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Utility's Evil Twin: The Function of Venustas and the Fear of Reality

Jonathan Ochshorn

cover of Building Bad book by Jonathan Ochshorn


trigger warning for building technology class

Figure 1. The first slide in my Building Technology course.


Having taught technology classes in schools of architecture for more than 35 years, I'm well aware that many students worry that applying the knowledge gained from such classes could overwhelm the conceptual and abstract fantasies that are encouraged within the design studio.1 The Roman architect, Vitruvius, would not have understood the basis for such a fear, as he considered the formal or abstract qualities of architecture (manifested in venustas, or beauty) to be a complementary function of architecture, along with utilitas and firmitas (utility and strength). From his standpoint, there was no conflict between the expressive and utilitarian functions of architecture. So why is there one now?

The short answer is that architects, and their clients, are driven by competition to exploit the inexhaustibly mutable expressive potential of buildings. Modernist abstractions have become increasingly disengaged not just from the conventional elements of construction, e.g., columns, walls, windows, roofs, and so on, but more importantly from an appreciation of structural and control layer theories, to the extent that these building science principles may appear to threaten the hegemony of unfettered architectural expression.2

It is this implicit threat that drives a wedge between courses in building technology and design and affects even the production of real buildings. And whereas a design pedagogy based on such abstractions has always triggered a sense of foreboding and fear in me, I sense that the opposite is true for many of my students: for them, having internalized a design method almost completely disengaged from conventional building science principles (aka "reality," see Figure 1), it is the discipline of structure, control layer theory, and even the rudiments of what might be called sustainable design that trigger fear, loathing, and denial.

To dig deeper into this conundrum, I propose to examine the nature of venustas, the most subjective and contentious element within Vitruvius's functional triad. Venustas will here be taken to mean not just "beauty" (or pleasure, delight, and so on) as conventionally understood, but also to include all forms of symbolic expression.

Semantic ambiguity

The first thing one uncovers when examining venustas is the difficulty in pinning down its relation to functionality. This is because the word "function" is used in two ways. First, function is used to identify purely utilitarian qualities. For example, the function of a chair, in this sense, would be to provide a structurally and ergonomically adequate surface for sitting. Second, function is used in a broader sense, to include not only utilitarian aspects, but also subjective and expressive qualities. For example, the chair might also function as an article of conspicuous consumption, or as a means of aligning its owner with a particular stylistic tendency, and so on (Figure 2).

Rendering of Milstein Hall elevator with Barcelona Chair

Figure 2. "In a stunning, though entirely symbolic, concession to economic pragmatism or, more likely, to mitigate Milstein Hall’s apparent extravagance and elitist sensibility at a time when workers are being laid off and faculty salaries are frozen, Cornell has eliminated the symbolic centerpiece of Rem Koolhaas's design for its new architecture building: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's iconic Barcelona chair has been rendered out of the official rendering of Milstein's glass elevator, replaced with a plain vanilla chair."3

Difficulties and confusion emerge when these two meanings of function are not made clear. For example, if "functional" architecture is defined as something, per Hermann Muthesius, without "superficial forms of decoration, a design strictly following the purpose that the work should serve,"4 one can always argue that precisely those things excluded—decoration, ornament, or any other "superficial" elements or strategies—are also part of "the purpose that the work should serve." But this apparent paradox is just an artifact of the alternative meanings of function, nothing more.

One must be careful when arguing that the utilitarian meaning of function excludes gratuitous and symbolic elements. More precisely—since one can neither exclude "symbolism" nor, in general, prescribe what subjective responses will arise in the presence of a work of architecture—this first, utilitarian, meaning of functionality excludes only those elements considered "decorative" or gratuitous and therefore non-utilitarian.5 Symbolic expression, on the other hand, since it is in the mind of the beholder and not in the physical material of the building,6 will inevitably appear in the most utilitarian structures, even against the wishes (or ideologies) of its creators or critics.

A decorative element embedded in an architectural facade really is an element of the building—i.e., is actually present, can be seen, and consists of tangible material like brick or stone or paint—whereas a so-called symbolic element is little more than a theoretical sleight-of-hand in which a subjective interpretation of a building is given a tangible basis, as if it is actually present (as an "element") in the materials of the building itself. We tend to say: "This food is delicious," as if being delicious is an absolute quality of the food, rather than saying: "I find this food delicious," thereby acknowledging the subjectivity of taste.

The construction of meaning

Physical or formal aspects of a building may well trigger various subjective responses in individual beholders. And just as a chef cannot create a dish that is objectively delicious, it is the beholders of architecture, rather than the building's designers, who "construct" its meaning. This does not preclude a special role for critics and connoisseurs, but, on the other hand, neither does it give their (often contradictory) opinions an objective status. And designers, working within a subculture in which particular formal strategies are recognized and valued, may well provide precisely the types of coded forms of expression that are recognized as such within those architectural subcultures. However, even in such cases, the formal codes to which they subscribe are external to the forms themselves and must be internalized by the beholder if the intended expression is to be "properly" understood. Those without knowledge of, or interest in, such codes will interpret the same forms through a different lens.

Juan Pablo Bonta provides numerous examples of just such variation in critical appraisal: "Mumford contended that Sullivan's ornament was unrelated to the forms and materials of his buildings; but Zevi, on the other hand, thought that ornament was intimately integrated into Sullivan's architectural structures."7 Bonta understands the materials of architectural expression as being entirely different from the physical materials with which buildings are constructed: "The materials of painting are not paints, those of music are not sounds, those of architecture are not stones, any more than the material of literature is ink. The materials of these arts are not inert matter but the creation of man, charged with the cultural heritage of a community—no more, but certainly no less than language."8

That symbolic expression cannot be found in the physical materials of art or architecture does not mean that such expression does not exist and has no function within artistic production. It is possible to admit some common understandings of symbolic expression within subcultures or even entire cultures, always, however, with the disclaimer that such subjective interpretations can be fractured, revised, or otherwise transformed by individuals or by entire groups. Tracing such movements of subjective phenomena is at best a speculative task, and probably hopeless, given the idiosyncratic psychological content that directs any individual perception towards some subjective interpretation (Figure 3). The Rorschach test, to cite but one example, exploits precisely this indeterminacy in attempting to draw psychological conclusions from the multiplicity of subjective interpretations that can be made from the same formal design.

Evolutionary Tree diagram by Charles Jencks

Figure 3. Tracing the movements of subjective phenomena is at best a speculative task, and probably hopeless, but Charles Jencks has certainly tried: "The Century is Over, Evolutionary Tree of Twentieth-Century Architecture" with its attractor basins, scanned from Architectural Review, July 2000, p. 77.

Artistic functionality

Art, according to E.H. Gombrich, has a social function,9 and the idea of artistic functionality carries over to architectural expression. In fact, some architectural critics insist that being "functional" (in the sense of solving utilitarian problems) is not even architecture's primary function. Sigfried Giedion, according to Karsten Harries, "reaffirmed what he took to be the main task [i.e., the main function] facing contemporary architecture, 'the interpretation of a way of life valid for our period.'"10

Along these same lines, Harries proposes to extend to architecture Paul Valéry's claim that the function of poetry is "to create an artificial and ideal order of a material of vulgar origin." Harries writes that the theorists Tzonis and Lafaivre "proclaim that 'the poetic identity of a building depends not on its stability, or its function, or on the efficiency of the means of its production, but on the way in which all the above have been limited, bent, and subordinated by purely formal requirements.'"11 In other words, according to Tzonis and Lafaivre, the function of a building (to create a "poetic identity") comes about by subordinating its utilitarian function to formal concerns.

Aside from assigning architecture the non-utilitarian function of expressing the idealized zeitgeist of the period or, perhaps, the tortured soul (poetic identity) of the individual artist, the early-twentieth-century concept of "defamiliarization" is also often invoked; here, the function of architectural expression is to "make strange" what otherwise might be taken for granted and therefore not really noticed. At the extreme, we enter into territory typically broached only by charlatans, comedians, or logicians who gleefully relate linguistic paradoxes such as that of the Cretan who claims that all Cretans are liars (and so must be telling the truth). In the realm of architecture, the analogous condition is a building with the antiheroic function of being dysfunctional. Alison and Peter Smithson, for example, proposed in 1957 that "the word 'functional' must now include so-called irrational and symbolic values."12 This sentiment gets echoed and even amplified by some contemporary architects and engineers: Rem Koolhaas writes that the work of engineer Cecil Balmond expresses "doubt, arbitrariness, mystery and even mysticism," while Balmond's own website uses virtually the same words to describe his approach.13

A more conventional spin on the function of defamiliarization is attributed to the architect Le Corbusier, who is said to have "defined architecture as having to do with a window which is either too large or too small, but never the right size. Once it was the right size it was no longer functioning."14

This idea of defamiliarization would have been anathema to nineteenth-century theorists like John Ruskin, or his contemporary Edward Lacy Garbett; the latter would have seen only ugliness in buildings with such "immoral" qualities: "I cannot but regard the perfection of domestic architecture as an embodied courtesy," wrote Garbett in 1850. "And will any one dare to say that this courtesy is useless?"15 Well, yes: many architects—and not only in and after the twentieth century—celebrated precisely this lack of courtesy, although their stance was contested. A classic confrontation over this issue occurred in the 1982 debate between Peter Eisenman and Christopher Alexander. In the following excerpt, the two architect-theorists discuss the Town Hall at Logroño designed by Rafael Moneo in 1973–1974:

CA: The thing that strikes me about your friend's building—if I understood you correctly—is that somehow in some intentional way it is not harmonious. That is, Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony. Maybe even of incongruity.

PE: That is correct.

CA: I find that incomprehensible. I find it very irresponsible. I find it nutty. I feel sorry for the man. I also feel incredibly angry because he is fucking up the world… Don't you think there is enough anxiety at present? Do you really think we need to manufacture more anxiety in the form of buildings?

PE: …What I'm suggesting is that if we make people so comfortable in these nice little structures of yours, that we might lull them into thinking that everything's all right, Jack, which it isn't. And so the role [function] of art or architecture might be just to remind people that everything wasn't all right.16

Alexander, representing the forces of politeness and comfort, asks Eisenman: "Don't you think there is enough anxiety at present? Do you really think we need to manufacture more anxiety in the form of buildings?" Eisenman's response, justifying the disorienting or upsetting qualities of some avant-garde architecture, is that people are thereby reminded "that everything wasn't all right." A similar argument is made by Herbert Marcuse, the German-American philosopher and political theorist, who writes that "a work of art can be called revolutionary if, by virtue of the aesthetic transformation, it represents, in the exemplary fate of individuals, the prevailing unfreedom and the rebelling forces, thus breaking through the mystified (and petrified) social reality, and opening the horizon of change (liberation)… The aesthetic transformation becomes a vehicle of recognition and indictment. But this achievement presupposes a degree of autonomy which withdraws art from the mystifying power of the given and frees it for the expression of its own truth. Inasmuch as man and nature are constituted by an unfree society, their repressed and distorted potentialities can be represented only in an estranging form."17

Anaesthetization of the political

But it is hardly clear that architecture has the necessary "autonomy" that Marcuse suggests it must have as a revolutionary medium. Unlike the production of literature—the art form that Marcuse is primarily interested in—the appearance of architecture (where appearance is used in the double sense of what it looks like, and its coming into existence) is contingent upon first, a patron whose interests the architecture serves; and second, the literal deployment of wealth and power in order to create (bring into existence) the physical elements of architecture. It is true that this first condition could elicit "revolutionary" form, where such formal qualities might serve the patron (client); but that alone cannot overcome the second criterion. It may well be that in literature the revolutionary thing is its printing and distribution as much as the aesthetics of the work itself. The relative ease of printing and distribution, compared to the creation of construction documents and then the actual construction of a building, is, in this respect, what separates literature from architecture.

Even if a "disturbing" work of architecture somehow comes into being, its power to "open up the horizon of change (liberation)," being based on the feelings it elicits rather than on conclusions drawn from a logical explanation, puts it immediately into competition with other emotion-based content supplied in much greater quantities by the ideologically-driven representatives and apologists of wealth and power. Neal Leach describes how Walter Benjamin, for example, "explored the problem of how Fascism used aesthetics to celebrate war" and how "it could be extrapolated from Benjamin's argument that aesthetics," rather than opening up revolutionary horizons, "brings about an anaesthetization of the political…"18

That symbolic content can and should be expressed by a building's outward form is nevertheless taken as self-evident in much architectural theorizing. Christian Norberg-Schulz, for example, writes: "During the great epochs of the past certain forms had always been reserved for certain tasks. The classical orders were used with caution outside churches and palaces, and the dome, for instance, had a very particular function as a symbol of heaven."19 He goes on to argue that not only did such forms correspond to particular social functions, but that there is a physiological (emotional) basis for assigning particular forms to these functions: "The psychologist Arnheim discusses this problem [i.e., the structural similarity between content and form] in detail and maintains that we have the best reasons to assume that particular arrangements of lines and shapes correspond to particular emotional states. Or rather we should say that particular structures have certain limited possibilities for receiving contents. We do not play a Viennese waltz at a funeral."20

Actually, we may well play up-beat music at funerals, for example, as part of the jazz funeral tradition in New Orleans. In other words, there is no intrinsic correspondence between functional activities and the manner in which they are expressed. Some people fear tight spaces; others open spaces. How could one possibly assign some singular meaning to space given the divergent ways in which the same space is experienced? Norberg-Schulz adds that the perception requires "training and instruction… A common order is called culture. In order that culture may become common, it has to be taught and learned. It therefore depends upon common symbol-systems, or rather, it corresponds to these symbol-systems and their behavioral effects."21 Well, of course, if one is told how to interpret a form, the connections can be memorized and regurgitated. But this is a bizarre way to understand contemporary societies, which are characterized by multiple and shifting subcultures. What, for example, would constitute the "common symbol-systems" of Peter Eisenman's House II and Archigram's Instant City (Figure 4), both completed in 1970?

Peter Eisenman's House II and Archigram's Instant City

Figure 4. Peter Eisenman's House II, Hardwick, Connecticut (left) and Archigram's Instant City project (right), both completed in 1970, provide some evidence that no single Zeitgeist can be identified within contemporary societies.

Any answer, in my view, must distinguish between formal modes of expression ("symbol-systems"), which are evidently quite diverse, and the overarching function of such expression, which—consistent with the competition that drives the multiplicity of formal outcomes—always serves to reinforce and validate capitalist freedom and democracy.22 In that sense, and in spite of differences in their formal attributes, the architecture of Eisenman and Archigram (and everyone else) has the same overarching cultural function. It is precisely in supporting that function that the task of reconciling the increasingly deviant manifestations of venustas with building science principles (utilitas and firmitas) grinds to a halt. Having reached this impasse, the fear of reality experienced by students of architecture—struggling to become accomplices within this insane mode of production—will not soon be assuaged.


1 The idea that architectural design might be based on "fantasy" is taken as self-evident by Colin Rowe; for example, in discussing the works and writings of Robert Venturi, he writes: "For, if it is myth—in collaboration or conflict with social and technological conditions—which is the ultimate architectural determinant, Venturi scarcely subjects this issue to examination; and, certainly, he never stipulates that the forms he admires came about through the activity of just such fantasies as he seems prone to reject." See Colin Rowe, "Robert Venturi and the Yale Mathematics Building," in As I Was Saying: Recollection and Miscellaneous Essays: Volume Two: Cornelliana (Cambridge: MIT Press,: 1995), 87, first published in Oppositions: 6 (Fall 1976).

2 For a more thorough argument on questions of modernist abstraction in relation to control layer theory, see Jonathan Ochshorn, "Architecture's Dysfunctional Couple: Design and Technology at the Crossroads," The International Journal of Design Education: 7, Issue 4 (2014).

3 Image screen-captured from Cornell's Milstein Hall web pages by the author before its removal; the caption is from the author's blog post, "Milstein Hall Loses its Barcelona Chair," Impatient Search, June 30, 2009. Denise Scott Brown has made a similar argument, but using a table rather than a chair: "…the functions of so simple and general an object as a table may be many and various, related at one end to the most prosaic of activities and at the other to the unmeasurable, symbolic and religious needs of man." See Denise Scott Brown, "The Function of a Table," in Architectural Design: 37 (1967), 154. For the record (and not appearing in the Cornell Journal of Architecture version), the substituted "plain vanilla" version of the chair looked like this:
Milstein Hall elevator with plain vanilla chair

4 Muthesius is quoted in the "Function" chapter of Adrian Forty, Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Architecture (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), 181.

5 Karsten Harries argues that "aesthetic components" not gratuitously added in a literal sense but still self-consciously designed—e.g., the application of the golden section to an otherwise utilitarian facade—function much like applied decoration and that such buildings therefore may be called "decorated sheds." Within my proposed framework, on the other hand, such buildings would be considered entirely utilitarian, at least to the extent that any formal manipulation or refinement was not deemed gratuitous. In making such a determination, I abstract from any "gratuitous" effort expended by the designer, and look only at the product (the building) for signs of otherwise unnecessary, or dysfunctional, elements. That such a utilitarian building may well be "appreciated" in different ways (e.g., "as a riddle with markers," or as "an ironic commentary," per Harries) is entirely consistent with my argument, and does not require that the idea of "decoration" be imposed. See Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 4–6.

6 On the importance of the beholder: "According to Riegl: 'Art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer.' His term for this phenomenon was the 'beholder's involvement.' His successors, Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, developed this idea further, settling on the term, 'the beholder's share.'" Quoted from Anne Sherwood Pundyk, "The Beholder's Share," Artcritical," August 22, 2017.

7 Juan Pablo Bonta, Architecture and its Interpretation: A Study of Expressive Systems in Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1979), 11.

8 Juan Pablo Bonta, Architecture and its Interpretation: A Study of Expressive Systems in Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1979), 23.

9 Gombrich, in explaining the radical transformation within Greek art between the 6th and 4th century B.C., argues that "only a change in the whole function of art can explain such a revolution." E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960) Third printing, 127 (emphasis added).

10 Giedion is quoted in Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 2; the quote is from the 1967 edition of Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture.

11 Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 24.

12 Adrian Forty, Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Architecture (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), 187.

13 The Koolhaas quote is from Deyan Sudjic, "Take a Bow, Mr Balmond," The Guardian, Oct. 26, 2002.

14 I cannot validate this attribution with a citation to the original quote by Le Corbusier, although there are numerous secondary references, all saying essentially the same thing, and probably each assuming that their own unattributed source was accurate. This one is from Peter Eisenman, "Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture: The 1982 Debate Between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman," Katarxis No. 3, London, September 2004.

15 Edward Lacy Garbett, Rudimentary Treatise on the Principles of Design in Architecture as Deducible from Nature and Exemplified in the Works of the Greek and Gothic Architects (No. 18 in Weale's Rudimentary Series), London (John Weale: 1850), 9; quoted in Edward Robert De Zurko, Origins of Functionalist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press,: 1957), 140–41.

16 "Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture: The 1982 Debate Between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman," Katarxis No. 3, London, September 2004.

17 Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), xi, 9 (emphasis added).

18 Neil Leach, "Architecture or Revolution," in Neil Leach, ed., Architecture and Revolution: Contemporary perspectives on Central and Eastern Europe (London: Routledge, 1999), 114.

19 Christian Norberg-Schulz, Intentions in Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1965), 17.

20 Christian Norberg-Schulz, Intentions in Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1965), 71.

21 Christian Norberg-Schulz, Intentions in Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1965), 72, 79.

22 "The problem is that in a world of architectural production driven by competition, any logical constraint on a designer's freedom of expression leads the designer—perversely but inevitably—to explore precisely those forbidden places outlawed by prevailing conventions. In defying such logic, the designer seeks to 'defamiliarize' what has become so commonplace that it is no longer capable of eliciting an aesthetic response and, therefore, serving as a useful mode of competition. This is the heroic conceit of the contemporary avant-garde: to confront danger in whichever of its manifestations appears as an appropriate target at any given point in time." From Jonathan Ochshorn, "Architecture's Dysfunctional Couple: Design and Technology at the Crossroads," The International Journal of Design Education: 7, Issue 4 (2014).