Form follows function

From ArticleWorld

Form follows function is one of the long-standing slogans of modern architecture. Its use was pioneered by turn-of-the-century skyscraper architect Louis Sullivan, complemented by Adolf Loos's 1908 assertion that 'Ornament is crime', adapted by Frank Lloyd Wright and adopted by Modernists and Bauhaus desginers such as Mies van der Rohe ('Less is more'), Walter Groupius etc. Originally meant to be defiantly honest – let the form of a building or product result from its function and no more – and anti-style, it eventually evolved into yet another set of un-interrogated conventions, and is now being both challenged and re-worked.

Early skyscrapers and new cities

Louis Sullivan designed the pioneering the early 1900s Chicago steel towers. Skyscrapers were the form of the new city, propelled by new economic and aesthetic realities. Sullivan believed it was dishonest and unproductive to look for architectural precedents, because there weren't any. His new aesthetic would derive from the reason for the existence of a bulding, its logic, rather than random, fuzzy, pointless ornamentation.

In addition to this revolutionary new idea, Sullivan also influenced two key players in the development of modern architecture. Czech-Austrian architect Adolf Loos, whose 1908 essay Ornament and Crime was the other battle-cry of architectural modernism, had worked with Sullivan. Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Fallingwater aesthetic seems to have had less mass influence than his vision of a hypermodern car-driven city (today's controversial suburbs), was a student of Sullivan.

Modernism and Bauhaus

Of the two Loos, in particular, influenced a generation of young European architects – Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Mies van der Rohe (leading lights of the Bauhaus school), and Le Corbusier – who adopted his and Sullivan's pronouncements as virtually moral guidelines. These archtiects put Modernists on the map, literally.

They designed stark, spare, and light apartment blocks and industrial centres and factories, chairs and shoes, and thus changed the way parts of cities like Weimar and Dessau looked. The pinnacle of good design for them might be a water tower, and the only 'ornamentation' allowed, exposed girders for reasons of structure and cost. Though the structures looked simple, their starkness was deceptive. Distilling functional requirements into the most efficient, streamlined design required a huge amount of work – the architects needed to put together fine-tuned, precise engineering and research on materials with the an overall philosophy for the building, and minute considerations of utility and waste.

The political changes in Germany in 1933 put an end to the Bauhaus school, though the individuals continued practising. By this time Modernism was established enough to verge on trendy. This meant not only that some architects were increasingly adopting the 'style' without doing the detailed pre-planning and research, but also that others were finding their own interpretation. The best known of the latter is Philip Johnson, who delcared himself for the style on aesthetic grounds.

== The Modernist 'tradition'

Until the mid-1980s, functional modernism was the biggest game in architecture not only because it had itself become a tradition, but also because the flatted down perception of its ideology fitted in with the politics and economics of the time. This explains the anonymous blocks in European Communist states, as well as the faceless developments for the masses in developing coutnries such as India. On the other, more showy side, the flashing glass and steel towers were signs of prosperity, progress, and looking to the future in places like Dubai and [Dallas]].

Criticism and adaptation

It is often argued that form follows function and ornament is crime are not as synonymous as they are perceived to be. Sometimes, critics argue, function requires ornamentation, for example as a wayfinder for pedestrians, as a social and symbolic announcement of the purpose of the building, or to encourage people to enter. Another criticism is that to truly follow either of these tenets in, say, product design, means to sometimes simply refuse certain projects that have no discernable value, or make them so perfect and durable that the manufacturers would be put out of business. The often cited example is the slowing down on principle of aerodynamic research by US auto giant General Motors in the 1930s. To reach the perfect shape would mean to reduce sales, and to this day, the word 'aerodynamic' is recognised as being little more than a marketing buzzword.

Some product designers acknowledged the tension between maintaining intergrity as designers and working with and for capitalist economies. Norman bel Geddes adapted his aerodynamics research (and experience as a theatrical designer) to design Futurama, the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair, which seemed to acknowledge that the perfect shape was a vision in the future only. Raymond Loewy coined the phrase Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, MAYA, to describe balancing good design with the economic contraints on its acceptance.