“Form Follows Function” – Greenberg, Rand, Wright

I’m not the best person with whom to discuss Ayn Rand. I read a little of her in high school, and that’s about all. Students love her though, so at some time I’ll perhaps need to sit down and read her novels. Other than the fact that her Objectivist philosophy is little more than Machiavelli’s The Prince uncritically updated for Capitalist times, what clear to me about Rand is this: Greenberg, and other modernist critics, would not have liked her novels, as novels. They are too full of ideas, and her prose is too transparent, insufficiently aware of and responsible for itself as an artistic medium.

As for characters in Rand’s novels, Greenberg would perhaps be conflicted about Roark, as he would have been conflicted about Wright. What Greenberg would have liked about Wright, so far as today’s discuss and my reading will allow me to infer, is the fact that he did not work in isolation but rather built a school around himself. What would have been problematic for Greenberg though, was Wright’s controlling personality. Rather than a collective collaborator, Wright saw himself as a sort of prophetic visionary who simply told others how it was and how it was going to be. I can’t say Greenberg himself wasn’t a controlling authoritarian. Certainly, the title of the biography I posted above says plenty about the way Greenberg has been perceived. If Greenberg appears has appeared less czarist in our discussion today, that’s most likely because we read his earlier works, which were still inspired by Marx and were not yet the writings of a man who had retreated into apolitical isolation. There’s a complex story behind all that, as I tried to point out in today’s discussion, and I will post on that soon.

Moving to Wright’s actual designs, I think Greenberg, though he wrote principally on the traditional mediums of painting and sculpture and not architecture, would have found much to admire there. First off, Greenberg would have approved of Wright’s determination to be modern, to break away definitively from earlier styles of architecture which saw the medium predominantly in terms of ornamentation. Architecture, as it was practiced in the Beaux Artes style of Wright mentor Louis Sullivan, was principally a matter of accepting the building as a cubic container, subdivided into smaller cubic containers. Room, then, was identical with the common sense and practical view of space. Sullivan’s method was to take neutral spaces, warehouses for either people or goods, an ornament them so as to imbue them with a sense of beauty and dignity. Sullivan’s use of modern industrial materials allowed him to build big and fast, and keep pace with a burgeoning industrial sector. This might have lead to stark though functional constructions had Sullivan’s designs not incorporated numerous reference to, or quotations of, styles from architectural history – Greek, Roman, Gothic, Renaissance. Sullivan’s designs are beautiful, but theirs is a superficial, spackled-on beauty.

El Lissitzky
Proun (1923)

Frank Llloyd Wright
Falling Water (1937)

What Wright begins to do later in his career, separating himself entirely from his mentor, is conceive of space as a plastic medium – something we’ll try to discuss at length in the writings of Beatriz Colomina before this woefully brief semester runs out. A truly modern architecture does not take space for granted, as if there were any such thing as absolute space, and uncritically build walls and roofs within that given container. Rather, a truly modern architecture recognizes that one must construct space itself, or individual spaces, through the intelligent and imaginative use of basic architectural elements, so that each building, rather than merely existing within space, is itself an entirely unique space which can be experienced and understood only through inhabiting it, either literally and physically, or imaginatively, through reading the plans for the building as if they were a novel or symphony within which one loses oneself in a state of total absorption. The famous slogan ‘form follows function’, here, means not simply that modern industrial materials and technique will allow us to build warehouses as massively and quickly as possible, though these warehouse may be imbued with and air of dignity through the more or less tasteful use of ornament. Rather, it means that each element of architecture – post, lintel, wall, window, door, roof, beam – is seem as one component within a total composition, each element interrelating with all other elements to create perfectly integrated architectural unity.

To the extent Wright was able to do this, his designs would have been the architectural equivalent of Picasso’s constructed guitar of 1914. The guitar is not simply drawn or built within given space, but rather it employs two-dimensional elements as a means of creating an object whose form derives entirely from a set of logical relations between elements whose value derives entirely from the role they play within the larger composition. For instance, the sound whole of the guitar is not an actual hole but instead a tube, whereas the face of the guitar is in fact negative space which reads a positive only when placed in relation with the other elements of the piece. Because of these internal relations, this mode of cubism, which doesn’t merely break recognizable objects into tilted planes but rather builds elements up into coordinated ‘meaningful’ wholes, is called no longer Analytic but properly Synthetic Cubism.

My contention, is that Wright’s building, at their very best, achieved this level of synthetic integrity, and earned to right to be considered truly ‘monumental’, the precise term Greenberg uses to praise the cubist works of Braque and Picasso. For Greenberg, their collages are monumental not because they are large, or beautiful or costly. Rather, they are monumental because they represent genuine intellectual and aesthetic discoveries, and they manage to stand forth as integral and authentic objects which exist entirely on their own terms. In them, form follows function, not because these objects are good for anything in particular. Indeed, even a Segovia would have a hard time playing Bach on Picasso’s guitar. The reference to function is not to any external task the objects might perform, but rather function refers to the role each element plans in the overall design.

Wright’s buildings, to the extent that they stood forth as significant acts of sculpting space as a plastic medium, would then have been as monumental as Picasso and Braque’s collages, irrespective of questions of scale. If Wright’s building do not seem as utterly austere as cubist paintings and collages but in fact employ various forms of ornamentation (), this is not because they are merely stuccoed on to his designs after the fact. Instead, Wright’s goal would have been to integrate ornamental forms completely into his designs that they became a part of the actual structure. In this, Wright would have closely resembled Braque and Picasso, whose collages employ wallpaper and other decorative materials, not arbitrarily but in a way which thoroughly integrates them into the illusion of space generated by overtly flat surface. This transformation of mere decoration into a pure instance of autonomous vision is, again, an achievement Greenberg would consider truly monumental.

Interestingly, what I say about function plays out in terms of many of Wright’s most famous designs, those he conceived after his Prairie style had become commonplace and most people considered his career to be over. Designs such as the Johnson Wax Buillding and Falling Water do succeed marvelously well as monumental constructed spaces. Unfortunately – at least for the people who worked and lived in them – they did not necessarily succeed as buildings, Both the structures I just mentioned, though formal;y compelling and indeed beautiful, were nevertheless notoriously leaky and precariously constructed. Though these mere practicalities hardly bothered Wright, whose goal was to produce not real estate but art. As far as Wright was concerned, one should be perfectly happy to endure a few leaks and fractures for the privilege of living in a masterpiece.

The last thing I’ll mention about Wright here is his later work, where I believe he would fall afoul of Greenberg’s ideas. You will recall from the essay of 1953, “The Plight of Culture” (in the light of which I mentioned European schools of design), that Greenberg is willing to make certain speculations about the direction culture may be heading, or at least certain key developments which would need to take place for culture’s continued survival. The most important of these for Greenberg is the expansion of work to cover all of society to such an extent that work absorbs leisure into itself. For Greenberg, such a transformation would lead to the end of the class structure, the very opposite of Eliot’s call, in his Notes Toward a Definition of Culture, for a return to the Middle Ages.

The elimination of a class structure, for Greenberg, would completely change the nature of labor, and, so far as I read these material correctly, lead to an entirely new kind of ‘folk culture’. Recall that what makes folk culture valuable, for Greenberg, is the fact that in traditional cultures labor is not alienated. Objects are constructed communally, and individual either create entire objects not just isolated parts, or they collaborate with others in such a way that they can see and understand how they labor relates to that of others. The objects created by folk modes of production, then, are impersonal, reflecting not individual taste and style but rather the values and intelligence of the entire community. Like the famous German “a-tonal” philosopher Theodor Adorno, Greenberg is willing to accept that the culture of masterpieces is the sole refuge to which we can resort in an age of pervasive kitsch, it become increasingly clear to me as I continue to read Greenberg (or at least the early, Marxist Greenberg) that the culture of heroic figures and rugged individualists is one he thought we would do well to supersede.

In opposition to the work of solitary geniuses, I believe it is planned and coordinated labor which Greenberg had in mind as a possible hope for the future of culture. If Greenberg does not say more, I would imagine this is because he not able – and he freely admits this – to envision what such a future might look like. As a good Marxist, he realizes that scientific history offers knowledge of the past, and how present conditions necessarily came into being through identifiable processes. But scientific historicism can offer us only the most rudimentary projection of a possible future, because the material conditions under which is would be possible to no the future do not exist in the present. Here, Greenberg, when pressed about the future, remains as diffident as Marx. He offers no prophetic vision of what will be. Considering the theoretical modesty of Marx and Greenberg, one cannot help but see how greatly the contrast with the supreme ambition of Wright (here I’m thinking of the recent retrospective of Wright’s later career, which I attended at the Guggenheim), in particular the later Wright, who deliberately styled himself as a mythical thinker and prophetic visionary, and set about planning cities of the future which can only remind one of ‘classics’ of science fiction, which is, from Greenberg’s perspective, to say kitsch literature. Perhaps some of this will remind you of Rand and Roark.

There’s probably more I could and should say about the relation between Greenberg and Wright. Knowing me, I probably will. For now, I hope this will suffice.

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