My work on the problem of formalism—on the problem of what the term formalism means—was first published in an essay in ANY (Architecture New York, No. 11, 1995). The punctuation of the title, "Formalism: Move + Meaning," was slightly different from the title of this second essay, "Formalism: Move | Meaning," which I presented as a paper at the 1996 Annual Meeting of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.
I substituted the vertical line (|) for the "+" sign in this follow-up essay to more nearly convey the inseparable relationship between MOVE & MEANING (which the ampersand signifies). My work on an earlier article, Drawing as Contemplation, and study of Russian Formalism sparked my research. Russian Formalist literary theorists and critics of the nineteen-teens focused on the problem of FORM & CONTENT in art. Their work together with the invention of semiology by the Swiss linguist Saussure (his book Course in General Linguistics was published posthumously in 1916) led to the emergence of structuralism in about 1926/27, which led in turn to the emergence of post-structuralism via Derrida's work in the early 1960s.
I also write about Formalism-centered themes in many other articles
and books, including:
The Substantiality of Architecture
Transfiguring: Figure | Field
Empty | Full: More Lessons from Synthetic Cubism
Collage Reading: Braque | Picasso
My research on formalism has led me to see that I myself am a formalist, because I define architecture, at least in part, as follows:
To whatever degree unreflective or conscious on the part of the architect, architecture expresses an aesthetic system based on the visual values and the philosophical/ontological values that sustain this aesthetic system.
Let's call visual values the plastic system.
Let's call philosophical/ontological values the intellectual premises.
In advanced architectures, as in the advanced aesthetic system of Mondrian's paintings, the plastic system (visible form) and the intellectual premises (invisible meaning) blend through conscious ways highly refined and lucid.
As Mondrian urged, "The modern artist is the conscious artist."
And in great works of art, the fusion of visible form and invisible meaning conveys that form and meaning cannot be separated.
Art that resonates with the authority of Significant Form and Significant Space.
Which is to say:
Form and Space that express abstract aesthetic power and symbolic meaning.
So my work involves more than the surface aesthetics of geometry, materials, and light.
The work also involves the sub-surface of architecture's metaphysical structure: the philosophical/ontological values, or intellectual premises, that I choose to probe.
The work engages the complex chess game of FIGURE | FIELD & MOVE | MEANING (aka FORM & CONTENT)
—toward the making of significant buildings of unexpected magnitudes for human habitation.
See The Substantiality of Architecture for other attempts to define architecture.
Though I presented "Formalism: Move | Meaning" with many slides, ACSA published the paper with only four illustrations.
Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, Annual Proceedings 84: 1996, pp. 251-57 | go to page 1 of 7