Ch 2d ~ Rural Housing Handbook: Form Follows Function & the problem with Irish Planning

Form Follows Function

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 recognisable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.

Ah, the great saying and maxim from Louis Sullivan but what exactly does it mean ? Essentially (and this is my personal definition); the resulting form of the building results from the uses of the spaces within it. The theory is brilliant but no one can argue that even the resulting form of a McMansion holds this rule – as the exterior form results from the myriad of different rooms that are held within it. We need therefore to expound on why the concept of ‘Form following function’ doesn’t apply in this instance. And to do that we need to back-track a little and understand that the form is a direct result of the plan synchronised with the section and the problem with the McMansion is that that the blocky form is simply a mathematical equation of how many rooms can fit into a fixed, rectangular shape; at no point are the true uses of the rooms critically analysed so that the rooms shapes and sizes are an accurate answer to how the rooms will be used – they are simply the biggest rectangular shapes that will fit without any consideration of the sites topology or aspect (see the next section for the importance of the site).

Therefore, if we continue this argument, when we formulate a plan based on all the aspects we’ve already discussed such as the client’s brief, the section, scale and proportion (and in the next section the sites’ constraints), the form that results is what the building effectively ends up looking like. The biggest problem that we as rural architects have is that planners may be looking for a ‘look’ that is appropriate for it’s locale; but unfortunately the ubiquitous detached and semi-detached houses that are spread across Ireland are the direct result of poor planning decisions, poorly trained designers and a society that is happy with the status quo. As discussed previously, it is the architects job to forge a balance between a form that is amenable to the eye, does not jar in its surroundings but is an antidote to the sub standard designs that have come beforehand.

To reiterate the problem, I think it’s unacceptable only to be drawing on features from the past; the result of going down this road is straightforward pastiche. Instead, maybe we should be looking at the fundamental concepts of what constitutes Irish housing; to my mind I would promote the key ideas of shelter and protection. It is incredible that in other countries (with just as much or more heritage as Ireland), there isn’t the same planning constraint of what can and cannot be built. Probably the greatest example of a culturally rich country that forges a unique and acceptable path in contemporary design is Japan. If we look at the example below, even though the result isn’t traditionally Japanese, the designers have captured the true essence of Japanese architecture with an architectural response that encapsulates simplicity, openness and the notion of Zen.

Futuristic Japanese Home

Can you imagine a Japanese planner complaining that “ah, sorry, it has features that aren’t traditionally Japanese, so we can’t allow it!”, no, neither can I.

Maybe its because Japan has this all encompassing architectural umbrella called Zen that allows a freedom of design that goes way beyond the simple dictates of local planning authorities. Maybe Ireland needs a Zen of its own in order to see the development of architectural styles that are contemporary yet relevant to a twenty-first century Ireland. I don’t want to extol a completely laissez-faire approach to planning and architecture; we need effective planning but the problem (as I see it) is that there are too many planners make architectural decisions when their primary role should be in the correct implementation of planning policies. Even when architects are involved in planning decisions (which incidentally is a rarity); you are reliant on a sole persons subjective experience and tastes. This is especially problematic in Ireland where the planning decision is usually made by a single person as opposed to having the opportunity of selling the scheme to a committee.

The next section is looking at the importance of the site…

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