Adrian Forty has provided the best outline of the history of the word ‘form.’ There is little point in repeating the work he has done. However, the issue of form or formalism as negative terms has come up in my entry on Yve-Alain Bois and a selective history is helpful. Form can be said to be ‘meaningless’ if the term is used in the way that Fernand Saussure developed it within his theory of linguistics (semiology). For Saussure and subsequent theorists (of particular note is Roland Barthes) a sign can be broken down into ‘form’ and ‘content’. That is, there is a shape – a sound, a letter, a word, an image – and then there is the idea or meaning that is pointed to by that shape. So the form ‘dog’ points to the idea or concept of dogs in the real world or perhaps in your imagination. The shape or form is said to be empty because it is ‘arbritrary’ – i.e. chien in French, perro in Spanish, hond in Dutch, and so on. So, from this point of view forms are indeed empty of meaning and have no intrinsic content. However, it is worth noting that this separation between form and content, shape and meaning, is analytical. That is, the separation only exists as a theoretical mechanism for analysing how signs work. In practice, they are inseparable and fused, though subject to change, transformation and evolution. In the world outside the critic, historian or theorist, there is no such thing as empty form.
I was also reminded of another defintion of form, via Anthony Vidler paraphrasing Rudolf Arnheim – ‘Form is shape with meaning’. Here, shape and form are not interchangeable as above. In any case, in both versions, the semoitic and in Arnheim’s, form is neither empty nor meaningless. The use of ‘formal’ in the negative sense has very little merit to it. If form is always meaningful, then when someone says of a project or design that it is just ‘formalism’ perhaps what they really mean is that they don’t like what it has to say.