Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin’s ‘Functionalism’: A Reappraisal
During the last five decades, Pugin’s ‘functionalism’ has become a commonplace of scholarship which is constantly reproduced without further analysis or critical examination. This supposed ‘functionalism’ of Pugin’s architectural theory is used as the basic argument for the construction of genealogies connecting the ideas of the protagonist of the Gothic Revival in the nineteenth century with the ideology of the Modern Movement in the twentieth. Nikolaus Pevsner is a classic example of this line of reasoning. Pugin is thus presented as a ‘source of modern architecture and design’.
In the present essay I argue that statements such as the above may harbour possible misunderstandings of the complex nuances within the history of architectural ideas, often disregarding the cultural environment and conceptual context from which they spring. Based on a systematic reading of Pugin’s two major treatises, namely Contrasts (1836) and True Principles (1841), I will try to show that Pevsner’s interpretation is not very well founded, simplifying the real content of a sophisticated theory. Pugin never mentions the word ‘function’ to denote the use of a building; instead he speaks of its ‘purpose’, ‘propriety’, ‘arrangement’, ‘destination’ and ‘meaning’.
Consequently, his ‘rationalism’ seems to transcend the materialistic ‘functionalism’ of certain aspects of Modernism and encompass many social, cultural, ethical and aesthetic ‘roles’ of architecture. The aim of the present paper is to argue that the term ‘functionalism’ is probably inadequate to comprehend the different layers of meaning inherent in Pugin’s thought and to propose a reappraisal and a new interpretation of their possible theoretical sources.
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