Engineering blog
11 Apr 2017

The Element of Function in Architecture

Marcus Vitruvius, the pioneering Roman architect, belonging to Julius Caesar’s time (1st century BC), and the most revered codifier of architectural principles asserts in De architectura, that any structure must be founded upon the three qualities of ‘firmitas, utilitas, venustas’, meaning it must be durable, functional, and aesthetic.

Functionalism-Its Purpose & Importance

Functionalism has been the guiding principle of architecture since its founding days. The aphorism “form follows function” is considered a litmus test for any building.

This means that every building should be designed according to the purpose it’s going to serve. This statement is not very self-evident, and is a subject of great confusion.

Many times, it takes a controversial dimension among practicing architecture professionals, particularly in connection to modern architecture. However, one can’t deny the very practicality of the fact that people want more buildings that are livable and less that would serve as tombs, no matter how magnificent.

The Style of Functionalists

Functionalists make a deliberate attempt at eliminating superfluous features. Their entire focus harbors upon efficient development of operational spaces. They are of the idea that fulfilling functional aspects will inherently emanate a natural architectural beauty. The design revolved around exposing and clarifying building spaces, while discarding embellishments. Ornamentation is regarded a crime.

In French architect Le Corbusier’s words, “A building is a machine to live in.” He is one of the most prominent and pioneering modernist architects. This idea went on to be followed by his successors and a new architectural style called the International Style was evolved. This new style flourished and reached all corners of the globe through the 20th century. Making heavy and super efficient use of building materials like glass, steel, aluminum, brick infill and concrete, it was adopted in building corporate landmarks across all metropolitan cities in the world.

Top Global Functional Buildings

Most top corporations have their buildings, at least the headquarters, built in the International Style. IBM, General Motors, HSBC, Bank of America, Phillip Morris, CBS, AT&T, Citicorp, Seagram’s, etc have all fashioned their buildings in this current. New York City probably has the highest concentration of these buildings. The twin towers of the yesteryear’s World Trade Centre and the UN Headquarters are two very prominent prototypes of functionalism. In fact, every metropolis in the world has its landmark buildings made this way.

Corporate towers apart, the functional International Style have been incorporated in building massive number of housing apartments. Even churches have been built accordingly. The Chapel of St. Basil (Houston) and Crystal Cathedral (California) are good examples of it. So much so, even museums, art galleries, and convention centers have widely been built upon this design philosophy.

Functionalism Vocalists

Chicago based architect, Louis Sullivan, another pioneer and probably the most vocal of all functionalists, held the belief that the size of a building, it’s massing, spatial grammar and every other characteristic should be singularly decided by the function it is proposed to serve.

German architect, Ludwig Mies, needs special mention for his contribution to functionalism. He brought about radical simplification to styles of the previous eras. He advocated that God is in the details and put in everything to get the best out of a simple design. He believed that true architecture is always objective and built designs upon the acronym “less is more.”

Functionalism Hijacked

Despite the numerous advantages and worldwide popularity, it also needs to be seen that numerous towers of the International Style, built under the strict codes of functionalism, that were fashionable in their times, have waned in popularity and prestige, over the years.

Excepting the top-of-the-line buildings in this style most are plagued by the economic malpractices of builders and developers. They usually reduce and compromise the designs laid down by the architects in order to save costs.

Technically, the architects have already pared down the design to a bare minimum, with no ornament or redundancy. Developers further pare them down out of cost-necessity or usual habit. This results in buildings that are neither very pleasant nor quite safe.

Insensitive Criticism

Another often criticized lacuna of the International Style is its insensitivity to the surroundings. It usually pervaded into the spaces of buildings around and added a jarring note into the skyline or the street, causing negative feelings to people in the vicinity. In most non-American cities that these buildings sprang up overnight, people experienced a sort of cultural and style disharmony. This is a primary reason why ‘human factors’ are given greater recognition in building design.

Functionalism Resurrects

The functionalist is usually engaged in systematic organization, and works to build a building system that is more efficient and effective. Therefore, functionalists interpret the ‘human factors’ as the ergonomic efficiency of a system. This in itself is quite appreciable because the ‘ends’ is achieved, irrespective of the ‘means.’ Buildings based on functionalism are often accused of being emotionally neutral. But, there’s no doubt about the fact that lean designs would make the most magnificent structures, when based upon the three testing grounds of Vitruvius: ‘firmitas, utilitas, venustas.’

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CAD Evangelist. "The Element of Function in Architecture" CAD Evangelist, Apr. 11, 2017,

CAD Evangelist. (2017, April 11). The Element of Function in Architecture. Retrieved from

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