Friday, May 06, 2005

Form causes function?

One thing always lead to the next one. Today, I received an article on New Zealand design that mentioned something interesting about Aristotle's design theories... so I looked into that, and found his 4 causes to why... :

The material cause is the basic stuff out of which the thing is made. The material cause of a house, for example, would include the wood, metal, glass, and other building materials used in its construction. All of these things belong in an explanation of the house because it could not exist unless they were present in its composition.

The formal cause {Gk. eidos [eidos]} is the pattern or essence in conformity with which these materials are assembled. Thus, the formal cause of our exemplary house would be the sort of thing that is represented on a blueprint of its design. This, too, is part of the explanation of the house, since its materials would be only a pile of rubble (or a different house) if they were not put together in this way.

The efficient cause is the agent or force immediately responsible for bringing this matter and that form together in the production of the thing. Thus, the efficient cause of the house would include the carpenters, masons, plumbers, and other workers who used these materials to build the house in accordance with the blueprint for its construction. Clearly the house would not be what it is without their contribution.

Lastly, the final cause {Gk. teloV [télos]end or purpose for which a thing exists, so the final cause of our house would be to provide shelter for human beings. This is part of the explanation of the house's existence because it would never have been built unless someone needed it as a place to live.

To put it in plain words: Objects have 4 causals or elements, it's matter (material cause), the aesthetic arrangement (formal cause), the designer or manufacturer (efficient cause) and the purpouse of the object (final cause). On the next page of that same web site, they say: Thus, for example, the material cause of this chair is the wood out of which it is made, the formal cause is the shape into which it was fashioned, the efficient cause was the carpenter by whom the chair was made, and the final cause is the sitting for the sake of which it was designed. So in that order of things, form doesn't follow function, it is a separate unit.

I never believed on Sullivan's dictum, at least not blindly. If that were an absolute truth, most modern items should have similar shapes and just slight variations according to particular specifications. I mean, all (modern) chairs would have then the same basic (perfect) shape for just the function of seating... but it is not so. Because matter is transformed by the designer (or manufacturer) each solution is basically unique. Each object has a unique combination of all 4 causals, and all 4 causes make the "whole". Although they are related, they are still independent, not co-dependant. They don't follow each other, they just are.

Jan Mitchl from Oslo wrote this article on Sullivan and explains step by step the whole deal. That is more or less how I see it, but explained with clearer thougts: "True functional solutions would be identical with true formal solutions, since each and every function was meant to have one - and only one - solution proper to it, and, consequently, only one proper form. The dictum form follows function, is then mistaken. The functionalist notion of function did not refer to the world of users but to the realm of what we called the functionalist design metaphysics, where the business of forms was to express 'functions' conceived by supra-human entities (guru-designers). In the reality of our day-to-day world, however, the functionalist notion of function operated as a carte blanche: having been empty the notion of function made the architects and designers free to define it in ways that always legitimized their own aesthetic priorities. We can say that in our commonsense world form follows function is infeasible as a design precept for objective design." (some editing/abbridging and emphasis added)

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