Louis Henry Sullivan, coiner of everyone’s favorite design phrase, “form follows function” was the father of the skyscraper and patriarch of modernism in architecture. Though less well-known than other designers of the early 20th century, Sullivan built more than 200 buildings across the Midwest and set the stage for a generation of modernist architects who believed that the form of a building should be in direct relation to its purpose.
As long as I have been involved with the development of church facilities, the concept of “form follows function” has remained true more often than not. It just makes sense. In most cases, you can design the exterior of a facility look many different ways and yet have the same interior function. Think, for example, about speculative housing. I have been to model homes where they had a base floor plan that meets the functional needs of a family or occupant with a series of potential exterior elevations and “forms”. You can make the same building look different in so many ways with the same functionality.
If you initiate a design process with the form (exterior shape, size, creative elements) as the predominant driving force, you will likely end up with wasted space or unusable space. If you do not understand how the space is to function and you merely design the exterior, you may have created an award winning edifice that is totally dysfunctional. We have a client that has such a structure. The exterior is iconic and if you reference the icon (by its slang name) in the community, people know what church facility you are referring. But on the interior…LORD HAVE MERCY! The form dictated the interior elements to the detriment of the acoustics and sense of community in the worship space…which greatly diminished its function. In this instance, the form was more important to the designer than the function.
Let me be clear…I am not denigrating form or elevating function. As I wrote in “Why Church Buildings Matter”, I believe that the architecture and aesthetics of a facility can have a great impact…positive and negative. In an ideal setting, it should be a both/and vs. an either/or relationship. I tend to agree with Frank Lloyd Wright when he stated that “form and function should be one.”
So, while I am a proponent of the “form follows function” school of thinking, I would like to introduce the trump card.
It is my opinion that both form and function must follow finances. Of what benefit is stunning architecture if you cannot afford to build it or cannot afford to maintain it? At the same time, it is equally as absurd to develop plans that meet every functional need of your organization and not be able to pay for it or obtain financing. Finances are the ultimate trump card. It is the bottom line in nearly every facility initiative. In my 30+ years of serving churches to plan, develop, build and maintain facilities, I am yet to meet one that successfully completed a project where they did not have cash and/or loans. There is no such thing as a “free” church building. It requires money…usually a lot of money.
Given that, why in heavens name would you design a facility…ANY facility…before you fully understood your financial capabilities. I am not referring to eliminating God and his blessings from the equation. That is where the discussion of Fact and Faith comes in. Facts are what we know…what we can do…what is tangible. Faith is what we believe God can do to help us meet our goals in serving Him. To plan based on only facts takes God out of the equation and basically says “I got this.” The converse of that is to be so wild in our faith that there is no possible way it could happen (such as a church of 50 people having the faith they can build a 5,000 seat worship center).
If you are planning a facility initiative or building program, be very intentional about understanding your finances before you get too far out on the proverbial “form or function” limb. Remember…
FORM follows FUNCTION which follows FINANCES!