Architectural Criticism

Function vs. Form, and whether one should follow the other

To study the relationship between form and function, whether one should follow the other, and what principles should be followed in the early stages of design. Scenarios and cases were studied to decide which was more important in each situation, the form or the function. Throughout the study, it was concluded that many factors take place in deciding the focus of the project, as these are not the only factors that determine a successful project.

With this in mind I have conducted my research by the analysis of cases that reflect the architect’s beliefs on their designs, and the opinions of many famous architects were also taken into consideration. Conclusions were based on that.

Keywords: Design, principles, architecture, timeline.


Since the beginning of time, architects have had various methods and principles leading to their designs. Whether they start with the form or the function, the end result is a functioning building.

A question that’s been constantly debated over for architects is whether form should follow function or function should follow form in the early stages of design. Does one of them hold more value or importance than the other? Many people strictly stand for their principles and methods in design while others believe there should be a middle ground and a mixture of the two should be used in order to reach an ideal design.

If the main focus was the form, would distributing the functions later result in a building that doesn’t function the way it should? On the other hand, will focusing on the function result with a rigid building that lacks inspiration and creativity? The aim of this research is to find out whether one method is more suitable in giving out more efficient buildings, or are both actually needed based on the desired result in the building designed.

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And finally, the difference between these two methods on the outcome of the design.

Form follows function is a principle associated with late 19th and early 20th century architecture and industrial design in general, and it means the shape of a building or object should primarily relate to its intended function or purpose. The phrase “form follows function” was coined by architect Louis H. Sullivan in his 1896 essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” Which we will discuss later in this report.


Since there is a constant debate on form versus function, a number of cases that show the importance of each was collected. My main research methodology was by data collection of various case studies and scenarios. This study will focus on whether or not either should follow the other. The discussion will include quotes from famous architects and their views on this issue. Conclusions and recommendations will be based on the data collected.

Case Study and Data collection:

The battle between form vs. function can be broken down into scenarios. In some of these scenarios, form may be preferred for aesthetic purposes, however, the function may prove to be more fitting. In others, form can serve a lot more purpose than the function.

Before getting into detailed cases of a larger scale, I will present a number of scenarios where according to the situation, either form or function should take over. [1]

The first scenario is the use of wooden floors in bathrooms. It has been popularly demanded by clients to have wooden floorings for bathrooms in their homes. As architects, we know that water pooling on wooden floors can result in a lack of longevity if its not taken good care of, however, if the users are aware of the conditions of the floor, it can get a pass if there’s commitment on the user’s behalf. So, in this case form can win over function.

In another scenario, clients may request door-less showers for aesthetic purposes. This is not really recommended as in a typical 1.5 m x 1.5 m bathroom, there won’t be enough clearance for splashing, so a lot of cleaning would be required after every shower. This isn’t convenient so in this case function takes over form.

In smaller spaces, sometimes the spacing between furniture is less than the recommended as it wouldn’t fit otherwise. You might have to move in a few things out of your way to pass by, or have a less relaxed living space that adjusts to the small area of the room. Some may describe this space as crammed, but having a tight space is better than missing a dining table in your house. In this scenario, form takes over function in order to satisfy your needs.

The light’s brightness in restaurants and cafes can change the mood of the costumers, as dimmer lights adds to the aesthetic experience for the users. There should be a limit to how dim the lights are so the costumers are able to read their menus comfortably. In this case function takes over since being able to view your menu with comfort is a lot more important than the aesthetics provided by dimming the lights to that extent.

The last of these scenarios is a general case where the form of the building requires a lot of constant maintenance. If the users of this building aren’t determined to constantly check the building and pay for maintenance then in this general case, function wins over form.

Form follows Function:

Now to discuss larger scale cases, we will start off by the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri, designed by the architect Louis Sullivan. This building showcases Sullivan’s philosophy and design principles. He argued that the building’s form should work with the interior function. Figures 1-2 show the exterior fa?ade of the building. The lower floors require a different natural lighting window configuration than the central seven floors of interior office space and the top attic area. The top attic doesn’t require much natural lighting based on its function; therefore, the windows are circular and not much consideration is taken towards the amount of light exposure allowed. The amount of light exposure is based on the function of the building. [2]


Figures 1 and 2 Exterior Fa?ade of Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri

“All things in nature have a shape,” Sullivan said, “that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other.” That these shapes “express the inner life”. Sullivan emphasized that the exterior of the building should always reflect its inner function, and that the building fa?ade should change as the function changes. In his philosophy, the form and the function work in conjunction to form an ideal building.

Common interior areas by function included mechanical utility rooms below grade, commercial areas in the lower floors, mid-story offices, and a top attic area used for storage and ventilation.

Figure 3 below shows the plan of the building at the middle and the lower portion consecutively. We can see from the plan how the different functions require different natural light distribution. So, in conclusion, Sullivan’s philosophy does reflect on his design.

Figure 3 floor plan of Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri

Function follows form:

Examples of buildings that follow this statement, are buildings that give no insinuation on their internal functions from the exterior. Unconventionally shaped visually provocative buildings with the intention of giving the user a feeling of suspense, and that could be labelled with different functions when viewed from the outside. A case on this is the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Gehry. As shown in figure 4 below, the exterior of this building is highly sculptural and extremely unexpressive to its function.


Figure 4: Exterior of Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles

The building can be identified as a museum, a library or a church, because its external form does not proclaim “concert hall.”

Contrary to the exterior the plan in figure 5 shows a bit of geometry and a plan distribution that would’ve never been guessed from the outside.

Figure 5: plan distribution of the Disney concert hall in LA

Most buildings today, regardless of size, style, location or purpose, still embody the principle of form following function both inside and out. What’s changed is that, while functional necessities remain a primary determinant of architectural geometry and spatial organization, formal influences and formal possibilities have expanded dramatically.

Architects no longer are limited to straight lines and rectilinear volumes. Thanks to computer technology and new building materials and techniques, we can conceptualize, represent, fabricate and erect almost any form that obeys the laws of physics, and that someone is willing to pay for. [4]

Santiago Calatrava is an architect known for opposing the “form follow function” ideology. His idea is to focus more on aesthetical aspects rather than structural aspects which is shown in his expressive forms.

An example of his work that can fit into the “function follow form” category is the Hemisf?ric theatre which is located in Valencia, Spain. Architects that usually focus on the form usually reflects the vision or a concept. In this case, Calatrava’s concept was to build the city of knowledge, he took the human eye to represent it, and to be known after that as the “eye of knowledge”. The figures below show the exterior of the building along with the abstraction from which the concept originated.

Figure 6: Exterior of Hemisf?ric which resembles an abstraction of the human eye

Figure 7: Calatrava’s concept sketches from which the form originated-2438400

A shown in figures 6 and 7 the form originated from the human eye. Each side of the eye-shaped building opens and closes like the eyelids of an eye.

Unlike the Disney concert hall, the plan here resembles its exterior as shown in figure 8. This is a clear example of the function following the form as the spaces were divided accordingly. The Omniax theater, is roofed over by an elliptical shell structure and placed within an elliptical pod that cradles it like the pupil of an eye.

Figure 8: Plan of the Hemisf?ric theatre

Another building by Calatrava where function follows form is the Tenerife Auditorium located in Santa Cruz De Tenerife, Spain.

What is unique about the concept of this building is that it does not have a specific one, Calatrava wanted to be suggestive, as few has suggested that the concept is a huge tongue. Others believe that it’s the form of a wave. The building is composed of number of organic and curvy elements and a base of successive platforms from which protrudes the heavy curved arch of the Main Hall. The auditorium connects the city to the ocean and creates a significant urban landmark. The figures below shows the exterior of the building and its plan.

Figure 9: Exterior of Tenerife Auditorium

Figure 10: Plan of Tenerife building


In some of the cases, the designer’s intention may have initially been to prioritize the function, however, with time the users start identifying the building by its form and associating the form with its successful functionality.

Sullivan was a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. Quoting Wright, “Form and function are one.” He came to believe that people were misusing Sullivan’s idea, reducing it to a slogan and an excuse for “foolish stylistic constructions.” He thought people took Sullivan’s words too literally and used it as a philosophy to justify their designs.

Sullivan used the phrase as a starting point, according to Wright. Beginning “from within outward,” the concept that Sullivan’s function within should describe the outward appearance.

Wright said, “The ground already has form. Why not begin to give at once by accepting that? Why not give by accepting the gifts of nature?” He insists that there are factors that should determine the form which is mainly by the function, climate, soil, local building materials, and type of labor. He never rejected Sullivan’s idea, as he said “Less is only more where more is no good,” and that “‘Form follows function’ is mere dogma until you realize the higher truth that form and function are one.”

So according to Frank Lloyd Wright and Sullivan, form and function are one and should work together to form a building. In their point of view, the design starts from within which is what we saw previously in the case study designed by Sullivan.

Function vs. form resembles the chicken and egg problem where people have been trying to place these events on a certain timeline as if no other factors take place. This would be impossible if we don’t consider the larger environment it takes place in. The chicken has to make its way around predators and survive environmental factors, while the egg requires warmth and protection from the chicken. When we compare this situation to design, function and form coexist and each is emphasized based on the design environment and factors taking place. Function requires fitness to the task its assigned. The form can be judged based on its fitting to the environment. Both form and function require some sort of dependence on the surrounding factors and requirements for the design, so just like the egg and chicken problem, a timeline can’t be determined unless specific conditions were given. [3]


As shown in the previous cases and the discussion above, the battle between form and function can be weighed down into an equation depending on the architect’s principles, concept behind the building, or the feeling they want the user to experience. These are some of the factors deciding whether to focus on the form or the function.

However, one may conclude that form and function go hand in hand in a project. Since there is no right or wrong in architectural design, it is a matter of personal perception and resolving. It is one of the issues that give us more than one solution to design issues. Both are equally important and cannot be neglected for the other’s sake.

At the end of the day, some architects may use this as a philosophy to justify their design choices whether or not they actually used this as a design procedure. What matters is the user’s experience, regardless of the designer’s procedure. Form and function both hold an importance whereas one can take over depending on the situation. This is up to the architect’s judgement. In conclusion, both statements are valid.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Dr. Jawdat Goussous for his time spent guiding me throughout my study.


[1] Accessed July 23rd 6:30pm

[2] Accessed July 23rd 8:17pm

[3] Accessed July 23rd 10:18pm

[4] Accessed July 23rd 11:14pm

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Architectural Criticism. (2019, Nov 15). Retrieved from

Architectural Criticism
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