The original wording was “form ever follows function.” It is also routinely misattributed, mostly to 20th-century modernist grandees, like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, but was actually coined by the less famous American architect, Louis Sullivan. Misused though Sullivan’s quote has been, his point, that the style of architecture should reflect its purpose, made sense at the time, and continued to do so for much of the last century, not just for buildings, but objects too.

“form ever follows function.”

Louis Sullivan was born in 1856 in Boston and studied architecture for a year at MIT before leaving for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Like H.H. Richardson, Sullivan is regarded today as one of the most individual and innovative architects of the developing modern period. He replaced the standard classical ornamentation of the day with highly original, organic architectural details inspired by nature. One of Sullivan’s most notable contributions was the creation of a form appropriate to the tall commercial office building. Rather than stressing the horizontal layers of each story, he emphasized the vertical rise of these buildings. Verticality was made possible by steel frame construction and the use of light materials such as terra cotta, which had a malleability appropriate for carrying out his ornament.

Adler and Sullivan designed the Transportation Building for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was a long structure, extending 960 feet, with walls punctuated by arcade windows. The focal point of the building was the Golden Door, an awesome portal formed by layers of receding arches that featured gold leaf ornament, adding to a sense of the building’s movement. The Transportation Building, while not included with the buildings surrounding the central basin, nonetheless occupied a large, important site and was widely admired, despite a lack of overt classical references.

It was the assemblage of noble, classical edifices, laid out according to the plans of D.H. Burnham in the Great Basin of the Exposition, that particularly angered Sullivan but captivated hundreds of visitors. These buildings–the Agricultural Building (McKim, Mead & White), Machinery Hall (Peabody & Stearns), the Administration Building (Richard Morris Hunt), the Electricity Building (Van Brunt and Howe), and Manufacturers Hall (George B. Post)–formed the heart of the Exposition and represented important interests. The presence of drawings in the MIT architecture studio by Adler and Sullivan and by William LeBaron Jenney extended the memory of the Exposition, reinforcing the exceptional qualities of the two buildings.


  1. Thank you for your fine words and film on Louis Sullivan He has long been one of my heroes. I live in New York and unfortunately we only have one of Sullivan’s buildings here -the Bayard Building which, incidentally, was Sullivan’s personal favorite. Best, Jim Steere Jackson Heights New York

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