Modern Architecture


Table Summary

Summary of Modern Architecture
Early Modern
ca. 1850-1900
Late Modern
ca. 1900-60
ca. 1960-present
culmination of iron-frame architecture (Crystal Palace, Eiffel Tower),
Chicago school: skyscrapers (Jenney), functionalism (Sullivan)
international style (Gropius, Corbusier, Mies),
Wright (organic architecture)
total aesthetic freedom
Art Nouveau
ca. 1890-1910
Art Deco
ca. 1920-40
Gaudi New York

The Modern Aesthetic

The defining feature of modern architecture is the modern aesthetic (aka the "modern look"), which may be summarized as "plain geometric forms". Today, we are so accustomed to the modern aesthetic (in everything from household appliances to skyscrapers) that it can be difficult to imagine the controversy surrounding its development. Nonetheless, though the aesthetic began to emerge in the late nineteenth century, only in the early twentieth did it mature and achieve mainstream acceptance.

Rise of Metal-frame Architecture

The fundamental technical prerequisite to large-scale modern architecture was the development of metal framing.

The term industrial age denotes the period of history in which machine-manufacturing (as opposed to manufacturing by hand) plays a major role. This age began ca. 1750 (with the onset of the Industrial Revolution) and continues to this day. The industrial age can be divided into two parts: the iron and steam phase (ca. 1750-1900) and the steel and electricity phase (ca. 1900-present).

The "iron and steam phase" could also be dubbed the age of iron-frame architecture. During this period, cast iron framing was introduced to masonry buildings; masonry walls were gradually relieved of their structural role, eventually becoming a cosmetic "skin" over an iron skeleton of columns and arches. Iron bridges and iron-and-glass buildings (e.g. greenhouses, train stations, markets) were also constructed.26,27

Materials of Modern Architecture
age of iron and steam
(aka age of iron-frame architecture)
ca. 1750-1900
age of steel and electricity
(aka age of steel-frame architecture)
ca. 1900-present
iron-frame masonry buildings,
iron-and-glass buildings, iron bridges
steel framing and reinforced concrete serve as the
primary structural materials of large-scale architecture

A cast iron frame must use arched construction. The alternative, post-and-beam construction, is not feasible due to the brittleness of cast iron. (The term "brittle" is equivalent to "lacking in tensile strength"; see Tension and Compression.)

Post-and-beam Construction vs Arched Construction

The familiar post-and-beam metal frames of today's architecture only became possible with the mass-production of steel (see Iron Smelting), which has immense tensile strength. During the "steel and electricity phase" of the industrial age, which could also be called the age of steel-frame architecture, steel and reinforced concrete became the predominant structural materials of large-scale architecture.11 Reinforced concrete is simply concrete filled with reinforcing steel bars ("rebars"), thus combining the tensile strength of steel with the compressive strength of concrete.

Steel Frame (note the post-and-beam configuration)

The Applied Arts Crisis

From the Industrial Revolution (ca. 1750-1850) onward, the world has been filled with machine-made products, which led many artists to fear the decline of applied arts (works of art that serve a practical purpose). The production of furniture, for instance, no longer required a skilled woodworker; it could simply be churned out of a machine. Would machine production result in a world filled with products devoid of beauty? Two major positions emerged in response to this question.

One position, known as the Arts and Crafts Movement, urged for a return to traditional, hand-made applied arts. This movement, which emerged in late nineteenth-century England, spread across Europe and the United States. The most famous figure associated with the movement is William Morris, a many-faceted artist remembered especially for his wallpaper designs.

The other position argued that mass-produced goods, skilfully designed, could indeed be beautiful works of art. Machine production results in products with simple geometric forms and plain, unornamented surfaces; instead of rejecting these properties as cold and lifeless, some artists argued that they should be embraced. This approach fuelled the gradual rise of the modern aesthetic.

Main Article

Early Modern Architecture

ca. 1850-1900

Iron-frame architecture, which flourished primarily in England, France, and (later) the United States, occupies the transitional phase between traditional and modern architecture. Iron-frame buildings were erected mainly during the "age of iron and steam" (ca. 1750-1900). As noted earlier, this architecture included iron-frame masonry buildings, iron-and-glass buildings, and iron bridges.

Utilitarian structures (and utilitarian products in general) were important for demonstrating the aesthetic potential of plain, mass-produced objects. For instance, whereas iron supports in grand architecture were often hidden behind masonry (such that the buildings retained a traditional appearance), they were left exposed in structures where appearance was deemed unimportant (e.g. mills, factories) or where masonry was unnecessary (e.g. bridges, railway stations). Utilitarian buildings also often lacked traditional ornamentation, again due to lack of concern for appearance. As the nineteenth century drew on, many architects began to embrace these features (plain industrial materials and lack of ornamentation) as aesthetically desirable.F89,H1013

Iron Bridge (England, 18th c.)
Masonry Building Supported by an Iron Frame (England, 19th c.)
Iron-and-glass Market Building (France, 19th c.)
Iron-and-glass Greenhouses (Belgium, 19th c.)
Iron-and-glass Train Station (England, 19th c.)

Two works of iron-frame architecture are especially famous. Iron-and-glass architecture culminated with London's Crystal Palace (destroyed), designed by Joseph Paxton (a renowned greenhouse architect) as the main pavilion of the first World's Fair. Some decades later, the foremost iron-frame structure of all time was constructed: the Eiffel Tower, designed by famed bridge engineer Gustave Eiffel.29 The fierce controversy provoked by the tower's plain, unornamented appearance illustrates the era's lack of mainstream acceptance for the "modern look".

Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace
Eiffel Tower

The next step in the development of modern architecture was the shift from iron-frame to steel-frame construction. Steel-frame architecture emerged in Chicago, among a circle of architects known as the Chicago school, which flourished ca. 1880-1900.G443,4

At this point in history, architects faced mounting pressure to extend buildings upward, as cities grew and property values soared. In response, the Chicago school built the world's first skyscrapers. (A good definition of "skyscraper", for discussion of architectural history, is "a metal-frame building at least one hundred feet tall".) The Home Insurance Building (1884; demolished), by William Le Baron Jenney (a member of the Chicago school), is usually considered the very first skyscraper.

Home Insurance Building

While this building featured a metal frame composed of both iron and steel, pure steel-frame construction emerged (in works of the Chicago school) within a decade.

It should be emphasized that in metal-frame architecture, the entire weight of the building is supported by the frame. The building's walls thus serve as mere "curtains" or "screens", which are hung upon the frame simply to seal the building's interior from the elements. In other words, the metal frame is the building's skeleton, while the walls are its skin.

The skyscraper was the great technical achievement of the Chicago school. The school is also responsible for a great aesthetic achievement: the gradual reduction of traditional ornamentation in skyscraper design.H1015 Whereas buildings of ordinary height lend themselves well to traditional styles, skyscrapers were an entirely new building type, for which traditional aesthetics proved unsatisfactory; consequently, skyscrapers accelerated the development of the modern aesthetic.

This transition away from traditional ornamentation culminated in the development of functionalism by Louis Sullivan, the foremost architect of the Chicago school. Functionalism is a design approach in which a building is simply designed according to its function, then graced with features that are naturally suggested by its internal structure.6 This approach, which leads to the simple geometry of the modern aesthetic, is aptly summarized in Sullivan's guiding principle: "form follows function".10 Functionalism provided the modern aesthetic with a theoretical foundation; consequently, Sullivan is often referred to as the "father of modern architecture".D453

Sullivan's masterpiece is the Wainwright Building. The exterior of this building reflects its three-part internal plan (a two-story base, a middle section with seven floors of offices, and a service floor at the top), with a brick pier indicating each column in the steel frame.4 The horizontal dividers are recessed behind the piers, which emphasizes the building's verticality: an aesthetic choice that illustrates the creative freedom within the bounds of functionalism.5 Most surfaces are plain, although the horizontal dividers feature stucco decoration.

Wainwright Building, Chicago
Skyscraper by Sullivan
Skyscraper by Sullivan

Alternatives to the Modern Aesthetic

During the late nineteenth century, architects (and other designers) across Europe and the United States fostered the modern aesthetic, with the most striking advances being achieved by the Chicago school. The aesthetic would not mature and become mainstream for some decades, however.

In the meantime, a rival aesthetic emerged: Art Nouveau, a style that flourished in Europe and America at the turn of the century (ca. 1890-1910).7 Like functionalism, Art Nouveau was purposely developed as an all-new aesthetic, free of traditional ornamentation. Yet this was an exuberantly decorative style, defined by organic, curving, asymmetrical lines inspired by natural forms (e.g. stems, flowers, vines, insect wings).9

Art Nouveau Building
Art Nouveau Building
Art Nouveau Building
Art Nouveau Furniture
Art Nouveau Poster

The most overt architectural expression of Art Nouveau is found in the "growing" buildings of Antonio Gaudi. His masterpiece is the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral in Barcelona. Casa Mila, also in Barcelona, is his foremost residential work.

Sagrada Familia (Gaudi)
Sagrada Familia (Gaudi)
Casa Mila (Gaudi)

During the period ca. 1920-40 (the interwar period), another short-lived rival to mainstream modernism flourished: Art Deco. Like the modern aesthetic, Art Deco shuns traditional decoration in favour of plain geometric forms.14 The main difference is that, compared with the light minimalism of the modern aesthetic, Art Deco works typically look heavy and contrived.

Art Deco Vase
Art Deco Relief Sculpture
Art Deco Light Fixture
Art Deco Chair

Distinctive features of Art Deco architecture include setbacks (inward steps), as well as narrow strips of windows (with strips of concrete/masonry between them, which gives the building a sense of heavy construction). Though Art Deco was primarily a French style, it culminated architecturally in the United States.15 The foremost examples are found in New York: the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and GE Building (the centrepiece of Rockefeller Centre).

Empire State Building
Chrysler Building
GE Building

Late Modern Architecture

ca. 1900-1960

In the early twentieth century, the modern aesthetic (simple, unadorned geometric forms) finally matured, becoming the mainstream aesthetic of architecture and design across the world. This was achieved primarily by the Bauhaus, a German school of design that operated for most of the interwar period.24 The school was closed when the Nazi government came to power, forcing many of its scholars to emigrate to the United States, where they continued to serve as leaders of the architecture/design world (such that the "Bauhaus age" actually stretched decades beyond the school's closure).17

The scope of Bauhaus efforts included architecture, visual art, interior design, graphic design, and industrial design (product design). It should be noted that while Bauhaus designers generally embraced the aesthetic theory of functionalism, deliberate use of this theory (or even familiarity with it) is not a prerequisite to designing works that feature the modern aesthetic. Thus, for any given modern-style building or object, the designer may or may not have had functionalism in mind.

Bauhaus Chair
Bauhaus Desk
Bauhaus Kettle
Bauhaus Lamp

The modern aesthetic reached maturity when excess material (including traditional ornamentation) had been completely stripped away, leaving only a basic structure of plain geometric forms. As noted above, this maturation was achieved in the early twentieth century, with the Bauhaus leading the way (in terms of both innovation and propagation). Architecture that features the mature modern aesthetic is known as international style architecture, due to the rapid global diffusion of this style once it emerged.

Compared to traditional aesthetics, an international style building gives an impression of weightlessness, due to its minimalist, unornamented surfaces, as well as the absence of massive structural walls. A sense of balance is sought in the overall plan, whether via perfect symmetry or balanced asymmetry. The geometry of an international style building is mostly flat; curved shapes are used sparingly, if at all.10

The international style's three most influential pioneers were Gropius, Corbusier, and Mies.

Walter Gropius, founder and first director of the Bauhaus, designed the buildings of the school's second campus. Plain walls (white and grey) and screens of glass, sometimes several stories in height, predominate. Gropius' balconies showcase an impressive new structural possibility of steel-frame construction: cantilevering (platforms fixed only at one end), which further contributes to a sense of architectural weightlessness.

Bauhaus Campus, Dessau
Bauhaus Campus, Dessau
Bauhaus Campus, Dessau
Bauhaus Campus, Dessau

The Swiss architect Le Corbusier, though not a member of the Bauhaus, absorbed and became a leading figure in the international style. He preferred smooth expanses of white reinforced concrete pierced with horizontal strips of windows, as well as a degree of curvilinear geometry (see examples). Corbusier mainly designed houses; his masterpiece is the Villa Savoye (see photo).

While Gropius and Le Corbusier made ample use of reinforced concrete, pure glass-and-steel construction in the international style was perfected by Mies van der Rohe (another director of the Bauhaus), who believed so firmly in eliminating all embellishment that his guiding principle was simply "less is more". Mies brought the international style to the height of its influence, as descendants of his glass-and-steel skyscrapers appeared in every corner of the globe.20 The Seagram Building in New York, essentially a steel frame sheathed in curtains of glass, is often considered his masterpiece.

Seagram Building, New York
Lake Shore Drive Apartments, Chicago
Farnsworth House, Illinois

Contemporary with the "Bauhaus age" was the career of the greatest American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who (like Corbusier) focused primarily on residential designs. Wright sought to make his buildings organic; that is, to adjust their layouts and features until they merge with their surroundings, rather than imposing a rectangular box of a house on any given locale. Wright felt that a house should not be located "on" a site, but rather be a natural extension of the site.F147,23

The exterior walls of a Wright house are articulated in a relatively complex, asymmetrical manner (so as to avoid a stiff, "boxy" appearance), and the house is often visually united with the earth via broad, flat surfaces parallel with the ground (e.g. eaves, cantilevered balconies). Interiors are open and flowing (rather than mechanically subdivided into small rooms), and ample windows (including windows that bend around corners) throughout the house merge the interior with the world outside. A mixture of building materials (e.g. brick, wood, stone, concrete) further contributes to the sense of the house as an organic feature of the landscape.23,31

Despite the contrast between functionalism and Wright's "organicism", both are clearly modern (i.e. not based on anything traditional), and consequently similar in appearance to a significant degree. Wright shared the functionalist appreciation for rectilinear geometry and plain, undecorated surfaces.31 One could categorize Wright's architecture as a branch of the international style, or as a cousin.

Wright's first great works were his Prairie Houses, built in the Midwest; best-known among them is Robie House in Chicago. His most famous building is Fallingwater, Pennsylvania, while his foremost urban work is the Guggenheim Museum in New York.23

Robie House, Chicago
Fallingwater, Pennsylvania
Guggenheim Museum, New York

Toward the end of the Late Modern period, the international style experienced two notable trends. One was more extensive use of curvilinear geometry (as illustrated by Wright's Guggenheim Museum, as well as Corbusier's later work). The other was brutalism: a style that features harsh, bulky concrete structures, often with unfinished surfaces. These trends are considered the transitional phase to postmodern architecture, as architects grew impatient with the severe simplicity of the international style.D648,F183,4

Brutalist Building
Brutalist Building

Postmodern Architecture

ca. 1960-present

As advances in building materials and engineering opened up incredible new possibilities for architectural design, it was only a matter of time until the severe international style was rejected in favour of total aesthetic freedom. (Nonetheless, given its timeless appeal, construction in the international style has continued since ca. 1960, albeit to a more limited extent.) Consequently, it is difficult to generalize postmodern architecture beyond the observation that "anything goes".4

Postmodern architecture does exhibit a range of typical features, however, such as complex geometry (often including curves), blending of modern and traditional elements, colourfulness, and playfulness. Many postmodern buildings have a sleek, futuristic appearance; these are often described as "high-tech" or "space-age" architecture.G515,4

Postmodern Building
Postmodern Building
Postmodern Building
Postmodern Building
Postmodern Building
Postmodern Building
Postmodern Building

American Philip Johnson may be the most famous of all postmodern architects. Though he started in the international style (even assisting Mies on the Seagram Building)19, his later works include the many-cornered IDS Center and the sharp diagonal planes of Crystal Cathedral. The Sony Building grafts a broken pediment (a classical element) onto an otherwise modern building.

IDS Center, Minneapolis
Crystal Cathedral, California
Sony Building, New York

Perhaps the most distinctive submovement of postmodern architecture is deconstructivism, which features "broken" buildings.4

Deconstructivist Building
Deconstructivist Building

It should be noted that the aesthetically adventurous spirit of postmodern architecture was foreshadowed by numerous earlier styles (e.g. Art Nouveau, expressionism). These styles were short-lived, however, and had limited followings.

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