Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture

Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture

Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture

Mechanics and Meaning in Architecture

Excerpt

Even the most pure forms of purpose are nourished by ideas—like
formal transparency and graspability—which in fact are derived from
artistic experience.

Theodor Adorno, “Functionalism Today”

When an architect sits down at a drawing board to begin work on a building design, his or her first thoughts are recorded in tentative sketches of plans and sections that will eventually develop into a design proposal. In these sketches are vague references to columns and walls that will support the weight of the building long before structural calculations define their exact position and size, to exterior walls as notions of enclosure long before their thermal properties are analyzed, and to openings for sunlight long before required footcandles of illumination have been established. These sketches are nascent architectural conceptions of technology. They begin to specify how a building will cope with the natural forces of gravity, climate, and sunlight before they are treated as issues of engineered calculation. Yet our culture tends not to think of these sketches as technological proposals because calculated performance has replaced architectural form as the primary definition of what is technological about buildings.

Privileging a definition of technology as measurable action over that of material form presents a problem for architecture. The calculations employed to measure technological performance in buildings are primarily the domain of engineering. The manipulations of the form of columns, walls, and windows of these buildings specified by drawings are primarily the domain of architecture. The calculations of the engineer cannot be seen to be either

Initial sketch of a design proposal
for a building.

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