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Eugene Kohn on good architecture

Updated Thursday, 9th June 2011

Co-founder and chairman of architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates talks to Leslie Budd about how architecture is shaping the social and economic landscape of people's lives

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Dr Leslie Budd

Gene, the old design principle of form follows function appears to have been turned on its head, because architecture seems to be a dominant form shaping the economic and social landscape of people’s lives, I wonder what your views are on that initially?

Eugene Kohn, founder of U.S. architecture firm Kohn Pederson Fox Associates

Well I think that form does follow function to a certain extent, because the function of a hospital’s quite different than an office building than a school than a museum.  So in a sense the building basics, you know, ingredients are going to be different for different use.  So I think in that sense the building, you know, you see a museum you pretty much know that’s a museum or that’s a hospital or that’s an office building.  I think where the subtleties change is that when the form follow function saying came out people felt that the shape of the building should relate specifically to how the function worked and that the form would be an outgrowth of function and it may be a strange shape or may not be a rectangle, may be a loose form. 

I think a number of architects like Mies van der Rohe felt that they could incorporate function in the forms that they wanted to set, which were basically orthogonal, squares and rectangles and so all of their buildings where there was a school or hospital or office building or house pretty much followed that theory that these would be rectangles and squares and orthogonal, the details would be similar, so a house by Mies like the Farnsworth House in a great office building where they have similar characteristics of the materials and the details and that was a very strong way to go. 

I think the big changes today beside all the technology changes that affect our cities and our buildings was that a whole number of architects felt that the form became the most dominant and most important and so you got buildings that were twisting and turning and leaning and bending and shapes that you would have to question do they make sense for the function?  And in some cases they don’t, in others they work and the form is very beautiful so they’re accepted and liked.  I mean without naming specific ones, because I don’t want to offend any architects, but there are buildings that for me make little sense when they constantly go up and then bend over like an elderly person being hunched over how that makes sense for a tall building.  I always felt a tall building should stand straight as it tries to rise to the sky and had to be proud.  Somehow bending over is not doing justice to the tall building for me, plus I’m never quite sure how the floor relates to the windows and so forth, exterior wall and so forth. 

And then there are shapes of buildings that famous, well like Frank Gehry has done some fantastically creative work with shape and form, but he’s chosen primarily to do it with institutional type buildings, large spaces below, concert halls and museums, etc, it becomes more difficult to do that with a functional office building or other hospitals or things of that sort.  So Frank then changes that when he does a different building type. 

So in summary, I think that function and form need to go together.  We did a building in Shanghai, called the ShanghaiWorldFinancialCenter that I think is a sort of perfect blend of form and function and structure.  It’s a very tall building, it’s 1,612 feet, to put it in feet, and super tall and obviously it’s subjected to enormous wind pressures.  It also is an office building but it has a hotel at the top and it has retail at the base and it’s designed to attract tenants from Asia, Europe and the US, all with different requirements for floor depths.  In Europe, particularly Germany, France, Belgium every person has to be within eight metres of a window, so you have very narrow buildings, whereas London you can have very large floor plates or the US, Japan.  So this building has large floor plates at the base and is tapering as it goes up to smaller ones, and a hotel floor is much smaller in terms of its dimensions than an office one, office floor plate.  So it makes perfect sense, it’s tapering on two sides and changing its floor dimensions, going from big floors for big tenants to smaller for smaller tenants and hotel at the top with a viewing platform at the very top. 

And in it is a major opening, it was circular at one time, it’s more triangular now and it lets the wind which is at the top by the building, two thirds of the wind pressure’s at the top, so if you can relieve the wind at the top you relieve the pressure overturning, so that makes sense.  Its tapering is like when you stand with two feet apart and you taper to your head, you’re much more stable than when your feet are together, somebody can push you over more easily, same with the building, its structure is related to its form, but also the most efficient structural shape, and so therefore use and structure and form all working together to create a very elegant building.  So in that case form and function found the same parameters or form to work. 

In other cases you may sacrifice one or the other.  Throughout a city you’re going to have buildings that are more stressing form, people have egos and they want to say hey, I’m the most important person on the block therefore I want my building to do something special.  So it may lean or be twisted or some interesting shape that’s obviously not a rectangular form.  And I’m not against that, because we do buildings that are curved and circular, but they have to relate to their location, to their use, and then the form makes sense if it does that well yet can be expressing one’s personality more dramatically.  So I’m not against creative buildings in that sense, but they have to make some sense for their use.

Dr Leslie Budd

Yeah.  That’s an excellent example, we hear lots about sustainable and intelligent cities and your firm is an example of the way in which architectural engineering services have gone global, and in changing that landscape do you actually feel a greater degree of responsibility, not only to your clients but the habitat in which your buildings are created, and has that changed over the lifetime of your career?

Eugene Kohn

Well I think so.  I think there’s no question that the concern for sustainability for the environment, for green, is much stronger today than when we started 35 years ago or when I started my career many more years before that.  There’s no question that it’s paramount with our clients, with cities and governments and with architects and engineers.  So we’re all working together to design efficient buildings that are energy efficient, that find ways to use less energy or more sustainable, but that involves a lot of other issues.  It’s not just the building, but it’s where the building is.  I mean if you put the building over a train station or a bus station, preferably train, you are being very efficient, because people don’t have to drive, they take a train, they go up in your building and that’s pretty good.  If you put it three miles outside the city forcing everybody to drive to it it’s less efficient.  The building itself could be the same energy package that’s efficient, but the fact that you’ve located away from transportation and you force people to drive to it makes it less energy efficient, less conservation minded and less green. 

So I think that more and more with cities getting denser that’s not going to be the issue, I think people will want to build in the cities, live in the cities and that will help make things more efficient, and then the buildings themselves are now being designed to - wall systems that keep the cold out or the heat out or keep the heat in and the cold in, whatever, that minimise the impact of nature on the building without using so many raw materials to create this.  And one of the issues that I have is that we can design a building to be very efficient itself in its use of energy, but the materials and the systems we had to create to do that use enormous amounts of energy elsewhere, so it’s like looking globally at energy rather than locally.  So that, for example, and you being …. at one point probably know that these double wall systems that actually had much of a head start in the UK and Europe do a good job in making the building more efficient energy-wise but you do have the cost of building and the energy use of building two full wall systems, one outside the other, whereas the traditional building was one wall system.  So that has to be looked at, is that a good thing?  Are we fooling ourselves from making this building energy sufficient, but we’re using more and more energy to create the building than we needed to before and more raw materials, which over time are going to be a problem. 

I mean one of the issues facing the whole globe is the population increase, which is going to be dramatic in particularly third world nations, and predominantly Asia where by 2050 we’ll have 10 billion people.  That’s almost 4 billion more than we have today all needing housing, hospitals, schools, all the things we have and that’s going to use enormous amount of material and energy to create it, and they’re all going to want cars and they’re all going to want the quality of life which understandably we’ve enjoyed.  So that’s an issue we have to deal with in the future, goes well beyond an architect.

Dr Leslie Budd

Thank you very much, Gene.

Eugene Kohn

You’re welcome.







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