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American Architecture: Form Doesn't Follow Function

Frank Lloyd Wright's mentor, Louis Sullivan, said form follows function. Wright argued that form and function are one. In his Guggenheim Museum, visitors take an elevator to the top and then a leisurely stroll down a giant spiral to view exhibits. That functionality is evident in the building's exterior form. Image: Morguefile

When you can't tell City Hall from an art museum, perhaps architecture isn't doing its job.

Indeed, one new study finds most people can't see the difference in many U.S. buildings.

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Residents in Tokyo, Montreal and Columbus, Ohio were shown pictures of city halls, libraries, art museums, and live theaters in various cities in the San Francisco region. They were asked to guess each building's function.

They were right 32 percent of the time, just a bit better than the 25 percent they could have achieved by random guessing. The lack of success was similar regardless of which country they were from.

"If form follows function, then you should be able to look at a building and have a good idea about what goes on inside," says Jack Nasar, co-author of the study and professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University. "That didn't happen in our survey, which suggests form is not following function in American architecture."

The phrase "form follows function" was coined in 1918 by American architect Louis Sullivan, who wrote that if "a building is properly designed, one should be able with a little attention, to read through that building to the reason for that building."

Designers of websites, newspapers, cars and just about everything else have since adopted the phrase as a valuable mantra.

Sullivan mentored Frank Lloyd Wright, who extended the idea to argue that form and function are one, and his architecture is famous for successfully implementing that standard.

Why does it matter?

"If you can make sense of a place, it should make life in the city more pleasurable and comfortable, and help people figure out where they are," Nasar argues.

The new study involved 160 participants and 12 buildings. The photographs were retouched to removed signs that would have given away their purpose.

"Buildings convey meaning, whether they are meant to or not," Nasar said. "So it makes sense that buildings be designed to indicate their use. But our results suggest it doesn't often happen."

The results were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at Space.com starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.