A significant feature of contemporary architecture is irregular-irregularity, or in different words - the occurrence of unpredictable, one-time phenomena. This actually means that the traditional connection between cause and effect - mainly content and form - is no longer a fundamental factor in architecture. This even gets more complicated since another characteristic of contemporary architecture is lack of linear connection between the purpose of the building and its architectural expression. Due to the fact that the term irregular-irregularity is a bad sign in the detection of cancer - it is reasonable to ask: what does it mean in architecture, and why the hell does it matter at all.
One way I know of tackling an indecipherable issue is to examine its complete opposite instead of confronting the thing itself, and then turn it upside down, like putting a cover on a duvet.
So, at times when architecture was still concerned with the relationship between form and content, it was all about the way in which the purpose (function) affected all building systems - the interior arrangement, position of openings, the system of connections between details resulting from static calculations and availability of building materials, the given context, location, climate, budget etc., all brought together via the architect’s interpretation to eventually create a particular building.
On an urban level, the form was mainly generated by traffic systems linking structures to each other, and to the environment, allowing for topography, climate, landscape and culture.
A general rule of morphology is that there is a fundamental difference between systems that develop organically - i.e., from detail to global, and systems in which the global form is dictated in advance. In the first case, the overall outcome is irregular and unpredictable, for example - Arab villages, medieval towns, or natural fields. This in comparison to systems that develop from the outside in, such as the rectangular grid of American cities that are based on a crisscross of roads, Persian rugs, or cultivated fields.
Over and above all these, there is always the architect’s existential aspiration - like artists in general - to belong to the avant-garde, usually by means of irregular form. The problem with architects is that they are enraptured by their “professional” need to justify the relationship between form and its function - otherwise, what’s the point.
Assuming that an unusual structure also reflects creative thinking outside the (rectangular) box, they experiment with new formal ideas. When this works, it is considered a breakthrough, when not – they are forgotten, or at best become a failed landmark in the history of architecture.
Hence, many who have broken the box via extremely formal products, prominent among whom are Antonio Gaudi, Le Corbusier, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and many others.
At a time when form is not related to architectural content, but rather to those who control certain computer programs – coming out of the box is a routine, even when it has no underlying architectural justification.And, when irregular reproduction dies of boredom, it has three side effects, which do not necessarily flatter architecture:
The first is that the form becomes central, dictating in fact the experience of the building. This, while the rectangular form controls most, if not all, details of practical factors as they are obviously produced from flat surfaces. And when they are allocated to an irregular system, they undermine the effectiveness of the structure, increase costs, and create unused spaces at best and physical discomfort at worst.
And this reminds us, yet again, of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, cleverly written in 1937 as an allegory of the social tendency to stick to fiction at the cost of truth. As we remember, the climax of the story is a kid shouting - "the king is naked" - revealing the reality everyone denied; that is, in the case of architecture: shape does not always manage to serve as a cover – no matter how talented artists, architects, painters, or sculptors may be.
The second phenomenon justifiably concerns the fine balance between the functional dimension and the creative aspect embedded in architecture. Like the handicapped principle in biology, not every detail should express a defined function, and this is, inter alia, where the spirit of creation dwells. However, when architecture is loaded with overly unnecessary components, exaggeration of the creative aspect could undermine the fine balance between function and form, shifting the structure from the field of applied arts to pretentious art – an elegant hybrid between intention and prevention - as in the case of post-modern architecture, and I am not convinced that today anyone misses its repellent whims.
The third side effect stems from the first two. When the traditional distorted relationship between content and form is blurred, it is difficult to distinguish between breakthroughs and breakups.
An old folk saying says that to be a shepherd one does not need to be a sheep first, it’s enough that your father was a shepherd. But since nowadays it is impossible to keep pace with the rapid change of the state of the art, the criteria for judging is similar to the newly formed police cyber department, that naturally always lags behind professional hackers, while at best, they are still at the memorizing stage of a first-year computer student.
Critical Theory that developed in Frankfurt during the twenties of the twentieth century, might perhaps outflank this epistemological paradox. Its advantages are that it was developed by a group of researchers from various fields, attempting to advance radical social change through the old-fashioned perception of Karl Marx in order to break away from fixed social views. The group included some well-known scholars such as Karl Wittfogel, Friedrich Pollock, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Leo Löwenthal and Erich Fromm, who had abandoned the theory when he published “The Art of Loving” and “Escape from Freedom”- explaining the phenomenon of anxiety in response to the collapse of the medieval world.
Anyway, the group focused on consciousness, particularly Marx’s False Consciousness, which explains why people act against the interests of society (and their own), taking advantage of their status. The answer that concerns us is - that they are probably motivated by other interests, such as creativity, a desire to stand out, or – God forbid - marketing!
At the heart of all this is, as mentioned, the unbearable creation of irregular forms, not necessarily expressing complex content.
However, nowadays, construction engineering is almost exempt from restrictions and engineered materials provide a solution for every structural problem formerly considered a factor in the form of the building.
This is precisely why the Calatrava bridge might seem like an advanced exercise in stretch and collapse; Tadao Ando’s structures - like a spider’s web; Zaha Hadid’s appear frenetic, and Frank Gehry’s buildings - may as well serve as a school for car bodywork.
On second thoughts, maybe not. Today, when form is the queen of the internet, and in light of the communication revolution’s impact on all aspects of life, I am not at all sure that the form of a building today should reflect its content as it was expected to in the past.
The ability of a computer to generate virtual forms also finds expression in the production process, particularly when it comes to adapting furnishing items to the irregular shapes of a building. And this is certainly food for thought.
During the second half of the eighteenth century, Austrian composer, Franz Joseph Haydn, served as court composer for the House of Esterházy, living on their secluded luxury estate near Vienna. Disconnection and loneliness became a stronghold for his originality and innovation, and for 50 years, the childless “Papa Haydn” became the father of the classical styles - the sonata, classical symphony, and string quartets. Paving the way for his successors - Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms - in rich, multi-layered, surprising harmonic and tonal transitions (initially perceived as merely humorous) he built the cornerstone of Viennese, romantic classics; a style constituting an unprecedented relationship between form and content in musical history, heights upon which we build and are built to this day.
It is difficult to compare computer architectural works with the classical music that was developed in the eighteenth century by geniuses like Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, but like music, the essence of architecture lies in layers, and one can only hope that the complex line will eventually become incomparably fine.
As Danny Sanderson said:
"We're going into the unknown", but "who knows"...