From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Modern architecture, not to be confused with 'contemporary architecture', is a term given to a number of building styles with similar characteristics, primarily the simplification of form and the elimination of ornament. While the style was conceived early in the 20th century and heavily promoted by a few architects, architectural educators and exhibits, very few Modern buildings were built in the first half of the century. For three decades after the Second World War, however, it became the dominant architectural style for institutional and corporate building.
The exact characteristics and origins of Modern architecture are still open to interpretation and debate.
Others see Modern architecture as primarily driven by technological and engineering developments, and it is true that the availability of new building materials such as iron, steel, concrete and glass drove the invention of new building techniques as part of the Industrial Revolution. In 1796, Shrewsbury mill owner Charles Bage first used his ‘fireproof’ design, which relied on cast iron and brick with flag stone floors. Such construction greatly strengthened the structure of mills, which enabled them to accommodate much bigger machines. Due to poor knowledge of iron's properties as a construction material, a number of early mills collapsed. It was not until the early 1830s that Eaton Hodgkinson introduced the section beam, leading to widespread use of iron construction, this kind of austere industrial architecture utterly transformed the landscape of northern Britain, leading to the description, "Dark satanic mills" of places like Manchester and parts of West Yorkshire. The Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton at the Great Exhibition of 1851 was an early example of iron and glass construction; possibly the best example is the development of the tall steel skyscraper in Chicago around 1890 by William Le Baron Jenney and Louis Sullivan. Early structures to employ concrete as the chief means of architectural expression (rather than for purely utilitarian structure) include Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple, built in 1906 near Chicago, and Rudolf Steiner's Second Goetheanum, built from 1926 near Basel, Switzerland.
Whatever the cause, around 1900 a number of architects around the world began developing new architectural solutions to integrate traditional precedents (Gothic, for instance) with new technological possibilities. The work of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, Victor Horta in Brussels, Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, Otto Wagner in Vienna and Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, among many others, can be seen as a common struggle between old and new.
Modernism as dominant style
By the 1920s the most important figures in Modern architecture had established their reputations. The big three are commonly recognized as Le Corbusier in France, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany. Mies van der Rohe and Gropius were both directors of the Bauhaus, one of a number of European schools and associations concerned with reconciling craft tradition and industrial technology.
Frank Lloyd Wright's career parallels and influences the work of the European modernists, particularly via the Wasmuth Portfolio, but he refused to be categorized with them. Wright was a major influence on both Gropius and van der Rohe, however, as well as on the whole of organic architecture.
In 1932 came the important MOMA exhibition, the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture, curated by Philip Johnson. Johnson and collaborator Henry-Russell Hitchcock drew together many distinct threads and trends, identified them as stylistically similar and having a common purpose, and consolidated them into the International Style.
This was an important turning point. With World War II the important figures of the Bauhaus fled to the United States, to Chicago, to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and to Black Mountain College. While Modern architectural design never became a dominant style in single-dwelling residential buildings, in institutional and commercial architecture Modernism became the pre-eminent, and in the schools (for leaders of the profession) the only acceptable, design solution from about 1932 to about 1984.
Architects who worked in the international style wanted to break with architectural tradition and design simple, unornamented buildings. The most commonly used materials are glass for the facade, steel for exterior support, and concrete for the floors and interior supports; floor plans were functional and logical. The style became most evident in the design of skyscrapers. Perhaps its most famous manifestations include the United Nations headquarters (Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, Sir Howard Robertson), the Seagram Building (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), and Lever House (Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill), all in New York. A prominent residential example is the Lovell House (Richard Neutra) in Los Angeles.
Detractors of the international style claim that its stark, uncompromisingly rectangular geometry is dehumanising. Le Corbusier once described buildings as "machines for living", but people are not machines and it was suggested that they do not want to live in machines. Even Philip Johnson admitted he was "bored with the box." Since the early 1980s many architects have deliberately sought to move away from rectilinear designs, towards more eclectic styles. During the middle of the century, some architects began experimenting in organic forms that they felt were more human and accessible. Mid-century modernism, or organic modernism, was very popular, due to its democratic and playful nature. Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen were two of the most prolific architects and designers in this movement, which has influenced contemporary modernism.
Although there is debate as to when and why the decline of the modern movement occurred, criticism of Modern architecture began in the 1960s on the grounds that it was universal, sterile, elitist and lacked meaning. Its approach had become ossified in a "style" that threatened to degenerate into a set of mannerisms. Siegfried Giedion in the 1961 introduction to his evolving text, Space, Time and Architecture (first written in 1941), could begin "At the moment a certain confusion exists in contemporary architecture, as in painting; a kind of pause, even a kind of exhaustion." At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a 1961 symposium discussed the question "Modern Architecture: Death or Metamorphosis?" In New York, the coup d'état appeared to materialize in controversy around the Pan Am Building that loomed over Grand Central Station, taking advantage of the modernist real estate concept of "air rights", In criticism by Ada Louise Huxtable and Douglas Haskell it was seen to "sever" the Park Avenue streetscape and "tarnish" the reputations of its consortium of architects: Walter Gropius, Pietro Belluschi and the builders Emery Roth & Sons. The rise of postmodernism was attributed to disenchantment with Modern architecture. By the 1980s, postmodern architecture appeared triumphant over modernism, including the temple of the Light of the World, a futuristic design for its time Guadalajara Jalisco La Luz del Mundo Sede International; however, postmodern aesthetics lacked traction and by the mid-1990s, a neo-modern (or hypermodern) architecture had once again established international pre-eminence. As part of this revival, much of the criticism of the modernists has been revisited, refuted, and re-evaluated; and a modernistic idiom once again dominates in institutional and commercial contemporary practice, but must now compete with the revival of traditional architectural design in commercial and institutional architecture; residential design continues to be dominated by a traditional aesthetic.
Modern architecture is usually characterized by:
- a rejection of historical styles as a source of architectural form (historicism)
- an adoption of the principle that the materials and functional requirements determine the result
- an adoption of the machine aesthetic
- a rejection of ornament
- a simplification of form and elimination of "unnecessary detail"
- an adoption of expressed structure
- Form follows function
Art Deco • Art Nouveau • Blobitecture • Brutalism • Constructivism • Critical regionalism • De Stijl • Deconstructivism • Expressionism • Functionalism • Futurism • Googie • High-tech • International style • Jugendstil • Mid-Century modern • Modernisme • New Objectivity • Organicism • Prairie School • Postmodernism • Streamline Moderne • Sustainable architecture