Design and form

Design and form

Whatever an architect comes up with in terms of shape and concept, the appearance and the form are ultimately subservient to the function. Nevertheless, as a true artist, the architect searches for liberties in his design, thus enlarging our world of shapes.

The very best example from architectural history is perhaps the Cénotaphe à Newton, designed by Etienne-Louis Boullée in 1783 in honour of Isaac Newton, the originator of the theory of gravity. This design, a sphere supported by two cylinders, is a utopian idea that defies the laws of gravity. However it is not only the genius of Newton that is celebrated in this design; it is equally a stimulus to architects not to be satisfied simply with earthly and everyday things. Only the sublime is good enough. Gaudí developed his revolutionary ‘language of shapes’ from a completely different angle. His guiding principle was actually the ultimate earthliness. The laws of gravity are investigated by means of a system of chains. In order to investigate the lines of force of his constructions, he stretched wires within a framework. The result was the Sagrada Familia. The first stone was laid in 1882. Due to the innovative construction and use of materials, finishing the church has become an interesting adventure. 

Organic shapes in Gaudi's Casa Batllo

‘Form can be discovered as being the nature of something, and designs emulate the use of the laws of nature at a precise moment in time by bringing them to a state of being through the play of light.’ This rather solemnly formulated quote by the American architect Louis Kahn creates a link between design and form. For Kahn, the form is the seeing of the character or the actual features of a building, as it were. In the design process, gravity and other laws of nature are used at the right moment and in the right manner in order to ‘achieve the architectural creation.’ However, if we zoom in on his design for the parliament building in Bangladesh, for instance, and the Salk Institute in La Jolla in California, we note that these forms can be traced back to geometric shapes such as circles, triangles, squares, cones, etc. laid out with a particular relationship to each other. In itself, this is nothing new; the history of architecture is based on geometric shapes that underlie the designs themselves. However, the literal and metaphorical interplay of forces today is more complex. Design and form are determined to a great extent by the latest materials and technologies, including modern computer and construction techniques. The architect continually finds that more, different, and new forms are becoming available to him or her. At the technical implementation stage, the designer can no longer control and oversee the project as a whole without assistance. Therefore, while the processing power of computers and innovation in 3D design are being developed further, forms are jointly determined by the technical specialists and by the possibilities within the field of construction. 

Curved forms in Guggenheim Museum Bilbao


Those possibilities grew at a rapid pace from the 1970s onwards. Architects grabbed those opportunities with both hands. The festive use of the latest technical possibilities was the great strength of postmodernism. Instead of the austere ‘less is more’ philosophy of modernism, postmodernists preach ‘less is a bore’. The tiresomeness of the minimalistic forms is combated with a richness of forms. Forms can create the impression that a building is lighter or heavier, softer or harder, larger or smaller. These impressions are closely connected with the materials used. Walls made of natural stone appear heavier than those made of bricks, and aluminium frames appear lighter than wooden ones. Different materials made more op-tions possible, and the domination of white was interrupted by other colours. The form reigned triumphantly over the function of a building. Square white boxes made way for brightlycoloured buildings, poking fun at the historic construction styles. This is in stark contrast with Boullée and Kahn, who took the temple architecture of ancient Greece very seriously. The fact that these buildings did not make a direct connection with their environs was of lesser importance. 

Heliocal forms of Norman Foster's London City Hall


In contemporary architecture, it is once again more important to make new connections between the form and the context. Architects such as Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid and many others learned both from the freedom of form seen in postmodernism and from the design inspired by function as seen in modernism. They thus create ‘the best of forms out of both worlds’: a rich world of shapes, in which form is once again clearly related to the function and context of architecture, although with a large degree of freedom.


Form and the achievement of it is not merely a matter for the designer. One anecdote about a contemporary of Kahn, Le Corbusier, expresses this nicely. The anecdote relates to the ‘form idea’ that Le Corbusier had when designing the then much talked about pavilion for the Expo in Brussels in 1958. When asked how it would be technically possible to create his design – more of a sculptured space than an actual building - Le Corbusier answered: ‘Je ne sais pas! (I don’t know!) In other words, the technical implementation of my concept is the responsibility of the structural engineers; they have to figure that out for themselves’. 


In the charming book La vie des formes (The life of forms in art) by Henri Focillon dating from 1934, the author states that form is more than just the line, the surface, or the volume; it gains meaning when the form is connected with the totality of the floor plan, the materials used, and the construction. Focillon continues: ‘Downto- earth construction drawings even form the foundations for the technical implementation of the visually fantastic forms of an architect like the Spaniard Gaudí’. In Gaudí’s time, there were no computers, and the other materials available today were much more limited then. Nevertheless, he created a new world of form in line with Louis Kahn’s definition of an architect. With the current trends of new materials, a passion for innovation, and technical opportunities, the architect is continuing to evolve. With help from building technology and construction specialists, that results in fantastic new forms. After all, for a number of today’s leading architects and technicians the same motto applies: only the sublime is good enough.