In 1896, an American architect framed a rule of design that was to have an extraordinary influence, its effects felt to this day in almost every corner of life.
“Form ever follows function,” is an excerpt from a longer quotation by Louis Sullivan, known as the “father of the skyscraper,” and just as skyscrapers have taken many forms – some beautiful, like the Chrysler Building, others astonishingly ugly – so his most famous quote has been taken out of context, exaggerated, distorted and used to justify some truly grotesque creations – architectural, mechanical and otherwise.
For a rifle, the original words are certainly valid, but the sentiment can be extended to read “form follows function, but perfect function follows perfect form.”
The fact is forgotten that Sullivan drew his inspiration from a Roman architect, Vitruvius, who wrote the first textbook on architecture in the first-century BC. Vitruvius was an artillery officer in the Roman army, concerned with the design of early siege weapons like ballistas and catapults. His design theories applied to both artillery and buildings, and stated that the latter should have three attributes: They must be solid, useful, and beautiful. The latter – beauty – is the feature most often dismissed in modern design.
For example, after 1945, the Soviet government set out to construct apartment buildings for mass housing, and soon Moscow, Leningrad, and, especially, the rebuilt city of Stalingrad, were ringed by row upon row of concrete monstrosities that owed less to form the following function than to some cubist nightmare. After a few years, it became apparent that the sheer ugliness of these buildings contributed mightily to the overall feeling of depression and gloom, which was never far from a Soviet citizen’s psyche in the age of Stalin. The absence of beauty was a tangible negative.
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November - December 2020