Form Follows Function Follows Form

One of my favorite songs by the Smashing Pumpkins is The End Is The Beginning Is The End.  (They have another song called The Beginning Is The End Is The Beginning, which is just a slower version of the first song)  I like the song because it’s got a good beat and it just fits with what I consider good music.  On a deeper level I like the title of the song even more because of the yin-yang ideal of creating a balance in what at first appears to be polar opposites.

Louis Sullivan, an American architect that has been referred to as “the father of modernism” (and Frank Lloyd’s Wright mentor), is credited with the phrase “form follows function.”  What this phrase essentially means is that the function of a building is more important than the aesthetics.  Many modern architects of the 20th century have used this phrase as their battle cry for eliminating what they considered any decoration that was not essential to the use of the building.

This statement was in response to the fact that the design of most buildings were more centered around conforming to professionally accepted proportions like the Golden Triangle and other historical precedents (usually from ancient Greek and Roman architecture).  Architects more concerned with the formal expression of the building were essentially following “function follows form.”  There are many examples where institutions like governments and banks have used a classical style of architecture to convey a sense of stability (form follows function in a way), but for the most part function following form is considered chasing fashion.

So if you follow the dogma of “form follows function” then an office building should have the same aesthetic despite its location in the world, meaning that a skyscraper in Dubai should look like one in Beijing, and those should look like ones in Chicago and Rio de Janeiro.  This strategy ignores issues of culture, climate, technology, building materials, and probably just as important the style and preferences of the architect.    Three of the predominant modern architects of the 20th century – Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Alvar Aalto – all had distinct styles using different building materials.  Each architect has designed residential towers and each one used different building materials – Mies used steel and glass, Corbu used concrete, and Aalto used brick and wood (sort of like the modern version of the three little pigs).  So if form did follow function these buildings should aesthetically be the same, but of course something else is driving the form.

I like viewing the relationship of form and function not as a linear process where architecture is created by following a path from point A to point B, but rather as a yin-yang where two elements are poured together creating something greater than the sum of its parts, and where the final product no longer distinguishes a separation between the two.  The function of the building, the purpose for why people use the building, drives the form.  But at the same time its the formal conditions of culture, climate, and other forces that begin to dictate how the purpose reflects its users.

Where form ends is the beginning of function, and where function ends is the beginning of form.


1 thought on “Form Follows Function Follows Form

  1. Thijs

    Interesting article, the funny thing is that Sullivan’s famous quote has given architecture quite a lot, but it seems to have surpassed FL wright for the most. Where Mies has created a style that is pure and slick as I prefer to call it, it is indeed the form follows function. Slight differences are all that can be determined between his skyscrapers in Toronto, Chicago or New York. And even his style is copied in different scales. I quite often argue that would he have build another 50 buildings, whether or not he would have had to create a new style. As genius as his style was, it did stop at some point of copying. Even in a completly different continent, London, UK, he proposed a lifted box style office quite like his others.

    FL Wright seems to have escaped the form follows function. Although I agree with the so called axiom of form follows function, it stands to reason that wright has given more thought to local conditions. LA houses have their own feeling compared to the prairy styles in other places.

    Right now I notice more and more a freedom of design. BLOB culture, but also in facade design, randomness seems to have taken over. For this I want to point to the new Federation Square in Melbourne Australia. Random design of facades and shapes gives, in my opinion, the new saying:

    form follows freedom.

    I do not particularly like this movement tho.

    keep well! great blog!


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