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Modernist Dogma That Form Follows Function


The aim of this thesis is to discuss the modernist dogma ‘form follows function. A good architecture is meant to create a better functional design in course of lifestyle, amusement, work, study, and so on. Hence, all design decisions at the architectural level should be made within the context of the functional, ergonomic, and social requirements of the system being designed, which is a principle that equally to form follows function. The theory of form follows function could be implicated to evolution, economics, culture tradition, and aesthetic. They are closely linked with form, to produce different visual effect and results.

From the past to the present, form follows function has been debate ceaselessly. Some argue that form follows function; like famous architect Louis Sullivan believed that form ever follows function, but some of people do not think so. Of course, issues are bound to have positives and negatives. So, when people say form follows function; some people would be say why not function follows form. The answer of the modernist philosophy of design was beyond all doubt to say ‘yes’. In this design dictum seems like good sense but take a closer look at it and it might become problematic. Looking at present form of architecture, there is enough evidence that function follows form, for without an understanding of form. This presumes that it was accepted by public and actually we can escape from tradition principle, form follows function. In short, form and function is not in a happy marriage but in ecology, it does work.

Ecology became hot issue in current design. The word ‘ecology’ is often misused that it is more on environmental studies, but strictly to say, there are still different. The easy way to explain that ecology is concerned with sustainability, environmental consciousness, green, natural, and organic approaches to evolve a design solution from these requirements and from the characteristics of the site. And taking about historic building blends with recycle materials. Use it to preserve old building’s character elements with waste materials which can be restoring the cultural meanings.

Hence, the aim and objective of this dissertation is to create a debate form follows function or function follows form in order to evidence form follows function is workable than opposite theory in this aesthetic perception first society. Besides, the objective is to assess future direction and the movement toward an ecological approach to building nowadays.

The study will undertake of 3 parts of research which is the primary, secondary and thirdly data sources. These 3 researches for this dissertation have a great help. Primarily sources would be observed how the tradition dogma can be circulated for so long in this appearance oriented society and what are the main reasons that it was implicated? To identifies the themes through evolution, economics, and culture tradition. Moreover, the thesis will look at use of recycle materials to retrofit historic buildings in order to enhance sustainable. Secondary, the research would be done by respondents through survey questions. The aim of this survey is to know perception and acceptance of Malaysians towards ecological architectures. The targeted community is different ages and occupations of Malaysians. Thirdly sources and illustrations would be completed from research based from books, internet and newspapers in order to obtain a more impersonal answer and solution.

Chapter 2

‘Functions’: do they precede forms?

‘Form follows function’ or ‘function follows form’ just as chicken and egg. Which come first? This is depended on how we can compare between two of it. Just like design principle, “form follows function” can be confirmed from hundreds of years of experience with successful building projects. The design principle is continued to use until nowadays, it certainly has its rationale.

Form has to be combined with the function, which is not optionally to decide on it. In tradition principle, the function of the building purpose for why people use the building drives the form. But at the same time it’s the formal conditions of environment, climate, building materials and other forces that begin to propose how the purpose reflects its users. Other point of view is the vision, which includes many factors; for instance, the multiple functions, the stakeholders, the target users and is inherently long term.

Besides, function leads the designer to narrow down the options and provide a beginning point; to help them more easily to complete their project. If the form does not bind with the function then the function might end up being not usable. Function needs form in order to archive its aim; the form needs function too. Form without function is just a pretty piece of plain paper, no meaning. This is most direct way to prove that it is workable.

Whoever designed the buildings undoubtedly has a mind to satisfy your functional needs. Further, the designer probably intended the overall form of the buildings to fit their purpose and prearrange that purpose aesthetically. That imply that function is something that precedes the form that it exists independently of form that it is there before form takes shape.

View of evolution

Turn back to the question about first chicken or egg. To philosophers, the question about the first chicken or egg also brings out the questions of how life and the universe in general began. If we ignore all these, just focus on the view of evolutionism, we found every form has a purpose to evolve, form follows function and evolution is actually work hands in hands.

In the universal view of evolution by natural selection, in which new variations in the environment and time, function always follows form. Just like Louis Sullivan, an America architect who keen on basic principle ‘form follows function. In 1896, in Sullivan’s article ‘The tall office building artistically considered’, he states that:

‘It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law’.

From his works we could know his thinking was deeply influenced by Darwin. In Darwin’s theory of evolution in natural selection, every form in a plant or animal has a purpose in that species survival in order to conservation of a functional advantage that enables a species to compete better in the wild. Therefore, all the faultily species would be eliminated gradually over time. Here Sullivan (1896) quotes that:

‘In nature, all shapes express the inner life, the native quality, of the animal, tree bird, fish, that they present to us; they are so characteristic, so recognizable, that we say, simply, it is ‘natural’ it should be so’.

So that, form follows function is pre-determinates, everyone can not arbitrarily to change it. If the dogma breaking, the world would be standstill, can not evolve into what we are seeing now. For instance with evolution, form does not follow function. Rabbits do not develop their ears to become longer in order to avoid the enemy in the wild. Moreover, the form of a building must be a consequence of its purpose. If no form follows function, the roof of the house would not be gable type in order to avoid accumulation of water when it was raining. This statement showed Darwin’s theory leading us with evolution; it is also the case that form follows function.

Beauty controlled by cost

The evolution of time creates different kind of decorative style’s facade shop houses (see fig. 1), which were emerged from Neoclassical to Bauhaus in Malaysia. In the late 1910 the two dictum of “form follows function” and “ornament is a crime” were widely used by the Bauhaus’s designers. They disseminated rationality, functionality, simplified forms, and mass-production. In short, form is dominated by cost. Just as the facade of Malaysia’s shop houses are increasingly simplistic because of cost impact.

Fig.1: An evolution of shop house from 18th to 19th century. There is not difficult to find the shop houses styles would be make changed by the time, unnecessary decoration was avoid because of cost-effective.

The decoration of facade is based on the period of the time. The decoration styles which typified the facades of Malaysian shop house constructed up to 1920s. As the same time the construction of shop houses reached its apex during the rubber boom until World War 2 occurred. After that the global economy started to downturn until the war ends. Hence, the form of shop house started to evolve to simple lines at that time. It was by the reason of impact of cost. Furthermore, the previous shop houses are nothing much function at all except aesthetic, does not accord with design principle. So, unnecessary decorations were weeded out by time. Geometrical shapes and simplified lines were replaced the previous period style. In the 1960s and 1970s, shop houses again became the common building, its form was to continue along similar lines, simple and austere. Nothing is superfluous.

In the 1980s, there were insufficient spaces to provide to urban Malaysians because of the impact booming car parks. Most of the shop houses were replaced by high rise buildings in order to complete the surrounded road and parking area. The form has to follow the function therefore unnecessary decorations have been omitted. And this is what we are seen now.

Admittedly, a majority of forms were controlled by cost especially in Malaysia. According to the result of survey, about 50 per cent of the people will be premised on the price of design. Besides, result of the survey shows that there are about 77 per cent of people is unwilling to pay more money to their house design because they generally believe that good design can also have low-cost. That is proved that it is line with Bauhaus’s purpose.

View of culture

Architectural culture is very important to us. Just like the ancestors put different value on forms. And this value will heavily depend on cultural perspective and conventions. That means culture that reflects people’s life and their use of objects need to be comprised in the form. And the form of a building must show the culture or story of its life. If not, our culture will be bogged down or disappear. Generations do not know what ancestors left it to them and what the meaning behind. This can be demonstrated by the example of traditional house in Sabah. There is a very good example to express Malaysia’s culture.

The traditional houses of Sabah reflect not only the beauty of traditional architecture, but also incorporates various cultural aspects of the ethnic groups of Sabah that can be appreciated by all generations as well as visitors to the state. Moreover, the houses show the diverse ways in which people have adapted to their environment, lifestyle, ritual, and beliefs. Natives of Sabah only can adapt to the environment in order to survive in this place. They grab whatever their needs from surrounding area at the place that they are living. In the other words, their residences will follow their lifestyle to make a change accordingly. That is what has mentioned before, form follows function.

The houses were built by the various ethnic groups themselves to ensure quality and authenticity of each of these houses. They also reflect the skills of the local people in the past in utilizing existing building materials from their environment. The site of a house’s organization may be influenced by the sun and the river a fresh supply of water.

Longhouse represents indigenous people of Sabah ar unity and harmony. There are various types’ long houses in Sabah. The Rungus Longhouse (see fig. 2) is one of them. The houses are not located on very high stilts to support; they are usually only having around three to five feet above the ground. The roof is low, and in forepart on the house acts like a sunshade, keeping the house cool even during the hottest part of the day time. The existed doors of longhouses have 75. Now they rarely more than 10 doors, along the public corridor that has an elevated platform of split bamboo. The house is framed by outer slanting walls of wide-spaced shores. This provides fresh air circulation and a comfortable sitting area for work, relaxation and socializing. The materials of construct were taken from surrounding area where they could get to. For instance, their methods of construction are interlocking and lash with strips of rattan or woods because of hard to get a screw in their surrounding area.

Fig. 2: Rungus longhouses combined with the structure of climate, environment, materials, and technology. So, the forms of the house is follows their lifestyle and environment.

Indigenous people of Sabah are used to live as a group. Each increase in the longhouses are emphasizes its space organization reveals the close relationship between a family and the longhouse community. A longhouse is designed to private spaces for each family as well as open space for the whole community. The Rungus longhouses consist of several family apartments at the rear of t house and a communal veranda at the front. Each sulap contains an earthen fireplace (rapuan) and a sleeping area for a couple and their unmarried daughters; boys and guests sleep at veranda (saloh). Furthermore, dance platform (lansaran) is built in a central area on the saloh. It is used for festival and in which the whole community participates in singing and dancing. That means the space planning of the house is follows our lifestyle and habit.

In the other words, according the survey find out a large proportion of people care about ergonomics. Namely Form follows function is absolutely necessarily in design.

Fig. 3: The Rungus house open plan concept.

On the other words, there are reflected how Sabah’s indigenous people are versatile. The house was tie in a traditional life-style with the advancement of ‘modern’ ideas, and keep down ancient skills, in this period of rapid development. Longhouse might exist because they will make changes by the environment to develop. In other words, their houses were built along with their requirements.

Chapter 3

Why not function follows form?

The opposites view is that it is merely a functionalist approach. And we alleged dogma- form follows function might lack aesthetic appeal. The aspect of art always provides more than one option. Form follows function tended to kill the contribution of art in designs. Even they counted fundamental principle in design is disturbing!

If does not following the principle of ‘form follows function’ then a tall building should locate in everywhere and all has the same, there is no role except aesthetic. That means a high rise building in Beijing should look like other one in Taiwan, differently from the form only. Just as three famous modern architects of 20th century- Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright, whom are stand to the principle. They all had their own particularly styles to use in different building materials to interpret function. Mies used steel and glass, Corbu used concrete, and Frank emphasized wood or concrete block. If ignores issues of culture, climate, technology, building material, all these about the function, and just as important on the style and preferences of the architect. All famous buildings should in a jumbled situation or one day you might live in an aesthetically house which made by paper. That signification that functions is driving the form.

Of course, architecture has always looked for the way to transcend its own history. Contemporary architecture it’s not the exception but it has lost one of its basic principles for good as National Stadium, Beijing, which while innovative in concept, is famously poor for its “function.” In the other words, the innovative concept that designer express to cover up functionality of the stadium should have.

Beijing National Stadium as known as the Bird’s Nest, which was designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog HYPERLINK “”&HYPERLINK “” de Meuron . The stadium was designed for use throughout the 2008 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. The concept of the stadium is based on three notions which are technology, energy conservation, and cultural conversation. It all looks perfectly in line with the concept of nowadays building design but it lost its original aims when the designer has decided to priority of sculptural form giving over the stadium needs of function.

Bird’s Nest design emphasis novelty and technology, so they are used a lot of new technology and materials. Hence, they used Q460 steel to construct the stadium. It seems a great design but it is fail. From the figure 4, we find the sporting of glory on the stadium. It has an amazing night view. Surprisingly, the first figure and the second is a mightily contrast. During the day time, the audiences can not watch the match because there is shadow on all sites!

Fig. 4: The night view of Beijing National Stadium, China.

Fig. 5: The audiences can not focus on the show because the shadow of the stadium is being in a disordered condition during the day time.

Therefore, they installed double translucent membrane at the top of the structure to solve the problem. The membranes got 30 percent of light permission only. As the same time, it is showed the interior of stadium would be not enough light despite they are used solar power generation system. In the case of energy conservation, the designer did not much to think over the climate of Beijing. There are four seasons but the solar power generation system is not work at the season or time that without sunlight, they still need to use electricity to maintain the brightness of the stadium. It does not carry energy conservation and environment friendly points.

According to the China’s Xin Hua News Agency reported, the person in charge of the stadium indicated that the complex structure of the stadium caused maintenance cost up to 6,000 million dollars (RMB) per year. It is difficult to obtain a profit after Olympic ceremony. And this important project for the Olympics had been invested seven billion dollars, just because of alleged new technology. That is not in line with cost effective.

On the other hand, the designer had not considered in the design of the stadium clearly in the construction stage, suddenly proposed the “Bird’s Nest” roof problems. According to the assistant of Mayor said that the Bird’s Nest is a steel structure, it is extremely difficult to construct. The original design has a roof but the load of the roof close to the limit. It is very dangerous for safety issues. So, the expert advised to cancel the original roof. In the new design, the roof of the stadium was covering also but can not completely cover up whole stadium. That means it would be leaking.

In addition, the stadium’s design did not show the Chinese spirit. This is a good opportunity for Chinese, to let foreigners to understand their country culture. But they did not; it is a very regrettable thing. All these problems mentioned before, it is sufficient evidence to proves the designer do not consider functionality, he just keen on his novelty and newness he wanted to neglect the important of the functional. So, if function follows form might occur when functionality is ignored. This also prove that function always precede form.

Chapter 4

4.0 Forms in the future look like

People are beginning to realize importance of environmental protection, starting to follow the footstep of green. So, the global future will be green architectures trend. An ecological lifestyle involves conscious rising about the relationship between consumption today and the conditions for future generation. Ecological development requires a balance between mankind’s conception, the environment and the available recourses.

Urban ecologist and author of ‘”Surviving the Century – Facing Climate Chaos and other Global Challenges, Herbert Girardet quotes that:

“Green buildings are making giant strides now because of public debate and new technology. Everyone may want to live a modern lifestyle but we know we cannot continue wrecking the planet. We need to build houses that don’t need an outside energy supply.”

Hence, ecology thinking must be natural reflex for the architect of the future. And this was a response to the changing climate which demanded new buildings of increasing cut energy consumption and solid waste problems. The architect works on the basis of a new order where the building as a whole meets the requirements and challenges of an ecological future measures and ‘novelty’ materials in an aesthetic and social program. And that is what thesis had mentioned before- form follows function. In despite of future or the past, we all can not escape from the rule.

4.1 Form follows green

Green design, as know as ecological design, uses design to include economic, social and ecological sustainability. Besides green building is also environment conscious design solutions where a sustainable form and function. Basically, green building’s concept is based on functional also. Mostly people concentrated on construct and appearance of the green building, neglecting material is also an important part in a building. It reminds people about recycling to save the environment. Green design is sustainable design as it is sustained by materials that can be recycled.

The concept of sustainable building unifies multifarious of strategies during the process of building projects. The use of green building materials and products are very widely, which represents an important part in strategy at the design of a building. On the contrary, aesthetic has become the secondary. It is designed for reduce the solid waste problems, cut energy consumption in manufacturing, impact of the built environment on human health and save on natural resource use.

4.2 Historic building blends with recycle materials

Most of the historic or old buildings emphasize exuberant and extravagant decoration especially European architecture which emerged from Neoclassical. Decorative style design more tends to decoration and aesthetic, neglect a building need and caused wasted spaces. But old building does not mean it is unprofitable. By reason of older building can be refurbish and renovate so that they can continue to function as urban elements to achieve the goals of green building. Besides making good use of old building can make environment sense, using and enhancing what already have.

Green building is not just saving energy or else. It is also using product made from recycle material when renovating or constructing a new building. Just as Malaysia has a lot of heritage buildings also, but heritage buildings conservation is not entirely commercially viable! It requires on the contrary a skillfully management and maintenance fee. So, why not get them into green elements while retaining their historic character? Green renovations included reduce energy consumption and durability of older and heritage buildings. Respectful renovation in order to reduce the operating energy of a building, making building renovation one of the most direct climate actions to express environment protection. This chapter will look at strategies for renovation while remaining their culture and heritage character in order to archive forms and function to be one.

Renovation is a brilliant thing especially the architect for the renovation of an old building is taken into all the important views that are peculiarly for the renovation of an old building. Nevertheless there is something different. Just as historic city, George Town being listed as Cultural WorldHYPERLINK “” Heritage Sites as know as UNESCO. Of course, most of buildings in George Town have to renovation, just as High Court Pulau Pinang (see Fig.6 & 7). Although the governments are trying to remained all the forms as similitude as possible, it still have different. By the reason of all the renovate materials are new. They are lack of the use of recycle materials to retrofits. Most of the people like to use something new but they forget the old things even more value than new. These valuable materials are not easily copied by the new materials. Especially some of materials or decoration has no longer reproduction, and recycle material can be any help.

Fig. 6: High Court before renovation in George Town,

Fig. 7: High Court after renovation in George Town.

Besides that, the one more important thing that we have to admit is restoration an old building with recycle materials for all of us are still pretty new and it is not accepted by the most. People still full of worries about it. According to the survey, a significant number of people can accept renovation but they generally felt that the maintenance costs of old buildings will be very expensive. As a matter of fact, they are lack of knowledge and understanding of recycle and renovate. Although some of the green materials cost higher than old building, there are still many more green materials cost still less than the standard. These green materials have better designs for a new generation of environmentally friendly products that are cost saving to produce. Many more of innovations today are coming from green manufacturers. Furthermore, recycle building materials lies in diminishing the need for industry to make a new product. All of the energy that is spent in manufacturing and transporting something can be saved.

The main reason to use recycle building materials are some of the old building materials still preserved their character elements, these can be restore the cultural meanings. It can be preserve their identity while enhance functionality. On the other hand, materials usage is marry up with structure of the building. And it is have a great relationship with ergonomics. That means materials are one of the function as well! It is what the thesis mention before that forms and functions can be one.

Chapter 5

5.0 Conclusion

Whatever, we can’t escape from tradition. To achieve the best of both worlds are very difficult. The debate about form and function is a vexed question. Some debate that form follows function, others, like architect Frank Lloyd Wright believed that form and function are one. However, in contemporary society there is sufficient evidence that function follows form, for without an understanding of form. Even so, there are some cases when form and function are one in order to get a balance. That is what we are inclined to – green architectures.

According to the result of survey, a proportion of people care about environment friendly but a significant number of people’s houses are not ecological sustainable house. Even so they are paid the fee for the home design, they would not design home as sustainable house. Not because of excluded, just because they are generally thought that cost of the house design they can’t afford and worry about the maintenance of the house.

From other point of view, more than half the numbers of people are dissatisfied towards their house designs. That means Malaysia’s architectures do not meet people’s expectation in its design criterion. It just only designs! All the things consider that ecological design is accepted by Malaysian but they do not know much in it. By the reason of around 54% of the people prefer practicality rather than appearance. That imply form follows function is workable but it is a pity to say that sometimes forms were controlled by cost, natural selection, and culture.

Closer look at the notion of function and the dogma form follows function, expressed why this impression proved to be so important. By the reason of the functionalist notion of function serves as guide to design the form. It guides the designer to narrow down the options and provide a starting point. The form now has a purpose or duty, if you will, of projecting the function that lies within. Just as a project has a problem to be solved rather than just making it look pretty is the great challenge. Function needs form in order to get a balance, it work as hand in hand. So, if an object has to present a perfect function, its design must be support that function. And continue to repeat again and again ‘Form follows function.’ ‘Form follows function’.

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