Words that changed architecture
published Fri, 27 Mar 09 08:11:31 -0700

Arrol Gellner
Inman News

While much of the verbiage architects have churned out over the years has deservedly been forgotten, a number of phrases have managed to encapsulate, if not outright inspire, entire architectural movements.

Among the best-known yet least understood of these is Louis Sullivan's "form follows function" (though to be precise, his actual words were "form ever follows function," and he borrowed the phrase from the American sculptor Horatio Greenough). Sullivan's point was that, in architecture, practical need invariably trumps aesthetics. Yet subsequent generations of modernists often took these words to mean that anything nonfunctional -- more specifically, ornament -- had no place in architecture, period. Ironically, Sullivan, whose exquisite and highly personal style of ornament remains unmatched by any American architect before or since, would have been loathe to have his words inspire countless blank-walled buildings.

In 1908, the Viennese architect Adolf Loos penned an essay famously titled "Ornament and Crime," whose English translation of 1913 opined: "The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects." As extreme as this statement sounds today, it's wise to remember it was made in the wake of a wearying half-century of bombastic Victorian architecture. No wonder Loos's words struck home with rebellious young architects of the World War I era, inspiring a generation of architectural works both brilliant and barbarous.

Le Corbusier, another architect with a penchant for sweeping pronouncements, is widely credited with this humdinger: "Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light." It's an especially curious inspiration for architects, since it manages to completely overlook architecture's fundamental purpose -- that of enclosing volume.

"Less is more," Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's immortal entry into the architectural lexicon was, like Sullivan's, often used by lesser talents to justify an architecture of nothingness and boredom. Oddly enough, another of Mies's better-known phrases, "God is in the details," would seem to state just the opposite of "less is more" -- but perhaps what Mies really meant was that what little remained after being made "less" had better be awfully good.

A generation later, Robert Venturi, among the first architects to declare Modernism an emperor with no clothes, ably countered Mies with "Less is a bore." The Postmodern movement he spawned took these words to heart as fervently as had Mies's followers to the original -- sometimes to good effect, sometimes not.

Of course, no A-list of architectural quotes would be complete without a few entries by Frank Lloyd Wright. At his most thoughtful, alas, Wright tended toward flowery, 19th-century-style prose bereft of sound bites -- one reason his terse insults seem better known than his architectural philosophy. However, one quote Wright made late in life not only proved good counsel to architects everywhere, but quickly entered the vernacular. In 1953, he told New York Times Magazine, "The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines."

And on that note, a Wrightian comment to inspire architects and columnists alike: "I'm all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let's start with typewriters."

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