Archive for October, 2008


Theory on Theory

October 31, 2008

The term theory has been used for many things in many ways. Generally speaking, theory tries to either find the cause behind a particular effect, or to predict the effect of a particular cause. In architecture, theory holds a distinct, yet related, meaning. It tries to find and to deal with the proper cause for a desired effect.

Over the years this has been applied in architecture in different ways. It has looked at historical precedent, user needs, and a holistic method. When architectural theory was driven by historical precedent, it met and satisfied a cultural expectation and desire, yet more and more failed to meet the needs of those who used the buildings. Eventually architects rebelled against this stricture and abandoned all reference to the past. These “Functionalists” distilled each project down to the minimum of square footage and the minimum of dollars spent, at the expense of addressing how people actually functioned in a social and psychological way.

The third holistic approach draws information that a designer can use in his process from a multitude of places. The designer can pull from the past, from the needs of a building, from psychology, religion, politics, fine arts, etc. This provides a way for the designer to meet all functional needs of a building, both seen and felt.

This also allows a designer to find solutions to problems by looking at it from a different perspective. All problems have solutions simply because they are problems. When we are tied to a single vantage point, we can often overlook a solution that is staring us in the face.

This brings us to a point where Architecture and vernacular architecture split. When theory is applied with aesthetics in mind we have architecture rather than just buildings. Vitruvius, an ancient roman architect, wrote that for there to be architecture there must be three things; Firmitas, Utilitas, and Venustas. In other words, it has to stand up, it has to work, and it has to be beautiful. All buildings built agree that there must be durability. All agree that it must fill a function.

Where the path splits is on the question of Beauty.


The Function of Form

October 29, 2008

Before I continue with The Interior Dimension, I want to put down some of my thoughts on the question of form and function.

These two words are some of the most used and abused in the design community, and are loaded with connotations which vary widely based upon each individuals experience.

Louis Sullivan, an architect from chicago at the turn of the 20th century, coined the phrase.

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

(“The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”, Louis J. Sullivan, March, 1896)



Sullivan believed that any aesthetic consideration must be subservient to the function of the structure. This didn’t mean that Sullivan left all ornamental elements out of his designs, he just felt that they were secondary to the functionality of the building.

Some have taken form follows function to extreme levels and have eliminated all aesthetic considerations out of their designs. This can create some rather soul crushing buildings.


Others have said that form and function are the same thing; that a functional building draws it’s form and beauty from it’s ability to do a job and do it well. While this can often be true, I think that it still falls short of ideal.

I think that form and function are inseperable, and must be considered at the same time, but they are still two distinct elements to design. I think that form should support the function of a building, and should not be elevated to a status which hinders the use of the building. I think that function should have a beauty in the simplicity of it’s fufiling the needs of the users.

Let me phrase it this way:

“Form is the soul of function. Function is the thought behind form.”


The Interior Dimension

October 26, 2008

In searching for a direction to structure my blog, I decided to pick up a book that I used in one of my classes.  The Interior Dimension, by Joy Malnar and Frank Vodvarka, is a book on the theory of enclosed space.  I chose this book for a couple of reasons.  First, all we read in class was excerpts, and I have intended to finish “one of these days”.  Second, it was fairly difficult reading. It is packed full with information or “pithy” as my former music theory professor would say.  I will read a section or two and then respond.

The book starts by quoting an old french saying: Tel le logis, tel le maître, which translates “As is the house, so is the master”.  We all feel as if we have some level of control over the spaces in which we live.  We can change them around at will.  What we often overlook is how much control our spaces exert over us.  We are shaped, psychologically and emotionally, by the spaces we inhabit.  I didn’t understand this phenomon until I moved out of the house in which I grew up.  It felt almost as if I were leaving a family member behind.  

It is interesting to note how a building has two distinct natures.  From outside the physical structure of a building is an object in space, whereas inside the structure itself is seen as a background for other objects.  This distinction is important because each must be treated differently when designing.  A designer needs to marry the two halves into a unified whole.  A large building might be imposing on the outside, yet be filled with small, confining spaces.  This will create an uncomfortable shift in perception in the users of that building.

Finally, a question.  Do you agree with the statement, “As is the house, so is the master”?  Can you recall any experience of an interior space which felt off or out of place in any way?  Likewise, can you recall any interior which just felt right?


Time to Think

October 25, 2008

For close to three years I have been studying interior design.  Often, when telling people what I do, I am asked to help pick out paint colors.  This is a harmless question, one which I let annoy me far too often.  While it is a way that people tell me they are interested in what I do, It also shows how little most people know of the depth of the profession, and the many areas where interior design is used.  The common idea of interior design is merely the tip of a very large iceberg.

When I started, I to had little knowledge of what a complex and philosophical world I was joining.  Yet as time progressed, I came to recognize and love the way design can interact with the way people live their lives and affect what they believe.

I have come to realize that my mind is like the interior design profession.  Until now I have been content with picking out paint colors and arranging accessories.  I haven’t done much analysis or planing.  My mind is a poorly designed space.  I want to fix that, and this blog will be my drafting table.  When an idea needs refinement, I will write down my thoughts.  Just as one cannot design without a pen in hand, one cannot think without writing.  The process, as always, prevails.

Part of the design process is critique.  With the input of other serious, committed minds, a design project can go from good to great.  Similarly, when colleagues interact with ideas, greatness can happen.

I am no longer content being a mental decorator.  I want to design my mind.  I want to move walls.