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.
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.