A ‘Functionalist’ Dilemma: The Impending Demise of Socially and Culturally Significant Architecture

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

Author: D. R. Hill (n7128339)

Queensland University of Technology

Master of Architecture - 2013

Tutor: Murray Lane

DAN125 Contemporary Architectural Theory

Culturally Significant Architecture: Panda Base Sightseeing Tower. Image UDG Atelier Alpha: http://www.udg.com.cn/en/United-Atelier.asp

In its now famous 1987 report, the Brundtland Commission redefined sustainable development as; "...development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." At the time, it was not immediately evident; however, this re-definition was to prove instrumental in the dissemination of the sustainability agenda throughout the public realm (1).

Since this milestone gathering, the realization that civilization has exceeded earth’s carrying

capacity has given rise to a new phenomenon; the ‘Sustainability Crisis’ (2). The urgency implied by this new era has expedited efforts to reverse the degradation of our environment in all fields of human endeavor, none more discernibly obvious than that of the built environment.

Architecture came under heavy scrutiny. It was revealed that Buildings contributed significantly to the negative impact on the environment. In fact, it was discovered that 32% of the world’s resources, including 12% of the world’s fresh water and up to 40% of its energy was being used by our buildings. In addition, 40% of waste was going to landfill and our buildings were found to be responsible for 40% of air emissions (3).

These startling statistics provided the impetus for a new ‘set of rules’ for our built environment professions. The imposition (whether by regulation or market demand) of ‘green ratings system design’ provided a framework that would present a quantifiable measure of sustainability to our built environment. This is obviously commendable as the built environment professions have a moral and ethical obligation to ensure the sustainability of our cities; however, this systematic approach to building is undermining the fundamental basis of ‘humanist’ architecture. Through its rigid checklist approach, ‘green rating systems’ are eschewing cultural significance in the design of our built environment, and in doing so, gradually ‘de-humanising’ the buildings we are now creating (4).

The advent of the ‘Sustainability Crisis’ has resulted in an over-dependence on green rating

systems that threaten the very fundamentals of theoretical, humanist architecture (5). This return to a strictly ‘functional’ program has once again shifted the balance of weight back to the ‘function’ side of the ‘form verses function’ polemic.

In pursuit of a purely ethical, idealist architecture, we are once again producing buildings bereft of symbolism, cultural significance and theory; we are once again separating “man from object”(6). By doing so, we are unwittingly returning to a 20th century ‘Functionalist’ mentality - a hallmark of the ‘Modernist’ era of architecture (7).

Up until the late 1970s and early 80s Modernism had enjoyed a lengthy and successful tenure as a significant era of architecture and arts. During this time, architecture had steadily reconciled itself to a functionalist ideal; the significance formally placed on social and cultural meaning had all but dissolved, however this was about to change (8).

An insurgence against antiquated Modernist ideals manifested in the form of a Post Modernist movement. Post Modernists (in architectural discourse) aimed to discredit the fundamental modernist formula of form-follows-function by critically interrogating the validity of the austerity, totalitarianism and de-humanisation of Modernist ideals (9), and now, just as then, contemporary architecture is in danger of returning to this functional (modernist) dilemma through the implementation of green rating system based design. Once again, we face the task of returning balance to the form-function dialectic.

In order to effect change, we must examine the transitional period that heralded the end of the modernist era and the emergence of Post Modernism, for herein we may gain insight on how to influence a return-to-balance of form and function.

Original reaction against modernist ‘functionalist’ ideology gained momentum during the 1970’s with the emergence of various counter-movements. Leading antagonists theorised and critically questioned the validity of modernist ideals in architectural discourse (10). One such antagonist, Peter Eisenman, in his 1976 essay Post-functionalism (Oppositions 6), elaborated the epistemology of the modernist movement and attempted to define the etymology of post-functionalism – a possible new direction for architecture (11).

Eisenman’s essay represents a concerted psychological break from ‘functional’ ideology,

however, rather than offer a new direction for architecture, he reflects on two international events; the "Architettura Razionale" exhibition at the Milan Triennials of 1973, and the "Ecole des Beaux Arts" exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in 1975. In his observation, he identifies that both events reflected critically on the significance of functionalism, and, both sought a solution to achieving ‘pure’ architecture; however, the solution presented by each was entirely different; (12) The former proclaimed that "...architecture can be generated only through a return to itself as an autonomous or pure discipline” (13) interpreted by Eisenman as; a form of simplicity produced from fragmentation and division and with no direct correlation to any pre-existent state. The latter rested on a notion that "...the future lies paradoxically in the past” (14) of which Eisenman interpreted as a reductivist attitude that assumes form as an abstraction of a recognizable, pre-existent condition (15). The purpose of his critical observation was to highlight the two different ‘Post Functionalist’ approaches to addressing the ‘form verses function’ imbalance of that era (16).

After having clarified the fundamental difference between the two approaches he focuses on what he describes as the modernist ‘predicament’, and, in doing so, he identifies industrialism’ as having slowly eroded the ‘type-form’ (wherein ‘type-form’ refers to architecture as an abstraction of a recognizable, pre-existent condition) in favour of a more functional program, thus removing “man from object” (17). Further to this, he argues that any architecture that can truly be called ‘humanist’ has equal concern for both form and function (18). Eisenman’s solution is therefore, not to consider form and function as dialectic opposites, but to return the balance of weight to an appropriate measure of form and function (19).

It wasn’t until his 1984 essay The End of the Classical: the End of the Beginning, the End of the End where Eisenman could reflect back on functionalism as a counter-movement by stating that “Functionalism turned out to be yet another stylistic conclusion, this one based on a scientific and technical positivism, a simulation of efficiency”; (20) a poignant appraisal of the status quo as the push for technological solutions to sustainability continues to overlook ‘humanist’ consideration (21). Commenting against the functional predicament, he states that;

“...architectural form is revealed as a ‘place of invention’ rather than as a subservient representation of...a strictly practical device. To invent an architecture is to allow

architecture to be a cause; in order to be a cause; it must arise from something outside a

directed strategy of composition.”(22)

Rating systems provide a checklist of acceptable materials and construction practices (23), or as Eisenman puts it, “a directed strategy of composition” (24). More often than not, the formal and material aspects of any project are predetermined before design begins. Because of the sustainability agenda, these ‘checklists’ are geared towards a ‘minimal’ approach to design and construction (25); this, in turn, discourages theoretical, cultural or humanist input. The architectural result is often “a strictly practical device” (26).

In his essay Eisenman offers a clue to equalizing the form-function imbalance by arguing that

“The goal is a socially ‘relevant’ architecture; it is attained through the rational transformation of type-forms”(27).

A view shared by Charles A. Jencks in his 1977 essay Post-Modern Architecture.

Jencks identifies an imbalance of form and function in Western architecture, however, suggests that a balance is possible (28). Writing about Japanese architects, he identifies Kiyonori Kikutake’s Tokoen Hotel as an example;

“Hotel rooms near the top mix tatami proportions and modern architecture; while the

restaurant on the roof is under a gentle curve...that manages to recall traditional roof

forms and modern hyperbolic parabolas... Two different structural systems and two

aesthetics thus give a legibility and dynamism missing in Western modern architecture.”(29)

This considered approach to the form-function dialectic encourages humanist input into the object by incorporating abstract visual cues of recognizable, pre-existent social or environmental conditions (30). He goes on to suggest that the persistence of traditional Japanese culture and the absence of a revolutionary avant-garde may have something to do with the ability of Japanese architecture to accommodate a balanced approach (31).

Observing architecture on a larger scale Robert Venturi, in his 1977 publication Learning from Las Vegas: the forgotten symbolism of architectural form, suggests that all cities communicate functional, symbolic, and persuasive messages to people (32), however, through the standardisation of type-form, the modernist preoccupation of austere, functionalist architecture threatens to nullify these modes of ubiquitous communication.

In a pointed attack on the austerity of Modernism, Venturi coined the term “Less is a bore”; a linguistic play on Mies Van Der Rohe’s famous modernist aphorism “Less is more”, to which, according to Venturi, “...bemoans complexity and justifies exclusion for expressive purposes” (33).

As a staunch critic of modernist ideals, Venturi identifies that ‘purist’ architecture of the

modernist period was, in part, a reaction against nineteenth-century eclecticism, whereas

Post-Modernism was a stylistic abstraction of pre-modernist conditions and an attempt to

return greater significance to the type-form. Further to this, he acknowledges the need for

buildings to evoke “...explicit associations and romantic allusions to the past to convey

literary, ecclesiastical, national, or programmatic symbolism” (34); important social and cultural qualities that have since been eschewed by modernist ideals.

Venturi’s view rests on a holistic theory that a building, regardless of its role, should express

‘what it is’ rather than succumb to the anonymity and austerity of modernist purism (35). In this premise, he addresses what many antagonists have neglected; the important distinction between architecture of different roles, for instance, the socio-cultural relevance of an office

building would be entirely different to that of a national museum, and therefore, it would be

incongruous to apply the visual or symbolic cues of one to the other (36). The same could be said of ‘rating systems design’; whilst environmental performance and a healthy, comfortable work environment is imperative to the office building, the national museum has a different set of requirements. It is a culturally significant building, and, because of its role in the public realm as a vessel of history and antiquities (along with the itinerant nature of its visitors and its functional requirements), socio-cultural significance, symbolism, and its relationship to the

greater context should be of fundamental importance (37).

Architecture is a complex practice in which a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, in most cases, is

unworkable. A compromise is required, whereby office buildings, factories and other structures of a more mundane nature would benefit greatly from rating system design, whilst culturally significant buildings such as government houses, museums, galleries, conservatoriums and universities would further benefit society through a return to ‘humanist’ architecture grounded in theory and symbolism (38). This would require an exemption from the strict functional limitations of ‘green rating systems’ in favour of an architecture free to evoke aspiration and inspiration.

The ‘big’ issue of the new century is the Sustainability Crisis, and as such, it is imperative that

architecture takes responsibility for environmental concerns; however, with focus heavily fixed towards sustainability, the balance of weight has shifted back to a ‘functionalist’ agenda at the cost of ‘humanist’ input. The challenge to the status quo is, once again, how best to return a balance of formalism to contemporary architecture in a social climate so focussed on sustainability?

A common theme of all three texts is that the modernist movement had indeed eroded the

significance of type-form in architecture, thus diminishing the ‘humanist’ element in the

architectural object - a trait evident in contemporary ‘sustainable’ architecture (39).

These texts offer up clues as to possible solutions to the current ‘form verses function’ paradox; Eisenman indicates that the solution is “a socially ‘relevant’ architecture”(40) and a “rational transformation of type forms” (41), whereas Jencks suggests; an architecture that encourages socio-cultural input through a “persistence of culture and the absence of a revolutionary avant-garde” (42). Robert Venturi proclaims that a building should express ‘what it is’ and that architecture should evoke “...explicit associations and romantic allusions to the past... (43)” and “...convey literary, ecclesiastical, national, or programmatic symbolism” (44).

What all three authors share is an acknowledgment that the functionalist ‘predicament’ is born from a lack of socio-cultural concern and that the re-inclusion of theory, humanism, and

socio-cultural significance will, to some extent, re-balance the form - function polemic.

Of the reviewed texts, Robert Venturi’s inclusive theory of architecture (of all roles) best

redresses the current imbalance of rating systems design - a building should indeed express

‘what it is’, and in doing so, determine its adherence or negation of a ‘green rating’ agenda (45).

‘Green ratings schemes’ attempt to compartmentalise architecture within a single framework

of preferred practices, materials and technologies (46). With no perceptible recognition for the diversity of building types – architecture becomes a mere ‘object’ (47). This lack of ‘humanist’ consideration recalls a modernist – functional ideal, however, buildings are more than just practical ‘containers’ of interior functions. Buildings evoke feelings, memories, aspiration, inspiration and emotion (48).

Through a strictly functional agenda, ‘green ratings systems’ threaten the ability for

architecture to express these very ‘human’ emotions; hence, we face the impending demise of socially and culturally significant architecture - another ‘functionalist dilemma’.

End of text.

1 Janis Birkeland, Positive Development : From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design, (Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2012), http://QUT.eblib.com.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=430073.

2 Ibid.

3 Dr Dominique Hes, "Esd Design Guide," ed. Australian Government The Department of the Environment and Water Resources (RMIT: Commonwealth of Australia, 2007).

4 Peter Eisenman, "Post-Functionalism," Oppositions 6(1976).

5 Janis Birkeland, Positive Development: From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design (United Kingdom, London: Earthscan, 2008).

6 Eisenman, "Post-Functionalism."

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 K. Michael Hays, Architecture Theory since 1968 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998).

11 Eisenman, "Post-Functionalism."

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 "The End of the Classical, the End of the Beginning, the End of the End," Perspecta 21(1984).

21 "Post-Functionalism."

22 "The End of the Classical, the End of the Beginning, the End of the End."

23 Birkeland, Positive Development: From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design.

24 Eisenman, "The End of the Classical, the End of the Beginning, the End of the End."

25 Birkeland, Positive Development: From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design.

26 Eisenman, "The End of the Classical, the End of the Beginning, the End of the End."

27 Ibid.

28 Charles A. Jencks, "Post-Modern Architecture," in Architecture Theory since 1968, ed. K. Michael Hays (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1977).

29 Ibid.

30 Eisenman, "Post-Functionalism."

31 Jencks, "Post-Modern Architecture."

32 Robert; Brown Venturi, Denise Scott and Izenour, Steven, Learning from Las Vegas : The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, Rev. ed. (Cambridge: M IT, 1977).

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Eisenman, "Post-Functionalism."

39 Ibid.

40 "The End of the Classical, the End of the Beginning, the End of the End."

41 Ibid.

42 Jencks, "Post-Modern Architecture."

43 Venturi, A Significance for a&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 Birkeland, Positive Development : From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design.

47 Eisenman, "Post-Functionalism."

48 Venturi, A Significance for a&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas.


Birkeland, Janis. Positive Development : From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2012.


———. Positive Development: From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through Built

Environment Design. United Kingdom, London: Earthscan, 2008.

Eisenman, Peter. "The End of the Classical, the End of the Beginning, the End of the End."

Perspecta 21 (1984): 155-73.

———. "Post-Functionalism." Oppositions 6 (1976): 236-39.

Hays, K. Michael. Architecture Theory since 1968. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998.

Hes, Dr Dominique. "Esd Design Guide." edited by Australian Government The Department of the Environment and Water Resources. RMIT: Commonwealth of Australia, 2007.

Jencks, Charles A. "Post-Modern Architecture." In Architecture Theory since 1968, edited by K.Michael Hays, 308-16. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1977.

Venturi, Robert; Brown, Denise Scott and Izenour, Steven. Learning from Las Vegas : The

Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Rev. ed. Cambridge: M IT, 1977.


World Commission on Environment and Development. "Our Common Future, Chapter 2:

Towards Sustainable Development". Un-documents.net. Retrieved 2011-09-28.

Green Building Council Australia. “Green Star”. Accessed May 13, 2013.


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