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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Form Follows Invention in the Built Domain

I received three comments in 2011 that I’d like to bring to your attention.  


“I think, with all deference to Sullivan, it is not really useful to talk about what follows what. I believe that form is the means, function is the end. All we can really do is FORM spaces and surfaces using building systems, materials, and products, for human occupation.”  

(Louis Sullivan was an architect (1856-1924) and an early employer of Frank Lloyd Wright at Adler & Sullivan, Chicago, IL)  

The claim is that form makes function possible. This may be true from an architect’s perspective; but from an organic perspective, form does not define function. It responds to purpose. When the purpose is fine art, the public benefit from these decisions is limited. When the purpose is a symbiotic relationship with an irreplaceable partner, the public benefit is obvious. The challenge is to define architectural purpose in terms that can lead many to a symbiotic goal. 

Design has never been a linear exercise even though Sullivan made it sound like one. The more skilled an architect becomes the more he is able to reconcile the variables in a very complex puzzle. The best answers are called fine art, but the process of decision is called design – and it begins with the land. Some may argue that it begins with an architectural program, but if a program cannot be accommodated by the land available, it is an exercise in futility. 

If architects can only form spaces and surfaces with building systems, materials and products, then we have abdicated a leadership role in the sustainable future of our built environment. There is nothing wrong with this decision, but public benefit is diminished to a level that originally prompted social reform, city planning and building regulation.  

I realize that you cannot expect leadership goals and strategic decisions to be produced by tactical field operations, but when field experience is not evaluated with an adequate measurement, information and evaluation system, future direction and decision is compromised by the lack of knowledge acquired.  

If the goal is tactical architectural improvement, then strategic leadership will have to come from another direction. If the goal is symbiotic improvement, then knowledge must be expanded and the troops will need better weapons from advanced research and education. In my opinion, this all means that we must agree on a goal before we can measure the beauty and contribution of each solution. Right now we are debating the excellence of individual projects, but this is a tactical debate. In my opinion, the leadership question is the relationship of building activity and intensity to context, quality of life and population growth within a limited Built Domain. This domain must not threaten its source of life – The Natural Domain. I base my opinion on the belief that the Built Domain cannot expand indefinitely. The Natural Domain will simply not permit the hubris involved. 


“When it comes to great designers, I agree that, most of the time, when I hear "form follows function"; what follows is neither functional nor elegant. That is very different from thinking the concept is empty. I am a firm believer in the value of the form follows function idea and I love the writings of Louis Sullivan. I never have been able to see much indication of form following function in Sullivan's work. Sometimes the useful heuristic works in mysterious ways.” 

I couldn’t agree more with this observation. The only link I ever saw was the nature of Sullivan’s incomparable ornamentation. Wright expanded the analogy with shelter form and appearance he referred to as “organic”. Both of them depended on engineering innovation. From this perspective, form and function followed invention while style and appearance became organic symbolism. Floor plan, section and detail are the architectural equivalent of organic function, but the analogy has always been more poetic than practical.  

I love the sentence, “Sometimes the useful heuristic works in mysterious ways.” I believe Sullivan and Wright pointed to a symbiotic future they could only imply with fine art. They left an ambiguous trail for others to follow, but it is the path toward symbiotic architectural function within and beyond the box. It will be based on the evaluation of shelter options within a Built Domain that does not permit intensity to threaten our dignity and quality of life.


“Harking back just a little bit, I am surprised that no one has mentioned the real quote from Louis Sullivan: 

‘Form Follows Function is mere dogma, until you realize the higher truth that form and function are one.’

It does not matter what dictionary definition one gives to the terms, so long as the terms are viable in the context of the immediate project and consonant with one another.’ ”  

The quote is from Frank Lloyd Wright. Sullivan’s comment was: 

"It is the pervading law of all things organic, and inorganic,
of all things physical and metaphysical,
of all things human and all things super-human,
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." 

The quote below, however, is what drew my attention: 

“It does not matter what dictionary definition one gives to the terms (form and function), so long as the terms are viable in the context of the immediate project and consonant with one another.” 

Architects have focused on “…context of the immediate project” for obvious reasons. I’m assuming that “…consonant with one another” means the relationship of form and function on the same project and not city design, because no one has had the tools to attempt this venture and defend it from inevitable legal challenge. (Land use planning is not city design. All architects will immediately recognize the two-dimensional nature of a plan and the three-dimensional nature of urban form that can emerge from city design decisions regarding activity, intensity, context and economic stability.)

I’m including several paragraphs from my book to expand on the useful heuristic of Sullivan’s mysterious ways. Please excuse the book reference at the end. My publisher still considers this a business and he’s not an architect. 

“Form follows function … is an ambiguous slogan with at least two meanings. The first is often used by architecture and industrial design to mean that the external envelope and appearance of a man-made object reflects its internal arrangement, structure and operation.” This is form following invention. “The second means that interrelated external influences determine the internal operation and visible shape of the natural object observed.” This is form following function that responds to context.   

“Sullivan’s meaning can be interpreted either way, but the first definition has been the most influential within architecture and the larger development community, since it corresponds to the objects created. The double meaning became more ambiguous with Wright’s claim that his architecture was “organic”, which implies symbiotic relationships but is limited to the form, detail and appearance produced. We are beginning to realize however, that the first interpretation of Sullivan’s quote is too introverted to produce a sustainable future; but adopting the second is still a dream that requires new tools, better research, expanded knowledge, improved coordination and leadership at the national level.” 

In our abstract world of The Built Domain therefore, form is presently a function of instinct, intuition, inspiration and imagination. It is not an organic creation that responds to context with symbiotic purpose. This is a goal for architecture and city design that may never be fully achieved; but without it, our cities and shelter will continue to grow in a sprawling pattern whose form betrays a function that has led to new levels of concern. This Built Domain currently expands, dominates and pollutes with little regard for, or contribution to, the natural systems and resources it consumes. 

1 Excerpt from Hosack, Walter Martin, Land Development Calculations, ed 2, The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2010, pp. 518-519.

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