Modern architecture

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Modern architecture is the term given to the range of approaches in architecture, first appearing at the beginning of the 20th century, that rejected historic precedent as a source of architectural inspiration and considered function as the prime generator of form, employing materials and technology directly, rather than softening with ornament or facade.

This short definition is to a certain extent inadequate because there are a range of interpretations as to the origin and rise of modern architecture, and what constitutes Modern architecture itself, depending on the frame of reference of the historian.

Basis for Modern architecture

Some historians see the evolution of modern architecture as closely tied to the Project of Modernity and hence to the Enlightenment, the social and political revolutions, general progress of mankind, and so on. Here the origin is placed much earlier, modern town planning and housing are also brought into the range. Others see technological and engineering developments as key to the rise of Modern architecture. Hence the usage of new materials such as iron, steel, concrete and glass is ascribed an important place, with the Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 or the apartment building by Auguste Perret serving as important examples. Some historians see the rise of Modern architecture as a reaction to the Eclectism and what they see as the poor taste of the Victorian Era fuelled by the possibilities of the Industrial Revolution. Here precursor movements such as the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Art Nouveau are brought in to bridge the gap. Yet others cite modern art movements such as Cubism and De Stijl as fundamentally altering the way in which buildings are designed by bringing in qualities of art into architecture.

All these reasons are equally valid.

Finally Modern architecture is characterised by the way in which it:

  • attempts to express function, materials and technology in an honest way
  • works to provide functional buildings to all people with an economy of means
  • employs art as a means of ordering form
  • rejects historical precedent.
  • explicitly attempts to express all the above in its building manifestations.

Some morphological characteristics of buildings under this style - free plan, universal space, walls freed from the function of load bearing, cantilevers, glass at corners of buildings, use of concrete.

Modern architecture was disseminated through individuals (Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius), movements (De Stijl, Art Nouveau) and schools (Bauhaus). The Bauhaus, the architecture school in Germany started in 1919, was the most influential school and under various directors the ideology differed slightly. However, the fundamental aim was to unite art and technolgy to produce good design. With the rise of the Nazis, the important people associated with the school, and hence its ideas, shifted to the United States.

The Modern movement found its hiatus in the International style after the exhibition conducted in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, United States, showcased works of modern architecture. Epitomized in such works as Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building--a construction of unornamented steel and glass--and the Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill Lever House.

Although there is much discussion as to when the fall 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. The rise of postmodernism is attributed to the general disenchantment with Modern architecture.


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