Functionalism & inhabitability

I’ve written here a bit about arguments for tradition in architecture, and also tentatively worked at some strands of current architectural theory. But now I want to sketch out what I think modernism in architecture is. I think modernism has a central concept which is essential to it. Alongside it we can put a number of auxiliary concepts.

In the central concept, modernism calls for both:

  • The embrace of beneficial possibility;


  • The adoption of a revisionist stance; modernism actively seeks change to current practice and attempts the widest survey of possibilities.

There’s a difference between beneficial possibility and novelty. For example, when mathematical knowledge is used only as a route to new architectural form, the situation tends towards that of an appreciation of formal innovation. But modernism is more than this: the adoption of beneficial possibility is consequential. Of course; we want to make buildings that are helpful. Modernism is, at root, a thoroughgoing application of this attitude.

Even if this bare definition is sound—and I hope that it is— it is not in itself all that interesting. Things get more interesting when you start to consider some auxiliaries to the central idea. One auxiliary concept is authenticity. Here, two senses of authenticity are relevant. First, authenticity as an appropriate relationship to cultural practice, present or old. This is the sort of authenticity that writers such as Frampton are concerned with. Second, authenticity as the stripping away of illusion: the determination to strip away or look through comforting surface deceptions; the desire to ‘know the truth, no matter how painful’. The two senses are related: consider the situation where we consciously hold at a certain distance from some traditional practice on the basis that the traditional practice represents something illusionistic, or false.

Another auxiliary concept—and one with strong cultural roots—is functionalism: that is, the idea that built form should obviously reflect or signal some mode of use. This idea has been repeatedly criticised. There are difficulties of implementation: can we be sure that a building feature is sending the right signal? Is the attempt at clear, consistent signalling frustrating optimum building performance (violating the central concept)? And how does the designer cater to a diversity of uses, possibly simultaneous uses? I don’t think that functionalism is retrievable. However, I do think that it can be replaced by a related concept of inhabitability:

Functionalist = a building signals the way in which it is used or occupied, or should be used or occupied;

Inhabitable = a building signals a way (at least one way) in which it could be used or occupied.

I’d suggest that the buildings we consider good tend to demonstrate inhabitability. Modern buildings often do it very well, and better than traditional buildings, although some do it badly, or do it badly in at least some aspects. We like many functionalist buildings not because they are functionalist, but because they are also—albeit accidentally—inhabitable.

For example, Lasdun’s National Theatre building. This is one of very few modern buildings praised by Scruton (in his ‘Aesthetics of Architecture’). The structure is full of obvious terraces and stairways that suggest modes of use or occupation. The user can either see a path to a place they can inhabit (or safely infer that such a place is reachable). The signaling in effect here is not particularly one of convention or cultural inheritance: the user knows how their body works in space; they know how to get from A to B; as a practical matter they can ‘read’ the terrain.

The National Theatre has an analogue in many of Wright’s house projects; again, their inhabitability is obvious. It is not that terracing or stairs are necessary for inhabitability (although they are often effective). Another approach is to use fenestration in a very deliberate way, such that the user can infer—from the outside—a space occupiable by them.

I think inhabitability generalises from townscape; that is, the view that the buildings that make up settlements should be laid out in a way that takes perspectival experience into account. How do you get from here to there? Is it obvious? Is the journey inviting? Some modern projects—the Barbican, for instance—seem to score well on inhabitability but poorly on townscape. And this is why the Barbican divides opinion.