The Centre for Conscious Design

Exploration of Wotton’s Function (2 of 5)

Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.”  – Charles Eames

“Architecture is really about well-being. I think that people want to feel good in a space… On the one hand it’s about shelter, but it’s also about pleasure.” – Zaha Hadid

Functions are not merely assigned to certain spaces; they are given conceptual and visual identity and shaped freely and imaginatively, with often striking results.” -Ada Louise Huxtable, The Unreal America Architecture and Illusion


Henry Wotton stated the three conditions of well-built Architecture, as first outlined by Vitruvius, in “The Elements of Architecture” as “Commoditie, Firmenes, and Delight.” [1] The book, published in 1624, was intended to serve as an educational tool for the common English public and was written in an accessible format for those who were not close followers of architecture. Wotton’s three conditions can be translated to mean something closer to structure, function, and beauty. This essay will focus on “Firmeness” (Function) to explore architectural function and attempt to offer a more holistic definition. 

What more can be said about the ‘function’ of an architectural structure than that which is its purpose, and its purpose is to be functional in a way consistent with its type (which can be broken into corresponding duck/shed categories), and by extension, its topology. Assuming an apartment or a warehouse building, the functions of the aforementioned are to house people and to store goods. The function within a topological space of a warehouse – to provide supplies to surrounding stores, perhaps. Thus, we take the definition of structural function as a structure that fulfills both its typological and topological requirements. At the same time, architectural structures must in some ways determine their functions through their existence in space. [2] Building an apartment complex will create a housing demand in that location, pulling in people to fill the apartments, and thus, generating a new topological space that grows to accommodate the surrounding apartments – grocery stores, schools, libraries, etc. So structures are both defined by their placement in spaces, but also contribute to creating those spaces which they are defined be. 

This notion of simultaneously creating and being defined by, is noted by Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York with his example of Coney Island. Coney Island, “a zone of virgin nature that can counteract the enervations of urban civilization,” saw the development of itself, by virtue of its proximity to a populous urban area, both as a developmental and an experimental ground for “pleasure” and “resort” (thus, defining its spatial area in response to the need for pleasure/resort) and as a new, ever-mutating metropolis in response to itself; in direct counter-response to the relaxing naturistic ideal it was meant to be (thus, creating the topology of itself). [3]  As Koolhaas puts it 

[t]he campaign to step up the production of pleasure generates its own instruments.(…) This invasion finally invalidates whatever remains of the original formula for Coney Island’s performance as a resort, the provision of Nature to the citizens of the Artificial. To survive as a resort – a place offering contrast – Coney Island is forced to mutate: it must turn itself into the total opposite of Nature, It has no choice but to counteract the artificiality of the new metropolis with its own SuperNatural. Instead of suspension of urban pressure, it offers intensification. [4]

Historically, structures and their adjacent spaces have been defined, created, and built within different socio-cultural contexts. While the general type-function of a church will remain indifferent across shiftings of power and time, the spatial practices, and therefore the spatial functions, will not. In examining a gothic cathedral and a brutalist building, the observer will be quick to point out the differences and not the similarities. 

The gothic cathedral structure is clearly a church – why/how do we know it functions as a place of worship? Clear structural markers repeated across many buildings in many countries like the vaulted roofs, flying buttresses, and stained glass tell us history has been made and simultaneously made its impressions on as, as these components are clearly ‘cathedral’. (And even in historically constructing the mental image of ‘cathedral’, we can work from the linguistic back end. ‘Cathedral’ as a sound image unconsciously invokes an image of a cathedral – which goes to show that this historicity of linguistic image building -stemming from the physical buildings- has indeed been successful). The spatial practice of a gothic cathedral is to dwarf and create spaces of awe and divinity, to clearly establish to the space participant that there is a larger power past the realm of sensory perception and overwhelm with an abundance of ornate details. It is both the structural and spatial experiences in tandem that form a more holistic definition of ‘function’ than the ability of a building to not fall over, and allow us to more clearly define the function of a building. This is not to say that one cannot exist without the other – there is no reason why a shed (that is, a building without ‘historical’ markers of churches) cannot function as a church, as long as the spatial quality of a church persists or is created within the shed, and the definition of that spatial quality is different for each type of church and religious practice. 

Perhaps a true test of architectural functionality is if I blindfolded you, stopped up your ears, nose, and didn’t let you touch anything (blocked all sensory perception) and led you into a building; if you were able to tell me the type of building you were in with no sensory input, I’d call the structure a functional success. This does not make the entire typology of ‘sheds’ functional failures; if anything, the ability to induce a functional aura without distinct visual cues as to the ‘function’ of the building, becomes that much more impressive. That is to say, building function resides more largely within the spatial perception qualities than in the visual and sensory cues, but the historical type markers contribute to an understanding of the spatial. 

This is not to say that Bernard Tschumi’s concept of cross-programming (combining programs) is lost. Most structures, especially in the cases of sheds, can be changed and manipulated to construct a spatial-sensory relationship. There is no reason why an apartment facility cannot be turned into a series of boutiques, a warehouse into a hotel, etc., as these instances of spatial shifts are responding to topological shifts and thus geographical, socio-cultural shifts. It is rather the quality of sustaining a functioning spatial practice for a period of time that is relevant when it comes to supporting the concept of cross-programming. 

So who largely defines whether the structure is functional? The user! The spatial ‘UX’ must trump the architect’s intentional ‘UI’- in public spaces. The empirical user experience is somehow more relevant – because if the majority opinion is that it is not seen or felt to be as ‘x’ type building but the architect insists it is so, how can ‘x’ building function as what everyone says it is not? These public spaces – all which are designed with different function intent by the architects have a variety of different ‘functions’; to create a public lounge area requires much open space and we find a firm and guiding intentionality when we observe a sitting area which guides the individual around with the benches placed on the perimeter of a courtyard. To create openness in public spatial design is intent and by some extension, the function of the space: to function openly. 

However, to say that the Function of space is singular (‘to function openly’ is a singular function) is to deny the multiplicity of spatial Function. Bill Hillier in Space Is the Machine, writes that in defining a building, we are often led to simplifying the nature of the building to ‘shelter’. [5] This notion is not inherently incorrect, but it is practically incorrect. Even from the most primitive societies, buildings were never just shelters, 

one of the most striking things that we find is that buildings are normally multifunctional: they provide shelter from the elements, they provide some kind of spatial scheme for ordering social relations and activities, they provide a framework for the arrangement of objects, they provide a diversity of internal and external opportunities for aesthetic and cultural expression, and so on. On the evidence we have, it is difficult to find historical or anthropological grounds for believing that buildings are not in their very nature multifunctional. [6]

Multifunctionality is inherent, then. If we treat structures like ‘material’ objects, like a coffee mug (which operates as both a beverage holder and perhaps a place for pens) as opposed to looming forms above our heads, then we see that a building (like any material object) is a “construction of physical elements or materials into a more or less stable form, (…) a building is both a physical and a spatial transformation of the situation that existed before the building was built.” [7] And both the physical and spatial transformations of space have “social value,” which the building articulates with its materiality and which provides a “spatial patterning of activities and relationships.” [8] This is probably the best exemplar of the Gestaltian Law of Simplicity: The whole is other than the sum of the parts. A pile of bricks does not have anywhere near the same spatial existence as a building. A lump of clay does not have the same spatial existence as a coffee mug. Hillier echoes this with his definition of configurationality, “complexes of interdependent relations with two critical properties: that the configuration is different when seen from different points of view within it; and that when a part of the configuration changes, whether element or relation, the whole can change.” [9]

And in ‘privatized’ design (ex. an apartment), multifunctionality is incredibly apparent. To ‘house’ might be the general Function, but such spaces also allow for Work, Play, Sleep, Eating, and no other multitude of activities. You do not only ‘house’ in your living space, you do other things (and for ease of explaining, assume ‘to house’ extends past the basic necessities of food/water/shelter and incorporates recreation, education, and communication). Any number of verbs will describe what happens in private living spaces. This is also to say that user experience in a private space, while still important, does not play as large of a role as in a public space. A designer has to convince fewer people of the function of the space, and in private spaces, the user has more freedom to manipulate the space – whether that means hanging a painting to create the function of aesthetic pleasure or rearranging furniture for a more optimal spatial functionality. In private spaces, the user becomes closer to the interior spatial design. Thus, ‘function’ and ‘functionality’ must be considered different things; function is designer intentwhile functionality is the user’s experience of how successfully the space performs its function, determined by the designer, who is influenced by a variety of factors, most largely, prevailing socio-cultural attitudes of the time. Therefore, Function is dictated by the buildings ‘thesis’, which is dependent on the historical time period and its cultural attitudes, technological advances, etc. which influences space designer and user perceptions. Function is thus both an operator, defining itself in physical structures, but also an operation that when reintroduced with variations, creates a historical pattern of typological trend and by extension, topological trend. The mark of a successful structural Function is one that straddles the UI/UX design gap to produce a holistic structure and one that both operates and operations within the bounds of a type or topology. 

A topological function of a private space bears external functions than, say, ‘to house’. Space is created and mediated by those who choose where the buildings will be placed. The obstruction and thus simultaneous construction of space is a function. So, while functionality is user-determined, function is designers intent, and Function is both the operator and operation of ‘functioning’ and holds root in type/topological spatial discourse, function is also defined within the conception of the building. This is to say it extends more beyond designer intent and places an emphasis on the building’s commission and sociocultural thesis.

Buildings extend past themselves in contemporary contexts and “always refer to something outside themselves. (…) architecture is the identity of a building that cannot be reduced to its structure. (…) Architecture is what is represented beyond structure and beyond function.” [10] If we look at the conceptual idea of housing, a

(…) revolutionary expression for defining a place to “stash” the working class, had first and foremost a cultural function, it “informed” the occupants of their status as cogwheels in a more complex system, defining life as a series of separate functions of which the state or the technicians or the planners alone had the sense of the whole. Housing presupposes the end of the “house” as the unity of life and production, and as a symbolic horizon in which to interpose the real networks of primary relationships, family members, friendships, of solidarity and neighborhood. In housing, these networks are dissipated, mainly one sleeps there and one reproduces there like forced labor—the dormitory quarter has arrived—delegating the centrality of life, whether from a Taylorist or a laborist viewpoint, to the workplace, which assumes the prime position, being the hub of the working organization or simply another version of the assembly line. [11]

If we take the above example and consolidate it into the categories of Function:

The functionality: ‘to house’, to create a living space. 

The function: 1. to create living spaces (designer) 2. to keep the lower class from view and maintain their position as lower class (commissioner). 

Function: a housing space that successfully removes the lower class from view and reinforces an inferior mentality (in this case, it fulfills both user function and design).

Another example we can utilize is the usage of spatial politics to enforce racial segregation in the American South. Thadious M. Davis writes in Southscapes,

The centuries of racial injustice in the American South correspond to concerted efforts to cordon off black bodies from whites, and with that separation, to maintain a hierarchy of race-based power (…) structured spheres of production that in turn organized social relations and created a language of spatial differentiation that depended upon race. (…) Blacks have to “know their place” and to “remain in their place.” The white hegemonic understanding of the place occupied by black people, no matter their economic or class status, was always already measured and calibrated in relation to a standard of white superiority. Accordingly, the place of blacks, though not necessarily static, was by necessity lower and less than, narrower, contained, and limited. The clearly marked “place” for blacks was both subtly and brutally enforced. From the signs that read “For Colored” to those that said “Whites Only,” signages created the iconography of separation and designation of the “subsurface” reduction of blacks into clearly marked areas corresponding to the psychology of race segregation and racism. [12]

If we once more break down the definition of Function,

The functionality: brutal and demeaning enforcement of segregated space by white hegemony.

The function: A “Separate but Equal” policy actualized through structure and space division.

Function is the functionality in this case. In this example, functionality/function are not the same, nor do they share a common interest as in the aforementioned example when point 1 of function is the same as functionality, so Function must be determined empirically through the user’s experience. 

To conclude, Function contains within itself the categories of functionality and function, which are determined by user experience and structural intent, respectively; these are both contingent on local and national socio-cultural practices, values, and attitudes. These invisible rhetorics create types and topologies, which formulate space whose use is defined by the space participant engaging with (and thus creating) the topological and typological experiences. It is a cyclical definition and practice. 


  1. Wotton, H. The Elements of Architecture, Collected by Henry Wotton Knight, from the Best Authors and Examples (pp. 29). London: Iohn Bill. (1624).
  2. Thacker, A. Moving through modernity: Space and geography in modernism. (pp. 31). Manchester: Manchester University Press. (2003).
    • Note: I accept/use de Certeau’s definition of space as “composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it. Space occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities.”
  3. Koolhaas, R. Delirious New York: a Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. (pp. 30, 32, 33). The Monacelli Press. (2005).
  4. Ibid, 33. 
  5. Hillier, B. Space Is the Machine: a Configurational Theory of Architecture.(pp. 13-14). Space Syntax. (2007).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, 15.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Hillier, B. Hanson, J. The Reasoning Art: or, The Need for an Analytical Theory of Architecture. Retrieved April 10, 2020, from (pp. 0.13). 
  10. Nejdet, E. J. Form and Meaning in Architectural Theory. Retrieved April 10, 2020, from (pp. 76, 78).
  11. La, C. F. (2012). Against architecture. Retrieved April 10, 2020, from (pp. 63-64).
  12. Davis, T. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature. (pp. 5, 7). University of North Carolina Press. (2011). Retrieved April 10, 2020, from