Theodor Adorno’s “Functionalism Today” (1965)

AFE Tower at the University of Frankfurt

I would first like to express my gratitude for the confidence shown me by Adolf Arndt in his invitation to speak here today.  At the same time, I must also express my serious doubts as to whether I really have the right to speak before you.  Métier, expertise in both matters of handicraft and of technique, counts in your circle for a great deal.  And rightly so.  If there is one idea of lasting influence which has developed out of the Werkbund movement, it is precisely this emphasis on concrete competence as opposed to an aesthetics removed and isolated from material questions.  I am familiar with this dictum from my own métier, music.  There it became a fundamental theorem, thanks to a school which cultivated close personal relationships with both Adolf Loos and (the Bauhaus, and which was therefore fully aware of its intellectual tics to objectivity [Sachlichkeit][1]in the arts.  Nevertheless, I can make no claim to competence in matters of architecture.  And yet. I do not resist the temptation, and knowingly face the danger that you may briefly tolerate me as a dilettante and then cast me aside.  I do this firstly because of my pleasure in presenting some of my reflections in public, and to you in particular: and secondly, because of Adolf Loos’ comment that while an artwork need not appeal to anyone, a house is responsible to each and everyone.[2]  I am not yet sure whether this statement is in fact valid, but in the meantime.  I need not be holier than the pope.

I find that the style of German reconstruction fills me with a disturbing discontent, one which many of you may certainly share.  Since I no less than the specialists must constantly face this feeling.  I feel justified in examining its foundations.  Common elements between music and architecture have been discussed repeatedly, almost to the point of ennui.  In uniting that which I see in architecture with that which I understand about the difficulties in music, I may not be transgressing the law of the division of labor as much as it may seem.  But to accomplish this union, I must stand at a greater distance from these subjects than you may justifiably expect.  It seems to me, however, not unrealistic that at times — in latent crisis situations — it may help to remove oneself farther from phenomena than the spirit of technical competence would usually allow.  The principle of “fittingness to the material” [Material-gerechtigkeit][3] rests on the foundation of the division of labor.  Nevertheless, it is advisable even for experts to occasionally take into account the extent to which their expertise may suffer from just that division of labor, as the artistic naïveté underlying it can impose its own limitations.

Let me begin with the fact that the anti-ornamental movement has affected the “purpose-free” arts [zweckfreie Künste][4]as well.  It lies in the nature of artworks to inquire after the essential and necessary in them and to react against all superfluous elements.  After the critical tradition declined to offer the arts a canon of right and wrong, the responsibility to take such considerations into account was placed on each individual work; each had to test itself against its own immanent logic, regardless of whether or not it was motivated by some external purpose.  This was by no means a new position. Mozart, though clearly still standard-bearer and critical representative of the great tradition, responded in the following way to the minor objection of a member of the royal family  — “But so many notes, my dear Mozart” — after the premier of his “Abduction” with “Not one note more, Your Majesty, than was necessary.”  In his Critique of [6] Judgment, Kant grounded this norm philosophically in the formula of “purposiveness without a purpose” [Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck]The formula reflects an essential impulse in the judgment of taste.  And yet it does not account for the historical dynamic.  Based on a language stemming from the realm of materials, what this language defines as necessary can later become superfluous, even terribly ornamental, as soon as it can no longer be legitimated in a second kind of language, which is commonly called style.  What was functional yesterday can therefore become the opposite tomorrow.  Loos was thoroughly aware of this historical dynamic contained in the concept of ornament.  Even representative, luxurious, pompous and, in a certain sense, burlesque elements may appear in certain forms of art as necessary, and not at all burlesque.  To criticize the Baroque for this reason would be philistine.  Criticism of ornament means no more than criticism of that which has lost its functional and symbolic signification.  Ornament becomes then a mere decaying and poisonous organic vestige.  The new art is opposed to this, for it represents the fictitiousness of a depraved romanticism, an ornamentation embarrassingly trapped in its own impotence.  Modern music and architecture, by concentrating strictly on expression and construction, both strive together with equal rigor to efface all such ornament.  Schonberg’s compositional innovations, Karl Kraus’ literary struggle against journalistic clichés and Loos’ denunciation of ornament are not vague analogies in intellectual history; they reflect precisely the same intention.  This insight necessitates a correction of Loos’ thesis, which he, in his open-mindedness. would probably not have rejected: the question of functionalism does not coincide with the question of practical function.  The purpose-free [zweckfrei]and the purposeful [zweckgebunden]arts do not form the radical opposition which he imputed.  The difference between the necessary and the superfluous is inherent in a work, and is not defined by the work’s relationship — or the lack of it — to something outside itself.

In Loos’ thought and in the early period of functionalism, purposeful and aesthetically autonomous products were separated from one another by absolute fact. This separation, which is in fact the object of our reflection, arose from the contemporary polemic against the applied arts and crafts (Kunstgewerbe).[5]  Although they determined the period of Loos’ development, he soon escaped from them.  Loos was thus situated historically between Peter Altenberg and Le Corbusier.  The movement of applied art had its beginnings in Ruskin and Morris.  Revolting against the shapelessness of mass-produced, pseudo-individualized forms, it rallied around such new concepts as “will to style,” “stylization,” and ‘shaping,” and around the idea that one should apply art. reintroduce it into life in order to restore life to it.  Their slogans were numerous and had a powerful effect.  Nevertheless.  Loos noticed quite early the implausibility of such endeavors: articles for use lose meaning as soon as they are displaced or disengaged in such a way that their use is no longer required.  Art, with its definitive protest against the dominance of purpose over human life, suffers once it is reduced to that practical level to which it objects, in Hölderlin’s words: “For never from now on/Shall the sacred serve mere use.”  Loos found the artificial art of practical objects repulsive.  Similarly, he felt that the practical reorientation of purpose-free art would eventually subordinate it to the destructive autocracy of profit, which even arts and crafts, at least in their beginnings, had once opposed.  Contrary to these efforts.  Loos preached for the return to an honest handicraft[6] which would place itself in the service of technical innovations without having to borrow forms from art.  His claims suffer from too simple an antithesis.  Their [7] restorative clement, not unlike that of the individualization of crafts, has since become equally clear.  To this day, they are still bound to discussions of objectivity.

In any given product, freedom from purpose and purposefulness can never be absolutely separated from one another.  The two notions are historically interconnected.  The ornaments, after all, which Loos expulsed with a vehemence quite out of character, are often actually vestiges of outmoded means of production.  And conversely, numerous purposes, like sociability, dance and entertainment, have filtered into purpose-free art; they have been generally incorporated into its formal and generic laws.  Purposefulness without purpose is thus really the sublimation of purpose.  Nothing exists as an aesthetic object in itself but only within the field of tension of such sublimation.  Therefore there is no chemically pure purposefulness set up as the opposite of the purpose-free aesthetic.  Even the most pure forms of purpose are nourished by ideas — like formal transparency and graspability — which in fact are derived from artistic experience.  No form can be said to be determined exhaustively by its purpose.  This can be seen even in one of Schönberg’s revolutionary works, the First Chamber Symphony, about which Loos wrote some of his most insightful words, ironically, an ornamental theme appears, with a double beat recalling at once a central motif from Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” and the theme from the First Movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.  The ornament is the sustaining invention, if you will, objective in its own right.  Precisely this transitional theme becomes the model of a canonical exposition in the fourfold counterpoint, and thereby the model of the first extreme constructivist complex in modern music.  Schönberg’s belief in such material was appropriated from the Kunstgewerbe religion, which worshipped the supposed nobility of matter: it still continues to provide inspiration even in autonomous art.  He combined with this belief the ideas of a construction fitting to the material.  To it corresponds an undialectical concept of beauty, which encompasses autonomous art like a nature preserve.  That art aspires to autonomy does not mean that it unconditionally purges itself of ornamental elements: the very existence of art, judged by the criteria of the practical, is ornamental.  If Loos’ aversion to ornament had been rigidly consistent, he would have had to extend it to all of art.  To his credit he stopped before reaching this conclusion.  In this circumspection, by the way, he is similar to the positivists.  On the one hand, they would expunge from the realm of philosophy anything which they deem poetic.  On the other, they sense no infringement by poetry itself on their kind of positivism.  Thus, they tolerate poetry if it remains in a special realm, neutralized and unchallenged, since they have already relaxed the notion of objective truth.

The belief that a substance bears within itself its own adequate form presumes that it is already invested with meaning.  Such a doctrine made the symbolist aesthetic possible.  The resistance to the excesses of the applied arts pertained not just to hidden forms, but also to the cult of materials.  It created an aura of essentiality about them.  Loos expressed precisely this notion in his critique of batik.  Meanwhile, the invention of artificial products — materials originating in industry — no longer permitted the archaic faith in an innate beauty, the foundation of a magic connected with precious elements.  Furthermore, the crisis arising from the latest developments of autonomous art demonstrated how little meaningful organization could depend on the material itself.  Whenever organizational principles rely too heavily on material, the result approaches mere patchwork.  The idea of fittingness to the materials in purposeful art cannot remain indifferent to such criticisms.  Indeed, the illusion of purposefulness as its own purpose cannot stand up to the simplest [8] social reality.  Something would be purposeful here and now only if it were so in terms of the present society.  Yet, certain irrationalities — Marx’s term for them was faux frais — are essential to society: the social process always proceeds, in spite of all particular planning, by its own inner nature, aimlessly and irrationally.  Such irrationality leaves its mark on all ends and purposes, and thereby also on the rationality of the means devised to achieve those ends.  Thus, a self-mocking contradiction emerges in the omnipresence of advertisements: they are intended to be purposeful for profit.  And yet all purposefulness is technically defined by its measure of material appropriateness.  If an advertisement were strictly functional, without ornamental surplus, it would no longer fulfill its purpose as advertisement.  Of course, the fear of technology is largely stuffy and old-fashioned, even reactionary.  And yet it does have its validity, for it reflects the anxiety felt in the face of the violence which an irrational society can impose on its members, indeed on everything which is forced to exist within its confines.  This anxiety reflects a common childhood experience, with which Loos seems unfamiliar, even though he is otherwise strongly influenced by the circumstances of his youth: the longing for castles with long chambers and silk tapestries, the utopia of escapism.  Something of this utopia lives on in the modern aversion to the escalator, to Loos’ celebrated kitchen, to the factory smokestack, to the shabby side of an antagonistic society.  It is heightened by outward appearances.  Deconstruction of these appearances, however, has little power over the completely denigrated sphere, where praxis continues as always.  One might attack the pinnacles of the bogus castles of the moderns (which Thorstein Veblen despised), the ornaments, for example, pasted onto shoes: but where this is possible, it merely aggravates an already horrifying situation The process has implications for the world of pictures as well.  Positivist art, a culture of the existing, has been exchanged for aesthetic truth.  One envisions the prospect of a new Ackerstraße.[7]

The limits of functionalism to date have been the limits of the bourgeoisie in its practical sense.  Even in Loos, the sworn enemy of Viennese kitsch, one finds some remarkably bourgeois traces.  Since the bourgeois structure had already permeated so many feudalistic and absolutist forms in his city, Loos believed he could use its rigorous principles to free himself from traditional formulas.  His writings, for example, contain attacks on awkward Viennese formality.  Furthermore, his polemics are colored by a unique strain of puritanism, which nears obsession.  Loos’ thought, like so much bourgeois criticism of culture, is an intersection of two fundamental directions.  On the one hand, he realized that this culture was actually not at all cultural.  This informed above all his relationship to his native environment.  On the other, he felt a deep animosity toward culture in general, which called for the prohibition not only of superficial veneer, but also of all soft and smooth touches.  In this he disregarded the fact that culture is not the place for untamed nature, nor for a merciless domination over nature.  The future of Sachlichkeit could be a liberating one only if it shed its barbarous traits.  It could no longer inflict on men — whom it supposedly upheld as its only measure — the sadistic blows of sharp edges, bare calculated rooms, stairways, and the like.  Virtually every consumer had probably felt all too painfully the impracticability of the mercilessly practical.  Hence our bitter suspicion is formulated: the absolute rejection of style becomes style.  Loos traces ornament back to erotic symbols.  In turn, his rigid rejection of ornamentation is coupled with his disgust with erotic symbolism.  He finds uncurbed nature both regressive and embarrassing.  The tone of his condemnations of [9] ornament echoes an often openly expressed rage against moral delinquency: “But the man of our time who, out of inner compulsion, smears walls with erotic symbols is a criminal and a degenerate.”[8]  The insult “degenerate” connects Loos to movements of which he certainly would not have approved [i.e., Nazism].  “One can,” he says, “measure the culture of a country by the amount of graffiti on the bathroom walls.”[9]  But in southern countries, in Mediterranean countries in general, one finds a great deal.  In fact, the Surrealists made much use of such unreflected expressions.  Loos would certainly have hesitated before imputing a lack of culture to these areas.  His hatred of ornament can best be understood by examining a psychological argument.[10]  He seems to see in ornament the mimetic impulse, which runs contrary to rational objectification: he sees in it an expression which, even in sadness and lament, is related to the pleasure principle.  Arguing from tins principle, one must accept that there is a factor of expression in even, object.  Any special relegation of this factor to art alone would be an oversimplification.  It cannot be separated from objects of use.  Thus, even when these objects lack expression, they must pay tribute to it by attempting to avoid it.  Hence all obsolete objects of use eventually become an expression, a collective picture of the epoch.  There is barely a practical form which, along with its appropriateness for use, would not therefore also be a symbol.  Psychoanalysis too has demonstrated this principle on the basis of unconscious images, among which the house figures prominently.  According to Freud, symbolic intention quickly allies itself to technical forms, like the airplane, and according to contemporary American research in mass psychology, often to the car.  Thus, purposeful forms are the language of their own purposes.  By means of the mimetic impulse, the living being equates himself with objects in his surroundings.  This occurs long before artists initiate conscious imitation.  What begins as symbol becomes ornament, and finally appears superfluous; it had its origins, nevertheless, in natural shapes, to which men adapted themselves though their artifacts.  The inner image which is expressed in that impulse was once something external, something coercively objective.  This argument explains the fact, known since Loos, that ornament, indeed artistic form in general, cannot be invented.  The achievement of all artists, and not just those interested in specific ends, is reduced to something incomparably more modest than the art-religion of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would have been willing to accept.  The psychological basis of ornament hence undercuts aesthetic principles and aims.  However the question is by no means settled how art would be possible in any form if ornamentation were no longer a substantial element, if art itself could no longer invent any true ornaments.

This last difficulty, which Sachlichkeit unavoidably encounters, is not a mere error.  It cannot be arbitrarily corrected.  It follows directly from the historical character of the subject.  Use — or consumption — is much more closely related to the pleasure principle than an object of artistic representation responsible only to its own formal laws: it means the “using up of,” the denial of the object, that it ought not to be.  Pleasure appears, according to the bourgeois work ethic, as wasted energy.  Loos’ formulation makes clear how much as an early cultural critic he was fundamentally attached to that order whose manifestations he chastised wherever they failed to follow their own principles: “Ornament is wasted work energy and thereby wasted health.  It has always been so.  But today it also means wasted material, and both mean wasted capital.”[11] Two irreconcilable motifs coincide in this statement: economy, for where else, if not in the norms of profitability, is it stated that nothing should be wasted: and the dream of the totally [10] technological world, free from the shame of work.  The second motif points beyond the commercial world.  For Loos it lakes the form of the realization that the widely lamented impotency to create ornament and the so-called extinction of stylizing energy (which he exposed as an invention of art historians) imply an advance in the arts.  He realized in addition that those aspects of an industrialized society, which by bourgeois standards are negative, actually represent its positive side:

Style used to mean ornament.  So I said: don’t lament! Don’t you see? Precisely this makes our age great, that it is incapable of producing new ornament.  We have conquered ornament, we have struggled to the stage of non-ornamentation.  Watch, the time is near.  Fulfillment awaits us.  Soon the streets of the cities will shine like while walls.  Like Zion, the sacred city, heaven’s capital.  Then salvation will be ours.[12]

In this conception, the state free of ornament would be a utopia of concretely fulfilled presence, no longer in need of symbols.  Objective truth, all the belief in things, would cling to this utopia.  This utopia remains hidden for Loos by his crucial experience with Jugendstil:

Individual man is incapable of creating form: therefore, so is the architect.  The architect, however, attempts the impossible again and again — and always in vain.  Form, or ornament, is the result of the unconscious cooperation of men belonging to a whole cultural sphere.  Everything else is art.  Art is the self-imposed will of the genius.  God gave him his mission.[13]

This axiom, that the artist fulfils a divine mission, no longer holds.  A general demystification, which began in the commercial realm, has encroached upon art.  With it, the absolute difference between inflexible purposefulness and autonomous freedom has been reduced as well.  But here we face another contradiction.  On the one hand, the purely purpose-oriented forms have been revealed as insufficient, monotonous, deficient, and narrow-mindedly practical.  At times, of course, individual masterpieces do stand out: until then, one tends to attribute the success to the creator’s “genius,” and not to something objective within the achievement itself.  On the other, the attempt to bring into the work the external clement of imagination as a corrective, to help the mailer out with this element which stems from outside of if is equally pointless: if serves only to mistakenly resurrect decoration, which has been justifiably criticized by modern architecture.  The results are extremely disheartening.  A critical analysis of the mediocre modernity of the style of German reconstruction by a true expert would be extremely relevant.  My suspicion in the Minima Moralia that the world is no longer habitable has already been confirmed, the heavy shadow of instability bears upon built form, the shadow of mass migrations, which had their preludes in the years of Hitler and his war.  This contradiction must be consciously grasped in all its necessity.  But we cannot stop there.  If we do, we give in to a continually threatening catastrophe.  The most recent catastrophe, the air raids, have already led architecture into a condition from winch it cannot escape.

[11]

The poles of the contradiction are revealed in two concepts, which seem mutually exclusive: handicraft and imagination.  Loos expressly rejected the latter in the context of the world of use:

Pure and clean construction has had to replace the imaginative forms of past centuries and the flourishing ornamentation of past ages.  Straight lines: sharp, straight edges: the craftsman works only with these.  He has nothing but a purpose in mind and nothing but materials and tools in front of him.[14]

Le Corbusier, however, sanctioned imagination in his theoretical writings, at least in a somewhat general sense: “The task of the architect: knowledge of men, creative imagination, beauty.  Freedom of choice (spiritual man).”[15]  We may safely assume that in general the more advanced architects tend to prefer handicraft, while more backward and unimaginative architects all too gladly praise imagination.  We must be wary, however, of simply accepting the concepts of handicraft and imagination in the loose sense in which they have been tossed back and forth in the ongoing polemic.  Only then can we hope to reach an alternative.  The word “handicraft,” which immediately gains consent, covers something qualitatively different.  Only unreasonable dilettantism and blatant idealism would attempt to deny that each authentic and, in the broadest sense, artistic activity requires a precise understanding of the materials and techniques at the artists disposal, and to be sure, at the most advanced level.

Only the artist who has never subjected himself to the discipline of creating a picture, who believes in the intuitive origins of painting, fears that closeness to materials and technical understanding will destroy his originality.  He has never learned what is historically available, and can never make use of it.  And so he conjures up out of the supposed depths of his own interiority that which is merely the residue of outmoded forms.  The word “handicraft” appeals to such a simple truth.  But quite different chords resonate unavoidably along with it.  The syllable “hand” exposes a past means of production: it recalls a simple economy of wares.  These means of production have since disappeared.  Ever since the proposals of the English precursors of “modern style” they have been reduced to a masquerade.  One associates the notion of handicraft with the apron of a Hans Sachs, or possibly the great world chronicle.  At times, I cannot suppress the suspicion that such an archaic “shirt sleeves” ethos survives even among the younger proponents of “handcraftiness”: they are despisers of art.  If some feel themselves superior to art, then it is only because they have never experienced it as Loos did.  For Loos, appreciation of both art and its applied form led to a bitter emotional conflict.  In the area of music, I know of one advocate of handicraft who spoke with plainly romantic anti-romanticism of the “hut mentality.”  I once caught him thinking of handicrafts as stereotypical formulas, practices as he called them, which were supposed to spare the energies of the composer: it never dawned on him that nowadays the uniqueness of each concrete task excludes such formalization.  Thanks to attitudes such as his, handicraft is transformed into that which it wants to repudiate: the same lifeless, reified repetition which ornament had propagated.  I dare not judge whether a similar kind of perversity is at work in the concept of form-making when viewed as a detached operation, independent from the immanent demands and laws of the object to be formed.  In any [12] case, I would imagine that the retrospective infatuation with the aura of the socially doomed craftsman is quite compatible with the disdainfully trumped-up attitude of his successor, the expert.  Proud of his expertise and as unpolished as his tables and chairs, the expert disregards those reflections needed in this age which no longer possesses anything to grasp on to.  It is impossible to do without the expert; it is impossible in this age of commercial means of production to recreate that state before the division of labour which society has irretrievably obliterated.  But likewise, it is impossible to raise the expert to the measure of all things.  His disillusioned modernity, which claims to have shed all ideologies, is easily appropriated into the mask of the petty bourgeois routine.  Handicraft becomes handcraftiness.  Good handicraft means the fittingness of means to an end.  The ends are certainly not independent of the means.  The means have their own logic, a logic which points beyond them.  If the fittingness of the means becomes an end in itself, it becomes fetishized.  The handworker mentality begins to produce the opposite effect from its original intention, when it was used to fight the silk smoking jacket and the beret.  It hinders the objective reason behind productive forces instead of allowing it to unfold.  Whenever handicraft is established as a norm today, one must closely examine the intention.  The concept of handicraft stands in close relationship to function.  Its functions, however, are by no means necessarily enlightened or advanced.

The concept of imagination, like that of handicraft, must not be adopted without critical analysis.  Psychological triviality — imagination as nothing but the image of something not yet present — is clearly insufficient.  As an interpretation, it explains merely what is determined by imagination in artistic processes, and, I presume, also in the purposeful arts.  Walter Benjamin once defined imagination as the ability to interpolate in minutest detail.  Undeniably, such a definition accomplishes much more than current views which tend cither to elevate the concept into an immaterial heaven or to condemn it on objective grounds.  Imagination in the production of a work of representational art is not pleasure in free invention, in creation ex nihilo.  There is no such thing in any ail, even in autonomous art, the realm to which Loos restricted imagination.  Any penetrating analysis of the autonomous work of art concludes that die additions invented by the artist above and beyond the given state of materials and forms are miniscule and of limited value.  On the other hand, the reduction of imagination to an anticipatory adaptation to material ends is equally inadequate; it transforms imagination into an eternal sameness.  It is impossible to ascribe Le Corbusier’s powerful imaginative feats completely to the relationship between architecture and the human body, as he does in his own writings.  Clearly there exists, perhaps imperceptible in the materials and forms which the artist acquires and develops something more than material and forms.  Imagination means to innervate this something.  This is not as absurd a notion as it may sound.  For the forms, even the materials, are by no means merely given by nature, as an unreflective artist might easily presume.  History has accumulated in them, and spirit permeates them.  What they contain is not a positive law; and yet, their content emerges as a sharply outlined figure of the problem.  Artistic imagination awakens these accumulated elements by becoming aware of the innate problematic of the material.  The minimal progress of imagination responds to the wordless question posed to it by the materials and forms in their quiet and elemental language.  Separate impulses, even purpose and immanent formal laws, are thereby fused together.  An interaction takes place between purpose, space, and material.  None of these facets makes up any one Ur-phenomenon to which all [13] the others can be reduced.  It is here that the insight furnished by philosophy that no thought can lead to an absolute beginning — that such absolutes are the products of abstraction — exerts its influence on aesthetics.  Hence music, which had so long emphasized die supposed primacy of the individual tone, had to discover finally the more complex relationships of its components.  The tone receives meaning only within the functional structure of the system, without which it would be a merely physical entity. Superstition alone can hope to extract from it a latent aesthetic structure.  One speaks, with good reason, of a sense of space [Raumgefühl]in architecture.  But this sense of space is not a pure, abstract essence, not a sense of spatiality itself, since space is only conceivable as concrete space, within specific dimensions.  A sense of space is closely connected with purposes.  Even when architecture attempts to elevate this sense beyond the realm of purposefulness, it is still simultaneously immanent in the purpose.  The success of such a synthesis is the principal criterion for great architecture.  Architecture inquires: how can a certain purpose become space; through which forms, which materials? All factors relate reciprocally to one another.  Architectonic imagination is, according to this conception of it, the ability to articulate space purposefully.  It permits purposes to become space.  It constructs forms according to purposes.  Conversely, space and the sense of space can become more than impoverished purpose only when imagination impregnates them with purposefulness.  Imagination breaks out of the immanent connections of purpose, to which it owes its very existence.

I am fully conscious of the ease with which concepts like a sense of space can degenerate into clichés, in the end even be applied to arts and crafts.  Here I feel the limits of the non-expert who is unable to render these concepts sufficiently precise although they have been so enlightening in modern architecture.  And yet, I permit myself a certain degree of speculation: the sense of space, in contradistinction to the abstract idea of space, corresponds in the visual realm to musicality in the acoustical.  Musicality cannot be reduced to an abstract conception of time — for example.  The ability, however beneficial, to conceive of the time units of a metronome without having to listen to one.  Similarly, the sense of space is not limited to spatial images, even though these are probably a prerequisite for even architect if he is to read his outlines and blueprints the way a musician reads his score.  A sense of space seems to demand more, namely that something can occur to the artist out of space itself; this cannot be something arbitrary in space and indifferent toward space.  Analogously, the musician invents his melodies, indeed all his musical structures, out of time itself, out of the need to organize time.  Mere time relationships do not suffice, since they are indifferent toward the concrete musical event: nor does the invention of individual musical passages or complexes, since their time structures and time relationships are not conceived along with them.  In the productive sense of space, purpose takes over to a large extent the role of content, as opposed to the formal constituents which the architect creates out of space.  The tension between form and content which makes all artistic creation possible communicates itself through purpose especially in the purpose-oriented arts.  The new “objective” asceticism does contain therefore an element of truth: unmediated subjective expression would indeed be inadequate for architecture.  Where only such expression is striven for, the result is not architecture, but filmsets, at times, as in the old Golem film, even good ones.  The position of subjective expression, then, is occupied in architecture by the function for [14] the subject.  Architecture would thus attain a higher standard the more intensely it reciprocally mediated the two extremes — formal construction and function.

The subject’s function, however, is not determined by some generalized person of an unchanging physical nature but by concrete social norms.  Functional architecture represents the rational character as opposed to the suppressed instincts of empirical subjects, who, in the present society, still seek their fortunes in all conceivable nooks and crannies.  It calls upon a human potential which is grasped in principle by our advanced consciousness, but which is suffocated in most men, who have been kept spiritually impotent.  Architecture worthy of human beings thinks better of men than they actually are.  It views them in the way they could be according to the status of their own productive energies as embodied in technology.  Architecture contradicts the needs of the here and now as soon as it proceeds to serve those needs — without simultaneously representing any absolute or lasting ideology.  Architecture still remains, as Loos’ book title complained seventy years ago, a cry into emptiness.  The fact that the great architects from Loos to Le Corbusier and [Hans] Scharoun were able to realize only a small portion of their work in stone and concrete cannot be explained solely by the reactions of unreasonable contractors and administrators (although that explanation must not be underestimated).  This fact is conditioned by a social antagonism over which the greatest architecture has no power: the same society which developed human productive energies to unimaginable proportions has chained them to conditions of production imposed upon them: thus the people who in reality constitute the productive energies become deformed according to the measure of their working conditions.  This fundamental contradiction is most clearly visible in architecture.  It is just as difficult for architecture to rid itself of the tensions which this contradiction produces as it is for the consumer.  Things are not universally correct in architecture and universally incorrect in men.  Men suffer enough injustice, for their consciousness and unconsciousness are trapped in a state of minority; they have not, so to speak, come of age.  This nonage hinders their identification with their own concerns.  Because architecture is in fact both autonomous and purpose-oriented, it cannot simply negate men as they are.  And yet it must do precisely that if it is to remain autonomous.  If it would bypass mankind tel quel,then it would be accommodating itself to what would be a questionable anthropology and even ontology.  It was not merely by chance that Le Corbusier envisioned human prototypes.  Living men, even the most backward and conventionally naive, have the right to the fulfillment of their needs, even though those needs may be false ones.  Once thought supersedes without consideration the subjective desires for the sake of truly objective needs, it is transformed into brutal oppression.  So it is with the volonté generale against the volonté de tous.  Even in the false needs of a human being there lives a bit of freedom.  It is expressed in what economic theory once called the “use value” as opposed to the “exchange value.”  Hence there are those to whom legitimate architecture appears as an enemy; it withholds from them that which they, by their very nature, want and even need.

Beyond the phenomenon of the “cultural lag,” this antinomy may have its origin in the development of the concept of art.  Art, in order to be art according to its own formal laws, must be crystallized in autonomous form.  This constitutes its truth content; otherwise, it would he subservient to that which it negates by its very existence.  And yet, as a human product, it is never completely removed from humanity.  It contains as a constitutive clement something of that which it necessarily resists.  Where art obliterates [15] its own memory, forgetting that it is only there for others, it becomes a fetish, a self-conscious and thereby relativized absolute.  Such was the dream of Jugendstil beauty.  But art is also compelled to strive for pure self-immanence if it is not to become sacrificed to fraudulence.  The result is a quid pro quo.  An activity which envisions as its subject a liberated, emancipated humanity, possible only in a transformed society, appears in the present stale as an adaptation to a technology which has degenerated into an end in itself, into a self-purpose.  Such an apotheosis of objectification is the irreconcilable opponent of art.  The result, moreover, is not mere appearance.  The more consistently both autonomous and so-called applied art reject their own magical and mythical origins and follow their own formal laws, the greater the danger of such an adaptation becomes.  Art possesses no sure means to counter such a danger.  Thorstein Veblen’s aporia is thus repeated: before 1900, he demanded that men think purely technologically, causally, mechanistically in order to overcome the living deceit of their world of images.  He thereby sanctioned the objective categories of that economy which he criticized: in a free state, men would no longer be subservient to a technology which, in fact, existed only for them; it would be there to serve them.  However in the present epoch men have been absorbed into technology and have left only their empty shells behind, as if they had passed into it their better half.  Their own consciousness has been objectified in the face of technology, as if objective technology had in some sense the right to criticize consciousness.  Technology is there for men: this is a plausible proposition, but it has been degraded to the vulgar ideology of regressionism.  This is evident in the fact that one need only invoke it to be rewarded from all sides with enthusiastic understanding.  The whole situation is somehow false; nothing in it can smooth over the contradiction.  On the one hand, an imagined utopia, free from the binding purposes of the existing order, would become powerless, a detached ornament, since it must take its elements and structure from that very order.  On the other, any attempt to ban the utopian factor, like a prohibition of images, immediately falls victim to the spell of the prevailing order.

The concern of functionalism is a subordination to usefulness.  What is not useful is assailed without question because developments in the arts have brought its inherent aesthetic insufficiency into the open.  The merely useful, however, is interwoven with relationships of guilt, the means to the devastation of the world, a hopelessness which denies all but deceptive consolations to mankind.  But even if this contradiction can never be ultimately eliminated, one must take a first step in trying to grasp it; in bourgeois society, usefulness has its own dialectic.  The useful object would be the highest achievement, an anthropomorphized “thing,” the reconciliation with objects which are no longer closed off from humanity and which no longer suffer humiliation at the hands of men.  Childhood perception of technical things promises such a stale; they appear as images of a near and helpful spirit, cleansed of profit motivation.  Such a conception was not unfamiliar to the theorists of social utopias.  It provides a pleasant refuge from true development, and allows a vision of useful things which have lost their coldness.  Mankind would no longer suffer from the “thingly” character of the world,[16] and likewise “things” would come into their own.  Once redeemed from their own “thingliness,” “things” would find their purpose.  But in present society all usefulness is displaced, bewitched.  Society deceives us when it says that it allows things to appear as if they are there by mankind’s will.  In fact, they are produced for profits sake; they satisfy human needs only incidentally.  They call forth new needs and maintain them according to the profit [16] motive.  Since what is useful and beneficial to man, cleansed of human domination and exploitation, would be correct, nothing is more aesthetically unbearable than the present shape of things, subjugated and internally deformed into their opposite.  The raison d’être of all autonomous art since the dawning of the bourgeois era is that only useless objects testify to that which may have at one point been useful: it represents correct and fortunate use, a contact with things beyond the antithesis between use and uselessness.  This conception implies that men who desire betterment must rise up against practicability.  If they overvalue it and react to it, they join the camp of the enemy.  It is said that work does not defile.  Like most proverbial expressions, this covers up the converse truth: exchange defiles useful work.  The curse of exchange has overtaken autonomous art as well.  In autonomous art, the useless is contained within its limited and particular form: it is thus helplessly exposed to the criticism waged by its opposite, the useful.  Conversely in the useful, that which is now the case is closed off to its possibilities.  The obscure secret of art is the fetishistic character of goods and wares.  Functionalism would like to break out of this entanglement: and yet, it can only rattle its chains in vain as long as it remains trapped in an entangled society.

I have tried to make you aware of certain contradictions whose solution cannot be delineated by a non-expert.  It is indeed doubtful whether they can be solved today at all.  To this extent, I could expect you to criticize me for the uselessness of my argumentation.  My defense is implicit in my thesis that the concepts of useful and useless cannot be accepted without due consideration.  The time is over when we can isolate ourselves in our respective tasks.  The object at hand demands the kind of reflection which objectivity [Sachlichkeit]generally rebuked in a clearly non-objective manner.  By demanding immediate legitimation of a thought, by demanding to know what good that thought is now, tire thought is usually brought to a standstill at a point where it can offer insights which one day might even improve praxis in an unpredictable way.  Thought has its own coercive impulse, like the one you are familiar with in your work with your material.  The work of an artist, whether or not it is directed toward a particular purpose, can no longer proceed naïvely on a prescribed path.  It manifests a crisis which demands that the expert — regardless of his prideful craftsmanship — go beyond his craft in order to satisfy it.  He must do this in two ways.  First, with regard to social things: he must account for the position of his work in society and for the social limits which he encounters on all sides.  This consideration becomes crucial in problems concerning city planning, even beyond the tasks of reconstruction, where architectonic questions collide with social questions such as the existence or non-existence of a collective social subject.  It hardly needs mentioning that city planning is insufficient so long as it centers on particular instead of collective social ends.  The merely immediate, practical principles of city planning do not coincide with those of a truly rational conception free from social irrationalities, they lack that collective social subject which must be the prime concern of city planning.  Herein lies one reason why city planning threatens cither to degenerate into chaos or to hinder the productive architectonic achievement of individuals.

Second, and I would like to emphasize this aspect to you, architecture, indeed every purposeful art, demands constant aesthetic reflection.  I know how suspect the word “aesthetic” must sound to you.  You think perhaps of professors who, with their eyes raised to heaven, spew forth formalistic laws of eternal and everlasting beauty, which are no more than recipes for the production of ephemeral, classicist kitsch.  In fact, the [17] opposite must be the case in true aesthetics.  It must absorb precisely those objections which it once raised in principle against all artists.  Aesthetics would condemn itself if it continued unreflectively, speculatively, without relentless self-criticism.  Aesthetics as an integral facet of philosophy awaits a new impulse which must come from reflective efforts.  Hence recent artistic praxis has tinned to aesthetics.  Aesthetics becomes a practical necessity once it becomes clear that concepts like usefulness and uselessness in art, like the separation of autonomous and purpose-oriented art, imagination and ornament, must once again be discussed before the artist can act positively or negatively according to such categories.  Whether you like it or not you are being pushed daily to considerations, aesthetic considerations, which transcend your immediate tasks.  Your experience calls Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain to mind, who discovers to his amazement in studying rhetoric that he has been speaking prose for his entire life.  Once your activity compels you to aesthetic considerations, yon deliver yourself up to its power.  You can no longer break off and conjure up ideas arbitrarily in the name of pure and thorough expertise.  The artist who does not pursue aesthetic thought energetically tends to lapse into dilettantish hypothesis and groping justifications for the sake of defending his own intellectual construct.  In music, Pierre Boulez, one of the most technically competent contemporary composers, extended constructivism to its extreme in some of his compositions: subsequently, however, he emphatically announced the necessity of aesthetics.  Such an aesthetics would not presume to herald principles which establish the key to beauty or ugliness itself.  This discretion alone would place the problem of ornament in a new light.  Beauty today can have no other measure except the depth to which a work resolves contradictions.  A work must cut through the contradictions and overcome them, not by covering them up, but by pursuing them.  Mere formal beauty, whatever that might be, is empty and meaningless; the beauty of its content is lost in the preartistic sensual pleasure of the observer.  Beauty is cither the resultant of force vectors or it is nothing at all.  A modified aesthetics would outline its own object with increasing clarity as it would begin to feel more intensely the need to investigate it.  Unlike traditional aesthetics, it would not necessarily view the concept of art as its given correlate.  Aesthetic thought today must surpass art by thinking art.  It would thereby surpass the current opposition of purposeful and purpose-free, under which the producer must suffer as much as the observer.

NOTES


[1] The Neue Sachlichkeit movement, one of the main post-expressionist trends in German art.  Is commonly translated as “New Objectivity.”  The word sachlich, however, carries a series of connotations.  Along with its emphasis on the “thing” [Sache] it implies a frame of mind of being “matter of feet,” “down to earth.”

[2] See Adolf Loos, Sämtliche Schriften, I, Franz Gluck (ed.), Vienna/Munich, 1962, pg. 314 ff.

[3] Gerechtigkeit implies not just “fittingness” or “appropriateness,” but even a stronger legal or moral “justice.”

[4] The word Zweck appears throughout Adorno’s speech, both alone and in various combinations It permeates the tradition of German aesthetics since Kant.  While it basically means “purpose,” it must sometimes be rendered in English as “goal” or “end” (as in “means and end,” Mittel und Zweck)Hence there is a certain consistency in Adorno’s use of the word which cannot always be maintained in English.

[18]

[5] Kunstgewerbe carries perhaps more seriousness than “arts and crafts.”  It covers the range of the applied arts.

[6] The word Handwerk in German means both “handwork” and “craftsmanship” or “skill.”  Because Adorno later emphasizes the “hand” aspect, we have decided on “handicraft.”

[7] The reference here is unclear.  It means literally “Field (or Acre) Street.”  Perhaps he is referring to a real street, a movement, or a historical place or event.  We have not been able to trace it.

[8] Adolf Loos, op cit., pg. 277.

[9] Ibid.

[10] It is unclear in the original text to what extent the following argument is Adorno’s or Loos’.  We have tried, to some extent, to maintain the ambiguity.

[11] Adolf Loos, op. cit., pg. 282 ff.

[12] Ibid., pg. 278.

[13] Ibid., pg. 393.

[14] Ibid., pg. 345.

[15] Le Corbusier.  Mein Werk, Stuttgart.  1960, pg. 306.

[16] The word Ding (“thing”) is also attached to numerous traditions in German thought and therefore has a certain philosophical or poetical importance (hence “the thingliness of things”).  Heidegger and Rilke, for example, both tried to elevate the notion of Ding to a new essential and existential status.

10 thoughts on “Theodor Adorno’s “Functionalism Today” (1965)

  1. Ackerstrasse is also significant as it was the site of what was generally seen as the worst example of 19th century workers housing (‘Mietkaserne’), Meyer’s Hof (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meyers_Hof). The street is furthermore right on the border between East and West Berlin, and the Reutersiedlung was something of a showpiece for West Germany.

  2. Sorry, but you made quite an error here, which I hope you will correct a.s.a.p.
    Adorno’s childhood and longtime friend was indeed the architect Ferdinand Kramer. But he certainly did NOT design (or approve) of this building, the “AfE tower”.

  3. Pingback: Theodor grope | Zanahoriadesig

  4. Pingback: Meeting #5 : Craft | openscool

  5. Pingback: Hannes Meyer | The Charnel-House

  6. I haven’t read through this text, but the piece was translated by Jane Newman and John Smith for OPPOSITIONS 17 (1979) and has been reprinted in Hays, ed., The Oppositions Reader, and Leach, ed., Rethinking Architecture.

  7. Pingback: Architecture and its image | The Charnel-House

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s