Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Form Follows Function"

FORM EVER FOLLOWS FUNCTION, said Louis Sullivan, the founder of modern architecture, in his 1896 article "The tall office building artistically considered". Sullivan later dropped the word "ever" in his dictum, giving us the familiar 3-F rule: form follows function. This rule has been used as an excuse to make endless rows of ugly nondescript buildings that have blighted urban areas worldwide, and even to strip the iconography and sign value from our very churches.

As Cardinal Newman stated, to go deep into history is to cease being Protestant, and likewise if we go deep into architectural history, we find that Sullivan was no modernist.

With a name like Louis Henri Sullivan, one would expect to find a Catholic, who would be almost certainly steeped in its culture of fine art serving higher things. Alas, I find no evidence of any religious upbringing in his short online biographies. He did some fine church designs, though. However, his background certainly did not lead him to the then-fashionable nihilistic or utilitarian philosophies, but instead led to more transcendental things.

In his article, Sullivan describes the forces which both necessitate and allow for the design of tall office buildings:
Let us state the conditions in the plainest manner. Briefly, they are these: offices are necessary for the transaction of business; the invention and perfection of the high-speed elevators make vertical travel, that was once tedious and painful, now easy and comfortable, development of steel manufacture has shown the way to safe, rigid, economical constructions rising to a great height; continued growth of population in the great cities, consequent congestion of centers and rise in value of ground, stimulate an increase in number of stories; these successfully piled one upon another, react on ground values;-and so on, by action and reaction, interaction and inter-reaction. Thus has come about the form of lofty construction called the "modern office building." It has come in answer to a call, for in it a new grouping of social conditions has found a habitation and a name.

Up to this point all in evidence is materialistic, an exhibition of force, of resolution, of brains in the keen sharp sense of the word. It is the joint product of the speculator, the engineer, the builder.
So far his description is quite modern and utilitarian. Imagine a modern designer with similar mind-set, who makes a utilitarian meeting-hall and calls it a church. Sullivan, however, is more subtle:
Problem: How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions? How shall we proclaim from the dizzy height of this strange, weird, modern housetop the peaceful evangel of sentiment, of beauty, the cult of a higher life?
Sullivan here proves himself to be no modernist. The final, foul spawn of architectural modernism could perhaps be best seen in the style of Brutalism, which withered in the early 1970s; these buildings could appropriately be called crude, harsh, brutal, and stark. Sullivan instead proposes bringing to the building trade the good news of fine sentiment, beauty, peace, and higher things over the low passions.

Sullivan proposes a method of finding a solution to this problem:
It is my belief that it is of the very essence of every problem that it contains and suggests its own solution. This I believe to be natural law. Let us examine, then, carefully the elements, let us search out this contained suggestion, this essence of the problem.
No modernist will talk about the natural law or of essences, for he would deny that they even exist. Sullivan goes on to distinguish the lower stories of a building, used for retail establishments, and the attic, used for mechanical purposes, with the office block itself; hence, the skyscraper should naturally have a three-fold order of base, shaft, and capital.
We must now heed the imperative voice of emotion.

It demands of us, What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect. It is the very open organ-tone in its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chord in his expression of it, the true excitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line,-that it is the new, the unexpected, the eloquent peroration of most bald, most sinister, most forbidding conditions.

The man who designs in this spirit and with the sense of responsibility to the generation he lives in must be no coward, no denier, no bookworm, no dilettante. He must live of his life and for his life in the fullest, most consummate sense. He must realize at once and with the grasp of inspiration that the problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities that the Lord of Nature in His beneficence has ever offered to the proud spirit of man.
Perhaps there is a bit of prideful ambition here, but note that Sullivan ascribes all this ultimately to God's grace.

Sullivan discusses several theories for the three-part division of a tall office building: either it is to based on a classical column, or perhaps it is linked with number mysticism, since we often see the number three strangely linked, as in the three transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty, or in the beauty of prime numbers, of the natural ordering of beginning, middle, and end, or root, trunk, and leaves of a plant, or even in the mysterious threefold nature of divinity. Some think that a tall building should be a uniform whole (such as the Modernists ended up making), but most certainly a tall building should not appear to be a pile of separate buildings, one upon the other, but rather an organic whole, even if composed of parts. Sullivan, however, has a different theory, which we will discuss later.
All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other.
Sullivan here betrays a kind Aristotelian philosophy: the form of a thing is what makes a thing a member of its species. Indeed, an office building ought to look like an office building (and I might add, a church ought to look like a church)! Modern thinking tends to place emphasis on material and efficient causes: what things are made of and how they were made is given emphasis. We see this when we are told that a modern building must be made with modern methods and modern materials.
Unfailingly in nature these shapes express the inner life, the native quality, of the animal, tree, bird, fish, that they present to us; they are so characteristic, so recognizable, that we say simply, it is "natural" it should be so. Yet the moment we peer beneath this surface of things, the moment we look through the tranquil reflection of ourselves and the clouds above us, down into the clear, fluent, unfathomable depth of nature, how startling is the silence of it, how amazing the flow of life, how absorbing the mystery! Unceasingly the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things, and this unspeakable process we call birth and growth. Awhile the spirit and the matter fade away together, and it is this that we call decadence, death. These two happenings seem jointed and interdependent, blended into one like a bubble and its iridescence, and they seem borne along upon a slowly moving air. This air is wonderful past all understanding.

Yet to the steadfast eye of one standing upon the shore of things, looking chiefly and most lovingly upon that side on which the sun shines and that we feel joyously to be life, the heart is ever gladdened by the beauty, the exquisite spontaneity, with which life seeks and takes on its forms in an accord perfectly responsive to its needs. It seems ever as though the life and the form were absolutely one and inseparable, so adequate is the sense of fulfillment.
Here Sullivan equates the form of a thing with the life of a thing, which is also Aristotelian: the soul of a living being is identified with its form, or design, and it is what animates the unliving material. They are one and the same.
Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies in a twinkling.

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.
Here we come to Sullivan's famous dictum, but it hardly seems modernist in context. Indeed, it is merely a truism, and not a design philosophy at all. Form follows function is a teleological statement which merely states that the form, or design of a building, needs to reflect its intended purpose, or final cause, or goal. The function of a roof is to shed rainwater and to withstand the weight of snow and the forces of the wind, and its form should follow this purpose. To someone grounded in classical philosophy, this is commonsensical. Sullivan states that his tripartite design of office towers follows directly from the purposes of the various parts of the building: the form follows naturally from its purpose.

A teleological theory flies in the face of modern Darwinist theory, which would deny the possibility of purposes, and instead emphasize the random nature of success of failure where function is determined by random form. Sullivan's theory is instead one of intelligent design, where the architect uses his intellect to form material to fit a purpose.

Form follows function then seems to be merely a critical theory: one would rightly criticize a roof that was perforated with holes if the intent of the roof was to exclude the rain. However, modern architects took this dictum to be a design guideline, and an excuse to strip an edifice of all ornament and decorative detail, and indeed to strip it of any beauty whatsoever. For the modernists, following Kant, thought that beauty should not even be a consideration in art. Also, following Hegel, modern architects took the phrase "form follows function" to mean total artistic freedom, without regard to the desires and wishes of the client and users. And finally, modernist "functionality" often isn't even related to the natural law, but instead on esoteric or Marxist theories, and often produce buildings that are hardly functional at all.

But Sullivan himself had rather loftier goals for the design of these new tall office buildings:
And thus the design of the tall office building takes its place with all other architectural types made when architecture, as has happened once in many years, was a living art. Witness the Greek temple, the Gothic cathedral, the mediaeval fortress.
He thought that the architecture of tall office buildings should be the peer to the Greek temples and Gothic cathedrals! What mighty comparisons! With his own buildings, he may have at least partially succeeded; but for his modernist followers, they have failed miserably.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this timely research. Your blog entries never fail to uplift me.