Wes Jones

When asked about the key difference between Eastern and Western philosophy, Martin Heidegger (referring to the Buddhist tenet of the spirit’s interchangeability between sentient beings) responded that unlike Eastern philosophy, Western philosophy is rooted in the position that humans are fundamentally different from animals. Underscoring a parallel sense of exceptionalism, architect and educator Wes Jones taught me that humanism manifested through technology is the ultimate expression of excellence.

There are many artifact origins of ancient technology: including stone axes (tool), spear tips (weapon), beads (ornament), and pottery (craft); Wes Jones was primarily interested in the primitive hut (shelter). His time collapsing fictional composition of techno-machinic Primitive Hut was a precedent for my undergraduate thesis and taught me how to utilize Hegelian dialectic on architectural forms. His projects are exemplars of working through the opposition between intensity and elegance. Somehow, Wes Jones always succeeds in creating buildings, furniture, art, infrastructure, and machines that are unquestionably “correct” in a Mies-ian sense of the word. Wes Jones manages to be a heretic and a historicist; appropriate and contrarian; advanced and traditionalist. The nimble theoretical cleverness of Wes Jones is unmatched by any of his contemporaries.

As a thinker who deals frequently with philosophy and complex concepts, Wes Jones’s texts can be difficult to access for those who do not apply full attention. I recall reading every one of the essays contained in El Segundo, back in 2007, with a considerable effort in concentration. Perhaps more accessible are his lectures and talks that are posted online: I found his talk with Preston Scott Cohen in Harvard, and his lecture in USC to be best illustrative of his ethos.

I have long given up trying to imitate Wes Jones’s genius. Now, I only apply appropriate lessons and examples toward my own work. For instance, Wes Jones stated that his Astronauts Memorial is a “souped up” version of the Vietnam Memorial by Maya Lin; currently, I am investigating the memorial typology with a critical eye toward how Wes Jones appropriated a distinct manifestation of a symbolic gesture, then transformed it with a bold new technological praxis. There is a valuable lesson in reasoning that Wes Jones imparted on me and I consider it a distinct honor to have been mentored by a master architect.

Stan Allen

Architect Stan Allen has recently updated his website with new content. The drawings showcased on the site, such as the W/H House axonometric and the Olana Orchard Studio elevation oblique, are pinnacles of excellence. The physical model for the Botanical Garden is stunningly intricate yet incisively legible. The photographs for built projects have subtle and nuanced elegance of composition and lighting: such as the M/M House & Studio photo taken on a cloudy day to suppress diagonal lines cast by shadows, in order to emphasize the verticality of the slat pattern across the volume, which plays off the slender and tall mature trees surrounding the project. 

I worked at his Brooklyn office in 2010 and had a transformational experience. Stan Allen delighted in working with architectural traditions and exercised careful judgments on formal expressions of conceptual thoughts. Critical of photorealistic renderings, he asked me to explore drawings and images that expressed qualities beyond physical representation. With an effortless ability to see historical precedents in all contemporary design efforts, he taught his disciples to reach into the past to get a better outlook on current conditions. Moreover, Stan Allen practiced precise restraint but had an uncanny eye for carefully chosen moments of exuberance that elevated his projects beyond Modernism. 


The book Lateness, written by Peter Eisenman with Elisa Iturbe, introduces a concept called lateness to describe specific types of idiosyncratic and personal approaches to architectural design. The book argues that lateness is a quality (rather than a prescriptive theory) that describes an individualistic architecture, with a unique sense of authorship, which works within existing conventions.

To make the case for this mode of architecture, the authors of this book examine Adolf Loos, Aldo Rossi, and John Hejduk: three architects with little visual congruence with each other. Lateness is not a style that is expressed through a shared mode of representation, but a quality expressed from a personal interpretation of existing formal conventions that are already established in the discipline. To analyze the formal qualities of lateness, Eisenman presents diagrams of plans, sections, and axonometrics that consistently show visual disparities among the three architects. They each operate with unique personal styles that tend to stay within the individuals rather than influence new movements.

Indeterminacy, contingency, and play of meanings factor in the thesis: as the word “late,” refers to a late period in an architect’s life, the entirety of an architect’s career, a late period in an architectural style (as is the case with Loos destabilizing an architectural object in his addition to a nineteen century home), and lateness studied by Adorno in Beethoven regarding the ability to maintain the outward appearance of form while reformulating the codes that hitherto had determined its relationships.

Eisenman barely writes about his architectural projects and their relation to the concept of lateness. In the late stages of Eisenman’s career, he has sought to situate his work closer to the continuing history of architecture rather than as a break from it. The ineffable qualifies of lateness would apply to Eisenman as much as it would to Loos, Rossi, and Hejduk.

September 11, 2001 Memorial

This is my design from 2010 for a September 11, 2001 Memorial. This project is an inward-facing midrise mosque located a few blocks away from the site of 9/11 in New York. The massing of the memorial is formed with cubes of varying sizes that represent different but equally important individuals. Indexing a rapid erasure with the absence of a defined corner, individual modules form a unified whole as a cohesive unit. This memorial recognizes the coming together of a nation after a crisis of unimaginable magnitude; expressed through an architectural manifestation of hope and defiance.

David Adjaye

In an Interview with Mónica Ponce de León, the current dean of Princeton University’s School of Architecture, she addressed systematic inequality in the profession of architecture and cited a statistic that in this profession, only 2% of architects are Black.

When I entered Princeton’s Master of Architecture program in 2009, then dean Stan Allen invited esteemed Black architect David Adjaye (the designer of Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture) to teach advanced design studios for two semesters. I applied to be in his studio as my first choice and was accepted.

David Adjaye wanted his students to have nonstandard artistic sensibilities. As an example, his oeuvre frequently has connections to traditional African arts and crafts for textural definitions and tectonic patterns. His Moscow School of Management also sought to connect cultural heritage through bold massing by utilizing Kazmir Malevich’s Suprematist paintings. Although he often reaches into art to inspire his designs, Adjaye is a traditional master builder: as evidenced by his numerous built projects and from the publication of his book “Form Heft and Material.”

In his Princeton design studio, he took a nurturing perspective toward my concept of framing mundane views of the site with grand tectonic gestures. He understood that there was poetry in capturing and celebrating the everyday sights and encouraged me to always consider the human scale and experience of architecture as the driving force in making spaces and forms.

I did not request to be in his studio because of the color of his skin, but because his approach to architecture was beautiful and elegant. However, being his student as a minority man, gave me a sense of pride and strength that I did not anticipate. David Adjaye remains one of the most influential instructors I learned from, and I feel fortunate to have had the tutelage of a man who surely overcame prejudices and discrimination to rise to the level of a master architect.

Academic Fiction

I was as an invited critic for Cal Poly Pomona’s second-year architecture studio’s final project presentation on May 4, 2020. The program for the studio was a tower for the architecture department, situated within the university. The students developed individual designs that aimed to express formal affects that exemplifies the qualities of an institution through expressive envelopes and structures. As is the case for the majority of academic projects, this was an exercise in fictional commission proposed to advance the design skills of the students without the concerns of real-world construction. The drawings, renderings, models, and diagrams are the realities that manifest themselves from a fictional proposition, absent of a committee of clients, consultants, a budget, and the government. The omission of such criteria is necessary for architectural design education so that critical design thinking is developed without overwhelming the students. Fictional studio projects in schools allow these projects to take on an expansive scale of design execution and engages the minds of the students to think in terms of grand gestures.

Fiction in architecture often ends for most of these students after they graduate and start working in offices. While there are avenues in architectural discipline to pursue unbuilt projects for pure research or creative endeavors, often fictional propositions only exercise their virtual status only in terms of being unbuilt. An extreme position that all architectural values are fictional has been taken by Peter Eisenman, and I took that statement to offer a possibility that fiction offers an opportunity for architecture that parallels literary fiction or other cultural projects that do not concern themselves with the projection of the real. This mode of thinking is contrary to the value system in architectural representation dating back to the advent of perspective drawings -which sought to bring the real even into pictorial representations. Instead of obsession with the real, architects such as Daniel Libeskind has created musical drawings such as Chamber Works in the early 1980s that celebrated fiction in architecture beyond mere simulacrum. Music is not concerned with representing the noises that are real in nature; musical scores create a fiction of noise that tells a nonlinguistic narrative. Just as there is a separation of values between noise and music, architectural fictional propositions can have a system of value that elevates the virtual to fiction and go beyond the binary privileging of the built over the unbuilt.

Fiction in architecture, when compared to other fictive arts, can be seen to have levels of developments beyond the initial step of the unbuilt. It can be fiction just by the fact that it is a design exploration without being an actual built project. However, a layering of aspects that create unforseen narrative potentials can help architects elevate our discipline as one concerned more with cultural productions rather than engineered products. Architecture school projects often establish the initial fictional aspects, but only few students embrace expressions of narratives that push the definition of fiction from mere falsehood to the those with potentials akin to the literary or the musical. The privileging of the real (built buildings) over the fiction (works such as Libeskind’s Chamber Works) is deeply ingrained and difficult to overcome. Only through the effects of the projects that offer narratives that are not possible within the constraints of the real, can such privileging of the binary value system be overcome.

Ellsworth Kelly

Artist Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015) is recognized for his minimalist compositions. His oeuvre of hard-edged paintings is simultaneously flat yet express rich depth through the use of the abstracted field of colors, forms, and lines.

Kelly attributed his abstract compositions to the camouflages he developed while serving in the military during World War II. Just as military camouflages contains random appearing arrangements that are composed through well-thought-out intentions, Kelly arranged colors in his paintings with effortless appearing adjacencies that seem to be juxtaposed by happenstance.

The artist produced a serial of “Spectrum” paintings expressing colors arrayed in geometrically precise yet playfully arranged orders. His project Spectrum IV, painted in 1967, is a masterful example of boldness expressed through exact and subtle manipulations. All the colors present in this painting vary from the seven colors of the rainbow; each color shown in this painting are the gradients in between the bold colors of the rainbow spectrum: as the reds contain hues of adjacent yellow and the blue contain hues of green. In addition to the colors of Spectrum IV varying from the bold pronounced colors of the rainbow, the arrangement of the colors does not follow the natural wavelength of color distribution. Kelly arranged the color strips to create a loose bilateral symmetry that radiates outward rather than march from left to right. The painting is flanked by yellow stripes that are different in their hue and saturation.

Spectrum IV’s non-figurative deployment of adjusted colors and purposefully rearranged spectrum order, in precise linear strips, elicit beauty in the response of the viewers without evoking perfection. Working within the confines of a square canvas with precise geometric arrangement, Kelly is able to tease out vibrancy with a sense of freedom. Such an effect is tempered with a sense of order that contains the overall emotional impact by containing the vibrancy through precise composition.

Lebbeus Woods

Architect Lebbeus Woods (1940-2012) worked predominantly in the mediums of exquisite drawings and sublime models rather than built buildings. In addition to his numerous books and published journal articles, he was a prolific blogger from 2007 to 2012. Woods’ blog site is hard to track down unless doing a web search specifically for the blog, since searching his name alone does not return the link to his blog on the front page of Google. This is a result of the search engine’s ranking algorithm favoring sites with recent updates. Since Woods’ passing, his blog has not been updated in eight years.

Woods’ post from February 6, 2008, titled ‘The Reality of Theory,’ at https://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2008/02/06/the-reality-of-theory/ reveals a reality that certain visionary theoretical propositions are hard to realize at the time of its conception, especially pertaining to programmatic inventions. In this post, Woods recounts how he was invited to Sarajevo, Bosnia in 1993 and proposed exterior reconstruction of war-damaged buildings such as The Electrical Management Building with a radically new aesthetic and a repurposed program called “Freespace.” The blog post shows drawings, renderings and the depressing actual realization of the exterior reconstruction designed without Woods’ input. The theory of Freespace escapes praxis due to the constraint of finances and desire from the government to see it realized.

Freespace, a programmatic carte blanche for a sculptural formal realization, is a call for an enclosed spatial expression of liberty and freedom much like public urban parks. Most parks -that were not private gardens- were not seen in mass development until the 19th century. Much as how Woods’ Freespace seem novel now, the concept of truly public parks was once unimaginable before modern democratic societies eventually made them a reality. In the war-ravaged urbanscape of Sarajevo, it is not difficult to imagine an enclosed protective shell rather than an open area for a place of free assembly and unrestrained activity. Similarly, in the aftermath of the current COVID-19 pandemic, a place to assemble and express physical social connection may be required, and there may be enough empty buildings to realize such goals. Freespace as a theory can be actualized in reality.

In his blog post, Woods wrote: “More than all this, the people of the city had suffered years of deprivation, terror, and uncertainty, and many would be transformed by it. How, I asked, could architecture play any positive role in all of this? My answer was that architecture, as a social and primarily constructive act, could heal the wounds, by creating entirely new types of space in the city. These would be what I had called ‘freespaces,’ spaces without predetermined programs of use, but whose strong forms demanded the invention of new programs corresponding to the new, post-war conditions. I had hypothesized that “90% of the damaged buildings would be restored to their normal pre-war forms and uses, as most people want to return to their old ways of living….but 10% should be freespaces, for those who did not want to go back, but forward.” The freespaces would be the crucibles for the creation of new thinking and social-political forms, small and large. I believed then–and still do–that the cities and their people who have suffered the most difficult transitions in the contemporary world, in Sarajevo and elsewhere, have something important to teach us, who live comfortably in the illusion that we are immune to the demands radical changes of many kinds will impose on us, too.”

Fiction Urbanism: Kartun Development Group

In 2008, Kartun Development Group (KDG) was organized by Wes Jones.

A think tank with the goal of researching Dubai and proposing urban solutions, KDG operated under the guise of a fictional real estate development group (“Kartun” is an Arabic sounding play on the word “cartoon”). KDG’s videos and public statements were works of fiction that were rooted in thoroughly researched facts of the city-state. With the help of Adina Hempel and Richard Wagner who organized the research trip to Dubai, KDG analyzed the urban problems of that city and proposed drastic solutions. These solutions took steps toward potential implementation and realization by making sure that the proposals fit the operating principles of Dubai: conspicuous wealth and authoritarian class distinctions. By operating as if we shared the same motivations as Dubai’s power structures, KDG gave blunt criticism of the capitalistic autocratic regime while proposing changes that were feasible given the restrictions of the given power structure.

The biting social commentaries, delivered with cartoon-like irony. As of now, Dubai still operates mostly unchanged from the period, in which these research-driven projects were produced.

“Understanding Dubai Inc.” (Credit: Robert Cha)

“Cohabitation: Low income housing for Dubai” (Credit: Robert Cha, Amir Lotfi, Caroline Dahl)

Modernist Imperatives become Decadence in Parasite

Reflecting on the failure of capitalist society to provide humane social housing, the film Parasite draws a stark contrast between the living conditions of the haves and the have-nots. The famed architect designed Park residence, where most of the film takes place, feels spacious and agreeable -but never awe inspiring or too exceptional. The modernist principles of good residential architecture such as natural light, views, fresh air, and uncluttered open floor plan are not shown as common features but as luxury commodities afforded only by the elites. Even art and furniture are available only to the rich Park residence and not in the half-basement apartment of the poor Kim family. If the Park residence contained common trappings of luxury such as gilded furnishing and overly ornate decorations throughout, instead of sparse modernist details, the film would have been less powerful in terms of driving the point that certain living conditions in the built environment are fundamental for a good life regardless of class or money. Instead of chasing decadence, the poor Kim family is drawn to life in the Park house for easily grasped improvements from their own squalid living conditions. The director commented he wanted to make a film focusing on the problem of inequality in Korea, but found out after the film’s release that the film was addressing a global problem.

Globally, architects who practice as service providers for the rich have little power in determining the living conditions of the lower class. More often than not, developer clients are driven by motives of profit rather than a sense of duty toward improving the lives of the eventual occupants. In America, the standard of low-income residential spaces is higher than in countries such as Korea. However, that improved standard has acted as a deterrence for constructing new low-income dwellings. With America’s planning and building codes (that mandate standard features of natural light, ventilation, fire safety, accessibility, water drainage, and plumbing and electrical standards) housing developments have ran into a standstill as developers focus more on building housings for the upper class rather than spend money on building habitable low to middle class housings –in order to gain a higher margin of profit from their investments. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that each housing development must go through an entitlement process full of resistance from existing home owners. Hence, massive homeless populations have formed against the backdrop of the practice of housing as an investment. Societal failure to provide safe and comfortable shelters is a problem that can only be addressed through political interventions. Only once such interventions are in place, ethical architecture can address fundamental issues of ideal living not as decadence for the few but as an imperative for the many.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu

An insightful New York Times article from February 6, 2020 covers eclectic fiction architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757—1826). The article is at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/arts/design/Lequeu-Morgan-Library.html

From the article: “In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, architecture found itself back at the drafting table. Clients got spooked (or went broke), construction rates plummeted in the United States and Europe, and young architects in particular had to find new ways to work. And so this past decade has greeted a welter of digital projects, performances, pop-up designs and “paper architecture,” by practitioners born too late for big budgets.

“These young architects are heirs to a deep tradition of architecture beyond building — and right now they can discover one of the greatest paper architects of a time before AutoCAD. Jean-Jacques Lequeu, more than two centuries ago, also saw his career upended by political shifts and economic crises: in his case, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. He, too, had to settle for a career of diminished scope, grinding out maps and renderings for a land registry office and other bureaucracies.

“But after hours, alone in his little Parisian bolt-hole, Lequeu (1757—1826) birthed on paper an architecture of wild grandiosity. Styles collided. Historical epochs blended together. European forms mingled with those of Asia and the Middle East. Classical restraint gave way to sensuous, sometimes racy ornament. Buildings became enmeshed with bodies: sometimes human ones, sometimes those of giant farm animals.

“…These painstaking sheets, capricious or perverse, steeped in powder blue and misty rose, are a remarkable achievement of the later Enlightenment — and yet they have much more to offer young architects today than a drawing lesson. When the building contracts dry up, you realize your one true client is desire.”

Ecstasy of Saint Francis

Video link: https://www.behance.net/gallery/91018027/Ecstasy-of-Saint-Francis

Motion graphic artist Agustin Vidal Saavedra uses After Effects to create a fascinating video of the painting “Ecstasy of Saint Francis.”

In western architecture, since the Christian adoption of a Roman invention, the dome has represented heaven. Heaven was thought to be in the sky above, and under visual observations the sky appears to be a dome. In the Bible’s Book of Genesis, God is said to have created heaven as a dome over a flat earth. After Pythagoras posited that the earth was not flat, and since Copernicus theorized against a geocentric universe, the architectural symbolism of the dome cast overhead as a representation of God’s overruling presence from heaven has been fraught with a sense of error. This sense of error reached its symbolic nadir when earth was observed from outer space in photographs taken by astronauts above its thin blue atmosphere.

In regards to representation of heaven using architectural domes, what is successful in Saavedra’s animation is that the artist creates a series of interconnected vertical passage though a montage of domes that terminates in outer space. The religious journey of a saint being taken up into heaven uses the motif of the dome not as heaven itself, but as a passageway to heaven and the afterlife. This animation is a great example of breathing new life to a symbolically depleted architectural formal gesture.

Bernd and Hilla Becher

During the latter half of the 20th century, the conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher anesthetized mechanical and machinic forms through their extensive photographs of industrial buildings, mines, grain elevators, gas tanks, mills, and water towers.

Shot in the mornings, under an overcast sky to avoid shadows, the frontally photographed “objective” images are displayed on a grid, and always without extensive explanations for the function of the structures. One views the photographs of Bechers with an eye toward formal compositions, and not toward operational performances. Whereas the Constructivists and the Bauhaus Modernists theorized machine and industrial architecture in terms of progress, the Bechers often documented built objects nearing obsolescence and disuse, as if some of their subjects are ruins from the past. Through their photographs, they present technology without instrumentality -and this absence turns their subjects into art.

Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs opens up a possibility to frame technology in terms of affect, and not as a measure of teleological advancements. Their documentations instill a sense of longing and poetry to functionalist structures that have outlived their usefulness: as beams, girders, trusses, domes, braces, towers, ducts, and pipes are displayed as formalistic components capable of eliciting emotional aesthetic responses. These machinic parts that are shown through their photographs parallel Vitruvius’ description of classical orders, as they generate formalistic effects rather than convey functionalist requirements.

Entangling Conscious Agents, Donald Hoffman

Donald Hoffman is a cognitive psychologist who argues for a formal theory of consciousness—the theory of “conscious agents”—that takes consciousness to be fundamental, rather than derivative from objects in space-time. This lecture begins by establishing that evolution for human perception leads to usefulness rather than for verification of absolute truths. Just as the perceptually “truthful” concepts of flat earth or geocentric universe were revealed to be fiction, the notion that consciousness arises from materialistic interaction (such as the synapses in the brain) is argued to be false. Instead, Hoffman argues that consciousness comes before biological interaction. This method of thinking tackles the issue of combinatory consciousness as a form of entanglement in the quantum physic sense (the finding that certain particles behave as a single unified system even when they’re separated by such immense distances suggests the universe functions as a fundamental whole rather than a collection of discrete parts). To further explain the entanglement of consciousness, Hoffman shows how a visual paradox of a necker cube is a diagram for a basic form of entanglement that only exists due to our own “faulty” perceptual and visual interface. Hoffman provides mathematically explained panpsychist proofs for how consciousness agents interact with each other through an interface.

If we see that architecture (both built and in images) is a form of consciousness interface, the act of making it “correct” in terms of styles or materials is revealed to be as fruitless as arguing that the earth is flat. Architecture, once cognizant of panpsychist concepts can become a new interface by proposing novel ways in which space and time interact with individualized consciousness. This absence of a single truth is a better expression of reality than a materialist worldview. One way of doing this would be to examine the entanglement issue (such as a simultaneous duality of a necker cube) as a formal basis in which individualized perception of a form/space can have multiplicities of meaning and emotional effects that can be different, or even contradictory. If architecture were designed this way, it becomes a conscious agent in which truth is revealed by making entanglement visible to the subjects through the interface.

Philosophy of Panpsychism

Architect Louis Kahn famously advocated seeking the spiritual essence of a tectonic element by asking a brick “what do you want to be?” (The brick answered it wanted to be an arch). Related to the spirit or consciousness of the inorganic, Philosopher Phillp Goff explores the philosophy of panpsychism, through which he seeks to counter materialist and quantifiable metaphysics of physical science, by examining the possibility that consciousness is universal and it exists from an atomic level to that of the universe. The academic papers that are available on his website http://www.philipgoffphilosophy.com lay out the arguments against the dualist separation of mind and body, as he explains subjective qualities of consciousness from human to animal, then to the inorganic. 

Goff argues that micro-level parts have their own consciousness and the body is a collective coming together of this micro consciousness into a macro level whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Unlike animism which postulates many individualized spirits or gods, Goff submits the idea of an underlying universal consciousness comparable to the entity of a single God.

With consciousness pervading each things and beings, this philosophy is applicable to the part to whole question of architectonics and also to the idea that architecture can be an open-ended consciousness that interfaces with the consciousness of the subject/user. That is to say, architecture has a soul and it can affect yours.

Panpsychism is apt at revealing that the ontology of architectural creations has a spirit/consciousness that is manifested in form; this imbued consciousness follows that of the architect as much as the consciousness of the architect originates from the universal consciousness or God. As a basis for an architectural theory, this is not to say that these forms have to mimic an organism in a biomorphic form (after all, the brick wanted to be an arch). If the concept that inorganic forms can be constituted of macro level, further argument can be made to state that architecture is an extension of the human spirit and it affects the human soul through an interface.

Architecture of Military Forms

Functionalism suggests austerity and engineered efficiency over issues of aesthetics or expressive formal qualities. However, in both architecture and military functionalism, there is a contradictory tendency to seek the opportunity for formal expressions beyond that of pure performance. Utilizing Deconstructionist mode of thinking that involves language, architect Peter Eisenman states that architecture is a “building with a sign of a building.” The need for designs to communicate, influences even the most functionalist forms, when designs are taken beyond the realm of pure utilitarian applications such as factories or grain silos. This tendency for functionalism to betray its own desire for pure efficiency, through expressive formalism, will be examined in architecture and the military.

A diagram of Napoleonic War hats by illustrator Andre Jouineau shows a variation in headwear as a system of communication. The bright colors utilized for the hats helped distinguish each other during the thick fog of gunpowder that enveloped the battlefield. Form does follow function in terms of legibility, but the varying shapes, materials, and sizes of each uniform indicate the taxonomy of forms beyond that of pure legibility.

A collection of U.S. Navy’s squadron logos shows a similar tendency for expressiveness in terms of aesthetics. These logos are emblazoned on uniforms, buildings, aircrafts, and on the architectural elements such as doors as devices of identification and signification. In terms of performance, an aircraft should be difficult to spot by the enemy. The colorful and often aggressively cartoonish icons of the squadron logos on aircrafts betray this basic function. The fact that squadron identifiers (such as the text “VFA-125”) are stenciled on the aircrafts means iconic squadron logos serve a function beyond efficient identification. The functions of these are ornamental signification pertaining to a humanist desire to locate art in what could be a dehumanizing business of warfare. This parallels architecture’s desire to signify beyond the performative requirements of shelter and stability. Such concerns of expressive formal appearance influenced the selection of Lockheed Martin’s X-35 over Boeing’s X-32 in the Joint Strike Fighter program for the F-35. Given a similar performance of both aircrafts, the bias over formal expression influenced the selection of sleek X-35 over the rotund X-32. The images of both aircrafts are posted above. It is easy to judge one over another in terms of which better signifies speed and aggression.

Functionalist architecture in buildings, other than those serving purely utilitarian needs, can be traced back to the early Modernist architect Adolf Loos, who proclaimed that ornament was a crime. With the absence of outright ornamental detailing, Loos designed architecture that has expressive qualities in proportion, the arrangement of massing, typography (in signage), and material choices. Rather than arrive at an overtly austere massing of boxes, Loos’ formal expressions betray the efficiency of pure functionalism. This is evidenced in his design for the Looshaus, shown above; while lacking ornamentation in terms of intricate details, the aesthetic excellence of the building is shown through a masterful arrangement of larger elements of architecture. It could be argued that Looshaus lacks ornamental details but does not lack aesthetic formal qualities. Loos’ buildings are never purely functionalistic.

An often misconstrued dictum by architect Louis Sullivan that “form follows function” also seems to place program and structural efficiency over the concerns of formal appearance of architecture. However, Sullivan utilized ornate detailing that deviates from the pure function through expressive formal articulations. In addition to ornamentation, Sullivan often utilized contrasting volume of space to emphasize grandiosity in public assembly areas –a technique of compression of space before expansion for contrasting emphasis. So what does Sullivan mean by “form follows function?” In regards to this, architect Wes Jones emphasizes the necessity of formal expressiveness in designs, that serve a need beyond that of pure utility, by differentiating a ‘building’ from ‘architecture.’ He writes: “Everyone is familiar with the phrase Form follows function. But what does it really mean? why form, why function, what do we mean by ‘follows?’ does it mean ‘comes after,’ or does it mean ‘takes its cues from’ or does it mean ‘subscribes to’ or does it mean ‘is less important than?’ The punch line is that this is all about legibility…  While architecture is an elective phenomenon, building is not. The difference between the two is what raises the issue of function following form. Both are first occasioned by a need, but architecture goes beyond the basic need for shelter or program accommodation served by ‘mere’ building, to set that effort in an explicit context of meaning, expectations of meaning. While the building’s form IS necessarily functional, architecture’s form goes further to SAY that about itself.”

A study into the expressive qualities in Functionalism has been taken up by architectural historian Spyros Papapetros, who explored military ornamentation in regards to the stately uniforms worn by German Emperor Wilhelm II in his book “On the Animation of the Inorganic.” There is an opportunity for architects to examine the parallel between military aesthetics and architectural formalism, as both are explicitly tied to the requirement of function and structural realities. While Vitruvius saw harmony in Firmitas, Utilitas, and Venustas as a fundamental triad of architecture, the concerns of Venustas (beauty) is what architects have the greatest difficulty articulating, as it exists outside the realm of quantifiable performance. It is ironic that the often unbuilt architectural projects dealing mostly with the qualities of Venustas are regarded with the military term avant-garde by the discipline of architecture.

It is well documented how Modernist architects of the 20th century, such as Le Corbusier, sought formal inspiration for architecture in naval vessels and aircrafts. Military technology with its massive state-funded research tends to create the most cutting edge contemporary designs. There are contemporary architectural opportunities in examining military technology and visual cultures, that are currently ignored by the discipline. With the goal of discovering opportunities for expression in architecture that overrides the functionalist agenda of pure performance, the interests of military and architectural formalism should be studied.

USS Abraham Lincoln

The deafening noise and the sheer magnitude of the machineries on an aircraft carrier is breathtaking. Extreme cantilevers, moving blast shield decks, huge elevators to move aircrafts, enormous column free spaces, and the pure monochrome color scheme are all architect’s dream realized on a massive scale. Architects have a history of examining naval vessels for architectural lessons: Jean Labatut,  professor emertius of architecture at Princeton University,  researched dazzle camouflage of ships for lessons in architecture.