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Form or Function

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

'Form' or 'Function' is a question often discussed in the field of Architecture. But what if the argument is based on the wrong premises. What if we've misunderstood what Sullivan meant with Form follows Function and have therefore drawn wrong conclusions. The question is then invalid!




"Form ever follows function" is a famous design principle, stated by Louis Sullivan in 1896. He first coined the phrase in his article, "The tall office building artistically considered." In the article, he appreciates nature's beauty and states that the form of everything in nature is what its function needs it to be. That the form should be a mere reflection of the function and nothing more. Although he never talks about if the function should be designed first or form, it has become a widely-discoursed dispute. I believe that the dispute is irrelevant, and all these years, the phrase has been largely misinterpreted.


We often associate the word 'function' as the space program, services, or other non-aesthetic elements of a building, required for its apt functioning. But is 'function' just that? The function is the purpose a building serves in society. If it is a sunny private residence, a collaborative public market, a symbolic gateway, or a tall office building. With every function, each aspect of design changes, whether it be form, space program, or services. Form follows function is an aesthetic principle just like those before during Baroque, Art Deco, Renaissance, etc. It gives the guidelines for the way the form should be and says nothing about the space inside.


As a matter of fact, the buildings of Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, which are widely considered to be a case of "function follows form, "are in fact in sync with Sullivan's principle. Most of Zaha Hadid's buildings consist of cultural centers, Museums, airports, and Railway stations. These are all places with maximum tourist presence and are what one can call the prestige places for a city. They have a symbolic function of contributing to a city's identity. Zaha Hadid's architecture definitely serves that function. Although the iconic form can sometimes make the space planning arduous, these are all large-span public buildings with ample circulation space. It is relatively easier to design circulation spaces in unusual forms than habitable structures. Probably which is why Zaha Hadid hasn't done many private residences, in fact, just one.


Despite the usual conviction, form contributes enormously to the function. Every element of form- color, shape, size, etc. adds meaning and definition to space. "Color" sets the temperature, "height" adds to habitable volume, and "shape" directs the way people move in space. Most importantly, just like the space program, the form can change the way people experience a place, which is what makes it functional.


Aménagement said, "a good design can be achieved when it responds to the satisfaction and well-being of its occupants." When we visit a place, we may not remember its intricate physical details like the spatial order, location of furniture, etc. But we definitely remember the ambiance that these physical details together create. We remember the experience we had there, which might be good or bad, varying for different people in different circumstances. Hence, if a place, despite having a felicitous design, is not widely used, then perhaps it has something wrong with its overall milieu. The experience it provides is not quintessential for most users. The experiential value of the place is inappropriate.


Every element of architectural design - form, space layout, material, etc. adds to the experiential value of a place. Experiential value regulates the quality of experience and therefore determines how well is the building serving its function. Thus form should follow function, but so should space planning, services, and other design elements as these together generate the experiential value, which ultimately provides the user with the intended experience.







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