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Form Follows Function

October 25, 2016

Chicago architect Louis Sullivan is linked with the phrase “Form Follows Function,” often invoked to set Sullivan apart from other architects of his generation as a proto-Modernist. A building’s appearance, so it goes, should not only reflect its use, it should exude that use to even the casual passerby. What a building does, that the building is.*

The turn-of-the-century notion can actually be found in earlier popular writings about architecture, most notably a catalogue of building plans by Palliser & Palliser, a Bridgeport, Connecticut architectural firm and publisher of pattern books—though not in so few words:

Architecture is an art, and the true architect should so wield this art that the building may be in truth the envelope of that which it contains. [Palliser’s Model Homes (1883)]

The post-Civil War period embraced this notion of the container and the contained in several building types, some of them related closely to aspects of the Protestant church, particularly the Akron-Auditorium type.

The theatre has been beautifully analogized to the new “auditorium” sanctuary by Jeanne Halgren Kilde [When Church Became Theatre: The transformation of Evangellical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America]. Hospital operating theatres, for example—where students learned by watching the dissection of cadavers and operations upon the living—afforded an intimacy of experience that paralleled clergy desire to interact with their congregation. The theatre as performance space is a more obvious source, but operating theatres are often, in my view, more beautiful. Consider the similarities between this London operating theatre of 1822 and Central Methodist Church in York of about 1840:



I don’t see much difference, even to the point that each of them involves some “anesthesia.”

In addition to spaces for stage performance and medical education, there were also public libraries, a 19th century building type with radial configuration of shelving for maximum surveillance. And the gymnasium where exterior walls logically reflect the interior running track:


It’s obvious that the inside-outside coherence expressed by both Sullivan and the Pallisers was shared widely in the last third of the 19th century and that it was expressed in a range of building types that came to bear on both the auditorium sanctuary and the Akron Sunday School.

*My late colleague Cecil Elliott thought this aphorism complete nonsense, countering with its antithesis “Funk Follows Formtion.”

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