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Form follows function

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 10, 2008

Form following function

Form following function

Wikipedia is a wonderful thing.  A while back I thought it was going a bit awry: some articles were getting out of hand and were beginning to look as if they’d been drafted by committee (which, of course, they had in a way) but most of the articles I look at these days are really excellent.

I started off this post thinking about another project and typed “form follows function wiki” into my google pop-up window.  This is the article.

I knew the phrase had its origins in architecture and the article identifies two architects associated with it.  It’s worth quoting Louis Sullivan’s statement of his credo:

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
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.”

Gosh, there’s a lot in there don’t you think?  “All true manifestations of the head”!?  And I love the idea that “this is the law”.  Presumably he means a natural law, but the idea that it should be an actual law is more interesting.  Imagine a law which decreed that form should follow function.  Lawyers would have a field day.  Car designers would be prosecuted for adding bits onto their designs which had no obvious function and their defence lawyers would say ‘it doesn’t actually do anything, but it looks nice and that’s part of the car’s function”.

Anyway, the best example I know of form following function in “things physical” is the modern high-performance glider.  I included youtubes of some glides in an earlier post.  They are, to my mind gorgeous machines.  Their function is to be able to fly as far and as fast as possible, simply using the energy in the atmosphere.  The fact that they look the way they do has everything to do with the best aerodynamic form and nothing to do with aesthetics.  If there was an uglier way of increasing the efficiency of a glider, glider pilots would fly uglier machines.  The ASG 29 pictured top right has a ‘glide angle’ of 52:1. This means that it will fly 52 thousand feet – 10 miles – horizontally while only losing 1000 feet in altitude.  That’s very efficient.

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