Understanding Architectural Form

The bread and butter of the architecture profession centers around the form of the structures we create...
Understanding Architectural Form

The bread and butter of the architecture profession centers around the form of the structures we create as designers. It is through these elements that we shape the space around us to form new places of meaning and function.

In this article, we discuss the principles, elements, and functions of architectural form to help you understand the intricacies of this fundamental architectural cornerstone, with the intention to further develop your conceptual development process.

What is an architecture form?

Architecture is a three-dimensional medium, expressed in forms that envelop the space around us. Form is used to describe the elements of the building that define its overall shape, size, proportions, and profile. It refers to the appearance of a building as a three-dimensional volume, and it can apply to both exterior and interior spaces.

Buildings can be interpreted as a collection of shapes, masses, lines and other elements, all coming together in a particular space.

Importance of form in architecture

Architectural form is one of the most revered aspects of the profession. It is often what makes buildings memorable, iconic, and most importantly more meaningful for its occupiers.

As early as the year 27 BC, Vitruvius coined the Latin terms for the three main principles of architecture; Firmitas, Utilitas, and Venustas. These three aspects continue to be the essential properties of architectural design. Firmitas means strength or stability, utilitas means function and use, and venustas refers to form and beauty.

Form is a means for expression and the translation of concepts. It is also what ultimately fills and divides the space that we inhabit. Form in architecture can hold a great amount of symbolic and cultural significance, and it can transform areas for better or for worse.

How is form used to affect and influence architecture design?

The below list summarizes the various types and categories of architectural form, and how they can be used to influence design decisions to create both internal and external spaces.

Primary elements

The primary elements are the core shapes and forms that can be found when more complex shapes are simplified. These are the basic geometric elements that shape the world around us.

Primary shapes and solids

The simplest of forms are known as primary shapes. The primary shapes include circles, triangles, and squares. Every shape can be created by a combination of the primary shapes. When rotated or extended, the primary shapes can create three-dimensional volumes known as the primary solids.

These basic solids are distinct due to their simple form.

Circle

Circles are centralized and introduce stability to a composition. They are naturally self-centering, and help centralize a plane or space. When positioned alongside straight lines and angled intersections, circles can give the impression of rotation and movement.

Being round in nature, circles add curves and smooth edges to a form, and can be used to soften the rigidity of straight lines and pointed angles.

Triangle

The triangle is known as one of the most stable shapes in terms of structural form. When resting on one of its sides, the shape is stable, but when it is rotated onto one of its vertices, the triangle’s state of equilibrium becomes more dynamic.

When balanced on one of its angled points, a triangle has a physical tendency of falling to one side. Even if the triangle is fixed or anchored to a surface, it can give the appearance of falling over even when in place.

Square

A square is a quadrilateral with four equal sides. Squares often represent balance, purity, and mental fortitude. They are neutral by nature, with no distinct direction.

Similar to the triangle, the square is stable when resting on one of its four sides, but is made more dynamic when placed on one of its corners.

Regular and irregular forms

Regular vs irregular forms – When solids are described with defined and consistent geometric properties, these solids are called regular forms. Regular forms are generally symmetrical, with right angles and similar sides all around. They appear more stable, with consistent shapes and angles.

If similarly shaped sides are not congruent, or the axis of extrusion is not vertical or horizontal, the form can be described as irregular. Irregular forms are composed of varying parts that relate to one another inconsistently. These irregular attributes do not change the solid from its type of form, but they cause it to deviate from the variables embodied in a regular solid.

In architecture, space is designed in consideration of both solid mass and the spatial voids within them. Buildings can contain both regular and irregular forms, and each can be enclosed or intertwined with the other.

Sphere

A sphere is a type of solid created by rotating a circle 180 degrees, or by a semicircle rotating 360 degrees. A regular sphere has a surface that is equal distance from the center point all the way around, making it a perfectly round solid.

Spheres share many attributes with their base shape, the circle. They are self-centering and appear stable on a level surface.

Cylinder

Cylinders are generated by extruding a circle along a central axis, or by rotating a rectangle along a single direction. A cylinder has a round surface wrapping around its sides, with two circular faces at each end.

It is stable when resting on one of its flat, circular ends, but it can become less stable when positioned at an angle or along its round sides.

Cone

A cone is a solid created by the revolution of a right triangle with its vertical side in place. The vertical side becomes the center point connecting the circular base to the end point of its tapering surface.

When the circular face is used as the base, a cone is stable and balanced, but when tilted to the side it can become more dynamic and prone to motion.

Pyramid

A pyramid consists of a polygonal base whose vertices lead to edges that converge at a single point on the opposite end. Its tapering form creates triangular sides that enclose the space between the base polygon and the end vertex.

All sides of a pyramid are flat, making it generally stable regardless of which face it is positioned on. A pyramid only becomes unstable when made to stand on a vertex, edge, or corner.

Cube

Cubes are made from the extrusion of a square in a perpendicular direction from the square’s face. It is composed of six equal sides, each side a square. A cube has no particular direction, making it static in form and stable on any side.

With equal dimensions throughout, it lacks dynamic movement, and maintains a similar appearance from all angles. 

Transformation of form

From the primary elements, all other forms can be understood as a transformation of solids from their primary form to other shapes and volumes. This transformation can occur through the manipulation of its dimensions or by the addition or subtraction of elements.

Subtractive forms

Subtractive transformation involves removing one or more parts of a form’s volume to achieve a new form. This new form can transform the solid into another family, or it may remain a part of its original solid family depending on the extent of the transformation.

If, for example, a regular pyramid were cut horizontally near its base, it would still be a regular pyramid. However, if the pointed tip is subtracted from the pyramid’s form, it would become a truncated pyramid.

Subtractive forms are common in architecture. They can be used to create fenestrations, or recesses for things like entrances, windows, and courtyards. They can also be used to create dynamic volumes that introduce sunlight and wind to internal spaces, or to provide protection from the natural elements.

Additive forms

Additive forms refer to a transformation through the addition of elements. The extent of additive transformation depends on the number of added parts, as well as their placement and size. These additive forms can alter the original solid, or cause the form to change its profile completely.

Unlike subtractive forms, where parts are removed, additive forms introduce new pieces to the volume that may be smaller or larger than the original solid. There are many different ways in which these forms can be grouped. Here are some of the most well-known relationships of additive forms:

Spatial tension

In spatial tension, forms and parts are interrelated by close proximity, forming a larger group that represents the whole form. This type of relationship does not require direct attachment. As Aristotle once said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Spatial tension embraces the group in its entirety, with each additive piece playing an integral part.

Edge to edge

Edge-to-edge relationships are forms that share a common edge as their point of linear attachment. The volumes attached may be simple or complex, as long as one or more edges meet or are shared between them.

Face to face

A face-to-face relationship involves two or more forms that make contact with one another along planar surfaces. These surfaces come in contact parallel to one another, with or without alignment of their adjacent edges.

Interlocking

An interlocking relationship involves the clashing or converging of forms. Interlocking forms are volumes that overlap or penetrate one another, creating a mass of intersecting solids.

Centralized

A centralized form consists of multiple secondary forms arranged around a central parent form. The central form becomes the centerpiece, and is usually the emphasis of the composition. Spheres, cones, and other circular solids work well as the central form due to their natural self-centering properties.

Linear

Linear relationships are achieved by arranging volumes in rows or columns, creating linear sequences through the solid mass, void space, or the patterns that emerge. Sequential changes in dimension or size can also create linear relationships.

Radial

Radial form refers to a series of objects arranged around a centralized core element in a radial manner. The forms extend outwards in a revolving pattern to create a larger composition that typically converges at the center.

Cluster

A cluster is a group of forms that create a composition through proximity, size, shape, or function. Unlike other relationships that involve an organized structure, a cluster can be grouped and organized without geometric alignment or pattern.

Grid

A grid layout is a way of organizing forms into linear rows and columns. A grid can be three-dimensional, and is often based on a series of squares. This relationship allows forms to be arranged with consistent space and distance. Grids can also be used to analyze or break down a group or surface.

Collisions of geometry

It is common for two or more geometries to collide, resulting in a new composite form. These colliding shapes or solids can be of equal size and shape, or have different attributes altogether. There are many reasons for the collision of geometry, including:

  • To create an internal space within an existing form
  • For symbolic or conceptual significance
  • To satisfy the functional requirements of the form
  • As a means to direct space to desired locations of the site
  • To maintain or disrupt symmetry in the structure
  • As a response to site conditions and context

Mass and scale

Mass in architecture refers to the physical size or bulk of a building. It can be interpreted as a building’s actual size by measurement, or its relative size by context. Mass, combined with shape, defines form.

Scale is a relative perception of size. In architecture, it refers to the size of a building as compared to other contextual elements. These elements may be familiar architectural features, surrounding buildings and landmarks, or most commonly, the human figure.

Human scale is frequently used as a standard for scale and measurement, to ensure buildings are considerate of anthropomorphic and ergonomic functionality. The standards for human scale often vary based on region, culture, and the target users of the facility.

Architects can use scale to make a building appear larger or smaller than its actual size. A single design can also contain several different scales, to achieve a more complex visual and spatial composition.

Proportion

In an architectural composition, proportion refers to the physical and spatial relationships of one element to the other elements present, and to the building as a whole.

Over centuries of art and architecture, several different proportioning systems have been developed to help organize and unify the parts of a building. The most well-known systems are arithmetic, geometric, harmonic, material, or structural.

Arithmetic

Proportions that follow an arithmetic system use mathematics and numerical functions to determine the patterns and restraints of the design. Arithmetic systems are prevalent in Ancient Greek architecture, with clear functions, ratios, and numerical sequences used in many of their most iconic structures.

Geometric

A geometric system uses shapes and geometric values to determine the size and scale of architectural features. In Classical architecture, the dimensions of a building were often measured by the diameter of a classical column.

Likewise, many Renaissance facades made use of regular shapes and lines to create orderly designs based on squares, circles, and triangles. One of the most widespread uses of geometric proportion is The Golden Section.

Also expressed as the Golden Mean, it is both a geometric and arithmetic proportioning system that can be found in architecture, product design, and nature.

Harmonic

Harmonic proportions are inspired by the ancient discoveries of repeating harmonies in music. It involves using repeating ratios such as 1:2, 2:3, or 3:4 in buildings and spaces to create what many believe are harmonious designs.

This can be observed in Roman Renaissance architecture, or later on from the works of Palladio and Venetian musical theorists, who created a more complex system based on the major and minor third, with a ratio of 4:5 or 5:6.

Material

In consideration of construction and cost-effectiveness, many buildings are designed in appropriate proportions based on the materials being used. With the majority of building materials following industry standard unit sizes, their dimensions create another unit of measurement for the building.

Materials such as wood planks, concrete masonry units, or bricks are produced and sold in conventional sizes, and these sizes can form an additional level of proportion for the overall design.

Structural

With structural members playing a critical role in architectural design, they can have a significant impact on the proportions of the building. Structural proportions are largely dependent on the load bearing capacity and structural requirements of each member.

These members are applied as necessary, and can contribute to or disrupt the proportioning system.

Rhythm

A series of recurring architectural elements or shapes can be described as rhythm. This repetition may be regular or complex. Rhythm can commonly be observed with repeating windows, arches, columns, or moldings.

Articulation

The way in which building surfaces come together to define form is commonly known as articulation. This includes the treatment of corners, edges, solids and voids, all contributing to the articulation of the building’s form.

It can also include the texture appearance of a building, its visual weight, and its overall resemblance to something else.

Texture

Texture is an attribute mainly determined by the building materials, but it can also be used to describe the appearance and surface qualities of different architectural compositions. Materials like stone can be made to appear smooth or rough, and it can also be carved to add more depth and relief.

Similarly, a building with many angular protrusions on its facade may appear rough or jagged, while a round organic structure may seem smooth, but both can have openings or fenestration’s that add depth and character to their original form.

Light

Light refers to the way in which a form is being illuminated. Form can be perceived in multiple different ways depending on the light conditions present at the time of viewing. As such, light and shadow play an integral role in making forms visible to the human eye.

Edges and corners

Edges and corners are formed at the perimeter of planar surfaces. They can often be found at the extents of the building, as well as on many elements of the facade. More intricate geometry typically translates to more edges and corners on the building envelope, and these elements are often carefully articulated to achieve a desired look for the design.

Corners are present at the convergence of two planes. They may be distinct corners, with the planes physically connected, or they may be implied, with one or more faces set back from the other.

The change in direction for corners results in a contrast of light, and this can be used to the design’s advantage to explore the interplay of shade and shadows. They may also be fitted with different materials or architectural features to highlight the change of plane.

In cases wherein a defined corner is not desired, they can be rounded off to create a smooth transition between the adjoining planes. This can either soften the sharp edge, or create the appearance of a continuous surface, depending on the radius of the rounded curve.

How is all this used to articulate form?

It’s all very well listing all these various types of form, but what are its practical uses and how can its understanding make us better designers?

Example of architectural form

Scale – Metropolis Museum in Amsterdam designed by Renzo Piano Workshop

Also known as the NEMO Science and Technology Museum, this ship-like building sits surrounded by water, clad in pre-oxidized copper with dramatic curves and stunning facilities.

Its design utilizes scale and texture to give a distinct impression of an aged ship in the water. The building’s sheer size allows for scenic roof decks that complete its maritime-inspired experience.

Surface – Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain designed by Frank Gehry Architects

The iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao helped to establish Frank Gehry as one of the most prominent architects of the era. It also exemplified Gehry’s mastery of using surfaces as the building’s defining features.

The museum’s exterior is wrapped in sweeping metallic forms that gently curve and intertwine. No two angles appear the same, but the structure maintains unity and consistency on all sides.

Thanks to its reflective materials, light and color bounce around between each surface, casting subtle hues on the facade throughout the day.

Mass – Church San Paolo Apostolo by Studio Fuksas

The church of San Paolo Apostolo is located in Foligno, Italy. It is also known as the St. Paolo Parish Complex, and it was designed as a symbol of rebirth after the Umbria-Marche earthquakes of 1997.

Its primary form is tall and boxy, with abstract voids cutting through its massive concrete facade. These voids create deep windows that allow light to penetrate into the church’s spacious interiors.

The building’s imposing presence makes for a decisive landmark in the area, one of the key goals of the original competition brief.

Distortion – JustK by Amunt Architekten und Nagel Tehissen

JustK is a residential project located in Germany. This single family home is known for its unique form that resulted from adjusting to the site context, specific building regulations, interior requirements, and views of the nearby castle.

The exterior walls and roof share the same colors and materials, making the house appear as a distorted solid with dynamic angles and spaces.

Inclusion – Overkapping Commandantswoning by Oving Architekten

This powerful project involved encasing an old Nazi commander’s concentration camp home in a glass and steel ecnclosure. The glass vitrine serves as a World War II memorial for victims of the holocaust, and it works to preserve the building for educational events and history.

The external structure maintains a minimally invasive form to accentuate the contents inside, and to keep the house as the focal point of historical significance. This manner of additive form is known as inclusion.

Oving Architekten designed a large transparent prism around the house, effectively stopping the effects of weather on the site without obstructing views of its original state.

Link – Nelson Atkins Museum by Steven Holl Architects

This contemporary addition to the 1933 classical “Temple of Art” helps to create an interaction between the old and the new. The design provides a sequence of five “lenses” intended to bring visitors on a historical and cultural journey through the museum.

The threaded link between each lens allows the new building to be woven into the surrounding landscape in harmony around the original structure.

Open/Closed – Summer Pavilion by SANNA

SANNA’s Summer Pavilion features large canopies with thin roofing and numerous slim steel columns for support. The columns wrap around under its curving eaves to create a boundary without enclosure, the feeling of a wall without barrier.

This results in an environment that blurs the lines between the outside and the indoor, the open space from the sheltered and shaded.

Embed – Aloni by Deca Architecture

The Aloni house in Greece is a fine example of landscape integration in architecture. The building is tucked into a saddle where two slopes meet, with its linear form embedded into the natural topography of the site.

The surrounding landscape continues over the building’s roof, bridged by a plateau of grass and vegetation that further conceals the house’s mass. Its architecture is revealed by stone walls and four courtyards carved into the rolling hills.

The design pays homage to the site’s agricultural roots, and builds a strong relationship between the built and natural conditions of its setting.

To conclude…

Form is at the very core of architectural design, and it carries with it endless possibilities in space and mass.

Understanding the fundamentals of form can help you maximize your creativity with three-dimensional volumes, resulting in more complex and meaningful architectural designs.

Whether you’re a student, a young professional, or a seasoned architect in the field, there are always new ways to explore form in design.

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