Form Follows Function
“Form follows function—that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”
As a young architect Frank Lloyd Wright worked for Louis Sullivan (1856–1924) in his Chicago-based architecture firm. Sullivan is known for steel-frame constructions, considered some of the earliest skyscrapers. Sullivan’s famous axiom, “form follows function,” became the touchstone for many architects. This means that the purpose of a building should be the starting point for its design. Wright extended the teachings of his mentor by changing the phrase to “form and function are one.”
This principle is thoroughly visible in the plan for the Guggenheim Museum. According to Wright’s design, visitors would enter the building, take an elevator to the top and enjoy a continuous art-viewing experience while descending along the spiral ramp.
Wright’s design for the Guggenheim has sometimes been criticized for being inhospitable to the art it displays. However, over the past five decades Wright’s design has housed a wide variety of exhibitions, from traditional paintings to motorcycles to site-specific installations by contemporary artists. According to former Guggenheim Director Tom Krens, “great architecture has this capacity to adapt to changing functional uses without losing one bit of its dignity or one bit of its original intention. And I think that's the great thing about the building at the end of the day” (Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward Audioguide [New York: Antenna Audio, Inc. and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2009]).
Up to the very end of his life, Wright carried on a battle to be sure that the Guggenheim embodied his belief in the unity of form and function. On July 15, 1958, less than a year before his death, he wrote a letter that underscored the connection between his design for the Guggenheim and the paintings it would exhibit. “Yes, it is hard…to understand a struggle for harmony and unity between the painting and the building. No, it is not to subjugate the paintings to the building that I conceived this plan. On the contrary, it was to make the building and the painting a beautiful symphony such as never existed in the world of Art before” (Frank Lloyd Wright to Harry Guggenheim, July 15, 1958. From Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward [Exh. cat. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2009], p. 268).
1. This diagram shows the interior plan of the Guggenheim Museum. According to Wright's design, visitors would enter the building, take an elevator to the top, and enjoy a continuous art-viewing experience while descending along the spiral ramp. With a pointer, trace the path that Wright intended for visitors to travel.
What do you think are the “functions” of an art museum? Do you think that Wright’s design (form) successfully supports those functions? Are there ways that Wright's design is contrary to the functions of an art museum?
2. There are subtle differences between Louis Sullivan’s axiom “form follows function” and Frank Lloyd Wright’s belief that “form and function are one.” Discuss the similarities and differences between these ideas and how they might impact a building design.
3. This painting, Composition 8 by Vasily Kandinsky (1923), was the first non-objective painting purchased by Solomon Guggenheim. At the time, this painting was considered revolutionary because it used forms, shapes, and colors that were invented rather than observed. The Guggenheim Museum was built to house Solomon Guggenheim's collection of non-objective paintings. In what ways does the architecture of the museum seem to consider the paintings that it was designed to exhibit?
The Guggenheim Museum in New York City was designed to exhibit a new type of art (non-objective painting) in an innovative way. Ask your students what type of museum collection they would like to visit. Some possibilities are: Snowboarding, Wrestling, Chairs, Televisions and Radios, Rock and Roll, Science Fiction, Fast Food, Fashion, Computers, Pets. Students should feel free to choose their own theme for the collection.
List and describe some of the objects that would be part of your exhibition.
- How would you want people to experience these objects?
- What would be the first object that visitors would encounter?
- What would the outside of the building look like? What would it be made from?
- How would you move through the gallery spaces?
Encourage students to create a few quick sketches for a museum design to house their unique collection. Have them discuss their drawings and get feedback on their ideas.
Then, have students create three-dimensional scale models of their revised design. Provide materials with interesting shapes and textures, including small pieces of wood, packing materials, cardboard, plastic cups, Mylar, acetate, paperclips, foil, glue, and tape.
Students may prefer to design their museum using Google SketchUp, 3D design software that allows them to create virtual museums and locate them anywhere in the world.
When the drawings and models are complete, students should present their designs to the class.
To examine the principle of “form follows function,” observe some common objects. A pencil, comb, scissors, fork, or some similar object would be good choices for demonstration.
- Describe the purpose of this object (its function).
- Write directions for how the object should be used.
- Describe its design (or form) as completely as possible. Include a description of its shape, material(s), color, texture, weight, and any other details you can observe.
- Describe how the design of the object is connected to its use.
- Name one thing you could change in the design of the object that would make it less functional.
- Can you think of an improvement to make the object more functional?
Discuss the concept of form and function as they relate to your school. What is the function of a classroom? Of a school building? Does the school’s design suit its function? Are there ways in which the school’s structure fails to meet the daily needs of the students and educators who use it? Brainstorm a list of suggestions for improving your school by changing elements of its design.