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.
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), 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!