The Art of Architecture
Finding the balance between form and function
Fireweed Business Center in Anchorage.
Architects often find themselves facing something of a chicken and egg dilemma. When it comes to design, what takes precedence—form or function?
“It’s a great question, and it’s probably a loaded question,” says David McVeigh, president of RIM Architects. “You can ask ten different architects and get ten different answers.”
Many of the factors that influence those answers land outside the architect’s control. The client’s vision for the building, its location and intended use, the project budget, and whether the design must conform to specific guidelines are all details the architect must consider when determining how much emphasis to place on aesthetics and how much on function.
Finding the proper balance is a “kind of wonderful puzzle,” says Erik Dukes, an architect in Stantec’s Fairbanks office. When pieced together correctly, he says, it creates a building that benefits both the client and the community.
Form vs. Function?
Whether a building’s design leans more toward aesthetics or function is dependent on the client’s needs.
“A client will come and ask you for a certain project; it could be very utilitarian or they’re going for a certain look,” says Ross Timm, a senior architect in Stantec’s Anchorage office. “We’re always striving to produce an aesthetically pleasing building, but ultimately it’s the client’s needs that will dictate.”
And budget is a significant consideration when finding the right path toward meeting client needs.
“Budget usually drives a lot, and I think the biggest challenge for architects is being able to design within a budget,” McVeigh says. “A lot of owners have champagne taste, but they have a beer budget.”
The type of client is a primary influencer as to whether the balance tips toward aesthetics or function. Stantec predominantly works with government agencies, Alaska Native organizations, institutional groups, and school districts. These types of organizations, he says, generally require a more utilitarian aesthetic that adheres to specific design guidelines—village washeterias, aircraft hangars, or schools, for example.
But even when function drives design, aesthetics still plays a part, even if it’s a more subtle part of the overall design.
“Every opportunity is a design opportunity, and it doesn’t have to be a flashy, shiny building,” McVeigh says. “It can be very modest and humble, but a lot of design still goes into it.”
Mark Ivy, owner and principal architect with Ivy & Co. Architects in Anchorage, designs based on the adage “form follows function.” Every project begins with a discussion about the building’s intended use and how the client wants it to flow. The form takes shape alongside the functional design, adding more artistic details that maximize the function and incorporating the property’s unique features into the design. An upward pitched roof, for example, at a Soldotna dermatology clinic offers office workers stuck inside all day better views of the clinic’s forested lot, he says, while a curved beam at the inside entrance naturally pulls patients into the reception area while providing architectural interest.
“[The design] started with function and it ended up with a form,” Ivy says.
Contextual realism also allows architects to blend aesthetics into a building’s design, Timm says.
“We’ll take images that we’re seeing in an area in terms of nature or culture and bring them together in an abstract way,” he explains, such as choosing building materials or an exterior color palette inspired by the surroundings.
“We’re always striving to produce an aesthetically pleasing building, but ultimately it’s the client’s needs that will dictate [the design].”
People in the Lower 48 might view Alaska’s architectural style as rural, rustic, and replete with log cabins. And while some developers do want that stereotypical “Alaskana” feel, the reality of design in Alaska is quite different.
“If Alaska is known for one type of architecture, I don’t know it,” Ivy says.
Climate is, of course, a primary variable. Buildings in communities with heavier snowfall tend to have steeper pitched roofs and are designed to prevent snow dump from blocking entrances and walkways, Dukes explains. Western Alaskan buildings are designed to withstand heavy winds, something that’s not considered for a Fairbanks building, where winds are negligible, he adds.
The availability of skilled labor also factors into a building’s design, particularly when it comes to projects located in communities off the road system.
“You’re only as good as the craftspeople you have around you,” Ivy says. “When you have something that’s a little unique, it’s not for everybody in terms of builders.” In those cases, he explains, it’s sometimes necessary to rein in the design to accommodate that skillset.
That reining in extends to the type of materials used in the design.
“If you go in and you design something, maybe in a village somewhere, and you pull a material that nobody’s ever seen or understands, you’re taking a great risk that it’s not going to be built or fabricated or assembled the way you’ve intended it to be,” McVeigh says. “You have to be careful in understanding where you’re designing a project. A lot of us will say, ‘Yeah, we have to understand what the environmental conditions are,’ but that’s one that can be missed.”
Alaska’s “boom or bust” history also plays a part in its lack of a distinctive architectural style.
“Each town in Alaska has its own unique history,” McVeigh says. “You can kind of tell by the buildings what historical period [they] came from and that they were worth saving. In Anchorage we have a few, but it’s not littered with historic buildings. Because of that boom or bust cycle, there’s a lot of build and tear down.”
Yet Timm has seen buildings in Anchorage undergo a slow change over the past fifteen years, gaining a more cohesive style and utilizing materials that are better suited to Alaska’s climate.
“Anchorage used to have a lot of buildings that were very functional and not very aesthetic, or just a hodgepodge of different design ideas, or using things from the Lower 48 that didn’t work,” he says. “Now there’s more cohesiveness in a way—using modern materials better, getting a little more high-end looking design, even in some smaller, functional buildings.”
Part of the Lower Kuskokwim School District, Negtemiut Elitnaurviat (Nightmute K-12 School) incorporates modern design elements and materials to create a school that is both functional and aesthetically interesting.
“Each town in Alaska has its own unique history. You can kind of tell by the buildings what historical period [they] came from and that they were worth saving. In Anchorage we have a few, but it’s not littered with historic buildings. Because of that boom or bust cycle, there’s a lot of build and tear down.”
Ideas about sustainability, resilience, maximizing energy efficiency, and decreasing the carbon footprint in architectural design began circulating here five or six years ago, Dukes says. At their core, they address the idea of architectural permanence.
“The better you design a building in terms of performance and sustainability, the better it’s going to last in the community and the better it’s going to be for the environment,” he says.
Designing for sustainability has caught on in the Lower 48, with many architects drafting to obtain a favorable LEED (Leadership in Environmental Energy Design) rating. But it’s been somewhat slow to catch on in Alaska, especially for buildings involving private developers.
“There’s been a lot of push back in Alaska from owners not wanting to pay for that, but it’s starting to catch on more and more,” Timm says. “A lot of government agencies are now requiring buildings to meet at least some certification level.”
Part of the difficulty is that certifications are typically designed for non-Arctic climates, he explains, which means architects must pick and choose what sustainable elements to work into the design. In Alaska, those almost always focus on increasing the building’s thermal envelope and the efficiency of its heating and cooling system.
The state’s relatively late urban development, its size, varied climates and cultures, and the cost of construction—particularly in communities off the road system—all contribute to the state’s lack of a defining architectural style.
“Alaska is so big, and as we all know it’s got multiple different regions that have multiple different design parameters and costs associated with them,” Dukes says. “So, to say that there’s just one type of look in Alaska really doesn’t do the question justice. There are a lot of variabilities in the state itself, just from an engineering standpoint.”
The cost of not engaging in sustainable design, however, can add up over the life of the building.
“The cost downstream actually outweighs that [initial] investment,” McVeigh says. “If you have a building that lasts fifty years, that’s a lot of costs if you don’t design for the proper environmental conditions. The structure and the design become a much smaller cost.”
Form and function work together at the Dermatology and Skin Cancer Clinic of Alaska in Soldotna. Exam room windows were installed at 7 feet to provide patients with privacy and a view to the clinic’s wooded lot, while an upward pitched roof maximizes the views.
Striking the Perfect Balance
From an aesthetic standpoint, architecture is subjective; what one person considers beautiful can be an eyesore to another. Even then, a building that everyone agrees is aesthetically pleasing can fail if it doesn’t work for its intended purpose.
Timm points to the original Loussac Library in Anchorage, designed by a “post-modern” architect from the Lower 48, as an example of a building that failed on all fronts.
“There were lots of elements that met that post-modern look, but it also got some really important things wrong, like the main entry’s exterior stairway, which was famous for people falling on the ice,” he says. The remedy for the dangerous stairway, which was “to put a very ugly canopy over it,” wasn’t an improvement, he adds.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 110,000-square-foot, eight-story Fireweed Business Center in Midtown Anchorage that RIM designed for Cook Inlet Regional Inc., was praised as a building that not only strikes the balance between aesthetics and function but successfully incorporates cutting-edge technology, like the energy-harvesting photosensitive exterior glass.
“I’m impressed with what it looks like on the outside,” Ivy says. “They broke the box on that one a little bit.”
Timm says the Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park, built partially underground, and the Island and Oceans Visitor Center in Homer, situated on the bluff, both strike the right balance of form and function by successfully incorporating their respective locales into the buildings’ aesthetics while still operating as a museum and visitor center.
McVeigh praises some of the newer Native Corporation buildings as well.
“The work that some of the Native companies have done for their headquarters are beautiful pieces of architecture and it’s refreshing to see that,” he says. “It’s refreshing to see people put an emphasis on design and not just the cheapest thing possible.”
Finding that perfect balance between aesthetics and function is the challenge for every architect, Dukes says, and it’s ultimately what sets a successful design apart.
“It’s not all just about function, and it’s not just all about aesthetics,” Dukes says. “It’s the marriage that comes together; that’s what’s defining good architecture.”