Architectural Beauty: On Functionalism (1 of 3)

If we desire architecture to have an emancipating or healing role, instead of reinforcing the erosion of existential meaning, we must reflect on the multitude of secret ways in which the art of architecture is tied to the cultural and mental reality of its time. We should also be aware of the ways in which the feasibility of architecture is being threatened or marginalised by current political, cultural, economic, cognitive and perceptual developments. Architecture has become an endangered art form.

-Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin, pg 18

Introducing Functionalism.

Henry Wotton stated the three conditions of well-built Architecture, as first outlined by Vitruvius, in “The Elements of Architecture” as “Commoditie, Firmenes, and Delight.”§ The book, published in 1624, was intended to serve as an educational tool for the common English public and was written in an accessible format for those who were not close followers of architecture. Wotton’s three conditions can be translated to mean something closer to structure, function, and beauty. This introduction serves as the  basis for two following essays which will delve deeper into contemporary understandings of beauty, neuroaesthetics research, and beauty in architecture. We begin by exploring art to contend with the notion that value judgments of art have been traditionally intertwined with pleasure, and pleasure most often equated with beauty, and that art's value is dependent on its beauty. As Tolstoy notes, “To see the aim and purpose of art in the pleasure we get from it is like assuming (...) that the purpose and aim of food is the pleasure derived when consuming it.”§

To this end, I am a proponent of Functionalism, a “theory that stresses the interdependence of the patterns and institutions of a society and their interaction in maintaining cultural and social unity.”§ This view is one I consider appropriately inclusive of both a broad definition of ‘art’ and art forms, as well as in exploring highly globalized forms of art, such as architecture, which exist across a diaspora of cultures, societies, religions, etc. This then, calls for a rejection of the traditionally hegemonic Western enforcement of what art is or isn’t by way of institutional ‘say-so’.This definition also understands that beauty is a part of aesthetic and spaesthetic experience (SX) but is not its entire container, just a unit of it; because what could we then call ugly art? It surely exists and even though art can be assigned the judgment of ‘good’, the goodness of an artwork is not always conflated with beauty, but more closely to AX (aesthetic experience) and the effect it has on an individual. §

It’s crucial to understand general attitudes toward art, primarily that “the concept of ‘art’ divorced from ritual and political function, is a relatively recent development in the West. Prior to the 18th century, most artistic traditions around the world were functional as well as aesthetic, and arguments can be made that all art serves social and economic functions.”§

There was a shift in attitude across centuries; in the 18th century, European art was something “in which the object was unique, complex, irreplaceable, inspired by the natural world, and with the exception of architecture, non-functional.”§ Non-Western art was considered to be “not unique, simply produced, replaceable, abstract, and utilitarian. Therefore, Non-Western art was not considered to be art.”§ In the 19th century, Social Darwinist theories were used “to support the claim that all cultures progress along an evolutionary ladder,” with the West viewed as ‘most advanced’ and societies in Africa viewed as ‘primitive’.§

Woman’s boots, Comanche, ca 1870. §

Ghost Dance Drum, 1891–1892, George Beaver, Native American.§

Functionalism is thus most necessary in defining art as there are vast cultural differences in what art is and isn’t, thus to provide a general definition of art that is non-inclusive of traditional non-Western forms and works is absurdly exclusionary, a massive disservice to entire peoples, civilizations, and cultures, and a continuation of a colonizing mindset in imposing Western standards on non-Western peoples. Of which, the former are perceived to be somehow ‘better’ as a result of centuries of racism and oppression - supported by social theories and popular ‘science’ as manipulations of popular opinions and which institute a superiority complex still persisting today. Colonization - where in Africa specifically, the ‘scramble for Africa’ as a way to advance European industrialism, which resulted in the partitioning of Africa at the Berlin Conference in 1885, resulted in “a continent defined by artificial borders with little concern for existing ethnic, linguistic, or geographic realities.”§ This is intuitive. If one feels that this point is further justified one can even look to Kant and his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.”§

Anzaldua in Borderlands writes on the acceptance of non-Western art, 

Western cultures behave differently toward works of art than do tribal cultures. The "sacrifices'" Western cultures make are in housing their artworks in the best structures designed by the best architects; and in servicing them with insurance, guards to protect them, conservators to maintain them, specialists to mount and display them" and the educated and upper classes to "view" them. Tribal cultures keep artworks in honored and sacred places in the home and elsewhere. They attend them by making sacrifices of blood (goat or chicken), libations of wine. They bathe, feed, and clothe them. The works are treated not just as objects, but also as persons. The "witness" is a participant in the enactment of the work in a ritual, and not a member of the privileged classes.

Ethnocentrism is the tyranny of Western aesthetics. An Indian mask in an American museum is transposed into an alien aesthetic system where what is missing is the presence of power invoked through performance ritual. It has become a conquered thing, a dead "thing" separated from nature and, therefore, its power.

Modern Western painters have "borrowed," copied, or otherwise extrapolated the art of tribal cultures and called it cubism, surrealism, symbolism. The music, the beat of the drum, the Blacks' jive talk. All taken over. Whites, along with a good number of our own people, have cut themselves off from their spiritual roots, and they take our spiritual art objects in an unconscious attempt to get them back.§

Most notably Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, along with a number of others, 

blended the highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures with painting styles derived from the post-Impressionist works of Cézanne and Gauguin. The resulting pictorial flatness, vivid color palette, and fragmented Cubist shapes helped to define early modernism. While these artists knew nothing of the original meaning and function of the West and Central African sculptures they encountered, they instantly recognized the spiritual aspect of the composition and adapted these qualities to their own efforts to move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art since the Renaissance.§

“In Les Demoiselles d'Avignon the faces of the three women on the left are based on the Iberian sculptures. So as to avoid compositional monotony, Picasso based the faces of the two women on the right on the African totem art, that he had also collected.”§§

Contemporary Functionalism.

In view of the ‘contemporary’ functionalism first defined earlier as  a “theory that stresses the interdependence of the patterns and institutions of a society and their interaction in maintaining cultural and social unity,” this Functionalism has two main criteria that should be fulfilled within its definition.§

The first is that the creative process of creating an art object must be consciously intentional, and the second is that the art object is created to be art; to be art is to be able to engage with its audience through itself. 

Conscious intention implies active awareness of the direction of mental process’ and thus technical skill in the creative process that assist in shaping (visualizing, constructing, etc.) the art object. You are aware of the usage of your skills in producing art. This does not imply direct self-awareness of the art object is necessary to qualify as art. If each painting had ‘painting’ written on it, that’d be unnecessarily meta, though the art object can be ‘self-aware’.

Being aware of one’s self and perceptions does not necessarily contribute to the active, intentional pursuit of a goal through conscious means. Conscious intention is the combination of the two components working in accordance with the other, sharing a ‘goal’. (Such as with architectural Function, which is the combinatory effect of user experience (functionality) and design (function), where a building only Functions if both the operator of function and operation of functionality are fulfilled).

For example, if I am conscious of my ability to speak French, I am able to understand my limitations and strengths when I speak it (and ‘limitations’ and ‘strengths’ hold different meanings and value-judgments according to a combination of factors). If I wish to improve my ability to speak French, I must be conscious of my limitations. Studying in a way that is self-aware of my limitations and doing exercises to specifically improve those weaknesses is to be consciously intentional about the act of studying, a behavioral AND cognitive exercise that is not driven alone by the act of being conscious.

Conscious intentionality in the creative process is critical in defining art, but not necessarily on an individual level where the lines between consciousness and intentionality become more blurred and might not even exist. For in becoming ‘conscious’, there is certainly the direction of intentional thoughts in multiple self-reflective and positional processes that span over time, which might imply they’re the same or are very similar. Equally weighted arguments can be made for both. It’s probable that we never really reach ‘true’ consciousness and our self-awareness is almost always a primitive level of consciousness and most are ‘basically conscious’. This would imply that consciousness of the creator isn’t necessarily a criteria for art to be art, although because of a ‘basic consciousness’ most will be. One might liken the process of true consciousness to an endless spiral with a tail that begins when we are born. The tail consists of the ‘data-gathering’ part of our lives and the journey towards total consciousness or ‘full awareness’ begins when we, consciously or unconsciously, enter the process of self-reflecting through memories, events, etc. that contribute to our understanding of ourselves. When we reach ‘true’ consciousness, we have reached the center of the circle and it is only here when we are able to look back and see all that we have gone through (this is pure romantic speculation).

I cannot offer more on the link between consciousness and intentionality on the individual level, this was rather to make the point clear that the first criterion focuses on the creative process of art.

Tolstoy writes in What is Art,

Art begins when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications (...)

it is art if a man, having experienced either the fear of suffering or the attraction of enjoyment (whether in reality or in imagination) expresses these feelings on canvas or in marble so that others are infected by them. And it is also art if a man feels or imagines to himself feelings of delight, gladness, sorrow, despair, courage, or despondency and the transition from one to another of these feelings, and expresses these feelings by sounds so that the hearers are infected by them and experience them as they were experienced by the composer.

The feelings with which the artist infects others may be most various — very strong or very weak, very important or very insignificant, very bad or very good: feelings of love for oneʹs own country, self‐devotion and submission to fate or to God expressed in a drama, raptures of lovers described in a novel, feelings of voluptuousness expressed in a picture, courage expressed in a triumphal march, merriment evoked by a dance, humor evoked by a funny story, the feeling of quietness transmitted by an evening landscape or by a lullaby, or the feeling of admiration evoked by a beautiful arabesque — it is all art.

If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art.


Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands off to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.§

This speaks to both ideas of Functionalism; how art engages and the awareness required in its creation.

We must also note that there are exceptions to art. Not everything is art and it’s not a crime that we set well-thought out exclusions. I don’t consider my random notebook doodles to be art, and when I blow my nose and toss the tissue, it’s hardly a still life. These things are not art! Despite the controversy of the most recent ‘art-world atrocity’, the aptly-titled Comedian by Maurizio Cattelan, is art. It fulfills the criteria: it is both intended to function as art (and is additionally self-aware of itself) and it evokes a reaction. In fact, many explicit reactions. Some of outrage, shock, pleasure, joviality - the list goes on. 


In conclusion, a contemporary definition of art functionalism allows us to reject discrimination against non-Western work because it maintains a functional purpose, especially as it is often so clearly a veil behind which an incredibly limiting agenda of art is advanced which maintains partisan inclinations towards the preservation of ‘high Western art’ as the best, most intelligent and complex, and therefore ‘superior art’. In using Functionalism as a guideline for defining art, it democratizes the ability to include/exclude certain objects from ‘art’ on the basis of engagement and conscious intention, and not on criteria pertaining to a specific cultural base; crucial in discussing highly diasporic art substrates such as architecture.§ Thus, with the rejection of a Western monopoly in defining art, which includes within it ‘functional’ forms, we are able to reject that beauty is the sole metric of an artworks value.

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