Architecture

In a critical history of architecture, one major dividing issue pits beauty against use (since commerce, by definition is beneath evaluative criticism), and this distinction raises in turn two completely different sets of rationales--one typified in American thought by William James, the other by Thorstein Veblen. As Wayne Andrews draws this useful distinction in his Architecture, Ambition and Americans (1955), the Jamesian believes that a beautiful building will enhance the lives of all who dwell within and around it, as elegant architecture does elegant people make; the Veblenian position argues that since a building's usefulness as a human habitat is primary, technical efficiency and humane considerations create architectural quality and perhaps a certain kind of beauty.

From this distinction also follows two completely different kinds of criticism--the formalist and the functionalist, the former emphasizing esthetic qualities and perceptions, the latter social relevance and habitational experience. Pure formalism would acknowledge, for instance, that designs are added to a structural frame to evoke an esthetic response, while the functionalist accepts only those shapes derived from internal structure. If the latter school of criticism analyzes buildings as primarily "machines built for living in," in Le Corbusier's classic phrase (though he was not himself a hard-line functionalist), the formalist critic is concerned with esthetic properties peculiar to buildings--not only the sculptural qualities evoked by three-dimensional volumes, but also the esthetic character of the space (the "artistic environment," so to speak) surrounding a man inside the edifice.

R. Buckminster Fuller is an entirely different kind of architect--a pure Veblenian so different from those already discussed that talk about his achievements requires a different critical language. . . . Fuller's architectural proposals predate his social philosophy; but both incorporate three fundamental ideas first developed and expressed in the late twenties: (1) the dymaxion principle, which is the maximalization of dynamic performance, usually measured per pound of structure, whether in an automobile, an airplane, or a house--an idea related to industrial ephemeralization which is the achievement of increasingly more results from increasingly less materials. (2) The practical advantages of mass-production, so that houses could be assembled more economically on a factory-line, like automobiles or airplanes, rather than, then as now, inefficiently produced on their final resting spot by scores of unrelated craftsmen. (3) The universal applicability of all architectural solutions.

On Innovative Art(ist)s (1991)