The conception that something is “formal”, in general terms, refers to the idea of protocol, of behavioural rule or social etiquette. The term “informal”, on the other hand, connects one to the notion of concession, of softening pre-established rules of demeanour in order to achieve a more relaxed ambience. We find the opposition of these two atmospheres in several situations in our lives: in the choice between the piece of clothing A or B for a given event; in our attitude at a job interview or on other social occasions; in the decision on how to write a text like this or any other. This opposition is applicable to behaviours, but also to the design of objects, buildings and spaces, in the sense that these translate an attitude, a principle suggested by a material result.
However, a problematic concept often arises in the context of architectural theory, complicating this equation: “formalism”. Read the following words by Ernesto Nathan Rogers about it:
“(…) Formalism is any use of non-assimilated forms: the ancient, the contemporary, the cultured or the spontaneous.”
A certain deprecating tone comes to surface in this passage. If interpreted within the context of architectural history, of the theoretical discussion on the concept of classical form and especially on that of classicism as a general approach, these words imply that “formalism” is a somewhat frivolous attitude of deviation from canon (methodological, practical or constructive), a sort of short-lasting superficiality, when compared to the validity of the formulae and shapes tested by time. In the more orthodox architectural classicism, formalism is not an attitude of approximation to the common idea of “formal” (understood as canon or behavioural rule) but, on the contrary, it is precisely the distance from that idea and practice.
Despite the familiarity between the two terms, “formalism” is not a way of being “formal”, of following etiquette, but rather an alternative to traditional formality. The idea of formal canon is nowadays more diluted than at the time when Rogers wrote those words. The same could be said, perhaps, about the idea of behavioural canon in human societies. In “western” societies (or in those in which social media is more strongly disseminated) a climate of confrontation between the ideas of “norm” and “exceptionality” has been established. This is particularly evident when subjects such as identity politics, political correctness or individual liberties are discussed.
Naturally, this confrontation is also felt in any activity that involves planning at any scale and, specifically, in spatial planning and building. How does a designer stand when it comes to integrating these questions in a project? How does one articulate the “universal” and the “particular”, to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek?
Spatial planning is not immune to this immeasurable variety of life aspirations, aesthetic affinities, financial wealth or poverty of individuals and groups, receptivity to the idea of norm or expectation for offers of novelty. The structured thought about European-based architecture has developed a certain fascination with the possibility of incorporating the features of “architecture without architects” in the discourse and practice of conventional design, up to a point where they are codified into theoretical and formal canon. This fascination grew mainly since the advent of the picturesque movement, throughout the nineteenth-century romantic period and, later, due to development of the theory of empathy, or Einfühlung.
The “spontaneous”, that is, that which is not predicted in a proposal that goes in a certain pre-determined direction, is commonly understood as a pure expression of individual and cultural emotions, one without the filtering of “erudition” or exterior conceptualisations. At the same time, “spontaneity” is also usually understood as an utilitarian response, a direct expression of constructive pragmatism used to solve everyday problems and which therefore has a visible formal manifestation. And, if it is visible, it is replicable.
This tendency or interpretation is exacerbated by market economy (that is, by the competition for notoriety), but also by the subject of “taste”. At a socio-political level, the subject of integration arises insofar as it defines the degree in which the “variable” is accommodated, or not, within the general structure of a society. Political systems live from this intermediate space, this threshold between truth and lie, between personal empiricism and social agreement. In design, the question is posed in similar terms and the answers can be grouped in two main types. The first design option can be synthesised by the concept of “neutrality”, by the definition of a common “neutral” terrain seen as sufficiently broad as to allow for the flourishing of individual expression (Rem Koolhaas’ remarks on the New York Grid are paradigmatic). The second approach meets a certain “aesthetic of spontaneity”. In the architecture of buildings, this suggestion is achieved, for example, by organising spaces and furniture in an “organic” way and by the design of the circulations, reducing linear paths to the minimum defined by building regulations, optimising the distances between accesses and maximising the spaces of free circulation.
The reduced compartmentalisation of the fruition spaces is consciously sought after, limiting the idea of “direct line from A to B” to a minimum. This second approach is particularly eloquent in most of the current urban and landscape plans. The rigidity of the repetitive, monochord, bureaucratic city is increasingly combated (this applies to “consolidated” cities in the European context and perhaps not quite to the gigantic urban expansions in Asia or Africa). In other words, the idea of an excessively “formal” space is contested (in the behavioural sense of “formal” as “protocol”). Alternatively, the notion of “informality” is suggested. The variability of volume, typological differentiation and the proposal of diverse relationships with the landscape attempt to integrate different types of people and to reject monothematic, monocultural and monoformal spaces. The suggestion of informality soothes the fear of uniformity.
Contemporary spatial planning displays, then, an attempt to reproduce the associations to “informality” (in the conceptual sense of “relaxation of the norm or restriction”, but meaning also “without a rigid form”), replicating the formal characteristics which lead to those associations. For example, take the experimental project for an urban ensemble in Paraisópolis, Brazil, by Christian Kerez‘s architecture office. Read the following passage about it: “This project offers the people living in this new settlement the same life as in a favela. Each house has a direct access to the alleys and small squares. In front of each living room there is a veranda where people can dry their clothes and stay outside. On top of most houses there is a roof terrace.
Five different housing units, each with a surface of 50 square meters are built ninety times. The arrangement of these vertical, standardised single family houses is totally irregular to define a labyrinthic, continuously changing space. This project acknowledges the favelas as a very specific form of architecture with totally different qualities, architectural and urbanistic, than any modernistic or contemporary western residential area.” In other words, this project attempts to replicate some of the spatial features of the favela, glamourising their picturesque exoticism to a certain extent, and tries to integrate them in the legitimisation of the proposal.
A sort of programmed irregularity is proposed, a satisfaction of the desire for diversity that emulates actual spontaneous diversity but which is achieved by the traditional methods of “disciplined” urbanism and architecture: structured analysis organised in parameters, the establishment of patterns, the typological repetition, the identification of functional, formal and expressive models and of their causes and effects. Although the results can be seen as analogous, these are met by means which are diametrically contrary to the attitude which is supposedly being replicated. The goal of such a process is, arguably, that of systematising spontaneity and, ultimately, of integrating the several meanings of informality within the formal canons of design.