Prince Charles once described a modern building in London as resembling a gigantic toaster. Many people say they do not like modern architecture, and one reason for this may be that often form doesn’t follow function.

When you look at the exterior of a building, can you tell whether the building is a city hall, an art museum, a library, or a live theater? According to a new study, most people can’t.

Residents of three different cities were shown pictures of city halls, libraries, art museums, and live theaters in a distant city and asked to guess which of those four uses applied to each of the buildings. They were correct only 32% of the time, which is not much better than random guessing, which would have led to correct answers about 25% of the time.

“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 city planner Jack Nasar. “That didn’t happen in our survey, which suggests form is not following function in American architecture?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.”

The phrase “form follows function” was coined by American architect Louis Sullivan in 1918, 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.”

Nasar randomly selected the four types of buildings and looked in phone books to find examples. They visited the sites and photographed the buildings, avoiding all identifying signage. He then selected 160 people from three distant cites?Columbus, Ohio; Montreal; and Tokyo?and asked them to view the 12 photos and guess if each one was a city hall, live theater, art museum or library. Most of the time the Americans, Canadians and Japanese made the same guesses, and most of the times they guessed that the building was a library.

Art credit:

If you subscribe today you can still listen to Whitley’s extraordinary interview with James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and one of the founders of New Urbanism, a movement that seeks to return older values to city layouts. And don’t miss Anne Strieber’s conversation with him.

Don’t go to that ugly mall this year, buy your Christmas presents at the store instead! It’s quick, easy and helps support the website you love so much.

NOTE: This news story, previously published on our old site, will have any links removed.

Dreamland Video podcast
To watch the FREE video version on YouTube, click here.

Subscribers, to watch the subscriber version of the video, first log in then click on Dreamland Subscriber-Only Video Podcast link.