Form Four Ways
Illustration: Lauren Nassef | Art Direction: Jelena Schulz

It’s been nearly 50 years since Bauhaus instructor and artist Johannes Itten died in 1967, but his legacy remains central to architectural education. Itten’s time at the seminal German design school was short-lived (a mere four years between 1919 and 1922), but his concept for a preliminary “Basic Course” for incoming students continues in one fashion or another at many American architecture schools. Central to this preliminary course, or Vorkurs, was the idea that new students should be self-directed, rather than put through a series of rote exercises.

As for guiding his young charges, Itten encouraged Vorkurs students to master what he called “expressive forms” and “subjective forms,” which derived from his own brand of mysticism and Zoroastrian beliefs. Expressive forms were the things of design itself—a translation of concept into a physical design. They were the products of what he called a student’s “inner vision” and, when rendered, representative of a student’s “fixed seeing.” (Cosmic, right?) Subjective forms, on the other hand, which encompassed composition, color theory, and materiality, had to do with developing a student’s vision beyond architectural precedents. In other words, subjective forms could reflect all of the things that other architects had thought about in their design process, but must reject the products of those design processes.

After Itten left, the Basic Course duties were split between Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy, and the Bauhaus established a more-defined course of architectural study. But the groundwork he laid for students, whether they went on to become potters, industrial designers, or architects, is worth considering this month as thousands of students report for their first year in both pre-professional and professional architecture programs to unpack what “form” means to them for the first time. By way of guidance, here we offer some definitions of form by architects who know a thing or two about it.

ADDITIVE EDITING: “Studying form need not make us ‘flashy formalists.’ Analyzing one variable away from others can be useful. We are irresponsible only if, in design, we follow functions that give us forms we like, and bar those that don’t.” —Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA

FORM AND THE FOURTH DIMENSION: “Form is more than shape. It is imbued with innate and associative messages and meanings, which are in turn chock-full of culture and history.” —Douglas Kelbaugh, FAIA

FORM IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: “People’s experiences and emotions, being centric to design, define any given object’s form.” —Joel Pominville, Assoc. AIA

BUILD UPON BUILDING: “Form in architecture is the process of piecing together people and space to create a greater experience than what once existed.” —Danielle Mitchell, Assoc. AIA