Form, Function, and Eyesores in Contemporary Architecture

Sullivan and Form Follows Function

Louis Henry Sullivan famously said, “Form follows function,” meaning that the architecture of a building needs to abide by the building’s intended function. Interestingly, Sullivan intimated that “form” was his job, while “function” was not. External forces determine circumstances, and architects build buildings to fit those circumstances.

For example, the height of a building is influenced by population growth, costs of labor, laws and regulations, and generational preferences. Louis Sullivan referred to such externalities as “social conditions.”

The architects of this land and generation are now brought face to face with something new under the sun,-namely, that evolution and integration of social conditions, that special grouping of them, that results in a demand for the erection of tall office buildings. It is not my purpose to discuss the social conditions; I accept them as the fact, and say at once that the design of the tall office building must be recognized and confronted at the outset as a problem to be solved,-a vital problem pressing for a true solution. Louis Sullivan, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, 1896.

Churchill and the Commons Chamber Debate

Louis Sullivan was an architect who accepted social conditions. Winston Churchill was a politician who viewed molding such conditions as part of his job.

The building that housed the British Commons Chamber was destroyed by incendiary bombs during World War II. A debate soon followed as to whether to rebuild the Chamber in its old rectangular shape or a new semi-circular shape. Churchill insisted on keeping the old shape, since he felt it was conducive to Britain’s two-party system which he favored. Living Heritage, Churchill and the Commons Chamber, quotes him as saying,

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.

If legislators for whatever reason want lots of open space, they promote dense housing, and architects find ways to build tall buildings in a variety of soils and weather conditions. After that, people adapt to density as their new reality.

Rem Koolhaas and Latent Authoritarianism

The Los Angeles Times recently carried an interview with Rem Koolhaas, in which the architect spoke of the climate challenges of our times. He expressed concern that delayed action brews “latent authoritarianism” and the exclusion of humans from building objectives.

We are facing together a critical moment, simply because we’ve delayed for such a long time all the measures that we know we will eventually have to take,” he says. “The longer we delay everything, the more drastic those measures that could be imposed on us. I’ve very curious of what will be the outcome. It could be a wave of authoritarianism in the name of saving the world … In many of the structures we’ve researched, the human being is not the center of attention. I find that a fascinating situation. For the first time, other issues might be more important than how human beings feel or think.

Rem Koolhaas’ Upcoming Wilshire Boulevard Temple Expansion Will Balance Openness With Security, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 2018.

Architecture and the Fundamental Challenge

Ned Cramer is editor-in-chief of Architect and group editorial director of design and commercial construction at Hanley Wood Media. He views climate chance as the fundamental architectural issue of our time. He wrote in Architect (October 4, 2017),

Climate change is the fundamental design problem of our time. Not style, not fees, not education, not community, not health, not justice. All other concerns, many of them profoundly important, are nonetheless ancillary. The threat climate change poses is existential, and buildings are hugely complicit—even more so than that stock culprit, the automobile. As every architect should know, buildings consume some 40 percent of the energy in the U.S. annually, and they emit nearly half of the carbon dioxide (CO2), through greenfield development, cement production, and the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal.

Such focus might be difficult for a populace to accept, and results might include the “wave of authoritarianism in the name of saving the world” of which Mr. Koolhaas spoke.

Eyesores

Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson exhibited their intense displeasure with new buildings. They wrote in their article, Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture - And if You Don’t, Why You Should, Current Affairs Magazine, October 31, 2017,

The fact is, contemporary architecture gives most regular humans the heebie-jeebies. Try telling that to architects and their acolytes, though, and you’ll get an earful about why your feeling is misguided, the product of some embarrassing misconception about architectural principles. One defense, typically, is that these eyesores are, in reality, incredible feats of engineering. After all, “blobitecture”—which, we regret to say, is a real school of contemporary architecture—is created using complicated computer-driven algorithms! You may think the ensuing blob-structure looks like a tentacled turd, or a crumpled kleenex, but that’s because you don’t have an architect’s trained eye.

If addressing climate change is to take place above all else, including style, then “blobitecture” might be a likely result.

Our Green High-Tech Buildings

In forward-looking cities, like San Francisco for example, there are many buildings that could be classed as incredible feats of engineering. They are the green buildings topped with roof gardens, surrounded by solar panels, and featuring the latest in brown-water recycling.

Row Houses and the Salesforce Tower

Because offices are also a physical expression of our values, Salesforce is committed to integrating green building practices into our real estate strategy, including office design, construction and operations.

We’re proud that we have achieved or are actively pursuing green building certification in 64 percent of global office spaces and LEED Platinum certification, the highest possible achievement, for three buildings in our San Francisco headquarters. Additionally, we have achieved net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as a company, 33 years ahead of our original commitment.

Equipping our Salesforce Tower with a state-of-the-art water recycling system continues our environmental stewardship and offers a blueprint for how other companies looking to make a positive impact in the world can harness sustainable innovation.

Salesforce Tower Innovative Water Recycling System, Salesforce.com, January 2018