Form and Function

October 13, 2011

Some comments by Monsieur Savage and A Minimalist apropos of my posts on Steve Jobs and Thoreau got me thinking more about form and function, the twin rails on which design evolution runs.  It’s a fraught topic, not least because it is so maddeningly difficult to pin down the categories.  Sort of like the debate over form and content in art – are they really separate?  Is the message truly distinct from the medium?  This ideas get reduced to slogans that guide and support fads and fashions in architecture, design, and the art world, but there is substance behind them.  And with the rise of digital technology, the whole relationship is being questioned.

The idea that form and function in nature are closely related probably occurred to the first person who looked closely at living things, and Darwinism takes it for granted:  forms evolve because they function in a way that promotes survival of the genes that produce them, or the species in which they are present, depending on your flavor of Darwin.  Once we get into culture, the whole idea gets confused.  In architecture, there are three notions related to this:  ornament is crime; functionalism; and form follows function.

Ornament is Crime was a famous essay by the early 20th century architect, Adolf Loos.  The phrase is often assumed to be the guiding idea behind functionalism, the philosophy that buildings, and designed objects, should have forms that reflect their function, their use, and that ornament is an outmoded, irrelevant, distracting, and even immoral deviation from this creed.  After all, what does ornament do?  Well, Loos’ buildings, though quite austere on the outside, were plush on the inside, and patterned materials were often present.

Is not pattern a form of ornament?  Should not carpets be simply solid colors?  And of course, just what is the function of a carpet?  To decorate  a room or to make it warm and comfy?  Both?  You see where this is going.  The colors of a peacock may have a strict evolutionary function in sexual selection – can we say the same for the profusion of ornament in human culture?  Or…is the demarcation of status, creation of lifestyles and consumption communities a valid function that ornament and style serve?  In the end, there is no escape from style.

Escaping style, and history, and the history of style is what is behind so much of the late 19th, early 20th century avant-garde.  If architecture were true to its function, so the story went, it would be timeless, instead of being encrusted with useless doodads that reflect the passing taste of the day.  Thus, Louis Sullivan’s phrase, form ever follows function, was distilled into the oracular form:  form follows function.

That small change, ‘ever’, is significant, I think.  Sullivan was coming from a cultural background that was filled with contemplation of natural forms, romantic notions of vitalism, organicism, German nature-philosophy, the excitement of Art Nouveau’s reworking of natural forms in ornament, and he struggled to distill this into a coherent aesthetic for the new building form of the skyscraper.  The word ‘ever’ implies that he is gathering this insight from observation of what has and does happen in the world – yes, life-forms do follow their function.  And the sloganeering modernists created the avant-garde ukase, form follows function.  It must, it does, and it shall…always!

Sloganeering produces herds that follow, and clever exploiters.  Raymond Loewy was one of the most successful designers of the 20th century, but he is criticized for mere styling.  That is, he created forms that looked good, seemed functionally derived, but were actually just stylish wrappers for the functional innards – salesmanship, not design.  Inside that Art Deco Moderne shell, there is just the same old locomotive as before.

These three works by the modern masters, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe show the more serious side of the functionalist aesthetic.  It produced some handsome buildings, not to mention furniture.  (Any architect angling for the moniker of Modern Master had to produce a chair design.  How better to display one’s grasp of form following function?  What is not often realized today, is that these notions were behind much design of the 18th century, when ornament was anything but subdued.)

And the debate is still on, I think, as to just how functional-rationalist (in Violet le Duc’s terms) were the builders of the gothic cathedrals.  Were the flying buttresses, the rib vaults, the spacing of arches, all dictated by structural logic, or was there a purely experiential/aesthetic motivation to some of them? Robert Mark, a professor of structural engineering tried to settle the argument with a series of modeling analyses using polarized light and plexiglass sheets  in the 1970s.  Today, it would all be done on a computer screen!

This post starts with an outrageous fashion image, fashion being the stylistic element of clothing, a most functional class of objects.  But of course, it’s easy to keep warm, especially with cheap materials abundant today, so that the exact how of it becomes the why of it!  I’ll end with Sullivan, who gave us the famous and much mis-used phrase.

The general look of his most influential building, The Guaranty (Prudential) Building in Buffalo, NY, seems quite modern.  It’s of brick and terra-cotta – glass curtain walls were not possible then – and it clearly honors the steel frame within with its strong horizontal and vertical lines.  It nods to tradition with a tripartite façade that echoes the form of a classical column: plinth; shaft; capital.  It also has a very un-modernist cornice.  (Le Corbusier declared, death to the cornice!)  But…it is covered with ornament, and beautiful ornament it is!  In fact, the ornament even seems to echo function in a way.  The massive corner of the cornice is held up by a spread of foliage that springs from a slender column-trunk.  Ornament follows function?  Sullivan was so much more subtle than many of his followers.  Less is more is too easy compared to this.

While the digital age may seem to divorce form and function in the realm of consumer products at least, I think it doesn’t do that at all.  When there is no mechanism to house, just a bunch of cards and chips of similar shape and appearance, the form is all about the user interface.  This is an old lesson that has simply become more important as the machines do more and more complex things.  It’s an old lesson that has never been properly learned by many designers of basic objects.  Whenever I come to a glass door with a handle that can be pushed or pulled, and I have to think (or read a sign) to figure out whether to push or pull to go through it, I think, a decently designed handle would not cause this confusion.


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