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.
He conducted the research in conjunction with San Francisco’s Institute of Environmental Quality and Nihon University in Tokyo.
Meanwhile, the greater implications of building design is attracting attention elsewhere.
The District-based American Architectural Foundation has inaugurated the “Great Schools by Design” program, which contends that test scores and education itself will improve in the nation’s 120,000 schools with the help of innovative architecture.
The group issued six basic principles for public school design in November, which take practical cost, safety and growth factors under consideration. But the foundation also advised architects to “design buildings that serve as both symbols and centers of their communities.”
Hospitals also lag in the design department, according to Edwin Heathcote of the Financial Times.
“Hospitals are where we celebrate our most intimate and touching, but also our most harrowing and emotional moments. They should be among the most important and profoundly symbolic spaces we inhabit yet instead they are largely the result of dim bureaucratic decisions, penny-pinching, unquestioned orthodoxy and, at best, average planning and architecture,” Mr. Heathcote wrote Nov. 25.
“Our culture is increasingly informed by what have become known as non-places — malls, [parking lots], airports, cloned high streets, grindingly dull offices. These are spaces and places that reduce us all to zombies, shopping, travelling and working beneath fluorescent strips that suck the life out of us,” he also said.