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  • Studio Authorship, Warner Bros., and The Fountainhead
  • Jerome Christensen (bio)

In his 1896 essay "The Tall Office Building Artisti- cally Considered" the architect Louis Sullivan famously proclaimed, "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" (Marcus 12). Sullivan's may not have been the first statement of the functionalist thesis, but it was doubtless the most potent. The slogan "form ever follows function" was taken as law for the River Rouge plant and for the Lever Bros. Building by Frank Lloyd Wright and by Ayn Rand. Functionalism not only dictated the aesthetic for the skyscrapers of New York and Chicago; it was also, according to the modernist narrative advanced by Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., the one law for the kind of large business enterprise that commissioned and occupied those gleaming boxes: the modern corporation. In his influential business history The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, Chandler advanced the thesis that the "modern multi-unit business enterprise replaced small traditional enterprise when administrative coordination permitted greater productivity, lower costs, and higher profit than coordination by market mechanisms" (6–7). The form of the modern business enterprise responded to the functionalist imperative by organizing managers in a supervisory hierarchy that would ensure the efficient coordination of business activity and the maximization of profit. As the modern corporation is the organizational form that capital takes in the industrial age, so the towering lattice of silicon and steel is the material expression of that organizational principle.

Sullivan and his modernist heirs no longer dictate norms of architectural practice. 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 even could be obeyed, that "form ever follows function" never could explain "the manifestation" of the skyscrapers it celebrates. Venturi and Brown argue that "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" (Marcus 14). In claiming that not only was architectural functionalism symbolic but that it concocted its cultural authority from the occultation of its symbolism, Venturi and Brown identify the signifying practice of architectural functionalism, its public speech, as allegorical. They do not, however, suggest who might be the allegorist of the material expression of the corporate form. Is there a person or collectivity that might be identified as the "author" of the skyscraper? And if so, is it one of the agents of the skyscraper's manifestation: architect, CEO, or board of directors? Or is the author the principal for whom those agents commission, design, and superintend: the corporation itself?

Although the authority of Sullivan's law has lapsed in architectural discourse, Chandler's functionalist account of the evolution of the corporate form continues to exert a powerful influence on accounts of the emergence and evolution of the classical Hollywood cinema. In their landmark The Classical Hollywood Cinema, David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson invoke Chandler's scheme to explain the crucial division of managerial functions adopted in the film industry as it consolidated in the late teens and early twenties. The functionalist model has been canonized in the multivolume History of the American [End Page 17] Cinema. In his impressively researched volume The Talkies: American Cinema's Transition to Sound, 1926–1931 Donald Crafton speaks for the consensus when, in his introduction, he asserts, "Symptomatic of the newer academic treatment of sound is the rejection of history told as the exploits of business geniuses or of individual stars, like Jolson. We now see these movers and shakers as cogs in the larger system" (5)—a system that operated according to a logic of industrial efficiency independent of a supervisory intention. In volume 5, Grand Design...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1542-4251
Print ISSN
0149-1830
Pages
pp. 17-31
Launched on MUSE
2006-04-06
Open Access
No
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