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Style and Substance: Interview with Farshid Moussavi

Farshid Moussavi is soon to publish The Function of Style, the third volume in her Function series. Here, she gives Will Hunter an exclusive preview of the book, and explains the active role research plays in her office, for example, in the evolution of FMA’s residential tower in Montpellier, France

Research has played a prominent role in your career - how did this start, and what were your driving concerns?

It started with teaching. At the AA, the unit system, where you teach the same students for the whole academic year, gave time for research, more than the semester-long teaching that you find, for example, in the US. It was also sparked by being exposed to digital tools. I come from the first generation of architects that started using computers. The computer forces a discipline of thinking about how you set up a project in a way that drawing by hand or making models doesn’t. By hand you can be more intuitive; with the computer you need to organise the project into layers of information, which makes you more conscious of the process of generating it.

The research for the Function series has been driven by a concern to bridge the gap between research that is issue-driven and research with digital tools. During the last two decades, there has been a growing awareness of the urgency of issues such as sustainability, community and equality, and urbanisation as well as political events; at the same time, we now have the advantage of all kinds of digital tools for the design and manufacture of buildings, which has led to an interest in designing buildings with more complex forms. But we need to connect these new concerns, and to find architecturally specific ways to address the environment, for example, or complex shapes and scripted surfaces, so that they are connected to people’s lives and we don’t look at them as merely objects that exist for their own sake. The Function research has therefore been focused on finding discipline-specific tools to address certain contemporary concerns.

Towers

Left: Marina City, Center: Aqua, Right: Montpellier. The balconies of neighbouring apartments are usually separated from each other with dividing walls. These, along with the need for external shading, interrupt views and hinder the openness of the balconies.

Plans

However, two towers in Chicago, Marina City (by Bertrand Goldberg) and Aqua (by Studio Gang), provide an alternative balcony arrangement. Both eliminate shading (presumably because Chicago doesn’t get hot enough in the summer), and they also eliminate the dividing walls by designing the balconies as individually curved pieces that are stacked upon one another

How did you start the Function research?

It started with ornament. I had just spent five years working on retail projects and began to realise that these types of projects can be very large and often end up shaping the city centre. Architects are being given what is essentially the exterior envelope, or the ‘shell’, and asked to do something interesting. And this is a very difficult problem because it seems to limit the architecture to being some kind of decorative exercise. It seemed important to root this question of the envelope within the discipline of architecture to locate its potential.

It became apparent to me that the interiors of retail buildings have a high churn rate − you might be the person to design the interior of a department store, but that is going to last for about five years. Actually, the design of the envelope is where you can make a more profound contribution in the long term, by determining how the department store sits in its context, how it contributes to the city, how it is not just a big blank box, how you can introduce natural light to the interior and allow the shoppers inside to have a glimpse of the outside context without distracting them or exposing the unsightly clutter of changing displays. These problems are coefficients of the envelope of a department store that architects can shape.

At the time, I was teaching in Vienna and I decided to set up a course on ornament with the intention of defining ornament within the context of contemporary architecture, and distinguishing it from decoration. I thought this would enable us to approach the design of a building envelope not as superficial decoration but as integral to a building. However, though the research originated in retail projects and building envelopes, it began to grow in scope. A year later I started teaching at Harvard and took the ornament research into my seminars there. Through looking at the history of ornament, it became apparent that it has never had a stable definition and the way it was defined was determined by circumstances that no longer prevail, and we should be free to redefine it to make it productive for contemporary architecture.

The research was done in the context of my seminars. And then a small group of students stayed on with me to finish it and to publish it as a book. If you look at the contents page of The Function of Ornament, the projects are grouped into structure, form, screen and surface. The book argues that ornament is something that is fundamental to an architectural project, essential to its identity at every level. It can have different depths in different projects. In the case of a retail project, it may evolve through the surface of the envelope, but in a museum project it may go much deeper and the entire form, for example, can be defined as ornament, in which case it would engage the interior, the structure, the environmental aspects of the building, etc. This way of thinking about ornament means it’s not just a piece of decoration stuck onto the building.

Balconies1

From top down: Marina City, Aqua, Montpellier: The curved balcony arrangement presents new problems. In eliminating the dividing walls, the curved balconies compromise privacy by overlooking the neighbour’s balcony laterally, particularly at Aqua because the balconies are aligned along their length

What is the format of the seminars?

My seminars aim at putting contemporary practice into a broader perspective by each time connecting it to a specific slice of architectural history. This not only teaches us about previous concepts and tools but it also allows us to turn history into an act of production: producing new definitions for concepts and tools to make them relevant to contemporary practice. The seminars are split between discussing texts on the subject, and investigating contemporary architecture through graphic/drawing research.

In each research scenario, the students take a few projects each and analyse them. They do drawings and pin them up on the wall and we discuss them, just like they would for a studio project. But, as the seminars are only 15 weeks long, students can’t produce the material for the publication. So a student would look at eight, or a maximum of 10, projects. And, of course, to redefine an architectural concept, it is important to look beyond 40 or 50 projects. A larger pool is needed to produce a convincing body of evidence. I may have a certain intuition about where the research could go at the beginning but, like any true research, it’s a process of discovery. And, therefore, many rounds are required to gain clarity. I repeat a course over two or three years so that through a number of seminars I am able to accumulate enough thinking on the subject and eventually we can start the process of making a book. By this time I may have more clarity on the project but we haven’t done any of the final drawings. And that is an entirely new exercise; it needs an entirely new team, as the semester has ended.

Although I’ve usually worked remotely with a small team of graduate students, I’ve always been the one who puts the book together. For example, the group who worked with me on The Function of Form were in full-time employment in different countries. I directed them all from London, pulled the pages together, wrote all the captions as well as the introductory essay, etc. The Function books are by no means what I would call a ‘compilation’ of students’ contributions. They strive for a coherence that requires one person to oversee both the production process and the content, and this of course takes a lot of time.

Plans

At the Montpellier Tower, FMA has addressed the problems presented in protruding balconies by firstly removing the dividing wall that is conventionally added, as shown in A.
B: shows the dividing wall removed and replaced by tapered balconies
C: shows the balconies made curvilinear so that the two sides of the corner balconies are better communicated
D: the interior outline of the apartment is curved to unite the two halves of the corner balconies into a single continuous one
E: the exterior curves of the balconies are twisted in respect to the interior curves
F: When the interior and exterior are both curvilinear and twisted relative to each other, lateral overlooking from balconies is avoided

Do you have to keep open-minded to make sure that you’re not picking projects only to support your instinctive thesis?

Projects get thrown out but they often come back in. I am very interested in questioning and redefining the subjects we are looking at. So long as the projects help to throw light on the research, they belong in the book. That’s how the selection process works.

For the Ornament and the Form books I had small teams − four or five graduates of my seminars who worked with me during the summer and for several months after to choose and prepare the projects. With The Function of Style, since it has been a more ambitious project, it couldn’t possibly be done by a group of that size. In my new office, FMA, there is a dedicated research arm, FunctionLab, and that is where most of the Style work has been undertaken. I have also taken a two-year sabbatical from teaching so that I can focus on it. A few students joined in the research last summer, but mostly it has been 18 months of solid work at FMA, by FunctionLab, as well as many others who collaborate with us remotely.

What makes it a more ambitious project?

The Ornament book explored the envelopes of buildings of the 20th century, looking at a single element across these buildings, and there were fewer projects. The Form book was looking at the structural systems − nothing else − of buildings going back to Gothic cathedrals. Again, it was a single criterion across all of them. The Style book, as it has evolved, has created a conversation about different functional categories of buildings and their form, and it examines 220 projects, relating contemporary architecture since the 1990s to early modernism. It’s been a much more complex exercise analytically and graphically − we’re drawing a lot more of every project than just the structure or the envelope.

AquaDown

Aqua

MarinaDown

Marina City and Aqua (above): Privacy is further compromised in residential towers with simply stacked balconies due to overlooking from neighbours above

Why did you focus on style this time?

It grew out of the Ornament and Form research, both of which relate to the aesthetics of buildings, and the aesthetic experience is no longer about the representation of things external to architecture, but rather about the experience of it in its actuality − through its ‘thisness’ or its affects.

The style research takes that further by questioning what it is that aesthetics − the experience of affects − actually does. Ever since the Enlightenment, style has been central to debates about the nature of architecture, whether we are talking about Semper’s idea of ornament as the representation of techniques of fabrication, or Riegl’s concept of ‘period style’, or the Constructivists’ politicisation of style.
For two centuries, the agency of architecture has resided in producing various forms of representation. This way of making buildings belongs to a different era, but also to a different type of architectural practice, before it became so intertwined with other disciplines. So the question of style seems especially relevant now, as it is again very important to see where architecture’s discipline-specific agency lies: What do architects do? What do they base their decisions on?

Montpellieroverlook

These images show the effect of a single floor-type plate with balconies simply stacked on top of one another (left) and the same with four different floor plates. As seen, using four different floor plates that arranges balconies in a rotating disposition makes it impossible for one neighbour to see the other from above

So what answers have you come up with?

The more complex a project is, in the sense of its relationship to other fields, the more experts are involved. Contrary to the idea that this diminishes the role of the architect, you see that the architect’s role is even more necessary, as the architect is the one expert who must find the lateral connections across all these other experts, so that their contributions aren’t just piled on top of each other, but are brought together in a way that they perform together and add value.

Also I think that this specific role the architect has is always oriented towards aspects of everyday life − for instance, shopping or residing or going to the theatre or playing sport. So the way the architect defines how structure, services, acoustics, security, neighbours’ rights-of-light, flows of people, lighting, space-planning and so on will be interrelated, whether in a shopping centre or an apartment building or a theatre, influences everyday life.
The way you bring together the different experts and materials that are involved in producing, say, a building for residing in is very different from the way you would bring them together to improve the experience of viewing exhibitions. In a museum, the architect may want to give people the opportunity to contemplate works of art but also to interact; whereas, in a building for residing in, the aim might be to provide them with private space. Architecture has many different means of providing these functions.

What you’re essentially describing is how a building can be arranged to cater for different functions. In the Style book you cluster buildings into families by use, and look at how these have evolved, to become better often by increment. But then a more conventional understanding of style would be something that could operate across functions, so you might have an Arts & Crafts school or an Arts & Crafts house.
One way of thinking about style has been to associate it with a certain period or epoch. This suggests that everyday practice is a very dumb exercise and every time a new style of architecture is defined we just churn it out until a new one comes along. But architects make intelligent and deliberate decisions when they design each of their buildings, which change what I call the style of those buildings, or the way that we engage in the everyday life associated with those buildings.

RotatingPlans

By rotating the plans from floor to floor, two of the balconies of each floor are aligned with the floor above, but the other two aren’t. This creates two types of balcony on each floor: a covered balcony (dark grey) which is covered by the floor above it and an open balcony (light grey) which is covered by the floor two floors above it.

The book on style attempts to calibrate the idea of style with everyday practice. When architects bring together the different architectural elements of a building − the walls, the landing, the balcony, and so on − they give that building a certain style that performs through a number of affects. To discover the impact of that process on everyday life we have divided it into functional categories which in turn can be subdivided into relevant subcategories that define patterns of arrangement which are characteristic of that type of building, and how and to what effect those arrangements can be changed. For instance, to analyse the function of style in residential buildings, we might divide them into different formal types − towers, slabs, etc − and, within that, to focus on one element which has an impact on privacy, like the balcony, and trace how different balcony arrangements result in towers with different appearances and different conditions of privacy, light, air, etc.

The problem with ‘period’ styles − like the Arts & Crafts example − also applies to attempts to associate style with specific geographic regions or the work of particular architects. I am very interested in the sort of architect who doesn’t have a repeating style or use predefined formal recipes. Every project brings with it a certain number of coefficients − the context, the programme, physical elements such as corridors and rooms or seats and a stage and an entrance hall, and certain conventions. Our contribution as architects depends on how we deploy those conventions, and I think this is what gives agency to the architect’s practice. It makes the form of a building have significance for people because it changes the way they experience their everyday activities and is embedded in their lives in very structural ways, not in superficial ways.

MontpellierBalconies

From top down: half-covered bacony, covered balcony, uncovered balcony. In the balconies which are recessed and covered by the floor above them, a curtain is provided to introduce an extra measure of privacy. The double-height balconies are left open as they already benefit from a greater level of privacy. This assemblage of floors and balconies gives prospective residents a choice not only of unit interior sizes, but also of balcony sizes and orientation as well as whether they are covered or open

To ensure that we think of architecture as an integral part of everyday life rather than a decorated shed, we need to think of form, or the appearance of a building and its functions, as inseparable. The style research is an attempt to bring form and function and style and typology together. Theoretically, they seem to be treated as separate issues but that is because architects, in their minds, have separated them. In practice they are not at all separate. My experience of it is that nobody tells you to separate the appearance of the building from its organisation − it’s architects who have separated them. Great works of architecture have always held these together − great buildings have continued to inspire people for decades or centuries precisely because their aesthetic experience is inseparable from their innate sense of order, and that’s what gives them significance for the people experiencing them over time.

How do you see style in relation to culture?

I believe that buildings influence the way people think and act, and that means they are part of culture. And, of course, the discipline of architecture has its own culture too. The exercise of producing publications is based on an interest in the culture of architecture, and, in my case, in sharing what I feel passionate about with my students and colleagues. But ultimately I would be very unhappy if this were thought of as a detached culture. The whole premise of The Function of Style is to investigate architecture as something that exists not just for its own sake but as fundamentally about people. This seems very obvious, but there have been periods of history when we seem to have forgotten that. If you read how style has been defined historically, you discover that it has nearly always excluded people. Over time, as it has been associated with factors such as technical crafts, individual or epochal intentions or other historical issues, these have never related to how style can make a difference to people; these factors have simply been used as tools to represent history.

MarinaAquaInteriors

A curved balcony attached to a rectilinear interior divides the interior from the exterior, by treating them as two very different spaces

How have you redefined style?

Instead of thinking of style as what a form represents − as a way of representing an epoch, a nation, or an architect − I propose to think of it as how a form performs. Style, then, rather than pertaining to something external to a building, manifests itself as the cluster of affects which make up that building and which determine how people experience it − both aesthetically and in their everyday activities. Therefore, by producing unconventional arrangements or assemblages, architects can generate a unique cluster of affects.

What functions have you covered in the Style book?

It’s about buildings for particular activities of daily life, so we are not focusing on typology. People don’t look at buildings: they experience them. People’s relationship to buildings always revolves around participation in certain activities. So the Style book examines buildings for residing, for listening to concerts, for working, for viewing exhibitions, for travelling through, for learning, for residing and working in (mixed-use), for watching sport, for shopping.

The period we focused on − architecture since the 1990s − is a period that coincides with the rise of digital technologies as well as the boom in the global economy. It has been one of the most fruitful periods for architecture. There has been a lot of unsuccessful architecture but I thought it was also important to analyse what architecture had achieved during this period.

Did you look back to examples before 1990?

Yes. As part of the agenda to shift style away from representing epochs or individual architects, the book is set up as a comparative analysis between the architecture since the 1990s and modernism. The post- 1990s projects are formally more complex than the modernist projects, and form appears to be more of the driving force. But, by putting them side by side with projects of early 20th century, it becomes evident that they have not been entirely invented from scratch just because we have new tools. They are different but also related to early modernism. This idea of drawing on a common pool of knowledge is similar to the way style works in music and literature. They have style and genre − where a genre is a kind of grouping of work that different musicians and writers can share. Genres may emerge at certain points in time, but they don’t die − jazz hasn’t died, electronic music hasn’t died, rap hasn’t died; they evolve and are taken in new directions as individual musicians start to develop new styles within these genres.

When the global economy crashed, some architects and critics were forecasting a return to basics. But I wasn’t worried at all, because I think we will never go back to a time when there are just boxy buildings − or even curvy buildings, for that matter. We have reached a time when patrons of architecture − whether public or private − welcome diversity of expression.

What I enjoy, and find very productive, is looking back to look ahead. When, for whatever reasons, architects end up adopting and working within certain existing formal genres − consciously or not − they most often fall into certain ways of thinking about form and function that have a history of their own. And I think that being conscious of it makes us act more intelligently. If someone came to me and said, ‘Can you design me a car?’, unless I wanted to turn the car into an aeroplane and make it fly, I would try to understand what a car does and how it moves, and what other people have done with it, before I make a start at my design, because otherwise you can have some false assumptions. By looking at what exists, you can very quickly find out exactly where you can contribute something new. Sometimes your contribution may be more confined, but will ultimately be more influential, because it is exactly the area that hasn’t been explored, or that can be questioned in light of conditions today.

MonInterior

The Montpellier Tower avoids the disconnected relationship between the interior and exterior by curving both the apartment wall and the balcony perimeters. This creates better communication between the interior and exterior spaces and encourages indoor-outdoor living

How did you select the projects for the book?

I was very interested in interrogating projects that were formally complex to discover whether they were informed by deliberate form-function dialogues. And by that I don’t mean just curvy, but also those which are stacked, or have lots of projecting floors.

We began with a big pool of projects and then, through analysing what they did rather than simply how they looked, many of them were dropped. There were projects from ‘star’ or ‘avant-garde’ architects, and projects from more corporate practices. Some of those from the stars didn’t make it through the final selection because the forms turned out to be superficial; and some of those from corporate offices remained, because they were significant. We were also investigating similarities and differences across projects and started to identify networks of relations between them. All this contributed to the final selection. But of course the book does not intend to be comprehensive in any way. It is a selection of projects that are related to each other through their style.

The book recognises that creativity can emerge from anywhere. Projects have lives of their own that, once they are built or published, if they are good they have to be celebrated, without people being snobbish about where they’ve come from.

How has the knowledge you have built doing these books informed your own practice?

We have recently been working on an office building in the City of London while I’ve been writing the chapter on buildings for working in. And of course the research, for example, enabled me to examine how architects have collectively approached the curtain wall in places for working and the kinds of contributions they have made to the urban context. I am very interested in not just borrowing ideas, but in looking at other ideas to adapt and change them. For instance, the research into office buildings was partly focused on the curtain wall, so we have been able to investigate that aspect of the project more thoroughly by taking into account its historical use and meaning. Sometimes, looking at the work of other architects just gives you a broader perspective, and you end up not doing any of it, but by having access to a common pool of knowledge you become more conscious of why you’re not doing it.

As the book identifies architectural evolution, has the way you’ve designed also evolved over the last 10 or 20 years?

I have become interested in discipline-specific research, focused on architecture’s instrumentality and how that provides it with specific agency vis-à-vis people. By this, I don’t mean seeing architecture in isolation from other fields − but focusing precisely on what architects can do that other disciplines cannot.

I think it’s interesting to talk about the way buildings perform through affects because affects are generated by diverse coefficients that relate to buildings, yet inseparable from the actual, physical assemblage of elements that architects give shape to. Therefore, the production of the affects of buildings is specifically the domain of architects, while not disconnected from the domains of other experts who are involved with the design process.
The challenge with affects is that, since different people will interpret them differently, you cannot bend them towards a specific intention. However, by finding relevant precedents and researching the way they perform, certain elements can be appropriated with some confidence.

FarshidPlan

The covered balconies are shown in dark grey, the open balconies with a hatch and the structure in red. As plans rotate from floor
to floor, the structure remains constant within the curved perimeter walls so that aside from the perimeter envelope and the core, the interior is free of structure and gives residents the flexibility to change their interior arrangements over time. This balcony arrangement therefore provides each apartment with an affect of flexibility as well as privacy, diversity, fluidity, temporality and natural ventilation

What about the role of intuition in design?

You can’t do without intuition. If you think about it, intuition is driven by our past experiences: places we’ve been, books we’ve read, movies we’ve seen, people we’ve met. I’m interested in my personal history, but I am even more interested in not being limited by it and in broadening my horizons by looking beyond my own history into the bigger history that I belong to. We can look at architectural history, using our own intuitions as an initial filter, and then opening it up to the discoveries or achievements of other architects.

How do you structure research within your own practice?

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve recently established FunctionLab within FMA with the primary mission of conducting research in parallel to practice. An example of how this works is the research by FunctionLab, working with Hans Ulrich Obrist, into contemporary art that was undertaken in tandem with the design work on FMA’s MOCA Cleveland. There, the feedback loop between the design work on MOCA and the research on contemporary art raised questions about the use of the white cube for showing contemporary artworks, and whether it is still the best model. In effect, the design for MOCA used that critique to explore an alternative gallery model.

Obviously, in my teaching, as I have a professor-in-practice position at Harvard, I have the opportunity to take practice-related issues to an academic level. But I felt a sense of frustration that this was not happening every day in my office. FunctionLab gives me the opportunity to have a group of people working with me on different research-related issues. The work is not commissioned by anyone; it’s purely research.

It also provides a way for us to collaborate with people from other fields. FunctionLab has established an online platform, where we share work with and publish our external collaborators. The research projects can be as slow or as fast as they need to be. The Function books are slow − they take a lot of time − but the 720 pamphlet series is faster, short in format, and from external collaborators who contribute individually. The platform brings them together, and I’m hoping that, over time, they’ll start to influence each other and build a larger picture of what we think of as function.

It is quite unusual for a practitioner to be doing academic research on other practitioners’ buildings - how do you view the Function books in relation to other ‘histories’ of architecture?

I think it’s important to examine the ideas that are inherent in the assembly or design of buildings, and to examine the aesthetic experiences the buildings generate and the significance of those. To do this, you need to look at buildings in their actuality. Since the intention was to discuss contemporary architecture rather than just my own work, the research has had to embrace the work of many other architects. In the past, architects and historians have focused on analysing the buildings of different architects and different eras − such as Vitruvius, Serlio, Vignola, Alberti, Semper, Palladio, Banister Fletcher, Kenneth Frampton or Rafael Moneo. But in most of these cases the drawings were supporting a written analysis.

I think of drawing, not as illustration, but as the instrument that architects use to experiment, to develop ideas and eventually communicate them to others who build them. It’s therefore possible to discuss architecture through drawings alone, hence the graphic format of the Function books.

The Function books intentionally separate the introductory essay from the drawings and their captions. The drawings enable one kind of discussion about the actuality of buildings; the essays review the history of concepts that relate to them. The books create a space in which the two types of investigation work in parallel with each other, without one being forced to act as an illustration for the other.

The Function of Style

The Function of Style is published by Actar, Harvard GSD and FunctionLab. Visit functionlab.net for the first in the 720 series by Emilia Izquierdo, Stephen Gill, FMA, Rahul Mehrotra & Felipe Vera Benitez, Leyre Ascanio Villoria & David Mah, Ciro Najle, Daniel López-Pérez and Jerold S Kayden

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