Disciplines thrive on dualities, and the architectural order resonates to one ethic, a sort of moral philosophy of the profession, more than any other, namely the endlessly quoted mantra that form follows function. The two nouns in this synergy are essentially invariants, set into action by the comparative verb between them, amenable to substitution as may suit classical, modern, postmodern, or other design programs. This utterance, then, with the possibility of term replacement- we could see in Hadid’s architecture how form frees function, or in Gehry’s how form ignores function — provides yet another example of the primordial Saussurean contrast between the view of language either through its synchronic– which is to say, temporal — change across time, or through its diachronic development, reflecting change within a single period or context. Mindful of the power of this conceptual generalization, Barthes mapped it onto a sort of Cartesian X/Y matrix for modern culture, creating an analytic whose character was no longer exclusively beholden to linguistic abstraction. Rather it now showed relevance to quotidian contemporary life as comprised of systems — the fashion system, the car system, the furniture system — each encoding its signs as Saussure did language’s. In the most condensed example, the food system accommodates the scheme of the restaurant menu, whose rules define a proper meal (utterance) as a horizontal array of courses (parts of speech) in the culinary grammar where several meals are framed between appetizer and dessert and where each course is vertically substituted by an allowable synonym (e.g., fish, steak, or fowl in the middle courses). It is due to this perpendicularity between a comprehensive framework and the vernacular of a local variety — the semiotic language-speech (lange–parole) distinction — that architecture’s form-function duality has sustained itself beyond jurisdictions of critical doubt.
Function is a given, an a priori condition borne of the common spatial, monetary, and legal denominators that constitute any architectural project as a relatively objective necessity. Form, by contrast, emerges a posteriori, having navigated a relatively subjective path through a creative spectrum. With this partnership, the theoretical landscape of architecture would appear to be complete. Yet, as circumferential as this form-function duality appears, it is nonetheless astigmatic; if the aim of a discipline’s mantra is to be all-inductive, this formulation will not do, it is partial to a small subset of the architectural establishment: physically realized formations, little else. If architecture were only about the end phase, about optimal fabrication, there would only be fabrication — that is, effort without preponderant countervailing critique, distinctive manifestos, or contemporaneous but philosophically contrariant schools. All element of controversy would long ago have been factored away, for form and function gaze only at, and revolve around, construction, fabrication, completion, consummation of area, the nisus formativus, and as such do not allow or accommodate the philosophy of the discipline, the region of critique.
There is, however, another predicate relation that more directly addresses architecture’s complete ontology, namely, that between space and structure. That this association is more logically architectural is evident in its obvious commutative property, for in the claim that space follows structure the inverse also holds. And likewise, to say that space enables structure is true in reciprocal inversion, that structure enables space. And to claim that space limits structure, too, is well-founded when stated in its inverse. There is no tautology in any of these relations — space is decidedly not structure. In the catalytic power of design, one can contain the other — something that is not true in the semantics of the form-function pair. The linguistic symmetry of space-structure utterances is grammatically optimized speech for architectural thinking, but this duality is also more generative because it is frankly more teleological. Specifically, it is more appropriate to speak of post-architecture, to include the virtual, in terms of space and structure because these terms simultaneously retain their conventional sense while also conveying new cognates and references that reflect dynamics of the “populated non-built” of cyberspace, which fabricates not over real estate but over virtual estate. Although form can address both physical and virtual worlds, it is nevertheless too indeterminate, applying equally and thus with too-vacuous reference to two, three, and n-dimensions, and even to characteristics of zero-dimensional things — as when we refer to the “form of an equation” — as well as to connotations of partial organization, without the sense of a whole, as when we refer to the “formal properties” of a thing. Yet — though for the opposite reason — function is also problematic, it is too narrow-minded. Understood as the objective motivating the environment’s creation, this term is constrained by its reference to physical realization. In virtual architecture, function is no longer anchored in either geospatial coordinates or the actual capacity of a space in relation to its occupants. Increasingly, too, postmodern architecture has begun to use (or conflate) “function” to mean, “form that looks functional” through its notion of reconfigurable space, the all-purpose structure, supermodular minimalism, and algotecture, all of which suggest a greater allegiance to virtuality’s transcendence of physical constraint than to the quality of the habitat’s experience for its residents. More anchored in form than function, therefore, these structures do not operate, do not function, out of regard for optimal conditions of use, but rather by projecting displacement, perturbing functionalist imperatives and asserting architecture’s impending reliance on new and different vernacular, with all that this word implies.
The argument that the visual evidence makes is that as contemporary practices aspires for material transcendence, for literally working outside the box, the relevance of architectural function is transformed into a reference system for a new kind of physics that refutes gravity, containment, and obviousness. One constraint, however, hinders this neo-functionalist flight: form and function matter through, and remain beholden to, the immediate priorities of human accommodation. But when, as happens in virtual space, a structure is allowed to transcend material limits of appearance in relation to physical use — because neither appearance nor use now operate in limited space — then the embodiment imperative is no longer the independent variable, the consumable factor, the last criterion of adequacy in determining the success of a design. And because of this escape from embodiment, we might rightly ask whether, in considering any domain where the pronouncement that form follows function loses relevance, we are still discussing architecture at all. As has long been argued within the critical establishment of the field, how else, if not by tying its functionality to physical construction, is this profession distinguishable from that of design? Soberly, Diane Ghirardo located this propensity not where we might expect — ensconced within Utopian programs like Buckminster Fuller’s — but instead as recoil from economic adversity:
…when building opportunities dwindled in the United States in the 1970’s, architects turned to drawings — not even designs of a different and better world, but instead a set of increasingly abstract, pretty (and marketable) renderings of their own or of antique works and reycled postclassical picturesque sites. Like much building of the decades just preceding, these aesthetic indulgences simply masquerade as architecture. They reveal architects in full retreat from any involvement with the actual world of buildings.
This retreat points to the two key moments of the profession, the design moment, and subsequently, that of “involvement with the actual world of buildings.” Since design is design for actual construction, architecture must “build” virtually before plans become transposed into physical space, and, while the initial design is fictive, the world into which it will be projectively realized is not; it is unequivocally physical. Several post-medium questions now bring us to the heart of the matter. What, then, of the nonphysical world? Can one have a veritable architecture, as opposed to design of virtual things, there? Imagining an architecture devoid of its second moment, fully committed to non-involvement with the actual world: isn’t this like unto the difference between fiction and nonfiction, rendered within corporeal dimension? If, for architecture, the diagram or plan provides the means, and materials become the tools, then by extension, the medium of the discipline is the environment itself. Without its physical environment, which is then to say, without its medium, the discipline, albeit possessed of a design character, can only be potentially architectural. For, who could otherwise distinguish between design and potential (which is to say unbuilt) architecture? I should point out that we are not speaking here of the unbuilt architectural proposal that addresses itself to true physical coordinates and idiosyncrasies of any actual location. Although unbuilt, such proposal is a necessity in practical construction, and thus remains empirical, just as hypothetical scenarios contrast with works of literary fiction by the presence or absence of worldly reference.
This ontological criterion of worldly reference — the empirical standard — defines the threshold of form and function in architecture. Where form is unbuilt and function is disconnected from material realization — each a condition of virtual space — there is an architecture without constraint or confinement, which is to say, without consciousness of limits, and thus without reality as praxis. In all respects, save two, virtuality negates the limits that characterize architecture’s methods, means, and materials. The two exceptions are space and structure, which remain compulsory parameters for virtual and actual domains, and arguably become aesthetically heightened in nonphysical environments, where endless examples of distended spatiality and structurality disconnected from physics, become defining elements that blur all distinction between edifice and myth.
Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. [1st American ed.] New York,: Hill and Wang, 1968.
Ghirardo, Diane. “The Architecture of Deceit.” The Yale Architectural Journal 21 (1984): 110-15.
Terzidis, Kostas. Algorithmic Architecture. Amsterdam: Elsevier, Ltd., 2006.