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Relationship between Form and Structure in Design Essay

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Updated: Apr 30th, 2019

“Form ever follows structure” is a famous phrase that became the leading concept and “an aesthetic credo” of a Modernist architecture movement. A famous American architecture Louis Sullivan coined this statement in his article “The tall office building artistically considered”.

At that time, when it was necessary to abandon the traditions and style of the past, this concept was a perfect decision of a problem. It gave to architects more freedom, as it permitted more functional approach to design. According to this approach, functional requirements and practical use of constructions should certainly be above the aesthetics.

However, this approach produces much debate and nowadays we can say that it is not a universal one. “Form” and “structure” are two distinct notions that are nor so closely related, moreover, they may suggest different approaches to design and function can follow form sometimes.

Louis Sullivan is one of the most influential American architects that put into words the main principle of modern architecture “form follows function”. He is known as a “father of the skyscraper” and the “prophet of modern architecture”. His main intention was to break up with old traditions and introduce new principles of architecture that would allow architects more freedom and serve to society. Michael. J. Lewis (2001, p.1) writes in his article:

“The goal, of course, was reform. A building should not derive meaning and character from the historical motifs that cluttered its skin, but from the direct, logical expression of its purpose and materials. This was the edicts of functionalism, that – as Louis Sullivan put it – “form follows function”.

Surely, it was the main principle of the modern art, especially, in times after the World War II when people were not interested in beautiful forms but simplified forms. Modern building had to serve the needs of society. The style was generally adopted for institutional and corporate buildings. “Form follows function” statement defined the main traditions of the style.

First of all, the result was determined by used materials and function of the building. Secondly, horizontal and vertical strict lines prevailed. Thirdly, the ornaments were rejected and “unnecessary details” were not used.

The best example of the early buildings that “were not copies of Old World design” (Boudreaux 1993, 1) was Auditorium built by Sullivan. It had all the features of the “modern building”. It was the tallest building in Chicago, it was very massive, without much ornaments and very practical.

Sullivan said that “gradual growth on native ground would lead to next generation of design”. (Boudreaux 1993, 2). In general, new perception of “form” and “function” reflected the needs of modern society of that time, it defined the main directions in architecture design for many years becoming a basic concept of it.

However, times change and today there should be (and there are) new approaches to design. These days, the phrase “form follows function” should not be taken at face value. Function is not the only determinative for the building construction. There are also other factors that should be taken into consideration.

They are the materials, climate and even a social structure that can dictate the form of a building. In order to explain the “independence” of “form” and “function” we should discuss them separately. The form of building much depends on the materials that are used. Let us take ancient or prehistoric buildings in different parts of the world, for example, a simple house with people used as shelters.

The function was the same: to preserve warm, hide from rain and wind. However, can we say that all the buildings are the same? “The functional interpretation of prehistoric architecture is especially difficult, because of its fragmentary state of preservation and because possible functions are not known a priori” (Trebsche, 2009, p. 505).

First of all, the techniques are different. Hardly prehistoric “architects” could use concrete, glass and other materials. One more option that is crucial is the climate. Compare the housings in China and South Africa, for example, with indigenous wigwam. Chinese people did not need to use the fells of animals to preserve their homes in warm.

Social structure and the level of development of it are also important factors. When archeologists find ancient buildings, they can say for sure if it belonged to reach or poor person and in which historical period it was built, as according to Trebsche (2009) “limiting factors restrain the feasible possibilities” (p. 506).

The form of the building is a great demonstration of these signs. By the way, the same situation is preserved in our time as well: the richer a person, the better housing it has.

Analyzing the “function” as an independent issue, it should be mentioned that function not always determines the form of a building. It is a common practice, especially nowadays, when a building which had to be a shop, for example, serves as a beauty salon. Thus, the function and form does not have any meaning in such case.

“The number of possible functions seems to be infinite” (Trebsche 2009, p. 510). There are different functions that building can fulfill: economic, social, cultural, symbolic, etc.

If we consider the example when one building is used for different purposes, we can say that there is a primary (denotative) and secondary (connotative) functions. (Trebsche 2009, p. 509-510). If one sees that the form of a building permits to use it for different purposes, it can define its function.

Relation between “form” and “structure” is important, but not obligatory and we can change a famous phrase of Sullivan as “function follows form”. “Form does not follow function alone, because Sullivan’s law can easily be falsified empirically. All the more urgently, the question arises, which other factors influence the form of buildings” (Trebsche 2009, p. 506).

Thus, we can assume that form is one of things that determine the form of the building. There are also economic, technological, social, cross-cultural and many other factors. Modernists considered that architecture “is charged with meaning and acts as symbols” (Trebsche 2009, p. 506).

Progress and functionalism were the core principles of modernism. These days the functionalism stands on the same level with aesthetics. The form and function of a building can influence each other or even go separately. Moreover, the needs of modern society have changed and a social power of architectural buildings does not mean so much anymore.

Trebsche (2009, p. 506).says that “there is no unidirectional relation between architecture and social structures, but that they mutually influence each other”.

Thus, a famous statement of Louis Sullivan that “form follows function” can be debated. Moreover, these days, it can even be changed to “function follows form”. In addition, modern approach to architecture and design proves that “form” and “function” are two independent notions that can influence on each other and even go separately. A number of factors determine the connection between these issues. These are the historical, social, economical and cultural factors.


Boudreaux, G. 1993, “Louis Sullivan: The Growth of an Idea”, Auditorium to the Bank. Web.

Lewis, M. J. 2001, “Louis Sullivan after functionalism” The New Criterion.

Trebsche, P. 2009, “Does form follow function? Towards a methodical interpretation of archaeological building features”, World Archaeology Vol. 41(3), pp. 505–519.

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