Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.
- Frank Lloyd Wright
Maximilian Daniel Lyon is a sustainable designer in Chicago who specializes in mid- and high-rise residential. He received his Masters of Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology after studying graphic design at the University of Oregon. Believing in sustainable design in modern architecture, Lyon has been a member of several green project teams in the Chicagoland area, including the Austin Gardens Environmental Center by TBDA, One Bennett Park by Robert A.M. Stern Associates, and One Grant Park by Rafael Viñoly Architects. He is also a USGBC Member, a Member of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats (CTBUH), a Fitwel Ambassador, and a LEED AP BD+C and ID+C.
After growing up in the sustainable environment of Corvallis, Oregon, Lyon won the IMI/OSU Design Competition for his sustainable residence design in Columbus, Ohio, completed a master’s thesis project proposing a new archetypal sustainable skyscraper in Chicago, and most recently was nominated for the USGBC Emerald Award. Lyon currently resides in Chicago and aims to contribute positively to the people and skyline of the Second City.
Nature Ecomimisis Daniel Burnham
Ken Yeang Plan of Chicago Neil DeGrasse Tyson
R. Buckminster Fuller Santiago Calatrava Norman Foster
Louis Sullivan Renzo Piano Antoni Gaudí
Design logically, purposefully, sustainably.
Form follows function. This age-old adage that every architecture student learns was put forth by the 20th Century architect Louis Sullivan as a foundation for good practice and successful design. Three words create the simple idea that a building’s appearance reflects its intended purpose, and that it should effortlessly serve the people it will one day envelope.
During a time when architecture was embodied by aqueducts and arches, Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio perfected his De architectura, a series of architectural guides that inspired Sullivan’s famous phrase millennia later. In his treatise to modernize the new Roman Empire, Pollio set forth three qualities that all future projects should exhibit—solidity, beauty and usefullness.
With our mighty skeletons of steel and concrete today, solidity is a given. And, as our creations scrape the sky, their claddings of sleek glass provide them with beauty, reflecting the sun and the stars. But the final of Pollio’s criteria—usefulness—is less tangible.
Today we think of usefulness in terms of program. We create buildings to serve functions that are needed in a given site, and the building’s usefulness depends on the people who use it. The program it will be used for—the function—helps dictate the form. We let the people, and what they need and want, drive the design of the finished product. This is the idea that a building’s appearance should reflect who and what it serves; that a museum looks like a museum, a school looks like a school, and a skyscraper looks like a skyscraper. Therefore, the form follows—or is guided by—the function.
As architects and designers we extrapolate from the information given to us by the conditions, and weigh it against our training, our knowledge, and our own personalities. We enact a kind of democracy, in which we build for the people and aim to create Utopian structures that enhance the built environment for all. In this scenario, however, how do we know if everyone is really benefiting? Are we looking only at the short term, the here and now? What if the people don’t know what they want or need? What does our training tell us then?
Form follows function. The function, the program, the necessities of a building all drive and shape the form. Then beauty is derived from this form and how it serves its purpose. With this we do not argue—form does in fact follow function. But what if function didn’t mean program; what if it meant performance?
When people occupy a building, they enjoy its amenities and benefit from its (hopefully) livable interior. But what about its exterior? What do they experience when they leave the building? What if function meant insuring that there was an environment outside the building left to enjoy in 20, 40, 100 years?
The performance of the building starts with design, not with the mechanical and technological afterthoughts that are plugged in to make up for its inefficiencies. The form of the building should follow its function, responding to its environment, reflecting those needs, and remaining in harmony with its surroundings through sustainable strategies—but function should also follow form. They are different sides of the same coin, neither existing without the other; at least, neither existing to their full potential.
No better example can be made than that of the skyscraper—a giant icon in the topic of form. Its envelope alone provides definition and beauty to itself and its skyline, as well as pleases its inhabitants with natural light and stunning views. But it's usually that same envelope that accounts for massive heat losses in cold months and solar heat gain in hot months. To offset these inefficiencies, we populate the tower’s core with technology and mechanical systems for comfortable living and working conditions, pumping in more energy and out more waste. We as designers create beautiful sculptures, and then simply pass the task of optimization to mechanical engineers. But is that where it ends, our duties as designers conclude with a skyscraper’s aesthetics? Are we nothing more than sculptors? Or are we responsible for the performance of our building as well? Perhaps aesthetics and efficiency are one in the same.
Efficient performance is often known by another name: sustainability. In today’s world, sustainability is still not a default condition, and is often used to increase a building’s charm and value. But sustainability should not merely be a catchword to dress up a building’s selling points, nor should be an afterthought that building engineers and operators are left to employ. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be. It can be synonymous with our design practices, helping to guide our decisions in design, through construction, and during the lifespan of the building. With a little luck, and some planning ahead, sustainability can be the direct result of our ‘normal’ practices, rather than a target we are forced to achieve. Sustainability and program should be one in the same. Form and function should be intertwined, and neither should be weighed to see which is cheaper or more important.
If we should need extra guidance, we can take a page from nature’s book. We build to keep nature out or protect ourselves from the elements, without ever realizing that nature itself has solved many of the problems we still face today. Too much carbon in the air? Plant more trees and grass. One growing tree consumes an average of 50 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. That’s almost 3 times as much CO2 as a car produces by burning a gallon of gasoline. Need shading? Plant vegetation. Problems with stormwater management? Employ a green roof. The list goes on—nature has been evolving for eons, and well before humans ever arrived. So why not use in our designs the knowledge nature has already provided? This is a concept called ecomimisis; copying or incorporating nature as much as possible. It’s cheaper, greener and often more beautiful. Still not convinced? Investigate the attention restoration theory, which postulates that human nature and brain functions are restored and enhanced through brief, periodic interactions with nature. We need nature, so why wouldn’t we incorporate it into the buildings we use almost every hour of everyday?
Efficiency, performance, and good practice do not have to look any different than the majestic sheen of the towers we build today, and should not have to forfeit beauty. If we are to truly improve the built environment, should we not start first by improving the natural one? In fact, it was Louis Sullivan himself who said it best, when his quote is given its full context and his words are left to resonate in their entirety:
Whether it be the sweeping 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 this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling. It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.
Through conscious design practices, our built environment can achieve efficiency without sacrificing aesthetics. Appearance can be shaped by priorities of harmonizing performance and program, allowing beauty to stem from these naturally. Only then can form finally follow function.
Our biggest problem today is believing ourselves to be gods, then forgetting that there are more than 7 billion other gods in this realm that are affected by our decisions. We must remember that our buildings are more than just solitary objects—they affect everything and everyone else in the world, no matter how small we may think those impacts are. We must remember that our creations are part of a system. We must remember that our decisions affect not only the people who use the building, but also those in surrounding sites who see it daily or are blocked from the sun by its shadow. We must remember that our building impacts those in the city who may feel the effects of its financial burden, and those in the rest of the country and world who are shorter on resources and energy because of our building. Our form and function must be one, never putting aesthetics before rationality, and always being a little bit selfless. We may be gods, but we are mortal.