Beauty vs. Function: Finding the Intrinsic Qualities of Your Building in a Realistic Way

There’s been an ongoing conversation in the architectural community about “form over function” or “function over form.” Which is more important? Should we prioritize how well a space works or its aesthetic value? Are they related?

Some architects in the “purist” camp will spend real time detailing how light will fall on a floor, and the results truly are beautiful. People like this are more inclined to focus on form. On the opposite end, some are purely concerned with function. These people might say, “I can crank this out on a piece of graph paper, and you can build it tomorrow.” Both camps, however, are misguided.

What both of these mindsets lose is not so much aesthetic value or the ability to use the blog-2-01building, but more of the intrinsic capabilities of the space. When you’re so heavily driven by function, you can easily lose sight of the actual functionality of your building. For example, I have often heard people insist in lining toilets up back to back in order to save on the cost of plumbing pipe. This is, of course, an ideal scenario, but if the building works out such that the restroom door would have to swing straight into the restroom when the door was opened, then following such a “rule” lacks common sense at that point. We have to think more about the forest and less about the trees.

Equally divergent is the scenario where we become obsessed with the aesthetics of the building. Some might say, “We want a big metal building with a stone wainscot–that’s all we care about.” Or there’s the architect who has “chained himself” to a certain type of window, convincing himself that the buildings needs will have to work around that window because it looks so good.

I would encourage you to think outside these types of boxes. When you first begin planning the building that will truly meet your needs, you have no idea what it should look like. You have to first address the vision of how the building will meet your needs. If you are making any decision based solely on looks or on pre-existing ideas you had about the aesthetics, take a closer look. Are you wanting to use white limestone? Great, but first ask yourself if the limestone speaks to the overall vision. Perhaps the vision requires the building to relate to its surroundings, establish as a special place among a sea of noise, serve as a gateway for help, or a host of other things more important than what material goes on the building. If limestone fits in the vision context, go for it. But, think about the vision first.

The truth is that form and function are equally important. In tandem, they support your purpose and your vision. Corridors, foyers, and hallways are a good example. A strictly “functional” mindset might say something like this: “We’re going to have as few hallways as we can manage. When we do have them, they should be small so we don’t waste square footage.”

blog-2-02Here’s the translation:

“We will use hallways for one thing only: getting people to leave.” Oops. That’s not what you meant right? An eight-foot-wide hall can be a place for a conversation and still allow space for a passerby. A four-foot-wide hall is just a four-foot-wide walkway. Would you rather use 300 square feet than waste 150? A generous hall in a smaller building can also accommodate a check-in table, a food spread, or a set of chairs for people to sit down and relax.

All of these details are functional, but they are being approached in an open-minded and informed manner. All of these details are also beautiful because they are considering how the building will affect the people in it (aesthetically, spiritually, or otherwise). Thoughtfulness, cleanliness, and kindness all influence the experiences people have when using your buildings. If you can begin to think in terms of every piece of the puzzle being both functional and beautiful, then you can begin to describe what intrinsic qualities you desire for your space.

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