Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone



Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

This week is another grab bag of important terms and phrases. Yay!

Terms of Art #37:
form follows function

fffPronunciation: nothing exciting

Definition: Louis Sullivan, a famous late 19th/early 20th century architect, coined the phrase “form follows function.” (He’s the guy who more or less invented skyscrapers.)

His idea: the form of a building should follow its internal functions (like, what happens inside the building should be reflected somehow on the outside). It does NOT say that the form of a building always does follow its function. Just that it should.

So it’s a claim about what makes good architecture and design (chairs and cars and clothes and cities). And it’s usually taken to be anti-ornamentation/anti-decoration and pro-minimalism.

And it gets applied to all kinds of things. Biology: birds having hollow bones – that’s an instance of form following function. Computer and software engineering: the form of the code follows its function! Food, games, social gatherings, institutions – basically anything you can think of that humans make or do.

But if form should follow function, then we have to figure out what a thing’s function is.


“Form Follows Function”/Self-Portrait (2016) by Rina Jost

What’s function?
The function of a building might seem obvious. Shelter from the elements. Plus some more specific stuff: art museums hold art; retail buildings hold shops and restaurants; dwellings hold kitchens and bedrooms and all that stuff.

What does it mean for the function of these things to dictate their form? Well, museums need climate control; houses need privacy…

But is part of the function of a bookstore to attract people on the street? Is part of its function to stand out from other bookstores? To have a brand? Is part of the function of a museum to feel grand or monumental? To feel old (or new)? To attract tourists from other cities? Hm, that doesn’t sound very minimalist…

Related terms:
(1) function – (see above)
(2) um, form – see formalism

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