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Formalism and Formal Research
Patrik Schumacher, London 2016

Published in: ARKETIPO – International Review of Architecture and Building Engineering
(Rivista Internazionale di Architettura e di Ingegneria delle Costruzioni), #104, 2016


Formalism’ and its derivative ‘formalist’ (as noun or adjective) remain potent derogatory terms within architectural discourse. It is taken for granted that the creative investment into the elaboration of forms detracts from the concern for function. A moment’s reflection reveals that all concern for a design’s functioning must be achieved by working on its form. My formula for this truism: Form delivers Function. My comprehensive theory of architecture – the theory of architectural autopoiesis1 – identifies the distinction of form and function as the lead distinction of architecture, whereby form is the discipline’s internal reference, i.e. our immediate responsibility, and function is the discipline’s external reference, i.e. our ultimate responsibility to society mediated via our production of forms. My theory further emphasizes that the functionality designers (in constrast to engineers) should be concerned with is social (rather than technical) functionality. In most general terms the societal function of architecture and the design disciplines is the spatio-morphological ordering and framing of all social interaction processes.

Aggressive Formalism - A Productive Provocation

Since the designers’ immediate work is inevitably always concerned with forms, the charge of formalism must be elaborated as follows: The “formalist” works on the form for the form’s sake, without regard to its function, concerned only with formal characteristics and matters of visual appearance. If this concern with formal characteristics is exclusive and entails the rejection of functional concerns then this formalist stance might be hard to defend. According to my theoretical reconstruction of our discipline’s rationality (AoA, Vol.1) architecture is operationally encoded by the double code of utility (functionality) and beauty (formal resolution) and a one-sided insistence on formal aspects only is accordingly indeed an anomaly. However, there have been protagonists within architecture who have explicitly taken this stance; most notable Peter Eisenman and Jeff Kipnis. Peter Eisenman’s notorious 1976 article “Post-functionalism” argues that architecture lags behind abstract art and absolute music and must cast aside its concern with function to emancipate itself and become truly modern. In the early 1990s Jeff Kipnis turned the maledictum “Formalism” into his primary positive headline slogan for his AA Graduate Design Group. His investment into formal research and innovation was also posited as exclusive, claiming to represent the discipline’s true essence. However, we should not allow ourselves to get distracted by the (ultimately questionable) exclusiveness of these protagonist’s investments and ask if the attention to formal-compositional properties like symmetry, proportion, repetition, rhythm, syncopation, dynamic equilibrium etc. makes sense and can be defended at all, and on which grounds.

Although we must certainly reject the proposition that the exclusive concern with formal characteristics is or should become the discipline’s true stance and calling, I will argue for the necessity of investing in formal research and innovation. This also entails the necessity of the elaboration of formal concepts and an attendant terminology for formal analysis. Jeff Kipnis together with Greg Lynn – building on prior protagonists like Robert Venturi, Colin Rowe, Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi – have made a crucial contribution to both the innovation of our formal repertoires and to the elaboration of an attendant conceptual repertoire and terminology for tracking and guiding these formal innovations. Key concepts proposed by Kipnis and Lynn include e.g. ‘intensive coherence’ (Kipnis) and ‘multiple affiliation’ (Lynn). We might also add here Stan Allen’s concept of ‘field’. Key concepts from the earlier protagonists mentioned include ‘difficult whole’ (Venturi), ‘phenomenal transparency’ (Rowe), ‘space of becoming’ (Eisenman) and ‘super-imposition’ (Tschumi). All these protagonists and concepts have had their precursors: Giedion, Moholy, Kepes etc.

A Productive Division of Labour

My defense of this (largely American) formalist tradition rests on the recognition that formal repertoires are ultimately functional problem solving repertoires and that design choices benefit from the explicit reflection on formal possibilities. Therefore formal research and innovation can be looked at as a partial contribution to the discipline’s problem solving capacity and we can posit a division of labour between formal analysis and repertoire expansion on the one hand and the analysis of contemporary programmatic/functional requirements (with programme innovations) on the other side, together enhancing the innovative, ultimately functionally oriented instrumentalisation of forms. My defense of formalism even goes so far as to concede the rationality of exclusive concentration on formal and formal-conceptual innovation as a rather useful (and probably necessary) aspect of an effective division of labour. The overall research effort aiming at innovative forms delivering innovative functional capacities must be divided and phased. Formal research should not always already be burdened with immediate functional concerns. Research should be modelled on the evolutionary dialectic of variation (mutation, recombination) and selection (testing). Variation must come first and should not be too tightly pre-constrained by preconceived functionality criteria. Here resides the implicit rationality of the exclusiveness of the formalists’ pursuit. Their rejection of function is ultimately false – and suicidal if generalised across the discipline – but it is an important protective stance that protects the crucial zone of formal research against overly impatient functionalists. I have therefore theorized Eisenman’s and Kipnis’ aggressively formalist polemical position as a ‘necessary false consciousness’. There is another aspect that feeds into the tendency of the disciplinary division of labour to become exclusive and overly myopic. Not everybody has a comprehensive set of talents or commands the fully comprehensive range intellectual resources to intellectually encompass the overall scope of the discipline’s task. Exclusive focus is therefore not only often a virtue but an inevitable limitation. This is viable, if the distributed collective effort covers the full scope of the task and some generalists step up and offer synthesis within a unified theory.

Two Analogies: Mathematics and Syntax

The following analogies might help to clarify the role of formal research with its often formalist outlook: We should learn to respect our purely formalist protagonists in analogy to the respect we grant to the protagonists of pure mathematics, some of whom might conceive of their field’s essence as indeed untethered from the mundane concerns of mathematics’ pragmatic utilisation. This myopic and ultimately indefensible self-conception might nevertheless be conducive towards mathematical creativity which might eventually, via more pragmatically grounded colleagues, find its way into unexpected utilisations. Once more: Formal Repertoires are Problem Solving Repertoires.

Another analogy that might be helpful here is the division of labour in linguistics between the subfields of syntax, semantics and pragmatics. There is no doubt that language evolution is ultimately pragmatically driven. It is equally beyond doubt that its communicative potency depends on the systemic intricacy of its formal structures which are being investigated in the theory of syntax in abstraction from its semantic and pragmatic dimensions. Investment into formal research and architectural formalism might thus be seen in analogy to the linguists’ research investment into syntactic structures.


Synthesis: Confronting the Formal Apparatus with a Catalogue of Functional Tasks

What is lacking in the formalist tradition is the explicit attempt to confront the well elaborated formal repertoire (together with its conceptual-terminological apparatus) with a relevantly abstracted descriptive apparatus elaborating the functional task domain.  There have been no systematic attempts to map formal repertoires (solution-types) onto functional problem registers (problem-types). Within individual professional design projects, functional problems search for formal solutions and in academic design research projects the inverse procedure is often attempted: initially formalistically generated formal structures and possibilities are searching problem domains and tasks where they might be productively put to work. This is important and necessary. Both routes will lead to the sought after new, productive form-function correlations that constitute the endgame of design and design research. However, this is intuitive design work without systematic reflection. A systematic theoretical confrontation and mapping would provide a useful guide to the search efforts in either direction. So far however, the teaching of composition has remained isolated from any functional concerns. The division of labour has been too perfect, leading to hermetic specialist discourses and even sub-disciplines, taught in separate classes by separate professors, e.g. the teaching of architectural composition as purely formal discipline. However, if we go back to the beginning of our discipline in the Renaissance we find clues about how compositional issues are tied in instrumentally with functional issues. From Alberti we learn how the composition of the city-form relates to the order of the polis and how the composition of the house relates to the social order of the household. From Palladio we learn how the rules of symmetry and proportion codify structural and environmental logics.

The only attempt at systematically mapping a formal register onto a catalogue of functional effects I have come across so far is Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s attempt to systematically correlate a formal classification of basic building forms with a set of functional micro-political effects in his article ‘The Politics of the Envelope’2. My own account of a similar system of form-function correlations with respect to building forms and another attempt at correlating a typology of distinct city geometries with distinctive social ordering capacities or biases can be found in Vol.2 of my treatise ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture.3 However, these attempts only deliver a tentative beginning and signal the possibility and importance of a task yet to be accomplished. However, with respect to the ground breaking formal innovations of the 1980s and 1990s alluded to above I have been emphasizing their functional rationality and historical pertinence for more than 20 years. ‘Superimposition’ (spatial overlap or interpenetration) lines up with the interpenetration of social domains like overlapping departmental responsibilities or interpenetrating domains of competency and interdisciplinary teams in contemporary corporate organisations. Continuously differentiated ‘field conditions’ with ‘gradients’ or ‘morphing trajectories’ align with increasing economies of scope and the proliferation of hybrid in-between conditions, as well as with the blurring of a corporation’s boundaries within collaborative networks as well as with the blurring of departmental boundaries within corporations as becomes manifest in open, differentiated office –landscapes. The concept of a ‘space of becoming’ relates to the condition of field transformations but also to the related concept of ‘phenomenal transparency’ which aligns with the condition of multiple audiences with multiple perspectives and respectively divergent readings of the same space. The concept of ‘multiple affiliation’ aligns with the complexity of urban synergetic social and programmatic networks, where a particular functional offering relates and ties in with multiple different complementary urban offerings and their users. These alignments of the new innovative set of formal tropes and compositional registers with new social-functional tendencies and requirements is crucial for the effective utilisation and thus validation of the formal research and innovations in question. The founding of the Design Research Laboratory (AAADRL) at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in 1996 was explicitly geared towards this task of socio-functional validation of the recent formal innovations that had captured the imagination of the field at that time, while also continuing the formal research via new computational tools, albeit always guided by this sense of productive historical pertinence with respect to the socio-functional requirements and opportunities of the new era of post-fordism.4

The Functional Rationality of Zaha Hadid’s Radical Formal Innovations

The formal innovations from the 1980s and 1990s owe much to the radical formal iconoclast innovations delivered by the early work of Zaha Hadid. What were the major expansionary moves that Zaha gifted to our discipline? We can identify and distinguish four wholly original and empowering ‘discoveries’: Explosion, Calligraphy, Distortion, and Landscape. The design moves indicated by these concepts were so radical that they seemed utterly surreal or absurd at first. (I guess that’s why nobody else had ever hit upon them before.) They are formal repertoire expansions, and thus might initially viewed as artistic moves, and indeed they first showed up in Zaha’s often conceptual, rather obscure, seemingly utterly abstract drawings and paintings. However, in the hands of a designing architect a formal repertoire is always also a problem solving repertoire, addressing the problems of spatial organisation and morphological articulation in the service of the prospective building’s social and technical functioning. An expanded formal repertoire thus delivers an enriched problem solving tool box. So we need to grasp and discuss the new moves together with their empowering affordances, affordances that are indeed congenial to the requirements and desires of our time, and are thus potentially able to deliver momentous advantages. Of course, we should not expect these advantages to become fully manifest in the early explorations, but they have started to become manifest in our major mature works of recent years (and I argue they promise further compelling manifestations):
Explosion: The surreal move to treat explosion as a compositional move soon reveals its power when a plan is no longer a closed and rigid array of nested boxes but a centrifugal force-field that is eminently permeable, varied, yet ordered through the directed and progressive expansion of all fragments in relation to the implied point of origin. This dynamic and lawful fragmentation of the plan was a decisive step forward from the random, disordered fragmentation proposed by deconstructivism. However, the explosion delivers more order than just random fragmentation. It delivers a lawfully differentiated field where the fragments’ directionality points back to the shared origin and where the increasing spacing of fragments also indicates the relative position in the field.
Calligraphy: The surreal move of translating the dynamism of rapid calligraphic sketching literally (by hard-lining them with the use of an expansive range of ‘French curves’ or ‘ship curves’) into an architectural drawing that is then read as an intended geometry to be built, rather than treating the pulsing curvature of a rapid sketch as a rough accidental indication of an ideal geometric form meant to be rationalized into straight lines and arcs. Zaha’s intricately variegated curves offer more adaptive versatility to push into irregular sites or bulge to give room to internal requirements where needed. Further, as a function of the changing centrifugal force of the rapid hand’s/pen’s acceleration and deceleration, the curves and curvelinear compositions display lawful and coherent trajectories that we can recognize as coherent and legible figures, each with its own poise, dynamism or degree of fluidity. This increases legibility and navigability in the face of unavoidable programmatic diversity and complexity.
Distortion: The surreal move of using perspectival projection not to depict regular forms but to create and posit distorted forms. Zaha built up pictorial spaces within which multiple perspective constructions were fused into a seamless dynamic texture. One way to understand these images is as attempts to emulate the experience of moving through an architectural composition revealing a succession of rather different points of view. Another, more radical way of reading these canvasses is to abstract from the implied views and to read the distorted forms as a peculiar architectural world in its own right with its own characteristic forms, compositional laws and spatial effects. Usually these compositions are poly-central and multi-directional. All these features are the result of the use of multiple, interpenetrating perspective projections. Often the dynamic intensity of the overall field is increased by using curved instead of straight projection lines. The projective geometry allows us to bring an arbitrarily large and diverse set of elements under its cohering law of diminution and distortion. The resultant graphic space very much anticipates the later (and still very much current) concepts of field and swarm. The effect achieved is very much like the effects later pursuit with digitally simulated “gravitational fields” that distort a mesh or grip, align, orient and thus integrate a set of elements or particles within the digital model.
Landscape: Instead of dissecting and ordering space by walls the landscape analogy suggests a continuously flowing space where transitions are soft, where zones are gradually differentiated and bleed into each other, where a smooth topographic ground relief rather than hard edges structure spatial relations. This opens up a whole new ontology of spatial and territorial definition, no longer premised on outline but on a modulated internal texture. We are talking of fields rather than spaces. In contrast to (empty ) spaces, fields (like a forest) are full, filled with a modulated medium, i.e. structured via continuously differentiated field conditions and thus navigation can follow various vectors of gradual field transformation like density or directionality, rather than only orienting by tracking boundary crossings. Zaha’s painterly techniques like color modulations, fading effects and pointillism techniques also reinforce this new ontology of blurred boundaries and soft transitions, which is congenial to the contemporary social life and institutions where the formerly strict distinction of social classes and arenas are blurred and where  domains of competency interpenetrate and bleed into each other.
Through these congenial and empowering repertoire expansions a new language of architecture with a much increased versatility (and thus problem solving capacity), and with a much richer, more expressive and more communicative repertoire of organisation and articulation (and thus ordering capacity) was born. The writings of the American formalists (Kipnis, Lynn etc.) delivered a congenial terminology for the verbal articulation of our work. This explicit conceptual articulation is important as it focusses attention and directs the further innovative thrust. The relationship between theory and creative practice is a progressive dialectical back and forth rather than a hierarchical sequence.

From Composition to Communication: Organisation, Articulation, Signification

The general insight that formal repertoires are problem solving repertoires is valid with respect to the problem domains of both technical and social functionality. The dimension of social functionality poses three distinct task dimensions: organisation, articulation and signification, as elaborated in my theory of architectural autopoiesis5.  Organisation is concerned with functional lay-out: the spatial distribution of programme domains concerned with physical distances, adjacencies and connections. The traditional term ‘composition’ entails this organisational effort. However, composition has always implied more than mere adjacency arrangements. It was and is understood as an “artistic” effort regulated by aesthetic criteria, i.e. it is concerned with the visual appearance of a spatial arrangement. I am putting the phrase artistic in quotation marks here because I am distinguishing design sharply from art and insist – also with respect to composition – that the design effort (in distinction to contemporary art) is ultimately always instrumental according to pragmatic criteria. We must grasp the instrumentality of visual appearance. Mere organisation is not enough to secure the ordering of social processes (social functionality). A building functions only if its organisation is legible and navigable to its users. Adjacencies, connections and programmatic designations work only if they are recognized. In complex urban scenes and arrangements this is not trivial. Users must be able to perceptually decompose the scene into units of interaction. They need to recognize what belongs and works together. This is facilitated by composition in the second, “artistic” sense. It is the attempt to articulate the spatial organisation into a perceptually tractable scene, to ascertain that the massing emphasizes the functional hierarchy of elements and their relation, that it remains legible from different perspectives, that important features like primary entrances become conspicuous etc. For instance, the concern that a composition be balanced, positing dynamic equilibrium as formal-compositional value, entails the effort to unify an asymmetric arrangement (like the Dessau Bauhaus) by allowing us to locate a ‘centre of gravity’ around which an asymmetric ensemble can unify into a figure rather than falling apart or disappearing into an amorphous background context. Composition in this sense is about the visual clarification of significant functional relations. This task demands that the forms we select are not only selected according to their physical functioning but also with respect to their visual functioning, i.e. we must orchestrate the formal problem solving choices according to the criteria of overall articulation. This implies that we must bring all functional features under a ruthless project-specific formal-compositional system or formal regime. We must try to turn structurally necessary features into characterizing features or else suppress them (lest they distract), while we must accentuate features that must be easily recognisable for the smooth social functioning of the building. The imposition of a formal regime for the sake of the design’s communicative capacity does not have to interfere with the physical functioning of the design. The technical and formal choices available today are rich enough to allow for two sets of criteria to be at play in constraining the selection of functioning forms. An expanded repertoire makes this easier. In my theory this visual aspect of the task of composition is termed ‘phenomenological articulation’ and in order to clarify this dimension I am distinguishing the ‘phenomenological project’ from the ‘organisational project’. The architectural project further comprises the semiological project which further articulates the design with respect to social communications beyond the mere identification of figures and their relations. The task of semiological articulation (signification) leads as beyond the scope of the compositional stance and demands that the design of a building (or complex of buildings) is conceived as the design of a system of signification positing information-rich visual communication. Once more this semiological project – just like the organisational and the phenomenological project must resort to forms. To what else could it resort? And once more we must construct and impose a rich formal system or formal regime to deliver this project. And again, with a third set of constraining criteria at play the expanse and richness of the underlying formal repertoire is a crucial factor for the chances of success of the project. In this context it is important to remind ourselves of the evident fact that parametricism offers a much richer and versatile formal repertoire than all the prior styles put together.
The built environment’s social functionality resides in its communicative capacity. The elaboration of spatial complexes as systems-of-signification is the key to upgrading architecture’s core competency. The semiological project implies that the design project systematizes all form-function correlations into a coherent system of signification, designed as a network of similitudes and contrasts, organized via a spatio-visual grammar. On the basis of the formal research and repertoire of parametricism the design of semiological systems-of-significations with a much enhanced information-richness and communicative capacity becomes possible.6

1 Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 1, A New Framework for Architecture, published by John Wiley & Sons, 2010

2 Alejandro Zaera-Polo, ‘The Politics of the Envelope – A Political Critique of Materialism’, in: Volume, Archis, 2008, #17, pp 77–105.

3 Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 2, A New Agenda for Architecture, published by John Wiley & Sons, March 2012, 6.1.5 Problem-types vs Solution-types

4 See the author’s publications from this time:
Patrik Schumacher, Productive Patterns, Published In: architect's bulletin, Operativity, Volume 135 - 136, Slovenia and in: architect's bulletin, Volume 137 - 138, Slovenia,  German: Produktive Ordnungen, Published In: ARCH+ 136, Your Office Is Where You Are, Berlin, 1997
Patrik Schumacher, Business - Research – Architecture, Published In: Daidalos 69/70, Deutsche Ausgabe: Wirtschaft Forschung Architektur, 1999
Patrik Schumacher, The AA Design Research Lab - Premises, Agenda, Methods, Paper delivered at Conference: Research and Practise in Architectutre, at Alvar Aalto Academy, Published in: Research and Practise in Architecture. Edis: E.Laksonen, T.Simons, A.Vartola, Building Information Ltd., 2000

5 Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume 2, A New Agenda for Architecture, published by John Wiley & Sons, March 2012, 6.2 Order via Organisation and Articulation

6 See: Patrik Schumacher, Advancing Social Functionality via Agent Based Parametric Semiology   
Published in: AD Parametricism 2.0 – Rethinking Architecture’s Agenda for the 21st Century, Editor: H. Castle, Guest-edited by Patrik Schumacher, AD Profile #240, March/April 2016, and:
Patrik Schumacher, Parametric Semiology – The Design of Information Rich Environments
Published in: Architecture In Formation – On the Nature of Information in Digital Architecture, edited by Pablo Lorenzo-Eiroa and Aaron Sprecher, Routledge, Taylor and Francis, New York, 2013


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