The Concept of Functionality in Architecture

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Function represents the essentials in architecture’s use value, providing everything that people needs practically and spiritually when using it. Thus, function is the direct goal when designing architecture. After all, constructing a building is more than designing concepts in papers. Once the concept is realized for use, failure to coordinate the relationship between function and form may result in a useless design. Lack of function will make architecture a sculpture, unable to provide comfort space for people to use. In human history, religious places are the first architecture in Greek and Egypt. After Greek was conquered by Rome, arena and bath appeared and people started to pay attention to their own residence. In baroque period, landscape and spring were built in residence, representing new needs from human.

In terms of function the rule must be “to plant a building firmly on the ground”, that is, to adapt its size and form to the terrain (site)(Greenough, 1947). Architecture targeting at different group of people or different utility may have distinct functional requirements. The first utility of architecture that pops in mind may be residing. For example, a farmhouse is a place for dwelling. Unlike house in city, farmhouse is a relatively separate place that a lot of things are not easy to shop. And people living in the house have to attend to their stock and plant. So a farmhouse should have enough room for store and live. If possible, placing it on the hillside, orienting the part of the house in which the farmer and his family eat, cook, rest and sleep towards the valley, leaving the farmhouse’s larger back half to cows, horses, and goats. A large store room will be necessary on the back side of the house for storing living necessities and tools etc. Once the design meets those needs, there is room for beauty and conceptual meaning. However, a construction is more than a place to live. Bridges and hangars, stadiums and power stations, highways and dams, factories and shopping malls, the function of these places varies and need to be taken into consideration when designing. Taking a more close to life example, shopping mall, a production of modern metropolis, is a place to satisfy multiple demands of customers. People coming to the mall want to buy garments, have dinner, watch movie, work out or play games. Meeting these needs will attract large population, creating considerable income for the shopper owners. As a place containing large quantity of people, enough public space and parking space will guarantee public security and attract customer from relatively far residence.

Natural factors such as climate and topography influence function of architecture. Cities lying along river often share similar construction style. One reason is that these places often experience heavy rainfall. In order to faster drain water, roof usually have high slope. In southern China, some minority people lift their house up using bamboo. Such design allows better ventilation in whole year round moisture. One study reports that the average thickness of wall in southern England, Holland and Belgium is 23cm; in Germany, the data is 38cm; in Poland and Lithuanian, the data is 50cm; in Russia, the number is more than 63cm. That is to say, closer to sea, thinner the wall. People need thick walls to fight against cold weather and thin walls with large room space to radiate heat. All these demands from people using the construction must be seriously considered and people are always the key concept in designing. And it is something that comes along all the ages and had nothing to do with who design the architecture. Presenting function is like trying to educate everyone a concept and form can be anything from a theater to a painting. As long as the audience gets the idea, the form is successful. Otherwise no matter how creative or beautiful the form is, it’s empty.

In all, unless the functional requirements are fully met, architecture will lack of humanity. In Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s book, he asserted that a structure must exhibit the three qualities firmitas, utilitas, venustas – that is, it must be solid, useful, beautiful(Sullivan and Walker, 1924). These rules have become basic evaluation standards to traditional architectural aesthetics till nowadays. Bruno Zevi regarded function as the very first rule in modern language of architecture(Zevi, 1978). Both of them emphasize the importance of structure’s properties to meet people’s needs. In modern society, designing is becoming increasingly intelligent and humanistic. A good architecture design should demonstrate itself without extra explanation.

“Architecture is frozen music” as Goethe put it, nobody would question his romantic and poetic way of describing what form can add to architecture. Architecture is like an artistic composition and it has artistic value for people to admire. Any construction in this world, even a crude thatched house has decorative elements that make it more than four pillars with a cover. The nature has the power to shape form to maximize function and architecture is one of the creations that did not just imitate nature(Winckelmann and Potts, 2006). Alberti claimed that if a quality is desirable anywhere, surely it cannot be absent from buildings, without offending experienced and inexperienced alike(Alberti, 1988). Thus, merely providing for functional needs and producing something that is durable and well-constructed is not enough, beauty must add to the design.

As we can see from the development of architecture, pyramids are extremely old design in history. According to Alberti, the pyramid is formed between the surface of the material objection and the eye, which is also the source of inner light. Besides pyramid, Temple of Karnak, the striking testimony to Egyptian civilization, is also an ideal designer in terms of form. The colonnades in the middle are higher than the colonnades on sides, thus creating height difference in the roof and letting light into the hall. Not all of the colonnades are needed for the support. Light flow through rows of colonnades, the shadow and light alternately casting on the floor. Such dark effect with extremely large colonnades makes the temple a place as if the gods are above. Instead of external facts, beauty and nature are pure subjective judgments. The numerical proportions used in the design of the temple create a “visual harmony” which only exists in the mind and has no relation to the actual structure or material presence of the building.

The form of architecture is the outward expression of material and structure. It is often perceived through lines, form and texture as a whole. Only by form can architecture be perceived as something meaningful to people and activate spiritual echoes. From personal view, form carries the information that designer wants to express. For example, Mies van der Rohe expresses two architectural concepts through his skyscraper project. One that can be found in his previous experimental exploration-Mies’s Friedichstrasse project, a building takes the reflections and refractions of light by glass as surface instead of patterns of shadow on an opaque material. The other separates him from his earlier skyscraper studies, a building related to one another by a geometrically derived core form, forming as a complex unitary volume that does not permit itself to be read in terms of an internal formal logic. With these two related concepts Mies gave his answer to the problem of physically and conceptually relating the architectural object to the city. alternately transparent, reflective glass curtain wall absorbs, mirrors, or distorts the immediate images of city. The city was divided by these circumstantial images, creating a sense of disarray. Usually, the viewer can grasp an antecedent logic of the object, drawing a conclusion on the formal theme by deciphering the relationship every part. However, proposition of Mies is unable decoding by formal analysis. The work of Mies cannot be reduced to a number of constituent parts related by some internal armature or transformed through some formal operation because no such compositional relationship exists in his work.; The uniqueness of his work cannot be interpreted as some kind of deflection of other type. Mies totally abandoned the classical design methods, creating a new way of forming that a building could speak for itself in the sense of surface and volume in a particular time and place, in a contextually qualified moment. We have to admit that only those who were experienced and educated with background knowledge can fully understand the theme of the architecture.

There are other ways architect proposed to look at a building. As Rudolf Arnheim asserted, a building can be enjoyed from multiple views and a work of architecture is “a mental image synthesized with greater or lesser success from partial views”(Arnheim, 1977), leading Arnheim to conclude that “expression in not identical with a building’s physical properties,” nor its physical structure, as is the case in English Gothic architecture.

The above two architects provide new form either to display beauty or to contemplate beauty. However, Albert proposed a new concept to define form in human mental view. In his book, Albert explains the difference between lineament (the line in the mind of the architect) and matter, and his theory of concinnitas or visual harmony. Consisting of angles, lineaments are the outline of a building, as conceived in the mind, separate from matter. In the De re aedificatoria, “It is quite possible to project whole forms in the mind without any recourse to the material” (Alberti, 1988). He defined the form and figure of a building as a kind of positive affection, that is “pleasing to the eyes”, and is “the main object of the art of building”. Concinnitas, like apperception, transforms disparate and unrelated sensible perceptions into a coherent whole, distinguishes the object stimulation of physical form and the subject image of what is perceived.

Symbols in culture repeatedly occurred in architecture in ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptian believed that when a people died, soul temporally left body and will come back to earth soon. So the place to store body must be sacred in the appearance and sustainable for thousands of years. Similar with ancient Egypt, ancient Greek also left plenty of religious places. In ancient time, due to single construction material and lack of advanced technology, only those places enjoy the intelligence of designer. Though all made of stone, stadium, college and theater are carefully decorated and their technique are admirable even from the temporary view. At that time, architecture has been almost exclusively symbolic in form and decoration, lacking of clear function design.

There are plenty of examples that successfully incorporate form and function. The Fallingwater of Frank Lloyd Wright is one of them. Two platforms stretch from the house, looking as if the building were grown from the ground. Water falling preceded the house and with the entire natural system that grows and develops around the falls, creating an illusion that it never stops. In a sense, Fallingwater can be said to historicize the landscape and thus give to nature a history and a meaning beyond the present. Permanence, that quality which had for so long seemed at odds with modernism, was reintroduced but transformed into an aspect of impermanence. The house is described as “Always all things at once, it remains as magical, as hallucinatory, and as ethereal as cascade of white water or an early morning mist”(Menocal, 2000).

Form of architecture not only refers to the inner space but also outline.

With the rapid development of information revolution and increase in modern people’s aesthetic consciousness, it has never been as diverse as contemporary architecture. A wide spectrum of architecture in modern society displayed a tendency towards emphasizing too much on form. Architect started to weaken even give up the principle of basic function and rational structure, focusing more on the abstract logical relationship in the architecture. If visual impact becomes the prior concern of the architect, it will tend to be pure formalism and result in sculptors making architecture.

Taking the CCTV Headquarters in China as an example, in order to exhibit an exaggerated effect, designer challenges the normal mechanics at all cost. The whole building looks like two giant three-dimension letter Z tangling together and it also looks like one giant twisting letter A. Its unique tilted outlook and striking character leave the audience a strong visual impact. There is no denying that the architecture displays the distinct imagination and creation of the designer. However, it arouses doubts and objection due to violation of the mechanics’ principle. The main function of a building is to guarantee safety. Namely, it will not collapse under natural extreme condition. However, the designing plan broke a few rules in national construction standards including height, uniformity, transformation and rotational amplitude, etc. To build such a high, difficult structure, the original 5 billion investments is barely enough, because the building must be absolutely safe. In the end, the 550 thousand square meter floor area project cost more than twice of the original investments plan. There’re more examples than that. Guangzhou Opera House is the unique presentation of the relationship between city culture and social ecology. The unusual outlook gets applause as well as critiques. On one hand, the construction of such project leads to worries about safety. On the other hand, the unique form reduces the usage rate of inner space, thus resulting in waste of space and expense. In what degree should we take form into consideration and at how much cost should be taken to pursue it remain debate.

Personally, I am not in favor of overly pursuing of pure form. To express the thought of a designer and display beauty is important indeed. Architecture is not merely a combination of construction material, or any pile of stones would become a building. Egyptian pyramid, Chinese pagoda, Hindu stupa, and Sumerian ziggurat were the most powerful expression of each culture's religious beliefs. They were designed according to the cultural symbolic systems; their shape, decoration, dimensions, and orientation to the sun were carefully calculated to serve their god or bring good luck. But they enclosed little or no internal space.Often these constructions were funded by government or religious group who collect money from citizens. Large expenses were paid on these projects neglecting all objections. Even in temporary society, designs aiming at creating a symbolic structure challenge all the mechanics principle in order to impact regular human cognition. Such tendency results in increasing budget and decreasing using space. What separates architecture from sculpture is that it is useful and people feel comfortable using it. When someone enters a building, the appraisal of inner light and space is as important as out figure. It’s understandable that designers want to speak out their mind and strike the world with unique work. However, understanding the needs of people is always the primary concern. As Eisennman says “there is no conceptual aspect in architecture which can be thought of without the concept of pragmatic and functional objects(Torres, 2004).

ALBERTI, L. B. 1988. On the art of building in ten books, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.

ARNHEIM, M. T. W. 1977. Aristocracy in Greek society, Boulder, Westview Press.

GREENOUGH, H. 1947. Form and function; remarks on art, Berkeley,, Univ. of California Press.

MENOCAL, N. G. 2000. Fallingwater and Pittsburgh, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press.

SULLIVAN, L. H. & WALKER, D. D. 1924. The autobiography of an idea, New York,, Press of the American institute of architects, inc.

TORRES, M. 2004. Affordable home design : innovations and renovations, New York, NY, Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

WINCKELMANN, J. J. & POTTS, A. 2006. History of the art of antiquity, Los Angeles, Calif., Getty Research Institute.

ZEVI, B. 1978. The modern language of architecture, University of Washington Press Seattle.

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