Saturday, August 8, 2009

Form Follows Function: 2, Spacecraft Design

NASA. International Space Station. (As always, click to zoom.)

I think the Lunar Landing Module is one of the most completely functional-looking objects I've seen. It looks like what it does, to a remarkably interesting and convincing degree. This owes to many factors, it was obviously a complex product with exacting functional requirements. (Even if one doesn't have a clue as to what most of those functions are, it's still a business-like image.) Its movements took place without atmosphere, so aerodynamics weren't necessary. Also, there was no apparent preconception as to what exactly the spacecrafts in the Apollo mission should look like - at least in the sense that it should resemble Flash Gordon's rocket or any other particular object.

Shuttle photos. NASA. (Very high-resolution versions of photos are available on that site.)

The US space shuttle is marginally less prickly in appearance than the LM, because it has to contend with air resistance on reentry to earth's atmosphere. This necessity drives much of its configuration, and all of its external materials. The 26,000 tiles' hand-wrought appearance is misleading. They're each carefully machined, then fired in a high-temperature furnace. I read somewhere that each tile cost about $10,000. Theoretically good for 100 missions, many are replaced after each mission for various reason, often because of debris contact during liftoff. Viewed up close, their notations and visibly uneven alignments are a fascinating part of the image of this spacecraft.

Architects, how many times have you seen very specific forms copied from past projects, such as Greek pediments, or Gothic spires or the repeated appearance of Richard Meier's or John Hedjuk's extruded-piano volumes? Not that each new project has to represent either formal or functional reinvention of the wheel, but this illustrates the degree to which preconceived forms may be arbitrarily applied.

The modern movement in architecture, from around 1920 on, focused early on the elimination of ornament. This was partly the "machine aesthetic," where "machines for living" were conceived. The effect of the "machine aesthetic" was often a caricature of the ideas it purported to champion. Smooth ocean-liner forms in buildings were frequently tradional masonry construction with a stucco veneer, or in some cases an actual make-over of an older building with an applied facade, a pastiche of the "ocean liner style."

So, the achievement of truly functional imagery in architecture or other design, if you'll accept for the sake of argument that it's a worthy idea, has at least two requirements. One, the discovery of functional elements that lend themselves to visual expression of their functions. Two, assembly of a system of functional elements into a composition that maintains functional imagery without becoming an arbitrary pastiche of functionalism, itself.

Personally, I think that one doesn't have to be a car to sit in a garage. Some architects have strenuously stated that they recognize no obligation to express function of a building, either in whole or in part. It isn't a purpose here to convince anyone for or against a worthiness of functionalism. Rather, this is an exploration of the process by which functional imagery within a design can come about.

Next, sailing ships.

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