The architectural mantra, “form follows function,” is a theory that has shaped the course of how human beings design spaces and objects. The saying asserts that the structure of a building or industrial object should, first and foremost, relate to its intended purpose. Early proponents of this framework, such as Nineteenth century French architect, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and American architect Louis Sullivan, called for architecture to be rational in its design. This eschewed the popular Romantic style of architecture that favored ornamental features over more utilitarian features. The “art for art’s sake” mentality was countered by rationalist architects who realized the need for functional design as a means of providing more democratic housing and modern utilities to support the needs of diverse residents.
The tenets behind “form follows function” is that a good building (or industrial object) should have three main characteristics: it should be solid, useful and beautiful. Beauty in this case could mean both the actual aesthetic qualities, as well as its purpose in providing a sound structural integrity. Although it spawned a modern zeitgeist, the idea of form following function has conceptual roots in the Ancient world. Roman architect Vitruvius wrote about it in his multi-volume work titled, De architectura, where he identified the aforementioned three main roles of good architecture, in his words: “Firmitas, Utilitas et Venustas.” In a blog post by John F. Tuton, the educator, career counselor and furniture maker notes that strength, utility and beauty are important guidelines for developing, maintaining and adapting lifelong skills. He posits that these qualities are necessary to finding work/careers/passions that are fulfilling.
Functional design relates to constructivist pedagogy and ecological structures. Constructivism is “learning through doing.” Observation is one of the key experiential learning factors that has shaped how we do things. From some of the earliest known records of humanity (i.e. cave paintings), it is evident that we have been consistently learning by observing the natural world. While functional design was an “ah-ha” moment in both Ancient Rome and the modern era, the practice and principle behind it is not exclusive to human culture. Both prior to and at the same time as our first major civilizations and architectural feats, members of the animal kingdom were designing and living in sophisticated structures. Examples include the mound building termites whose large structures contain sophisticated series of tunnels and conduits, which provide essential avenues for ventilating their living quarters below the surface. The oldest known mounds existed more than 3,000 years ago.
Other examples are web-spinning spiders who are known to have spun webs roughly 140 million years ago (and possibly even earlier). The designs of both the termite’s mounds and spider’s webs have impacted human art and design too. The web-like cables of modern suspension bridges allude to spider webs. This is no coincidence because spider webs and the silk they produce to create them are notably resilient and self-sustaining (see: Wu, 2020). In fact, the process of making and affixing the cables to modern day suspension bridges (i.e. the Golden Gate Bridge) is called “spinning.”
The hives of some species of honey bee are another natural architectural marvel that has been replicated in human civilization. The processes of making and sustaining a hive have been suggested as an inspiration for a democratic society. William Newtown (1846, p.117) wrote that:
“So much has been written upon the habits and virtues of bees, that it is unnecessary to enlarge upon the subject …. Suffice it to say, that they imply industry, wealth, bounty and wisdom in the bearer.” Educational reformer Rudolf Steiner devoted a series of influential lectures on education and ethics to the social and cultural behavior of bees. He said that, “the whole hive is in reality permeated with love. The individual bees renounce love in manifold ways, and thus develop love throughout the whole hive. One only begins to understand the life of the bees when one knows that the bee lives in an atmosphere completely pervaded by love” (Steiner, 1923).
Steiner’s theories on bees and hive mentality gives context to the phrase “hivemind.” This term is used to signify “the collective thoughts, ideas and opinions of a group of people regarded as functioning together as a single mind.”
I recently described how Steiner’s musings on bees inspired artist/educator Joseph Beuys’ foundational concept of “social sculpture,” a theory and methodology that helped shape the course of art and education (see: The Beuys and the Bees). Beuys observed and understood honey bee behavior and hive culture to be exemplary of how socialism and utopian society could be possible. He justified this based on the communal and collaborative manner that bees live and work together. Social sculpture embraces this concept because it relies on the theory that all human beings can be artists if they make beneficial contributions to society through art. Artistic form needs to follow function in a work of social sculpture. Beuys has used honey as a metaphor for creative and critical thinking. In his 1965 performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, Beuys slathered his head entirely in honey and gold leaf, as a metaphor to how our brains can produce an organic substance, as sweet and sustainable as honey. He explained that “while humans do not have the ability to produce honey, they do have the ability to think, to produce ideas. Therefore the stale and morbid nature of thought is once again made living. Honey is an undoubtedly living substance-human thoughts can also become alive.” (quoted in Harlan, Rappmann, and Schata, 1984, 92).
Beuys’ model of social sculpture and the relationship between human beings and other animals is amplified in the functional art and architecture of the artist collective, Ant Farm. Formed in 1968 by architects Chip Lord and Doug Michels, and later included the addition of artists Hudson Marquez and Curtis Schreier. Ant Farm has produced some of the most iconic works of art in the United States, such as Cadillac Ranch. The group’s name references a formicarium, commonly known as an ant farm, which was designed to study how ants behave in colonies. Michels said: “we wanted to be an architecture group that was more like a rock band. We were telling Sharon [a friend] that we would be doing underground architecture, like underground newspapers and underground movies, and she said, ‘Oh, you mean like an Ant Farm?’ and that’s all it took. It was very Ant Farm. The founding of the name was indicative of how Ant Farm worked: the right idea comes, everybody acknowledges it is the right idea and instantly adopts it.”
As a radical architectural firm, Ant Farm aspired to blur definition and expand the boundaries of architecture. Their project Dolphin Embassy turned the idiom “form follows function” into an inter-species goal by proposing buildings that would enable humans and dolphins to coexist in settings that were natural and familiar to both species. Previous human-made architecture for animals, such as zoos and ironically, the ant farm, are made for the purpose of human control and/or observation of animals. In other words, they are not often indicative of how these animals would live outside of captivity or domestic settings. Ant farms for example, reduce the three dimensional nature of an ant nest to a two dimensional cage between two panes of glass. With Dolphin Embassy, Ant Farm embarked on a series of inquiry-based explorations into potential vessels that would enable a democratized way for humans and dolphins to interact. Dolphin Embassy is true to its name, because it would serve to advance the social relationships between dolphins and humans in a manner that serves and protects each species. The research for the project took place in Australia during the mid-1970s because of its significant cetacean (aquatic mammals that include whales, dolphins and porpoises) population and existing marine biological research. The proposal and design for the structure was a roving seafaring vessel that would enable the cetaceans to enter and exit freely via a series of hollow hydrofoils that fill with seawater. There is a common atrium or “living room,” where humans sit upon dry land (an artificial woodland habitat) and dolphins (or whales) float in a pool of seawater, each observing one another. There is no hierarchy in the design and function of the space. It allows humans to be human and cetaceans to be cetaceans. Architect and educator Tyler Survant (2013) notes that, “the Embassy is sited at a biological frontier: the physiological threshold between exclusive habitats. The Embassy’s interior is a half-wet, half-dry artificial environment conducive to both species, neither ‘aquatic’ nor ‘terrestrial’ but, in the words of Ant Farm, ‘aquaterrestrial.'”
Although Dolphin Embassy was never realized beyond a blueprint, the enduring understandings are fascinating and serve as an educational model for future sustainable and relational architecture. With growing concerns regarding climate change and sea levels rising, there is a very real threat and high probability we will need to focus our efforts on building new habitats to address the displacement of both human and other animal species. As Survant (2013) notes, Ant Farm’s model offers “a radical planetary household not built on animal husbandry and traditional owner-pet narratives, which acts as an architectural currency for coevolution among speculators of biological identity.” These creative applications of “form follows function” could help ensure that inter-species climate refugees have access to housing that suits their individual and collective needs, while offering opportunities to learn from one another and thrive together.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Lumer, Ludovica and Oppenheim, Lois. 2019. For Want of Ambiguity: Order and Chaos in Art, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience, London: Bloomsbury Academic. p. 49.
Newton, William (1846). A Display of Heraldry, London: William Peckering. p. 117. https://books.google.com/books/about/A_Display_of_Heraldry.html?id=mqpfAAAAcAAJ
Steiner, Rudolf. 1923. Nine Lectures on Bees. https://southerncrossreview.org/101/steiner-bees-1.htm
Survant, Tylar. “Biological Borderlands: Ant Farm’s Zoopolitics,” Horizonte 08, Bauhaus University Press (Fall 2013). Republished online at https://tylersurvant.com/ant-farm
Tuton, John F. “Vitruvius – Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas,” Penn & Beyond, 1 March 2011. https://ulife.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/blog/2011/03/01/vitruvius-%E2%80%93-firmitas-utilitas-venustas/
Wu, Katherine J. “Spider Silk Is Stronger Than Steel. It Also Assembles Itself,” New York Times, 4 November 2020. https://www-nytimes-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/www.nytimes.com/2020/11/04/science/spider-silk-web-self-assembly.amp.html