Because I harbor an deep distaste for design that sacrifices either function or form, I enjoyed author and social critic James Howard Kunstler‘s edgy TED Talk on the Tragedy of Suburbia. Kunstler calls U.S. suburban sprawl “the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known.” While he comes across with too much gloom & doom without sufficient focus on positive solutions for my taste, I still applaud his energy in attacking the automobile-centered, wasteful ugliness of suburban America and the despair-inducing effect of what passes for architectural and urban “design” and the myopic vision that so commonly sacrifices form for function or vice versa.
Kunstler’s slide show highlights examples on each side of the form/function imbalance. The January 2008 edition of Alan Scrivener’s rambling Cybernetics in the Third Millenium e-Zine features many more, including Frank Gehry’s MIT monstrosity, which appears to have forgotten the function of keeping the rain out (and whose form seems beyond silly to my sensibilities anyway). On the other side, typically forsaking any aesthetically satisfying form for (narrowly defined) efficiency of function, one finds the big box stores and cookie-cutter residential developments that typify our stupefying suburban sprawl. Here any sense of aesthetic interest largely consists in tacked-on bric-a-brac like vinyl window shutters that serve no purpose, classical columns that support nothing, and other artificial ornament completely superfluous to the structure of the building.
I hold out hope for a human-centered, genuine form-follows-function design that respects aesthetics as much as efficiency, sustainability as much as cost, and social integrity as much as personal freedom. Surely there must be designers and architects out there capable of marrying the unified design harmony of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s organic architecture (yes, he had his own leaking roof problems, but one control freak to another, I’ve liked the unity and detail of every Wright building I’ve entered) with the structural efficiency and inherent geometric beauty of R. Buckminster Fuller‘s tensegrity engineering (where’s my Dymaxion House? it’s been 60 years!) in the context of the vast vision of Paoli Soleri‘s arcology (the same Arizona trip that took me to Wright’s Taliesin West brought me to Arcosanti & yes, it is weird, but fantastically weird), in the context of new urban design understanding informed by the constraints of ecological energetics, centered on human ergonomics, and aided by genetic algorithm design simulations.
I’m no doubt trying to maximize too many interrelated variables, but clearly something must change in our architecture and urban design if we are to avoid ecological disaster and social disintegration. I think that change will only come about when the economics of energy demands efficient design. When the costs of degrading our environmental commons are factored into the price we pay for energy & materials (ala Natural Capitalism), perhaps we will see designs that counter our current tragedy of suburban architecture. I hope they come with good taste, as well.