Functionalism & inhabitability

I’ve written here a bit about arguments for tradition in architecture, and have also tentatively worked at some strands of architectural theory. But now I want to sketch out what I think modernism in architecture is and talk about one particular aspect of it: what I’ve called inhabitability.

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.

In attempting the widest survey of possibilities, modernism tends to the cosmopolitan, and conceivably also the multicultural. There’s also 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 wants 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 adequate—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. First, modernism has often been taken by practitioners to be inescapably an artistic project. In 1923, Arthur Korn—for a time a creative partner of Erich Mendelsohn—writes:

“The symbol and the fiery sign is us is as concrete as the analytical construction. And not only in me. The conflict between the machine-man and the anarchistic-artistic man, between the collective and the individual personality that organises itself freely and in accordance with mystic laws, like the voice of music, repeats on a larger scale the rise from the necessary constructive-analytical reality to the intuitive-artistic one.” (Arthur Korn, ‘Analytical and Utopian architecture’ (1923))

Another regular companion to modernism 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. Authenticity—or more broadly a concern with truth—connects back to the normativity of the core concept: that the modern must be beneficial. There are many ways in which something built can benefit, and for this reason I think authenticity in (modern) building can be considered optional; not part of the core concept. In literature, though, things are less clear cut; with modern writing, truth might be considered a requisite.

However, my focus here is not on authenticity but on the auxiliary concept of functionalism: that is, the idea that built form should obviously reflect or signal some mode of use:

“Today we demand utilitarian objects without adornments, not disguised as something else, free from masking, incrustations … the shape of the object is determined by the forms arising out of its purpose, with their own expressive values …” (Hugo Häring, ‘Formulations towards a reorientation in the applied arts’ (1927))

This idea has been 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 think good tend to demonstrate inhabitability. Modern buildings often perform this role well. We like many functionalist buildings not because they are functionalist, but because they are also—albeit accidentally—inhabitable.

For example, Lasdun’s National Theatre, which is a modern building praised by Scruton (‘Aesthetics of Architecture’). The structure of the National Theatre is well equipped with 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; 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. An example is seen in Scharoun’s Berlin concert hall:

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 poorly on townscape while still making a compelling proposition in terms of inhabitability: we could say that the Barbican performs less well in the ‘townscape aspect’ of its inhabitability. So projects may be uneven in their offer. Another (mostly) negative example is seen in the Empire State Plaza project, Albany (Wallace Harrison, 1965-76) where the sculpted slab administration buildings are purified and abstracted to the point of alienation. These buildings literally cannot be entered from the huge public space adjacent.

At Empire State Plaza, the library building (seen here on axis with the reflecting pool) does better than its complement of administration towers in terms of inhabitability. Although still an imposing form, the library offers paths to occupancy, and choices; these steps, this colonnade, that terrace.

The successes and failures of projects such as Empire State Plaza have been disseminated and understood. It’s likely that a major public project today will have what I’ve called inhabitability. For example, Birmingham’s new central library (by Dutch architects Mecanoo)—which in terms of form has commonality with the Albany library—displays a generous entrance sequence and terracing. This building’s facade is often noticed first (and has a good chance of being described as ‘playful’), but I would say that it’s the inhabitability of the composition that counts most.

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