Form & Function: degradation of the dilemma


It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.

Louis Sullivan “The tall office building artistically considered”, 1896


…Form follows Function follows Form follows Function follows Form…  What is more important? This is an eternal question mark for Architecture. A plausible sophism. A never-ending dispute between the idealists and realists. Yet the roots of the issue are not speculatively transcendental but rationally economical. Very rational.

In light of this rationality I wish to make a bold statement: “form-function” philosophical dilemma, even though often debated in intellectual circles, virtually doesn’t exist in the realm of modern architecture. It’s been resolved. How successfully was it done – that’s another thing! But prior to reviewing my daring exclamation let’s take a brief historical discourse.


Extremes of the past

The issue was certainly relevant long before the famous Sullivan’s statement. (Actually in 1896 Louis Sullivan* wrote: “That the life is recognizable in its expression, / That form ever follows function. This is the law.” Sullivan’s preference is obvious, isn’t it? Nonetheless the history, or rather its interpreters, preferred more laconic and controversial expression.)

The problem is an old as an architectural profession itself; it has existed in every urbanized culture: Antique Greece, Roman Empire, Renaissance Europe. But we have to keep in mind that back then the major religious structures (shrines, churches) or politically important projects (governmental palaces, public / sport facilities) were rarely under such financial pressure in terms of the fiscal profitability as modern capitalist construction industry. Thus, formalistic approach and artistic exploration were cultivated. Often it was limited by engineering only. Grandiose places, breathtaking cupolas of huge scale, facades full of striking ornaments and sculptural elements which had nothing to do with the direct functional purpose were built everywhere. Sometimes construction works lasted for centuries. (Can you imagine having such deadline today?) The mercantile interests were not immediate consideration for a king or an emperor… Pride and status were a priority. Things were different…

In approximately XVIII century as capitalistic approach had replaced feudalistic order the natural contradiction between the aesthetic form and utilitarian function became more evident. Constructions have been managed by industrialists and commercial entities, not by Caesar or nobility. By the XIX century buildings were built not by slaves, but by qualified workers, who were paid minimum wages. So undoubtedly the entire system had to be more efficient and function-oriented. Add to this technical progress along with demographic explosion of the XX century and you will realize that Corbu’s “living machine” was a logical culmination of social evolution…

But let’s leave the extremes of the glorious past; let’s take a good look at the present state of affairs… You might be surprised but things have not changed that much and those “extremes” are a “healthy” regular practice in our reality. A mainstream.


Functionality above all

100% of today’s architectural developments are driven by one single factor called financial profitability. Be that private enterprise or governmental corporation – “money making / profit taking” concept is the only motivator, the ultimate driver of the construction business. Therefore any artistic study, any decorative detail is examined from the point of commercial necessity. Businessmen cannot afford any other approach; otherwise they will be bankrupts within the very short period of time… Being “inspired” by potential profits on ultra-aggressive trade margins, clients will simply not hire an architect who does not comply with this fundamental idea. Even if such architects would exist they would be exterminated as biological species quickly. Actually they were exterminated. Today none of the practising architects is over-concerned with the aesthetics or harmony (i.e. “form”) if it’s not perfectly aligned with the commercial necessity. That’s why today virtually every building which is erected in our wealthy capitalistic society (read US/Canada, Western Europe, Japan, S. Korea, etc…) has no problem with what to follow. Everything follows function.

Having said that I don’t reject the existence of richly decorated facades or attractive experimental forms. Of course we keep building them. But it is done only when extra-investment into the additional, non-functional components is worth financially. It is paradoxical when non-functional décor parts all of the sudden implicitly support direct functionality and thus make project more successful businesswise. (Fancy modern stadiums or luxury resort-hotels are good examples of that sort of the projects.) Yet I would like to emphasize: those rare exclusions just confirm the axiom. Functionality is above all as it serves the only purpose of our existence, the Holy Grail of modern world order – the economic effectiveness.


Forms of Ego

As for the formal fineness – it went to the completely different direction. Away from the real problems, away from the “boring” constructions, away from the professional responsibility and unfortunately away from the common sense…. It went towards showbiz and eventually has become a final destination for sick egos of Starchitects.

Once we had so called paper architecture – some deep theoretical studies, academic research by philosophically oriented architects. It was fascinating and mind stimulating. It was a daredevil quest after harmonic forms. Remember Richard Meier**, his perfectionistic math and purism of those snow-white buildings…?

Well that deep analysis has disappeared long time ago. Meticulous creative examination of the architectonics gave a way to an idiocy of cheesy 3D renderings. It looks like architects compete who’s software can create the weirdest geometrical manipulation or to explore the limits of the visual perversion. Latest works by starchitects, widely publicized in architectural media have nothing to do with the methodical and imaginative form analysis. Instead of elegant forms we get monstrous deformations, instead of clear vision comes distorted chaos, instead of the original ideas repetitive self-caricatures are presented, instead of the music we hear cacophony. No one cares about any functional program. There is no reality check whatsoever. Tacky poster on the front page of a glamour magazine is everything. Shallow descriptions, shocking shapes a-la surrealistic nightmares of Dali and arrogant contempt towards hard work and genuine professionalism – that what modern search after form is all about…

Leaders of this ridiculous process of self-destruction are Gehry, Hadid, Libeskind, Koolhaas***. Architectural superstars. Extremely talented people who have preferred noisy fame and kitschy images to the quiet respect and unpretentious approach. (How amazing were their first works, before they started to produce parodies of themselves!) I don’t blame them. I have no right to do so. Who knows what choices the one would make being in their shoes. One thing for sure: that glitzy celebrity status is way more lucrative than calm professional admiration of few hundred architects…

As I already said, the roots of the present absurd reality are rationally economical. Very rational.



* Louis Henri Sullivan (1856 –1924) – a famous American Architect, the “father of modernism”. He is considered by many as the creator of the modern skyscraper, was an influential critic of the Chicago School.

** Richard Meier (born 1934) an American Architect-conceptualist, whose rationalist buildings make prominent use of the color white.

*** Frank Gehry (US), Zaha Hadid (UK), Daniel Libeskind (US/Germany), Rem Koolhaas (Netherland) – popular modern architects experimenting with building forms, actively using advanced computer software


10 Responses to “Form & Function: degradation of the dilemma”
  1. Аля says:

    Everything is based on the “show”; more shocking the project is – better it sells. Personally I’m not against it, I just see it as another phase. First, new tools come, new materials come and architecture just follows. Gradually everything will return to a proper order, especially if people will not feel comfortable in these new structures. Generally speaking the entire modern world, all those activities by multiple organizations create a stressful environment for the people. Starting from the glamour magazine covers or movies and finishing by the architecture – everything pushes people toward the stress. That’s why I support so called eco-architecture. It doesn’t mean that such architecture must bring eco-forms… ecological (in my view) means safe for our physical and mental health. Some crazy architects designing Olympic projects in Sochi: they don’t give a damn about the existing 100 years old trees, those beautiful sycamores, they don’t care about the unique city’s atmosphere. I think they do terrible things…
    It looks like a nightmare.

  2. Adam K. says:

    Very nice piece. I think the best so far on this blog (and I have been following for a while now). I really enjoyed the historical exposition of the “form-vs-function” trade-off. Do you think that some of this approach that you described:

    “But we have to keep in mind that back then the major religious structures (shrines, churches) or politically important projects (governmental palaces, public / sport facilities) were rarely under such financial pressure in terms of the fiscal profitability as modern capitalist construction industry.”

    may also apply in some places even today? China Olympics come to mind, for instance.

    • Albert says:

      Yes of course. China, Arab Emirates, Moscow… just to name few.
      But those are not (should I say: are not YET) exactly “wealthy capitalistic societies” as per Western model, as I carefully noted. That’s why all grandiose and super-scaled projects (doesn’t necessarily means the most beautiful, especially in case of Dubai and Moscow) are taking place there…

  3. Alya says:

    Albert, thanks for the translation.

  4. Ivan K. says:

    Little bit on renaissance (it’s not all about money): did you know that one of the projects for square in front of S. Peter cathedral proposed low height buildings on each side of square with shops in ground floor and apartments on first floor? Also all palaces (big houses in urban center) intended to be built for rich citizens provided shops and workshops in ground floor! Example is house for Raffaello Sanzio, who was also the author of project. Also there are examples of villas of A. Palladio which were made out of cheap materials (wood, bricks) but they were attended to look expensive and „powerful“.

    Unfortunately, i think that funding’s were always very relevant part of architects job, although i agree with you that they shouldn’t be something that rules architects way of creating.

    I saw a couple of interviews with Koolhas (one is about creating CCTV), and i thing his work is really great! If you didn’t saw it:

    Great article anyway!

    maybe me comment is little bit of track, just wanted to share!

  5. Ivan K. says:

    sorry i didn’t know that this youtube window will show up this big!!! (meant just to post a link) be free to remove it, also with last commnet!

    • Albert says:

      I don’t remove comments unless it’s a direct personal insult for no reason or an advertisement of some sort. Your comment is smart, very informative & sincere. The best author can wish for. So thank you.

      You hit the point: of course financials (as well as politics) have always affected architects. But architects have never surrendered to those pressures as easy & spinelessly as they do today

  6. I could not agree with you more..

  7. Olof Antonsson says:

    The false dichotomy between (a construction) “function” and (another construction) “form” by its nature does not permit us to consider what could be obvious: form IS (a) function.

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