Thursday, March 20, 2014

Does Form Follow Function? And When?

There's a commonly heard and easily digested axiom in the world of architecture, Form Follows Function.  It's nonsense.  Sometimes.  I'm going to explore when it's appropriate and why.  Certainly not the way it's currently understood.

First, we have to understand what is being talked about with the terms Form and Function.  Then we have to understand there are two different scales at work when we're talking about buildings and cities.  Cities are the higher order of complexity that many buildings come together to form.  Much like a tree is a complex organism that is part of a forest that is also its own organism at a higher order, with its own purposes and processes.

At the building scale, form is the shape of a building and the function is the use.  This is a dangerous phrase to base building design on.  Fundamentally, it makes some sense in the understanding that modernism was about creating maximum efficiency and utilization of space for the purposes of executing a specific use.  However, buildings last longer than uses.  And cities last longer than buildings.

So within this hierarchy, we have to ask what is better prioritization of efficiency?  If a building's design is tethered to a specific use and the use becomes defunct, the building then becomes defunct as well.  That is incredibly wasteful when the adaptive re-use of buildings is one of the greatest commonwealths we pass on between generation.  Adaptability.

In other words at the scale of the individual building or block (a minor sub-set of the complex city), function should actually follow form.  But what does form follow?

It's becoming increasingly clear to me as interest in the city rises, that architectural thinking focused strictly on form is getting applied to the city at large.  That form of not just the building, but the city is the single most important consideration.  However, that is also incorrect to put form over function of the city.  Form must be a subset of function.

In order to correctly prioritize the design and building of cities we have to know what the function of cities actually is.  Given that civilization and cities have grown hand-in-hand throughout the history of mankind, I would argue that function of cities is improved quality of life via social and economic exchange.  That is what a city is, a machine for efficient exchange and improved quality of life that we can pass on to future generations to advance as well.

This gets back to basic systemics, or understanding cities, within the science of complex systems thinking.  To understand complex systems, like an ecology, an individual organism, or entire populations, we have to know what the components of complex systems are, being: PURPOSE, CONNECTIONS, and ELEMENTS.  Purpose is the most important, connections second, elements third.  However, the common mistake is to take the most apparent, the visible, tangible elements of complex systems and focus on those.  We spend most of our efforts, resources, and attention to the least critical elements, literally.

When it comes to cities, this is also apparent, as we too often focus on things like land uses, building forms, specific object buildings, or indeed, the idea that landscape can drive form.  Landscapes and open spaces have many functionalities, such as food production, natural space, water filtration, habitat, rest, respite, and recreation, but they also shouldn't be the single driving 'form creator.'  It's a subset.  That's putting the cart before the horse of the real purpose of cities, again, which is social and economic exchange, value creation.

So what drives form?  Let's detail what those components of the complex city system is:

PURPOSE:  The Function of the city.  Social and Economic exchange towards improved quality of life and expanded opportunity for all.  This can also be understood as policy.  The invisible brain.

CONNECTIONS:  Transportation infrastructure.  These are the links, that in system provide the platform for efficient exchange and opportunity, while providing means of communication within systems, feedback loops.  The invisible arm.

ELEMENTS:  Land uses, open spaces, buildings, businesses, design, etc.  All of those things we as designers and regular old folk tend to focus too much on rather than getting what is more important towards efficient, sustainable, elegant, lovable, and livable cities.  Yes, the invisible hand of the market.  But it's controlled, by degree, of the components above.  Function, the land uses and buildings, follow the form of our infrastructure.

Purpose is not physical.  It's political.  However, it is from there that all physical embodiments are derived.  From that policy we design our movement infrastructure.  That is the key to defining form.  Our infrastructure design and the policy that determines it, is the single more important factor in city building and function.  The network.  This is why I've maintained that IT types inherently get urbanism better than most physical designers.  The first and most critical physical design element is the movement network.  All else within the realm of physical design springs from there.

So, yes.  Form does indeed follow function, at the city scale.  But at the subset scale of individual building blocks, function follows form.  The hierarchy of this way of understanding cities is as follows:

1.  Function of the city - it's purpose and policy

2.  Form of movement - infrastructure, which then shapes...

3.  Form of blocks and buildings within that framework, which then shapes...

3.  Function of land uses and buildings.  This is where the real estate market, building, and open space design resides.  So yes, putting form of landscape and buildings ahead of the needs of the city is to get this entire equation backwards, and thus, incorrect.  It's effective rhetorically, though, which is another way of saying it sounds good, but is ultimately rather pernicious at worst and ignorant at best.

Putting secondary and tertiary concerns above the functionality of the city begets superficial, pseudo-intellectual nonsense.  But, it looks pretty.  I guess.  As long as you're only looking at a picture and not trying to live your life within it.