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Form Follows WHAT ?
The modernist notion of function
as a carte blanche


For the author's summary of the main argument, and a CAVEAT, click HERE*

"Dear Theo, Will life never treat me decently? I am wracked by despair! My head is pounding! Mrs. Sol Schwimmer is suing me because I made her bridge as I felt it and not to fit her ridiculous mouth! That's right! I can't work to order like a common tradesman! I decided her bridge should be enormous and billowing, with wild, explosive teeth flaring up in every direction like fire! Now she is upset because it won't fit in her mouth! She is so bourgeois and stupid, I want to smash her! I tried forcing the false plate in but it sticks out like a star burst chandelier. Still, I find it beautiful. She claims she can't chew! What do I care whether she can chew or not! Theo, I can't go on like this much longer! (...) - Vincent"

From Woody Allen's "If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists:
A fantasy exploring the transposition of temperament." (1)

:1: The dictum form follows function has been seen, by partisans and critics alike, as the gist of the functionalist philosophy of design. The aim of this essay is to shed light on this still enigmatic phrase, and, at the same time, on the nature of modernism in architecture and design. The key question pertaining to the dictum is simple: has the dictum been really feasible as a design precept? Or, to put it differently: can the modernist architecture and design as we know it be said to be the result of this design principle? The answer of the exponents of modernism was a victorious and unequivocal 'yes'. They claimed that this new architecture and design were not a result of stylistic intentions, but of the new anti-formalist precept. This claim has posed a problem, however. If we happen to accept such understanding, our discussions and our writing regarding modernist architecture and design will almost unavoidably be reduced to repeating, or at best embellishing upon, what modernists have said about their pursuits. If we, on the other hand, suspect, that their design precept was not feasible, our reading of their architecture and design will be necessarily very different.

:2: In the past twenty to thirty years the reading of modernist architecture and design has gone further and further away from the modernist self-understanding. Modernism has been exposed to a variety of criticism, ranging from long-suffering to vitriolic (2-12b). Both the history of modernist architecture and modernist design theory have gone through a series of attempts at radical revisions. Today it is more or less taken for granted that neither architects and designers (13a), nor engineers (13b, 14a), ever begin - or can ever begin - from a clean slate, i.e. only from problems at hand (14b). Examples, models, paradigms, and solutions from the near or distant past, play an important role in the process of design, as well as in design education (although there is no general agreement about the way they do). Reyner Banham's judgment that the dictum form follows function was an "empty jingle" (2) is more or less taken for granted today. Despite recent attempts to substantiate such judgment (13, 15) a basic, rather puzzling question remains: how could an empty jingle ever have preoccupied several generations of architects and designers? The discussion and conclusions offered in this essay build on insights of a number of scholars and thinkers who in my view succeeded best at penetrating the core of the matter (16a-24b).

I: The birth and childhood of the dictum form follows function

:3: Let me begin this discussion by an outline of the historical background of this elegant three-word resume of functionalism, or modernism (for the purpose of this discussion I use the two terms interchangeably).

:4: The dictum form follows function was coined by the American architect Louis Sullivan in his article "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered" published in 1896 (25). In the article Sullivan presented his approach to the emerging building type he referred to, in the manner of the time, as 'tall office building' soon to be called 'skyscraper'. In connection with arguing for his tripartite concept of skyscraper design and for the upward character of the structure, Sullivan claimed that his design was a 'natural' result of an all-pervading law. First he formulated this alleged law in general terms. He wrote:

It is my belief that it is of the very essence of every problem that it contains and suggests its own solution. This I believe to be natural law. Let us examine, then, carefully the elements, let us search out this contained suggestion, this essence of the problem.

:5: Later in the text, prior to the (originally four-word) dictum summarizing that law, he put it this way:

All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other. -- Unfailingly in nature these shapes express the inner life, the native quality, of the animal, tree, bird, fish, that they present to us; they are so characteristic, so recognizable, that we say, simply, it is 'natural' it should be so. (...) Unceasingly the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things, and this unspeakable process we call birth and growth.(...)

:6: Eventually come the ornate, Whitmanesque passages where Sullivan formulates his dictum, the "final comprehensive formula" as he put it:

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. (...) It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law. -- Shall we, then, daily violate this law in our art? Are we so decadent, so imbecile, so utterly weak of eyesight, that we cannot perceive this truth so simple, so very simple? (...) Is it really then, a very marvelous thing, or is it rather so commonplace, so everyday, so near a thing to us, that we cannot perceive that the shape, form, outward expression, design or whatever we may choose, of the tall office building should in the very nature of things follow the functions of the building (...)? (25)

:7: The dictum was mentioned a couple of times by Sullivan himself five years later in his "Kindergarten Chats", a series of 52 'Socratic' dialogues between a wise architect and his inquisitive student, published as weekly installments in a US architectural journal. The fact that the dictum did not figure more prominently in the Chats may have had to do with the fact that it was explicitly challenged half a year after its publication in 1896, in a speech and an article by Sullivan's former long-time partner Dankmar Adler (26), with whom Sullivan fell out at that time (it was in fact Adler who in his article cut the dictum down to three words by omitting the word "ever"). Later, in the 1910s, the dictum was quoted approvingly by several architectural writers discussing Sullivan's work (27a, 27b). Sullivan himself drew attention to it again in his memoirs of 1924, published under the ostentatious title The Autobiography of an Idea. There the dictum was mentioned - though without much elaboration - as the hub of his design philosophy. Sullivan wrote that in the beginning of the 1880s he was putting to the test a formula that he had evolved

through a long contemplation of living things, namely that form follows function, which would mean, in practice, that architecture might again become a living art, if this formula were but adhered to. (27c)

:8: First limited to the circle of Sullivan's friends and admirers, the dictum seems to have become a catchword among the American modernists only in the mid-1930s, after the 1935 publication of the first Sullivan biography written by Hugh Morrison (28) which included an extensive discussion of Sullivan's architectural theory. Already a year later, in a book on American industrial design (29), Sullivan was referred to as the "author of an overquoted axiom about form and function". The slogan appears to have entered Europe via England in the late 1930s with the British publication of C. W. Behrendt's important book Modern Building (30), connecting the European and American modernist developments, first published in the US (31); here were not only design theories of Sullivan but also of his predecessor Greenough presented, and enthusiastically discussed. (Admittedly, Walter Gropius mentioned both Sullivan's dictum and its author already in 1934 in a London lecture (31a), but this was more of an aside; besides it appears that Gropius learned of the dictum only after his emigration from Germany; at any rate, it seems fairly certain that at the Bauhaus, the dictum itself, in contrast to the philosophy which it summarizes, was virtually unknown.) Since the mid-1930s in the US, and late 1940s in Europe, Sullivan's dictum then started to be used as a shorthand summary of the ambitions of the modernist architects and designers. It summed up the modernist claim that the Modern Epoch was pregnant with new, preordained forms, a new, predestined aesthetics intrinsic to this Epoch, implying that the primary duty of the modernist designer, overshadowing all his other duties and loyalties, was to serve as a kind of midwife (32, 19a) for this new objective aesthetics, which was deemed independent of anybody's taste preferences.

II: Modernists adopt the notion of function

:9: Although Sullivan was the father of the dictum it was not he who introduced the notion of function into architectural discourse. It seems that the notion came to be applied to architecture sometime around 1750 in Venice in Italy, in the architectural doctrines of the Italian Jesuit Padre Carlo Lodoli (33, 34). Father Lodoli was an important figure in the cultural circles of Venice of that time (35). Among others he was the first to collect paintings of the Italian primitives, i.e. late Gothic and early Renaissance painters, at a time when these pictures were considered practically worthless (36). Lodoli was intensely interested in the theory of architecture and came later to be called the Socrates of architecture, not only because he repeatedly questioned the accepted architectural truths of the day, but also because he himself did not leave any architectural treatise. His ideas and theories survived thanks to two books, one written by Francesco Algarotti, one of his critics, and the other by his admirer Andrea Memmo (37, 38). According to these writers Lodoli was very critical of what he considered as overuse of ornament and decoration both in contemporary, and in much of the older architecture (this was the dawn of the neo-classicist reaction to rococo). As one of these writers put it the cornerstone of Lodoli's teaching was the maxim that nothing should be put on show (in rapresentazione) that was not in function (in funzione), that is, a working part of the structure (33). It is further probable that Lodoli also introduced the notion of organic architecture (33, 34), which for him was an architecture based on functional, or rational, considerations. The Lodolian theories of architecture were included later in the 18th century in a book about famous architects written by Francesco Milizia (39). It was presumably through this popular book that Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), the American neo-classicist sculptor living in Florence, came to learn sometime in the 1830s or 1840s about Lodoli and his notion of function.

:10: Being a neo-classicist, Greenough (34) spent most of his adult life in Italy. It is probable that he came also into contact with contemporary French natural sciences, and Georges Cuvier's works on comparative anatomy, where the notion of function played a key role. Greenough wrote several essays on architecture and design in the 1840s, in which he criticized contemporary historicism and argued for a program of reform in which the notion of function would play a central role. To exemplify his ideal he referred often to forms found in Nature, which he explicitly considered God's work. He claimed for example that

God's world has a distinct formula for every function, and we seek in vain to borrow shapes; we must make shapes, and can only effect this by mastering the principles.

He maintained also that one of the most important principles found in nature, that human designers should appropriate and master, was "the principle of unflinching adaptation of forms to functions." (40) Here we can note that Sullivan's later dictum form follows function expressed much the same principle, the main difference being that Greenough himself never hit on such a condensed, felicitously alliterative formulation.

:11: Around the middle of the century the ideas expressed by Greenough were very much in the air in Europe as well. Both the French architect Violett-le-Duc and the German architect Gottfried Semper were influenced by George Cuvier's functional classifications, which informed much of the collections in Cuvier's Musée d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, and both architects explicitly held these classifications and analyses as models for the study of buildings and useful artefacts (41). Their role as ideologists of a new architecture was, however, different from that of Greenough and Sullivan. In contrast to the latter two, who can be said to have been pure ideologists, both Viollet-le-Duc and Semper brought off serious historical studies.

:12: The architectural thinking of Greenough and Sullivan had an explicit metaphysical frame of reference. Both authors were influenced by their countryman Ralph Waldo Emerson, the principal representative of an American philosophical position known as transcendentalism. Poetic and speculative at the same time, this trend of thought had its roots in the German Romantic philosophy of Schelling and Hegel, mediated through the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Greenough and Emerson met in the 1830s in Florence and continued their contacts in later years (42, 43). Emerson claimed to be interested in what he called "metaphysics of architecture" by which he meant an architecture that was a result of necessity, in contrast with architecture based on arbitrary and capricious choices. In his essay on "Nature" he wrote: "Nature who made the mason, made the house" (44) - a formulation suggesting a vision of 'natural' architecture endowed with 'natural' forms (whatever that may have meant). In a newer study Sullivan's architectural work and thought was also described as transcendentalist (45).

III: 'Functions': do they precede forms?

:13: After this short historical survey, let us take an analytic look at the notion of function. In the discussions about the dictum form follows function it was in the main the verb 'follow' that kept attracting attention ("does it - can it - should it follow function?" was the usual question) while the word function itself was as a rule considered unproblematic. But is it really? The formula form follows function hides a remarkable claim, namely that function is something that precedes form, that it exists independently of form, that it is there before form emerges. Forms, in other words, can be said to follow functions only if we consider functions to be entities that precede, and predate, forms. Only then does it make sense to urge the designer to make functions his starting point, to make forms follow functions. But is there really such a thing as function that exists prior to form? No contemporary science, natural or social, uses the notion of function in the sense functionalist designers and architects did. No matter whether these sciences deal with material objects or immaterial phenomena, the scientific notion of function always refers to what an existing object or phenomenon does within a certain context. Whether we wonder about the function of the heart in human physiology, or the function of facades in a townscape, hearts and facades have to exist before anybody starts wondering about their functions. In both natural and social sciences form predates function: the notion of function is born from observing existing forms or phenomena. In functionalist design theory, on the other hand, it is exactly the other way around: function is claimed to predate form.

:14: Sullivan conceived his dictum as an all-pervasive natural law. It is important to stress that the dictum is difficult to square with the Darwinian (or Neo-Darwinian) explanation of functional adaptations in nature, as has been recently pointed out by architectural historians (46, 47). The Darwinian theory of natural selection is mechanistic, not teleological; it does entirely without postulating an intending, designing agent. According to this theory, small incidental variations in the physical and behavioral makeup of offspring of the same litter produce variations in their ability to adapt to a particular habitat. The individuals that happen to be better adapted to the particular environment have more chance, through no effort of their own, to survive to adulthood and have offspring, which inherit the advantageous variations; these offspring in turn are exposed to the further pressure of natural selection. The specific habitat operates as the selecting factor, while inheritance accumulates the selected, i.e. advantageous, variations. In this way, in the course of generations, design-like adaptations slowly develop. The Darwinian way of interpreting seemingly purposeful phenomena in nature as a result of natural selection is obviously an argument against, rather than for, the Sullivan formula. According to Darwinian biologists, forms, or rather small incidental modifications in forms always appear first, while function, i.e. the functional exploitation of the modified forms, emerges afterwards - if at all. The astonishing functional adaptations found in nature are in other words not explained by reference to beneficial fiats of a Higher Intelligence but by reference to the habitat-related mechanism of natural selection. If architects and designers were to take seriously the modernist exhortation to follow principles found in nature, the mechanism of natural selection would then suggest, paradoxically, the opposite of what the modernists propounded: not that designers should start from 'function' and arrive at the allegedly only possible formal solution pertaining to such function, but rather that they should start from forms at hand and see how any of them could be used, whether unchanged or redesigned, to solve the particular task. This is something, one could argue, every architect and designer has been doing since the time immemorial (cf. my article "On seeing design as redesign").

:15: It should be also noted that Greenough wrote before Darwin's theory of natural selection appeared on the scene, and that Sullivan wrote when Darwinism was temporarily in shambles. Darwinian biology was consolidated only in the 1930s and 1940s (48). In other words, neither Greenough and Sullivan nor later functionalists can really be accused of having misunderstood modern biology. This, however, does not mean that pre-functionalist and functionalist design philosophy had the bad luck of following too closely an erroneous understanding of nature during its own time. No modernists of the 19th or the 20th century were unwitting followers of either pre-scientific or scientific concepts of the day (49). There seems to be a good deal of vested interest in embracing these theories, as I will argue below.

IV: Actual functioning - or intended functioning?

:16: It could be objected that there is no intrinsic reason why the notion of function as used by architects and designers should conform to that of scientists, and that there are many good reasons why it does not: scientists qua scientists are observers of things, while architects and designers are doers, makers of things. The latter's notion of function, the argument could go, can be reasonably expected to stand closer to the doer's notion of purpose than to the observer's notion of function. And indeed to begin with, the functionalist notion of function seems to be employed as a synonym for 'purpose'. Could this be the reason why function is considered to precede form? "Form follows purpose" seems to make better sense. We know that both pre-functionalists and functionalists of the period between the First and Second World War used the notion of function and the notion of purpose more or less interchangeably, and that is to some extent also the case in the design discussions until today. We further know that even in our day-to-day language we use the notion of function in two different senses, one of which is synonymous with 'purpose'. When speaking, for example, about the function of car tires, we may have in mind the original intention with which they were produced, that is securing a soft, quiet and safe ride. Alternatively, we may by function mean their actual performance, i.e. how the tires perform, independently of the original intention. We may then find that they not only fail to fulfill thoroughly the intended objective, but that they in addition produce a lot of unintended things: they wear out, are exposed to punctures, are exceedingly laborious to change, create severe disposal problems, etc (50).

:17: Let us call these two different meanings of the notion of function the intended functioning and the actual functioning.

:18: The actual functioning would then refer to what scientists have in mind when they use the term function: what something (a form, a phenomenon) does, or how it behaves or performs, no matter whether that was or was not the part of an original intention or, indeed, whether or not there was any intention at all. The notion of intended functioning would, on the other hand, refer to the purpose of an artefact, or to someone's performance-related intention. 'Function' in this sense would then be a word for an intended performance, no matter whether the intention has been or has not been realized.

:19: Obviously, the question of whether form 'follows' or precedes function depends on which of the two meanings of the word 'function' we have in mind. If we speak of function in the sense of actual functioning, then form is always there prior to function. In other words, since the notion of 'function' is here derived from observing an existing form, the conclusion must be that form always precedes 'function' (in this sense) - or, which is the same, 'function' (in this sense) always follows form. If we on the other hand by function understand intended functioning then form is yet to be found; in this sense then (and only in this sense) form can be said to follow function.

:20: What then can we make of the notion of function as used in Sullivan's dictum? It is obvious that form follows function cannot be understood as 'form follows actual functioning' because the statement would simply make no sense; it is evident that actual functioning refers to the performance of an already existing form.

:21: So the dictum form follows function makes obviously sense only if we understand it as "form follows intended functioning". But can "form follows intended functioning"- or simply "form follows purpose"- be the true meaning of "form follows function"? Our answer would be 'no'. Admittedly, in the designer's world the intention, plan or purpose is always there before the form is created; products are always conceived, designed and manufactured with this or that purpose in mind. But "purpose" does not seem to fit here either. If we choose to understand Sullivan's dictum as suggesting that forms of buildings and products should follow the purpose the buildings and products are intended to be used for, we have a reasonable statement - but a pretty trivial one. Could a slogan such as "form follows intended purpose" have ever become a battle cry? Could anybody have ever bothered to disagree with such a goal? The main problem, however, is that if we choose to understand the dictum this way, its most intriguing dimension - namely its promise of objective forms, forms independent of both the user's and the designer's aesthetic preferences - will disappear. And as the vision of the objective-because-intrinsic forms vanishes, the whole functionalist criticism of historicism and eclecticism in architecture and design, in fact the whole functionalist moral superiority, looses its footing. The reason for that would be that if we start speaking of purposes of buildings and products, it is obvious that purposes of things are purposes of human beings, that purpose is simply a word referring to someone's wishes, demands and preferences. Not only could be the idea that form follows human wishes, demands and preferences, hardly be taken for a new design principle entirely different from those of the 19th century (there is little doubt that in any neo-baroque facade of the last century the forms followed purposes in this sense). Above all, such understanding of the word function, or purpose, would only reinforce the legitimacy of demands of human users, clients, or builders, on architects and designers.

:22: We have to conclude, therefore, that "purpose" (or "intended functioning") can hardly be the true meaning of the functionalist notion of function because functionalism stands and falls with the idea of an objective starting point of design. Were it not for that allegedly objective starting point claimed to be entirely independent of our subjective wishes, demands and preferences, functionalists could hardly insist, as they did, that they were coming forth with a radical alternative to historicism and eclecticism. Without such an objective starting point functionalism would be merely a change in style.

:23: Unless, of course, the notion of function is taken to refer not to purposes of flesh-and-blood humans, but to Purposes with a capital P.

V: 'Function' as the gist of the functionalist design metaphysics

:24: Indeed, the key to the functionalist notion of function seems to be the finding that the notion does not refer to any commonsense concept at all, and that it is a denizen of a separate reality. Since this separate reality is part and parcel of the functionalist design philosophy, I will refer to this philosophy as functionalist design metaphysics.

:25: Although some writers did touch upon the metaphysical dimension of modernist thinking, referring to Plato in connection with the functionalist architecture and design (3, 51-54), this side of functionalism has until recently (45, 55, 56) remained largely unexplored. Excepting David Pye's critical observations (17), architectural writers including most of the recent ones (8, 46, 57-60) still tend to interpret the notion of function as a direct or indirect reference to use and to the common sense world of users. Our contention is that the notion of function as employed by functionalists has nothing to do with what a flesh and blood person in fact wants a building or a product to do, or look like. Rather, it is a word for what the person ought to want a building or a product to do, or look like - according to the putative purposes (or rather Purposes) of supra-human entities such as "Modern Epoch". Once one becomes alert to it, it is not difficult to discover that not only the pre-functionalist writings of Greenough and Sullivan but also the modernist design philosophy is set in a time-honored metaphysical framework. Pre-functionalists were quite explicit when suggesting what authority was to warrant the existence of those objective forms, independent of taste. They kept referring to entities such as "God", "creator", "infinite creative spirit", "essence", "nature", etc (40, 61). Functionalists proper, those of the 1920s and 1930s, did not refer to God but rather to demands of the "Zeitgeist", "Modern Epoch" or "Machine Age". Whether references were to God, Nature or History (references to the Zeitgeist, Epoch or Age are of course references to the authority of History) they referred to Purposes of an other-than-human Intelligence. Such Purposes, in not being human purposes, were allegedly no longer subjective but objective, and as such they sanctioned the vision of objective design.

:26: Two illustrations: In the functionalist texts the notion of function manifests itself in the above sense, as an "objective demand" with various degrees of obviousness. In a text by the Bauhaus director Walter Gropius it was suggested rather than articulated, when he wrote in 1926:

... the Bauhaus seeks - by the means of systematic theoretical and practical research into the formal, technical and economic fields - to derive the form of an object from its natural functions and limitations. (...) Research into the nature of objects leads one to conclude that forms emerge from a resolute consideration of all the modern methods of production and construction and of modern materials. (62)

Gropius seemed to be emphasizing here that not all demands were to be evaluated equally - only those which the architect deemed "natural" or "objective", those which existed purportedly apart from the subjective preferences of users.

:27: At other times the metaphysical pedigree of the notion of function is more evident. When the American industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague wrote in 1940 about function in his ideological oeuvre Design This Day, to begin with it sounded as if the notion referred for the human user and his wishes: Teague's 'function' seems to be a synonym with "user's demand". But soon 'function' abandons its ties with the human user and becomes an object's "destiny" (incidentally an idea close to that of Sullivan):

The function of a thing is its reason for existence, its justification and its end, by which all its possible variations may be tested and accepted or rejected. It is a sort of life-urge thrusting through a thing and determining its development. It is only by realizing its destiny, and revealing that destiny with candor and exactness, that a thing acquires significance and validity of form. This means much more than utility, or even efficiency: it means a kind of perfected order we find in natural organisms, bound together in such rhythms that no part can be changed without wounding the whole. (32; cf. also 54)

:28: Since it refers to a metaphysical rather than a common sense world, the notion of function is by necessity opaque. Teague himself complained about the elusiveness of the notion, writing of "the difficulty of accurately defining a function, and definition's habit of retreating before our very approach." Functionalists maybe perceived this very elusiveness as a tell-tale sign of a close contact with fundamental metaphysical magnitudes, and therefore as something positive (63). Also the functionalist references to functional and aesthetic perfection (50), where perfection is apparently taken to be a feasible aim of design effort, should perhaps be understood as appeals to the existence of Higher Order or Higher Intelligence, i.e. to metaphysical warrants (cf. 39, 64-69).

:29: To recapitulate, we can say that the functionalist notion of function did not refer to the world of preferences, wishes and demands of human users, but rather to alleged Purposes, Intents, and Plans of such non-human entities as Nature or History. I contend then that the functionalist claim that function exists prior to form is logically consistent only when the notion of function is understood as an "objective purpose" or "objective demand" imputed either to God, to Nature or to History, i.e. to an other-than-human, or "Higher" Intelligence. It is only in this capacity that the functionalist notion of function can be shown to be independent of functional and aesthetic preferences of human clients. The requirement that function ought to be the starting point of design now makes sense, because function becomes an objective rather than a subjective demand. In other words, it is only within the framework of what we called the functionalist design metaphysics that the functionalist notion of function, and the dictum form follows function, makes sense.

VI: The new vision - and its end

:30: It is not difficult to imagine the fascination which the promise of an epoch of seamless unity of both functional and aesthetic worlds must have exercised on the young designer. True functional solutions would be identical with true formal solutions, since each and every function was meant to have one - and only one - solution proper to it, and, consequently, only one proper form. The modernist designer was now employing neither old forms (as historicists did) nor devising new forms (as the pseudo-modern, "modernistic" designers did (51, 70)) but uncovering and revealing functional forms, i.e. the ones inherent in the problems at hand. As the Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin put it in the 1920s: "Neither the old, nor the new, but the necessary." (71) To do otherwise would lead at best to a kind of masquerade (72-74), at worst it would be plain dishonesty (75). Such functional forms (the functionalist designer would have argued) were the very opposite of formalist architecture of the historicist and eclectic architects, since that architecture was a result of disregard of the fact that formal solutions were congenital to functional problems. It was considered morally reprehensible to opt for forms other than those that were purportedly intrinsic or inherent, to 'functions'.

:31: Furthermore, since functional forms do not, by definition, emerge as a consequence of pleasing the aesthetic preferences of users, a situation in which some people would fancy such functional forms, while some would be indifferent to them, or positively dislike them, would simply not obtain. One could safely assume (the logic went) that since such forms were not developed in order to appeal to anybody in particular, they would be acceptable, perhaps even pleasing, to everyone in general, regardless of the person's social or cultural background. Functional forms simply do not appeal to taste, because they are a matter of truth - and truth does not pander to taste. As it was put by a writer of modernist persuasion in the late twenties, "... from the standpoint of modern architecture the question of taste may be altogether out of date ..." (64). Functional forms (the functionalist designer would have maintained) were therefore creating a common visual language across a variety of boundaries, including the time-boundary: since such forms were not related to any fashion they could not go out of fashion either. They would not age, because they were essentially timeless (30, 76). The functional language of forms, it was suggested, was making it finally possible to bring an end to the wasteful use of resources, implied in the fashion-based changes of forms, as well as the aesthetic masquerade of false facades, driven by the chase for social prestige. Functionalism, in the eyes of functionalists themselves, was simply showing the way back to natural, necessary forms appropriate for the Present, i.e. for the Modern Epoch.

:32: This vision of objective forms was enticing to the designer who espoused it, for personal as well professional reasons. The vision offered him a new, exciting and flattering role: in making him a vehicle of the Zeitgeist it abolished his previous status of an expert servant ministering to sometimes refined but mostly pedestrian demands of users. The exercise of the profession was now infused with a new sense of purpose, creating a strong sense of solidarity. The functionalist architects and designers would now perceive themselves as instruments through which the true formal language of the Modern Epoch would be brought forth. They conceived of themselves as a vanguard, bringing about a new world which had started to grow from within the confines of the old one. They would recognize themselves in what the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel described as "world-historical men" (Hegel's philosophy was in fact instrumental in preparing the ground for, among other things, the functionalist design metaphysics; cf. (77-82). In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History Hegel wrote that the world-historical men

... were thinking men, who had an insight into the requirements of the time - what was ripe for development. This was the very truth for their age, for their world; the species next in order, so to speak, and which was already formed in the womb of time. It was theirs to know the nascent principle; the necessary, directly sequent step in progress, which their world was to take; to make this their aim, and to expand their energy in promoting it. World-historical men - the Heroes of an epoch - must, therefore, be recognized as its clear-sighted ones; their deed, their words, are the best of that time. (...) They are great men because they willed and accomplished something great; not a mere fancy, a mere intention, but that which met the case and fell in with the needs of the age. (83)

:33: Although their vision had political implications, functionalists thirsted more for artistic liberty then for political power. The utopian vision of unity of functional and aesthetic solutions promised them exactly that kind of freedom. In suggesting that the aesthetic demands of the market were illegitimate or by definition questionable, functionalist architects and designers proclaimed in effect their artistic autonomy and joined (mentally, that is) the coveted ranks of fine artists, as Brent Brolin convincingly argued in his book Flight of Fancy (16). Modernist architects and designers were re-enacting the liberation process through which painters and sculptors arrived at the status of "fine" artists. Painters and sculptors came to consider themselves to be definitely liberated from the demands of conventional taste after the Romantic philosophy of art in the decades before and after 1800, defined art as an original product of a genius, a product not only independent of the preferences of the public, but usually in opposition to it (16a, 16b, 84). In this way it came about that art which previously was important for the sake of the buyer, the user or the client, started now to be considered more and more important for its own sake. In a similar fashion, and after the model of fine artists, architects and designers began to consider themselves to be liberated from the traditional duty to please the aesthetic, symbolic, institutional and other demands of their clients.

VII: The user's new identity

:34: As the modernist designer's claims to authority increased, the user's status became more and more precarious. Direct references to users, or clients, when they appear in the functionalist texts, are almost invariably of an edifying bent, suggesting that the modernist architect is in possession of authority to decide what is best for them, both in the functional and in the aesthetic sense. In fact, to be defined as a user worthy of the functionalist architect's attention one had first to qualify as Modern Man, i.e. a person whose likes and dislikes were practically identical to those of the modernist architect himself. The functionalist references to users never suggested a readiness to consider the users' wishes, demands and needs on their own merits (86). The individual client, who was until the arrival of modernism thought to have a legitimate say in both functional and aesthetic matters, was from now on his way to become an unperson. This was only logical: since forms were claimed to be intrinsic to functional solutions, there was no reason to take the form-, or function-related preferences of clients and users seriously. On the contrary, there were good reasons to reject such preferences as irrelevant (unless they were those of the Modern Man). If the user happened not to like the functional forms, it was considered to be the user's problem - not the designer's. Seen from the perspective of the functionalist design metaphysics, this was after all a rational attitude to take.

:35: In the functionalist architect's eyes, the forms he 'brought forth' had no addressee, and they were not to have one either: they were not aimed at any particular individuals, or any particular public - just as forms of leaves of grass, or of a snail's house (a functionalist would argue) were not meant for any public. The visual articulation of buildings and products was in principle never meant to appeal, in any sense of the word, to those who were to use them, or to see them: functionalists conceived of their buildings and objects as natural expressions of 'functions', as a function of 'functions', so to speak. Forms were not thought of as part of visual communication since communication entails use of conventional, known, and ultimately 'historical', forms (87, 88, 88a). This probably explains why functionalists did without the notion of aesthetic function: they did not consider the visual side of buildings and objects as something to be useful: "How can forms growing organically from within take notice of the user's likes and dislikes?" might a functionalist object. Not surprisingly, the public, more often than not, found the new consciously 'unappealing' architecture and design to be - unappealing.

VIII: Impact on the designer
- and the designer's impact

:36: Before finally coming to an outline of a non-modernist interpretation of the modernist architecture and design, let me touch upon two concrete effects - upon designers and architects themselves - of the functionalist upgrading of their status to that of an instrument of Higher Intelligence. One is the problem of practical uncertainty, or rather confusion, about what the designer's new role in the design process really consisted in. The other has to do with the different consequences of functionalist artistic innovations.

:37: The designer who accepted 'function' as the objective starting point of the design process was led to see his own work as an objective process, and to understand the solutions deemed successful as a result of necessity. Since functionalist design philosophy claimed that the essence of designing was the search for intrinsic solutions, the adherent of the functionalist design philosophy was precluded from understanding that the 'intrinsic solutions' he arrived at were based on his own choices and that he - not functions, materials, constructions, or the modern epoch - was responsible for those solutions. The more he trusted that the functional starting point guaranteed an objective aesthetics, the less he understood that his formal solutions were in fact addressed to the aesthetic sensitivities and artistic preferences of his own peers, plus a minority of others, endowed with "cultural capital" (96), who shared these sensitivities and preferences.

:38: Due to the functionalist dominance of design education since the 1950s, the education of would-be architects and designers was geared mainly to tastes and needs of their own privileged group, and to those of clients with avant-garde tastes (20b). Not surprisingly, most newly educated architects and designers ended up being able to design for kindred spirits only. Like their functionalist grandparents, who trusted that they arrived at an objective aesthetics, the new generations of architects also tended to refuse conscious thought of considerations of institutional status and social prestige in buildings and products; they believed as well that their aesthetic solutions, purportedly intrinsic to the tasks at hand, had taken care of everything worth taking care of. Students were too seldom reminded that the raison d'(être of architecture and design has always been to make buildings and products meaningful to their owners and users (97) and that the owners' and users' need for signs of social or institutional belonging has always been, and will no doubt always remain, the prime engine of any design culture (98).

:39: Whether the functionalist artistic innovations turned out to have positive or negative impact in the end, seems to have depended largely on whether the functionalist objects and functionalist solutions came to be imposed on the users, or whether they were offered to them as a part of broader choices. As long as the works of the modernist architects and designers remained a part of a market economy, as was the case with objects of industrial design or family houses, the commercial culture seems to have effectively contained and defused modernist attempts at making the users embrace the modernists' own aesthetic and other values. Under such circumstances the innovative modernist designs contributed to, rather than restrained, or replaced, the plurality of stylistic choices. The functionalist mental set proved devastating only where the modernist solutions were imposed on the users, i.e. where users were left with no choice because administrative decision-making, for various reasons, replaced the working of the market. Often the modernist artistic visions were inflicted on the captive audience of the socially weak sections of the population who were utter strangers to the sophisticated abstract aesthetics the modernists themselves relished. The notorious formalism of Le Corbusier's urban visions, and their pervasive influence on various large-scale housing projects until the 1970s, is probably the prime example the ultimately inhuman, alienating consequences of an undiscriminating foray of architects into the field of artistic autonomy.

:40: In these and similar contexts one comes to think of Vincent van Gogh of our motto, whom Woody Allen turned into a dentist cursed with a mind of an autonomous artist.

IX: Anti-formalist - or out-and-out formalist?

:41: How to interpret the concrete physical results of the functionalist design metaphysics, i.e. the new forms of functionalist buildings and objects? We have already suggested our conclusion: Functionalist architecture and design were results of an artistic, style-obsessed crusade, driven by distinctly formalist objectives. It will be remembered, however, that functionalists themselves always claimed the very opposite: The aesthetics of their buildings and artefacts was objective and free of formalism because they did not choose the forms of their architecture and design, but only mediated them on behalf of the Machine Age, Zeitgeist, or the Modern Epoch.

:42: Now, what are we to make of such claims? If our aim is to penetrate the phenomenon of functionalism, I propose that this functionalist self-understanding be taken altogether seriously. I submit that there are two mutually exclusive but in the end equally justifiable answers to the question of whether the extant functionalist architecture and design is to be seen as an anti-formalist, or rather as a formalist, exercise. The answers depend on where one stands in relation to the functionalist design metaphysics. The reason for the differing views seems to be that those who do not embrace the functionalist design philosophy feel no obligation to interpret the functionalist buildings and products in agreement with that design philosophy, while the believers are bound to perceive and understand the functionalist buildings and products only and solely through that philosophy alone. So when functionalists kept emphasizing that they were not interested in forms for the sake of forms, this was a true statement - but it was true exclusively with regard to their monistic belief that functions and forms are indissolubly bound together, as the form-follows-dictum suggests. The self-understanding of functionalists was simply a descriptive statement of what they were prescribed to do and achieve according to their design metaphysics - not a result of reflection about what they actually achieved. As all strong believers, they were mentally bound to operate within the confines of their all-encompassing belief, perceiving the outcome of their beliefs in terms of these beliefs only.

:43: On the other hand, if one belongs to those who fail to share, or no longer share, the doctrines of functionalist design metaphysics, the perspective changes dramatically. One is left to one's own commonsense judgment, and perceives the modernist architecture and design from the outside, i.e., no longer from within the theory. In this 'un-enlightened', common sense perspective, functionalist architecture and design presents itself as a strikingly formalist, stylistic, exercise in which architects and designers devised for their buildings and objects a 'no-choice', utilitarian-like style of dress - a style the gist of which was a sophisticated game of pretending not to pretend. With the collapsing of consensus support for modernism since the 1960s, also some former adherents of the modernist design metaphysics came to see their movement from the outside of their design philosophy, something which brought many 'new' observations (10, 89, 90). The leading modernists, however, such as Gropius or Mies, never ceased to see themselves as, so to speak, chief midwives in the Zeitgeist maternity ward.

:44: The fact of acceptance or rejection of the functionalist design metaphysics seems to operate as a kind of mental switch: either the switch is on, and the things functionalists said about their own architecture and design appear to fit; or the switch is off, and nothing whatsoever seems to agree. There appears to be no intermediate position here. This switch analogy may be refined into an analogy with the 3-D 'interactive' posters, prints and postcards popular in mid-1990s, which showed flat, seemingly abstract printed patterns, or collage-like forms without any obvious meaning. One was invited to 'break into' the picture, that is, to stare through the surface in a special way; when successful, one was able to discern, thanks to the previous computer manipulation of the pattern, completely new and strikingly three-dimensional constructs, almost as persuasively plastic as the live object-landscapes around. But it was a vision that had to be conjured up by a conscious and strenuous effort, and was easily lost again. In a similar fashion, one may catch a glimpse of the functionalist architecture and design in its intended non-formalist state of being only when one consciously attempts to conjure up and recreate the mental world of the design metaphysics for which it was created (cf. remarks by Mumford (3) and Fitch (53) on the 'Platonic' nature of Mies' architecture).

:45: In the world of the functionalist design metaphysics there was, naturally, no sanctioned room for notions such as influence or visual models from architectural and design history, i.e. for the facts which play an essential role in the work of every single designer. Such notions were in the functionalist eyes related to the old world of 'falsehood', 'masquerade', 'deception' and 'untruth'. But in the everyday commonsense world in which, but not for which, the functionalist architecture and design were created, and in which they were bound to operate, the extrinsic sources of the aesthetic imagery in functionalism are not difficult to find.

:46: Two such sources are well documented: we know that to begin with, the European functionalists took many visual clues from ship design and from industrial structures such as North-American corn-silos and factory buildings (which they learnt about through tiny photographic reproductions) (17b). We know further that they later took even more clues from the abstract aesthetic idioms of contemporary painting and sculpture of which all of them had, in one way or another, a first-hand knowledge (92). To a non-believer the existence of these two sources would be enough to suggest that the genesis of the modernist forms was at variance with the rule form follows function: in both cases either ready-made forms, or a ready-made aesthetics, rather than "formless" problems, were used as points of departure. But if we ask, as Reyner Banham asked (17b), how it came about that "a design school could look like a factory, or an apartment block in Paris could resemble an automobile plant in the Detroit suburbs", or why many villa-facades reminded one of huge abstract geometric paintings or reliefs (91), again, two very different answers can be given, depending on the position of the switch.

:47: If the switch is on, such schools, apartment blocks or villas would not be perceived as a sign of formalism, simply because modernists had proclaimed technical buildings and later also abstract art (92) to be a genuine, organic expression of the Modern Epoch. As a consequence, the aesthetic references to ship design, to factory buildings or to abstract art, ubiquitous in functionalist architecture and design, would not be perceived as a sign that functionalist practice was at variance with the functionalist theory but, on the contrary, as a proof that the theory worked just fine. It would be read as a sign that the Zeitgeist of the Modern Epoch was expressing itself through the designer, exactly as it was supposed to (30, 92-95). - "After all, was not the dictum form follows function only a principle, the adherence to which was to secure the kind of design proper to its own time? So what is the problem?" - a modernist designer might point out. The functionalist design philosophy, by standing on a metaphysical rather than empirical basis, could obviously accommodate any conflict with its basic principles, and survive unscathed in the believer's mind. (This is, admittedly, an unbeliever's statement.)

:48: There is hardly any doubt that functionalists had vested interests in the design philosophy that cast them as a modern aristocracy in the new scheme of things. Until recently (18b, 20b, 85) most of the literature on modernism was partisan and seldom pointed this out (the subject of interests vested in revolutionary visions is nowhere as unpopular as among the revolutionaries themselves). Still, unless we approach the design philosophy of functionalists as an expression of their aspirations qua designers and architects, I am afraid we will be reduced to devising variations on their 'determinist' self-understanding. Interpretations that explain the functionalist architecture deterministically, i.e. only as 'footprints' of outer formative forces (new functions, new materials, new technology, new age) or of external ideas (scientism, logical positivism, technological utopianism, totalitarian ideas of the 1920s and 1930s, etc.) - tend to become a replay of the functionalist claim that their architecture was the expression of historical necessity. I want to suggest that the master-key to understanding functionalism, relevant to historians of design and design educators alike, is not to be sought in any 'determining factors' but rather in intentions, aspirations, and dreams of those who espoused the design philosophy that explicitly denied any role to intentions, aspirations and dreams in design. Not that the approaches exploring the role of outer circumstances do not bring new insights - they definitely do. But such explorations will truly contribute to our understanding of the modernist theory of design and of the modernist buildings and artefacts only when we will have first understood that both the 'determinist' philosophy and the 'determinist' self-understanding of functionalists was a part and parcel of their effort to jettison the user.

X: Conclusion

:49: The functionalist notion of function, which begot the name of functionalism, was instrumental in creating an impression, more rampant among architects and designers than among the public, that functionalism represented and safeguarded the user's interests in the course of the design process. Our closer look at the notion of function, and the dictum form follows function, showed why this impression was mistaken. The functionalist notion of function did not refer to the world of users but to the realm of what we called the functionalist design metaphysics, where the business of forms was to express 'functions' conceived by supra-human entities. In the reality of our day-to-day world, however, where architects and designers are bound to live and act, no matter how lofty are the design philosophies they profess, the functionalist notion of function operated as a carte blanche: having been empty the notion of function made the architects and designers free to define it in ways that always legitimized their own aesthetic priorities. To answer our introductory question, we can say that in our commonsense world the dictum form follows function proved infeasible as a design precept for objective design. Not only did it fail to bring the promised end to formalism. On the contrary, it inaugurated and legalized an era of a surreptitiously formalist approach to architecture and design. The dictum was a summary of the design philosophy that brought about a victory of the 19th century idea of art for art's sake - in the wake of a phony war against that very idea.

:50: Unless we see the crux of the dictum in its furtive promise of artistic autonomy, the success of the functionalist philosophy of design among architects and designers would be difficult to understand. [*]

* * *


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88: Ettlinger L.D. Kandinsky's 'At Rest'. London 1961. Charlton Lectures on Art
88a: Michl, J. "Seeing Design as Redesign: An Exploration of a Neglected Problem in Design Education." Scandinavian Journal of Design History [Copenhagen] 12, 2002: 7-23.
89: Nelson G. George Nelson [On] Design. New York 1979.
90: Blake P. No Place Like Utopia: Modern Architecture and the Company We Kept. New York 1993.
91: Michl, J. "Modernismens to designdoktriner: funksjonalisme og 'abstraksjonisme'." In: W. Halén, ed. Art Deco - Funkis - Scandinavian Design. Oslo 1986: 86-95.
92: Hitchcock H.-R. Painting Towards Architecture. New York 1948.
93: Hitchcock H.-R., P. Johnson. The International Style: Architecture since 1922 New York 1932.
94: Read H. Art and Industry: The Principles of Industrial Design. (5th ed.) London 1966.
95: Bill M. Form: A Balance Sheet of Mid- Twentieth-Century Trends in Design. Basel 1952.
96: Bourdieu P. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste London and New York 1984.
97: Bonta J.P. Architecture and Its Interpretation: A Study of Expressive Systems in Architecture. London 1979.
98: Michl J. "Industrial design and social equality." In: Parko S., ed. Den stora nordiska utst)alningen i Køpenhamn 1888. Helsingfors 1989: 67-70.

*) A SUMMARY, and A CAVEAT (added February 2007):

The critique of the doctrine form follows function, presented in this article discusses only the original Sullivanian and later functionalist meaning of the dictum. In the critique above I argue that in proposing the superficially plausible but entirely unfeasible idea of preordained solutions (which was the gist of the dictum) the aim of Greenough, Sullivan, and their modernist followers was to disqualify the 19th century revivalist and eclectic styles as valid aesthetic options, and to advance the idea that the modern architect's main task was to bring about the new, unified, modern, historically-necessary-because-historically-preordained formal language. The dictum was mainly prohibitive as a design precept: no reference to previous formal solutions, no decoration, no ornament. It derived its force from the 19th century fascination with the novel idea of a sequence of stylistic epochs, each of them conceived of as separate, "historically necessary" expressions of the past individual eras. At the same time the philosophy behind the dictum cast architecture and design professions as autonomous artistic activities, helping to institutionalize, under the flag of 'functionalism', the contemporary formalist and aestheticist approach to architecture and design.

It is a fact, however, that at present the dictum is often used in a sense that is not affected by the critique above, and that in that present use the dictum can be considered unobjectionable. Today, the dictum is often understood, and employed, simply as an exhortation to design things (products, layouts, websites etc.) in a purposeful manner, in the sense of fitting aesthetic solutions to non-aesthetic functional requirements in such ways that "aesthetics" does not collide with "function". In this usage of today there is, in other words, no element of a belief in pre-ordained solutions, or of prohibiting, or advancing, any particular aesthetics, style, or formal language. The only point of employing the dictum in this way seems to remind the designer that the chosen aesthetic solutions must support the non-aesthetic purposes the product is supposed to fulfill.

An example of such a present-day unobjectionable use of the dictum can be found in the Dutch designer Peter-Paul Koch's short article "Form follows function" from 2003, which (without touching upon the origin of the dictum, or its original meaning) interprets the phrase as a rational rule to be kept in mind in order to preclude formalist tendencies on the part of the designer.

Koch writes: "The basic rule for any design is 'Form follows function'. If an object has to perform a certain function, its design must support that function to the fullest extent possible. This goes for industrial design and even more for Web design. (...) If the form of a Web site becomes a goal in itself, instead of a means to an end, the Web site will not work."

The dictum interpreted in this way makes sense as an anti-formalist design precept, because this interpretation is neutral as to the kind of aesthetic or style employed, and because proper functioning is the prime concern here.

Nevertheless, the dictum can be seen as sensible and unobjectionable only because the way it is understood nowadays has, apart from using the same three words, virtually nothing in common with its original meaning. What is more, the fact that the same three words, historically instrumental in fostering a formalist vision of the allegedly "pre-ordained" and "historically necessary" modern forms, are employed today to resist the very formalism the three words introduced, encouraged, and defended. That only further compounds, rather than dispels, the confusion around the meaning of the phrase.

I suggest therefore that it would be of a great service to the design community
to avoid the three F-words altogether.

* * *

Bibliographical note:
The paper above was published under the same title in 1:50 - Magazine of the Faculty of Architecture & Town Planning [Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa] nr. 10, Winter, 1995: 31-20 [sic] (see here).
It was an expanded English version of an earlier paper in Norwegian,
"Var funksjonalismen en type formalisme? Formgivernes funksjonsbegrep som et carte blanche" published in Foreningen til norske fortidsminnesmerkers bevaring. Årbok 1992, ed. Seppo Heinonen. 65-80.
Oslo: Forening til norske fortidsminnesmerkers bevaring, 1992.

Latest TEXT modifications:
January 30, 2018: Minor rewordings of "A SUMMARY, and A CAVEAT" section;
Previous TEXT modifications:
April 16, 2017: minor rewordings in paragraphs 30-32.
February 20, 2016 (minor rewordings in the CAVEAT section);
March 16, 2010: The SUMMARY and CAVEAT text slightly rephrased here and there;
February 8, 2009: Part of the CAVEAT offered as A SUMMARY of the main argument;
February 21, 2007 (addition of the CAVEAT text at the very end of the article; addition of words "preordained" "predestined" in § 8, plus minor changes in the same paragraph);
October 30, 2004 (reference 88a added);
August 26, 2002 (minor rewording throughout, a paragraph moved to another chapter, two chapters switched, some references added);
May 8, 2000 (the Woody Allen motto added);
May 5, 2000 (minor rewordings throughout and some more incisive reformulations in chs. 7, 9 and 11);
March 31, 2000 (minor changes in the first paragraph).

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The Czech translation of the article above can be found HERE
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"Form follows function? Actually, no" (2006)
Three related articles by Jan Michl:
"A case against the modernist apartheid regime in design education" (2009)
"On seeing design as redesign" (2002)
"On the rumor of functional perfection" (1991)
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