In defence of some functional architecture

You’d be aware that nourishing obscurity has material fed into it from quite a few people and any balance you perceive in what N.O. presents is a result of that. As it is not just my blog but a collaborative effort, the revamping of the guestposters list also being in that vein, then it’s been happy situation and I’d like contributors to feel they have quite free rein in what they put.

Such a one is Rowan Hutchinson, of South Africa [yes, he’s now outed :)], who responds to Chuckles’ piece on architecture [which I agree with] with his own view [which I don’t fully agree with]. Just because the host disagrees is no reason for restrictive practices and thus this is presented for your delectation:

This triumph of ‘function’ over form in recent decades has dehumanised our towns and cities. But it is not only architecture that has drifted away from beauty. Contemporary art has made a cult of ugliness, and artists vie with each other in the game of putting the human face on display and throwing dung at it.

I was fortunate to be able to build a new house several years ago. I was even more fortunate in my choice of an architect – Sarah – who was not only well qualified (bachelor degree from Wits, masters from Melbourne) but also came with experience in building in places such as Hong Kong. She was also a fair to middling artist.

During the building of the house she was asked to present a workshop for final-year architectural students. Her topic was ‘Restoring the Art in Architecture’, and culminated in an exhibition of the student’s work on the course. Apart from glowing compliments from the professors she was thrilled to receive the thanks of the students, most of which [paraphrased] ran along the following lines: “I didn’t think that it was possible to fuse art with architecture”

When I queried this with Sarah her comment was that, after the first year of basics, the following five years of the six-year degree course were spent in converting the fledgling architect into an engineer. Her comment (again I paraphrase): “The courses are all about the structural aspects of architecture. Art never enters the curriculum”.

‘Function over form’ – or ‘form follows function’ – was the mantra of the Modernist / Bauhaus movements, a period which (to my mind) produced the most practical of buildings. I am unable to discuss buildings – they hold very little interest for me – but I do not think that you can characterize the work of Mies van der Rohe, le Corbusier and (later) Richard Neutra (amongst others) as being ugly.

Neutra’s Moore House is one of my favourites:

Another example of innovation involving water occurred in the Moore House, Ojai, CA (1952). To service the twenty acres of adjacent groves, the owner asked us to provide storage for at least 20,000 gallons of water for fire and irrigation reserves. Instead of a utilitarian storage tank, we opted to create an on-grade reflection pool. The result was the spectacular signature piece of this house and created the illusion of the building floating on water in the arid environs of dry Ojai highlands. The assignment was to provide a water reserve. The solution was an inspiration! To this day, the house, seemingly floating on a water garden, is an oasis in the hot arid climate of the desert Southwest. The Moore House was awarded the Distinguished Honor Award by the National AIA in the early 1950s.

In short, it is not the fact that ‘form follows function’ that produces ugly architecture: it is solely the ‘vision’ of the architect, possibly infected by the curriculum that he or she has to endure.

(As an aside: why is it that  Holland and Japan are producing exciting buildings, whilst the English & French produce … ? )

OTOH, modern artists have very few redeeming values. I trace this back to the Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ and where the act of physical creation is replaced with ‘He CHOSE it’ thereby providing an excuse for every inept ‘artist’ since, along with mountains of crap from the so-called art critics. I can only pray that Duchamp’s punishment was to spend eternity completing paint-by-numbers (or its sibling, paint-by-numbers-on-black-silk) kits.


This is particularly visible in Africa – including South Africa – where the tourists pay high prices for bad art by self-taught artists under the delusion that this is quaint naïve art. For the artists: go for it, fleece the idiots for all that they are worth; for art: the standard drops yet another metre.


Other than the above, James, I agree with your sentiments. We live in a time of the lowest common denominator, where that lowest common denominator is sans breeding, sans caring, sans everything. Where the height of his (or her) ambition is to have sufficient money – not earned, but given – to enjoy a few beers (and a fag) at the pub. Adjust the last for country …


And as for ugliness defining beauty: what twaddle. One has but to enter a gallery catering for (shall we say) the ’old stuff’ to view art that speaks to the heart. I’m particularly susceptible to Russian / Byzantine icons, but then that’s me … 8)

1 comment for “In defence of some functional architecture

  1. JD
    December 23, 2011 at 13:03

    This book should be compulsory reading for every architecture student before they begin the brainwashing process that is their degree course-

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