The Meaning of 'Form Follows Function'

The famous architectural phrase said design should reflect activities

red masonry high rise with three distinct exterior design
The 1891 Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri.

Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

"Form follows function" is an architectural 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?

Key Takeaways

  • The phrase "form follows function" was coined by architect Louis H. Sullivan in his 1896 essay "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered."
  • The statement refers to the idea that a skyscraper's exterior design should reflect the different interior functions.
  • The Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Prudential Building in Buffalo, New York, are two examples of skyscrapers whose form follows their functions.

Architect Louis Sullivan

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) helped pioneer the American skyscraper mainly in the Midwest, creating a "Sullivanesque" style that changed the face of architecture. Sullivan, one of the great figures in American architecture, influenced the language of the style of architecture that characterized what became known as the Chicago School.

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 its walls, represented by mechanical equipment, retail stores, and offices. His 1891 Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri, is an iconic showcase for 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 partners Adler and Sullivan's taller 1896 Prudential Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York, a similar form because these structures had similar functions.

two sides top part of a multi-story brown terra cotta clad office building, rows of rectangular windows and one top row of round windows
Prudential Guaranty in Buffalo, New York. Dacoslett via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Rise of Skyscrapers

The skyscraper was new in the 1890s. More dependable steel being made by the Bessemer process could be used for posts and beams. The strength of a steel framework allowed buildings to be taller without needing thick walls and flying buttresses. This framework was revolutionary, and Chicago School architects knew the world had changed. The U.S. after the Civil War had changed from rural to urban centered, and steel became the building blocks of a new America.

Tall buildings' 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 and the newest. "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, like Greek temples and Gothic cathedrals.

He set out to define principles of design in his 1896 essay, "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered," published the same year as the Prudential Guaranty Building rose tall in Buffalo. Sullivan's legacy—besides instilling ideas in his young apprentice, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)—was to document a design philosophy for multi-use buildings. Sullivan put his beliefs into words, ideas that continue to be discussed and debated today.

low angle view of brown early skyscraper, looking up from the bottom floors
Prudential Building, 1896, Buffalo, New York. Dacoslett via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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. Sullivan suggests that the exterior "shell" of the skyscraper should change in appearance to reflect interior functions. If this new organic architectural form was to be part of natural beauty, the building's facade should change as each interior function changes.

Function

Common interior areas by function included mechanical utility rooms below grade, commercial areas in the lower floors, mid-story offices, and a top attic area generally used for storage and ventilation. Sullivan's description of office space may have been organic and natural at first, but decades later many people mocked and ultimately rejected what they thought was Sullivan's dehumanization, which he also expressed in "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered":

" 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 echoed through 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

Sullivan was a mentor to Wright, his young draftsman, who never forgot Sullivan's lessons. As he did with Sullivan's designs, Wright took the words of his lieber meister ("dear master") and made them his own: "Form and function are one." He came to believe that people were misusing Sullivan's idea, reducing it to a dogmatic slogan and an excuse for "foolish stylistic constructions." Sullivan used the phrase as a starting point, according to Wright. Beginning "from within outward," the concept 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, soil, building materials, type of labor 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 didn't go far enough intellectually and spiritually. "Less is only more where more is no good," Wright wrote. "'Form follows function' is mere dogma until you realize the higher truth that form and function are one."

Sources

  • Gutheim, Frederick, editor. "Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940)." Grosset's Universal Library, 1941.
  • Sullivan, Louis H. "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered." Lippincott's Magazine, March 1896.
  • Wright, Frank Lloyd. "The Future of Architecture." New American Library, Horizon Press, 1953.