Form Follows Function Biology Essay Topic

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“[Life] is a property of form, not matter, a result of the organization of matter rather than something that inheres in the matter itself.

–        Christopher Langton, Artificial Life, p. 41

“There is… a well-defined difference between the magical and the scientific imitation of life.  The former copies external appearances; the latter is concerned with performance and behavior.”

–        Grey Walter, The Living Brain, p. 115

The importance of form is perhaps one of the most contentiously debated subjects in contemporary architectural discourse.  However, the conceptual divide between those (like the author of this essay) who question the validity of “formalist” architecture, and those who embrace form as a fundamental aspect of architectural production, need not (and should not) represent the equivalent of an ideological impasse.  For both, form matters; what is in question is how and why it matters.

While the roots of this debate may have sprung from the seed of proto-modernist architects, like Viollet-le-Duc, who, in his defense of the structural principles of Gothic architecture and their potential application for iron construction, anticipates the arguments of the European avant-garde of the early 20th century, the debate itself begins in earnest with the functionalist claims of this latter group.  The dictum “form follows function,” repeated ad nauseum over the century since its first articulation, is the symbolic nexus around which arguments pertaining to form have been organized ever since.  It remains relevant only insofar as it is precisely the function of form that remains contested.

The inherent contradiction of the “functionalist” argument lies in the incommensurate equation of specific architectural responses (forms) to abstract social behaviors.  This contradiction is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of social “functions,” resulting in the over-generalization of nuanced forms of cultural production (work, leisure, home), that simultaneously ignored the temporal dimension of social interaction – how different kinds of work, leisure and domestics change over time.  Following this logic, the modernists were compelled to create highly generic spaces, like the office tower, which have proven insufficient both formally and functionally.  Were it not for the inherent adaptability of people to spaces, the only resolution to such forms would be to follow the Futurist recommendation that cities change their buildings as frequently as people change their clothes.

The response to this kind of functionalism came swiftly; originating in Team X’s response to the urban planning strategies of CIAM, which emphasized the importance of different sorts of social interaction over the highly formalist separation of functions supported by the Athens Charter.  By the late 1960s, there was a full-fledged rejection of modernist principles.  Formulated in the wake of semiotics, this rejection re-positioned the function of form as the expression of cultural signifiers.

Consumed with the post-structuralist analysis of “texts,” the post-modernists emphasized the nature of architectural forms as cultural signifiers.  The underlying argument of their work relied on re-interpreting the architectural lexicon in ways that created symbolic associations and fissures with the past.  Laboring under the compendious critique of literary theorists, like Jacques Derrida, the post-modernists focused on systems of elision, through which cultural referents were utilized in ways that essentially problematized their ultimate meaning (or reading).  This kind of highly semantic re-contextualization was applied both to traditional, historically recognizable and/or popular architectural forms (Venturi), and to modernist forms alike (Peter Eisenman), and represents a re-orientation away from the “form follows function” paradigm of modernism, towards a ethos best articulated as “form follows meaning.”

The architectural production of the late twentieth and early 21st century is remarkable for its theoretical impenetrability, and represents a refocusing away from general tenants pertaining to either form or function, and towards the individual exegesis of what the historian Charles Jencks (equally notable for his description of post-modernism) has called iconic architecture.  Reliant upon the supposed “genius” or talent (the cultural cache) of the architect, this kind of architecture is remarkable for its theoretical opacity – it remains open to criticism, but not to critique, unless that critique is based on its lack of any critical/social foundation and/or formulation.  In response, there has been a resurgence of theories that attempt to re-establish the cultural importance of architecture as a genre enacted in the public sphere, and retaining a degree of societal importance above and beyond the (more often than not) unrealized commercial goals conceptually premised upon the existence of iconic buildings designed by equally iconic architects – the “Bilbao effect” is as infrequently reproduced as it is frequently attempted.

As a result, one can only understand this production as a period of transition, during which traditional principles of design were momentarily suspended, as a generation of arguably exceptional architects came to terms with the new tools at their disposal, preparing, in their way, for a new paradigm shift.  This shift incorporates a unique re-instantiation of the modernist functionalist paradigm, based now on powerful new means for architectural modeling – parametric design.  Parametric design is, in many respects, a hybrid – it attempts to recreated the potential for iconic design, within the matrix of a series of pseudo-scientifically derived principles.  On the one hand, there is a trend towards optimized form, based on highly probabilistic strategies of weather, structural wear and movement pattern (social interaction) prediction, anticipation and accommodation.  On the other hand, there is also a trend towards “morphogenetic” design, based on equally probabilistic paradigms derived from theories of complexity originating in the biological and physical sciences.

In either manifestation, the formal resolutions of contemporary parametric/biomorphic design mimic Grey Walter’s definition of the magical predisposition cited at the beginning of this essay.  They produce the image of principles, rarely explored in any depth, and thus frequently misunderstood, and thus misrepresented; they produce forms, more or less new, divorced from any original reflection on the importance of form in the production architecture.  Ironically, and despite a resurgence in interest in the works of mid-century modernists, like Buckminster Fuller, who emphasized the inherent relevance of form as it pertains to structure and information, the contemporary emphasis on form tends to obscure the fundamental importance of form in its own right.  As a result, contemporary theorists fail to recognized the necessary inversion of the original formalist argument implied by theories of complexity, and dominant in contemporary biological discourse; form does not follow function, rather function follows form.

This inverse relationship between form and function is representative of the work of post-war cyberneticists, like Ross Ashby and Grey Walter, both neurophysiologists by training, and finds strong representation in early theories of computer science, propounded by John von Neumann (who developed the concept of parallel computing, or von Neumann architecture).  It also forms the basis of later work on complexity, chaos and Artificial Life, propounded by the founder of the latter, Christopher Langton in the quote at the beginning of this essay.   The work of all of these precedents emphasizes the way in which functions are derived from the formal matrixes that make such functions possible (it is the massively parallel inter-relational architecture of the brain, for example, that results in its incredible functionality as a matrix of thought); and while cybernetics has historically found few architectural proponents, and the work of its inheritors has been refocused from material interaction and (re)organization to computational systems that model or enact these systems in a digital environment, the importance of this paradigmatic shift away from the preeminence of function to that of form should not be ignored.

The early influence of cybernetic ideas on the discourse of architecture is best represented in the work of Cedric Price, which, embracing a paradigm of emergence and expectance, eschewed formalism, for infrastructural a-formalism.  Price understood that the creation of new social/cultural paradigms implied that the formal articulation of these paradigms could not follow existent ones, but had to create conditions by means of which they would be reinvented, resulting in architectural systems amendable to reorganization, and hence emergence.  In many respects, what he lacked was the technological, material and computational means to design such spaces, and these we have today, in spades.

However, architects seem intent on systems of formal imposition, rather than on those of emergence, ad hoc social interaction, spatial redefinition, and the formal articulation of potential rather than stasis, of invitation rather than exclusion, and invention rather than context; the sign of the architect, as creator, as the originator of sufficient forms, imposes a system of formal articulation that, in its nature, is antithetical to emergent paradigms of space creation at the level of individual interaction and behavior, thus sublimating the importance of form as a functional determinant.  It also frustrates the importance of form that lies at the foundation of theories (like complexity) from which contemporary architecture so liberally borrows.  As a result, architectural production remains within the realm of magic described by Grey Walter, forced to embrace superficial similes, rather than the formal principles that lie behind their scientific precedents.  The ego of architecture thus represents the frontier of meaningful formal production; following the flawed model of Ayn Rand’s prototypical egoist Howard Rourke, a creator of temporally constrained, socially ineffectual models of cultural production, embodied in the individualist formal vocabulary of a passing fad.

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Form follows function is a principle associated with 20th-century modernist architecture and industrial design which says that the shape of a building or object should primarily relate to its intended function or purpose.

Origins of the phrase[edit]

The architect Louis Sullivan coined the maxim, although it is often incorrectly attributed to the sculptor Horatio Greenough (1805 – 1852),[1] whose thinking mostly predates the later functionalist approach to architecture. Greenough's writings were for a long time largely forgotten, and were rediscovered only in the 1930s. In 1947, a selection of his essays was published as Form and Function: Remarks on Art by Horatio Greenough.

Sullivan was Greenough's much younger compatriot, and admired rationalist thinkers such as Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, and Melville, as well as Greenough himself. In 1896, Sullivan coined the phrase in an article titled The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,[2] though he later attributed the core idea to the Roman architect, engineer, and author Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who first asserted in his book De architectura that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – that is, it must be solid, useful, beautiful.[3] Sullivan actually wrote "form ever follows function", but the simpler and less emphatic phrase is more widely remembered. For Sullivan this was distilled wisdom, an aesthetic credo, the single "rule that shall permit of no exception". The full quote is:

"Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling.
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function.This is the law."[4]

Sullivan developed the shape of the tall steel skyscraper in late 19th Century Chicago at a moment in which technology, taste and economic forces converged and made it necessary to break with established styles. If the shape of the building was not going to be chosen out of the old pattern book, something had to determine form, and according to Sullivan it was going to be the purpose of the building. Thus, "form follows function", as opposed to "form follows precedent". Sullivan's assistant Frank Lloyd Wright adopted and professed the same principle in a slightly different form—perhaps because shaking off the old styles gave them more freedom and latitude.

Debate on the functionality of ornamentation[edit]

In 1908, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos wrote an allegorical essay titled "Ornament and Crime" in reaction to the excessive invented ornament used by the Vienna Secession architects. Modernists adopted Loos's moralistic argument as well as Sullivan's maxim. Loos had worked as a carpenter in the USA. He celebrated efficient plumbing and industrial artifacts like corn silos and steel water towers as examples of functional design.[5][non-primary source needed]

Application in different fields[edit]


The phrase "form (ever) follows function" became a battle cry of Modernist architects after the 1930s. The credo was taken to imply that decorative elements, which architects call "ornament", were superfluous in modern buildings. However, Sullivan himself neither thought nor designed along such lines at the peak of his career. Indeed, while his buildings could be spare and crisp in their principal masses, he often punctuated their plain surfaces with eruptions of lush art nouveau and celtic revivial decorations, usually cast in iron or terracotta, and ranging from organic forms like vines and ivy, to more geometric designs, and interlace, inspired by his Irish design heritage. Probably the most famous example is the writhing green ironwork that covers the entrance canopies of the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building on South State Street in Chicago. These ornaments, often executed by the talented younger draftsman in Sullivan's employ, would eventually become Sullivan's trademark; to students of architecture, they are his instantly recognizable signature.

Product design[edit]

One episode in the history of the inherent conflict between functional design and the demands of the marketplace took place in 1935, after the introduction of the streamlined Chrysler Airflow, when the American auto industry temporarily halted attempts to introduce optimal aerodynamic forms into mass manufacture. Some car-makers thought aerodynamic efficiency would result in a single optimal auto-body shape, a "teardrop" shape, which would not be good for unit sales.[6]General Motors adopted two different positions on streamlining, one meant for its internal engineering community, the other meant for its customers. Like the annual model year change, so-called aerodynamic styling is often meaningless in terms of technical performance. Subsequently, drag coefficient has become both a marketing tool and a means of improving the sale-ability of a car by reducing its fuel consumption, slightly, and increasing its top speed, markedly.

The American industrial designers of the 1930s and '40s like Raymond Loewy, Norman bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfuss grappled with the inherent contradictions of "form follows function" as they redesigned blenders and locomotives and duplicating machines for mass-market consumption. Loewy formulated his "MAYA" (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) principle to express that product designs are bounded by functional constraints of math and materials and logic, but their acceptance is constrained by social expectations. His advice was that for very new technologies, they should be made as familiar as possible, but for familiar technologies, they should be made surprising.

By honestly applying "form follows function", industrial designers had the potential to put their clients out of business.[citation needed] Some simple single-purpose objects like screwdrivers and pencils and teapots might be reducible to a single optimal form, precluding product differentiation. Some objects made too durable would prevent sales of replacements. (cf.planned obsolescence) From the standpoint of functionality, some products are simply unnecessary.

Victor Papanek (died 1998) was an influential recent designer and design philosopher who taught and wrote as a proponent of "form follows function."

Software engineering[edit]

It has been argued that the structure and internal quality attributes of a working, non-trivial software artifact will represent first and foremost the engineering requirements of its construction, with the influence of process being marginal, if any. This does not mean that process is irrelevant, but that processes compatible with an artifact's requirements lead to roughly similar results.[7]

The principle can also be applied to Enterprise Application Architectures of modern business where "function" is the Business processes which should be assisted by the enterprise architecture, or "form". If the architecture dictates how the business operates then the business is likely to suffer from inflexibility unable to adapt to change. SOA Service-Oriented Architecture enables an Enterprise Architect to rearrange the "form" of the architecture to meet the functional requirements of a business by adopting standards based communication protocols which enable interoperability.

Furthermore, Domain-Driven Design postulates that structure (Software architecture, Design Pattern, Implementation) should emerge from constraints of the modeled domain (Functional requirement).

While "form" and "function" may be more or less explicit and invariant concepts to the many engineering doctrines, Metaprogramming and the Functional programming paradigm lend themselves very well to explore, blur and invert the essence of those two concepts.

The Agile software development movement espouses techniques such as 'test driven development' in which the engineer begins with a minimum unit of user oriented functionality, creates an automated test for such and then implements the functionality and iterates, repeating this process. The result and argument for this discipline are that the structure or 'form' emerges from actual function and in fact because done organically, makes the project more adaptable long term as well of as higher quality because of the functional base of automated tests.

Automobile designing[edit]

If the design of an automobile conforms to its function—for instance the Fiat Multipla's shape, which is partly due to the desire to sit six people in two rows—then its form is said to follow its function.[8]


According to Lamarck's long-discredited theory of evolution, anatomy will be structured according to functions associated with use; for instance, giraffes are taller to reach the leaves of trees. By contrast, in Darwinian evolution, form (variation) precedes function (as determined by selection). This is to say, in Lamarckian evolution the form is altered by the required function, whereas in Darwinian evolution small variations in form allow some parts of the population to function "better", and are therefore more successful reproductively.

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

External links[edit]

  1. ^Horatio Greenough, *Form and Function: Remarks on Art*, edited by Harold A. Small (Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1947), although the theory of inherent forms, of which the ijaz phrase is a fitting summary, informs all of Greenough's writing on art, design, and architecture. Greenough was in his architectural writings influenced by the transcendentalist thinking and the Unitarian protestantism of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  2. ^Sullivan, Louis H. (1896). The tall office building artistically considered. Getty Research Institute. 
  3. ^Sullivan, Louis (1924). Autobiography of an Idea. New York City: Press of the American institute of Architects, Inc. p. 108. 
  4. ^Sullivan, Louis H. (1896). "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered". Lippincott's Magazine (March 1896): 403–409. 
  5. ^Loos, A. (1908). Ornament and Crime(PDF). Innsbruck, reprint Vienna, 1930. 
  6. ^Jeffrey Meikle's "Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925 – 1939"
  7. ^Spinellis, Diomidis (May 2008). "A Tale of Four Kernels". ICSE '08: Proceedings of the 30th International Conference on Software Engineering. Leipzig, Germany: Association for Computing Machinery. pp. 381–390. doi:10.1145/1368088.1368140. Retrieved 2011-10-19. 
  8. ^"MULTIPLA DESIGNER SHOWS THAT FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION". Automotive News. Retrieved 2018-01-08. 


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