"In What Form Should We Build?"

One of Sam Jacob's main points about postmodernism in his excellent article for Dezeen is that postmodernism primarily pointed the way toward (rather than manifested) the reality of a world in which signs and their referents have become dissociated. As both Jacob's article and book Make It Real argue, a postmodernist revival today is a truism. This is because everything is postmodern: in Marxian terms, the absence of non-relative truth is the predominant theoretical superstructure capable of organising the superlatively divergent modes of contemporary production and communication exchange (and the increasingly convergent forms of precarious, unsecuritised labour).

There are two things to remember about this condition of total fluidity. The first is that postmodernism is increasingly complicit with the contradiction of late capitalist labour markets: it looks like we have infinite choice of lifestyle and career paths; in reality we are all subjects of a catastrophic restructuring of labour and forms of life to a homogenous, polarised, neo-feudalism. So, in a sense, we have to reject the postmodern simulation of alternatives in order to find new ways to assert actual alternatives.

The second thing to remember, when it comes to appearances especially, is that we live in an era in which form is now only time-based. What does this mean, and what do we mean by form? Form should be understood as distinct from style or aesthetics – the former is a cultural register and the later is a moral assertion. Form is the particular combination of qualities that define an object. For example, the form of a table is only the statements that determine what constitutes pure “tableness” – a table has a leg or legs; a table has a flat surface; a table is furniture, and so on. This is what Plato called “the thing itself” – the pure essence of a thing. Form, he says, is a combination of naming, description, hypothetical examples (models or drawings) and a knowledge of many examples (looking at tables in the world).

Bernard Cache has most recently applied Plato’s idea of “thing itself” and form to design, through what he called the “objectile.” This is the philosophical basis for all computational and parametric design, in which the aim is not to design an object (the table) but an objectile (the parameters that allow for infinite generation of table versions). The fatal error of the parametricists and others of the late 20th century was to think that objectiles (infinite form) had anything to do with style or aesthetics. This is why the weird Otto Frei resurgence of tensile structures, biomimicry, organic plasticity, etc, always felt so forced.

Form today has no longevity, and is purely temporal, operative and contingent. The objectile – bundles of free-floating parameters defining an object – has always been the intangible blueprint for a physical object. As a result of ubiquitous telephony and digital media, the physical object is now irrelevant. Consider Amazon, Uber, Airbnb or iTunes (amongst innumerable other communication applications) – there exists a form to each which is peculiar and particular, but which is neither physical or stylistic / aesthetic. In user-interface speak, the changeable style or aesthetic of a programme is called the “skin.” All style, all aesthetic is today nothing more than skins: meaningless beyond its most immediate cognitive impact and it’s role in forming a semiotic context. The semiotics of contemporary style and aesthetics is, further, now almost totally commercialised and fungible – the recycling, recombining and redeploying of different historical styles is a type of costume dance intended to sell.

Form is now purely operative and not stylistic.

The history of the iTunes icon (pictured above) makes the point neatly: as every person with the programme knows, iTunes updates every week but hasn’t substantially changed in more than a decade. So why the nearly annual change in icon? Why the ceaseless procession of skins? Only in order to give the impression of novelty, and thus to seduce and encourage user engagement. The form of iTunes has evolved infinitely slower.

The fatal error today is thinking that the power of architecture has anything to do with style or aesthetics. All that matters is form; and form is invisible – it is the parameters of information exchange, the metrics of commercial and financial success. It is governance and terms of contract, the politics of space and the resolution of conflicts. Once architecture abandons discussions of style in favour of form, that is, operative subversion and redeployment of non-stylistic conditions in order to achieve a specific end, then we will have entered the 21st century. Until that time, I can’t help but find much of contemporary discussion of architecture perversely old-fashioned and out of touch.


Jack Self