Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression
Jonathan Ochshorn

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Architecture consists of form—the totality of the shapes of its various constituent parts—and also the spaces thereby defined. These parts may be separately understood as structure (the columns, beams, walls, slabs, and connectors that provide strength, stiffness, and stability); as enclosure (the surfaces that, through their continuity and specific physical properties, create an interior domain differentiated, and protected, from outside elements—and vice versa); and all the myriad interior elements—partitions, doors, toilets, ducts, conduits, pipes, stairs, elevators, and so on—at least inasmuch as they reveal themselves by virtue of their visible surfaces, their tactile qualities, their interaction with sound, their radiant attributes, and their smells.

These are the objective qualities of architectural form, such that buildings can be described, bid on, and built, ending up pretty much as they were envisioned by their designers. Forms, and the spaces they contain, are intended to afford, or enable, certain actions and activities—living, sleeping, teaching, shopping, impromptu interactions, and so on—which are the utilitarian functions of architecture. Yet the same forms and spaces have subjective dimensions or qualities which, as is the nature of subjective things, are not as easily defined. A house may be understood as a symbol of having attained a certain social status; or, by some other observer, as a vapid cliché representing nothing but kitsch sensibilities. It may be admired as an avant-garde composition or despised as a blight on the neighborhood.

Still, in listing subjective interpretations of formal things, one cannot help but notice that such interpretations also constitute functions of architecture: to reinforce social status, to shock or offend, to symbolize state power or private wealth, to instill awe, fear, or reverence. This book aims to disentangle the utilitarian and expressive functions of architecture, to elucidate their political dimensions, and to show how utility is constrained by politics and threatened by expression.

The categories constituting the functions of expression and utility are quite analogous to what is often called the "art and science" of architecture: on the one hand, the expressive, artistic, or symbolic function of buildings (Vitruvius's venustas) and, on the other hand, the utilitarian function of buildings (utilitas, combining the Vitruvian categories of utilitas and firmitas).1 Within the venustas category—hereafter referred to simply as "expression" or "fashion"—one can also identify a kind of meta-function that seeks to understand and explain the overarching purpose of architecture within its economic and cultural setting.

It is not always possible to be precise about which functional aspects of buildings belong within each category, so certain concepts appear in more than one chapter. For one thing, the function of "beauty" or "pleasure"—what to Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand is "no more than the frivolous advantage of delighting the eye"2—can often be difficult to distinguish from pure utility. For example, if one function of a window is to provide a "quality view" in order to "give building occupants a connection to the natural outdoor environment,3 then would such a function be classified as purely aesthetic ("frivolous," per Durand) or, to the extent that such views improve worker productivity, qualify as utilitarian?

This question was considered by Henry Ford, who viewed the conditions that improved productivity in his factories—including daylighting and adequate ventilation—as purely utilitarian: "To a stranger [our machines] may seem piled right on top of one another, but they are scientifically arranged, not only in the sequence of operations, but to give every man and every machine every square inch that he requires and, if possible, not a square inch, and certainly not a square foot, more than he requires."4 Yet the same types of windows or skylights that create Ford's "well-lighted" factory may lead to excessive heat loss or heat gain, thereby coming into conflict with an evolving politics of energy conservation and global warming mitigation. At the other extreme, they may be deployed as part of an expressive system in which glazing is valued, not for its objective physical qualities, but rather as symbol and metaphor. Politics and economics, in other words, establish lower and upper bounds for all utilitarian functions, whose costs and benefits are continually assessed on the basis of the profitable accumulation of wealth within a competitive global economy. Even so, the ideal of utilitarian functionality is even more seriously threatened by an artistic sensibility, also driven by competition, that seeks to defamiliarize (make strange) conventional formal-utilitarian strategies and that increasingly relies on a type of modernist abstraction in which conventional building elements—for example, wall and window, roof and room—are radically reconceived, reduced to conceptual surfaces and voids, solids and space. Thus, to the extent that utility is both constrained by politics and attacked by expression, buildings—especially those that aim to be fashionable and avant-garde—experience various degrees of utilitarian failure.

These factors affecting architectural utility—on the one hand, the constraints set by politics and, on the other hand, the threats posed by expression—are separately examined in the two parts of this book. The chapters in Part I illustrate how utilitarian function is both informed and constrained by political considerations within modern capitalist states, while the chapters in Part II show how expression, driven by competition, can also compromise utility. Some of the utilitarian functions discussed in Part I—in particular, those involving structure, sustainability, light, and air—reappear in Part II, but in their expressive guise. As Lewis Mumford argued in 1951, "Functions permanently invisible, like those performed by the foundations or the heating apparatus, may remain outside the architectural picture; but every function that is visible contributes in some degree to expression."5

An epilogue takes a look at architectural education. first, characteristics of typical architectural curricula are identified: the division into distinct subject areas, the open-ended nature of design studios, and the superficial treatment of technical subjects. Next, these characteristics are explained as a logical response to the contradictions between utilitarian and expressive functions (and especially architecture's meta-function) explored in the prior chapters. I conclude that architectural pedagogy—increasingly alienated from technical, social, and practical concerns—has become complicit in the creation of bad buildings.


1 Schumacher, Autopoiesis of Architecture, 222.

2 Durand, Précis of the Lectures, 133.

3 LEED Reference Guide v4, 739.

4 Ford, My Life and Work, 113.

5 Mumford, "Function and Expression," 106.

contact | contents | bibliography | illustration credits | ⇦ preface | introduction | chapter 1 ⇨