MODERN ARCHITECTURE


Reading: Architecture, chapter twelve; pp. 503-509; 522-524; 527-540

TWENTIETH CENTURY: New problems are created by new technology, new kinds of urban planning, and environmental issues. Architecture is often designed by large firms for patron committees. A pluralistic architecture leaves the architect with unlimited design possibilities. Among the fascinations of the modern skyscraper is the fact that modern technology gives it a completely artificial physical environment: it need respond to none of the climatic parameters that limited architecture in the past. Early 20th century architects built on the functionalist tradition of the Chicago School, creating the first genuinely new style in two hundred years. The "form follows function" dictum of Sullivan was their motto and, like Sullivan, their style was the result of the natural use of new materials and of the function of their buildings. There was no reference to a historical past. Modern architecture was almost born in late nineteenth-century Chicago, particularly in the buildings of Louis Henry Sullivan. But that movement lost its strength, partly because Sullivan's pupil Frank Lloyd Wright took another direction.

Wright was the major precursor of Modernism. In his desire to relate his buildings to their natural environment his architecture was organic and more romantic than his intellectual European counterparts. The roots of the modern architecture of the later twentieth century are found more in France and Germany than in Wright, however. The turning point came after World War I, in the work of LeCorbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Theirs was an abstract architecture of simplified, geometric shapes. Known as the International Style, it was characterized by a poetic minimalism. In his famous dictum of "less is more," Mies stated his belief in a universal architecture in which particulars of site, materials, etc., are meaningless. This accounts for the austere perfection of Mies's Seagram Building.

It is ironic that a skyscraper erected on Park Avenue in New York less than 40 years ago is today seen as "historic." But that is what the Seagram Building is. The Seagram Building illustrates that no building can ever be entirely "functional," and no building entirely without function. The Seagram Building is the logical conclusion of a set of architectural forces that had their roots in the mid-nineteenth century, but at the same time it is an arbitrary creation of an individual artist. One of the many ironies to the Seagram Building is that a work in such a radical tradition became a great icon (along with Elvis?) of the conformity of Late Capitalism in the Fifties.

Key works:

1. Antonio Gaudi: Casa Mila, Barcelona, 1905-10 [ 130]; figs. 802, 803.
2. Frank Lloyd Wright, Robie House, Chicago, 1909; fig. 796, 798
3. Wright: Fallingwater, Bear Run, PA 1934-37 [ 131 cutaway diagram]; fig. 853.
4. Walter Gropius and Hannes Meyer: Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany, 1925-26 [ 132 main teaching building]; figs. 829-831
5. LeCorbusier, Villa Savoye, Poissy-sur-Seine, France, 1929 [ 176 plan]; fig. 842-845; colorplate 68
6. Mies van der Rohe: German Pavilion, Barcelona Exposition, 1929 [ 133 interior, as rebuilt around 1980]; figs. 847--849.
7. Mies (with Philip Johnson): Seagram Building, New York City, 1957 [ 312]; figs. 857--862

Works in context:

  • Antonio Gaudi, Church of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, 1903-26.
  • Raymond Hood (Howells and Hood): Chicago Tribune tower, Chicago, 1925.
  • Raymond Hood: New York Daily News building, New York, 1931.
  • LeCorbusier: Towards a New Architecture, 1924 (English trans. 1927)
  • Mies: Crown Hall, Chicago, 1956