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Form In Architecture – An Important Element of Design

Form often associates with shape. It includes a sense of three-dimensional mass or volume, while shape refers to the essential aspect of form that governs its appearance. The form in architecture – its definition, characteristics, various surfaces, surface transformations, etc., all are discussed in this article.

What is a Form?

The form is an inclusive term that has several meanings and synonyms and is used in architecture as an important element of design. It refers to a shape or configuration of a building. The Form in Architecture may refer to

  • An external appearance that can be recognized. Ex: A chair/bed.
  • A particular condition it manifests. Ex: water in the form of ice.
  • Art and design – a structural form of work.
  • Internal structure and external outline.

“Architecture form is the point of contact between mass and space…Architectural forms, textures, materials, modulation of light and shade, color, all combine to inject a quality or spirit that articulates space. The quality of the architecture will be determined by the skill of the designer in using and relating these elements, both in the interior spaces and in the spaces around buildings.” –

Edmund N. Bacon
The Design of Cities

Form In Architecture

Characteristics of Form

1. Shape

The characteristic outline of a particular form. The shape is the principal aspect by which we identify and categorize forms. It also refers to the surface configuration of the volumetric form.

It is the primary means by which we recognize, identify, and categorize particular figures and forms. Our perception of shape depends on the degree of visual contrast that exists along the contour separating a figure from its ground or between a form and its field.

2. Size/ Mass

Size includes the physical dimensions of a form – Length, width, and depth. These dimensions determine the proportions and scale of a form. Mass combines with shape to create a form. Mass refers to the size or physical bulk of a building.

3. Color

An individual’s perception of hue, saturation, and tonal value. It clearly distinguishes a form from its environment. It also affects the visual weight of the form.

4. Texture

The visual and especially tactile quality is given to a surface by the size, shape, arrangement, and proportions of the parts. Texture also determines the degree to which the surfaces of a form reflect or absorb incident light.

5. Position

Position refers to where the form is located related to its environment.

6. Orientation

The direction of a form relative to the ground plane, the compass points, other forms, or to the person viewing the form.

7. Visual Inertia

The degree of concentration and stability of a form. The visual inertia of a form depends on its geometry as well as its orientation relative to the ground plane, the pull of gravity, and our line of sight.

Shape to Form in Architecture

We perceive shape by its contour or silhouette, rather than by detail.

Primary shapes

The most significant primary shapes are

  • Circle – A plane curve every point is equidistant from a fixed point within a curve.
  • Triangle – A plane figure bounded by three sides and having three angles.
  • Square – A plane figure having four equal sides and four right angles.


The circle is a centralized figure that is normally stable and self-centering in its environment. Placing an element along its circumference or angular forms can induce circular motion.

Roman Theater Plan; Image source : commons.wikimedia.org


A triangle signifies stability. While the triangle is extremely stable when resting on its sides, it tends to fall on one of its sides when it stands on one of its vertices.

Image source : Architecture: Form, Space, and Order


The square is a symmetrical figure having two equal and perpendicular axes. All other rectangles can be considered as variations of the square varying in height or width. Similar to a triangle, the square is stable when it rests on one of its sides and tends to fall when it stands on one of its vertices.

Form in Architecture
Bathhouse, Jewish Community Center, Trenton, New Jersey.; Image source – Pinterest

Primary shapes generate volumes known as “platonic solids.” A circle generates a sphere and cylinder, Triangle forms a cone and pyramid, whereas a square produces a cube.

Primary solids

  • Sphere – A solid generated by the revolution of a semicircle about its diameter, whose surface is at all points equidistant from the center.
  • Cylinder – A solid generated by the revolution of a rectangle about one of its sides.
  • Cone – A solid generated by the revolution of the right triangle about one of its sides.
  • Pyramid – A polyhedron having a polygonal base and triangular faces meeting at a common point or vertex.
  • Cube – A prismatic solid bounded by six equal sides, the angle between any two adjacent faces being a right angle.
Form in Architecture
Cubic shape
Pyramid shape

Curved Surfaces

Surfaces refer to any figure having only two dimensions, such as a flat plane. Curved surfaces include

  • Cylindrical surfaces – generated by sliding a straight line along a plain curve, or vice versa.
  • Translational surfaces – generated by sliding a plane curve along a straight line or over another plane.
  • Ruled surfaces – generated by the motion of a straight line.
  • Rotational surfaces – generated by rotating a plane curve about an axis.
  • Paraboloids –
    • Parabolas are plane curves generated by a moving point that remains equidistant from a fixed line and a fixed point not on the line.
    • Hyperbolas are plane curves formed by the intersection of a right circular cone with a plane that cuts both halves of the cone.
  • Saddle surfaces have an upward curvature in one direction and a downward curvature in the perpendicular direction.

Symmetrically curved surfaces such as domes and barrel vaults are inherently stable. On the other hand, asymmetrically curved surfaces can be more vigorous and expressive in nature. Their shapes change dramatically as we view them from different perspectives.

Regular And Irregular Forms

Regular forms

  • Refer to those whose parts are related to one another in a consistent and orderly manner.
  • Stable in nature.
  • Symmetrical about one or more axes.
  • Examples: sphere, cone, cylinder, cube, and pyramid.
  • Forms can retain their regularity even when transformed dimensionally or by the addition or subtraction of elements.

Irregular forms

  • Refer to those whose parts are dissimilar in nature and related to one another in an inconsistent manner.
  • Asymmetrical in nature.
  • Dynamic
  • Can be regular forms from which irregular elements have been subtracted.

Transformation of Forms In Architecture

All other forms can be understood to be transformations of the primary solids, variations that are generated by the manipulation of one or more dimensions or by the addition or subtraction of elements.

Dimensional Transformation

A form can be transformed by altering one or more of its dimensions and still retain its identity as a member of a family of forms. A cube, for example, can be transformed into similar prismatic forms through discrete changes in
height, width, or length. It can be compressed into a planar form or be stretched out into a linear one.

  • A sphere can be transformed into any number of ovoid or ellipsoidal forms by elongating it along an axis.
  • A Pyramid can be transformed by altering the dimensions of the base, modifying the height of the apex, or tilting the normally vertical axis.
  • A Cube can be transformed into similar prismatic forms by shortening or elongating its height, width, or depth.

Subtractive Transformation

A form can be transformed by subtracting a portion of its volume. Depending on the extent of the subtractive process, the form can retain its initial identity or be transformed into a form of another family. For example, a cube can retain its identity as a cube even though a portion of it is removed, or be transformed into a series of regular polyhedrons that begin to approximate a sphere.

Spatial volumes may be subtracted from a form to create

  • Recessed entrances
  • Positive courtyard spaces
  • Window openings are shaded by vertical and horizontal surfaces of the recess.

Additive Transformation

A form can be transformed by the addition of elements to its volume. The nature of the additive process and the number and relative sizes of the elements being attached determine whether the identity of the initial form is
altered or retained.

Basic possibilities for grouping two or more forms are by

  • Spatial Tension
  • Edge-to-edge contact
  • Face-to-face contact
  • Interlocking volumes

Centralized Form

A number of secondary forms clustered about a dominant, central parent form. Centralized forms require the visual dominance of a geometrically regular, centrally located form such as a sphere, cone, or cylinder.

Linear Form in Architecture

A linear form can result from a proportional change in a form’s dimensions or the arrangement of a series of discrete forms along a line.

Radial Form

A Radial form consists of linear forms that extend outward from a centrally located core element in a radiating manner. It combines the aspects of centrality and linearity into a single composition.

Form in Architecture

Clustered Form

While a centralized organization has a strong geometric basis for the ordering of its forms, a clustered organization groups its forms according to functional requirements of size, shape, or proximity.

Grid Form

A grid is a system of two or more intersecting sets of regularly spaced parallel lines. It generates a geometric pattern of regularly spaced points at the intersections of the grid lines and regularly shaped fields defined by the grid lines themselves.

Form in Architecture

Articulation of Form

  • Articulation refers to the manner in which the surfaces of a form come together to define its shape and volume.
  • An articulated form clearly reveals the precise nature of its parts and their relationships to each other and to the whole.
  • Its surfaces appear as discrete planes with distinct shapes and their overall configuration is legible and easily perceived.
  • In a similar manner, an articulated group of forms accentuates the joints between the constituent parts in order to visually express their individuality.


The principles and images mentioned in this article are derived from the book -” Architecture Form , Space, and Order” by “FRANCIS D.K CHINK”.

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