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Form Follows Flow

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

I studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania with the brilliant and incomparable architect and urban planner Denise Scott Brown of the firm Venturi Scott Brown and Assocites. Words fail. Imagine: working closely with the partner of another brilliant and incomparable architect, Robert Venturi, being privy to their combined experience, and gleaning insights into their world-renowned projects and processes. And this was in the mid-1970s to the early-1980s, the heyday of one of the most creative periods in 20-century architecture—a time when architecture was linked in many ways to avant-garde art, and when ideas counted as much as anything else. Denise (Everyone called her “Denise,” like Madonna.) was (and is – in her eighties she is still very active) an amazing thinker and lecturer.

Anyway, Denise told us one day that when she was at school she liked to intone that “form followed flow” rather than “form follows function.” “FFF” she would say defiantly, and her professors would say “Denise, watch your language.” Indeed; turns out she (and Bob) used the concept designing award-winning buildings, college campuses, and cities for years.


That maxim about flow has served me well in my professional career, informing the way, for example, the plan of a house or garden can be influenced by the way people move through it and vice versa. But it has meaning beyond what I learned in architecture.

Energy, once created, has to flow. And that flow affects everything on earth. The carbon and other cycles, biological cycles, like—everything. On a mundane level, when I was creating the indoor climate control systems for Ninety10, one of my best consultants (a plumber by trade, actually), told me that flow would be the determinant for all my systems, and affect everything from pipe and pump size, to systems efficiency, to air temperature, duct size, louver type, and humidity levels.

Water flow and air flow would necessarily be conjoined in these systems, he explained, and because I was experimenting there would be very little in the way of available data to work from. (I ended up learning on the job, or “iterating,” which in my case meant tearing stuff out and starting again.)

And I soon learned that plants as they grow have a definite pattern of energy flow as heat energy from the sun and water flow trigger the seed to germinate, heat and light energy, and minerals and other potential energy nutrients flow from the soil during embryonic cotyledon stage growth, and continue into first true leaf plant maturity. I also learned that if high humidity prevents healthy growth by blocking the plant’s respiration, the plants can rot. Flow interrupted is bad.

Traditional Chinese culture refers to the life force and the attendant flow of life force as qi or ch'i – and the concept, which dates back to at least the fifth-century BCE, appears in Indian and other cultures too. Flowing ch’I is good; blocked ch’I is bad. And I have come to respect flow no matter what professional (or personal) hat I am wearing. (And, Denise, FFF—it FFF’in’ works in ways you may have never imagined.)

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