Should architects focus on form or function?

A well-known architectural principle is that form follows function. This means that the shape and look of a building is dictated by its purpose. Historically, architects have differed in how they focus on aesthetics and function. Some favour form over function, while others prefer function over form. In the following sections, we’ll take a look at this principle.

Focus on function

A building that focuses mainly on function is simply a plain rectangle. An example of focusing on form is from 1966, when an earthquake in Uzbekistan destroyed most of its old buildings. The Russians undertook widespread construction of mass-produced buildings that were functional but had little style. To add some form to these buildings, they were decorated with facades featuring portraits of local customs and patterns based on local carpet designs. However, these did not obscure the unappealing functional concrete style of the buildings.

Buildings that focus on function don’t have to look ugly, however. Brian MacKay-Lyons, a Nova Scotia architect, designs in a plain, modern style. His designs are simple and what some would call minimalist. Using local materials, he creates simple but beautiful designs that link to the wide-open skies and rugged terrain of Nova Scotia.

Focus on form

Classic and postmodern architectural styles focus on form – the aesthetic qualities of a building. With this focus, building designs sacrifice functionality to create what are seen as works of art.

The look of a building is what people first notice. The public tends to value style, and people are not necessarily aware of the precise function of the building. A plain building that is very functional is often criticised as “ugly” by people who appreciate more stylish architecture. Contrary to this is the average new-build home, which is more functional than stylish.

Unity of form and function

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said:

“Form follows function—that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

Wright’s design philosophy was to start with the purpose or function of a building, and the unity of form would follow. An example of this in action is the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The function of the building is for visitors to look at art. Instead of creating many separate areas like most art galleries, visitors take a lift to the top of the building and then descend to ground level on a continuous spiral ramp, where art is displayed on the walls.

Wright firmly believed that the Guggenheim Museum displays the unity of form and function, and was quoted saying:

“Yes, it is hard…to understand a struggle for harmony and unity between the painting and the building. No, it is not to subjugate the paintings to the building that I conceived this plan. On the contrary, it was to make the building and the painting a beautiful symphony such as never existed in the world of Art before.”

Both commercial and residential designs work well when form and function are in harmony, or, as Wright said, in unity. It is difficult to achieve the right balance between form and function, but architects constantly strive to achieve this.

Posted by Mark
April 30, 2021

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