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.