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The following article was originally published in Pro Forma 2, 1990-1991 (Oslo, Norway), pp. 67-81,
under the title below.
For the 2003 Czech version of the present article click here.




On the Rumor
of Functional Perfection

By JAN MICHL


1. The Notion of Functional Perfection

The idea of functional perfection is an intriguing concept. Would it not be wonderful if the things we use functioned perfectly? Well ... it certainly would ... but, then, what do we actually mean by perfectly? On the one hand we tend to consider functional perfection to be an obvious, if difficult, aim of the engineer's and designer's effort. But on the other hand we have a creeping suspicion that such an aim is hopelessly out of reach.

Our uneasiness here indicates that we may be using one and the same term to refer to two different problems. This is after all not unusual: in fact we seldom know what we exactly have in mind with such abstract expressions as "functional perfection". It is only when circumstances force us to be more specific that we become aware of the different shades of meanings our notions have. As long as we feel we make ourselves understood, the finer distinctions do not matter very much and we do not care about them very much either. Sometimes, however, a notion becomes a keystone in philosophical, political or, as in our case, artistic theory - and then we become, understandably, more curious to find out what others really mean by it and, above all, whether such a keystone notion really is able to support the structure of arguments it claims to underpin.

If we now want to have a closer look at the fascinating idea of functional perfection - and that is the aim of this article - we must first be more sure what we (or others) refer to when functional perfection
what do we really mean by functional perfection?
(or perfect functionality - which is here taken to be the same thing) is mentioned. Here I shall differentiate between two main groups of meanings in which the notion of functional perfection is used in discussions on design: I distinguish between a weak sense of the notion and its strong sense.

In the weak sense (we could also say the common or relative sense) the term serves simply as a superlative. It is used to refer to that state when a given product is seen as functioning better than all other similar products - that is "flawlessly" in the relative sense of the word, relative to previous cases of excellent functioning. Here "perfect" means approximately "as well as is humanly possible at the moment". As such, the notion belongs essentially to the world of common sense.

Sometimes, however, we find that the notion is used in a way that transcends its commonsense meaning and acquires a kind of millennial overtones. What it then implies seems to be perfection in an absolute sense - an ultimate state of excellence in performance, a state of affairs where the contrivance in question has achieved its final stage of development (whatever that may mean). Such a vision can seem meaningful, though only if we take it to refer not to a physical world but to a metaphysical one, that is to a world beyond the everyday utilitarian horizons of common sense. It is to such another world that the strong sense of the notion of functional perfection obviously points.

To return to our uneasiness: when we feel that engineers and designers should aim at functional perfection, we are probably thinking of perfection in a weak, relative sense, while our doubts about the practicability of such an aim probably refer to the notion of perfection in a strong, absolute sense. As the title of this articles indicates, I intend to show that such spontaneous doubts are in fact justified.

2. Human Contrivances
and the Imperfection of the Human Condition

Our knowledge that every product can be improved seems to be the paradoxical reason why the idea of perfect functioning proves to be such an attractive concept. We feel that if only designers and producers applied themselves really hard, it should be possible for any given product - an instrument, utensil, machine or apparatus - to be rid of its small faults and arrive, somehow, at a stage of functional perfection. Does not the whole history of technology point in that direction after all? We cannot remain unimpressed by the growing effectiveness of our products. The accelerating technical development, on the face of it, seems to promise that functional perfection is just around the corner, or at least within our reach. But is it?

As soon as we allow our fascination at the amazing inventiveness of the human race to cool down, and start to inquire why we in fact put such a premium on human
what we call human needs are a telltale sign that our human existence is basically and fundamentally wanting in perfection
inventiveness, the answers will make visions of functional perfection in products dwindle before our very eyes. For it becomes plain that all contrivances around us, from the most primitive to the most complex, have in fact been thought up in order to make our lives safer, more secure and more comfortable, our work less laborious and ourselves more knowledgeable - precisely because our lives are unsafe, insecure and uncomfortable, our work toilsome and we ourselves so glaringly ignorant. To put it differently, what we call "human needs" are a telltale sign that our human existence is basically and fundamentally wanting in perfection; the contrivances we surround ourselves with are our attempts to compensate for this fact.

Were human existence perfect, in the sense of ultimate and absolute completeness, we would presumably have no use for functional perfection. In such a state we would have no needs whatsoever, because needs arise only where something which we feel ought to be there is absent. And having no needs, we would have no need for contrivances of any sort, since all our contrivances are there to meet our needs and wants. Without the existence of products, such words as utility and functional effectiveness would have no meaning, and neither would the dreams of functional perfection. There would be no demand for any professions, and, indeed, no need for any work, since everything we ever do aims in one way or another at ameliorating the imperfection of our condition. As human existence takes place in time and space, our needs for well designed devices, in the functional, and even in the aesthetic, sense can be seen as needs for temporary and local adaptations to the ever-changing circumstances of our lives. Even human society appears to be a mode of compensation for this imperfect human condition: based as it is on social bonds between people, it would probably never arise if the human condition were perfect, since people would no longer lack anything, and thus would no longer depend on each other. [1a]

It seems that existence and imperfection belong logically together, just as timelessness and perfection appear to do. Existence and perfection are then strange
our lumping together of perfection and functionality must be seen as a case of contradictio in adjecto
bedfellows, as strange as timelessness coupled with imperfection is. It appears then that the idea of perfect functionality, or functional perfection, in fact conjoins two entirely disparate principles. The ideal world of perfection make sense, at least logically, only as a world beyond time. The commonsense world of functional devices and arrangements, on the other hand, belongs to the world of time and space, which, as I have tried to argue, is by definition a world of imperfection.
[1b] These two worlds are simply two different universes; they are not one, and it is difficult to see how they ever can be made into one. The notion of functional perfection, however, creates the impression that the word "functionality" and the word "perfection" both belong to one and the same homogeneous world rather than to two radically heterogeneous ones. Unless we understand the term "perfect" in a weak, relative sense - as a superlative expression of sorts - our lumping together of perfection and functionality must be seen as a plain case of contradictio in adjecto, similar in fact to notions such as wooden iron or quadratic circle.

Applied to the world of products, it means that if we describe a device designed to make up for one of those countless imperfections of our human condition, as perfect, the term can mean only one thing: that the device is a superlatively well-done makeshift intended to compensate for an inherent imperfection. We all tend to forget that although our contrivances do alleviate our wants, privations and deficiencies (our imperfections, that is) they do not in fact make them go away. We keep taking recourse to the particular gadget time and again in order temporarily to solve our problem. Not only does the problem remain: the thing devised to alleviate the problem always creates further problems in its own right (more on that in the next section). What our contrivances in fact do is to treat symptoms: they are patently unable to address the malady itself, the imperfection of our human existence.

Human devices of any sort, no matter how sophisticated, and regardless of their aesthetical appeal, should therefore be always seen as makeshifts. At their very best they serve as well-designed crutches. Now crutches are things we have to resort to when our legs are disabled. A crutch can be designed in a functionally awkward way or in a superlative and even aesthetically pleasing manner: but no matter how it is designed it remains a crutch, a substitute for a healthy leg. If it functions well it may deserve to be called perfect, but only in the sense of "exceedingly good"; "perfect crutch" then means an exceedingly good crutch, that is, exceedingly good in relation to its purpose as a makeshift leg. Perfect crutch can in other words only be perfect in the weak, not in the strong sense of the word. And so it is with all human contrivances.

The crutch example, by the way, invites not only functional but also metaphysical analogies. No doubt, the only "perfect" solution for the person with a disabled leg would be to regain the former ability. Likewise, the only truly "perfect" solution for the imperfect human condition as we know it, would be, it seems, not to keep devising sophisticated makeshift means for compensating the imperfections but to attain an entirely new human condition, one characterized by the total absence of any needs. It seems to be plain that this new perfect human condition cannot be achieved in a physical sense, i.e. while we are in our physical bodies, and in this material world; such a vision is self-contradictory for the same reason as the notion of functional perfection is self- contradictory. Whether there can be such a condition in the metaphysical sense, i.e. whether there is any "former" state of perfection to return to, as in the case of the healthy leg, and whether, in that case, such a return is possible (or, indeed, desirable), are fascinating questions - to which I do not pretend to know the answers.

3. Makeshift Functionality and Its Nature

In the previous chapter I argued that the vision of functional perfection in our products, though superficially plausible, is unattainable in principle, because it is self-contradictory - that the vision makes as little sense in the physical world as it would in the metaphysical one: where overall perfection exists there is no need for functional perfection. I will now proceed to enlarge on the notion of products as makeshifts and on what can be called makeshift functionality.

Though all human products are makeshift attempts to alleviate, directly or indirectly, the imperfection
All devices at least occupy space - and architects and designers have a long tradition of making virtue out of that necessity.
of the human condition, the makeshift character of these products is, as a rule, not immediately apparent. We are blinded by the aura of their newness, or amazed by their improvements or mesmerized by their fashionable exteriors. This encourages, time and time again, the parochial illusion that a newly launched product has come one more step closer to the haven of ultimate functional perfection. As a matter of fact, we are able to perceive the makeshift nature clearly only in products which have become technologically and aesthetically obsolete; only then does the comical makeshiftness of our contrivances also become evident. Strictly speaking, however, all our products without exception, from quills to computers, are provisional solutions characterized by imperfect, or makeshift, functionality.

As all products are characterized by makeshift functionality, their very existence leads unavoidably to the wasting of resources and energy. What we call functionality is not an absolute or objective value, but a relative, or subjective one. When we say that a device is functional we mean by that that it is effective with respect to the intended purpose: it can be used to resolve the limited problem it was intended for, plus a certain limited range of other ad hoc ends. Car tires, for example, can also serve as bumpers on the dock-walls, as seats for kindergarten swings, as round frames for small flower-beds, and for several other purposes. The number of purposes for which they are unusable is, however, incomparably larger. This is another way of saying that human contrivances are fundamentally unfit for all uses other than the intended ones (plus the ad hoc applications).

The fact that a product is unusable for practically all purposes except its own gives rise to a long line of new problems, which can be solved only with the help of still more resources and energy. All devices at least occupy space - and architects and designers have a long tradition of making virtue out of that necessity. (Incidentally, the difference between architecture and design on the one hand, and building and engineering on the other might be phrased like this: the first make a visual virtue of functional necessity while the second do not). In addition to taking up space, many contrivances produce other unwanted results as well - noise, smell, heat, and further unpleasant effects - all of which are undesired by-products of the processes of satisfying our needs. This characteristic, and unavoidable, co-existence of intended and unintended effects in all human devices makes them decidedly a mixed blessing. The devices become often a nuisance for everybody except the person who owns and uses them, and when they are not in use they become nuisance for the owner as well. The car is perhaps the best example of the large number of undesired consequences that accompany the great satisfaction of owning such a machine: everybody who owns one can easily make a list of both its blessings and its curses. In other words, no matter how functional a product is as a device for achieving what we want, it at the same time invariably produces a great many other effects which nobody ever desires. [2]

The impossibility of separating the unintended effects from the intended ones seems to be at the core of the many environmental problems which have, since the 1970s, increasingly come to the fore in all kinds of contexts. In this time of rapidly growing
the very notion of functionality implies existence of unintended effects, i.e. of imperfection
ecological consciousness it is, however, important not to fall victim to the idle dream that the solution lies in devising a new "perfect" economic and political order that would produce environmentally problem-free products. Such an order is hardly to be had; also the practical experience of the former communist countries points distinctly in that direction. Although any product of the western capitalist economies can be rightly criticized for failing to be more "perfect" than it in fact is, we must also realize that no products can ever be "really" perfect. This fact has nothing to do with the capitalist production-for-profit system, as was often suggested in the past. It is instead linked to the fact of inherent imperfection of all our contrivances; the very notion of functionality simply implies the existence of unintended effects, i.e. of imperfection. The solution to the environmental problems of today, if there is any, seems to lie in much sharper awareness and control of such unintended effects. It is no doubt possible to eliminate or at least subdue any unintended effect of an intended functional solution if we put our mind to it. This is a design problem just like any other one. The catch here is, again, that we cannot eliminate the phenomenon of unintended effects itself: solutions to any problem, including the problem of an unintended effect, bring about unintended effects of their own.
[3]

The peculiar lot of engineers, architects and designers alike then is to strive for functional solutions and to control the unwanted by-effects of these solutions - but still bearing with the fact that the fruits of their work will always retain their makeshift nature, and that no amount of improvements can ever change this fact. [4] Architects and designers, nevertheless, in contrast to engineers, have the privileged task of investing our contrivances with a visual personality.

4. The Notion of Perfection as Prop

The idea of functional perfection was an important, though ambiguous, element in the design philosophy that was to dominate the better part of our century - the philosophy of functionalism. Functionalist architects and designers never made it entirely clear which sense they had in mind when they referred to, or more often only hinted at, the notion of functional perfection. Functionalism in many ways lived off that ambiguity: the general appeal of functionalist ideas seems to have been based on the weak, i.e. common, sense of the notion of perfection (products should be as functionally perfect as possible). On the other hand, the movement's nearly millennial mood of superiority and radical newness indicates that it was animated by a, mostly tacit, belief in functional perfection in the strong sense.

It is my contention, however, that the functionalist philosophy of design can be viewed as coherent only if its references to functional perfection are taken to mean perfection in the strong sense.
form
ever follows function.
This is
the law
I submit that functionalists needed the strong sense of the notion of functional perfection to prop their central vision and guarantee their central claim: that their aesthetics, their world of new forms, was the only possible one (i.e. that all other contemporary formal languages were false), and that these new forms had nothing to do with the subjective taste preferences of users, or of their own. If the notion was to be understood in the weak, commonsense meaning of the term, then the claim that everything that functions "perfectly" is ipso facto aesthetically perfect, would be a claim easy to ridicule. For one thing it would it be simple to show that many "perfectly" functioning devices are also intensely ugly. The claim that functionalism had arrived at an objective aesthetic would be simply hollow - for in the weak sense perfect means relatively perfect.
[5]

The ideas of functionalist theorists offer ample evidence that it was the believed coincidence of functional and aesthetic solutions which made the notion of functional perfection in the strong sense such an alluring idea. Belief in such coincidence seems implied in the oft-cited ideas contained in an article written by the American architect Louis Sullivan in 1896 about skyscraper design:

It is my belief that it is of the very essence of every problem that it contains and suggests its own solution. This I believe to be natural law.

As his discussion of his own skyscraper design indicates, Sullivan seemed to reason that if every problem really contains its own solution, then there is only one solution to every problem; and if that is the case, it must be assumed that this solution is the perfect solution in the strongest possible sense. Sullivan seems to believe that there is but one form, booked, so to speak, for every single problem, and that this form cannot but be the perfect form in a strong sense of the term. We find the same implication in Sullivan's notorious dictum, "form follows function" - which he, by the way, coined in the same article. The following quotation gives an idea of the rather rhapsodic context in which the dictum originally appeared:

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law. [6]

Sullivan described this law, this "final, comprehensive formula" as he called it, as "the true, the immovable philosophy of architectural art". Here he seemed to suggest again that for one and the same function there is always but one true form. [7]

Although later modernists refrained from Sullivan's florid style, their visions remained the same. One of the more explicit formulations, seemingly taking for granted the possibility of achieving functional perfection, comes from a book by the German functionalist architect Bruno Taut published in 1929 in London as Modern Architecture, although even here the strong formulation stands side by side with other weaker ones:

The aim of Architecture is the creation of the perfect, and therefore also beautiful, efficiency. (...) Everything that functions well, looks well. (...) If everything is founded on sound efficiency, this efficiency itself, or rather its utility will form its own aesthetic law.[8]

Also the British design philosopher Herbert Read, in an essay published in 1941, uses the notion of functional perfection in a similarly matter-of-fact manner:

If an object is made of appropriate materials to an appropriate design and perfectly fulfils its function, then we need not worry any more about its aesthetic value: it is automatically a work of art. [9]

The notion of functional perfection appears to loom also behind the influential notion of standardization and objet-types, popularized in the 1920s by Le Corbusier, the most influential French architect and designer of this century. The notion
Sullivan seems to believe that there is but one form, booked, so to speak, for every single problem
probably had its roots in the German Werkbund especially in Hermann Muthesius' belief in standardization. It became widely known with the publication of Le Corbusier's book Vers une Architecture in 1925 where the idea of objet-types was presented. Le Corbusier, who was familiar with the Werkbund theories gave it a central place in his theory and practice of purism. He believed, as did many others, that certain anonymous utilitarian objects such as wine bottles, pipes and guitars, whose forms appeared not to have changed over a long period of time, had arrived at their state of perfection. The fact that these objet- types were favorite motives of Cubism - the most revolutionary artistic movement of the time, intent on unearthing the essence of things on the canvas - invested these objects with extra significance. Le Corbusier believed that the process of perfection included the typically modern industrial products, and that objects like airplanes, ocean liners and cars were on their way to finding their definite type form.
[10]

The notion of functional perfection is discussed explicitly and even at some length in an article written by Karel Honzik, a Czech functionalist architect and prolific writer on architecture, and published in English in 1936. Honzik, like Sullivan, moves in his arguments freely between the world of nature and works of man; although he acknowledges that there are many unanswered questions, and even seeming contradictions, he still firmly believes that there are perfect solutions and perfect shapes:

...human products and structures develop through the will and intention of man and move towards their intrinsic perfection. They seek a final form that can only be spoiled deliberately by the emergence of new conditions. For instance, the best possible shape of chain can be superseded by a new form, arbitrarily invented for the purpose. But that new and arbitrary shape will soon disappear just because it is not the perfect one. (...) It is ... rather tempting to presume that every problem on which an engineer or architect may be engaged has its solutions in natural laws which inexorably inform his invention, and even his calculations and drawings. (...) A man who is able to foresee all the various forces which a given building will be exposed to should be able to attain perfection because, by the nature of things, he is likely to avoid all the transient and merely fashionable influences. But such an achievement, being a rare exception, belongs to the highest order of creative work. [11]

The aesthetic implications of all these references to functional perfection remind us that functionalism never was what its name seemed to suggest. It was not a utilitarian movement in which only functional aspects counted but an artistic movement where the
functionalists were putting functional solutions before
formal ones for formal reasons
- not for
functional ones
aesthetic questions had the first priority. The functionalist rhetoric was easy to misunderstand. Functionalists spoke incessantly about functional aspects of buildings and products so that in one sense it was proper to claim, as they kept claiming themselves, that the prime concern of functionalism was a utilitarian one. However, the subtle though all-important difference is that this prime concern was never "utilitarian" in the sense of putting utilitarian values before formal ones, but only in the sense of believing that utilitarian solutions are at the same time formal solutions. In other words - and this has been the often overlooked ambiguity of their position - functionalists were putting functional solutions before formal ones for formal reasons - not for functional ones. Functionalist designers and architects were, in contrast to technicians and engineers, never interested in functionality, or utility, for its own sake. The reason why functionalists spoke so much of functions, constructions, and materials was because they saw these factors as the fons et origo of perfect forms independent of anybody's taste. One way to understand the functionalism is to see it as a sophisticated 20th century implementation of the 19th century ideas of art for art's sake, in architecture and design - i.e. as a formalist movement, where architecture and design were treated as Fine Art.
[12] The notion of functional perfection was central in this context because it supported the utopian idea that "true design" was independent of market pressures, i.e. that it had nothing to do with appealing to the taste of users. The notion ultimately propped the modernist vision that design in its essence was not an Applied Art but a Fine Art. It was another way of arguing that designers were not "applied" artists, but that they, too, belonged to the the ranks of Artists with capital A. [13] The notion of functional perfection had a great argumentative and rhetoric potential which functionalists successfully employed to redefine the artistic status of their trade. But this success did not make the notion of functional perfection more realistic.

5. Simulacra of Perfection

Why the notion of functional perfection should be considered no more than a will-o'-the-wisp I have tried to explain in sections 2 and 3. In the previous section I argued that functionalists embraced the notion of functional perfection because it
there simply is no necessary connection between what human products do and how they look
appeared to buttress the idea that utilitarian, functional solutions at the same time bring forth non-subjective (or objective) aesthetic solutions. Functionalists were, however, ambiguous about what they meant by functional perfection - which helped them to sustain the credibility of their claim that their forms were independent of any shifting preferences in taste. Such a claim gave functionalists, in their own eyes, a status of sole arbiters of aesthetic quality, placed high above the users of their products.
[14] Hopefully, I have succeeded in showing in the preceding sections that the notion of functional perfection - in the strong sense which was to guarantee these visions - was never more than a piece of wishful thinking. Nevertheless, once launched, the notion proved intriguing and refused to disappear, lurking in the background of our design discussions ever since. It is still an alluring notion, but on closer look it does not hold water.

The moral of this story is, I believe, this: Whether we are designers, design educators or design historians, we have to face the fact that there simply is no necessary connection between what our products do and how they look. Contrary to what Louis Sullivan, and many others after him, assumed, problems do not conceal their own true solutions which simply lie there waiting to be unearthed by inspired designers. That there is a linkage between what products do and how they look I, of course, do not deny. My point is merely that there is not, nor can there be, any necessary linkage, such as that suggested by the notion of functional perfection. [15] And if there is no such thing as a necessary connection there, it makes little sense - as was the practice of modernist design educators for decades - to have design students search for the allegedly necessary forms. [16]

[This part still under construction]


TEXT TO ILLUSTRATIONS [to come]

[Eschers concave/ convex room - photo] The notion of functional perfection is a contradiction in terms In his print Concave and convex the Dutch artist M. C. Escher conjoins two different perspectives in one image. On the face of it we see one coherent world but upon closer examination we discover that the picture is made of two different worlds with no points of contact between them. In a similar way, the idea of functional perfection, on the face of it, appears to be a coherent concept, but on closer look it turns out to be made of two mutually incompatible notions.

[The Thelwell cartoon - rubbish heap] Products are by definition imperfect All products we surround ourselves with can be seen as so many attempts to compensate for the intrinsic imperfection of human existence. They are basically makeshifts that wear out, break down, go out of fashion, and most often end on a rubbish heap. But if they by chance survive physically, they will sooner or later achieve the status of antiques. Their comical makeshiftness then becomes quenched by their newly-won aura of antiqueness.

[The mobile telephone cartoon] Illusion of non-makeshift products: Not only old products but new products as well are makeshifts. We are unable to perceive their makeshift nature clearly until they have become technologically and aesthetically obsolete. When they first appear on the market they blind us by the brilliance of their newness, amaze us with their improvements and mesmerize us with their fashionable exteriors. All this encourages, time and time again, the illusion that the newly-launched product has come one step closer to the haven of ultimate functional perfection.

[Word Perfect quill-logo drawing] Makeshifts in spite of evolution There is a tremendous technological difference between quill pens and word- processors - but when all is said and done the distance between the two can be still seen as a difference between a very simple and a very complex makeshift.

[Pneu - drawing + photo] Utility means limited utility Tires help cars travel both softly, quietly and safely. They can also serve as play- things in kindergartens, bumpers on dock-walls, material for fences, frames for small flower-beds, and for a great many other uses. The number of purposes for which they are entirely unusable is, however, incomparably larger.

[Trosterud ribbon-windows photo] Functionalism was formalism The windows of the diminutive sleeping rooms of this housing estate stretch from wall to wall. Such a solution makes it practically impossible to place any larger piece of furniture near the windows. This problem, however, seemed to matter less to the architects than the effect of the wall-to-wall windows on the facade: the horizontally running ribbon windows were the hallmark of the international functionalist style since the 1920s. - The willingness to offer practical solutions on the altar of aesthetic effects must be seen as the main reason for the wave of discontent with functionalism since the 1960s. Whenever making things look functional came into conflict with making them work functionally functionalists chose all too often style before utility. (OBOS housing estate at Trosterud in Oslo, built in the early 1970s.)

[A toilet bowl by Ponti - photo] All products are dressed up What is beautiful about a lavatory bowl? Certainly nothing that is intrinsic to the device. The beauty, if we find any, is the designer's conscious contribution: he transformed a banal and potentially repugnant product into a respectable one by giving it a semblance of a work of art - in this case of an abstract sculpture. (Design for Ideal-Standard, by Gio Ponti, 1954)


NOTES


1a: It is patently difficult to speculate on the state of perfection. Our language and our thought are apparently adapted to dealing with our temporary, imperfect world; as soon as we start speculating about timelessness they tend to stumble. [Back to text above]

1b: (Added in July 2000:) An interesting argument flatly denying the possibility of functional perfection in nature (and by analogy in the human contrivances as well) was presented some 200 years ago by the British theologian William Paley, the author of a book with self-explanatory title, Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected From the Appearances of Nature, published in 1802. After having discussed the amazingly complex, contrivance-like mechanisms of the human and animal eye, Paley states that "Contrivance, by its very definition and nature, is the refuge of imperfection. To have recourse to expedients implies difficulty, impediment, restraint, defect of power." (To his own question, "Why resort to contrivance where power is omnipotent?" he answers that "Whatever is done, God could have done without the intervention of instruments or means; but it is in the construction of instruments, in the choice and adaptation of means, that a creative intelligence is seen. It is this which constitutes the order and beauty of the universe.")
The full context of the two quotations is as follows:
"�20. One question may possibly have dwelt in the reader's mind during the perusal of these observations, namely, why should not the Deity have given to the animal the faculty of vision at once? Why this circuitous perception; the ministry of so many means; an element [light] provided for the purpose; reflected from opaque substances, refracted through transparent ones, and both according to precise laws; then a complex organ, an intricate and artificial apparatus, in order, by the operation of this element, and in conformity with the restrictions of these laws, to produce an image upon a membrane communicating with the brain? Wherefore all this? Why make the difficulty in order to surmount it? If to perceive objects by some other mode than that of touch, or objects which lay out of the reach of that sense, were the thing proposed, could not a simple volition of the Creator have communicated the capacity? Why resort to contrivance where power is omnipotent? Contrivance, by its very definition and nature, is the refuge of imperfection. To have recourse to expedients implies difficulty, impediment, restraint, defect of power. -- �21. This question belongs to the other senses as well as to sight, to the general functions of animal life, as nutrition, secretion, respiration; to the economy of vegetables - and indeed to almost all the operations of nature. The question, therefore, is of very wide extent; and among other answers which may be given to it, beside reasons of which probably we are ignorant, one answer is this: it is only by the display of contrivance that the existence, the agency, the wisdom of the Deity could be testified to his rational creatures. This is the scale by which we ascend to all the knowledge of our Creator which we possess, so far as it depends upon the phenomena or the works of nature. Take away this, and you take away from us every subject of observation and ground of reasoning; I mean, as our rational faculties are formed at present. -- �22. Whatever is done, God could have done without the intervention of instruments or means; but it is in the construction of instruments, in the choice and adaptation of means, that a creative intelligence is seen. It is this which constitutes the order and beauty of the universe." (The above quotation, which comes from ch. III of Paley's book, can be found in this online adition of
Natural Theology.) [Back to text above]

2: The British designer and design philosopher David Pye (1914-1993) drew attention to the irrecoverably makeshift character of human products in his brilliant book on The Nature and Aesthetics of Design (London 1980, pp. 13-14). The present essay is in a way an attempt to expand on that idea. For a contemporary appraisal of Pye's overall achievement, see Peter Dormer, The Meanings of Modern Design: Towards the Twenty-First Century. London: Thames and Hudson, pp. 143-147. [Back to text above]

3: Cf. Jon Elster's far-ranging essay on "States That Are Essentially By-Products", in his Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 43-108. [Back to text above]

4: Peter Dormer, commenting on a recent finding that special technical checks on new Boeing airplanes uncovered faults, writes: "What is surprising is not that faults were found, but that the world expects their total elimination. Of course, manufacturers and service industries must aim for perfection, but they and we, as customers, make mistakes more rather than less likely by believing in the myths of technology, rather than in what common sense and common experience should teach us. To demand perfection is sensible; to expected it can be fatal." Dormer seems to be saying: To demand relative perfection is sensible; to expect absolute perfection can be fatal. See Peter Dormer, as cited in note 12, pp. 18-19. [Back to text above]

5: For functionalists to admit that they were producing only relatively perfect and relatively objective forms would be tantamount to acknowledging that functionalism was what it is considered today - namely a set of radically new formal conventions, that replaced the formal conventions of previous styles of architecture and design. For a recent discussion of functionalism as style, see Susan Lambert and John Murdoch"From to-day 'modernism' is dead! Functionalism as style?", in The V Album, vol. 5, London: The Associates of the V, 1986, pp. 206-16. [Back to text above]

6: See Louis Sullivan, "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered (1896)", in Kindergarten Chats (revised 1918) and Other Writings, ed. Isabella Athey. New York: George Wittenborn, 1947, pp. 203, 208. [Back to text above]

7: For the discussion of the notion of function, and a critique of its usage by designers, see my article "Form f�lger HVA !?! Formgivernes funksjonsbegrep som et carte blanche", in Samtiden 2, 1989, pp. 32-38. [Back to text above]

8: See Bruno Taut, Modern Architecture. London: The Studio Limited, 1929, p.9. [Back to text above]

9: See Herbert Read, "To Hell with Culture", in: To Hell with Culture and Other Essays on Art and Society. New York: Shocken Books, 1964, p. 18. [Back to text above]

10: In order to see that the idea of type-objects was an illusion it is not necessary to list all those changes that the products believed to have arrived at their "final stage" in fact have gone through since the 1920s. The fact that given product- types at a given time appear not to be changing has less to do with their having achieved at a perfect state than with either the inertia of habit (as in case of primitive or simple tools) or their status function (as in case of commercially produced prestige artefacts like Rolls-Royce) or with the producer's effort to maintain the identity of the commercial image of the product (the Coca Cola bottle). - My description of the background of the idea of objet-types relies on Reyner Banham, The Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. London: The Architectural Press, 1960, section 4, and G�ran Schildt, Moderna tider: Alvar Aaltos m�te med funktionalismen. Walstr�m & Widstrand, 1985, pp. 212-215. [Back to text above]

11: See Karel Honzik, tr. P. Morton Shand, "A Note on Biotechnics", in Concrete Way 9, no. 1, 1936, pp. 7-12. [Back to text above]

12: I understand the word formalism as the willingness on the part of the designer to resolve conflicts between aesthetic and functional elements of a product at the expense of the functional ones. It can be seen as a consequence of the effort to elevate the design to the Fine Art status. - On the absorbing history and mechanism of that effort, see Brent C. Brolin's book Flight of Fancy: The Banishment and Return of Ornament. London: Academy Editions, 1985. [Back to text above]

13: Today's deconstructivists seem to be direct heirs of functionalism also in their concept of architecture and design as Fine Art. An important difference between the two, though, is that the deconstructivists no longer feel any need for legitimizing their architecture by devising non-artistic arguments, such as the idea of functional perfection, which functionalists in their time still felt obliged to invoke. The concept of architecture and design as Fine Art replaced namely, with the victory of functionalist design philosophy, the earlier perception of architecture and design as an Applied Art of sorts. Apart from sporadic opposition, such as that of Brolin (see the preceding note) the new concept has remained largely unchallenged. [Back to text above]

14: Cf. Antony G. N. Flew's distinction between experts as servants and experts as masters in his "Wants or Needs, Choices or Commands", in Human Needs in Politics, ed. Ross Fitzgerald. 1977, pp. 213-28. [Back to text above]

15: It is true that toothbrushes have a form very different from, say, that of spectacles. It is also obvious that the difference has to do with what the two classes of implements are used for. If we, however, compare toothbrushes with other toothbrushes, and spectacles with other spectacles, we will discover that, strangely enough, toothbrushes differ also from each other, and so do the spectacles. To argue that in each class only one of these many forms is right would involve us in hopeless contradictions. I outlined some of these in my article "On forms following functions and Post- Modernism", in Pro Forma 1, 1989, s.5-15. [Back to text above]

16: If this reasoning is correct, it has radical implications for design education: it suggests that knowledge of, or rather familiarity with, past solutions, whether technical or aesthetic, has always been necessary as a springboard for any new solutions - including functionalist ones. The reasoning gives a hint about how important it is for design students to acquire familiarity with these past solutions, i.e. with the historical aspects of their future profession. Teaching design history as a subject for design students makes really sense only after we have fully grasped why the functionalist philosophy of design was a blind alley. [Back to text above]

17: The best known such object, in the realm of architecture, is perhaps Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House of 1950, which achieved world-wide acclaim for its beauty, grace and elegance while its owner Dr. Farnsworth sued Mies for having built her a house that was uninhabitable. Cf. James Marston Fitch, "Mies van der Rohe and the Platonic Verities", in Four Great Makers of Modern Architecture, New York: Wittenborn, 1963, pp. 154- 163. [Back to text above]



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Related articles by the same author:
"On Seeing Design as Redesign" (2002)
"Form Follows WHAT? The modernist notion of function as a carte blanche" (1995)
Other online articles IN ENGLISH by the same author
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