Up@dawn 2.0

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Problem with Focusing on Function - Trollface Socrates (H-01)

Looks like we FINALLY made the jump over to Philosophy Bites, after spending the entire year on Little History. Not that I didn't like our dearly departed book, it'll be interesting to have a say on some contemporary topics now.

Today's topic is one that particularly interests me, as an urbanist and a guy with a strong interest in urban design, my passionate side was piqued when Alain de Botton spoke about the beauty of architecture, and the modernist and postmodernist trends that tend to illustrate a shift from buildings focused on function to then form and then to a little bit of both. His argument was that buildings are beautiful when they incorporate both the ideas of function and form into their design, and this is because the result is something that is both aesthetically pleasing and serves the purpose that it was designed to do.

I totally believe this. And such an idea is no more apparent than in the cites of America.

During the 1950's, the same time as the rise of popular modernist architechure in America, the rise of the postwar suburb was literally changing the fabric around which America was being formed. In droves and droves, scores of Americans were taking advantage of the areas opened up to them the advent of the Interstate highway system and spreading out to the countryside in droves to build their new homes. This sort of mass exodus from the city center and the areas surrounding it left behind the empty husks of pre-war neighborhoods and the people who couldn't afford (or won't allowed) to move out of the confines of the city.
As a result, the cities changed to meet the new demands of Mr. and Mrs. Suburbanite who no longer lived above the corner store at 5th and Broad, but in Pinewood Acres fifteen miles out, and the result was the rise of the International modernism in America.


International Modernism inspired a certain type of building. Gone were the days of main-street type four or five story town-style buildings or rising gothic towers, the new style that was starting to take hold focused not on the outwardly appearance of the building, but instead on the inwardly functions. Buildings like the Seagram Building (top right) and the PSES building (top left), as well as many in-town apartment high rises like the one on the bottom can be found throughout any major American city in the '60s. People no longer lived where they worked, and as a result people no longer hung around downtown enough to care about how these towering monoliths complemented and interacted with the environment around them. As the decline in city life continued, Internationalist Architecture was praised for being the "unique" and "cutting-edge" design pieces of it's day. The problem with this type of modernism is that it routinely fails to account for the human element in its designs. Humans are not machines, and no human wants to live in an environment where he or she is treated like one. The effects of this type of thinking would rear it's ugly head in the late 20th Century. 

The first, and most likely the most famous, examples of the spectacular failure of International Modernism in America was the rise and fall of many of America's modernist-inspired high-rise housing projects. Many of the cities facing an lack of affordable housing for their residents in places such as Chicago, Cleveland  St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York built these sweeping structures to house their urban poor. Often designed with money and not people in mind and combined with the widespread lack of maintenance that occurred because of society's stigmatization of the poor and of people of color, these spectacular monuments to modernist design quickly decayed in places where no one wanted to live. 

For example, the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Complex  in St. Louis, designed by Minoru Yamasaki (the same guy who designed the first New York World Trade Centers), was hailed as an architectural achievement. This massive complex, among the largest in the world at the time, contained 33, 11-story apartment buildings totalling nearly 3,000 apartments. The downsides were that they were terribly small, and the while the buildings were deliberately designed to be smaller than what was standard, the result of poor maintenance and an even poorer build quality made life hell for thousands  of families who were forced to live there. By the end of the 1960's, half of the buildings were abandoned, while the other half housed a dwindling group of families who increasingly had to fend for themselves against gangs, violence, and the general poverty that made up their neighborhood. By the time of their condemnation and destruction in 1973, many other cities across the nation became to experience the same problems with their modernist inspired housing complexes, and Pruitt-Igoe had become the poster child for modernist failure across America. 

The scene in many American cities on the weekends: Devoid of people and of life. 

The modernist failure account for people (as well as the cities' growing need to account for cars) also became a death kneel for many American cities. Pictured above is the scene of many cities outside of work hours and on the weekends, devoid of people and life and only populated by the cars that are passing through them. Once centers of civic commerce and activity, the life of the city followed the people out of it as well, and the ones who remained were forced to content with blocks upon blocks of buildings that sat empty and were overall detracting from the very experience of living in the city. Instead of being able to walk to the coffee shop or the pastries store at the end of the corner, the person living in the apartment high-rise either had to walk blocks upon blocks passing nothing but parking deck facades, lifeless walls, and unoccupied office buildings, or give up his search and just drive or use public transportation to reach destinations farther afield. The failure of these buildings to account for the lives and the needs of the residents living around it effectively killed the community that once defined so many American cities, and the ones that we often remember as great - New York, Chicago, San Fransisco, and even smaller ones such as Charleston and Savannah, are ones that continued to integrate form into their designs and as a result the needs of the people that lived there as well. 

Overall, mid-20th century modernist architecture serves its purpose, and can sometimes be pleasing to examine as well. But, the way it categorizes people and ultimately disengages itself from the environment around it is an horrible habit that has negative effects on it's surroundings, and it is this terrible effect of modernist philosophy and culture that crippled our cites and our people in the 20th century. 

Freebies of the Day
(Sorry this was a long one! I just had a lot of feels).

Discussion Question: How do you think buildings should integrate form and function into their designs? 

Want More? For anyone interested in reading more about urban values, and ultimately the death kneel of our cities (and ways we can bring them back), I highly, highly recommend Jeff Speck's two books, Surburan Nation and Walkable City, which both frame the urbanist argument pretty well. To whet your appetite, I've even linked to an interview with him on NPR about the latter book too.


  1. So, Morgan, I gotta know: how do you feel about the new science building?


  2. I really think you summed up the argument here Morgan. There's not much else I have to add to it. I, personally, had never given the topic much consideration until it was brought up in Philosophy. I don't really have a problem with modern architecture but maybe that's because I've never taken the time to consider it. It's a very interesting dilemma, though.

  3. I can tell this is definitely something that interests you Morgan. Wonderful post. I think that modern architecture can be beautiful and pleasing if it is done right. However, certain designs do seem to just drive you crazy over time. I think that both form and function are important parts of a design. Architects need to focus on both rather than just one.
    DQ: Is a focus on beauty merely aestheticism?
    FQ: What did Alain de Botton believe was beautiful in architecture? A: When form and function come together to be pleasing to the eye and functional to its purpose.
    Check out this link to Alain de Botton's talk on "The Architecture of Happiness": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnzL_RORG8A&feature=share&list=PL4B9BEB710432441D