The Introduction of "Function"in Twentieth Century Architecture

This study focuses on two examples of functionalist architecture: the Price Tower by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Yale Center for British Art by Louis I. Khan. Functionalism in architecture begins with the famous saying of the U.S. architect Louis Sullivan (1896) that “form follows function”. This phrase can be truly used as a motto of functionalism, introduced in the nineteenth century for the first time and developing since then. It has been one of the major trends in architecture of the twentieth century. As a result, function became the major part of modernist architecture.

Function is an integral part of modern architecture. As early as the late nineteenth century, some architects, such as Louis Sullivan, started to emphasize its role in architecture and base design and structure of buildings with their primary purposes. Although this study does not focus on any of Sullivan’s creations, he has to be noted for two reasons. Firstly, Louis Sullivan is considered to be the “father of the skyscraper”, because he did not only develop skyscraper designs, but also provided theoretical justification of function in architecture in his famous article Tall Office Buildings Artistically Considered in 1896. Secondly, Frank Lloyd Wright, whose building is analyzed in this study, is considered to be a pupil of Louis Sullivan. Therefore, although function is primarily introduced in architecture of the twentieth century, its roots can be found in the late nineteenth century.

Modern architecture developed in the period from the early to the middle twentieth century. The two examples of functionalist architecture can be called late-modernist. The Price Tower was completed in 1956, while the Yale Center for British Art was finished even later, in 1977. Therefore, these buildings have incorporated the already well-developed idea of function in architecture.

In the article Tall Office Buildings Artistically Considered Louis Sullivan (1896) states an idea that can be used to describe all functionalist architectural designs, namely, “It is of the very essence of every problem that it contains and suggests its own solution”. Architects use this notion when they consider functions of buildings and adapt form accordingly. For example, the Yale Center for British Art incorporates a number of rooms for different purposes: library, study rooms, auditoriums, and others. Therefore, Khan designed various types of space to meet all needs. Moreover, the building was adapted even to the needs of New Haven, which required commercial buildings in the district. Taking into consideration this fact, Khan designed the first floor of the Yale Center for British Art (Scully, 1977, p. 97) as a retail space. Wright went even further in his design of the Price Tower. Although designed for one company, the building was aimed to be a multifunctional place with offices, apartments, and shops. Therefore, Wright created a truly functional structure that could satisfy the needs of its inhabitants. People did not even have to leave the Price Tower, as all necessities were in it (Curtis, 2008).

One of the prominent features of function in architecture is the abandonment of decoration and ornament. This idea comes from the basic notion that function corresponds to form, and everything that has not the former should be left aside as an unnecessary element. If one looks at the Price Tower, he or she will not see any additional elements that can be perceived as decoration. Each element has its function. The Yale Center for British Art seems to be even simpler, being a rectangular concrete building.

Ignoring the use of additional decoration, architects have applied other means to add individualism to their creations. Shapes play a prominent role in functionalist architecture. In the design of the Price Tower, Wright used triangle as the main shape, which created a truly unique exterior and interior of the building. At the same time, while using a different basic shape, the architect did not ignore the function of the structure. Curtis (2008) states that the Price Tower presents a unique mixture of unusual design and stunning comfort. Therefore, while implementing an unconventional idea, the architect still preserved the main idea of modernist architecture, namely the primary role of function.

The functionalist approach to the design has created the feature that has never emerged in architecture before, namely timelessness. Taking into consideration the fact that any design is based on functionality, it cannot become outdated or out-of-fashion as long as functions are preserved (Michl, 1995, p. 26). The Yale Center for British Art is a bright example of such timelessness, because it is a building of a simple rectangular shape made from gray concrete. It is hard to define which time period it may belong to, as the design is very simple and is solely based on the building’s functions.

In his works, the first theorist of functionalism in architecture Louis Sullivan (1896) states that function is the natural order of everything:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function.

It was not surprising that while implementing function into their works, architects tried to return to nature and used resources it provided in their designs. For example, later in this paper, the Khan’s use of natural light in the design of the Yale Center for British Art will be discussed. The architect managed to use all possible light that could come from the windows and skylights in the building that seemed to be solid concrete.

Frank Lloyd Wright is especially famous for his organic architecture, particularly the Fallingwater house design. Even the Price Tower that is situated in the city and not integrated into nature has its roots in the Wright’s love for organic designs. The architect called the Price Tower “the tree that escaped the crowded forest” (Curtis, 2008). It is not only its appearance that reminds a tree, but also the building’s design. The “trunk” is made of four elevator shafts with the central foundation making it’ “roots” and all floors cantilevered form the center as “branches” (Curtis, 2008). Therefore, even constructing a building in a city, Wright got his ideas from designs that had already existed in nature.

As far as  the Yale Center for British Art is concerned, its lightning should be given special attention, as it is a bright example of function implemented in architecture. Although from the outside, it may seem that the concrete structure of the building is randomly broken by windows, it is obvious from the inside that windows are carefully structured according to the functions of each room. While some places, such as auditoriums, do not require windows at all, others need significant natural light. Therefore, the form of the building was based on the requirements of each room. Special attention has to be paid to the courts designed by Khan for the display of large pieces of art (Scully, 1977, p. 101). These inner courts have skylights designed to let the natural light into large spaces. Moreover, with the large amount of natural light in the central parts, the peripheral ones are well-lit from both sides.

Aesthetics has a very special place in functionalist architecture. Although, according to the basic notions that form is secondary to function, modern architecture has created a new form of simplistic functional aesthetics. Most people like the simple rectangular shape of the Yale Center for British Art, some dislike it, and others remain indifferent. The building definitely presents some form of simplistic beauty. Despite varying attitudes to the appearance of the Yale Center for British Art or any other creation of functionalist architecture, it is essential to remember that aesthetics has never been the major goal of this type. Michl (1995) explains this stating that, “functional forms do not, by definition, emerge as a consequence of pleasing the aesthetic preferences of users” (p. 26). Therefore, despite varying points of view concerning modern functionalist buildings, one should remember that their appearance is only secondary.

In the process of analyzing function in architecture based on the examples of the Price Tower and the Yale Center for British Art, one should take a minute to compare the two buildings. With the twenty-year gap between them, it is easy to see differences in their design. These dissimilarities are more obvious, if one notices that Wright has used his earlier designs for the construction of the Price Tower. Thus, the time gap is even larger. The Khan’s creation shows even more simplified design and the growing role of function. The two buildings represent the development of the idea of function in design, as well as the artistic incorporation of functionalism.

The Price Tower by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Yale Center for British Art by Louis I. Khan are bright examples of functionalism in architecture. Both buildings are based on the idea of function as a primary element in their design, presenting simple exteriors and high usability levels. Although the idea of the leading role of function has developed earlier, it has flourished in the architecture of the mid-twentieth century. Form became secondary, and it created a number of prominent features in modern architecture, including the timelessness of design, the use of nature as a source of inspiration and as an integral element, the disregarding of decorations, and the secondary role of aesthetics. Developed back in the nineteenth century, functionalism has become an integral part of modern buildings and thus everyday life. 

Related essays

Invite your friends
to use our service and receive 10% from every order they place