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Should Form Follow Function?

First in a 10 part series on building better buildings. Function seems to be driving the bus when it comes to design as many houses of worship are missing architectural flair or even the ambient light of windows.

In today's world of “strip mall churches”, “theatre churches” and “black box churches” it appears that in the design world, church architects have embraced the idea that form follows function.

The spaces that are being designed today seem to do a great job at facilitating the Sunday morning worship experience, and the practical functions that take place on any given day at a church. It seems that a stark and clean look is in leading us towards some rather sterile environments.

Walls are painted neutral to match the neutral color of the carpet. The stage. as we now call the platform. is blacked out to facilitate set design, lighting and video. The audience space is usually flat floor with movable chairs, and dimly lit to make sure the stage is the center of all things. Missing is any architectural flare or ambient light as there are no windows. Function seems to be driving the bus when it comes to design.

Whether you like the current design approach or not, it is had to not notice how function and the support of technology has radically influenced church design in recent years. Louis Sullivan is credited with minting the term," form follows function." And guess what? I believe he is 100 percent correct.

Take a moment and digest this quote of Sullivan discussing design:

"Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling. 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 the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law."[4] Louis Sullivan

“Where function does not change, form does not change”

In today's modern church building we can see that function has changed! Of course function has changed, or has it?

I am not going to get into a discussion on what the function of a church should be as that would be an article for a different setting. What I want to hit on is the idea seems to be prevalent that the function of the church building supersedes the form and therefore beauty of the space. Yes, it is important that space allows for good traffic flow, that the building supports the worship style, that there are ample restrooms, etc…. But, does this mean that we need to have function-driven, boring-looking church building designs?

Sullivan in his definition of form follows function, credits Roman architect, engineer, and author, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who first asserted in his book De architectura that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – that is, it must be solid, useful, beautiful.

Today church design seems to really focus on useful, building codes in general require them to be solid. But, there seems to missing the element of beauty. Churches should embrace the idea that form follows function, and in the process make sure that beauty is included in the equation. A great example of this is the remodeled chapel at Western Seminary in Holland, MI. Jim VanderMolen and his team at Elevate Studios captured the function of this high tech space and did it with beauty! 

TAGS: Facilities
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