Declassifying Modern Architecture

Art is the ultimate finesse of our human race. It’s the driving force. Goethe likens architecture to frozen music. It’s the greatest inspiration and a powerful symbolic manifestation of our aesthetic fire. In this zeal, the buildings and structures that we architect are dynamic presentations of our drive to infuse life into them so that they become long-standing monuments that enthuse and charm the onlooker. “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space,” asserted Ludwig Mies, the pioneering 20th century American architect. He devoted all his life to capturing the spirit of his times into his architecture, which we know today as ‘Modernist architecture.’ Like any great artistic movement, modernism presented a wholly different perspective on architecture. Modernism: The 20th century provided diverse, and sometimes disparate, approaches to building design. Modernist architecture lays significant emphasis on the buildings being functional and we notice a marked rebellion against traditional design styles that were overtly obsessed with architectural ornamentation. The roots of Modernism are founded in applying scientific and analytical methods to building design. With scant regard for ornamentation, prefabricated factory-made components of metal and concrete were heavily used. The stark buildings habitually ran counter to traditional expectations and ingeniously appeared to defy gravity. Architects of this era often drew on several design philosophies to architect buildings that are both unique and startling. Modernism planted seeds for many off-shoots in the later decades. The different stylistic architectural movements are detailed further on. It must be kept in mind that these classifications cannot be water-tight compartments because any artistic movement influences other movements in multi-lateral ways. Therefore, it could be very frequent that one style runs into the other. At times, one building could be based upon an amalgamation of multiple styles too. Bauhaus: Bauhaus is a German expression for ‘house for building.’ In 1919, the German economy was crumbling after the First World War. A new architectural institution called Bauhaus was established, headed by Walter Gropius, to rebuild the country through a rational community housing for the working class. Bauhaus architects discarded “bourgeois” specialties like eaves, cornices, and decorative details. They strove to use the basic forms of Classical architecture in the most basic form, devoid of any ornamentation. Bauhaus buildings are characterized by flat roofs, cubic shapes, and smooth facades. The colors are simple in their use of white, beige, gray, or black. Even floor plans are open housing functional furniture. The chief architect, Walter Gropius, built his home in Massachusetts following the same philosophy. When the Nazis disbanded the Bauhaus school, the principal Bauhaus leaders migrated to the US, where they applied the same principles to public and corporate buildings. The American form of Bauhaus architecture took the name of ‘International Style.’ Brutalism: Brutalism is another architectural movement that produced stark, angular and economical concrete buildings. The term ‘brutalism’ was first used in reference to Le Corbusier’s simple concrete buildings in the 50s. Brutalism grew as an offshoot of the International Style, but the designs may seem less refined. Top Brazilian architect, Paulo Mendes, is another famous for following this style. Brutalist buildings are constructed economically in smaller time-frames. This is made possible by using precast concrete slabs. These buildings are noticeable for their rough unfinished surfaces and exposed steel beams. Expressionism: Expressionism found its inspiration from the work of avant garde artists and designers in France, Germany, and other European countries during the first quarter of the last century. The distinctive features of expressionist buildings are the massive distorted shapes that blow symmetry to the winds. Fragmented contours are prominent and they seem like sculpted forms, even though the construction material is primarily brick and concrete. The desired end product of expressionist architects was to have biomorphic and organic designs that were akin to forms found in Nature. This movement went on to magnify into a different style altogether which is popularly known as organic architecture. Neo-expressionism: Neo-expressionism owes its roots to expressionist ideas. Architects through the 1950s and 60s indulged in designing buildings that gave shape to their feelings about the surrounding landscape. The buildings suggested the forms of rocks and mountains. Brutalist and Organic architecture are often described to represent Neo-expressionism. Formalism: As evident from the name, Formalism lays great emphasis on ‘form.’ The architect’s sole concern lies in accentuating visual relationships between different parts of the building and the entire structure as one unified whole. The overall shape of the structure is given monumental attention. Lines and rigid geometric shapes are predominant in Formalist architecture. The Bank of China Tower, built by renowned architect I. M. Pei, is the most acclaimed example of Formalist architecture. Mr. Pei is highly praised for his “elegant formalism” in building design. International Style: International Style grew from Bauhaus architecture in the United States. While German Bauhaus architecture dealt with the social aspects of design, America’s International Style took a symbolic position of Capitalism. The International Style swept across large office buildings and even found way to upscale homes for American elites. The United Nations Secretariat building and the Seagram Building in New York are considered the finest in International Style. A typical International Style high-rise has a square or rectangular floor-plan. It has a simple cubic “extruded rectangle” form with all facades at right angles to each other. ‘Form follows function’ is the guiding principle of the building design. There is complete rejection of ornament but transparency of the building is given a prime position. To achieve this, glass is heavily used in the exteriors, held together by steel and concrete beams. Industrialized mass-production processes give a machine aesthetic to the building. Minimalism: One striking trend in Modernist architecture is the growing shift towards minimalist or reductivist design. Acclaimed architect Ludwig Mies is said to have pioneered this architectural style, inspired by the motto “less is more.” Traditional Japanese architecture that values simplicity and abstraction is also said to have a deep influence. The hallmark of a minimalist building is that it is stripped of almost all essential interior elements like the walls. The outline, or the frame, of the structure is given greater value. Floor plans are quite open and negative spaces surrounding the structure form a part of the overall design. Lighting is directed to dramatize planes and lines. The Mexico City home of award-winning Mexican architect Luis Barragán is Minimalist due to its emphasis on open spaces and dramatically lit planes. Structuralism: Structuralism is founded in the belief system that all matter is built from a system of opposing signs like male/female, hot/cold, old/young, etc. For Structuralists, design is a process of searching for the relationship between different elements. They are also curious about the social structures and mental processes that contribute to the design. Structuralist architecture can be vastly complex within a highly structured framework. For example, a Structuralist design may have a cell-like honeycomb shape, cubed grids, intersecting planes, or densely clustered spaces with connecting courtyards. The Berlin Holocaust Memorial is a notable Structuralist work by architect Peter Eisenman. Postmodernism: In the later part of the twentieth century, designers rebelled against the rationalism followed in Modernist architecture and took to more abstract styles. Postmodern architecture germinated from modernist movement, yet blatantly contradicts most modernist ideas. Postmodernist buildings combine new ideas with traditional forms to startle, surprise, and amuse its viewer. Familiar shapes are metamorphosed in unexpected ways. Buildings may, at times, incorporate symbols to make a statement. Philip Johnson’s AT&T Headquarters (now the SONY Building) is often referred as an epitome of postmodernism. The skyscraper has a sleek classical façade with the top being an oversized “Chippendale” pediment. Deconstructivism: Deconstructivism (or the literary root: Deconstruction) is an approach to building design that attempts to view architecture in bits and pieces. The basic elements of architecture are dismantled. Deconstructivist buildings may seem to have no visual logic. They may appear to be made up of unrelated, abstract, and disharmonious forms. Deconstructive ideas are borrowed from the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The Seattle Public Library by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is a monumental example of Deconstructivist architecture. High Tech: High-tech buildings make heavy use of construction materials like steel, aluminum, and glass that combine with brightly colored girders, beams, and braces to give it a machine-like look. Most parts of the building are prefabricated in a factory and assembled on-site. The support beams, duct work, and other functional elements are innovatively placed on the exterior facade, which becomes the focus of attention. The interior spaces are open and adaptable for multiple purposes. The Centre Pompidou in Paris is an iconic High-tech building. Its ‘inside-out’ architecture reveals the inner workings on the exterior facade. The Art Nouveau architects of the early twentieth century first incorporated curving, plant-like organic shapes into their building designs. But in the later half of the twentieth century, Modernist architects took the concept of organic architecture to new heights. By using new forms of concrete and cantilever trusses, architects could create swooping arches without visible beams or pillars. Organic buildings are never linear or rigidly geometric. Instead, wavy lines and curved shapes are replicated to suggest natural forms. The Sydney Opera House in Australia with its sail-like motifs, the shell-like spiral forms of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and the ocean motifs of Sea Ranch Chapel in California are fine examples of organic architecture.,