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Form Follows Function

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

Pen & Ink New York City Firehouse

In church last week the lesson was the first Psalm: it says that the righteous are "like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and its leaves do not wither." One of the hymns we sang had a line about a whale roaming the seas and an eagle soaring the skies. You know how something just grabs you? those two images reminded me of this quote:

"Whether it be the soaring eagle in his flight, or the open apple blossom, the toiling work horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak,the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, Form ever follows function and that is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change."

Who said that? Louis Sullivan, 1856-1924, called the father of modern architecture. He believed, and acted upon that belief, that a building must be solid, useful and beautiful, and designed from the inside out, with its purpose in mind.

Louis Sullivan, Bayard building, New York City

You can see Sullivan's only New York City work at 65 Bleecker Street, the Bayard, now Bayard-Condict building. Paul Goldberger called it "a delicate poem, yet a strong one."and points to the structural expression evident in the graceful yet sturdy pillars. Sullivan found a beautiful balance between the structure and the embellishments.

Does form always follow function? You might not think so to look at the French Poodle. I always thought this was a silly look with the chest all puffed out and the little pompoms around the ankles but then I learned that the look serves a purpose. The Poodle was bred as a hunting dog--to leap into cold water and retrieve dead ducks. The fluff around the chest protect and warm the lungs and heart, the hind legs are free for swimming, the pompoms warm the joints. Form Follows Function.

This guy's groomer may have carried it too far, but the basic design is functional.

White French Poodle

Here's a blithe swan by my friend, Carol Way Wood, (

Watercolor of a swan

New York City's beautiful firehouses, like the one at the top of this post, are perfect examples of form following function and they're so appealing. I love their red doors, their orderly design and the polite way they nestle into a row of brownstones. Each one has a unique design and decoration. I find it deeply moving about my fellow humans that something so necessary and utilitarian is made to be so beautiful.

I was walking with Arthur past Engine Company 14, the one that starred in the movie, Ghostbusters, when a hook and ladder came home. The firefighter at the wheel, who didn’t look old enough to drive, had to turn left but there was a car in his way. He put his hand out the window with a lovely "after you" wave for the car to go ahead, then made his turn and easily pulled that huge truck into the narrow doorway.

“That was so graceful,” I said to Arthur. He agreed.

When something works well, whether it's a building or a song or just a maneuver, it's a lovely thing. I try to keep open to the tiny delights life offers up.

Pen & Ink of New York City Firehouse

February 15, 2019

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