copyright 1994 Tamiko Thiel

Chapter V.: A return to the future

We had gone beyond the utilitarianism and sterility that "form follows function" seemed to require, defying the stricture that only structure is "good," and all else "evil." We wanted to go beyond the "necessary" to stress our vision of the CM-2 -- the emotional meaning of this machine to us and our relationship to it. We saw it as a break from the past and from the strictures of the modern, but while researching this article I came to the realization that we had, on the contrary, come full circle.

Informal questioning of my architect and designer friends showed that most attributed the injunction "form follows function" to Louis Kahn or Mies van der Rohe, assigning the pronouncement to someone whose works fit our current idea of its meaning. In fact, its originator was Louis Sullivan, for whom it was the culmination of a lifelong search for a rule that "shall be so broad as to admit of no exception." (12) This came to me as quite a shock: Sullivan, a radical architect at the end of the 19th century, was celebrated for the power and invention of his ornament. He himself once said that "while the mass-composition [in an ornamented structure] is the more profound, the decorative ornamentation is the more intense." (13)

In Carl Condit's book The Chicago School of Architecture, I read: "The proper understanding of the word 'function' is the key to [Sullivan's] whole philosophy.... These factors embrace not only the technical and utilitarian problems of building but also the aspirations, values, ideals and spiritual needs of human beings. Thus functionalism involved for him something far wider and deeper than utilitarian and structural considerations, as important as these are." In seeking to break away from the constraints of "form follows function," we had in fact come back to the broader intent that informed Sullivan's use of the celebrated phrase. (14)

Sullivan did seem to have set the course for the modern movement when he suggested in 1892 that "it would be greatly for our esthetic good if we should refrain entirely from the use of ornament for a period of years, in order that our thought might concentrate acutely upon the production of buildings well formed and comely in the nude." (15) This genteel formulation appeared in a much more vehement form in the writings of Adolf Loos some 15 years later. His essay "Ornament and Crime" inveighed not only against the taste for the overly ornamented, but also against efforts to adapt ornament to fit the times, as in Art Nouveau and the products of the Wiener Werkbund.

"Since ornament is no longer a natural product of our culture, but only a sign of backwardness or degeneration, the work of the ornamenter is no longer adequately compensated," he declared. Linking esthetic standards and social goals, he advocated the radical elimination of all ornament as the only morally permissible consequence. His was one of the most compelling voices calling for products to be manufactured to fulfill the demands of quality and durability rather than to satisfy the whim of fashion. (16)

In a world of ever-shrinking resources and ever-mounting pollution and waste, Loos's goal has, if anything, gained validity. I believe, however, that his identification of the source of this evil was wrong. Despite his respect for native cultures, Loos saw "modern man" as being at a higher level of moral evolution than "primitive man." (17) Now, in an age that admires the aboriginal populations of the world as models of how to live in a forgotten harmony with the earth, we may also reject Loos's declaration that "Perceiving decoration as a merit means taking the standpoint of an Indian. We must overcome the Indian in us." (18) Perhaps we need to do exactly the opposite, and look at the so-called primitive or pre-industrial cultures to find out how they use ornament to increase the significance and worth of the objects they produce.

We in the industrial and postindustrial cultures have lost the tradition of ornament as an important carrier of symbolic meaning, and the "postmodernist" style of borrowing ornament from previous eras will not satisfy this need, because the symbols of the past bear no relation to the dreams, hopes, and fears that we harbor today. We cannot borrow from other cultures and other eras, we are confronted with a much harder task: we must relearn how to invest designed objects with a symbolic significance that can speak to the experience of living at the beginning of the third millennium. After years of just such an experiment as Sullivan had proposed, we must relearn the significance that ornament used to have, and what sort of human needs it used to fill.

We did not approach the CM-2 design with the idea that we must "ornament"; rather, we wanted to use the appearance of the machine as an expressive possibility to show how the machine worked. We had taken Sullivan's "form follows function", and nearly a century later adapted it to machines that he could not have dreamed of in his lifetime, machines that revolutionized the meaning of the word "machine" itself, with functions that are invisible, intangible, and abstract. We found that in a machine where structure can only be expressed through signs and diagrams, symbolism becomes a necessary tool to explicate function.

Sullivan, to whom symbolism and emotion were important aspects of a design, did not mean that designers should shy away from the emotional content of their designs. On the contrary, he celebrated human creativity as "the enormous power of man to build as a mirage, the fabric of his dreams, and with his wand of toil to make them real." To us, building the Connection Machines CM-1 and CM-2, nearly a century after these words were written, no description of our efforts could ring more true. (19)

(previous) (return to introduction)