What amazes me is that this caterwauling started all the way
back in the early 1900’s, was still growing stronger in the 1960s and every time you think the thing has died an overdue
death, it’s thrown at you again and again but always as if for the first time! Worse, it’s always uttered with
the same cloying solemnity, as if God has spoken and all further discussion can now cease.
thinking, what is the point here? Explain yourself. Easy! In half the cases where this cliché is used, it’s a
trivial and stupendously empty tautology. A knife or scissors is sharp by definition. A knife not sharp ceases to be a knife.
Look in the dictionary--cutting will always be mentioned. Anyone saying that a sharp knife is an example of form following
function is like somebody piously asserting a circle is round or a square has exactly four sides! The people behind this foolishness
were particularly fond of pointing at ocean liners and airplanes. Look at how they’re designed to slide through wind
and water. Form follows function, don’t you know? Of course, and poisons will poison you. An ocean liner that does not
cut through the water, an airplane that does not move through the air, a poison that isn’t poisonous--well, these are
not semantically viable. They’re DOA.
But this cliché is even more dangerous in its other common
use, because here the logical nonsense does not immediately jump out and slap you. Yes, my friends, we arrive at design and
architecture. “Form follows function” was the war cry of people who wanted to build big boxes and boring typefaces,
and they wanted us to pay for them and love them. Forever. People now may not remember but around 1970 the International Style,
as it was called (this being code for Big Boring Boxes), was predicted to last for a thousand years. Just like the Third Reich.
(Indeed, I believe there is a totalitarian subtext and I’ll come back to it.) First, let’s dispose of this consummate
cliche. You can’t justify your design for a building or anything else with the phrase “form follows function”
unless you have a situation where something has only one function. Nothing in this universe has only one. End of story.
What is the function of a building? To keep people warm and dry. To make a corporation look good. To be beautiful.
To be original. To make workers feel good when they come to work. To make the architect famous. To make the rest of the neighborhood
seem to be harmonious. To conserve energy and to use the sun’s energy. To be solidly constructed and not fall down.
To hold the most bodies per cubic yard. To be cheap to build....On and on it goes, function after function, and each one gives
you different answers. So what kind of fool presents a design and seriously intones “Form follows function” as
though that says something very deep. Which function did you have in mind? And you know what? Even if you could settle on
a single function, there’s probably numerous forms that would do that particular job equally well.
follows function” was also the rage among many type designers. I must have read 20 articles explaining why Helvetica
was the ultimate typeface. Yes, ultimately boring. Here’s the really funny part about all this rational typeface jive.
What’s the function of a typeface? If you’re gullible enough to go with that question, the modernists wanted you
to accept this answer: to be readable. The Swiss who perpetrated Helvetica just assumed that this face would be the most readable
because it was the most “objective.” Big shock: sans serif faces are harder to read. Did you ever see a novel
set in Helvetica? But never mind even that crushing defeat. The main point recurs: a typeface has lots and lots of functions
(and readability may not even be high on the list). That’s why we have at least 10,000 faces. They create moods and
feelings; they express the underlying sentiments of the words; they engage the eye. But the people pushing “form follows
function” actually seemed to want every sign to be in Helvetica, just as every building would be a rational box, and
every life would be chopped down to the logical essentials...which brings us back to the totalitarian connection.
Around 1985, I made notes for an essay titled "Hitler, Heaven, Helvetica and History," basically a precursor
to this rant now. As the title suggests, I sensed a totalitarian compulsion inside the endless repeating of “form follows
function,” and the relentless shilling for objectivist and rationalist paradigms. The obvious part of the story was
that younger architects wanted to dethrone older architects; “form follows function” and “less is more”
were marketing slogans for the young hot shots. The more subtle part of the story is that some of our elites have a secret
love affair with central planning. Sick but true: socialism is catnip for intellectuals who suppose a high IQ entitles them
to manage other people. These tendencies may be inchoate but I submit you can feel a yearning for control in much of the chatter
about planned societies, rational typefaces and objective buildings. The humdrumness and banality of these boxes was echoed
in Helvetica (arguably the most boring typeface ever devised) and in planned cities such as Brasilia (where nobody wanted
to live) and in regimented societies such as Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s
China or Castro’s Cuba (where only the bosses have any fun). All of these bad ideas came from the same direction--a
quasi-religion based on the unreasonable idea that Reason could solve all problems.
Fade, as the movie people say,
to black. People chanting “form follows function” followed each other to the dreary part of town. Please, let’s
commit this dead husk to a final burial. “Form follows function” is absurdly reductionist. It pretends that life
is monolithic, simple, destined to be boring, and does one thing at a time. When we all know that life is varied, complex,
entertaining, and multi-functional.