form ¦ formalism

By Dina Abdul-Malak

Formalism and Forms of Practice
There is not one definition of formalism, only arguments and examples from philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries applied to practices like literature, music, visual arts and architecture. It first came up in German philosophical aesthetics where it meant the property of seeing the objects. In terms of architecture, Hays claims that the formalist position is about how the parts have been put together and how the integrated system can be understood without the external references in which the building exists. Formalism is clearly understood when compared to contextual criticism, which focuses on the object being in a broader network of human relationships within society as opposed to formalism which is not concerned with the context. Russian formalism, concerned with poetry, developed in reaction to the failure of formalism in interpreting texts by relating them to the historical context and politics of the time. In German formalism, form was no longer thought of as an expression of content but as co-existing with the idea. Hence, throughout the 20th century, formalism and contextural hermeneutics in architecture formed a constant debate, and some tried to form a synthesis between the formalist autonomy and the societal change to be addressed. For Mieke Bal, aesthetics is also a context, so formalism necessarily fails. Formalism then became a way of experiencing art and architecture rather than being a criticism. For Greenberg, the visual aspects of a painting outweigh its narrative content and he dismisses works engaging the environment. In architecture, form and formalism always returns to the link between form and function, as the latter is the force through which form emerges. Architects like Wagner and van der Rohe argue that form is a by-product of construction. Those opposing formalism in architecture focus on the denial of the architect’s ethical responsibilities, arguing that buildings like Eisenman’s are not architectures; architecture must have a meaning and show it, some emphasizing the transparency of the building in relation to its purpose. There has also been experiments in formlessness that blur boundaries between inside and outside and that sparked debates on how it attempts to undo form and formalism. Formalism is ironic in that it is constantly re-worked with new theories and practices of the era involved; thus it is not a fixed argument.

The Science of Design: Creating the Artificial
Two to three decades after WWII, the natural sciences, which is concerned with how natural things are and how they work, practically took away the sciences of the artificial, which is concerned with how to make artifacts that have desired properties and how to design in the professional training. The main cause is that universities seeked academic respectability and chose subjects that are intellectually tough as opposed to design and artificial sciences which were intellectually soft. The text argues that it is possible to merge natural sciences and the artificial sciences on a professional level, and presents the topics needed to incorporate such theory of design in curricula: 1) Utility theory and statistical decision theory as a logical framework for rational choice among given alternatives. 2) The body of techniques for actually deducing which of the available alternatives is the optimum. 3) Adaptation of standard logic to the search for alternatives. 4) The exploitation of parallel, or near-parallel, factorization of differences. 5) The allocation of resources for search to alternative, partly explored action sequences.

Weird Formalism
This text is about the logic of computation where algorithms are not instructions to be performed but actualities that select, evaluate, transform and produce data, and its ingression into culture. It argues that incompleteness in axiomatics is at the core of computation. The addition of computational randomness to finite procedures allows a semi open architecture of axioms and an automated processing that is not predeterminate but tends to new determinations. It puts forward a new digital space that no longer matches striate space that is linear and where points do not change over time, one that draws on morphogenesis and the curvilinear shapes of blob architecture possible through mereotopology, which reveals that infinity is intrinsic to parts, and that infinity is random quantities of data reprogramming the algorithmic procedures in digital design. With prehensions, algorithms become actualities, prehending the formal system in which they are scripted and the data inputs they receive; the degree of prehension of algorithms then characterizes computational culture. This algorithmic production of digital spatiotemporalities defines 1) that logic is becoming an aesthetic operation and 2) that computational aesthetics is characterized by the algorithmic prehension of incomputable data. It also claims that digital architecture is unable to produce spatiotemporal experience qualities because it only deals in quantities. Finally, these algorithms become actual modes thoughts, soft thoughts concerned with the existence of a mode of thought, decision making and mentality that does not have a direct relation to human thinking.

Languages of Architectural Form
This text introduces rules for the combination of shapes in architecture. One way is through the grammatical combination of parts, like Alberti who avoided the combination of arch and columns. The simplest grammatical rule is to display various examples of what to do and what not to do, like Vitruvius did. Another approach is to state generalized prescriptive rules like the Renaissance theorists. Others used diagrams to show how walls and entrance should be treated and substituted. These substitution rules become more interesting when done repeatedly like in the Taj Mahal. An elaboration of this technique considers a sentence which always consists of a noun phrase followed by a verb phrase. Through the replacement rule and a set of rules establishing the properties of a noun and verb phrases and the variables, the result is a derivation that is grammatically correct. Reductions are when the rules are applied in reverse to determine whether the string is a sentence in the language. These syntactic rules puts an architectural type and the goal of the designer is to introduce the type appropriately to the moment and context; and the process of finding a solution to a design problem is one of trial-and-error to determine whether these solutions are acceptable.

A Boolean description of a class of built form
This text looks at Boolean algebra and exposes its shared concepts with architectural form which are inevitable although not explicit. With algebra, mathematical encoding of shapes can be relevant to architecture since elements such as bringing building components together, laying out planning and structural grids, and organizing space all have their equivalents in mathematical algebra, and because both mathematicians and designers have an aesthetic desire to systemize and to order. The text goes through different technical encoding details showing how we can go from numbers to simple rectangular shapes, to 2D architectural plans, to finally 3D volumes of buildings, keeping in mind that the encoding can work with some non-rectangular shapes like hexagonal and triangular as well.

What makes an architecture meaningful, the object in itself, what it represents, or how it is represented in its context?
Does form always need to follow the function in architecture? Where is the limit of how much architecture can represent something other than itself?
How much do you think the McGill School of Architecture is successful in incorporating the science of the artificial in the curriculum?
What can soft thought bring to the design field, and how much can it replace cognitive thought in design?
Do you think that these rules limit the design process of the architect?
What defines universal rules that could be applied to design itself?
Can a set of rules in designing result in a generic architecture?
How limiting is mathematical encoding in terms of design? The fact that you are designing a space but not by thinking about it in terms of its spatial qualities but rather quantitatively with algebra?
How limiting is to design in a virtual world where the limitations of the real-world practice is not taken into account (scale, materials, engineering), where there is no connection to the real-world?
How flexible is designing with computation or computer-aided design?


more on “form”

Adrian Forty on Form and Formalism (full reference: Forty, Adrian. 2012. Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary Of Modern Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson)

Sam Rose on the Significance of Form (full reference: Rose, Sam. 2017. “The Significance of Form.” Nonsite.Org).

more on generative design

Bill Mitchell on The Automated Generation of Architectural Form (full reference: Mitchell, William J. 1971. “The Automated Generation of Architectural Form.” In Proceedings of the 8th Design Automation Workshop, 193–207. DAC ’71. New York, NY, USA: ACM).

Herbert Simon on The Architecture of Complexity

Old “new” ideas:

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