Architecture – Notes on the contemporary history of form

"The architect must be a form-artist; only the art of form leads the way to a new architecture."

(August Endell, 1897)

Any kind of formality has been established by means of material and immaterial forms. As Jean Paul Sartre writes in his Herostratus, "Higher values need to find material symbols or else they fade". If we look back in history of architecture we can trace the term "form" being always in close contact with that of the term "formal" and see how the roles of the architect and the user have been related.


The term form was one of the three terms, the other two were "design" and "space", through which architectural modernism exists[1]. One of the main characteristics of modernity was the excessive formality that was built under the idea of a "universal" truth, a universal architecture which was to be based on the notion of function. But no matter that architects were talking about function they were always approaching and understanding functions with the use of forms, they were starting with forms having as an aim to produce forms. This is exactly what modernity did. The modern utopia, followed by ideals about the man and the society attempted to form and therefore formalize space with the use of models and general categories.

Certainly, no one can question the intentions and historically speaking modernity offered great advances in the way we perceive, design and deal with space. In the depth of time though, and while the ideals and the perception of what democracy is started to change, the problems of modernity started becoming more and more obvious. The ideals, no matter the good intentions, were the basis for the problem. Apart from forming space, or maybe because of it, architecture by regulating spatial forms and spatial relations was forming life, was forming and regulating the relations, like those of the private and the public, the personal and the collective etc. that concerned people and their coexistence.

Modernity failed to generate or stimulate fields for negotiation of those relations because it came with the intention to establish fixed relations that derived straightforward from a superior "idea" (truth) under which models and categorizations could take place. To give a paradigm, the modern era had been largely based on the vision for a society of equality, where all people had the same rights, the same obligations and the same opportunities. That was the foundation of the "modern" democracy, equality. The establishment and preservation of this equality presupposed the existence of a center, an idea or an authority that would set the norms and also the "forms" for regulating and canonizing and finally securing that everybody were equal. All practices, including architecture, were aiming to the "equality" but in that manner architecture became the expression of an authority that was establishing a heteronomy[2]. Additionally, equality was often misinterpreted as commonality and this is how autonomy[3] and self expression were reduced even more to the mere execution of a model for living.

The perception of democracy changed radically and in the position of "equality" as a foundation was put "the right of being different". The date that is considered to be significant for this transition point is the May of '68. The idea of autonomy came in the foreground offering space to the individual to form and express his own subjectivity according to standards and ideas he would decide for himself.

But no matter this change, still, the formal and formative nature of architecture never seized to exist. Architecture remained a heteronomous practice. The reason has to do with a series of facts that didn't change since modernity and rather prove that the practice is being sealed off:

a) An architect (a subject) designs everything, both the practice and the form.

b) The design practice takes place within the frame of an established technical practice that uses specific tools, methods and often ideas.

c) No matter the practical overlaps the roles are clearly defined, the user, the architect, the builder are distinct characters.

d) The communication tool among different participants in the architectural practice is form

e) Origin, continuity are sealed off mediated to the practice through the architect, not through the craftsmen.

Nevertheless, all these described above are contained in the word "Architecture" itself. A rough etymological analysis shows that the word "architecture" comes from the Latin, "architectura" and ultimately from Greek,"arkhitekton" (αρχιτέκτων = architect) which in turn consists of the words "αρχή" και "τέκτων", the latter could be translated as "the one that possesses the technique of building" while the former is a little bit more vague because it could be translated in various ways as "rule, authority, beginning" and in the case of architecture all these words seem to fit. However, an architect then, etymologically speaking, is the "master builder", as the word "αρχή" indicates is the one that has the authority to build, the one who possesses the "rules" of the building practice, the well established techniques. It is more than clear that the term "architecture" itself places the architect in the centre of the architectural practice, making him the "author" of the built environment.

Post moderinty

Modern societies were based largely on the industry of mass production (Fordism) and David Harvey, claims for the transition to post modernity that is a result of what he calls "space - time compression" drawing in this way a strong connection between the post modernity and the "late capitalism". He says that the developments in transportations and communications caused the radical shift of capitalism from "fordism"[4] to the stage of "flexible accumulation" which is what has led to the changes that constitute the entire post modern culture.

As Harvey says, since 1973[5] "the experience of time and space has changed, the confidence in the association between scientific and moral judgements has collapsed, aesthetics has triumphed over ethics as a prime focus of social and intellectual concern, images dominate narratives, ephemerality and fragmentation take precedence over eternal truths and unified politics, and explanations have shifted from the realm of material and political-economic groundings towards a consideration of autonomous cultural and political practices."[6]

No matter that the idea of autonomy prevails after modernity, this idea of the authorship of the architect is something that accompanies architecture in all stages of post modernity. No matter that the role of the architect is questioned and altered, this takes place in a certain way and only up to a certain extend, not radically. Even in the radical philosophical and later architectural movement of deconstruction the architect comes even closer to the role of the "author".

Certainly, one could say that deconstruction was much more interested in the quest of "meaning", therefore treated architecture as a language and gave the architect the role of the author. But the building is not a text, it is much more interactive and the user is not a reader, he plays a much more active and formative role for the text (building), therefore, in architecture, the roles of the architect / author and the user / reader are less distinct than in literature. In that sense, the role of the architect as an author, as the mediator of an idea through a praxis (where in both idea and praxis his own subject is the centre) was never questioned by the deconstructivists. The contrary, it was taken for granted. Of course, this doesn't mean that architecture excluded other subjects (the user) from its processes, certainly not. But during the deconstruction which attempted to "decentralize" and "inverse the dipoles" the architect remains in the centre of the process and this is rather contradicting.

No matter the new complex syntactics that are being introduced into the design process, the role of the architect remains the same it was in modernity, positioned in the center and over the process. The difference is the how, while in modernity he is the centre as a form-giver, in deconstruction he is the centre as the founder of the method or the process (the syntactics). In both cases his authority remains the same over the final product no matter the alterations of the processing methods and the different "how". It seems that architectural deconstruction did something that is in extreme contradiction with the philosophy of deconstruction itself. Deconstruction looked deep inside the architectural processing and gave gravity to the subject of the architect but this was done as if processing was a singular, autonomous, closed, self constituted and self contained entity, detached from the overall architectural practice and as if the architect was a detached creator. Additionally, the roles of the builder (the laborer) and the user (inhabitant) remain the same and in general all the particular roles in the process remain distinct and relatively autonomous, and also detached.

On the other hand, the main medium for representation and communication remains the form which again is the end but also the medium through which a concept is mediated. Deconstruction didn't question radically enough the architectural logos, which is form, as a medium of representation and communication. Therefore the "against logocentricism" of the philosophical deconstruction failed to be adequately transposed as "against morphocentricism" in the architectural deconstruction. Deconstruction was a radical formalism, not a de-formalism and didn't attempt to inverse the fundamental relation of the designer - user which in architecture could represent the dipole object - subject or technical - natural.

Therefore, the boundaries between the technical and the natural weren't smoothened and the "naturalization of the unnatural", which Derrida was claiming to be one of the goals of deconstruction, was something that maybe one could claim that has affected the built forms and partly the design process as a closed system, but apart from that it didn't really affect the foundations of the architectural practice that remained purely technical since the boundaries among different roles and practices weren't smoothened.

The design process remained under the power and the mediation of the architect and it was not treated as a totality that is the result of a constant interaction - negotiation among the architect and external powers or dynamics that depend on multiple subjects (a society). Therefore architecture of deconstruction remained heteronomous.

Of course, in the process of designing and building which is defined by sets of interrelated autonomies - heteronomies, the question is not so much "who builds" or "who is the author", since there seems to be participation from everybody and these questions are rather to general. The question is in what extend several autonomies exercise power over the process and how. Historically speaking the centre of the architectural practice is certainly not the user. If architecture was itself a language we could say that until now the architects were creating both the langue and the parole; the basic elements and the rules of the system, which means the language as a structure, and also as a spoken word. The idea is not merely about the parole, so it is not about giving people the ability to have their own parole with the use of a prefabricated language that someone else created, because this kind of parole already exists and it's a part of informality. Architects create the langue and the parole and people based on these create their informal slang. The idea is not to impose a language or sets of them, but to give people the opportunity to create their own informal langue, both individually and collectively, in order to inform more adequately our formal ones.

[1] Adrian forty, , page 149

[2] Cornelius Castoriades would name it so. Etymologically the term heteronomy derives from the words hetero (έτερο) which means other and nomos (νόμος) which means law, rule. Heteronomous is a thing that obeys laws that have been constituted outside of it.

[3] Etymologically the term autonomy derives from the words auto (αυτό) which means self and nomos (νόμος) which means law, rule. Autonomous is not the one that doesn't comply with laws but the think that constitutes the laws by itself and for itself.

[4] Harvey uses the term "fordism" for describing the emphasis of the modernism to the standardization and mass production.

[5] 1973 was the year the Bretton Woods accord on the control of international capital ended. Both Fredric Jameson and James Mittelman date the start of the postmodern period from 1973.

[6] David Harvey, The condition of post modernity: an inquiry into the origins of cultural change, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990 ( p. 328 )