form follows function – but should it?

When Louis Sullivan uttered these famous (and in some minds infamous) words a century ago, I’m sure he had no idea he would influence countless generations of architects, designers and builders the world over.

The reason this comes up is my friend Bob Borson, a.k.a. The Architect, has been writing several blog posts about custom residential architecture, specifically the modern style.  And according to Bob “the most enduring and most quoted rule of all is Form follows Function.”

I have to agree to disagree on this one.  While certain functions lend themselves to certain natural forms (i.e. concert halls, fire stations, classrooms, the list goes on), I do not believe this rule is by any means firm or fixed. I believe architecture, and architects, have the power to change the rules, to change the way we experience and use space.  This doesn’t always happen for the better, but even in failed attempts at change we can learn, especially in modern residential design.

Frank Lloyd Wright taught us this with his obsession with the hearth as the center piece of a home (house, home – it’s all the same Bob).  Previous to Wright, homes were very segmented and segregated.  Individual spaces were linked by small openings in large walls.  Wright, by centering the home around the hearth, created an open and organic floor plan, through the Prairie Style, thus using the form to dictate the function.  Or maybe more specifically HOW the home functions.

The Robie House 1910 - courtesy

So, does form follow function, does function follow form or does the true essence of how an architect creates a home fall somewhere in between?  In residential design, especially custom, you are not merely providing a set of programmatic requirements that must relate in a preset manner, you are creating a “machine for living”, a home for a person or person’s with sometimes very strange living habits that perhaps don’t fit into a set mold.  It’s not so much about the function or the form, but the HOW and the WHO that will determine both the function and the form.


About Jeremiah

Birth: April 6 - Upstate New York Education: Savannah College of Art and Design Bachelor of Fine Art - 2003 Masters of Architecture - 2003 Member AIA National since 2004 Member AIA Florida since 2004 Member AIA Jacksonville since 2004 Member Emerging Design Professionals Jacksonville since 2006 Emerging Design Professional President 2009-2010 View all posts by Jeremiah

8 responses to “form follows function – but should it?

  • Bob

    I live in Texas, when there’s a fire in the house (home) the fire department is on the way.

    I don’t make up the rules, I just quote them.FLW had some too, they’re different but it’s how they are interpretted that makes all the difference

    Cheers –

    • Jeremiah

      Ha! Took me a second on the “fire in the house” comment. Living in Florida we have the same problem. My fireplace has never been used. I’m not even sure if it actually functions. :-\

      As to the rules, we should not just interpret what’s been done in new ways, but also make up our own new rules as clients and technology allow, no?

      Thanks for the comments!

  • earthymind

    i believe form and function go hand in hand…these two things shouldnt really be different from each other…but yes,i do agree that lifestyle of a family ‘follows’ the house that they live in.
    i Just simply love FLW and his concept of organic:integration of not just inside activities,but of nature and inside too!!!

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    good topic,form and function i can explain.
    we need to understand art and we need to understand architecture.
    we need to look at the basic difference between the two discipline.
    i understand and agree art is part of architecture but not architecture.
    when you focus on forms or aesthetics and you embed a function inside a form ,that is Art but when you arrive your aesthetics or form from function that is architecture.
    Art and Architecture should not contradict in design and execution stage rather they should conform together .
    Architecture can not do without Art , but Art should be carefully embedded into design so that it can be meaningful and functional.

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