Practical Form in Architecture

Table of Content


Form is an important way of expressing one’s artistic thoughts and emotion in architectural design, and it has been valued, thought deeply, and talked about by lots of architects in history. Because of their work, there is a wide variety of architecture forms created these days, with more and more buildings designed by architects. These forms provide the public with enormous visual pleasure and spiritual fulfillment. However, even if the form seems good, the creation of form could be a failure when it fails to reconcile with reality. So I believe that form must be practical. Here practical means the creation of form is likely to be effective or successful in a real situation. In this research paper, I’m going to elaborate this idea in mainly three aspects: form and environment, form and function, and form and cultural context. To support my idea, I will make analysis of Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe in these three aspects.

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Practical Form

A practical form is one that adapts to the real world, and in turn, has good impacts on it. To achieve practicability, many factors need to be considered such as environment, function, and culture.

Form and environment

Architecture is set in a certain environment, which includes surrounding, topography, climate and etc. From these factors should the form of a project be reasoned. And the existence of this building form in its surrounding is supposed to influence the area in a good way. That’s how form becomes practical in the sense of environment.

A typical example of this is Farnsworth House. The house is built on the right bank of the Fox River, and it is surrounded by a small forest. To fit in the natural environment, it is designed to be extremely transparent. Because of its transparent form, the house is almost invisible, and this character shows the respect to nature.1 The house becomes part of the nature, for its fusion of interior and exterior. Also, since the river floods in spring, the building is raised from the ground to avoid being submerged by water. After the raise, the house seems like a boat floating on the water during the flood season, which fits the environment very well from the angle of form. However, there are parts which fail to deal with the demand of the environment. For example, the thin glass wall doesn’t suit the climate there. Besides, the platforms are not big enough to shield the house from the sun, which is not proper in this flat area, where there are sparse trees and no other building around the house.

Fig. 1. Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House, 1950-51, Plano, Illinois, USA; Partial elevation view, to show its transparency.

1. Werner Blaser, MiesvanderRohe,FarnsworthHouse:WeekendHouse, trans. Katja Steiner and Bruce

Almberg (Basel: Birkhauser-Publishers for Architecture, 1999), 11.

Fig. 2. Mies, Farnsworth House; The house in flood

On the other hand, with Farnsworth House, the artificial work in it, this area becomes more friendly to human. The simple, light form of this house resolved the weight of the forest, and makes people feel relaxed seeing it. This area is no longer lonely, because of this modern new form gives it a smell of life, in addition to simply the nature. Also, the form of platforms in different levels is a transition from horizontal to vertical. So the river, the ground, and the trees are somehow combined tighter by this form.

Fig. 3. Mies, Farnsworth House;

The house makes the forest more lively

Form and function

Another issue to attend to is function. Function is a basic and essential thing for architecture. It should be kept in mind when we create the form. Whatever the form of it is like, a building should always be functional. Only functional buildings could have practical form.

As Louis Sullivan says, “form ever follows function.” Though being extreme, this statement shows the importance of function, that form cannot work without function. Take Farnsworth House again for example. The house is supposed to be a weekend house. Although it successes in expressing Mies’ persue for simplicity and clearness, it doesn’t work well functionally. To make it extremely transparent, he designed all the wall surfaces to be glass. But at the same time, the glass surface is a threat to the resident’s privacy. And it makes the interior too warm in summer and cold in winter. Moreover, the room can be very wet when the river floods, although it looks quite poetic in the water. Dr. Farnsworth, the client of this project, suffered a lot living in it, and were not content about the design. Because the house cannot serve well for living, it is not a functional house. So the concise form is not very practical .

However, the form of Farnsworth House also gives us an inspiration of function. Although actually the house fails to function well, still, it is a piece of work which gives people new ideas of living with its form. This is the way in which the creation of architectural form influences the function and change the society. By saying this, I mean, a practical form doesn’t only follow the functional need. That’s because sometimes the creation of form need to go forward, go beyond the present need of function. For Farnsworth House, its clean open form inspires a new lifestyle. Living in the house would give the resident a feeling of being in the nature, not only in the way that one can always have a good view of the natural environment, but also that he or she can feel it and be part of it. This is a lifestyle, in which people can escape from the comfortable but crowded and noisy artificial world, and regain the sensitivity to the nature. Probably Mies consciously create this form, to indicate a possible new lifestyle. If so, functionally, this form still has its practical sense, even though it doesn’t work well.

Fig. 4. Mies, Farnsworth House; Indicating a new lifestyle: being part of nature

2. Louis H. Sullivan, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” Lippincott’s Magazine, March 1896,, 5.

Form and culture

Other than environment and function, cultural context should also be considered. Culturally, Architecture needs to be practical. That is to say, the creation of form should fit the cultural context, and be based on a primary sensation determined in people it targets on. In a lot of conditions, architects wants to impress people with the emotion and cultural value contained in a form. And to realize this aim, they should at least make the form understandable. So A practical form fits the will of ordinary people in its time and region, and is understandable by them culturally.

To make the form understandable, the cultural context of that certain time and region should be well considered. By the time Farnsworth House was built, the European-inspired modernism had already been quite popular in America. However, the American modernistic form is more liberal, which is different from Mies’ rigorous German style. I think the simplicity and clearness of Farnsworth House is too extreme for such a house in America. Without much partition inside, and seems without that between interior and exterior, but with only the platforms, this form is strictly limited to the persue of minimalism.

The form of this house needs more elements, instead of simply repeating the idea of minimalism that are innate in his mind. Another requirement of being understandable is that the creation of form should show respect to the aspiration of non-professionals. They are, in my opinion, part of culture context. A non-professional like Dr Farnsworth could have a hard time accepting the form of this house, even though she had lots of discussion on it with Mies. That’s because her ideas doesn’t count much in this process. Mies was not be open to her ideas, because he didn’t want to cater to people. So with this mind, the Farnsworth House is a nice art piece with good form in an elitism sense, but fails to show concern about ordinary people. In either way, the form of it is not so understandable in its cultural context, and therefore not so practical.

Fig. 5. Mies, Farnsworth House; Plan, to show its extreme simplicity

But this form does have its cultural influence. It shows a pursue for the ultimate in minimalism, and shows the rigorous and unyielding spirit of Mies. The spirit in it is moving, and this is a culture quality a practical form should possess.

3. Le Corbusier, “Purism,” ModernArtistsonArt:TenUnabridgedEssays (1964): 61.

4. Franz Schulze and Edward Windhorst, Miesvande Rohe:ACriticalBiography (Chicago and London: The

University of Chicago Press, 2012), 268-69.

5. Schulze and Windhorst, Miesvande Rohe, 364-67.

6. Schulze and Windhorst, Miesvande Rohe,256-57,364-67.


So in this modern time full of various architecture forms, only good ones can impress people. And a necessary quality of a good form is practicality. Practicality of form requires that the creation of form adapts to the real world and influences it positively.

In this paper, I analysed the form of Farnsworth House in a view of practicality, and from three aspects: its relationship with environment, with function and with cultural context. By the analysis, I made three claims about what a practical form should be like. First, a practical form suits the environment and makes the whole environment more coherent. Second, a practical form serves the need of function, and creates possible new ways architecture may function. Third, a practical form is understandable in its cultural context and furtherly, impress and inspire people culturally.

I believe that while designing a form, we should always be conscious of the importance of practicality, and try our best to make it practical in those three aspects. With this effort, we will be able to create more and more impressive forms from now on.


Blaser, Werner. Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House: Weekend House. Translated by Katja Steiner and Bruce

Almberg. Basel: Birkhauser-Publishers for Architecture, 1999.

Sullivan, Louis H.. “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” Lippincott’s Magazine, March 1896.

Corbusier, Le. “Purism.” ModernArtists onArt:Ten UnabridgedEssays (1964): 58-73.

Schulze, Franz and Windhorst, Edward. Mies van de Rohe: A Critical Biography. Chicago and London: The

University of Chicago Press, 2012.

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