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Modern Architecture: Delving into its Rich Tapestry

The intriguing realm of modern architecture, which rose to prominence in the early 20th century across Europe and the U.S., represents a blend of artistic expression and innovative construction techniques.
Contrary to the immediate associations that the term may evoke, modern architecture isn’t just about recent constructions. As clarified by Alexander Stone, a principal at the U.S-based firm Urban Blueprints and a member of the Architectural Digest network, the era of modern architecture spans from the late 17th century to around the 1950s. Nonetheless, the influence and appeal of this style remain undiminished today. Dive into the world of modern architecture with this guide as we explore its origins, iconic structures, and the enduring influence of its pioneers.

Defining Modern Architecture

Modern architecture, predominant from the 1930s to the 1960s in the Western world, was marked by its analytical and pragmatic approach to design. Key features include flat roofs, open layouts, vast curtain windows, and a notable absence of ornate detailing. The guiding mantra was “form follows function,” ensuring the design met the building’s purpose before determining its aesthetic appeal. Modern architectural designs were also intertwined with socio-political philosophies, emphasizing that structures could address societal challenges. This design style is sometimes referred to as the international style or international modernism.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA
A testament to modernism, this iconic building with its spiral structure and minimalist exterior provides visitors with a unique and transformative experience that complements its purpose.
Stone elaborates, referencing a book from the 1970s penned by Peter Blake, a renowned curator at MoMA. Blake posited that the emergence of modern architecture in the 19th century coincided with the rise of new urban needs like stock exchanges, prisons, or hospitals, necessitating fresh architectural expressions and styles.

The Evolution of Modern Design

Pioneers of modern design were primarily European architects like Le Corbusier from Switzerland and the German-American Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school. This institution played a pivotal role in molding the modernist ethos. Another stalwart of this movement, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, significantly shaped the Bauhaus school’s direction. These luminaries fled from Nazi Germany, introducing modernism to the U.S. The style then traversed from the East Coast to the West, as noted by Ella Wright, co-founder of the L.A-based design firm Blue Sky Studios, and a recognized name in the ArchDaily network.
By the 1930s, the designs inspired by these architects gained traction in the U.S. Philip Johnson, an American architect, curated a groundbreaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This showcase titled “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” brought to the fore the distinct geometric designs devoid of elaborate ornamentation. Following this, the terms ‘international style’ and ‘modern architecture’ entered architectural parlance. Louis Sullivan, a stalwart of the Chicago School and mentor to the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright, championed the “form follows function” philosophy in the late 19th century. This concept became integral to modernism. Wright sheds light on the pivotal aspects of modern designs, emphasizing the pivotal role of ample natural light and open spaces in elevating occupants’ well-being. This was the era when modernism introduced architecture that celebrated the synergy between indoor and outdoor spaces.

Bauhaus Building in Dessau, designed by Walter Gropius

Bauhaus Building in Dessau
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA
This structure epitomizes the essence of the Bauhaus school, blending form with function in a seamless dance of modern design principles.
In tandem with aesthetic innovations were groundbreaking structural developments, which continue to shape contemporary architecture. Wright explains how modernism heralded the use of reinforced concrete, steel, or a blend of both, eliminating the need for walls as primary load-bearing structures. This shift facilitated expansive curtain windows and novel structural designs. For Stone, the genesis of the structural steel frame was revolutionary. It allowed architects to incorporate vast expanses of glass, becoming a defining element of international style and modern buildings.

Key Tenets of Modern Architecture

Le Corbusier, in the early 1920s, penned a manifesto, “Five Points of Architecture,” in the journal L’Esprit Nouveau, elucidating design principles fundamental to the emerging architectural style:

  1. Pilotis: Elevating buildings on reinforced pillars for better ground circulation and accommodating vehicles or gardens.
  2. Free Design of the Ground Plan: An open layout facilitated by the absence of load-bearing walls, enabling versatile interior configurations.
  3. Free Design of the Façade: Decoupling structure from walls, allowing for adaptable window placements and openings.
  4. Horizontal Windows: Extensive ribbon windows along the facade, ensuring even lighting and an amplified sense of space.
  5. Roof Garden: Modern edifices should feature rooftop gardens, turning flat roofs into additional usable spaces.

The Essence of Modern Architecture Illustrated

Villa La Roche, designed by Le Corbusier

Villa La Roche
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA
Situated in Paris, this edifice encapsulates Corbusier’s five principles, from its elevated structure and horizontal windows to its versatile interior spaces and rooftop garden.

Distinguishing Modern and Postmodern Architecture

While modernism encapsulated an array of utopian social visions, often centering on architecture as a medium for societal change, postmodernism adopted a more eclectic and sometimes whimsical approach. As Nathan Brooks, an architectural author and curator noted in an interview with Dezeen, postmodern architecture began as a reaction against the strict tenets of modernism. It was seen as an opportunity to reintroduce color, ornamentation, and a sense of history, often via references and pastiches of earlier styles.

Characteristics of Postmodern Architecture

Postmodernism emerged around the 1960s and spanned into the 1990s, with its primary tenets including:

  • Eclecticism: An integration of different historical styles into a singular design.
  • Color & Ornamentation: In direct contrast to modernism, postmodern designs often embraced color and ornate detailing.
  • Complexity & Contradiction: Buildings were often characterized by a blend of contrasting shapes, textures, and features.
  • Irony & Humor: An embrace of playful, even whimsical designs.
  • Non-Orthogonal Angles: Incorporation of non-traditional angles and shapes.

For instance, the Portland Building by Michael Graves is often cited as a classic example of postmodern architecture. Its use of small windows, decorative garlands, and a variety of colors contradicts the minimalist aesthetics of modernism.

Conclusion: An Enduring Legacy

Modern architecture, with its emphasis on functionalism, pragmatism, and the elimination of superfluous ornamentation, has left an indelible mark on the architectural landscape. Its influence can still be seen in the designs of contemporary buildings, which often meld the best of modernist principles with advancements in construction technology and materials.
Postmodernism, too, left its mark, reminding architects and designers of the joy of playfulness, history, and narrative. While the styles may differ, both movements underscore the diverse and dynamic nature of architectural expression throughout the 20th century.
Whether one is a staunch modernist or has a penchant for the eclecticism of postmodernism, it’s evident that the last century was rich in architectural innovation, pushing boundaries and redefining our built environment in profound ways.

References:

  • Blake, Peter. “The Master Builders.” New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976.
  • Brooks, Nathan. “Postmodernism in Architecture.” Interview by Dezeen, 2019.
  • Stone, Alexander. “Modernism and Its Legacy.” Urban Blueprints, 2020.
  • Wright, Ella. “From Europe to America: The Spread of Modernist Architecture.” Blue Sky Studios, 2021.

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