Form Follows Function

The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered

Ornate terra cotta detailing on exterior of Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building in Buffalo, NY
Terra cotta detailing ornament the exterior of Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building in Buffalo, NY. Photo by Lonely Planet/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images

Who gave us the most famous phrase in architecture, form ever follows function?

Often called America's first truly modern architect, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) argued that a tall building's exterior design (form) should reflect the activities (functions) that take place inside. His 1895 Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York (view image) reflects Sullivan's philosophy and design principles. Observe the terra cotta facade of this early steel frame tall building—the lower floors require a different natural lighting window configuration than the central ten floors of interior office space and the top attic area.

The Guaranty's three-part architectural form is similar to the 1891 Wainwright Building in St. Louis—a similar form because the buildings have similar functions.

Skyscrapers Without (Design) Principles:

The skyscraper was a new invention in the 1890s. The way a building was built (steel framework) was new. The building's major use—office work, a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution—was a new function in need of a new urban architecture. Sullivan understood both the magnitude of this historical change in architecture and the possibility that beauty may be left behind: "the design of the tall office building takes its place with all other architectural types made when architecture, as has happened once in many years, was a living art." Sullivan wanted to build beautiful buildings, the likes of the Greek temple and the Gothic cathedral.

Louis Sullivan set out to define principles of design in his 1896 essay, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, published the same year as the Guaranty building rose tall in Buffalo.

Sullivan's legacy—besides instilling ideas in his young apprentice, Frank Lloyd Wright—was to document a design philosophy for multiple-use buildings. Sullivan put his beliefs into words, ideas that continue to be discussed and debated even today.

Form:

"All things in nature have a shape," Sullivan said, "that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other." That these shapes "express the inner life" of the thing is a law of nature, which should be followed in any organic architecture.

Thus, Sullivan suggests that the exterior "shell" of the skyscraper—excluding the popular, off-street "light court" floor plan as seen in buildings like The Rookery—change to reflect interior functions, if this new architectural, organic form is to be part of natural beauty. The exterior facade should be consistent as each interior function changes.

Function:

Common interior functions included mechanical rooms below grade, commercial areas in the lower floors, mid-story offices, and the top attic area. Sullivan's description of office space may appear organic and natural at first, but it is Sullivan's dehumanization that decades later many people would eventually mock and ultimately reject:

" an indefinite number of stories of offices piled tier upon tier, one tier just like another tier, one office just like all the other offices,- an office being similar to a cell in a honey-comb, merely a compartment, nothing more"

The birth of "the office" was a profound event in American history—a milestone that affects us even today. It's not surprising, then, that Sullivan's form follows function has followed us throughout the ages, sometimes as an explanation, often as a solution, but always as a design idea expounded by one architect in the 19th century.

Born in Boston, Sullivan helped pioneer the American skyscraper mainly in the Midwest, creating a Sullivanesque style that changed the face of architecture. Louis Sullivan is one of the great historical figures in American architecture, but most importantly he influenced the language of architecture.

Source: "The tall office building artistically considered" by Louis H. Sullivan, Lippincott's Magazine, March 1896. Public Domain.

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