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Figurative Architecture

In broad terms, “form follows function” is symbolic. College dorms aren’t shaped like beds or desks; office buildings aren’t shaped like laptops or staplers. Sometimes the symbolism gets pretty close to reality, and I was reminded of that while walking up West Street yesterday to go to the APTNE holiday party at Pier 57.

The well-lit building in the center of the photo is the Spring Street Salt Shed, design by Dattner Architects for the New York City Department of Sanitation. It is a very large concrete box that stores road salt. That’s it. There are, as far as I know, no hidden offices or other spaces for people, just salt in a big pile waiting to be used in snowy or icy conditions. The Dattner description at the link refers to the exterior shape as “crystalline,” which I find amusing because that word is horribly overused to mean “glass facades.” In this case it refers to the three-dimensional shape of the box. For reference, here’s a close-up view of some salt crystals:

A close-up view of salt at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, by włodi.

Not a perfect match, but I feel like the architects succeeded in giving the building a form that really is reflective of its use. (I guess the other option would have been shaping the building like a skidding tire.) It certainly helps that the building is windowless, which makes turning it into a piece of sculpture much easier.

I don’t think there’s any great lesson here, since the circumstances of the building don’t come along very often. There was a clear natural form that is related to the use, and a building program that lent itself to that form. Perhaps the lesson is that when an opportunity like this presents itself, you should grab it, as Dattner did.