The Meaning of "Form Follows Function"

The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered

red masonry high rise with three distinct exterior design
The 1891 Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri. ]Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives Collection/Getty Images

"Form follows function" is a phrase often heard, not well-understood, and hotly discussed by students and designers for over a century. Who gave us the most famous phrase in architecture and how did Frank Lloyd Wright expand its meaning?

Architect Louis Sullivan

Born in Boston, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) 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.

Often called America's first truly modern architect, Sullivan argued that a tall building's exterior design (form) should reflect the activities (functions) that take place inside the walls of the building. His 1891 Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri 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 seven floors of interior office space and the top attic area. The Wainwright's three-part architectural form is similar to Sullivan's taller 1896 Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York—a similar form because these structures have similar office building functions.

Skyscrapers Without (Design) Principles

The skyscraper was a new invention in the 1890s.

With more dependable steel being made by the Bessemer process, building posts and beams could be made of steel. The strength of steel framework allowed buildings to be taller, without the need for thick walls and flying buttresses. The way a building was built (steel framework) was revolutionary, and Chicago School architects knew the world had changed.

The United States after the Civil War had changed from rural- to urban-centered.

The tall 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 in the rush to be the tallest, the newest. He bemoaned that "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 should change in appearance 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 utility rooms below grade, commercial areas in the lower floors, mid-story offices, and the top attic area generally used for storage and ventilation. 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 1896 phrase 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.

Form and Function Are One?

Louis Sullivan was a mentor to his young draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), and Wright never forgot the lessons imparted by Sullivan. As he did with Sullivan's designs, Wright took the words of his "lieber meister" and made them his own—form and function are one, according to Wright. Frank Lloyd Wright came to believe that people were misusing Sullivan's idea, reducing it to a dogmatic slogan, and using it as an excuse for "foolish stylistic constructions." Sullivan was using the phrase as a starting point, according to Wright. Beginning "from-within-outward," that Sullivan's function within should describe the outward appearance, Wright asks, "The ground already has form. Why not begin to give at once by accepting that? Why not give by accepting the gifts of nature?"

So what are the factors to consider in designing the exterior? Wright's answer is dogma for organic architecture—the climate, the soil, the building materials, the type of labor being used (machine-made or hand-crafted), the living human spirit that makes a building "architecture."

Wright never rejects Sullivan's idea—he suggests that Sullivan just didn't go far enough intellectually and spiritually. "Less is only more where more is no good," Wright has written. "'Form follows function' is mere dogma until you realize the higher truth that form and function are one."

Sources:

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

Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940), Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, p. 181

The Future of Architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, New American Library, Horizon Press, 1953, pp. 319-351

Photo of Guaranty Building ©Reading Tom on flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)