More on form and function

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Detail of the Wainwright Building, St. Louis, Adler & Sullivan. (beltstl.com)

Here is the first lengthy passage in which Louis Sullivan, writing in his Autobiography of an Idea, unpacks “form follows function,” which has become a mantra of the modernist movement. It had to be misinterpreted for that to occur. So far there is no banishment of ornament, only a ban on “senseless conventional rigidity.” So far as I know, even the most rigid interpretation of the classical canon does not include regimentation of the ornament of column capitals and other decorative elements of the orders. Indeed, a certain creativity of embellishment has (it seems to me) always been required because decoration itself has never been dictated.

I am sure Sullivan must have more to say on this, as I have not yet come across the formulation “form ever follows function” that is ever quoted by the cognoscenti. It must be there somewhere!

So here are the words out of the mouth of the “precursor to modernism”:

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Now Louis [he is writing in the third person] felt he had arrived at a point [his new partnership with Dankmar Adler] where he had a foothold, where he could make a beginning in the open world. Having come into its responsibilities, he would face it boldly. He could now, undisturbed, start on the course of practical experimentation he had long had in mind, which was to make an architecture that fitted its functions – a realistic architecture based on well defined utilitarian needs – that all practical demands of utility should be paramount as basis of planning and design; that no architectural dictum, or tradition, or superstition, or habit, should stand in the way. He would brush them all aside, regardless of commentators. For his view, his conviction was this: That the architectural art to be of contemporary immediate value must be plastic; all senseless conventional rigidity must be taken out of it; it must intelligently serve – it must not suppress. In this wise the forms under his hand would grow naturally out of the needs and express them frankly, and freshly. This meant in his courageous mind that he would put to the test a formula he had evolved, through long contemplation of living things, namely that form follows function, which would mean, in practice, that architecture might again become a living art, if this formula were but adhered to.

Soon after, he describes his “grammar” for getting more light into buildings by using slender piers permitting larger windows, and stressing the need to emphasize the verticality of tall buildings. He then adds:

This method upset all precedent, and led Louis’s contemporaries to regard him as an iconoclast, a revolutionary, which was true enough – yet into the work was slowly infiltrated a corresponding system of artistic expression, which appeared in these structures as novel and to some repellent, in its total disregard of accepted notions.

Here is what the modernists choose to omit, that ornament was part and parcel of Sullivan’s system. He may indeed have come up with a finely alliterative “formula” – form follows function – but he himself seems to exaggerate the extent to which this was a departure from past architecture – whose diversity of form he had specifically noted while studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, in Paris. There has never been any feeling in the history of architecture prior to Sullivan that architecture lacked utility because of its decoration. Modernists have interpolated their assessment that avoiding “senseless conventional rigidity” meant stripping architecture of ornament. But so far, Sullivan does not seem to be saying that at all, or implying it, and it can only be read very obliquely into his words by ignoring his actual work. Directly after the last quoted passage he continues:

But to all objections Louis turned a deaf ear. If a thousand proclaimed him wrong, the thousand could not change his course. As buildings varying in character came under his hand, he extended to them his system of form and function, and as he did so his conviction increased that architectural manipulation, as a homely art or a fine art must be rendered completely plastic to the mind and the hand of the designer; that materials and forms must yield to the mastery of his imagination and his will; through this alone could modern conditions be met and faithfully expressed. This meant the casting aside of all pedantry, of all the artificial teachings of the schools, of the thoughtless acceptance of inane traditions, of puerile habits of uninquiring minds; that all this mess, devoid of a center of gravity of thought, and vacant of sympathy and understanding, must be superseded by a sane philosophy of a living architecture, good for all time, founded on the only possible foundation – Man and his powers.

So he takes yet another whack at elucidating the need to “cast out all pedantry,” etc., yet he still makes no mention of the supposed incapatability of ornament with function. That is the invention, or so it seems, of purposeful modernist misinterpretation, the rickety structure of their kidnapping his reputation and transmorgrifying it into a “precursor of modernism.” Later passages may prove me wrong about this, and I will report them if they show up as I complete the last quarter of Sullivan’s autobiography.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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One Response to More on form and function

  1. Student John says:

    Ornament has disappeared as traditional building has disappeared. Pugin’s explanation seems logical that it was the celebration of building construction. The celebration exaggerated the logic of structural rules, spatial rules, and programmatic rules so the logic was made visible. I was told in school that if you don’t have the urge to ornament it then you haven’t understood it. I don’t think there is genuine enjoyment in the profession and so goes the desire to ornament. Most of what gets built today calls for excuses and blame, not celebration.

    Like

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