or destructive yet illegible change. Abundance, automation, cheapness and accessibility, capable of being adapted, recycled and reconstructed whenever required.

Would it be a step too far to imagine a new socialist functionalism based on this kind of non-architecture?

Certainly the idea that the future would look like this is not exactly an inspiring rallying cry, that it would have no formal qualities whatsoever, at least at the level of the façade – but the socialist functionalist argument would be that there’s more potential for a new society within this most functional, boring, commodified and seemingly conformist environment than in any aesthete-architecture’s self-referential formal games.

If utopia can be glimpsed in the architecture of a power station, then can it also be found in the forms of a supermarket warehouse?

Or is production always destined to be prioritised over consumption in socialist aesthetics?

Owen Hatherley 01.12.2007

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