Form No Longer Follows Function?

November 30th, 2005 by Peter Schmelzer

Research shows that the old axiom doesn’t hold water anymore:

From Jennifer Harper at the Washington Times:

The grand train station, the dignified town hall — once, form followed function in America’s public buildings, where design was meant to reveal purpose and enhance a sense of community.
That’s a rarity, according to research released yesterday by Ohio State University, which found that most of us are often mystified by our surroundings — and at a price.
“If form follows function, then you should be able to look at a building and have a good idea of what goes on inside,” said urban planner Jack Nasar, who directed the research. “That didn’t happen in our survey, which suggests form is not following function in American architecture.”
Attributed to architect Louis Sullivan in 1918, the form-and-function dictum helps citizens “read” a building, Mr. Nasar said. He believes that without it, cities descend into impersonal, confusing places.
“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,” he said.
To prove his point, Mr. Nasar randomly selected and photographed a dozen public buildings, then asked 160 persons in American, Canadian and Japanese cities to judge whether the sites were city halls, museums, theaters or libraries, solely based on appearance.
The participants got the identities right in 32 percent of the cases, not much better than if they had randomly guessed at the photographs — which would have been correct 25 percent of the time, Mr. Nasar said.

But if form follows function, must it follow that people must be able to deduce the function from the form?

I believe that “form follows function (FFF)” in this research is not true to the legacy of Sullivan. According to Leland Roth in “A Concise History of American Architecture”, Sullivan 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.” Tall buildings confounded this idea, as Curtis suggests in “Modern Architecture since 1900”: “Sullivan had discovered that function and structure could not on their own ‘generate’ and adequate form, without the intervention of highly abstracted historical or natural examples.”

So, while the function of the more complicated building was a starting point for the design process, it wasn’t enough to drive the complete architecture. An artistic leap was required to develop beautiful buildings. Asking viewers to visually track backward from the building’s facade past the artistic inspiration to the function of the building is asking an awful lot.

The task would be much simpler if the viewers knew the architect and the environment in which the building is located. Should the historical cues for a library be expected to be visible in today’s library, so dramatically changed by technology? I think the case is weak, especially if the viewer is deprived of knowing the context in which the building sits.

Ohio State’s website suggests that “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,” he said. But is sense of place dependent on having transparent buildings which tell their all at a glance? I think not. Place goes deeper than individual buildings and is strengthened by history and changing uses.

Another quote: “When buildings clearly show their purpose, it can help visitors more easily find their way, and make life more comfortable and understandable for everyone in a city.” Again, I think this is a stretch. Wayfinding is based on many cues, and we each key into different things. If I told you to go to the big glass building and take a right, you’d find your way whether it was city hall or the library. Function can become a label for buildings, but it is not primary in our experience of urban space.

Can knowing a building’s function help me be more comfortable? Sure, but if I can see it all from outside, where is the allure of exploring, of getting to know a place through time?

“Form follows function” is only a starting point for design, not a guide to architectural translation. Can you judge a book by a photograph of its cover?

Posted in All Entries Comments Off on Form No Longer Follows Function?