PT1: 14.11.2013 HOME







De Zwarte Doos, Present and taking part in the discussion: Jan, Jan, Jos, Jacob, Liz, Mark, Marta, Paul, Peter & Thijs.


This is the story of the meeting: We had received the following mail from Marta:

Hello members of the TPT, 

I have decided on a theme for the first meeting of The Philosophical Table Club. At first, I found it quite difficult to decide on one theme but some of the options I thought of weren't really focused on a specific subject so I decided to go for something different.  

From the beginning of our studies in Architecture, we've heard the expression "Form follows Function". I have always thought I knew what this statement meant. However, a couple of years ago, on a study trip to Helsinki, I saw the complete text in which the phrase occurs: 

"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 (1856-1924), “The Tall Building Artistically Considered,” 1896

Although it seems an unquestionable statement, I like questioning the obvious. Why does or should form follows function ? How does this apply to aspects of life other than design, such as the metaphysical, the manifestations of the head, of the heart, the soul ? Why is it defined as the Pervading Law?

Maybe the name for the event should be "The Pervading Law" or something that is not as overly familiar and simple as "Form Follows Function". However, if anyone has a suggestion for the title of event, any ideas are welcome. 

See you all next week ! 

Kind regards, 


When we were all seated, had ordered drinks and introduced ourselves, Marta read the quotation we were to discuss.

We began by agreeing that the quotation in its shorter alliterative form: FFF or Form Follows Function, had become numbingly irritating, had run its course, had become meaningless and tiresome. Functionalists pretending only to worry about making their forms follow a programmatic function were either not telling the whole truth or designed beautiful buildings by accident. [Now that I come to think of it perhaps they were thinking something along these lines: if you pursue happiness directly, you will not find it. What you should do is make yourself useful in some way and that will make you happy. It is the paradox of Hedonism. So they may have thought: We should not pursue beauty directly but usefulness and then beauty will follow.] Functionalist architecture can after all be very beautiful, utilitarian structures can be sublime. We should care what our buildings look like and what a joy they are to use. Beauty and joy matter.

Perhaps this is a good moment for the reader to read the full text of the quotation aloud to himself, trying to put the emphasis on the right places, for it appears that Louis Sullivan was concerned with more than a reduced functionalism:

"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."

The sentence is very rich indeed. There’s a lot going on: Things organic, inorganic, physical and metaphysical, human and superhuman

Manifestations of the head, the heart the soul

All these things are subject to a double law and it is this:

  • The life is recognizable in its expression
  • That form ever follows function


Perhaps just by asking questions we’ll find a way through this text.

Does he mean the life of things? Is that why the definite article “the” is put in front of the word “life”?  Is all life recognizable in its expression? Is life only recognizable in its expression? How does life express itself? In gestures, movements, effects, affects? Do things come to life?

Things are things because we have a relationship with them. That is what Kant and later Heidegger taught us: Things are things to us. We let them become part of our lives. A toaster is a toaster because we use it as a toaster. To an ant it is something else: a vast barren landscape of….?

Do things have autonomous existence? Well perhaps, but how can the autonomy of their existence be interesting to us? Things become interesting when we are able to have a relationship with them. Sure, a thing has properties and those properties make us perceive it in a certain way. Make us think about how to use it. But, if a thing is completely without relationship to us it cannot be said to exist in our universe. It perhaps exists in the universe, but not in our smaller universe, the small and intimate universe of our awareness.

Is it possible for life to be recognizable in anything beyond its expression? In any other way? Must life always be recognisable in some expression of life? It is hard to think of a way we can recognize life in anything but some expression of it. Louis Sullivan must be right here.

So what things can express life? And how does life express itself? And do those things come alive when they express something? Interesting questions, worth thinking about.

Let’s assume that life is possible in things that do not themselves live. How do they come alive?

They might come to life in us, through us. A house that has the expression of care bestowed on it, comes alive in our appreciation of it. Jan described how he became moved by the spaces of the Sir John Soane Museum. The museum was an expression of pure love for things, their careful placing and arrangement, their expression. We have all had the experience of being moved when reading a book. Characters can apparently come alive simply through the reading of words! If that is true then: yes, the life of things is recognised in their expression. Things can express something to us, and -hey presto- they come alive in us and through us; we look at them and interpret their meaning or at least undergo their meaning as Jan underwent the Sir John Soane Museum.

But how does this expression stuff relate to form and function? Is form the expression of function? Is that what form is, expression of function? Is function always expressed in form?
J.J. Gibson made the suggestion that we read the things around us for suggestions as to their possible use. He called that affordance: things afford a use and they express that affordance in their form, which we read with the help of our experience of how things work and how we might use things.

That brought us to hylopmorphism, Aristotle’s concept of how form and behaviour are two sides of the same coin. A thing behaves in the light and in the air and relative to other things. That behaviour is its form and the working of that form. Form is the behaviour of a thing’s substance and that behaviour expresses itself in form. It is that form which we perceive: a thing’s behaviour in relation to our perceptive apparatus. And when we perceive form we think: Ah! Now how may I use that? Should I see it as a sign of danger, can I use it as a broom? Is it perhaps edible?

Actually now that we are on to this problem: What exactly is a function?

A function = effect that is found useful. So picture it like this: we see something, its suggests a use to us, and hop, we use it, or at least keep it in mind for when it might come in useful.

Perhaps we should always ask ourselves this question when we take the word function in our mouths:

What could be the function of {a}? Where {a} can be anything we can express in some form.

  • What is the function of a banking system?
  • What is the function of beauty in a beautiful building?
  • What is the function of a pleasant climate in a building?
  • What is the function of a secure construction?
  • What is the function of flowery knickers?
  • What is the function of…. a Panda Bear?


Do things have a function by themselves or do they acquire a function when they are used?

i.e. are things autonomously functional? This is where the Panda Bear appeared. What is the function of the Panda Bear? We concluded that the only reason that the Panda Bear has survived is that it looks cute. Is that the function of the Panda Bear? To look cute?! No, surely not. The function of a Panda Bear is to be a Panda Bear and even that is not a necessary function, he could just as well not be and become extinct. The world of man will cry a tear and move on to the next story.

What is my function?

Is it my function to be a teacher? Is that all? And in teaching is it my function just to teach?

Jan says that he became an architect not because he wanted to design buildings, although he wanted to do that too, but because he found that being something meant that he learnt about things. And being an architect meant that he learnt about things that he found interesting. For his final graduation project at the TU/e he had designed a Temple of Salomon. When he told his mum what he was planning to design she complained that he should design something useful, like a community centre. And community centres are indeed very useful, but in the end he found the temple of Salomon more useful to his own career as a thinking architect fond of pondering certain challenges. His life became richer than if he had decided not to find something to be. He could have just remained Jan, but Jan-the-thinking-architect is more.

Perhaps God gave us a function. But if he did he certainly did not tell us what it should be. God is inscrutable. He does not show his cards, does not tell us what we are for, except perhaps to name things, multiply, behave and sing his praise. Which is what we do, mostly.

We do not have a single function, we are indeterminate, we appear to acquire functions as we grow up; we appear to want to function and we spend much of our life searching out ways we can be useful to ourselves and others. It seems a sensible and fun thing to do. It helps us make something of ourselves, it gives us somewhere to get to.

Ok, so we search out functions. Does form always follow function? Well Gibson says it is the other way round. We gain experience of the relationship between form and function and we seek out forms and see what we can do with them.

Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, in book four, writes that the eye is not for seeing but that the eye can be used for seeing. It is the difference between something having a purpose and something allowing us to use it for a purpose we have at that moment. It is the difference between the question: What is it for? and the question What can I use it for? That is a big difference.

Evolutionary theory says that most evolutionary development is not about form following function but forms being found useful in some way, thus giving advantage over others who do not have access to this useful thing and therefore being selected for survival. Evolution in this theory is blind, it has no (known) purpose except to reproduce. (That if course is one of God’s commandments)

Man and other creatures are able to learn and build up experience of things and ways to use them. That is what we are good at.  We learn that some things which we recognise through their form have a useful effect that is dependent upon that form.

So we can distinguish two phases of evolution now running parallel to each other:

  • Evolution 1.0 = function follows form and useful form has a selective advantage
  • Evolution 2.0 (man + memory + ability to learn + to build up experience) = we explore form for function, build up a collective experience of useful forms and appropriate uses for these forms and eventually learn how we can make form follow function.


So Louis Sullivan got that bit mostly wrong. He assumed too much of man in his pervading law and did not understand evolutionary theory, or Lucretius. [We call such a view anthropocentric: using man as the measure of all things.]

Can there be functions that are not perceived through form? Peter tells us of the Indians who failed to see the ships coming from Europe (he says they were from England but Jacob had heard the same story related to Columbus… that is how stories go) The Indians did not see the ships because they could not conceive of things crossing an ocean. Who knows what really happened, but let’s assume for a moment that what he tells us was right: The Indians did not see the ships because they could not conceive their existence. The function was so far out of their range of what they thought possible that they could not see what was in front of them. Inconceivable functions, even though they exist, are thus robbed of their form, their mode of expression and suddenly their life as things is inaccessible!

It was time to go.



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