Functionalism is a theory in architecture which states that the buildings should be designed based on the function of the building. In the early 1900s, functionalism emerged as a need to build better for the people in terms of the functions of a space. This theory strongly disregarded the idea to design decorative and ornamental elements as a form of artistic expression of the architect. Many architects of the time stated that every ornament should be only the essential components of a building. 

However, the history of functionalism dates back to the 1st century BCE. Roman architect Vitruvius derived the theory that buildings need to satisfy three aspects – utility, stability, and beauty. By the 1900s, the architects began to imply either of the aspects, and the theory of functionalism got refined over time.

In 1896, the phrase ‘form ever follows function’ was coined by architect Louis Sullivan, but was misinterpreted as – function being a utility. Rather, it meant an expression of organic essence by architects designing organic architecture. Later, modernist architects like Mies Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier took inspiration from the above and produced simple yet functional buildings. Ornamentations to them were simply the raw beauty of the structure enhanced by materials and consideration for human comforts.

Examples of Works emphasizing Functionalism:

Wainwright Building | Functionalism

The ‘form follows function’ statement by Louis Sullivan in his design, the Wainwright building, Missouri, refers to the idea that a tall building’s exterior design should reflect the functions in the interior spaces. In the late 19th Century when technology and economics were changing at a fast pace, and it was a need to develop a new style, Sullivan proposed the idea that the functions inside the buildings should shape the form of the exteriors, and not be derived from any historical styles. 

And so, in this office building, he emphasized the verticality of the structure by designing every space, every column, and every inch of it tall to further emphasize the concept. The organic patterns on the facade signify his deep respect for the organic forms in nature. He believed that those shapes express inner life and are the law of nature, and should be followed in architecture.

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Wainwright building ©
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Ornamental design on the façade ©

Barcelona Pavilion

An example that implies functionalism in regards to simple beauty and the use of raw materials, should be the Barcelona Pavilion. Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe designed the pavilion in a minimalistic style that is devoid of any ornamentation or decoration to deliver the importance of functional elements in a space and reveal the ‘true essence of architecture’. 

The free plan with the fewer walls and the openness of the spaces blurs the boundary between interior spaces and the exterior. He also retained the purity of materials used – marble, travertine, steel and chrome, glass to create a tranquil environment. He incorporated functionalism in the form of views as to what the human eye would see within this pavilion, to give a visual experience to the users in this pavilion.

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Barcelona pavilion ©
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Openness in the structure ©

Vers Une Architecture, Book

In the book Vers une architecture, Le Corbusier states the need for the architects to adapt to the mass production age and build and live in mass-production houses. As this industrial age dismisses the concept of decorating the buildings that were in trend, he says to rather design buildings based on their functions, and to create a new trend in aesthetics that is based only on forms. “A house is a machine for living in”– says Corbusier, which further supports his thoughts on the functions of a building. He states that having a shelter is the primordial need of every human, and that simple, effective, and functional structures, considering human comfort should be given importance.

Villa Savoye 

Le Corbusier designed the Villa Savoye that represented a machine-like structure to acknowledge the technological innovation of the time. Clean lines and minimalism were designed as a need to justify architecture, rather than just decorating and ornamenting them. Each part of the building was designed only for needs because Corbusier followed the idea of ‘form follows function’. He also implemented his strategies of ‘five points of architecture’ which demonstrates his saying – ‘A house is a machine for living’, i.e.,

  1. Pilotis – piers elevating the building from the ground to preserve the garden space beneath the building, 
  2. Flat roof terrace – or a functional roof to serve as a garden and terrace,

iii. Open plan – a functional plan, where walls are placed only where needed either functionally or to separate visual connections,

  1. Ribbon windows – for illumination and ventilation, and
  2. Free facade – designed minimalistic to serve only as an enclosure.
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Villa Savoye ©
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Openness in the structure © 

Unité d’Habitation | Functionalism

Unité d’Habitation was another important experiment by Le Corbusier demonstrating functionalism architecture. He applied the same strategies of ‘Five Points of Architecture’ to serve the functionalism theories, i.e.,

  1. Pilotis that provide a free circulation space beneath
  2. Functional roof terrace which houses communal areas like swimming pool, gymnasium, jogging track, kindergarten, and exhibition space. The roof also provided unobstructed views of the Mediterranean and Marseille city.

iii. Free facade achieved by designing a column-based structure that also allows for windows throughout the facades.

  1. Long strips of windows for ventilation and light.
  2. Open plan – offers large corridor spaces. 

Corbusier highly acknowledged the idea of designing urban facilities like shops, restaurants, bookshops, and educational and medical facilities into the building to satisfy the everyday functional needs of the residents.

Unité d’Habitation ©

Pranjali is a passionate artist and an architect who loves to blend her designs with nature. She designs meticulously and is always exploring the impact of architectural spaces on user's mind and body. You will find her lost in travelling, daydreams, books, and also on mountain trails.