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The Dialectics of Form and Functionin Architectural Aesthetics

John Hendrix
p. 31-45


Attraverso la dialettica tra forma e funzione, e in particolare nella contraddizione tra le due, si sviluppa la dimensione artistica ed estetica dell’architettura, intesa come espressione di idee, riflessione sull’identità umana, etica della responsabilità e bellezza. L’architettura è capace di accrescere lo sviluppo intellettuale e di esprimere idee che trascendono le sue funzioni materiali, programmatiche e strutturali: in questo risiede la sua capacità di essere arte o poesia. Attraverso le sue forme, e nella dialettica tra forma e funzione, l’architettura è capace di esprimere importanti aspetti di identità individuale e culturale in quanto forma d’arte umanistica. E come forma di espressione artistica l’architettura può avere più valore nella vita degli uomini.

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1I would like to focus on the dialectics between the functional and form in contemporary architectural culture. It is precisely through the dialectics of form and function in architecture, and in particular in the contradiction between the two, that the artistic and aesthetic dimensions of architecture can be developed: its expression of ideas, reflection of human identity, its ethics of responsibility to engage human culture, and its beauty. In contemporary culture, the challenge for architecture is to develop beyond its limited, machine-formed self-referential vocabulary, and its role in servicing commerce and media.

2Architecture is capable of facilitating intellectual development, of expressing individual and cultural identity, and of expressing ideas which transcend its material, programmatic and structural functions; in short, architecture is capable of being art, or poetry, and being beautiful. How is it able to do this from the stranglehold that it finds itself in, imposed by contemporary global economic structures and means of production? The answer, of course, can be found in paradigms from architectural history, philosophy, and aesthetic theory. Despite the fact that modern technology has apparently rendered asunder any connection to the past in the built environment, architecture must still learn from the past, if it is going to survive as anything other than engineering. It is more challenging at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but architecture must still strive to be the poetic expression of the human spirit, the human mind, and human identity. It must continue to be the material and symbolic elaboration of human space and human life. An understanding of the real relation between form and function in architecture, from the beginning of architecture to the present, involving contradiction as well as conformance, is essential for the survival of architecture in the modern era.

  • 1 Aristotle 1964.

3For these purposes, form is the visual appearance of a building – line, outline, shape, composition – while function is the structural and functional requirements of a building – construction, shelter, program, organization, use, occupancy, materials. Form as appearance goes back to the classical eidos or idea, imago or species, separate from matter. In the De anima (424a17–26) of Aristotle, «sense is that which is receptive of the form of sensible objects without the matter»1. In nature, cause or agent are related to matter as «art to its material» (De an. 430a10–25). Function in architecture goes back to the utilitas and firmitas of the Vitruvian triad, the third element being venustas, or beauty. In the twentieth century, emphasis was placed on program.

  • 2 Schelling 1989 [1859]: §111.

4The philosophical basis of the dialectics of form and function in architecture can be found in The Philosophy of Art (1859) of Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), based on lectures delivered in Jena in 1802. In The Philosophy of Art, because architecture is always necessarily tied to the material, to its functional requirements, in order for architecture to be a form of artistic expression, to communicate an idea not connected to its material requirements, architecture must be an «imitation of itself as the art of need»2. Its visual appearance must contradict its functional requirements in order to free the form from the function.

5Schelling described the forms of architecture as inorganic, constructed according to geometry and mathematics. Only organic form can express spirit (Geist, the absolute), as the expression of the artistic idea. Art must contain the organic. Art is beautiful that is born of spirit, in the identity between mind and nature. Architecture can be beautiful, but only when it becomes independent of purpose or need. Architecture must become independent of itself, and an imitation of itself in its form, in order to free itself from its functional requirements and operate as artistic or poetic expression. Architecture is fine art only when it appears to be purposeful and symbolic, but in reality is not; only when its form contradicts its function.

6According to Schelling, architecture can only be an idea or an allegory of the organic, or the correlation of form and function. Architecture can never achieve an absolute identity between idea and matter, between form and function. The only way that architecture can achieve an identity of the particular form and the universal or absolute artistic expression, is when it imitates its own requirements of necessity, satisfying necessity and being independent of it at the same time. Only in this way can architecture express spirit, the identity of the particular and universal in the organic, allegorically, in the communication of a metaphysical idea.

  • 3 Ibidem: §107.

7The highest form that architecture can take as an art is in the expression of an abstract idea in reason as an image or representation of absolute identity of mind and nature. «Architecture can appear as free and beautiful art only insofar as it becomes the expression of ideas, an image of the universe and of the absolute»3. A true image of the absolute and an immediate expression of the artistic idea is only possible in organic form, which can only be achieved in the arts which are not connected to functional necessity. Architecture cannot free itself from the representation of form in matter; it cannot express the artistic idea in form alone. The organic form in the other arts – music, painting, poetry – is an immediate representation of reason, because the organic form is «reason perceived in the real», reason’s perception of itself in nature, which is the definition of beauty.

8The inorganic, geometrical form in architecture is not an immediate representation of reason, because reason cannot perceive itself in nature in the inorganic form; the inorganic form, in geometry and mathematics, is a product of reason, a product of mind. The relation between reason and architecture is thus an indirect one, and must be mediated by the organic and the artistic idea. Architecture can only represent the organic through the mediation of the concept or the idea in reason.

9In order to express an artistic idea or abstract concept, to achieve an identity of mind and nature in the realm of spirit, architecture must achieve identity with reason itself. An identity with reason cannot be achieved in materiality alone, in the realm of matter in nature, and in the concept of purpose associated with matter, the laws of cause and effect and necessity, or the structural and functional requirements of a building. The concept cannot be found within the matter; it must be external to it, and superimposed onto it, as form onto function. In organic form in nature and the other arts, the idea is not external to the material; the concept is infused into the material, creating a synthesis of mind and nature.

10According to Schelling, architecture can only be beautiful, that is, it can only achieve a synthesis of mind and nature, when it becomes independent of its purpose or function in its representational forms. In order to be beautiful, architecture must appear to be functional, but in fact must not be functional. The form must contradict the function. Architectural forms must appear to obey the laws of cause and effect in nature, but at the same time be independent of those laws in the mind. This can be seen throughout the history of architecture. The Parthenon is beautiful because the colonnade and entablature appear to support the structure, but in fact do not. Those elements of the building assume only the form of structure, and not purpose. The façade of Alberti’s Palazzo Rucellai, though it appears to be connected to the structure of the building, is not. The quotations of classical vocabulary elements on Romano’s Palazzo Te contradict their structural and functional requirements. The façade of Schinkel’s Schauspielhaus in Berlin appears to be connected to the structure and programmatic requirements of the building, but it is not. The forms of Mies’ buildings in Chicago appear to reveal their structural systems, but they in fact do not. The contradiction between form and function can be found in all great architecture throughout history; in fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the contradiction between form and function which makes a building architecture, or at least makes architecture art.

  • 4 Ibidem.
  • 5 Ibidem.

11Architecture is beautiful only when it becomes «independent of need», as opposed to the other arts, in which the organic form displays the identity of mind and nature within the realm of necessity. Architecture can never be completely independent of necessity and cause and effect, structural and functional requirements, thus in order to be beautiful it must be «simultaneously becoming independent of itself»4. Architecture achieves its communicative potential as art when it becomes a «free imitation of itself». As soon as architecture «attains through appearance both actuality and utility without intending these as utility and as actuality», that is, as soon as it imitates itself in its forms, it «becomes free and independent art»5. Architecture imitating itself is as matter in nature imitating itself in mind, or the laws of necessity and cause and effect imitating themselves in reason. In that way reason in imagination is able to perceive the presence of matter in nature, that which is external to it, within itself. The object associated with the concept of purpose, the form in architecture, is transformed into an object of art devoid of purpose, or independent of the concept of purpose with which it was previously associated. The concept of purpose itself becomes disassociated with purpose, and the presence of mind within nature is revealed, the perception of matter in nature based in the presupposition of the concept in reason. The concept of purpose itself becomes an artistic idea in the architectural form.

12In architecture, organic forms are displayed as preformed in the inorganic. Architectural forms themselves cannot be organic, because they contain geometry and mathematics. It is necessary for architecture to present the organic as the result of the inorganic in order for architecture to appear as reason in matter, as the synthesis of mind and nature. Architecture cannot represent reason alone in the organic because the forms of architecture cannot escape their necessity in matter, their structural and functional requirements, except as imitations of that necessity. The representation of reason in architecture requires both the organic and inorganic; it is the inorganic form of geometry and mathematics which architecture imitates as itself in its representation of the identity of the infinite and finite, mind and nature, within reason. The architectural form is a form which has no necessity of itself as geometry, but assumes necessity in the enactment of the geometry in function, then doubles and imitates the necessity as a form of expression, and separates itself from the necessity as art.

13In The Philosophy of Art, §111, «architecture, to be fine art, must be the potence or imitation of itself as the art of need». Architecture imitates itself allegorically. The inorganic form in itself cannot be symbolic, because it does not have a direct relation to reason; reason cannot see itself in the inorganic form, though the inorganic form is a product of logic in reason. Thus it is impossible for reason to see itself in a synthesis with matter in the inorganic form, and the inorganic form cannot be other than what it is to reason. The pyramid, or any other primal form of architectural expression, is symbolic not in its materiality as necessity in program or structure, but as imitation of its materiality as necessity, as enacted in the symbolic representation in language, in reason in understanding. The inorganic form of the pyramid must double itself, through the symbolic in language, in metaphor and allegory, in order to symbolize something. In other words, the inorganic form, in the geometry and mathematics, is not symbolic in itself, but only in how it is perceived by reason, as it is extraneous to the perception of reason of itself.

  • 6 Sullivan 1947: 208.
  • 7 Ibidem: 170.
  • 8 Ibidem: 208.

14The terra cotta ornament designed by Louis Henry Sullivan (1856-1924) for the buildings of Adler and Sullivan, for example the Wainwright Building in St. Louis (1890) or the Guaranty Building in Buffalo (1894), has no relation to the structure or function of the building, despite the supposed claim in The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered (1896) that «form ever follows function»6, a claim repeated in the Kindergarten Chats7. Sullivan said that form should follow function in the creative process of the architect, and that «the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things»8 in nature, but he did not say that the form of the building should follow the function of the building, its functional or structural requirements. The forms in the terra cotta panels follow functions in nature, not architecture, allowing the architecture to overcome its limitation to the material, to functional necessity, in the geometry of the inorganic, and to achieve an allegorical synthesis of the inorganic and organic, allowing the architecture to be art. But this is only possible in the contradiction between the organic forms of the panels and the inorganic forms of the structure. Sullivan in fact considered the daily functional needs of a building to be beneath him in his role as architect.

  • 9 Arnheim 1977: 256.
  • 10 Agudin 1995: 380.
  • 11 Quoted in Behne 1996 [1926]: 134.

15Sullivan’s statement that form follows function is misunderstood as the credo of Modernist functionalism. The credo is a false one: it satisfies the dictates of technological production and the corresponding pragmatism in a society dedicated to economic efficiency above all else, but it is rarely the case in the history of architecture, even twentieth-century architecture, that there is a complete correspondence between form and function. The correspondence is only made necessary in the twentieth century to conform to economic and technological efficiency; prior to the twentieth century there would be no need in architecture for form to follow function. And even in the twentieth century the correspondence is for the most part a necessary mythology. Even in icons of Modernist functionalism, like Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye or Mies’ Crown Hall, a contradiction between form and function can be found. This mythology has been noticed by a few people: in Rudolf Arnheim’s The Dynamics of Architectural Form, «Physical function does not sufficiently determine form…»9; in Leandro Madrazo Agudin’s The Concept of Type in Architecture, «functionalism alone cannot explain the forms of modern buildings»10. If a building only satisfies its functional requirements, it can’t be art, it can’t express a metaphysical idea. As Le Corbusier said, «Architecture has a different meaning and different tasks from showing constructions and fulfilling purposes»11.

  • 12 Sullivan 1947: 45.

16Inspired by Transcendental Idealism, the relation between form and function in architecture for Louis Sullivan is a dialectical relation, between the metaphysical and the material, the infinite and finite, life and death. In the Kindergarten Chats (1901–2), all forms «stand for relationships between the immaterial and the material, between the subjective and the objective – between the Infinite Spirit and the finite mind»12, independent of the function of the building. For Sullivan, the essence of a building is in its appearance, not its structural or functional requirements. The gridded façade of the Bayard Building (1899) in New York, for example, expresses the rhythms of life and death, eros and thanatos, growth and aspiration, as expressed in the Leaves of Grass of Walt Whitman. Sullivan was familiar with the Hegelian dialectic (Philosophy of Mind) through his friend John Edelmann, the dialectic of nature and mind, particular and universal, organic and geometrical.

  • 13 Ibidem: 188.
  • 14 Ibidem: 208.
  • 15 Ibidem: 170.

17For Sullivan, form follows function in the expression of life, in the process of birth and growth, and the dialectics of birth and death, organic and inorganic, physical and metaphysical. Form follows function in the emotional expression of life, which is how Sullivan defines a building (Ornament in Architecture, 1892), wherein «the same emotional impulse shall flow throughout harmoniously into its varied form of expression»13. In the process of birth and growth, «the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things»14 (The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered); the form of things, the shape, follows the function of things, the essence. Form follows function in architecture only metaphorically insofar as the function of architecture is to express a metaphysical idea or a transcendental essence, but the actual form must contradict the function of the building in order to express the artistic idea. Function is seen as an essence of the creative process of architecture, in that «the main function […] will focus in the specific needs of those who wish to build» (not the building itself), and «that such needs are quite apt to be emotional as well as what is so generally called practical»15. Function is assimilated in order to express a creative impulse in truthful terms, satisfying beautiful forms.

  • 16 Eidlitz 1977 [1881]: 72.
  • 17 Sullivan 1947: 46.

18In his thinking, Sullivan was influenced by the aesthetics of Leopold Eidlitz, the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, and the transcendental idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In the Nature and Function of Art (1881) of Eidlitz, architecture is poetry, as poetry is «the expression of an idea in matter»16. Architecture is highest among the arts because the essence, the very definition of architecture, is the expression of an idea. Architecture can only be art if it expresses an idea. The essence of the function of a building is expressed in its form, in its outward appearance, according to Eidlitz. In the Kindergarten Chats of Sullivan, good architecture is the image of the function of the building: a «building, to be good architecture, must, first of all, clearly correspond with its function, must be its image»17. In Schelling’s words, architecture must imitate itself in the art of need. In an article entitled Style in Inland Architect in May 1888, Sullivan proposed that architecture can only be art in the composition of the façade of a building and in the ornamentation of a building. The outward appearance of a building expresses its essence, the transcendental idea, in the same way that the essence of an organism in nature is expressed in its appearance. The essence of the building, its formulating principles expressed in its appearance, like the essence in nature, is defined by Sullivan as «style». The functional and structural requirements of a building play no role in the art of architecture for Sullivan, because they have no relationship with nature, but only with the technological progress and material development of society. The idea that the visual appearance of a natural organism best expresses the essence of nature can also be found in the essay Thoughts on Art (1841) of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

19The essence of the building, the expression of the transcendental or artistic idea, the relationship between the human mind and nature, is expressed in the terra cotta ornament on the Wainwright and Guaranty buildings. The ornamental designs involve an interweaving of organic forms and constructed geometries, to represent the dialectic between organic and inorganic, nature and mind. The dialectic is continued in the rational, geometrical organization of the building, based on the Renaissance palazzo such as the Palazzo Rucellai, contrasted with the emotional, floral ornamentation, based on Gothic ornamentation at Reims Cathedral. The dialectic of Renaissance and Gothic architecture allowed Sullivan to transcend historical types to create a new kind of architecture. The dialectic of American technology, the steel frame, and historicist references to European forms, allowed the Chicago School architects to create a new kind of uniquely American architecture. The architecture was connected metaphorically to a cultural identity, in the spirit of the American Renaissance, and the Transcendentalist writers, through a dialectic and contradiction between form and function.

20The essence of Sullivan’s buildings is also expressed through the gridded facades which mimic the structure, the horizontal and vertical panels, in the Wainwright and Guaranty buildings, and in a more developed manner in the buildings in the late 1890s, in particular the Bayard (Condict) Building in New York City. Sullivan considered the Bayard Building to be his best skyscraper design. The grid of the façade enacts a dialectic of horizontal and vertical which expresses the dialectic of the material, in the weight of the downward pressure of the horizontal elements, and the spiritual, in the freedom from the pressure of the vertical elements. The composition visually interweaves the horizontal and vertical elements, and emphasizes the points of pressure and release, so that the dialectic is continuously present. The dialectic is between the material and the transcendent idea, and between the function and form of the building.

  • 18 Ibidem: 121.
  • 19 Ibidem.

21The dialectic is also between what Sullivan called the «Rhythm of Life» and the «Rhythm of Death». In the Kindergarten Chats, «It [the pier] is serene because within itself are balanced the two great forces, the simplest, elemental rhythms of Nature», that is, «the rhythm of growth, of aspiration, of that which would rise into the air: which impulse we shall call the Rhythm of Life»18, and in the opposing force in the dialectic, «the counter-rhythm of decadence, of destruction, of that which would crush to the earth, of that which makes for a return to the elements of earth, the Rhythm of Death»19.

  • 20 Ibidem: 45-46.

22While the spirit or transcendental idea seeks its counterpart in form or the visual image, it involves itself a dialectic of life and death, along with form and function. In the Kindergarten Chats, spirit expresses itself both in «the very wedding-march and ceremonial that quickens into song the unison of form and function», and in «the dirge of their farewell»20. The dialectic between life and death can also be seen as the dialectic of eros and thanatos. Eros corresponds to the upward movements, the detachment from the constraints of the material, while thanatos corresponds to the horizontal confinement to the material. Sullivan interweaves the horizontal and vertical piers in such a way that neither has precedence over the other. Form and function are both unified and contradictory. The contradiction between form and function is predicated on the necessary relation between form and function in architecture. A lack of any relation between form and function in architecture precludes the possibility of the expression of the artistic idea.

  • 21 Scott 1980 [1914]: 213.
  • 22 Ibidem.

23Geoffrey Scott (1884-1929), in The Architecture of Humanism (1914), made a compelling case for the contradiction between form and function as a basis for a humanistic architecture. Scott defined the humanism of architecture as the «tendency to project the image of our functions into concrete forms»21. The art of architecture, according to Scott, is in its appeal to the human spirit, and in order to appeal to the human spirit, the forms of the architecture must detach themselves from the functional requirements of the architecture. The structural basis of a spire, for example, is the downward pressure, but the spire moves us because of the form of its upward soaring, which is contradictory to the necessity of its construction. «A spire, when well designed, appears – as common language testifies – to soar. We identify ourselves», therefore, «not with its actual downward pressure, but its apparent upward impulse»22.

  • 23 Ibidem.

24The same can be said of the repose of a Greek temple or the restlessness of a Baroque façade: we invest architecture with emotions and human characteristics which are contrary to its laws of construction. «We transcribe architecture into terms of ourselves»23. This is done unconsciously, according to Scott. We are not aware of the fact that we are responding to the architecture according to attributes that we are projecting onto it, rather than to its truthful physical and functional presence. The unconscious projection of the «image of our functions into concrete forms» is the basis of design in architecture, and the basis of a humanistic architecture. Examples of this can be found throughout the history of architecture: for example, the lineamenti of Alberti, the lines in the mind of the architect, projected onto the material of the building; or the dialectic of the organic and inorganic of Sullivan, projected onto the material of the building.

25The physical properties of architecture, its spaces, masses, and lines, are perceived as appearances, not as functional properties of the material of the building. The form as the appearance, the eidos, is separate from the matter, going back to Aristotle. The perception of the form as eidos, the intelligible form, or form as understood but not perceived, is an unconscious process. In conscious perception we perceive the matter as not separated from the form; the intelligible form and the sensible form are fused in conscious perception. What we perceive as the function of the building is actually the form of the building, while in many cases the actual function is in contradiction to the appearance of the function. Thus, for Scott, arches appear to spring, vistas appear to stretch, and domes appear to swell, while in actual functional reality they do the opposite.

  • 24 Ibidem: 120.
  • 25 Ibidem.

26Thus, according to Scott, «the art of architecture was bound to detach itself from mechanical science. The art of architecture studies not structure itself», but instead «the effect of structure on the human spirit»24. In order to do that, the art of architecture becomes the art of mimicking the facts of construction; it becomes, in the words of Schelling, the «imitation of itself as the art of need». The architect as described by Scott learns how to manipulate the facts of construction in a building by hiding, emphasizing, imitating, or discarding it, in order to create a «humanized dynamics» wherein the form appears as the function, and in order to do so, the form contradicts the function. The architecture «attains through appearance both actuality and utility without intending these as utility and as actuality», as described by Schelling, and becomes a «free imitation of itself»25, as a work of artistic expression and a humanistic architecture.

  • 26 Ibidem: 157.
  • 27 Ibidem: 102.
  • 28 Ibidem: 103.

27Scott’s model for this can be found primarily in Italian Renaissance architecture, but also everywhere in architectural history going back to the Parthenon. «The Parthenon deceives us in a hundred ways, with its curved pediment and stylobate, its inclined and thickened columns»26. The Doric column «provides a support immeasurably in excess of what is required»27. The Parthenon appears to be perfect precisely because it was designed to be imperfect; it is filled with imperfections which are adjusted by the optical mechanisms of the eye to appear to be perfect. The imperfections are the result of a highly sophisticated understanding of optics, and of the distinction between eidos and morphe in classical philosophy. The form has to contradict the function in order to correspond to the laws of human perception and intellection. Greek construction, as described by Scott, is thus «not pure construction, but construction for an aesthetic purpose», and the detailing of the building «untruthfully represents the structural facts of the case»28.

28The same can be said for Romanesque and Gothic buildings. The elaborate elevations and vaulting systems in Gothic cathedrals for example, which appear to be the structural system of the building, play almost no structural role. They are a free imitation of the structure which allows the buildings to be forms of artistic expression. The vaulting and detailing of the elevations form an elaborate catechism, or three-dimensional model, of a cosmological structure, for the purpose of representing the hypostases of being, and of facilitating the ascent of the mind of the worshipper towards God. The intellectual ascent involves the ascent from knowledge based on sense perception, nous hylikos, to knowledge based on the understanding of the intelligible form, the eidos, in a nous poietikos or productive intellect, wherein the form of the building is understood to contradict its function.

29In The Architecture of Humanism, there are examples given throughout history in which the appearance of structure in a building contradicts the fact of structure, the form of a building is unrelated to its social purpose, aesthetics are unrelated to construction, forms are produced irrespective of mechanical means or materials, forms are designed in excess of structural requirements, and the art of architecture is detached from mechanical science, all of which results in a humanistic architecture. An architecture that displays the contradiction between form and function is a humanistic architecture, an architecture that reveals the relationship between the human mind and the material world. Form is a product of the mind, while function is a product of matter.

  • 29 Ibidem: 16.
  • 30 Ibidem: 29.

30«In Italy nothing is commoner than to find an architectural display wholly disproportionate, and even unrelated, to the social purpose it ostensibly fulfils»29, as Scott describes. In Italian Renaissance architecture, «between the aesthetic purpose of the work, and the means by which, in actual construction, it could be realized, a sharp distinction was now admitted»30. The classical orders, for example, the column and entablature, arch and pilaster, used decoratively, had no structural function as they were intended to have in the Greek temple; even further, they did not express any such structural function, and in fact were sometimes in contradiction to the structural function. An example of the former can be found in Alberti’s Sant’Andrea in Mantua; an example of the latter can be found in Romano’s Palazzo Te.

  • 31 Ibidem: 32.

31The preferred forms of Italian Renaissance architecture were thus used «irrespective of their relation to the mechanical means by which they were produced», as well as «irrespective of the materials out of which they were constructed», and «irrespective sometimes even of the actual purposes they were to serve»31. The basis of a humanistic architecture is the contradiction between form and function.

  • 32 Eisenman 2004: 29.

32At the end of the twentieth century, the contradiction between form and function in architecture was best articulated by Peter Eisenman. In his early career, form in architecture was distinguished from the functional requirements of the building, as in the humanist architecture of the Italian Renaissance. The form is described as a «marking or notational system», in «Cardboard Architecture: House I and House II» in Eisenman Inside Out: Selected Writings, 1963-1988. Form and space in the architecture are «structured so that they would produce a set of formal relationships which is the result of the inherent logic in the forms themselves»32, as opposed to the programmatic or structural requirements of the building. Vocabulary elements such as columns or lintels, which represent a particular structural function, as with the classical orders in Renaissance architecture, are divested of their symbolic function as structural elements, and allowed to operate purely as signs in a given syntax, contributing to the production of a set of conceptual relationships which allows the architecture to communicate a metaphysical idea, to be a form of artistic expression. As in the Renaissance, the visual indication of the function is contradicted by the form.

  • 33 Eisenman 1987: 174.
  • 34 Ibidem.

33In Eisenman’s Barenholtz Pavilion in Princeton (House I, 1967-8), beams and columns do not support anything. Although they are structural vocabulary elements, they in fact have «nothing to do with the structure of the building»33, as Eisenman explained in House of Cards. In the Falk House, in Hardwick, Vermont (House II, 1969-70), there are two structural systems, of columns and walls, creating a «nonfunctional redundancy» in which «each system’s function was to signify its own lack of function»34, as the vocabulary elements are stripped of the role in symbolizing function, resulting in an architecture which is an «imitation of itself as the art of need» in the words of Schelling. In the IBA Housing in Berlin (1981-7), the grid on the façade does not correspond to the structure of the building. In the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University (1983-9), a column does not reach the floor, and inserted fragments of historical building types contradict the structural and functional requirements of the building. The conceptual and formal organization contradicts the physical organization of the building, to demonstrate the presence of the idea of the architecture, the lineamenti of Alberti, in relation to the material presence of the architecture.

  • 35 Eisenman 2004: 30.
  • 36 Ibidem.
  • 37 Ibidem.

34The forms are divested of their usual associations (the structural function of a column, for example), in order that they function as pure marking devices in a formal system. Traditional forms associated with structure are used in a non-structural way. «It is actually not possible to determine how the structure functions from looking at the columns and beams»35, Eisenman declared. In the case of the Barenholtz Pavilion, for example, all of the «apparent structural apparatus – the exposed beams, the freestanding columns – are in fact non-structural»36. As soon as this is comprehended, «a first step has been taken to unload, albeit in a very primitive way, their structural meaning», the metaphysical role of architecture in the symbolism of its vocabulary elements. As a result, «while the apparent physical fact is the same whether they are load-bearing or not, their meaning has changed because they are in fact not load-bearing», and «the intention implied in their use in a particular location must now be considered in a different way»37. The appearance of the function in the form contradicts the function.

  • 38 Ibidem.

35In the syntactical organization of the vocabulary elements in the Barenholtz Pavilion, stripped of their functional associations, «the space is conceived of as a layering or plaiding (cross layering) of planes. The rectilinear columns and beams are placed so that they will read as a residue of these planes», as a trace, or visual appearance, then «the round columns are used to mark the intersections of two planes», which may «be read as joined at this intersection, thus forming volumes if the columns were square». As a result, «the round column prevents the possible interpretation of columns as residual “corners” of volumes». The rectilinear columns and round columns function as syntactical signifiers in a conceptual rather than functional organization. There is no longer a direct relation between their form, acting as visual signification, and their structural function. The form and function coexist, in contradiction, as Eisenman explained that «the intention was to use the columns and beams to mark two systems without giving preference to either»38, the structural and conceptual.

36The interaction of a layering of planes with a diagonal shifting of volumes makes it difficult to read the organizational system in relation to the structural system, or the form in relation to the function, enacting a dialectic between the physical and metaphysical. The simultaneity of two or more formal compositional systems linked by marking devices, can be found in Renaissance architecture as well, for example in Alberti’s façade for Sant’Andrea in Mantua, which is composed of the layering of two separate architectural types, the temple front – with pediment, entablature, and colossal pilasters – and the triumphal arch, with a large central arch, a small entablature running along the base of the central arch, and minor arches on either side above and below the entablature, separated from the central arch by small fluted pilasters. The layering of the compositional systems creates a dialectic between the physical and the conceptual.

  • 39 Bandyopadhyay 2010: xix.

37The potential for architecture to be a form of artistic or poetic expression should not be forgotten in an era dominated by consumerism and hyper-technological production. Through its forms, and in the dialectic between form and function, architecture is capable of expressing important aspects of human identity, as a humanistic art form. History can still provide models for ideas that can be expressed through architecture in the dialectics of form and function. As a form of artistic expression, architecture can have more value in people’s lives and in individual and cultural identities. There is a necessity to «restore, or indeed, radically transform, the traditional dialogue between intellectual enquiry in the humanities and design creativity»39. A discourse on the dialectics of form and function in architectural aesthetics can contribute to this restoration.

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Agudin, L.M.
– 1995, The Concept of Type in Architecture: An Inquiry into the Nature of Architectural Form, Zurich, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

– 1964, On the Soul (De anima), tr. by W.S. Hett, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, The Loeb Classical Library

Arnheim, R.
– 1977, The Dynamics of Architectural Form, Berkeley, University of California Press

Bandyopadhyay, S., Lomholt, J., Temple, N. and Tobe, R.
– 2010, The Humanities in Architectural Design: A Contemporary and Historical Perspective, London - New York, Routledge

Behne, A.
– 1996 [1926], The Modern Functional Building, tr. by M. Robinson, Santa Monica, The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities

Eidlitz, L.
– 1977 [1881], Nature and Function of Art, More Especially of Architecture, New York, Da Capo Press

Eisenman, P.
– 2004, Eisenman Inside Out: Selected Writings, 1963-1988, New Haven - London, Yale University Press
– 1987, House of Cards, Oxford - New York, Oxford University Press

Hendrix, J.S.
– 2013, The Contradiction Between Form and Function in Architecture, London - New York, Routledge

Schelling, F.W.J. von
– 1989 [1859], The Philosophy of Art (Die Philosophie der Kunst), tr. by D.W. Stott, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press

Scott, G.
– 1980 [1914], The Architecture of Humanism, London, The Architectural Press

Sullivan, L.H.
– 1947, Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings, New York, Wittenborn&Schulz

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1 Aristotle 1964.

2 Schelling 1989 [1859]: §111.

3 Ibidem: §107.

4 Ibidem.

5 Ibidem.

6 Sullivan 1947: 208.

7 Ibidem: 170.

8 Ibidem: 208.

9 Arnheim 1977: 256.

10 Agudin 1995: 380.

11 Quoted in Behne 1996 [1926]: 134.

12 Sullivan 1947: 45.

13 Ibidem: 188.

14 Ibidem: 208.

15 Ibidem: 170.

16 Eidlitz 1977 [1881]: 72.

17 Sullivan 1947: 46.

18 Ibidem: 121.

19 Ibidem.

20 Ibidem: 45-46.

21 Scott 1980 [1914]: 213.

22 Ibidem.

23 Ibidem.

24 Ibidem: 120.

25 Ibidem.

26 Ibidem: 157.

27 Ibidem: 102.

28 Ibidem: 103.

29 Ibidem: 16.

30 Ibidem: 29.

31 Ibidem: 32.

32 Eisenman 2004: 29.

33 Eisenman 1987: 174.

34 Ibidem.

35 Eisenman 2004: 30.

36 Ibidem.

37 Ibidem.

38 Ibidem.

39 Bandyopadhyay 2010: xix.

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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

John Hendrix, «The Dialectics of Form and Functionin Architectural Aesthetics»Rivista di estetica, 58 | 2015, 31-45.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

John Hendrix, «The Dialectics of Form and Functionin Architectural Aesthetics»Rivista di estetica [Online], 58 | 2015, online dal 01 avril 2015, consultato il 23 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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