Peter Arkle

A new buzzword has entered the architectural lexicon. “Performalism” was the title of a 2008 Tel Aviv Museum of Art exhibit curated by Yasha Grobman and Eran Neuman, whose book Performalism: Between Form, Function and Performance in Contemporary Architecture will be out next year. At a 2009 Harvard conference, University of Brighton professor Susannah Hagan presented a paper by the same name. And in January, at New York’s Center for Architecture, Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Thom Mayne gave a talk called—you guessed it.

Is this a coincidence, or does the sudden proliferation of the term suggest a budding trend, even a design movement in the making, as the suffix “-ism” implies? Either way, what does it mean for architecture to perform? According to David Leatherbarrow, in his introduction to Branko Kolarevic and Ali Malkawi’s Performative Architecture: Beyond Instrumentality (2005), the concept is ambiguous: “Is the performance envisaged for the building like that of a machine or engine … or, is it closer to what might be seen on a theatrical stage or heard in a concert hall?”

I’d say both. An engine is a tool for efficiency, while stage performance is an act of display, and their combination suggests a kind of practical spectacle or utilitarian showmanship. The externalization of function is quite different from modern architecture’s orthodoxy. For Louis Sullivan, “form follows function” meant embodying internal use: An office building’s workspaces determine the structural dimensions and window sizes, as well as “the artistic development of the exterior,” as he put it. Form follows program.

For Mayne, however, performalism means disengaging the exterior from the interior, freeing up the skin to adapt to climate conditions while the building behind remains utterly pragmatic, economically and functionally. For example, the floating south façade of Morphosis’ San Francisco Federal Building is less an envelope or an enclosure than it is a mask or a veil. Similarly, Hagan mentioned London’s ecoLogicStudio, which creates “responsive skins” highly attuned to environmental cues. Form follows environment.

While typical green standards emphasize marginal improvements (e.g., better glazing), rethinking the very concept of architecture can have greater benefits. According to Mayne, the shading from the diaphanous skin of the Federal Building eliminated the need for most of the mechanical system, since the skin itself is a kind of air conditioner. Such performance deserves a standing ovation.