Anna Klingmann & Philipp Oswalt | 1999
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The architecture of the last five years has shown a clear trend towards simple, reduced forms. This is not only noticeable amongst the prophets of a 'new simplicity' and the disciples of minimalism. High-tech architecture, too, after a phase of techno-expression and pop-art has come closer to the cool, calm objectivity of 'slick-skin' buildings, while the work of O.M.A. and their successors has developed from collage buildings (e.g. Dans Theater Den Haag) to almost monolithic structures (e.g. Congrexpo, ZKM or the libraries for Paris). And Hans Kollhoff has turned from his earlier expressive large-scale forms to 'conventionalism'. Following an era of formal experimentation, eclecticism and fragmentation, beginning with post-modernism and reaching its peak (and perhaps the end of the line) with deconstruction, today's architecture appears to be developing in the opposite direction. The most talked-about architecture of the present day is being built in two countries largely untouched by post-modernism: Switzerland and Holland. In contrast with the post-modern collage on the one hand and the modernist concept of dividing up, separating out and stacking on the other, there is a move towards monolithic coherence. It is interesting that despite the many regional and theoretical diversities this seems to be a general trend, which we call here 'formlessness'.

By this we mean the search for forms that are featureless: that have no meaning, pursue no overt ambition or purpose, have no direction, articulate no up and down or front and back, that are not individual or specific, but are instead supremely general. Examples are the box or cube with its equal sides, the blob with its continuous homogenous surface. But the filling in of residual space can also be regarded as formless, as can the extrusion of the building site, the folding of a surface or any other automatic process that produces a form without aesthetic ambition, without intent to be a form. Formlessness, while it seems to be supplanting post-modernism, is at the same time inconceivable without it. It is rooted in the very cultural and economic changes that are ascribed to the post-modern era.

Architecture as a consumer product

Just as modernism was closely connected with the economy of a production-oriented society and thus with the optimization of the production process (fordism), post-modernism is the expression of a consumer society. With the shift from production to consumer oriented society the economy's demands on architecture have also changed. While industrial demands on architecture as a means of increasing production abated, economic pressure on it to perform as a market product grew. To maximize consumption it was necessary to satisfy the aesthetic tastes of a post-modern society. The result was a formal diversification of products. Packaging became a central feature of the economy. Whereas in the modern era function dominated (form follows function), in the post-modern context effect gained ground. Frivolous combinations of form and colour and any sort of geometry were now possible. Eclecticism was accelerated as the influence of the media on society spread. With increasing 'mediatization' politics, culture and architecture have become saturated with images. Architectural products and images are turned over at an ever-increasing rate. In a climate of short-lived aesthetic and cultural values the relevance of these images fades fast. The problem facing the architectural product is that, as in any area of fashion, it is subject to permanent demands for innovation in style which render it passé as soon as it is built. Through the separation of form and content and the exponential acceleration of fashion trends, form has become trivial and meaningless. The result of this development is the trend to 'no-style' architecture.

From standardization to the generic

The post-modern era also saw a change in construction clientele. Whereas the social-democratic state was the most important sponsor in post-war and modern times, since the 70s and 80s the initiative has come increasingly from the private sector, a shift from socialistic and social-democratic forms of economy and government to free capitalism and global markets. The new clientele build as developers for anonymous users. This in fact has generated a new demand for featureless buildings. While buildings in the modern era were standardized for technical reasons (mass production) or ideological reasons (equal standards for all), now the demand is for 'formless' buildings that allow the largest possible degree of flexibility of use by potential tenants and must therefore satisfy requirements of a most general and standard nature.
Rem Koolhaas uses the word 'generic' to describe this phenomenon. It derives from the Latin root 'genus' meaning kind or class. Applied to a product 'generic' signifies that it is not protected by a trade mark, in other words does not represent any specific aspect or image. According to Webster's Dictionary an item is 'generic' if it conforms to various characteristics regarding use, form or size, and thus has wide and diverse application. Applied to architecture, generic refers to a non-local, non-specific product of a global economy that could occur in theory in any cultural context, whether in Europe, America or Asia.

These two developments - the meaninglessness of images resulting from the flood of signs in the post-modern era and the economic trend to featureless buildings - have led to formless architecture. But within this general trend lie several strategies, which, although they start from a similar standpoint, pursue completely different agendas. In this article we concentrate on three contemporary trends: the minimalism predominating in northern Switzerland in particular; the new architecture in Berlin that we refer to as conventionalism; and the subversive realism of O.M.A./Rem Koolhaas and the Dutch school. But it should be noted here that the work of Jean Nouvel, Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima or Norman Foster cover an equally interesting field of analysis with regard to formlessness.

Minimalism: reduction and aestheticization

For some years now, the Swiss architectural theorist, Martin Steinmann, has been analysing and describing developments in northern Swiss architecture. In the work of the minimalists he sees an attempt to escape the images of the media world - the contagion of objects through images - by means of an architecture that pre-empts these images. He claims this architecture avoids symbolizing anything, does not want to mean anything or refer to anything else, only wants to be itself, in exactly the same way as minimal art. "What you see is all you see", says Judd, meaning, according to Steinmann, "that works of minimal art refer to themselves, or more precisely: to the experience they induce in the onlooker, an experience whose subject is the experience itself." Things no longer mean anything, they no longer refer to anything else, but are only themselves and can thus be experienced directly. Because it presupposes a convention, meaning is an experience, as Steinmann explains, that reaches us indirectly through the medium of the convention. Minimalist architecture, in contrast, is concerned with a pre-semiotic experience. Only when it is freed from meaning is an architectonic object perceptible as such.

Herzog & DeMeuron describe their own work in similar terms. "The material is there to determine the construction and the building is similarly there to display the material it is made of.(...) We push the material we use to its furthest limits, to the point where it is freed from all other obligations but 'to be'." When it is freed from meaning, the material or the object becomes perceptible as such. The 'truth' of the construction, for example, is irrelevant. It is either hidden or reveals itself as a non-directional visual grid in the same plane as the filling, giving the whole a monolithic appearance. Similarly, glass is not used because of its transparency, to reveal what is behind, but to display the material glass, and as such it will appear translucent or even opaque. The buildings are without scale, they avoid any reference to human dimensions, and in this respect, too, they refer only to themselves.

There are various ways of viewing such a building. They are not mutually exclusive, but can exist alongside each other. They are the possibilities of the object. The object is the variety of possibilities of viewing it.
The abstract form recedes behind the momentary impression of the surface, which changes with the light, the position of the observer and his/her individual interpretation. The object becomes an impermeable screen, a reflector of observer, light and surroundings. In place of an objective meaning, minimalism places the observer's transient perception in the foreground. The observer supplies his own subjective meaning. A basic characteristic of minimalism is a radical reductionism that silences practically everything but the material itself, not only every form of conventional architectural language (entrance, base, finishing line, construction, production etc.) but also indications of what the building is for and how it is used. This lends buildings an aura that removes them from the everyday context. In the final analysis, it is a process of creating new images, or rather, one new, oscillating image. This desire to create images is post-modern, even though here the images are neither historical quotations nor products of complex theories (e.g. deconstruction), but are developed from the material of the building itself, sometimes including references to its location or function. The separation of the functions of interior and exterior achieves its most perfect form in minimalism. Whereas the interior is organized by a neutral, conventional floor plan, the real focus of architectonic attention is the outer skin and its aestheticization. Maximum architectural effect is achieved at the minimum cost of exterior design. An economic approach to the architectural product corresponds with the demands of present-day marketing. While the interior assures absolute flexibility, the exterior seduces with its images. The 'fetishization' of the surface produces 'fast effects', visual stimuli like TV commercials that can be immediately understood and assimilated. The effect is direct, legible, easily digestible.

Conventionalism: normality and morality

The banality of present-day building briefs is the starting point of the conventionalist approach. As Hans Kollhoff says: "Let's not delude ourselves, or rather, stop deluding the public - office buildings that want to be competitive basically all look alike: approximately 3.6 meters floor height, wall grid dimensions of between 1.25 and 1.45 meters, a bilaterally symmetrical floor plan with a building depth of about 14 meters..." Which is why Kollhoff concludes that "in most cases the most economical, durable and easiest construction" is in conventional style. As with the minimalists, standardization and norms are accepted. However, in contrast to minimalism, banality is not aesthetically veiled and mysticized in specially selected materials, but simply exhibited. The disarming openness of conventionalism looks progressive at first, a revelation of the essence. But it is more than that. The conventionalists, too, want to transcend the banal, but via a different route, in which the normal is morally charged, is elevated to an ethical value and becomes an expression of the collective, the community. "There is a reassessment of values taking place that for a long time were considered dispensable." (Kollhoff). From their reading of architectural history the conventionalists understand the term 'convention' to mean a collective, common will. Kollhoff also describes how the structure of a building or the design of a facade follows more or less automatically from these canons of 'convention', from employing the stereotyped, classical architectural vocabulary (roof, base, corner, front, entrance etc.). Architecture appears to take refuge in its own cliché as the only way of protecting its autonomy and integrity from the media and the marketplace.
Formlessness here is not openness and lack of definition of form, but the opposite: non-individual, universal, absolute form. The commonplace and generic supplies the pretext for eliminating individuality and propagating community and collective. The graphics are clear and stereotyped. Formlessness becomes a universal, unequivocal form.

Subversive realism: the specific in the generic

For Rem Koolhaas the generic, the featureless and the formless are the neutral basis of a subversive architectural strategy. He dispenses with the usual means of architectural expression in order to develop difference, heterogeneity, polarity and incident from this neutral base. Koolhaas distills the programmatic demands of a project down to the universal basic function, i.e., each project is first of all reduced to its most general form. What is a university library but an area, on which bookshelves are placed, and a path, along which the public is directed to them? What is an opera house but a shell for theatre productions and a place for the public to assemble to watch them? (Jeffrey Kipnis) In contrast to conventionalism and minimalism Koolhaas uses reduction as a method of subversive disestablishment to free a project of prevailing morality, convention and aesthetics. With each new project, the programme and organization are stripped of cultural, symbolic and stereotyped references and defined anew. In Koolhaas' work the generic defines itself in the first place via realistic parameters. Starting with the project's essential constituents - zoning, site, programme, access, engineering, construction, exterior - he develops an architecture, and thereby an aesthetic canon, of difference. He reduces the programme to its essence and uses this as a basis for a new interpretation along non-conventional lines. Thus the specific is distilled from the essence, the commonplace is presented anew and the usual becomes unusual.
In the architecture of O.M.A. the multiple functions in particular require neutral ground to develop in. Only a featureless, unplanned, undefined volume can provide the neutrality necessary for a non-hierarchical heterogeneity, and absorb the diverse layers of specific function.

In his design for the Grande Bibliothèque de France, for instance, Koolhaas takes the initially 'formless' mass of the book stacks, in which the reading rooms as carved out voids articulate specific functions by means of their diverse geometries. A similar development can be observed in his project for the Universal Studios Headquarters in Los Angeles. Again a symbiosis is staged between 'generic floors' (the undefined area of office space) and 'specific functions' and is articulated through the language of form. While the (individual) arrangement of the office floors is left to the future user, the formally differentiated volumes set the scene for the specific functions (conference room, health club and cinema). Koolhaas' dialectic is at once playful and subversive: he uses the generic and turns it into the specific. Generality is presented as the legitimization of the specific, the commonplace as a specific incident.

Although they start from similar positions and there are certain parallels in their methods, subversive realism, minimalism and conventionalism follow quite different agendas, as we have seen here.

Originality under review

In the wake of the post-modern deluge of images and the attendant loss of meaning of form the concept of originality has been discredited. Criticism of originality has become a commonplace of the architectural discourse, though for varying reasons. The conventionalists want to suppress and eliminate the subjective, in order to preclude a continual stream of new, other, individualistic influences. In Kollhoff's words: "We must get rid of the myth of the architect who sits at his desk and invents something. It is this attitude that is responsible for all the catastrophes of the 20th century." The aim here is to exclude the individual from the planning process by reverting to an alleged tradition. Kollhoff repeatedly cites the architectural canons from which structure and design more or less automatically flow, the stereotyped 'conventions' of base, roof join, corner treatment, entrance etc. that dictate the form.

Rem Koolhaas occupies a position diametrically opposed to this. He wants to eliminate the subjective as a vehicle of orthodox values and conventions so as to generate something new by means of automatic design methods. This recalls the automatism of the dadaist and surrealist avant-garde, whereby the sub-conscious found direct expression through automatic writing and painting. The architect does not create the form, but develops a set of rules within which the form evolves. As an example of this process Rem Koolhaas cites in Delirious New York Hugh Ferris' utopian projects, where Manhattan's zoning regulations are translated into architecture. At present there are a number of similar experiments with automatic generation of form. Another example is the work of the Dutch group MVRDV, who put together systematic data for this purpose. The city is conceived as a sort of data landscape, or 'datascape'. By quantifying operatives such as traffic flow, light, density and land utilization, and by strict application of these data, forms are generated. Here a rational system of data-processing is in the making to generate a new, artificial city-scape free from subjective influences. The ideological background to this research is connected with the rejection of the aesthetic discourse. Its aim is a new kind of functionalism. This "automatic" process entails a suspension of moral and aesthetic prejudice so that the "unknown new" can evolve.
The minimalists are opposed to convention and appeals to tradition. Above all they want new and contemporary images. Questions of programme and use are passed over.

Exclusive vs inclusive

In contrast to the classical modernists, who in their conception of space strove for a continuity of flow between interior and exterior as well as private and public areas, the minimalists favour a clear division. This separation is a logical consequence of the self-sufficiency of the objects, their removal from context, the radical reductionism of the architecture and the fetishization of the material along with concealment of use. The result is a radical division between exterior appearance and what is happening inside (use). The facade becomes an autonomous object by virtue of its imagery and its monolithic appearance. By means of its opacity it serves to veil the interior. Behind this seamless skin the building is hermetically sealed from its environment. Such buildings are introverted, referring back to themselves. The Pfaffenholz sports complex in St Louis by Herzog & DeMeuron is a good example. The building is windowless, completely detached from the nature around it. All sporting activity takes place inside. The "Kunstkiste", a similar project by the same architects, is a new museum in the urban centre of Bonn. Totally removed from its urban context it is entirely introverted. From outside it is almost impossible to even guess what uses the facade conceals.

The aestheticization of the surface lends a special aura to the buildings of the minimalists and lifts them above the commonplace. They acquire an elitism, an artistic inviolability, that veils the banality of their interior workings.

Koolhaas on the other hand continues in the modernist tradition, insofar as public and private spheres are designed to flow into each other. The relationship between public and private programmes is incessantly renegotiated in response to changing functions. It is not fixed a priori, as in minimalism and conventionalism, but establishes itself anew in each case. The dynaminc fluidity that characterizes the relationship is deliberately intensified. The Jussieu libraries, for example, represent simultaneously an extension and intensification of urban space, a sort of folded urban boulevard. In the case of Cardiff Opera House the public space is drawn into the building and folded to form the auditorium.

O.M.A. in general tends to follow a strategy of absorption. The buildings turn into receptacles inhaling everything contemporary, absorbing contradictions, combining the banal with the sublime, the popular with the exclusive. Rem Koolhaas once expressed this mentality in a description of his reading habits: "I am an omnivore. I read 'Max' as well as 'Spiegel' as well as 'The New York Times Book Review'." (Arch+ 117)
The architecture of the conventionalists, by contrast, is neither exclusive nor inclusive. They aim at an ordinary, not a special appearance. But their notion of the everyday is highly normative, imbued with the idea of collective and received conventions, excluding everything of a contemporary nature. In the sense that they want to be timeless, they are exclusive. Their buildings may not be as introverted and detached from context as the minimalists' but their opposition to mixing public and private programmes is clearly expressed in Kollhoff's criticism that "public and private spheres are grotesquely intermingled these days". Their goal is a clearcut separation between the two areas, which largely ignores their mutual dependence in favour of an unequivocal definition of spaces.


Formlessness in present-day architecture does not constitute a new aesthetic or formal agenda, but is instead on the one hand a programmatic starting point (the featurelessness of programmes, the devaluation of forms) and on the other hand a method of avoiding formalism and of establishing alternative agendas to the pursuit of any one style or form. It articulates the paradox of the simultaneous impossibility and necessity of form. Formlessness does not yet provide a satisfactory answer as to agenda or ambition of a project or architectural work. The strategies that we have touched upon are intended as examples of employing formlessness as a generative force for the creation of a new architecture.

published in: Arch+ 139 | Aachen | 1998
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