Architect Louis Sullivan's 1896 quip that "form ever follows function" has been invoked by many modern designers to explain why their work is so boring and mindless.
But despite this popular, persistent misuse, especially around the middle of the last century, Sullivan's dictum communicates an important principle always honoured by the best modernist architecture.
It's that, in both nature and art, the appearance of a thing declares, or should declare, the purpose it serves.
This doesn't mean a building has to be blank and plain. (Sullivan's designs were not.)
In fact, the principle suggests that the best modern house (for example) will be one that most eloquently celebrates the vim and texture of the life within it.
While visiting new modern dwellings around Toronto, I have often recalled the saying of Louis Sullivan about form and function, simply because more than a few of the structures I've been seeing lately embody its sound sense and good advice.
This is not the case, of course, across the board: The art of building tall in Hogtown, by and large, seems stuck in the dull-as-dishwater 1970s, and not many new high-rises or mid-rises make fresh, vibrant marks on the city's fabric.
In the field of custom single-family homes, however, something exciting is afoot – a
reinvention and creative renewal of the best ideas of residential modernism, a very interesting adaptation (often by emerging architects) of venerable notions about form and function to the conditions of a 21st-century metropolis.
For a modest instance of what I'm talking about, take the newest residence by Nelson Kwong and Neal Prabhu, partners in the young local firm of nkArchitect.
Crafted for a suburban couple intent on moving closer to downtown Toronto – an interior decorator and her husband – the 4,600-square-foot house sits on a spacious lot in a comfortable old neighbourhood not far from the intersection of Bathurst Street and Eglinton Avenue West.
The geometry of the building's streetside façade is forthrightly modernist, with large flat-topped, rectangular volumes that boldly express the two levels within. That said, the arrangement is polite to the less adventuresome family homes up and down the block: One volume is clad in warm wood, another in Ontario limestone, another in dark stucco.
These surface treatments soften the visual impact of the otherwise stolid stacking of the abstract three-dimensional forms.
The façade is mainly noteworthy, however, for another reason. If form should reflect function, then a main entrance should look, feel and perform like the significant thing it is. The centrally sited front door of this house is certainly not shy about itself.
It stands in a deep gap strongly defined by large volumes on either side, and it is further emphasized by the presence, alongside it, of an abstract sculpture cobbled from metal and wood.
Nor does this drama end when (as happens in most dwellings) you step over the threshold.
From the doorway, engaging views open up in several directions. To the right, there is a limestone-faced, glassed-in light well plunging down to the basement.
To the left is the handsome glass-framed staircase that descends through a large void to the wide lower level and ascends, past a wall of glass rising above the street, to the upper storey, where the bedrooms are. Straight ahead lies the open-plan interior, with its south-facing wall, which is mostly glass, but opaque enough to provide a welcome separation between the insides of the house and the deck and pool beyond.
Mr. Kwong and Mr. Prabhu's handling of these interior spaces is typically modern, inasmuch as each zone flows into the next without an interruption at floor level. But the designers have pre-empted any sense of emptiness or "glass-house" vacuity by quietly modifying the ceiling-heights from place to place.
In the dining area, for example, the ceiling soars up to high windows in the treetops. It drops down over the adjacent lounge area, creating an atmosphere of relaxed intimacy.
It does so again in the family room – there is no living room as such – though here, in good modernist fashion, coziness is precluded by tall glass partitions that only very lightly indicate the boundary between inside and outside.
Standing in this sector of the house deep inside the city, one can experience the nearness to nature that the European pioneers of the modern movement believed residential architecture should be all about.
As you can probably tell from my descriptions, this bright, airy residence is not strikingly original or innovative – though I found the entry sequence, from front lawn into the inner spaces, highly imaginative and effective. But not every urban house has to be a show-stopper. It's good enough for it to be an embodiment of durable, humane architectural ideals and values – as this house surely is.