Form and function

Architecture is difficult, for a lot of reasons. But there is one key question that every architect has to consider in the design of a building.

Buildings have to be functional. They have to do the job that they were designed to do – whether is is an office block, housing or a hospital. Buildings have to be able to withstand stresses put on them by the wind, and easy to exit in a fire. They should have a low energy consumption, and the materials should have a low environmental impact. The building should be accessible for everyone.

There is, more or less, a fixed checklist of things that need to be designed into a building. That list will change, depending on the intended purpose and location of said building, but they are pretty consistent. And if you go through that list and make sure that the building fulfills all of these parameters, it will be a highly functional building.

But will it be a good building?

That is a much deeper question. The functionality of a building is only the start. There is another thing that must be considered, in order for the architect to be deemed successful. The form of the building, its aesthetic appeal, must be factored into the design process.

But for a building to have good form, the design parameters are much more wishy-washy. There are no fixed guidelines on how to build a beautiful building. And so the architect, in conjunction with the design team, must be more creative. But the problem with creativity is that… let’s just say that not all buildings succeed in being aesthetically pleasing.

This is a building built in the Brutalist style in London.Most people would say that this is not a beautiful building. But yet there is an entire movement of people who have totally embraced this style, hailing it as supremely awesome.

And maybe there is an argument for this style. Sure, I would love it if every skyline on Earth looked like this.

Credit for this, and some subsequent images, can be found on reddit.com/r/ImaginaryArchitecture, which is awesome.

But frankly, that would not be practical. If cities were built in this crazy, artistically beautiful style, we could not pack as many people into them. A city that looked like this probably could not function as a city. So when architecture focuses entirely on form, it will crumble.

But focussing only on function isn’t too nice either. If we go back to that checklist earlier and express it as a building, you get a structure that looks a little like this.

As should be befitting of a Communist nation, a lot of former Soviet housing blocks are very utilitarian. They are square, homogenous and there is very little variety between them. A friend of mine who lives in St Petersburg admitted that when he moved into his new flat, it wasn’t uncommon for him to try to go into the wrong building, because he lived in one of 7 identical buildings in a row. And they are, if you believe most people, not especially pretty.

So how do you compromise? Where should you say ‘OK, this building is aesthetically pleasing enough, let’s stop making functional sacrifices’? There is no clear answer.

Architecture is tricky.

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