The Original Cover to Behne’s Book, Featuring El Lissitzky’s “Cloudprop”
Man’s primordial reason for building is to protect himself against the cold, against animals, against enemies. He is driven by necessity: he would not build were it not for definite, compelling, urgent purposes. His early buildings are purely functional in character; they are in their nature essentially tools.
But when we study the earliest stages of human culture, we find that the instinctive joys of play cannot be separated from practical matters. Primitive man is not strictly utilitarian. He demonstrates his instinct for play even in his tools, which he makes smooth and beautiful beyond the demands of strict necessity, painting them or decorating them with ornaments.
The tool called “house” is no exception to this.
From the very beginning the house has been as much a toy as a tool. It is difficult to say how long a balance was maintained between the two poles.
In the course of history we only rarely find such a balance.
The play instinct led to interest in form. Without that instinct it would be impossible to understand why the tool called “house” must look good and be a certain shape. Thus our play instinct established certain laws of form, although they are subject to change from time to time.
The laws of form did change periodically. But if laws of form were unquestionably the secondary element in the origin of all building, they became the stronger, stricter, more rigid principle in the history of human building — stronger, stricter, and more rigid than mere fulfillment of utilitarian function. Formal considerations outweighed considerations of purpose.
Thus a return to purpose is always revolutionary in its effect. Forms that have become tyrannical are discarded in order to create — from the recollection of the original function, from as neutral a condition as possible — a rejuvenated, living, breathing form.