On the current value of the functionalist idea

By Asger Jorn 1956

The last few years have witnessed an ever-growing dissatisfaction with rationalist ideas of functionalism. One speaks increasingly of a revolution against its unsupportable constraints, and this revolution seems inevitable and obvious. But before throwing everything onto the scrap heap, it is worth reflecting on the nature of a true revolution, because the latter cannot come into being by destroying things willy-nilly.

We must preserve what to us seems workable within the heritage of functionalism. As soon as the latter set itself against the old classicism, it proclaimed that "the house is a machine for living in," "the kitchen is a machine for feeding," etc. These arguments triumphed by virtue of their indubitable truth.

The functionalists made a rational analysis of structure and its functions; they reduced form to its most economic aspect for the satisfaction of our needs. Thus, they created a hitherto unknown understanding of the object and the implement. Over and above this objective functionalism, they aspired to a humanist analysis of the social and ethical functions of our environment, with its unfolding on a democratic base, underpinned by a "concept of urbanism" that ordains man's right to a domicile that ensures him a salubrious and calm existence.

In laying the foundations of an irrational architecture, it would be inconceivable to omit these vitally important facts. It is easy and doubtless amusing to create new ideas in opposition to old ones, but culture is the opposite of this: it is the elaboration and continuous transformation of already-existing pheenomena. The functionalist slogan can always be of use to us. Usefulness and function remain the point of departure for any formal critique; it is simply a question of transforming the functionalist program. It is always worthwhile to try to arrive at the most effective result by the economic means. But if we agreed on this point, why then do we claim to be dissatisfied with functionalsim? It is because of its aesthetic, which never sought to regard the aesthetic aspect as an autonomous function of human activity. Aesthetics is "the science of the beautiful and the ugly." Following Platonism, the functionalists contrived to deny the autonomous existence of beauty by saying that "what is true and good is always beautiful": namely, that logic and ethics have beauty already built into them.

By dint of this false notion, they constructed an aethetic idea that consists in the constructivist idea and in seeing the outside of the object as a reflection of the practical functions of its inside. Nevertheless, these analyses of usefulness and necessity, which, according to their lights, must be the basis for the construction of any object created by man, are immediately rendered ridiculous if one analyzes all objects manufactured today. A fork or a bed cannot come to be considered as necessary for the life and health of man and still retain a relative value.

It is a question of "acquired necessities." Modern man is smothered in these necessities -- the television, the fridge, etc. -- that render him incapable of living his real life. Obviously, we are not opposed to modern technology, but we are against any idea of the absolute necessity of objects, going so far as to doubt their effective usefulness.

Moreover, the functionalists ignore the psychological function of the environment. Just as coffee has no value for the health of man but only a psychological and sensory importance, so the sight of the outside of the buildings and objects that surround us and that we use has a function independent of their practical usefulness. The outside of a house ought not to reflect the inside but constitute a source of poetic sensastion for the observer.



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