Warners’ Fountainhead and Hitchcock’s Vertigo
In his 1896 essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” Louis Sullivan famously asserts, “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 low!‘1 Sullivan’s may not have been the first enunciation of the functionalist thesis, but it was likely the most potent. The slogan “form follows function” was taken as law for the River Rouge Plant and for the Lever Brothers Building, by Frank Lloyd Wright and by Ayn Rand. According to the modernist narrative, functionalism dictated the aesthetic for the skyscrapers of New York and Chicago. According to the complementary modernizing narrative advanced by Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., functionalism was also the one law for the kind of large business enterprise that commissioned and occupied those gleaming boxes: the modern corporation.2 As the modern corporation is the organizational form that capital takes in the industrial age, so is the towering lattice of silicon and steel the organic expression of and enabling vehicle for the operation of that form.
Sullivan and his modernist heirs no longer lay down the law. According to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the postmodernist shift to a new architectural paradigm involved less a violation of Sullivan’s law than a conviction that it never had been nor could be obeyed, that “form follows function” could not explain “the manifestation” of the skyscrapers it celebrates. “Functionalist architecture was more symbolic than functional. It was symbolically functional. It represented function more than resulted from function. It looked functional more than [it] worked functionally.… But the symbolism of functionalist architecture was unadmitted. It was a symbolism of no symbolism” (quoted in FD, p. 14). Venturi and Brown do not intend a moral criticism of functionalist architecture, as if modernist theorists and modernist architects were to be condemned for a