According to Adrian Forty, ‘form’ is a concept that has outlived its usefulness.1 However, for many, the first thing noticed about a building is its form, in so far as form means shape. Design choices which give a building layers of intrigue, meaning and value will impact on the end user on a subconscious level. It is perhaps an unfortunately rare occurence whereby that same inhabitant will remark on the poetic beauty and care behind such a thing as board-marked concrete; finished as a permanent reminder of the method by which a structure came into existence. Given Forty’s scepticism about the usefulness of this concept, and the confusion it causes amongst philosophers and architects alike in trying to grasp its meaning, further consideration may be found if we should seek what it is this word means in the context of the Irish language.
Riocht is the Irish word for form but also for shape. It has the same roots as the word dorcha, meaning dark or obscure, and links to the Greek word for colour and the Norse word for darkness.2 As so often occurs in langauge, in order for one condition to exist, its opposite must be present. With this, and the relationship between riocht and darkness in mind, is it too much of a push to suggest that form might equal the composition of contrasts? Swiss painter and musician Paul Klee experimented with this idea, discovering forms by arranging lines, shades and colours, until he found a composition that was visually pleasing. While even before this, Adolf Gӧller (a professor of Architectural History and Aesthetics at Stuttgart Polytechnikum) wrote that form is ‘an inherently pleasurable, meaningless play of lines or of light and shade’. (cited by Forty, 2000: p158)
All of these approaches to the concept of form require the use of the senses to experience it. A person sees a building, not in isolation but in its context, as a composition of spaces. Later, as we move through the composition, crossing boundaries, the other senses are engaged, and even emotional responses to a form are generated by the contrasts experienced.
Riocht quickly generates opinions. In an age where iconic form (shape or mass) has appeared so dominant, it is worth remembering that composition goes beyond the physical shape of an object. It encompasses the way it captures light, creates shadows, makes space and reveals another. In German, there are at least two words for form. Gestalt meaning form as perceived by the senses and Form which refers more to the physical shape of the object. Riocht on the other hand is complex and has meanings which are only revealed when they are searched for; intricacies which might be reflected in the buildings we build.
1 FORTY, A (2000) Words and Building – A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London.
2 MACBAIN, A (1982) An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, Gairm Publications, Glasgow. http://www.ceantar.org/Dicts/MB2/mb31.html