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Getting to grips with formlessness

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martin pawley

The writings of the Czech philosopher Vilem Flusser are not very well known in this country. To my knowledge only one of his essays - The Architecture of the Future - has ever appeared in a British magazine. This is a pity for, despite his death in a motor accident in 1991, Flusser's writings remain influential in Germany, France and Brazil, where he sought refuge from the Second World War.

Flusser's ideas about architecture eschewed any stylistic analysis, but embodied truly radical insights, for example - predicting the current interest of the German avant-garde in subversive realism, conventionalism and minimalism. In this connection, in their essay Formlessness, German architects Philipp Oswalt and Anna Kingmann claim that Koolhaas and the Dutch school (subversive realism), Hans Kolhoff (conventionalism), and Herzog and de Meuron (minimalism) are all exponents of formlessness - a term that describes architecture's increasingly compliant approach to automation, regulation and market forces. The message here is perhaps best summed up by Kolhoff when he says: 'Let us stop deluding ourselves and the public - to be competitive all office buildings have to look alike.' And by Koolhaas, when he advocates 'automatic design methods' such as those of the draughtsman Hugh Ferris, who derived an imaginary Manhattan skyline from filling in the volumes permitted by zoning, plot ratios and light angles.

The problem with formlessness - and the reason for citing Vilem Flusser as the first thinker to have exposed it - is that it assumes that all its causes have originated in the world of architecture. Where Oswalt and Klingmann devote their manifesto to 'examples of employing formlessness for the creation of a new architecture,' a less parochial view of the forces behind it might make more of the fact that none of them - market pressures, regulations, robotisation - are architectural in origin. Consequently, it can be better argued that the new term describes an attitude forced upon designers rather than a strategy chosen by them, in which case credit for the resultant form-giving should rightfully go to technical, regulatory and market forces.

Vilem Flusser described this reflex automation effect in a 1964 essay entitled The Crisis of Science. In it he claimed that the uncertainty of pure science had been masked throughout the Modern period by the enormous pragmatic success of applied science. 'Science,' he wrote, 'has become automated and has transformed scientists into its own tools.' We have only to substitute the words 'architecture' and 'architects' for 'science' and 'scientists' to see how accurate his statement was.

This idea was to recur in Flusser's writing. In a 1991 essay entitled The Factory, published in a German collection of his writings, it is dealt with at greater length. 'Human history is the history of manufacturing, everything else is mere footnotes', Flusser began. Then he defined the successive phases of this human history of manufacturing - 'hands, tools, machines, robots'. He described how productive processes (amongst which we must include the process of designing buildings), have become not so much producers of commodities as producers of new kinds of human being. 'First hand-man, then tool-man, then machine-man, and finally the robot-man.' Flusser went on to discuss the 'dematerialisation' caused by robot production, using the term exactly as we might use 'formlessness' and proving, through the congruence of making and learning, that formlessness can indeed be described as a product of the construction process, 'and everything else is mere footnotes.'

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