Industrialism and the Civil War moved us from the fields to the factories. The production of steel moved us from factories to skyscrapers. As skyscrapers began to pop up everywhere at the beginning of the 20th century, the question we had failed to ask ourselves was How should it look?
That question was later answered by Louis H. Sullivan in his 1896 landmark paper, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered. Sullivan exclaimed, “Form follows function.” It’s the idea that the exterior design of a skyscraper should also reflect the interior function.
It was revolutionary at the time. We had moved from utility to function to form. When designing something we now needed to consider the aesthetic, physiological repercussions and cultural elements while also balancing what is practical.
This waive sparked the movement of modern architecture. An avante-garde movement. Full of radical, experimental architecture. The key being that if it’s experimental then it might not work.
Here’s the problem. “This might not work” isn’t compatible with industrialism that is seeking safety, reliability and as close to a sure thing as we can get. So instead of hiring architects to build something that is remarkable to the eye, we skimp and cut corners to meet spec. We create buildings that look the same as everything else. Something proven. Something that blends in.
In a world that is pulling us to do something reliable, in order to stand out from the masses, we have to be peculiar, different, unusual. Yes, good architecture still has to rhyme with the genre. It still needs a budget and boundaries to work within. But those constraints help us explore the edges. To make something worth standing and looking at.
Art evokes emotions. It brings connection in a generous way. Architecture changes the way we see our world. When we walk into a building, we have an expectation. Which leads us back to the question we faced 100 years ago, What do we want to see when we interact with the world?
Do we want to live in a world that is built on efficiency or perhaps something else?
When you lay your eyes on the Grand Canyon for the first time, no one sits there and thinks about its function. We admire its magnificence because of its form. Why shouldn’t we treat the rest of our environment with this kind of care?