Sources of modern silliness

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Even London’s Crystal Palace, an early modernist icon, had decoration. (Sources)

Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83) wrote some of the pathbreaking works of architectural history that form the belief system of modern architecture today. The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design is one, which I am reading again for the first time in many years. Not too long ago, in “Form, function and Sullivan,” I wrote of an earlier seminal work of modernist design philosophy. Louis Sullivan’s Autobiography of an Idea, published in 1949, discussed “Form follows function,” which arose in his mind more than half a century earlier, after the invention steel framing and elevators led to the skyscraper, in which he played an important role.

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Nikolaus Pevsner

Sullivan himself attributed the concept to the Roman architect Vitruvius, who first (that we know of) enunciated the triad of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – buildings must be solid, useful, beautiful. Wikipedia says Sullivan’s maxim is “often incorrectly attributed to the sculptor Horatio Greenough (1805-52),[1] whose thinking mostly predates the later functionalist approach to architecture.” But Greenough’s linkage of form to function prior to the “later functionalists” is no more and no less what Vitruvius did. And probably lots of other architects and theorists made the obvious connection on many occasions between Vitruvius and Sullivan. It was the modernists who had the idea of using such a vapid platitude as a keystone of their architectural philosophy.

I mention that in order to suggest a parallel with the thinking of many modernist pioneers, which is glaringly evident in the very first chapter of Pevsner’s Sources. “The plea for functionalism is the first of our sources,” he writes, and then piles up quotes from Pugin, Hogarth, Voillet-le-Duc, Scott and Morris that purport to place them in a vanguard pushing for a more functional architecture.

But, though Pevsner and other modernists won’t admit it, Vitruvius stole their thunder a millennium and a half earlier. Utilitas is functionalism, and almost every architect since Vitruvius has placed function on a par with strength and beauty as required of all architecture.

What Pevsner and most other modernists truly mean by functionalism, and how it is different from architecture’s longstanding concern with function, is function without ornament. And even the quotes piled up by Pevsner in the first chapter of Sources fail to support the notion that functionalism requires that ornament be purged.

For example, Pevsner cites Pugin, writing in 1841:

There should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction or propriety. … The smallest detail should serve a purpose, and construction itself should vary with the material employed.

Propriety? Eh? Not entirely unconnected with venustas! But even if Pugin did not use the word propriety, the passage would contain nothing that excludes ornament as a feature of a building that serves a purpose.

Indeed, Sullivan’s reputation as a “precursor of the modernist movement” may have arisen after Pevsner wrote Sources. That might explain why Sullivan makes only the slightest appearance in the book. Pevsner probably realized that Sullivan loved ornament, and he may not have had the chutzpah to label him a “pioneer” of modernism – even if he did coin the dictum “Form follows function.”

Only after modernism captured the establishment of architecture did its thinkers and leaders have the balls to treat Sullivan as a precursor to modernism. By then the field had become less a profession than a cult, and the tendency to merely suppress and ignore uncomfortable facts became part and parcel of the modernist discourse.

Anyway, modernists have a most extraordinarily narrow definition of function. If a building’s beauty makes it more likely to be maintained and repaired by the human beings who own it, use it and love it, then its beauty is functional. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Nick Pevsner!

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, 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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5 Responses to Sources of modern silliness

  1. Pingback: Pevsner’s archiperversity | Architecture Here and There

  2. And chopped off at the ankles!


  3. petervanerp says:

    If form follows function, what is the function of a leaking roof and unfurnishable rooms (cough, Stata Center, cough, cough)? Function beyond keeping a lot of attorneys employed, of course.


    • That, and the function of a flat leaky roof is to save money for the architect by not spending enough to build a real roof for the client. I once wrote a piece headlined “Oops Stata, Stata, oops!” or something like that.


  4. steve bass says:

    In the ‘Chats…’ XIII, Sullivan defines ‘function’ as the Platonic psyche [a non-physical animating force] not as material purpose. Thus he reinforces the classical idea that soul, or consciousness, governs matter. He is advising the student to ‘psyche out’ the building and allow that understanding to shape its materiality. As usual in modernist discourse the classical world is stood on its head.


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