Form Ever Follows Function

I do pretty much all of my writing for the blog on Sundays. This particular Sunday is Mother’s day. Before I delve into the thème de la semaine I want to wish BaBa, Mom, Denise and all you Mothers out there the happiest and healthiest of days.

Back in my architecture school days in New Mexico, the maxim that “Form ever follows function” was relentlessly drilled into our malleable young brains. Depending on the professor, the quote was attributed to pretty much every modern architect depending on his or her personal preferences. What I always took from that statement was that the shape of a building was supposed to be driven by the activities that occur within it. A building’s ultimate purpose is to accommodate its use as perfectly as possible. If that use is perfectly accommodated the resulting form of the building will be perfect as well. Of course, the secondary reference is to the modernist architect’s disdain for decoration and embellishment for its own sake. Their thought is that clean, elegant detailing, the interplay of positive and negative space, and the quality of light is a higher and better aesthetic than stylized flower relief and decorative molding. I buy that assertion by the way.

It has lately occurred to me that that hoary old saying can be applied on many different levels. One of the inevitable gripes that surfaces in the discussion of the developments such as Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebee’s is that the materials, color and architectural style of the buildings are incongruous with downtown as a whole. This is true. But more important than those things is how the building functions within the downtown ecosystem. In this sense “form follows function” could be taken to mean that the physical appearance of the thing is less important than how the site contributes to downtown. Form truly follows function...in importance.

I have argued previously that the health of downtown as a whole depends on sites that respect the principles that make places urban: respect for the scarcity of land (density), and respect for the sense of place (context). Neither of those principles necessarily require beauty or aesthetic quality. The point is that the otherworldly hues and ambivalent architecture of BWW is less an issue than are the facts that it is a single-story, single-use building with no frame of reference to anything around it.

The sword cuts both ways. There are a number of buildings downtown that drip with nostalgia and embrace superfluous architectural decoration that support a mixture of uses at a density that contributes to the urbanity of the place. While some of these buildings make my inner aesthete throw up in his mouth a little, the fact remains that they embrace and support the things that make downtown great. In this case, the style is less important than the substance, the form subjugated to the function.

It appears that the City is now putting together a set of design guidelines for downtown. I’m sure I will devote a great many pixels to an analysis of that endeavor at a later date. For now, I can only hope that the involved parties recognize at an early stage what their ultimate purpose is. At their best, design guidelines do more than simply make buildings more aesthetically palatable- they protect, reinforce and grow the positive characteristics that define a place. At their worst, design guidelines can create superfluous layers of bureaucracy, discourage new development and add costly delays without addressing the true root of the problem. Lovers of downtown have to hope that the powers that be recognize that the true issue is not making pretty buildings, it’s making urban buildings. Beyond that it’s all window-dressing.

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