50% Form 50% Function

By: Katie Donahue, AIAS – AIAS Denver Vice President

I started my first year of the graduate program for architecture with visions of grandeur. I think most of us do. It was sexy and sparkly, just like in the movies. I envisioned myself starting on a path of high art and couture buildings, full of concepts, theory, and big picture ideas not to be sacrificed. I was certain that all good buildings must have deep, metaphorical imagery at their roots.

By my second year something switched and without even realizing it, I had done a one-eighty. I was head-over-heels for Architecture for Humanity, this notion of guerrilla design and tactical urbanism, and I was a proponent of architects as smart business-people before all else.  I worked for a savvy serial entrepreneur at a booming tech start-up here in Denver, lapping up lessons on growing a brand. In short, I wanted to see stuff get done. I wanted to build things that people could touch and that could touch people. I wanted the things on the paper to be things in the fabric of our cities, too.

That first year, I was adamant that I was studying Architecture with a really big ‘A’ and valued the principles of design and art above all else, build-ability included. By that second year, I found myself thinking, let’s just get things built, grow a stronger industry of architecture, and maybe even save the world.

And then, when I started my third and final year of the program, it finally dawned on me. Oh… right. Form and function. Yes, my flip flopping boiled down to the ubiquitous architecture issue of balancing form and function. But for some reason, up until that third year, I had only allowed myself to be passionate (and perhaps a tad obsessive) about one side or the other. It felt like a battle between business and art.

I recently read, “I’ve never felt that I had to compromise my design approach in order to respond to a business requirement presented by a client. Actually, it’s the other way around -understanding the business side will make you both a better designer and a better professional. It becomes a win-win situation” (Art Gensler, in the foreword for The Business of Design, by Keith Granet).

In my third year I started to see that win-win situation where design and business not only coexist but complement one another is a tricky balance, but it’s not necessarily an equal balance. It’s not about 50% form and 50% function – or half artistic merit and half performance criteria. Or, better yet, one part profit to one part architectural theory. It’s also not necessarily a permanent balance. Sullivan might have proclaimed form never follows function and Wright might have made beautiful chairs so angular and uncomfortable that even he admitted they gave him bruises. But Sullivan wasn’t exempt from using ornamentation like the elaborate ironwork in the Sullivan Center Building and Wright happily boasted about his use of air conditioning in the Larkin building. So I started realizing that it’s okay to lean to one side, and it’s okay to shift stances. A mentor of mine once referred to it as a ‘delicate dance.’ The meeting point between form and function isn’t at a resolute location; it’s on a sliding scale. It depends. So now I’m in search of all those things it depends on and all the different ways to do this wild dance. I’m realizing it will fill the rest of my final year of school, but also probably the rest of my career. And that sounds pretty fun.

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