Form Follows Function?

Louis Sullivan is credited with coming up with the phrase “form follows function.” It is useful to know that someone in the recent past invented this notion in order to raise the possibility of uninventing it.

Some quote “form follows function” as though it were an axiom of geometry that all remotely mature thinkers acknowledge as a foundational truth; even as a God-given dictum.

The phrase could even be rendered innocuous if “function” were suitably defined. What, for instance, is the function of houses and work places? They are there to serve human beings with all their intricacies. They are not there to shelter robots and automatons.

What do people want from houses? They want a house to be a home. They want it to be structurally sound, reasonably affordable, easy to maintain and they want it to be beautiful. Human beings feel at home with beauty. They are instinctively drawn to beautiful things and feel alienated by the ugly. This is why we carefully choose furniture, paintings, decorations, paint colors for walls, curtains and carpets. We attempt, with various levels of success, bearing in mind limitations of budget, to turn the house into a home. Many of us like to include house plants and pets as other living things to share our homes with.


However, “form follows function” is instead interpreted, as was intended, to mean that any decoration, any element of a thing that is not strictly necessary for utilitarian purposes should be stripped away. The implication is that the decorative and the beautiful are not and should not be considered at all. Form follows function is thus an interpretation of the human being as an emotionless zombie and mechanism.

Toilets are for the evacuation of waste. Houses are to provide shelter from the elements. Thus, if Sullivan is to be believed, human beings should be housed in windowless concrete bunkers with holes in the ground as toilets. If the need for beauty is to be ignored, why not the desire for comfort?

Windows are surely inefficient. We like them mostly because we enjoy looking at the outdoors; the sky, natural light, trees, flowers and birds. A solitary naked light bulb suspended from a wire would probably be more energy efficient because windows tend to contribute to heat loss in winter and contribute to overheating in summer.

If “form follows function” is to be treated as a commandment, why hang paintings or paint walls? A concrete bunker need not be painted in the way in which wood might benefit. A stinking hole in the ground does not need to be cleaned and the smell is neither here nor there. There is no utility in preventing smells – to worry about such things is to give into the vagaries of human preferences and those are to be forgotten in the notion of “function.” If comfort and smells are in fact to be considered, why not decoration and beauty?

Something similar happened in the history of philosophy with the advent of empiricism. This claimed that knowledge came exclusively from experience. This idea would be a simple and innocuous truism if “experience” were correctly defined. Among human experiences are simple lived experience, involving interacting with other people, aesthetic experiences of music, artworks, novels, plays and poetry. There are religious experiences, emotionally inflected experiences of sadness, joy and contemplation and so on. However, “experience” was intended to mean experience of something called “sense data” only, inflicted on a tabula rasa mind.

Empiricism was a stillborn philosophy with nothing to offer in regards to understanding the human condition because its conception of human beings and their experiences was inept and inadequate. For the same reason, when someone like the rationalist Sam Harris talks about “human well-being” it is to be anticipated that his conception of human well-being and a normal thinking and feeling person’s will be miles apart.

“Form follows function” has the same autistic nihilism as empiricism and Harris, and embodies a horrible and even tragic misunderstanding of what the function of things should be with regard to human beings.

11 thoughts on “Form Follows Function?

  1. There’s a great documentary called How Buildings Learn. It blows up this thought from every angle including the fact that it’s silly because functions of buildings change significantly over time since buildings can certainly last longer than the original occupants.

    • Thanks, greenmantlehoyos. That sounds good. But, since “form follows function” does not involve the preferences of the occupants that particular part would not bother Louis Sullivan. It is a severely anti-human assertion. I will check out the documentary, however, if I can find it.

  2. Pingback: Form Follows Function? | Reaction Times

  3. No. “Form follows function” is correct. The function of modern architecture is to drive men mad and to poison their souls.

  4. On windows: The function of windows in my house is to let my dog have the full prospect of the street so that he can bark and howl at passers-by.

  5. Pingback: Cantandum In Ezkhaton 04/07/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

  6. As you say, Sullivan’s formula is usually applied with an unspoken materialist addendum. Modernist buildings shelter and serve bodies, but they are very poor houses for Men. Sullivan used the word “follows,” but those who came after strengthened this to dictates. If we look at one of Sullivan’s buildings, we see that their form did not ignore function, but it certainly wasn’t a slave to function. So Sullivan’s formula has evolved into “material function dictates form,” with the consequence that we are incarcerated in buildings like the one in the photograph.

  7. I agree this is bad. I disagree it comes from empiricism or even from FfF – but rather a very narrow interpretation of both. Enter Christopher Alexander:

    Worths a long quote:

    “You know, up until about 1600 it was essentially religious authority that held sway, and one did what that tradition said to do. And people were comfortable with that, and there wasn’t much need to be questioning it.

    Around the time of Descartes and Newton, something else happens – the authority that comes from things is the observations of our own senses. We’re going to pay attention to what we can see and what we can identify and what we can know. And the criterion for knowing it is, that whatever we hold to be true can be put in some kind of experimental form, that another person can then be convinced of. And that unless something meets the standard of being sharable in that kind of sense, it isn’t going to pass muster.

    Now that’s an incredibly powerful thing that’s been running now for about 400 years. It’s really swept the world. And it has made the world what we know it to be today. But the thing is, value has not been included in this approach.

    So you’ve got all this stuff which has this wonderful way of being shared, by observation, experiment, you own eyes, your own fingers, and so forth. But all the matters of value that we’re fundamentally concerned with as architects – they slip through the net, they’re just not dealt with. They’re all seen as arbitrary.

    Now, if we successfully put forth the idea that value can be discovered through an experimental procedure which gets results, which helps people to reach agreement, and therefore is sharable, this suddenly puts value in and among that huge movement that began around 1600. Where suddenly, we’re looking at an understanding of things that can come from fairly simple experiments that we do by examining ourselves, and our reactions to things, but in a very special way. ”

    ” Now, the thing that’s going to get us furthest in making that attempt is painstaking observation of our feelings as we are in the room, whether let’s say the room is unfinished or something, whatever state it’s in, and we’re trying to guess what kind of window is going to have this effect. And whether we do it through mockups in the full size or whether we make models or we even try little sketches or whatever it is we’re doing. But what we’re trying to read is what depth of feeling comes into being because of the window being such and such a size, shape, position, and so forth. ” <—– this is empiricism, correctly understood.

    • @Dividualist – I believe I actually said in my short article that empiricism and even FFF correctly understood would not be bad things at all. They have not been correctly understood. What Christopher Alexander is saying here criticizes the omission of value from the empirical view. Value and the divine are linked – specifically intrinsic value so the death of a sense of the sacred isn’t going to help architecture either. I don’t agree with his dismissal of religion and tradition. One thing tradition can do is solidify the results of trial and error which is what he is describing in your last paragraph above.

      Paying attention to how a window or space makes you feel I think is crucial, as CA says.. Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, often gets the proportions of his interiors wrong. This, I assume, had something to do with ignoring how the space makes you feel, or perhaps a failure to anticipate, which seems a shame since FLW often has nice ideas.

      Feelings are not senses so “the authority that comes from things is the observations of our own senses” seems misleading.

      Metz cathedral is the most impressive building I personally have been in and I have not been in even that many cathedrals so I make no claims that it is the best in the world. It predates Descartes and Newton. So do the ancient Greek monuments, the ruins of which I have just returned from visiting. I would not say that the advent of empiricism marked any great improvement in architecture. And, as even CA acknowledges, the interpretation of the empirical has been sorely lacking – the removal of value which he mentions is devastating.


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