Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Genius of Louis Sullivan

It is widely accepted that the origin of modern architecture can be found in the mid nineteenth century with the construction of the Crystal Palace in 1851 by Joseph Paxton. What is often not discussed is that Joseph Paxton was not an Architect, but a horticulturalist (is that a word?) who specialized in the design of greenhouses and conservatories. What is also not well known is that the Crystal Palace was a 'prefab' structure in that it was designed in a modular fashion and erected on site in a matter of months. The use of iron and glass as well as the progressive technology used in the construction ushered in a new era of 'superstructures' that led to the development of other modern marvels such as the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge (neither of which was designed by an Architect either). And while each of these structures is remarkable in its own way, none of them encapsulate the meaning of Modernism as well as three simple words attribute the great master Louis Sullivan - Form Follows Function.

Form Follows Function changed my life. It is not only the defining detail of Modern Design but it mirrors how nature truly works. Prior to Form Follows Function, Form Followed Technology where people built whatever was possible at a given place with the given tools and materials. The industrial revolution gave us the tools to build bigger and standardize building components at any given location. The genius of Louis Sullivan and the modern movement comes in the restraint that needed to be exercised in order to produce true works of art. Form Follows Function is the directive for that restraint.

I imagine that when Louis Sullivan uttered these words he was looking at the Neoclassic buildings of the Colombian Exposition and wondering why we were still building gigantic structures adorned with Roman and Greek columns when we were capable of so much more. What is interesting to me as an Architect is that not much has changed in over 100 years. Our buildings are as sad and referential as ever. We have forgotten about Form Follows Function and have gone back to Form Follows Technology. The Modernists of the early 20th century were all about Function. Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van Der Rohe, Marcel Breur, Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames. While their work is remarkable, none of them were ever interested in building the biggest or most ostentatious structure. I was recently struck by how small Saarinen's TWA terminal looks when compared to the new Jet Blue building that envelops it.

The genius of Louis Sullivan was that he understood that people are small. Gigantic buildings only become architecture when they are designed as a series of smaller human sized moments. If you ever get to NYC take a look at Sullivan's Bayard Building on Bleecker Street. You may have walked by it a hundred times, but if you stop and look at it closely, you will notice it is no ordinary building. It is a series of small gestures designed to engage and astonish the viewer. It's function is to demonstrate beauty amongst its giant clumsy neighbors.

Form Follow Function respects nature. It wastes nothing. It is not interested in ornament for ornament's sake. In Sullivan's world, ornament has a function. I once stumbled upon a book of banks that Louis Sullivan had designed and was struck by the attention given to the way that a teller would work, the procession of the customer, the appearance of safety and monumentality that each building had. When compared to what passes for a bank today, it is hard to imagine that we live in a 'progressive' society. The fact that Sullivan and his contemporaries were able to create such beauty in a world that did not have even a fraction of what is available to us today is staggering. When you look at what Eames did with plywood, what Wright did with textile blocks and stained glass, or what Mies did with structure, it is clear that they were all putting function before beauty.

Although I hardly ever quote, I will leave you with one of my favorites from Buckminster Fuller (another function guy): 'When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.'

Next time you are stuck on a design problem, put functionality first and I'm sure you will find that the solution is not far off.