I just sent this blurb to Christian Michel, about the talk I’ll be giving at his place in the New Year:
The function of a bottle opener is relatively uncontroversial. It’s to open bottles! But nearer to the opposite end of the simplicity-to-complexity spectrum is architecture, and especially the sort of large and visible architecture that the most ambitious and showy architects yearn to design and build.
I don’t think that the modernist architect and polemicist Le Corbusier ever wrote about bottle openers, but he famously described the house as a “machine for living in”. But what does “living in” a house mean? A house can surely proclaim meanings, that being one of its functions. It can display a certain attitude to life, evoke an atmosphere and perhaps trigger happy memories of an earlier time. The ideal house communicates, both to those who live in it and to those who see it from outside. It says more things and different things to merely what it does and how its internal mechanisms function. It says what life is all about. A house is surely more than a mere dwelling, and something similar can be said about almost all buildings, certainly about the really good ones.
To the early modernists architectural ornament was a moral issue, a crime. They pointed to such things as grain silos, locomotives and early airplanes, and they said: architecture should be like that! It should be functional and it should look functional, rather than conceal its function behind a pompous public facade. Form should follow function, as a famous modernist slogan had it. (The truth is more that form follows fashion.)
To many Modernists, the whole idea of a functional “style” was a contradiction. It wasn’t a style; it was what happened when you turned your back on style and just let the building be what it is, with no artifice, with no “style”.
Yet now, the functional, er, way of doing architecture is often just as much of a facade for communicating meaning while concealing what goes on behind it as any traditionally ornamented architectural frontage.
There was also the fact that certain other modernist ideas, such as the idea of “going back to first principles” and of being “logical” about design rather than relying on outmoded tradition, lead, especially in the early years of modernism, to many modernist buildings not functioning very well. The “functional style” had a habit of not actually being very functional.
But, as modern architecture has become a tradition of its own, it has become more functional. And more stylish.
Saying all that may not take very long, but there’s plenty more I can say about this stuff, should I need more.