Recently, a client quoted “Form follows Function” to me in design review meeting. Although this is one of the most commonly quoted architectural axioms, it may also be the most understood. “Form follows function” was a paradigm shift in the architecture and design world of the late 19th century and it’s meaning has continued evolve since.
"Form [ever] follows function" was first coined by American architect Louis Sullivan in 1896. At that time buildings had been designed in the rigid classical Beaux-Arts tradition which rehashed historical styles. Beaux-Art buildings had been modeled after ancient Greek or Roman temples lavishly adorned with elaborate sculptural detailing and built primarily of stone and masonry construction.
The second industrial revolution (1840-1870) brought the production of steel on a large scale. Steel was stronger, more ductile, and could span greater distances than the stone and masonry construction of the Beaux-Arts buildings.
The use of steel as the primary building structure freed architects and engineers from the limits of stone and masonry construction. The new possibilities of building size, shape and height gave rise to creation of the "skyscraper".
When Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building was designed in the late 1880's there were no Beaux-Arts precedent for a "skyscraper". The form of the building could not follow the Beaux-Arts pattern book. What then would determine its form? According to Sullivan the form of a building should be based upon the building's primary purpose or function…”form ever follows function”. Sullivan’s quote would later become the modernist motto in the 1930's. It would also influence other design and engineering disciplines, such as product design, automobile design and later early software engineering.
The technology of the steel structural frame, as such used in the Wainwright Building, liberated the building from bearing walls and prescriptive spatial order. This was a major break through. It emancipated designers from the Beaux-Arts formulas of the past two hundred years!
This freedom did not lead to a prescriptive manual of functional form. If strictly interpreted, “form follows function”, would imply that all skyscrapers should be identical because their function (a tall office building) is the same. This would be true for each building type. One solution did not then (and does not now) fit all needs. Architecture began to explore space, materiality, color, light, ideas, and form.
Architecture, as well as product design and technology, has continued to evolve since early Modernism. Today, the appearance of most digital products, such as the iPod, bears no relation to what they do. This is also true of architecture. There are many factors which can affect a building’s form.
Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, completed in 1997, houses a contemporary art museum, yet its function is civic in nature. It was designed and built to draw visitors to the downtrodden Basque providence capital and industrial port city of Bilbao, Spain. It has been so successful, in fact drawing millions of visitors, that the term “Bilbao effect” was created to describe its popularity and economic success.
It's form was not driven by its function. The building's ship-like massing and fish-like skin relate to the city’s port heritage and river front location. The random curve forms were designed to catch and reflect the natural light, and the building is organized around a flower shaped atrium capturing views of the landscape.
The primary function of any creative work can be an idea, a movement, an emotion. The form of that work can have multitude of influences. The form of building or space does not have to be the sum of its programatic functions. The functional aspects of a building can be subordinate to its form. Form no longer follows function. Function fits Form.
John Verdon, AIA
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