Defining the Bounds of Form and Function

Form and function are universally considered the two elemental shaping forces of architecture. It has always been understood that the two must somehow be related. Despite that relationship, we generally consider the two to be separate. But where do we draw the boundaries?

More after the break.

Examining the work of the great Eero Saarinen can begin to lead us to some answers. Nicolai Ouroussoff recently wrote that Saarinen had an “early break with the doctrine that form follows function.” But I disagree. Saarinen understood that the esthetic of a building inherently serves a function: visually embodying the nature of the building. In designing each of his buildings, Saarinen took on a tremendous amount of research and in a staggering amount of information (he famously spent hours measuring exactly how long planes sat on the ground and how long it took people to board them while designing Washington’s Dulles Airport). It was only after this research phase, only after Saarinen felt that he really understood the nature of the building that he was designing, that he made the leap from nebulous ideas to a concrete design. At the David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale, a great swooping wood-covered ceiling evokes the thrill of motion across the ice. And at the John Deere & Company headquarters in Moline, IL, rough, exposed Corten steel beams express the mechanized nature of the machines being sold.

Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center draws upon the image of a bird in flight to express the thrill of movement.

Saarinen’s approach was not one condoned by most early Modernists. Mies van der Rohe  and many of his colleagues developed painstakingly elegant design vocabularies and applied them to each of their projects. Even though in Mies’s buildings’ sizes, sitings, and design features their functions were expressed, the vocabulary employed was more about expressing the nature of a style and an era than an individual project.

Saarinen allowed form and function to mix, determining the esthetic of each project separately from all the others. To many contemporary architects, that idea holds a lot of appeal. Architects like Frank Gehry often come under fire for designing buildings that ‘all look the same.’ But all projects do have some common ground in their functions, and a vocabulary applied across a range of projects allows for the exploration of a more nuanced exploration of that form of expression. Mannerism in architecture is not dead: even architects like Rem Koolhaas, who takes great pride in approaching each project in a quite Saarinen-esque fashion, rely on a relatively consistent design vocabulary.

Understanding that form and function are not just interrelated but in fact a single entity, as Saarinen did, is a key first step in creating great works or architecture. But understanding that buildings cannot be seen as singular objects, or even singular objects within their immediate contexts, is equally important. Buildings must be seen in their much more abstract relationship with their time and with their architects’ other works. Eero Saarinen designed some great buildings, but he was not a great architect.

In order to guide visual order, architects need some sort of unifying visual vocabulary for their projects. Form may be nothing more than visual function, but to best explore that abstract visual world — that world in which a building can be successfully embodied in thousands of different ways — we need a starting framework, in effect something of a ‘style.’

Note: the above image was not taken by me. It was found at Wikimedia Commons.


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