FORM / FUNCTION
By Ethan Cheng
One of the fundamental characteristics of Modernist architecture is its embrace of functionalism and rejection of ornamentation. However, to properly evaluate this debate, one must first understand the distinction between form and function.
As described by Louis Sullivan, “all things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other”. This suggests that a viewer’s first impression of an object is its form. Humans tend to make lots of assumptions and evaluations based on first impressions, so, in the world of architecture, a beautiful building will communicate a lasting first impression without the need for the viewer to interact with it in any other way, such as going into the building. Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that the form of a building should not be dismissable. On the other hand, the function of a building describes its purpose and how a user uses it. Given that in Modernism, the user is the focus around which the design is based, creating a building whose function is to allow the user to carry out their necessary activities is critical.
So, is Modernism right in prioritising function over form? Some argue that function is indeed more significant than form because, unlike the design of most buildings, the function of a building is much more fluid, as it can change over time; this is a practice known as ‘adaptive reuse’. For example, an old celebrity home may be converted into a museum about the celebrity, or an old train station may be converted into an office space. This, therefore, suggests that the form of a building merely acts as a vessel for whatever function it may have, which is more important. Additionally, some project that the function of a space represents the key elements which kickstart the form itself. Modernists may even go so far as to say that the function gives the architecture its meaning. Moreover, some may argue that Modernism had to be so function-driven out of necessity, given its use in helping solve housing issues in the 1930s. Furthermore, since opinions on the form of a building are much more subjective and difficult to define than its function, it may be more logical to focus on creating a structure that functions well over one that is aesthetically pleasing.
However, many architects from Post-Modernism may argue that form is more important than function because architecture is meant to be an object to be admired by its viewers; this is a much more classical notion in architecture. Hence, much of contemporary architecture is composed of highly ornamental, singular objects of buildings which are not concerned with being harmonious with their surroundings. In these cases, the designer is more concerned with creating a lasting first impression on viewers than the occupants’ satisfaction. Additionally, many argue that even though the aesthetics of a building may not significantly affect the work a user does inside it, it can have the ability to affect one’s mood, especially when entering. Moreover, while proponents of the functionalism argument suggest that creating a building that functions well will create a better user experience, what is defined as the building’s function? Many in favour of the form argument would say that the psychological effect of aesthetics on the user is also part of a building’s function. More generally, proponents of this argument view architecture more as a form of art than a tool.
One recent proponent of prioritising form has been former U.S. President Donald J. Trump, who launched a proposed executive order mandating the use of ‘traditional’ architecture in the design of new federal buildings in February 2020. While the move was undoubtedly controversial, it is arguably not entirely unreasonable. On the one hand, some argue that if Trump views architectural form as necessary, then he should allow architects the creative liberty to design the buildings as they wish, without the fear of being deemed ideologically incorrect as per government standards. However, some suggest that many people associate particular architecture with specific activities and thus have preconceived notions about federal buildings and their typical designs, in which case, it seems reasonable that Trump would like to remain consistent with this in the future. Moreover, it may be safe to assume that a classically styled building is more likely to sit well with the public than a Brutalist or Industrial piece. In my opinion, while it is true that, stereotypically, federal buildings all share a similar aesthetic, architects should not be stopped from being non-conformist and experimenting.
An alternative take on the argument, and my stance on the debate, is that neither form nor function is more important than the other; instead, the two exist in harmony. Given the incredible technological advancements that Modernism capitalised on and of today, it is ever more possible to create buildings that acknowledge the importance of functional space while sporting expressive and beautiful designs. Sure, these designs may create divided opinions, but all art and architecture from any era have done so to some extent; some even define art as something meant to arouse an emotion, opinion or disturbance in its viewer. Moreover, even Modernist designers have shown favour to this argument:
“Form follows function - that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” - Frank Lloyd Wright
Additionally, some may say that this balance between form and function may be necessary for architecture to regain relevancy. Many argue that, due to the extreme focus on functionalism, especially for extensive facilities like community housing and office blocks, much of contemporary architecture is painfully uninteresting (this is described as ‘function dictates form’). Many architects no longer have the creative freedom to design outlandish opuses and the few that do end up amid divided opinions and heated controversy over the aesthetics of their buildings. Therefore, finding a balance may bring back the prestige and beauty commonly associated with classical architecture.