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Kindergarten Chats

Kindergarten Chats

Louis H. Sullivan


01 Function and Form

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02 Function and Form

; 37


01 Function and Form


You were going to tell me more about language,


and you—

No I was not.

I began to tell you something about function a nd form, when you interrupted; and that is what I am to do now.

That is so; we didn’t finish, did we?

We can never finish. We may talk for long, and get only a start; but it will be a right start, I believe. We may, perhaps, see where the end lies, but it will be and remain like a star in the sky, unreachable and of unknown distance; or it will be like life itself, elusive to the last- -even in death; or it will be like a phantom beacon on a phantom stormy sea; or as a voice, calling, afar in the woods; or, like the shadow of a cloud upon a cloud, it will glide, diaphanous and imponderable, floating in the still air of the spirit.


What’s that you are talking about?


The interrelation of function and form. It has no beginning, no ending. It is immeasurably small, immeasurably vast; inscrutably mobile, infinitely serene; intimately complex yet simple.


But you surely told me to listen, not to the words, but to the thought. How can I follow, if you are always thinking away ahead of the words? You seem to take delight in it.


That is true.

I will specify: Now, it stands to reason that a thing looks like what it is, and, vice versa, it is what it looks like. I will stop here, to make exceptions of certain little straight, brown canker-worms that I have picked from rosebushes. They looked like little brown, dead twigs at first. But speaking generally, outward appearances resemble inner purposes. For instances:

the form, oak-tree, resembles and expresses the purpose or function,

the form, pine-tree, resembles and indicates the function,

oak; pine;

the form, horse, resembles and is the logical output of the function, horse; the form, spider, resembles and is the tangible evidence of the function, spider. So the form, wave, looks like the function, wave; the form, cloud, speaks to us of the function,


the form, rain, indicates the function,


the form, bird, tells us of the function,




the form, eagle, is the function, eagle, made visible; the form, beak of that eagle, the function, beak of that


And so does the form, rose-bush, authenticate its function,


the form, rose-branch, tells of the function, rose-branch; the form, rose-bud, speaks for the function,


the form, full-blown rose, recites the poem, full-blown rose. And so does the form, man, stand for the function,


the form, John Doe, means the function, John Doe; the form, smile, makes us aware of the function, smile; so when I say: a man named John Doe smiles,—we have a little series of functions and forms which are inseparably related, and yet they seem very casual to us. If I say, John Doe speaks and stretches out his hand, as he smiles, I add a little to the sum of the functions and the forms, but I do not affect their validity or their continuity. If I say, he speaks ungrammatically and with a lisp, I merely modify a little the form your own impressions are taking as you listen; if I say, that, as he smiled, and stretched out his hand, and began speaking, with a lisp and ungrammatically, his lip trembled and a tear formed in his eye,—are not function and form moving in their



rhythm, are you not moving in your rhythm while you listen, am I not moving in my rhythm as I speak? If I add that, as he spoke, he sank into a chair, his hat fell from his relaxing fingers, his face blanched, his eyelids drooped, his head turned a little, have I done more than add to your impression and my sympathy? I have not in reality added or detached; I have not made or unmade; I speak, you listen —John Doe lived. He did not know anything or care anything about form or function; but he lived them both; he disbursed them both as he went along through life. He lived and he died. You and I live and we shall die. But John Doe lived the life of John Doe, not of John Smith: that was his function and such were his forms. And so the form, Roman architecture, means, if it means anything at all, the function Roman; the form, American architecture, will mean, if it ever succeeds in meaning anything, American life; the form, John-Doe architecture, should there be such an architecture, must mean nothing, if it means not John Doe. I do not lie when I tell you John Doe lisped, you do not lie when you listen, he did not lie when he lisped; then why all this lying architecture; Why does John-Doe architecture pretend it is JohnSmith architecture? Are we a nation of liars? I think not. That we architects are a sect, a cult of prevaricators, is



another matter. And so, in man-made things, the form, literature, means nothing more or less than the function, literature; the form, music, the function, music; the form, knife, the function, the form, axe, the function, the form, engine, the function,

axe; engine.


And again, in nature, the form, water; the function, water, the form rivulet, the function, rivulet; the form, river, the function, river; the form, lake, the function, lake; the form, reeds, the function, reeds; the forms, fly above the water and bass below the water—their related functions; and so the fisherman in the boat; and so on, and on, and on, and on—unceasingly, endlessly, constantly, eternally —through the range of the physical world— visual, microscopic, and telescopic, the world of the senses, the world of the intellect, the world of the heart, the world of the soul: the physical world of man we believe we know, and the borderland of that world we know not—that world of the silent, immeasurable, creative spirit, of whose infinite function all these things are but the varied manifestations in form, in form more or less tangible, more or less imponderable—a borderland delicate as the dawn of life, grim as fate, human as the smile of a friend—a universe wherein all is function, all is form:



wherein all is function, all is form: a frightful phantasm, driving the mind to despair, or, as we will, a glorious revelation of that power which holds us in an invisible, a benign, a relentless—a wondrous hand.

My goodness! What a light that throws on the bank!

What bank?

You know.



Bank me no banks—that has neither form nor function here—but listen: Like sees and begets its like. That which exists in spirit ever seeks and finds its physical counterpart in form, its visible image; an uncouth thought, an uncouth form; a monstrous thought, a monstrous form; a thought in decadence, a form in decadence; a living thought, a living form. Light means light

a shadow means eclipse.

How many shadows do men cast!

How many live in shadows!

How many walk in darkness!

How many struggle in their night!

How many wander, all forlorn,

in the verge of Death’s deep valley!

How many are mired in the black pit! How many drag others thereunto! Great is the light that shines. Profound the shadow that Man casts upon his own spirit! Opaque and moribund that man who gives forth, not a light, but a shadow in his daily walk. A dense, material, moving phantom, he, who stands before the sun and puts his art in obscuration! Stand out of my light! Stand out of our light!

I say!

Platoons of dead men! This is the day when strikes the hour upon high noon, within a cloudless sky! Avast the sun! Avaunt, the clay that doth eclipse it! Shall the hour sound, and no man answer cheerily its call? Shall the sun shine and no flower bloom in gladness? Shall the joyous heavens find no answer to their smile, but sullen turbid stares?



It cannot be, it shall not be: for of the wilderness I’ll make a song of spring that shall dispel its gloomy wintry skies and icy snows, and make awake to sweet rejuvenance the lark, the soaring, singing lark that doth abode within the hearts — of all the young!

That’s fine! Although it looked pretty dark at one time, especially for the claymen.

Do you often have these fits?

If you do, telephone me so that I can get around in time to hear the next one.


By the way, what has become of function and form in the shuffle?


I dreamed again. But this time I awake to that of which I dreamed—the charming reality of your own proper person, your wit and your ways. My dream was its own function; the words, its audible form.

Is there then form in everything?

Form in everything and anything, everywhere and at every instant. According to their nature, their function, some forms are definite, some indefinite; some are nebulous, others concrete and sharp; some symmetrical, others purely rhythmical. Some are abstract, others material. Some appeal to the eye, some to the ear, some to the touch, some to the sense of smell, some to any one or all or any combination of these. But all, without fail, stand for relationships between the immaterial and the material, between the subjective and the objective—between the Infinite Spirit and the finite mind. Through our sense we know substantially all that we may know. The imagination, intuition, reason, are but exalted forms of the physical senses, as we call them. For Man there is nothing but the physical; what he calls his spirituality is but the most exalted reach of his animalism. Little by little, Man, through his senses, divines the Infinite. His highest thoughts, his most



delicate yearnings arise, through an imperceptible birth and growth, from the material sense of touch. From hunger arose the cravings of his soul. From urgent passions have the sweetest vows of his heart arisen. From savage instincts came the force and powers of his mind. All is growth, all is decadence. Functions are born of functions, and in turn, give birth or death to others. Forms emerge from forms, and others arise or descend from these. All are related, interwoven, intermeshed, interconnected, interblended. They exosmose and endosmose. They sway and swirl and mix and drift interminably. They shape, they reform, they dissipate. The respond, correspond, attract, repel, coalesce, disappear, reappear, merge and emerge: slowly or swiftly, gently or with cataclysmic force— from chaos into chaos, from death into l ife, from life into death, from rest into motion, from motion into rest, from darkness into light, from light into darkness, from sorrow into joy, from joy into sorrow, from purity into foulness, from foulness into purity, from growth into decadence, from decadence into growth. All is form, all is function—ceaselessly unfolding and infolding—and the heart of Man unfolds and infolds



with them: Man, the one spectator before whom this drama spreads its appalling, its inspiring harmony of drift and splendor, as the centuries toll and toll the flight of broad-pinioned Time, soaring, from eternity to eternity: while the mite sucks the juices of the petal, and the ant industriously wanders here and there and here and there again, the song-bird twitters on the bough, the violet gives her perfume sweetly forth in innocence. All is function, all is form, but the fragrance of them is rhythm, the language of them is rhythm: for rhythm is the very wedding-march and ceremonial that quickens into song the unison of form and function, or the dirge of their farewell, as they move apart, and pass into the silent watches of that wondrous night we call the past. So goes the story on its endless way.

02 Function and Form


It seems to me that I could have gotten a clearer idea of your recent harangue on function and form, if you had used half as many words. Still, I think I catch your meaning after a fashion. The gist of it is, I take it, behind every form we see there is a vital something or other which we do not see, yet which makes itself visible to us in that very form. In other words, in a state of nature the form exists because of the function, and this something behind the form is neither more nor less than a manifestation of what you call the infinite creative spirit, and what I call God. And, allowing for our differences in education, training, and life associations, so that we may try to see the same thing in the same way, what you want me to understand and hold to is, that, just as every form contains its function, and exists by virtue of it, so every function finds or is engaged in finding its form. And, furthermore, while this is true of the every-day things we see about us in nature and in the reflection of nature we call human life, it is just as true, because it is a universal law, of everything that the mind can take hold of.

You are “arriving,� as we say.


Well, I suppose of course there is some application of this to architecture?

Well rather. It applies to everything else, why not to architecture?


But there must be a definite application of the theory. What is the application?

Can’t you figure it out? I suppose if we call every building a form—

You strain my nerves—but go on. I suppose if we call a building a form, then there should be a function, a purpose, a reason for each building, a definite explainable relation between the form, the development of each building, and the causes that bring it into that particular shape; and that the building, to be good architecture, must, first of all, clearly correspond with its function, must be its image, as you would say.

Don’t say good architecture, say, merely, architecture; I will know what you mean.


And that, if a building is properly designed, one should be able with a little attention, to read through that building to the reason for that building.

Go on.


Well, that’s right for the logical part of it; but where does the artistic side come in?

No matter about the artistic side of it. Go on with your story. But—

Never mind the buts.

Well then, I suppose if the law is true of the building as a whole, it must hold true of its parts.

That’s right.

Consequently each part must so clearly express its function that the function can be read through the part.


Very good.

But you might add that if the work is to be organic the function of the part must have the same quality as the function of the whole; and the parts, of themselves and by themselves, must have the quality of the mass; must partake of its identity.


What do you mean by organic?

I will tell you, later on. Then if I am on the right track, I’m going to try to keep on it. It’s rather fun to do your own thinking, isn’t it?

Yes, it is: and rather good for the health and the happiness. Keep on, and some day you will get the blood to your brain. If the surge is not too sudden, you may yet become a useful citizen. I overlook your sneer, because I am interested in what I, myself, am saying. I would observe in passing, however, that you are not any too considerate. But, to go on: If it is true of the parts in a larger sense, then it must be equally true of the details, and in the same sense, isn’t it?

In a similar sense,


yes. Why do you say similar?

Because I mean similar. The details are not the same as the parts and the mass; they cannot be. But they can be and should be similar to the parts and to the mass. Isn’t that splitting hairs?

If there were more of such hair-splitting it would be well for our architecture. Why so? I don’t understand.

Because its significance reverts to the organic quality which I mentioned to you. There is no limit to the subdivisibility of organic thinking.


And what is the difference between logical thinking and organic thinking?

A world of difference. But we haven’t come to that yet.

Then, I infer, I can go on and consider my detail as of itself a mass, if I will, and proceed with the regular and systematic subdivision of function with form, as before, and I will always have a similarity, an organic quality—if I can guess what you mean— descending from the mass down to the minutest subdivision of detail. That’s interesting, isn’t it? The subdivisions and details will descend from the mass like children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren, and yet, they will be, all, of the same family.


That’s the first enlivening word I’ve heard you say.


Well, it’s catching, you know. I begin to get an inkling now of what you meant by the “voice, calling, afar in the woods.” Perhaps, too, some of the little seeds are coming up and will need watering by and by.


Yes, yes. Very good as far as you go. But I wish to warn you that a man might follow the program you have laid down, to the very last detail of details, and yet have, if that were his make-up, a very dry, a very pedantic, a very prosaic result. He might produce a completely logical result, so-called, and yet an utterly repellent one —a cold, a vacuous negation of living architecture— a veritable pessimism.

How so?

Simply because logic, scholarship, or taste, or all of them combined, cannot make organic architecture. They may make logical, scholarly or “tasty” buildings, and that is all. And such structures are either dry, chilling or futile.

Well then, tell me now, in anticipation, what characterizes a real architect?

First of all a poetic imagination; second, a broad sympathy, humane character, common sense and a thoroughly disciplined mind; third, a perfected technique; and finally, an abundant and gracious gift of expression.


Then you don’t value logic.

It has its excellent uses.

But cannot everything be reduced to the syllogism?


So the text books would seem to claim; yet I should not wish to see a rose reduced to syllogism; I fear the result would be mostly syllogism and that poetry would “vanish with the rose.� Formal logic cannot successfully deal with the creative process, for the creating function is vital, as its name implies, whereas the syllogism is an abstraction, fascinating as a form of the function, so-called pure reason; yet, when subordinate to inspiration, it has a just and high value. I say there is a logic over and above book-logic, namely, the subconscious energy we call imagination. Nevertheless, formal logic has its purpose and its place.

Then you do prize logic?

I surely do. It is a power of the intellect; but it has its limitations. It must not play the tyrant.


By the way; you were to explain the word organic.


You have a memory— which shows that you are following and, still better, anticipating my argument. I had for the moment overlooked the item. But we will take it up next time, when we may discuss it leisurely.

I think this is great sport.

So do I.

Designed by; Sun Hyue Baek Printed in December, 2011

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Kindergarten Chats  
Kindergarten Chats  

Kindergarten Chats