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Form follows what?

Late 19th century and early 20th century architecture and industrial design is known for the axiom, “form follows function.” I think of the German Bauhaus School when I hear this, but supposedly it can be attributed to American architect Louis Sullivan. Either way, it was meant to represent a functionalist approach to architecture and design, which was, as is often the case, a reaction to what had come before it.

It was Modernist architects eschewing decorative elements or what was referred to at the time as “ornament.” If it didn’t serve a functional purpose, it was to be removed. Nothing was to be superfluous. And similarly, if the function of something didn’t change, there was no need to change its form.

Of course, if it was truly all about function, one could argue that there should have been a great deal of variation in the resulting forms. But instead, the designs that emerged out of schools, such as the Bauhaus, are some of the most recognizable in the world. That is true even to this day.

Which is why I think this is a great line from Witold Rybczynski (taken from a recent post about the book iBauhaus): “It is also a quintessentially Bauhaus example of form follows predetermined aesthetics rather than form follows function.” Ouch. The difference here is that Witold obviously isn’t a fan of the Bauhaus or of Modernism, whereas this period of time is what inspired me the most as a student of architecture.

Photo by Marina Reich on Unsplash


  1. am

    I am admittedly a Mies devotee, but not just because I like his aesthetics, but because I’ve had the privilege to study and work in some of his most iconic buildings for a few years as a student, as well as visiting numerous other of his creations. While many modernists may have been a little too focused on form, Mies’ work is largely very functional. Beyond the aesthetics, his academic buildings work very well, are very comfortable and have proven to be eminently adaptable to changes in use. One may think of Crown Hall as a pristine jewel but it is anything but in reality, as it’s more often than not a messy, cluttered architecture school studio and functions extremely well as such. The parallel to the iphone, is a bit of a stretch. But one can argue that despite the fact that it’s not hand shaped, it still functions very well. The iphone 4, 10 years after its release still looks fantastic and fits very well in the hand.


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