Aug 282003

“Form follows function — that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” Frank Lloyd Wright said this. Wright built houses, and the function of houses, as I understand it, is to be lived in. Roofs, too, have functions, among which is to keep out the rain. One might think that a leaky roof would disturb this “spiritual union,” but AC Douglas dismisses this pedestrian concern:

Wright’s houses, for instance, are notorious for their leaky roofs. As a house is the most elemental and paradigmatic instance of a shelter a leaky roof would seem a most damning and fundamental fault. And so it would be were the house simply a building. With the possible exception of his earliest work, none of Wright’s houses qualifies as simply a building. They’re all, as is all great architecture of any sort whatsoever, first and foremost works of art. That’s to say, considerations of the aesthetic trump all else.

Buildings, no matter whose, are not “first and foremost” works of art because they are not works of art at all. “Art” is not an encomium. It is a technical term, referring to things that are intended solely as objects of contemplation. There is a fine word for edifices of this sort; the word is “sculpture.” Buildings can be beautiful or ugly, just as people can, which doesn’t make them art any more than people are. If aesthetics, in Wright’s buildings, “trump all else,” why do they need roofs at all? Tables and chairs clutter rooms so, why not dispose of them? Walls disrupt the continuity between the house and its surroundings; tear ’em down. Wright would be the first to say that this is silly, and so it is, but it is the reductio of AC’s position.

This is a case of a misapplied metaphor. The modern religion, as Tom Wolfe beat me to pointing out, is art, which has become the highest term of praise for anything at all. A well-played bridge hand, a well-placed insult, a nice-looking ashtray are all “works of art.” Except they aren’t, and neither is architecture. Art is art, and non-art is non-art, and never the twain shall meet.

(Update: AC Douglas replies. Brian Micklethwait comments. Alexandra Seely comments. Rene comments.)

  2 Responses to “Obligatory Frank Lloyd Wright Post”

  1. Yes you could almost say that in practice function followed form with Frank.

  2. having toured many of Wright’s buildings I have to agree but so much that he borrowed in minimalist design was highly functional in that period or culture. Borrowed by Wright, they are considered artistic masterpieces.

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