Functionalism (architecture)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Functionalism, in architecture, is the principle that architects should design a building based on the purpose of that building. This statement is less self-evident than it first appears, and is a matter of confusion and controversy within the profession, particularly in regard to modern architecture.

The place of functionalism in building can be traced back to the Vitruvian triad, where 'utilitas' (variously translated as 'commodity', 'convenience', or 'utility') stands alongside 'venustas' (beauty) and 'firmitas' (firmness) as one of three classic goals of architecture.

In the early years of the 20th century, Chicago architect Louis Sullivan popularized the phrase 'form ever follows function' to capture his belief that a building's size, massing, spatial grammar and other characteristics should be driven solely by the function of the building. The implication is that if the functional aspects are satisfied, architectural beauty would naturally and necessarily follow.

Sullivan's credo is often viewed as being ironic in light of his extensive use of intricate ornament, since a common belief among functionalist architects is that ornament serves no function. The credo also does not address whose function he means. The architect of an apartment building, for instance, can easily be at cross-purposes with the owners of the building regarding how the building should look and feel, and they could both be at cross-purposes with the future tenants. Nevertheless 'form follows function' expresses a significant and enduring idea.

The roots of modern architecture lie in the work of the Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier and the German architect Mies van der Rohe. Both were functionalists at least to the extent that their buildings were radical simplifications of previous styles. In 1923 Mies van der Rohe was working in Weimar Germany, and had begun his career of producing radically simplified, lovingly detailed structures that achieved Sullivan's goal of inherent architectural beauty. Corbusier famously said "a house is a machine for living in"; his 1923 book Vers une architecture was, and still is, very influential, and his early built work such as the Villa Savoye in Poissy, France is thought of as prototypically functional.

In the mid-1930s, functionalism began to be discussed as an aesthetic approach rather than a matter of design integrity. The idea of functionalism was conflated with lack of ornamentation, which is a different matter. It became a pejorative term associated with the most bald and brutal ways to cover space, like cheap commercial buildings and sheds, then finally used, for example in academic criticism of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, simply as a synonym for 'gauche'.

"People don't understand the importance of the involvement of the client, which is huge. That was not true of beaux arts architecture, but it is very true of Frank (Gehry)'s architecture."

For 70 years the preeminent and influential American architect Philip Johnson held that the profession has no functional responsibility whatsoever, and this is one of the many views today. Johnson said, "Where form comes from I don’t know, but it has nothing at all to do with the functional or sociological aspects of our architecture". The position of postmodern architect Peter Eisenman is based on a user-hostile theoretical basis and even more extreme: "I don't do function." The best-known architects in the west, like Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, Richard Meier and I.M. Pei, see themselves primarily as artists, with some secondary responsibility to make their buildings functional for clients and/or users.

The debate about functionalism and aesthetics is often framed as a mutually exclusive choice, when in fact there are architects, like Will Bruder, James Polshek and Ken Yeang, who attempt to satisfy all three Vitruvian goals.


  • Vers une Architecture and Villa Savoye: A Comparison of Treatise and Building - A multipart essay explaining the basics of Le Corbusier's theory and contrasting them with his built work.
  • Behne, Adolf (1923). The Modern Functional Building. Michael Robinson, trans. Santa Monica: Getty Research Institute, 1996.
  • Forty, Adrian. "Function". Words and Buildings, A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture. Thames & Hudson, 2000, p. 174-195.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Functionalism (architecture)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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