Function and Form

Renato Bialetti
Renato Bialetti, the man known for being the “ambassador” of the Bialetti Moka pot, died on February 10 in Ascona at the age of 93.

All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other.

Unfailingly in nature these shapes express the inner life, the native quality, of the animal, tree, bird, fish, that they present to us; they are so characteristic, so recognizable, that we say, simply, it is ” natural” it should be so. Yet the moment we peer beneath this surface of things, the moment we look through the tranquil reflection of our- selves and the clouds above us, down into the clear, fluent, unfathomable depths of nature, how startling is the silence of it, how amazing the flow of life, how absorbing the mystery ! Unceasingly the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things, and this unspeakable process we call birth and growth. Awhile the spirit and the matter fade away together, and it is this that we call decadence, death. These two happenings seem joined and interdependent, blended into one like a bubble and its iridescence, and they seem borne along upon a slowly moving air. This air is wonderful past all understanding.

Yet to the steadfast eye of one standing upon the shore of things, looking chiefly and most lovingly upon that side on which the sun shines and that we feel joyously to be life, the heart is ever gladdened by the beauty, the exquisite spontaneity, with which life seeks and takes on its forms in an accord perfectly responsive to its needs. It seems ever as though the life and the form were absolutely one and inseparable, so adequate is the sense of fulfilment.

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 nun, 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. (Louis Sullivan, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”)

I have explored the relationship between form and function across a range of readings for a while. David Pye, in particular, was really adamant in his insistence that form cannot follow function in design, largely because of the fact that when we design things, we cannot know exactly what they will be used for. His reaction, in the aftermath of functionalism is rational and well reasoned. The core part of Pye’s thesis is this:

There are, then, two widely different modes of design: one where the problem centres on requirements almost to the exclusion of appearance; one where appearance is the essence of the problem, and the designer can take the requirements in his stride. The first is typified by the modern ship or aircraft, the second by the medieval church or classical temple. Both modes— Design by Requirements and Design by Appearance—are equally capable of producing things we call beautiful. There is no great gulf between ‘utilitarian’ design by requirements and ‘artistic’ design by appearance, as though one were a lower order of activity from the other. The two are different in degree, not in kind; and the difference is simply that in one the designer has less freedom of choice than the other.

It has been said that in the first form of the object determined by its function, while the second it is determined by the designer’s ‘caprice,’ and it has been even maintained that the first kind of design is ‘right’ and the second ‘wrong.’ But in practice, the requirements that define the function of what is being designed merely enable the designer to determine the limits within the shape of it may vary: within those limits the designer has no option, but chooses whatever shape his ‘caprice’ (or good sense) suggests. (The Things We See: Ships)

Pye goes on to argue that constraint, far from limiting a designer, is the stimulus to producing truly interesting and innovative designs. Reading the frequently misread source of “form follows function” the positions of Sullivan an Pye don’t seem that far apart. The problem only arises when aesthetic puritans enter the scene, and start laying out absurd manifestos on the subject.

In context, what Sullivan is actually arguing (about tall buildings) is that there are certain affordances and constraints to the design of skyscrapers. They have basements and attics, which are generally best suited for building infrastructure and storage. They have first and second floors, which are easily accessible to people that are perfect for commercial and social applications. Finally, they have all the floors after that, which are usually divided into a sort of cellular structure, not unlike a bee-hive, for more bureaucratic functions. This three part structure follows the function that skyscrapers are designed for.

An example of Sullivan’s 3 area design

He emphatically argues that any concept of an organic design for skyscrapers, such as designing them to grow from the earth like trees, is simply absurd. Buildings change when their functions change, not when designers whims change; until then, the layout of tall buildings will be relatively static. The concept of an organic building, e.g. Art Nouveau, is absurd. This, however, does not mean that Sullivan was against ornament in the same way that the puritans at the Bauhaus later were. It wasn’t an argument for inorganic (brutalist) design either.

Within the constraints he suggests, “form ever follows function” might mean the same thing Pye suggests— that function inevitably constrains design. Design begins, but does not necessarily end, with function.

Or, it also might be prudent that not only does form designate function (Rybczynski) it also emerges from it. I think that’s much closer to what Louis Sullivan initially suggests. The process, ultimately, sounds downright organic to me.

Another key take away is that as the function of things changes, so does their form. The residential home seems to be an interesting example of this. The change is slow almost to the point of being imperceptible.

It’s getting more plausible for me to think that tract houses are actually genetic relatives to the great manor houses of England, not just because of the “McMansions” that exist due to the whims of designers, but because the function of home has slowly changed over time. Office buildings, like Moka pots, have changed much less because their functions haven’t changed.