The philosophy of Louis Sullivan: Form follows function

When one studies architecture, the quote by Louis Sullivan, “form follows function” is often seen in print. For some reason, the triple alliterative quote not only resonates throughout the world of architecture, but has invaded art in general. Its simplicity hints at a world of information enclosed within, and either forces the researcher to agree, deny or to pass over unmoved by those famous words.   

It is the pervading law of all things organic, and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.“—1896 essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”

Is it true, or is it hype? 

‘Form follows function’ means everything has a purpose and the shape of the object is suggestive of the intended use. A prime example and the most simple to illustrate the point being made is the human body. Each section down to the minutest cell has a purpose having been constructed by the divine architect toward that purpose. Dressing the body is illustrative of form follows function; a shoe is built to fit a foot of a certain size and a shirt is made to fit a torso with arms. 

In architecture, the same principle applies. It is assumed buildings are to enclose people as the primary function. In its most basic form, the structure must have four sides, a roof and doors that open and shut. Steps are built to get those on the bottom floor to the second floor and window are installed for light.

The art of architecture is realized in its connection with life and the purpose it serves.  The building of forms out of natural and elemental substances, such as wood, sand, cement and mud, connects the form with the living person. Thus the form, simple in construction, is limitless in interpretations.  

Louis Sullivan followed his own ideas, and while not as provocative and well known as his student, Frank Lloyd Wright, he is nevertheless considered the first modern architect. He lived and worked at the turn of the 20th century and paved the way for others to be original in their art and in the forms they created. 

“Louis Sullivan believed that the exterior of an office building should reflect its interior structure and its interior functions. Ornament, where it was used, must be derived from Nature, instead of from classical architecture of the past. The work of Louis Sullivan is often associated with the Art Nouveau movement in architecture.”

Although the quote ‘form follows function’ is true, it could be said that the purity of that observation by the innovative architect has been corrupted many times over since that quote first began to inform the world of art. Modern art, it sometimes seems, often sets out to prove that not everything works as it was planned. Sullivan would no doubt agree with that. 

Other quotes by Louis Sullivan

As shown by the following quotes, Sullivan well understood the connection between the super-natural world and the world of nature. Yet he was in awe of some of the ways human beings were ruining the beauty of man and his natural world as he saw it. 

“The feudal concept of self-preservation is poisoned at the core by the virulent assumption of the master and man, of potentate and slave, of external and internal suppression of the life urge of the only one — of its faith in human sacrifice as a means of salvation.” 

Yes, one can argue form does, or at least should, follow function, but why argue over it. It’s as clear as the nose on one’s face, the ears by which sounds are heard, or fingers which touch and write words that are to be shared. One either accepts or denies and moves on toward his tomorrow fitting his thoughts to the problems at hand. It’s clear by the above quote that he considered ‘master and slave’ not to be attuned to his belief that ‘form follows function’.

Readers can agree or disagree with what Sullivan wrote, but as is evidenced with the following quote, he was not always in tune with words. He didn’t always believe they spoke highly of the truth regarding the matter of his forms and thoughts. He is forgiven of course for his words that others find somewhat hard to understand and may be at times overstated. He could have used a bit more humility. But as he noted in the last quote it is man’s will that often undoes him. Not all choose to live up to the potential of their form. 

“Words are most malignant, the most treacherous possession of mankind. They are saturated with the sorrows of all time.”

“Implicit in true freedom of spirit lies a proud and virile will. Such glorious power of free will to choose envisages beneficent social responsibility as manifest and welcome.”