Reframing the Old Debate of Form vs. Function

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Since the beginning of my architecture education, I, like many students, have been struggling with the idea of Form vs. Function.  For anyone who has read The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, or taken a course in architecture history, the form vs. function debate is well known.  Essentially, the discussion asks, “What should drive a design: form or function?”  Louis Sullivan, the father of the modern skyscraper, answered with the famous response, “Form follows function.”  As I approach the end of my undergraduate architecture education, I have come to agree with this principle, but with one hesitation, expressed in a question: “What if the form is the function?”

To clarify this question, consider the following two exaggerated design projects:

1) A client asks an architect to design a manufacturing plant that will be completely run and constructed by robots and computers, as opposed to human beings.  For most architects, this scenario would prompt a clear design process.  Of course, the design must be driven by functional constraints, e.g., location, size, program, materials, budget, and environmental issues.

2) A client asks an architect to design a space that would spur conversation about design itself.  Unlike the previous scenario, this project would not allow the architect to rely strictly on the principle of “form follows function,” because, quite frankly, the function is abstract.

These examples suggest a problem when designing with the assumption that form should follow function.  Architects almost never design spaces that exclude human beings. That being understood, good designers must comprehend that while many factors can exist on an objective scale, the human experience is always abstract.  While this intrinsic abstraction does not preclude implementable understanding, it also may not imply absolute design solutions.  This idea is so powerful, in that it frees the architect from solely computed designs, allowing one to utilize emotional, spatial appeals that are not necessarily derived from the obvious function.  For example, a wall can stand in a location not just because it needs to separate two rooms, but also because it can improve the overall human experience within the space.

This blog posting is not intended to refute Louis Sullivan’s famous saying that “form follows function.”  Instead, I am trying to reframe the conversation, adding that form is a crucial and meaningful aspect of function, and at the same time, it need not distract the designer from all of the other worthy design constraints.

Form can seriously affect us.  My future posts will aim to address how form can positively change us as individuals and a society.

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2 Responses to “Reframing the Old Debate of Form vs. Function”

  1. Eliezer Says:

    Jonathan,

    I wonder if you’ve come across this book by UPenn professor David Leatherbarrow:

    http://www.chroniclebooks.com/index/main,book-info/store,books/products_id,7477/title,Architecture-Oriented-Otherwise/

    I haven’t read it, and I’m not a scholar of architecture, but it looks interesting to me. In general this post brings to mind the phenomenological current of thought in architecture:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenomenology_(architecture)

    Thanks for an interesting post!

  2. Jonathan Dress Says:

    Thanks for the comment! For some reason, I just got the notification about it today (perhaps the moderator, who is a friend of mine, needed to approve it or something).

    I haven’t read the book, but I will certainly check it out! Thanks again.

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