Seeking Usages and Documenting Functions: Ethnomethodological Studies of Architecture, by Leonidas Koutsoumpos

“Don’t say: There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ –but look and see whether there is anything common to all.– For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.

To repeat: Don’t think, but look!

Ludwig Wittgenstein  (1953)  Philosophical Investigations,  §66

‘Use’ and ‘function’ have been crucial values of architecture. Very often, architects have been preferring to start with function when designing architectural forms, especially during the modernist period of the first half of twentieth century. ‘Form (ever) follows function’ is a well known aphorism, by Luis Sullivan a pioneering architect of that time.

It is well known, that the postmodern thinking of the second half of the same century has strongly criticised the primordial role that function plays in architecture. Moreover, history has proved that the word in parenthesis that is usually omitted from Sullivan’s motto is not always the case. Buildings are very expensive and/or very important (in terms of historical, cultural, aesthetic value), to tear them down every time functions change. Stonborough House, the villa that Wittgenstein helped designing for his sister, which now is a national monument and currently serves as an embassy for the Bulgarian State, is one such an example.

This paper argues that ‘function’ is still a very important aspect of architectural design, but one should try much harder in defining it. Very often, architects have been assuming functions, which are then applied to the design of their buildings, without having clear grasp of real human activities in space. Architects are often blinded by generalizations of functions that lead to space labels like ‘living room’ which can be reductions that can lead to a poor overall design. But how can real functions can become visible again?

One such ‘method,’ that is strongly influenced by Wittgenstein’s thought, is ethnomethodology. Developed by Harold Garfinkel in the late 60s, ethnomethodology is “the study of people’s methods,” which could be interpreted as the study of the way that people accomplish their everyday tasks.  This is achieved through a painstaking focus on the practical horizon of everyday situated practices, that I call practice-games. These games are based on the well known Wittgensteinian language-games, but go beyond them since the focus of function almost always lies beyond language. The ethnomethodological studies have been emphatically distinctive in giving an analysis ‘from within’ to what is ‘actually’ going on in social activities, seen as situations.

The paper will present ethnomethodological studies that were conducted by undergraduate students that I supervised in the School of Architecture of Patras, Greece, during the academic year 2009-2010. By focusing on specific architectural spaces the students rediscovered usages and functions of familiar spaces, that their habitual seeing of the world thus far overlooked. ‘Functions’ and ‘usages’ in this way became much wider activities that are situated within architectural space. Through these studies the students became much more aware of the way that spaces are used by the users and that these usages need to be served through architectural design.

Leonidas Koutsoumpos

Harvard Citation Guide: Koutsoumpos, L. (2015) Seeking Usages and Documenting Functions: Ethnomethodological Studies of Architecture, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 21 June 2015, Available at: http://isparchitecture.com. [Accessed: 21 June 2015].

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