Form follows Function?

The topic of the relationship between form and function, well known to the general public as a central concern for designers and architects, especially those of a ‘modernist’ bent, has long intrigued me. The dictum “form follows function” is today, let’s admit, a trite expression, so hackneyed a cliché that the assumptions which underlay it are seldom questioned. Further, despite the long history of humans designing and making objects of all sorts, the phrase “form follows function” has only been with us, in fact, since the very end of the 19th century. It is, therefore, an artifact of the industrial age. It’s really a new and unproven idea. I remain unconvinced of its merit, and today I’d like to start looking at this idea in more detail.

Who coined the expression form follows function? It turns out that Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor and formative employer, the architect Louis Sullivan was the first to utter those three (actually it was four) choice words, in his 1896 essay, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered. This essay, which remains an intriguing read, is, if nothing else, bombastic to no small measure:

The man who designs in the 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.

Boy, do I get a chuckle out of passages like that – all that one needs is to cue up some Celine Dion and drift one’s mind back to the scene from the 1997 film The Titanic where Kate Blanchett is standing, arms outspread at the bow, hair blowing in the wind and Leonardo DiCaprio is, well, you know:

One can also see how a man of such conceits and grand visions may have profoundly affected a young Frank Lloyd Wright. FLW modified his mentor’s phrase to assert form and function are one, however his ideas of ‘function’ must be weighed in reference to his comments like, “that’s how you know its a roof – it leaks” (I loosely paraphrase).

Now I don’t mean to trivialize Sullivan’s essay, but it does sport some humorous passages for the modern reader, and shows the grand conceits, naive as they may now appear to be, which underpin his vision. Such ideas were commonplace in the late 19th century, ideas about the perfectibility of man and society, the triumph of Reason and technology and science – a philosophy brought to a crashing end, more or less by World War I and its horrors of ‘rational’ trench warfare and gas attacks. While these ideals were brought to an end in many circles, however in architecture the very opposite effect seems to have taken place, with the rise of the Bauhaus and other design entities. More on that later.

As far as Sullivan’s essay goes, however, the part where he comes out with the famous dictum is as follows:

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.

And there you have it. Word!

Or is it?

Curiously, if you hang in there just a moment longer and read the paragraph which immediately follows the one quoted above, in regards to buildings, he notes:

Shall we, then, daily violate this law in our art? Are we so decadent, so imbecile, so utterly weak of eyesight, that we cannot perceive this truth so simple, so very simple? Is it indeed a truth so transparent that we see through it but do not see it? Is it really then, a very marvelous thing, or is it rather so commonplace, so everyday, so near a thing to us, that we cannot perceive that the shape, form, outward expression, design or whatever we may choose, of the tall office building should in the very nature of things follow the functions of the building, and that where the function does not change, the form is not to change?

That was the important caveat to note, I think, that where the function does not change, the form is not to change. What then, if function does change? I’ll leave that point aside for a moment, as I think it is worth looking at the assumption which underlies the form follows function idea: that function somehow precedes form, that it exists independently of form, and is even there before form comes to exist.

In every contemporary field of science, whether natural or social, the notion of function is that it refers to what an existing object/structure/process or other phenomenon does within a particular context. Whether we are considering the wings on a bird, or the designs of bridges in 17th century Paris, these things (wings, bridges, etc) are in existence before we get to look at them and consider what their function might be. In the sciences, form precedes function, and ‘function’ is gleaned by observing phenomena associated to those forms. Only just last week, for instance, was the determination that the stripes on a bumblebee do not have the function of warning predators, but must be for something else. Like those fun contests in certain magazines where a strange old tool of some sort is shown and readers can write in to guess what the tool was once used for based on its form alone, we are working backwards typically, from form to function.

One finds in the Congolese jungle, for example, animals typical of the open plain, built for high speed running and jumping, clearly with no place to go fast in the tight confines of vegetation. Yet they are there, their ill-suited form notwithstanding. Their form seems at odds with what one would think the functional demands might be in such a context.

Sullivan’s ideas about form following function do not square at all with Darwinian explanations of functional adaptations in nature.

According to Darwin’s theory (of which I presume most readers are familiar), small incidental variations in the physical and behavioral makeup of offspring over time produce variations in their ability to adapt to a particular habitat. The individuals that happen to be better adapted to the particular environment have more chance, through no effort of their own, to survive to adulthood and have offspring, which, odds are, will inherit the advantageous variations. These offspring in turn are exposed to the further pressures of natural selection. The specific habitat functions as the selecting factor, while inheritance accumulates the selected, i.e. advantageous, variations. In this way, in the course of generations, design-like adaptations slowly develop.

The Darwinian way of interpreting seemingly purposeful phenomena in nature as a result of natural selection is obviously an argument against, rather than for, the Sullivan dictum that form follows function. It seems that as far as biologists are concerned, forms, or rather small incidental modifications in forms always appear first, while function, i.e. the functional exploitation of the modified forms, emerges afterwards – if at all.

Jan Michl, in an essay titled Form follows What?: The Modernist Notion of Function as a Carte Blanche, puts it quite succinctly:

The astonishing functional adaptations found in nature are in other words not explained by reference to beneficial fiats of a Higher Intelligence but by reference to the habitat-related mechanism of natural selection. If architects and designers were to take seriously the modernist exhortation to follow principles found in nature, the mechanism of natural selection would then suggest, paradoxically, the opposite of what the modernists propounded: not that designers should start from ‘function’ and arrive at the only possible formal solution pertaining to such function, but rather that they should start from forms at hand and see how any of them could be used, whether unchanged or redesigned, to solve the particular task. (This is something, one could argue, every architect and designer has been doing since time immemorial).” (emphasis mine)

Okay, so maybe Sullivan’s views do not square with current theory in biology, and with that he has a certain amount in common with a fairly sizable proportion of the US population these days who also reject Darwin’s ideas. Perhaps the appeal of the form follows function dictum is that it demands the existence of a ‘higher intelligence’, a ‘master creator’ who knows best and who is not so decadent, so imbecile, so utterly weak of eyesight that they lose their way and can therefore shepherd the rest of us bleating sheep into a better and brighter designed future. Yes, the form follows function idea does indeed appeal, I think, to the ego of the designer and architect. It is after all, the creative power of god which is being promulgated, the power to be taken up by those who know better what is best for all of us, those clever over-achievers who more closely observe ‘natural law’, or who get that ornament is a crime.

In this respect, architects and industrial designers were following on the heels of painters and sculptors of the late 18th century, as Michl put it,

…re-enacting the liberation process through which painters and sculptors arrived at the status of “fine” artists. Painters and sculptors came to consider themselves to be definitely liberated from the demands of conventional taste after the Romantic philosophy of art in the decades before and after 1800, defined art as an original product of a genius, a product not only independent of the preferences of the public, but usually in opposition to it. In this way it came about that art which previously was important for the sake of the buyer, the user or the client, started now to be considered more and more important for its own sake. In a similar fashion, and after the model of fine artists, architects and designers began to consider themselves to be liberated from the traditional duty to please the aesthetic, symbolic, institutional and other demands of their clients.

What comes with this ‘liberation’ from the mere whims of the client or the society in which one lives is an increased claim to authority on the part of the designer. As the aesthetic demands of the market came to be considered illegitimate or by definition questionable, functionalist architects and designers proclaimed in effect an artistic autonomy. The modernist architect comes to have role of paternalistic guide to ‘the modern’, the ‘rational’; thus, the ‘inescapable conclusions’ were theirs and theirs alone, and the ‘modern’ architect alone was in a position to decide what was was best for the rest of us both in aesthetic terms and in terms of the defined ‘functions’.

If you dig a little further into what is meant by the word “function”, it becomes apparent that it has certain notions associated to it when it comes to objects, both designed by humans and otherwise – there is the function of an object as may have been intended, and there is the actual function of an object. One could say that the intended function is the purpose of the object. The dictionary defines function as, the activity proper to a thing, the mode of action by which is fulfills its purpose.

A car tire for example, may have had an intended function of providing a smooth and comfortable ride, or having maximal grip on the pavement, or some such thing, but its actual function may be as part of a wall in an ‘earthship’, or as a container to grow potatoes in, or ground up into bits and used to pave an athletic track. Actual function is what a given form or phenomenon does or behaves or performs, no matter whether that was or was not the part of an original intention or, indeed, whether or not there was any intention at all.

Given the two senses of function, either actual function or intended function, we can look again at the maxim form follows function in two different ways:

1) form follows actual function

2) form follows intended function (purpose)

If we speak of form following actual functioning, then we are in the same boat as the scientist, since, in such a case, the form must have been there prior to that actual functioning we observe now. Form precedes function in that case. Actual functioning is how a currently existing form performs or is used, therefore to say form follows actual function is in effect nonsensical.

That leaves us with option 2, that form follows intended function (purpose). That makes some sense, however it has a significant outcome in regards to Sullivan’s contention that form follows function as being some sort of natural and immutable law, existing independently of the whim of the designer or architect. Sullivan, and the modernist designers and architects who took up his banner cry in the 1930’s posited the idea that since form follows function is ‘nature’s law’ it therefore is something quite objective, independent of both the designer’s and user’s aesthetic preferences. It only remains, if you follow that train of thought, for the designer, user or architect to discover the objective truth by investigation or reason. However, we have just seen that form follows intended function (purpose) and not actual function, and this logical outcome destroys the very foundation of the idea that truth in forms is objective because it is intrinsic, a ‘natural law’. If we are going to talk about the purposes of buildings, tires and other products, then we are talking about one thing: individual wishes, demands, and preferences. Nothing to do with immutable laws.

David Pye, in his seminal 1978 work The Nature and Aesthetics of Design, dealt with this idea of an objective, discoverable ‘function’ inherent to anything we make at the outset of his book:

Now plenty of people do really believe that form can follow function; that if you thoroughly analyse the activity proper to the thing you are designing, then your analysis will provide all the information needed, and the design can be derived logically from the function. Plenty of people believe that ‘purely functional’ designs are possible, and believe that they themselves can produce them, what is more! But none of them has divulged what an analysis of a function looks like and what logical steps lead from it to design. All you will get from them is talk about the purpose of a thing, which, as we shall see, is a statement of opinion and can never be anything else.

Someone will reply ‘This is all pedantry. Think out what the thing has got to do, design it in the simplest form which will do that and there you have a purely functional design; and what is more it will look right.’

This sort of assertion raises three questions:

1) How do you determine what the thing you are going to design ‘has got to do’, what ‘activity is proper to it’, what is ‘purpose’ is?

2) Having done so, does the information you have gained govern the design and determine its form, or does it merely guide it, restricting the choice of form and setting limits within which it can be varied at will?

3) What does ‘purely functional’ mean?

We shall have to consider the implications of all three questions at some length… We shall find that the answer to the first question is, ‘arbitrarily’. The answer to the second question is, ‘it merely guides it’, for the form of designed things is decided by choice or else by chance; but it is never actually entailed by anything whatever. Nothing in the realm of design ever ‘looks like that because it has got to be like that’ as some eminent person said on television. The answer to the third question is in practice, ‘cheap’, or else ‘stream-lined’, or else, more rarely, ‘light’.

As Pye points out, all useful devices do useless things which no one wants them to. Those car tires for instance, wear out, degrade in the sun, make a bad smell if we spin them on the road, might hydroplane on wet roads, are difficult to change, are vulnerable to punctures, and are difficult to dispose of after their service life as a car tire has ended.

You can’t justify your design for a building or anything else with the phrase “form follows function” unless you have a situation where something has only one function. Nothing, however, in this universe has only one function, especially, as Stuart Brand points out so well in How Buildings Learn, if we factor time into the equation.

Bruce Deitrick Price notes something similar in his 2006 essay, Form Follows Function? Actually, no – virtually nothing out there has but one function, and the various possible functions of any given thing often conflict with one another:

What is the function of a building? To keep people warm and dry. To make a corporation look good. To be beautiful. To be original. To make workers feel good when they come to work. To make the architect famous. To make the rest of the neighborhood seem to be harmonious. To conserve energy and to use the sun’s energy. To be solidly constructed and not fall down. To hold the most bodies per cubic yard. To be cheap to build….On and on it goes, function after function, and each one gives you different answers. So what kind of fool presents a design and seriously intones “Form follows function” as though that says something very deep. Which function did you have in mind? And you know what? Even if you could settle on a single function, there’s probably numerous forms that would do that particular job equally well.

A totalitarian compulsion [lies] inside the endless repeating of “form follows function,” and the relentless shilling for objectivist and rationalist paradigms. The obvious part of the story was that younger architects wanted to dethrone older architects; “form follows function” and “less is more” were marketing slogans for the young hot shots. The more subtle part of the story is that the dominant media and universities have this secret love affair with central planning. Sick but true: intellectuals who suppose a high IQ entitles them to rule over other people. These tendencies may be inchoate but I submit you can feel a yearning for power in much of the chatter about planned societies, rational typefaces and objective buildings. The hum-drumness and banality of these boxes was echoed in Helvetica (possibly the most boring typeface ever devised) and in planned cities such as Brasilia (where nobody wanted to live) and in regimented societies such as Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China or Castro’s Cuba (where only the bosses have fun). All of these bad ideas came from the same direction–a quasi-religion based on the unreasonable idea that Reason could solve all problems.

Fade, as the movie people say, to black. People chanting “form follows function” followed each other to the dreary part of town. Please, let’s commit this dead husk to a final burial. “Form follows function” is absurdly reductionist. It pretends that life is monolithic, simple, destined to be boring, and does one thing at a time. When we all know that life is varied, complex, entertaining, and multi-functional.

Amen to that. I love a good rant sometimes. Besides the aspects of multi-functionality inherent to virtually all things, there is the fact, as David Pye points out, that whenever humans design and manufacture things, we in fact spend vast amounts of energy in useless work:

Look, for instance, at the ceiling. It is flat. It would have been easier not to have made it flat. Its being flat does not make you any warmer or the room above you any quieter, nor does it make the house any cheaper; far from it. Since there is a snobbism in these things flattening a ceiling is called workmanship, or mere craftsmanship; while painting gods on it or putting knobs on it is called art or design. But all these activities: ‘workmanship’, ‘design for appearance’, ‘decoration’, ‘ornament’, ‘applied art’, ’embellishment’, or what you will, are part of the same pattern of behavior which all men at all times and places have followed: doing useless work on useful things. If we did not behave after this pattern our life would indeed be poor, nasty and brutish.

Or we would be left with the results of the vast bulk of 20th century modernist architecture, which engenders, I dare say, many of the same perceptions (“nasty, brutish”) in many observers.

I have much more to say on this topic, which I’ll save for a part II.

Thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way today. Comments always welcome.

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