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Functionalism in
Modern Architecture
“The house is a machine for living in”
Le Corbusier
“It is the pervading law of all things… that form ever follows function”
Louis Sullivan
“Who ever regrets that the house of the future can no longer be
constructed by craftsmen should bare in mind that the motorcar is no
longer built by the wheelwright”
Mies van der Rohe
“the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from
utilitarian objects”.
Adolf Loos
The context of functionalist architecture
From its earliest roots in the middle of the 19th
century, the modern movement was concerned with
a return to the honest expression of materials,
structure and purpose and a rejection of things that
were deemed useless and false. This concern is
evident in the structural clarity of Gustave Eiffel’s
famous iron tower, in the honest expression of
material and structure in the houses and furniture of
the Arts and Crafts movement and in the pioneering
creations of the Chicago School and the Deuscher
The first generation of modernists embraced the
idea of giving primarily concern to the satisfaction of
purpose in design, rather than to aesthetics.
Behrens’ AEG Turbine Factory and Wagner’s Imperial
Post Office are outstanding examples of this
approach to functional design, but it was the
generation of their successors, the Le Corbusier’s,
the Mies’ and the Gropius’, that developed not only a
functional approach to planning, but also a
functionalist style; a rational, machine aesthetic.
What is functionalist architecture?
Functional planning:
Functionalist architecture is essentially architecture that is designed primarily to satisfy
the purpose for which the building is intended.
The appearance of the building, its shape and decoration should be a secondary concern
to the requirement for the building to work well for its users, to be functional.
In 1896 Louis Sullivan expressed his belief that ‘form ever follows function’, meaning that
a building’s appearance (form) should be determined by the most practical relationship of
its necessary parts (functional considerations). In this way Le Corbusier believed a house
could become ‘a machine for living in’. In his 1923 publication Towards and New
Architecture Le Corbusier exhorted architects to adopt the same rational process as the
designers of aeroplanes, typewriters, bicycles and ocean liners.
Sullivan’s idea became a hallmark of 20th century design and there are many famous
examples of this functional approach to design, although inspiration also came from
similar precedents in medieval architecture.
The functionalist aesthetic:
With the availability of new materials and technologies a new style emerged in the 1920s
to complement the functional planning of buildings and to express a rational approach
to design and a machine-age conception of buildings. In this respect the International
Style became identified with functionalist architecture. Typically functionalist design had
a flat roof, skeletal frames of metal or concrete, lots of glass and modular components
devoid of colour and ornament.
Bauhaus functionalism
The architectural style most associated with functionalism
is that of the German Bauhaus School.
The term ‘Bauhaus’ is an expression meaning ‘house for
building’. In 1919, the German economy was collapsing
after the defeat in World War I. The architect Walter
Gropius was appointed to head a new institution that
would help rebuild the country and form a new social
order. Called the Bauhaus, the Institution called for a new
rational social housing for the workers. Bauhaus architects
rejected ‘bourgeois’ details such as cornices, eaves, and
decorative details.
They wanted to use principles of Classical architecture in
their most pure form: without ornamentation of any kind.
Bauhaus design became more popularly known as the
International Style, especially in the United States where
Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius had emigrated
during the mid 1930s. The name came from the book The
International Style by historian and critic Henry-Russell
Hitchcock and the architect Philip Johnson. The book was
published in 1932 in conjunction with an exhibition at the Le Corbusier’s functionalist design for
the United Nations Secretariat Building,
Museum of Modern Art in New York.
New York, 1952.
Louis Sullivan, Guaranty Building,
Buffalo, New York, 1896
Functionalist features:
The organisation of the building’s different functions
dictates its form- the first two levels are shops open
to the street with large windows for display. The main
shaft of the building consists of modular office spaces
with repetitive window and spandrel elements. The
top level houses mechanical devices expressed with
round windows and a decorative cornice.
The metal frame of the building allows for its height,
the large glazed expanses of the lower levels and the
flexible floor plan devoid of load-bearing walls.
With expensive land values there was a need to build
vertically and the steel frame and the elevator realised
this in practical terms. The piers between the windows
and the four large corner piers emphasise its verticality
as “a proud and soaring thing”, though only every
second pier of the shaft of the building is structural.
The geometric grid of vertical piers and recessed
spandrels gives visual expression to the pattern of
individual office spaces inside the building.
The street entrances are visually expressed with an arched motif to distinguish them
from the display windows
The ornament is ‘of’ the building, not ‘on’ it. It reflects the activities done within.
C. R. Mackintosh, The Glasgow School of Art,
Renfrew St, Glasgow, Scotland, 1898-1909
Functionalist features include:
The Renfrew Street façade has seven enormous windows
that let light into the studio spaces beyond. This provides
maximum illumination for the students.
Studio spaces along the attic have a continuous glazing
as a kind of precursor to the curtain wall.
Ornament is kept to a minimum. The School board asked
for “a plain building” and Mackintosh gave them exactly
that, an austere, monumental building that put
practicalities and cost-effectiveness before decoration
and aesthetic refinement.
The exterior form partly expresses the interior planning;
form follows function.
Ornamental effects are largely confined to functional
objects such as the window-cleaning brackets, handrails,
lighting fixtures, window recesses and iron fences.
The buildings’ materials and its construction are honestly
expressed. Glass, iron, concrete, stone and wood are
treated frankly in the Arts and Crafts manner.
The building utilised the latest technologies in electric
lighting, heating and an early form of air conditioning.
The exhibition gallery is located on the top floor so that
light from the skylight best illuminates the students work
on display
In 2009 this building was
voted the best design by any
British architect in 175 years.
Le Corbusier, Unite d’Habitation,
Marseilles, France, 1947-53
Functionalist features:
The separation and visual distinctiveness of public spaces (park land, roof facilities,
shopping street) from the private apartments
Colour is the only ornament. All else is brutalist (raw concrete)
The stacking and interlocking of individual apartments (like bottles in a rack)
The visual emphasis on tectonic structure and form (pilotis, repetitive brise-soleil)
The modular design and proportions
The 27 varieties of apartments
The ventilation, and grid of internal streets
The views out to trees, parkland, sea, mountains
Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Lever House
Park Avenue, New York City, 1952
Functionalist features:
Building elevated above street level gives ground
back to pedestrians with open civic space for
displaying sculpture to bring sunlight and
garden space into the city
Separation of communal (horizontal)
and office (vertical) spaces.
Communal facilities consist of kitchen, lounge,
cafeteria, medical centre and roof garden.
The blue-green glass and
stainless steel curtain wall
reflects sunlight and reduces
heat build-up in the building,
keeping ventilation costs down
The building is easy to clean and its
clean lines and pristine transparency
advertises Lever Brother’s business as the
world largest manufacturer of soap-detergent.
The pilotis support cantilevered floors that can
be partitioned into flexible, functional working spaces.
The top section contains the service machinery, including window washing machinery
Walter Gropius, The Bauhaus,
Dessau, Germany 1925-26
Functionalist features:
Each distinct function is given its own space and visual expression- workshops,
classrooms, residences, auditorium/cafeteria.
Architectural form is determined by the practical arrangement of functions
Flat roof for use by staff and students as living space
Pilotis allows for free and flexible planning of the floor slabs
Healthy because horizontal windows and curtain walls admit light and air with views out
to the surrounding fields
Fittings and fixtures are all conceived as rational, machine-like elements to be massproduced (lighting, radiators, chairs, railings, window frames, door handles, etc)
Clean lines, white walls, metal frames, flush surfaces, strict geometry, machine
precision. The building was rational and utilitarian, like a machine.
Mies van der Rohe, Seagram Building,
Functionalist features:
The building has a tripartite division like the base,
shaft and capital of a column following a formula
prescribed by Louis Sullivan. The separate functions
of street-level entrance reception; of high rise levels
of modular office spaces; and of the top-most
mechanical and service areas are given distinct
architectural expressions.
The building has a rational functional appearance
with its machine-like precision, its clean lines,
modular components, rigidly geometric forms and
metal skeleton.
Interior spaces were mechanically ventilated,
powered and illuminated. It was a controlled
environment, sealed from the outside by a bronzed
metal and glass skin.
Mies set the building back from the street and raised
it above a pedestrian plaza so as to admit space, light
and nature into the city.
The metal frame allows for each floor to be open-plan
and to be divided with partition walls independently
of the configuration of other levels. This flexibility
accommodates a wide variety of functions.
The conception of the building as an assemblage of
standardised, mass-produced components devoid of
handcraft and ornament makes the design suited to
industrial processes and the modern city.
New York, 1956-9
Louis Kahn, National Assembly Building,
Dhaka, Bangladesh, completed 1982
Functionalist features:
Deep porches surround the complex screened by
concrete walls with enormous geometric openings. In
the humid, tropical atmosphere of Bangladesh these
porches provide shade and cool air for the interior
spaces. They act as a kind of brise-soleil.
Forms denote functions. The importance of the national
assembly room is symbolised through:
■ its centralised position at the core of the building
■ it is the tallest space, reaching higher than the
surrounding functional spaces
■ it is lit entirely from above giving it a spiritual
feeling. Democracy is sanctified.
The octagonal plan is generated by the requirements of
the eight divisions of the Bangladeshi parliament.
The assembly room and its related servant
spaces are surrounded by eight peripheral
blocks that serve different government functions. Each block is eight levels high and all
are inter-linked by servant spaces: corridors,
lifts, stairs, ramps, and light courts.
Hand-made of concrete, marble and mud brick,
the building was relatively cheap to construct.
Rogers and Piano, Pompidou Centre,
Functionalist features:
The building uses only half the allotted space, giving a
plaza for street performers and pedestrians.
Large underground car park and concert halls
Above ground the building has six layers of continuous
space, each divided flexibly by partition walls according to
the different needs.
Structural systems such as the tie rods, cross bracing and
cross beams are visible, exposed, utilitarian.
Walls are entirely of glass to allow light into the spaces
Interior space is maximised; all services are coded and
fixed to the exterior of the building: blue for water; yellow for
electrical; green for ventilation and air conditioning; red or
circulation, elevators and escalators.
Inspired by oil rigs, NASA launch pads and science fiction.
Paris, France, 1977
Functionalist Furniture
“ A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is
famous.” Mies van der Rohe, Time Magazine, February, 1957
Modernist architects and designers believed that the shape of furniture should be determined
by its function and by the materials used. They stripped furniture down to its basic elements,
using a minimum of parts and eschewing ornamentation of any kind. Even colour is avoided.
Made of metal and other other high-tech materials, Modernist furniture is black, white, and
gray and is designed to compliment the functionalist design of the buildings they furnish.
Ironically many of the finest examples of functionalist furniture were finely handcrafted and
beyond the budget of the working class.