Treasury Building, 1734, by William Kent

Form follows Function in Modern Architecture

When I studied architecture at Columbia University, I often heard the phrase “form follows function.” It was the modernist mantra. At the time, I thought nothing of it. After all, shouldn’t form follow function? Why make a building that had a form antithetical to its function?
I now realize “form follows function” is a saying that highlights one of the classic lessons of hermeneutics: If someone says something that sounds obvious, it’s because previously that obviousness was missing. In other words, people used to build buildings based on other goals instead of function.
Yes, really.
Much of architecture history is filled with the design of buildings that were easy to build yet spatially unfunctional, or elevationally exciting at the expense of function.
The 1-1/2-story cape is a classic example of an easy-to-construct building with little to recommend in the way of function. It is a box, and can be made with framing members under 12 feet in length. How does one divide the space inside? A square box can be partitioned into four smaller squares, but what about the front entrance, closet or storage space, a chimney, circulation? These are all secondary but necessary spaces. A four-square box may quickly provide a kitchen, living room, dining room and bedroom, but the process of starting with the box’s rectangular walls and then carving up the space inside is an example of function following form. It can be done, but the spaces are competing with each other.
Starting with the elevation can be equally compromising to function. We see this in buildings meant to be imposing. Think of a cathedral, or a mansion for a wealthy resident, or even a bank. These buildings show symmetry in elevation that will often be fighting asymmetry in function inside. The image with this blog post is a government building, from Nikolaus Pevsner’s “History of Building Types.” These buildings were meant to be seen first and used second. The important thing was the impression they made to the passerby, less so the ability of the inhabitant to carry on a task.
We see the same thing in early and medieval Christian architecture. Certain Platonic forms, such as the circle or the octagon, drove the plan. Cathedral architects bent over backwards trying to make circular plans work functionally.
When people ask us what style of architecture we like to design, they are often asking what our buildings look like. Do they look modern, or traditional? We design so that form follows function. Inevitably our buildings lean modern-looking. We do not design buildings to be modern-looking. We design functional buildings. They end up modern-looking because traditional-looking buildings are harder to make functional. Modern architecture made function king, and that’s a good thing.

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Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.

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