When I first met William Smart, some four or five years ago, our conversation turned, inevitably I guess, to contemporary architecture at the beginning of a new century. How, I was intrigued to know, did a young architect who’d cut his teeth with that olympian of late modernism, Sir Norman Foster, How was he taking the tenets of a very strict formalism and channeling them for a more nuanced now. Looking at Smart’s work, I could sense something more expressive, not to say sensual. For William and his Smart Design Studio, he quipped: “form has a function”. It was a riff off the old adage, “form follows function’, and we had a bit of a giggle at his transgression.
A threadbare bit of sophism that has become all but meaningless from undergraduate overuse, that “form follows function” is perhaps the greatest cliché of 20th century architecture. Not only is it habitually misattributed to Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius or Mies Van Der Rohe (the holy trinity of modernism) it is sloppily mis-quoted and taken out of context. That “form ever follows function” is extracted from a surprisingly florid bit of prose by proto-modernist architect, Louis Sullivan in his 1896 tome, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered. In it, Sullivan waxes lyrical about eagles on the wing, apples in blossom, clouds adrift. For Sullivan, the function of form is clearly to express a more lyrical – even symbolic – being in space. “This,” he says, “is the law.”
Form has a function. Intrigued, I decided to go in and take a closer look. The following quotes are extracted from several conversations over a period of weeks with SDS principal William Smart and associate Glenn O’Loughlin.
Stephen Todd: Let’s cut to the chase: How do you kick off the creative process, is form first, or function?
WS: I think that, nowadays, it’s more nuanced than that. We need to factor in a third element: purpose. A building’s form we understand, this is the physical building in the world, its outward appearance. But a building’s function is more complex, and to it we need to add purpose: what it is meant to convey. Look at the new Frank Gehry -designed UTS Business School, for instance. Its function is to accommodate students in various stages of study – lectures, tutorials, research, what have you. And that is all expressed in the layout of the rooms, its internal form. But its purpose is to reinforce UTS’s image as an innovative, genre bending institution and to reinforce its position in the top 25 international universities. Its form expresses its purpose, beyond its function.
ST: You’re conceiving buildings on the level of symbol, then. Talk me through, for instance, the Sydney Opera House this way.
WS: A Great example! In the case of the Opera House, its function is that of a performance space with several varying sized theatres for operatic, lyric and theatrical productions as well as reception areas for people to interact. But its purpose was and is to forge an indelible image of a new nation, to incarnate all the optimism and iconoclasm and innovation that such a position in the world entails. If we’d erected a neoclassical structure on this site, such as one finds in Washington, we’d have conveyed a certain gravitas and adherence to old world ideals. If we’d have plopped a functional Mies van der Rohe glass box down on Bennelong Point, it would have been just as formally accomplished as Utzøn’s structure – but it would not have fulfilled its purpose.
ST: Agreed. And in terms of your own practice? Talk me through Indigo Slam, for instance.
WS: In the case of Indigo Slam, the home we have designed for philanthropist Judith Neilson – the force behind the White Rabbit Gallery – the purpose of the structure is to, by example, create change, communicate the potential of innovation, to incarnate progressive thinking and to point the way forward in terms of ecologically sound building. Its purpose is also to represent an independent, unconventional woman and her way of being in the city. Let’s remember that Judith recently bequeathed $10million to the University of New South Wales’s Faculty of Built Environment to fund research into the development of effective low-cost housing. As for Indigo Slam, yes, it’s a sculpted concrete monolith designed to add value to the urban landscape. It will look absolutely extraordinary, and we are delighted to have been able to add it to Sydney’s urban fabric. But it’s also an essay in ecological construction: it is heated and cooled passively through its orientation and insulation, but actively via 17 bores that delve 100 metres into the earth to harness energy. Where possible, everything in the house is manually operable – the massive shades are controlled by an updated version of an old-fashioned winch system, for instance. The idea is that by doing, we show the way forward. That is its purpose, well beyond its function.
ST: Do you get the whole studio involved from the get-go, or start with the structural stuff?
WS: Each project varies, so we have different ways of doing things. It wasn’t always this way, but nowadays, typically the architects and interior designers would have first pass on a project. They’ll start to develop a sense of the structure, but my brief to them at that stage is, Come up with something absolutely functional and bring ideas to the table, but I don’t want to see any shapes or pattern or materials. For instance, on a new project we have an enormous and exciting challenge of a typical Bondi site that fronts the street and is wedged between four other buildings at the back.
Let’s just think about the problem and how we address the problem. Thinking this way lead us to 2-storey apartments, very vertical, very skinny. And from that we start to look at expression, to start to play with form. I say, Let’s use form to make all that better, engage with the public domain and give the building purpose. And then we design it again, and again, and again until the final form looks and works as best as it can.
GOL – Our work is definitely a marriage between the function and form. You have to take that functional planning and the idea and get them to work together. If they don’t work together, that’s not architecture: they’re just two separate things, one sculptural one functional. In architecture, there’s the artistic side and the more scientific side, and really, for us, in order for architecture to be successful it has to be doing both of those things really well.
ST : Do you ever look at another architect’s work and think, Damn, I wish I had’ve done that?
WS: I do. I feel a real jealousy when I see certain buildings. There’s a little church by Alvaro Siza, the Santa Maria in Marco de Canaveses in Portugal. I love
everything about it, but what really inspires me is his ability to reduce it to the absolute essential: Two rectangles with scooped out corners. It’s this incredible simplicity that makes it successful. Simple, but at the same time incredibly emotional, like the rush you get from a beautiful piece of art. I would never want to reproduce it, but I do occasionally ask myself when contemplating a new project, What would Siza do?
GOL : There are some buildings around the world that I love and, although I don’t necessarily wish that I’d designed them I’d love to reach the same level of quality. I remember visiting Jørn Utzon’s Bagsværd church in Copenhagen, it was a real epiphany for me. From the outside it looks like a farm shed, or a factory. But the interior is an extraordinary thing, this undulating cloud form of poured concrete that soars and billows. The internal form is so incredibly moving. And its function is to create an emotional impact – largely through the way it brings the light inside.
ST: Is it that the dour façade functions to disarm?
WS : It’s more about the introduction of an unexpected element, of something else. It’s like the base of the Sydney Opera House. It took me a long time to love it, but today I do. For years, I was ambivalent about it, at best. And then one day, when looking at it without the sails, I realised just how great it is.
GOL: Most buildings have rooms, walls, roofs. The Opera House doesn’t. There’s this strange base, and then there’s this thing that happens on the top.
WS : It’s like, We’ve built a plinth, and now we’re putting something on it.
ST : A sculpture, then. A temple?
WS : Yes. But not a classical one, in that it doesn’t follow any formal rules.
ST : Do you bear in mind classical architecture when you’re designing a building?
WS : Yes. I always try to understand both composition and classical proportion in looking to achieve a certain universal beauty and elegance.
ST : Do you construct along the lines of the Golden Segment?
WS : No.
ST: Does anybody?
WS : No, I don’t think so. I mean, I set things up with a certain regard for symmetry and asymmetry, I’m always mindful of allowing the building to express something. In that sense I have a mind for classical architecture.
ST : Looking at Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, in eastern France, it’s an incredibly gestural, expressive late work by an architect who had championed a formal, Modernist regard for Classical form for most of his career. He always insisted the distribution and differences in size of the windows was based on the Fibonacci sequence, the Golden Section, although that is disputed. Do you think that, in later career its easier to flaunt the rules, to allow oneself a certain flamboyance?
WS : I think time has moved on, that the strictures of early Modernism don’t feel so relevant anymore. The other, market forces are bigger than that. If you were to chop off two metres of a plan in order to make it adhere to formal Modernist ideals, to make it in line with the Golden Section, you’d get a big slap from your client, who would tell you in no uncertain terms that you’d just lost them millions of dollars in exploitable floor space.
ST: Is it difficult, being really creative in a relatively conservative era in a very conservative market like Australia?
WS : It can be difficult, in that it’s a building’s productivity that is often foremost in the client’s mind. There is an increasing tendency to “capitalize” and be focused on return on investment. And we love working within those constraints, but then the real challenge becomes how to make a difference. We’re really conscious of a building’s impact as part of a cityscape, its potential contribution in the public forum, as well as our client’s requirements.
GOL: Universities are one of the groups that commission with a more elevated dialogue. They have, naturally enough, a more intellectual approach.
WS : And then there are the clients that say, I want the best house in the world!
ST : Which must be an extraordinary thing. But you do a lot of multi-residential developments as well. How do you manage to imbue a 100-plus apartment block with personality for the potential occupant?
WS : We construct a portrait of the eventual buyer.
ST : Like an identikit portrait?
WS : Yes. We like to get a sense of the potential resident. Is it someone who likes to ski? Likes graphic design? Perhaps they don’t have children yet, lead busy lives, eat out a lot and so don’t require a big kitchen or a dining room. We personalize the purchase in this way. Our formal proposition is in this a way a very precise expression of the function of the apartment, even in a multi-residential complex. Even if building to a strict budget, we make it very well-built, customised as much as can be. Part of the buildings function in that case, is to look expensive.
ST : Obviously, when building a private home, a house, the brief is very different. What does a typical private client brief look like?
GOL : A private client brief is very explicitly an extension of their personalities, or perhaps the way the would like to see themselves. The form of the house, in this instance, functions to express the clients’ sense of self. Are they professional? Do they entertain a lot? Are they confident in their taste as it stands now, or is it something that will evolve over time? Some clients are obviously more radical than others.
WS : And radical clients are fewer on the ground today. But we enjoy this diversity, different briefs, different products, different clients, different results. It’s intriguing when people ask us for unconventional things – I find that, as a studio, this helps us to evolve.
ST : What does a typical SDS client look like?
WS : City dwelling, not waterfront obsessed, modern, or perhaps conversant in the new and the old, often our clients have very strong personalities. We like that.
ST : Do you refuse a lot of potential clients?
WS : We knock back as many as we take on.
Thinking about it, Louis “form ever follows function” Sullivan himself said that in his epithet he was consciously paraphrasing a central idea elaborated by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the 1st Century BC Roman architect and civil engineer whose 10-volume De architectura is the ultimate word on Classical architecture. For Vitruvius, it was imperative that a structure – be that an aqueduct or a Pantheon, a temple or a sewer – exhibit, nay, incarnate three essential qualities: firmitas, utilitas, venustas – that is, it must be solid, useful, beautiful. Even 2,000 years ago, form, it seems, had a function.