Functionalist Architecture: Definition & Characteristics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Functionalism is an important part of modernist architecture. In this lesson, we are going to explore the history and use of this style and check out a few great examples.

Functionalist Architecture

Painting has often been argued as having purpose. It may be to encourage meditative reflection on the human experience, to rally those of shared political mentality, or to produce an emotional reaction, but this purpose is defined purely by the art. Architecture is a bit different. Buildings have concrete function, and are defined by both their use and aesthetic. But which is more important, the function or the appearance? To the adherents of functionalist architecture, the answer is clear: buildings are defined first and foremost by their purpose, and that's exactly how they should appear.

History of Functionalism

The debate on the role of architecture dates back millennia, at least to the 1st century BCE Roman architect Vitruvius, who claimed that buildings needed to be useful, stable, and beautiful. Over time, architects tended to give preference to one of these traits over the others. By the 19th century, many architects were focusing mostly on style. The form, shape, and appearance of buildings were modeled foremost by the style they adhered to. However, by the end of the century there were some who opposed this idea. They believed that the function of a building should be of utmost importance, and that the form should be based around that.

This idea was encouraged by new industrial technologies in the United States and Europe that allowed for larger structures built of mass-produced materials like steel and plate glass. As buildings of this kind have never been created before, there was no historic precedent and architects had to debate what styles would best fit these new buildings. An American architect named Louis Sullivan famously proclaimed in the 1880s that ''form follows function'', claiming that his new designs (eventually called skyscrapers) did not need elaborate facades or strict styles. They were defined first by their function as office spaces, stores, or residences. The form and style were based around that function. This idea became popular in the United States and Europe. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier followed up Sullivan's mantra by defining a house as a ''machine for living'' in the 20th century. Functionalism was on the rise, formally coming into its own by the 1930s.


So, what exactly does a building defined foremost by function look like? Functionalism, in terms of aesthetics, is characterized by low levels of ornamentation and extraneous decoration, as well as a prominent display of raw materials. Following the idea that function comes first, the building materials used to make a structure are often left uncovered and undecorated. This means that flat concrete slabs, steel sheets, and even wood beams or floors are left exposed, meant to be viewed exactly as they are. By the mid-20th century, these elements also represented the mass-production of the modern era. Rather than relying on hand-crafted designs, functionalist structures could proudly display identical, industrially-produced elements created for their functional purpose, not their craftsmanship or design.

Functionalist structure

The ironic thing about functionalism is that over time it has become defined as much by this austere aesthetic as its preference towards function. Functionalism is now, in fact, largely defined by an expected form, which has led many architects and art historians to question the term. To some, functionalism is a true design aesthetic in modern architecture, to others it is a symbolic acknowledgement of industrial modernity, and for others it is a theoretic approach. So, functionalism is something still debated, and often we can talk about the functionalist elements of buildings rather than pure functionalism in every measure.

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