‘Beauty is the promise of function’

If you love books and live in or around Edinburgh - or beyond - you may be familiar with the Christian Aid Book Sale held annually at St Andrew's and St George's Church, on George Street.

It's always popular because there's a huge range of books available, at very low prices, most between 50p and £2. Buying books online is all very well but there's nothing like browsing actual books and stumbling on something unexpected. The Sale is rather like beachcombing, each year washing up some unusual specimens.

One curio I came across this year was a little collection of essays by a certain Horatio Greenough, a 19th century American sculptor who had some interesting thoughts about design theory. Greenough's significance is indicated in the title of the book, Form and Function. It's so titled because although he didn't coin the term - the actual phrase was first formulated by the architect Louis Sullivan - Greenough's essays, published in the 1850s, offer the first extensive discussion of the concept of inherent form, a good half century before it became a central component of modern design theory.

As Greenough put it, 'Beauty is the promise of function', a principle he derived from observation of nature. Just as there is no superfluity or redundant ornamentation in the design of organic form, so there should be none in the construction of human artifacts. Discussing the natural world, he wrote:

[In the animal world] there is no arbitrary law of proportion, no unbending model of form. There is scarce a part of the animal organisation which we do not find elongated or shortened, increased, diminished, or suppressed, as the wants of the genus or species dictate, as their exposure or their work may require… [Logic and rightness is found in the] consistency and harmony of the parts juxtaposed, the subordination of details to masses, and of masses to the whole. The law of adaptation is the fundamental law of nature in all structure.

For Greenough this notion of 'form following function' was essentially a theological concept:

If there be any principle of structure more plainly inculcated in the works of the Creator than all others, it is the principle of unflinching adaptation of forms to functions.

Engineers already followed this maxim in the design of pragmatic structures such as bridges and ships:

In all structure that from its nature is purely scientific - in fortifications, in bridges, in shipbuilding - we have been emancipated from authority by the stern organic requirements of the works.

But other fields of design were encumbered by a persistent temptation to unnecessary ornamentation, most notably, Greenough argued, architecture. Instead of starting with the outward form and accommodating the internal structure to it, architects should allow the exterior to follow naturally from an optimally designed interior:

Instead of forcing the functions of every sort of building into one general form, adopting an outward shape for the sake of the eye or of association, without reference to the inner distribution, let us begin from the heart as the nucleus, and work outward. The most convenient size and arrangement of the rooms that are to constitute the building being fixed, the access of the light that may, of the air that must be wanted, being provided for, we have the skeleton of our building.

This argument led Greenough to anticipate by some 80 years Le Corbusier's (in)famous notion of a house being 'a machine for living'. Greenough wrote:

[T]he laws of structure and apportionment, depending on definite wants, obey a demonstrable rule. They may be called machines.

Greenough's essays are far from easy reading: the language is very much of its time, embroidered with obscure and somewhat exhausting (eminently skimmable) metaphors and turns of phrase. But they're interesting to read as the earliest published expressions of design principles now so widely (if not universally) accepted.