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Modern Architecture

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Pritzker Architecture PrizePritzker Architecture Prize
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Modern Architecture, the buildings and building practices of the late 19th and the 20th centuries. The history of modern architecture encompasses the architects who designed those buildings, stylistic movements, and the technology and materials that made the new architecture possible. Modern architecture originated in the United States and Europe and spread from there to the rest of the world.

Among notable early modern architectural projects are exuberant and richly decorated buildings in Glasgow, Scotland, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh; imaginative designs for a city of the future by Italian visionary Antonio Sant’Elia; and houses with flowing interior spaces and projecting roofs by the American pioneer of modernism, Frank Lloyd Wright. Important modern buildings that came later include the sleek villas of Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier; bold new factories in Germany by Peter Behrens and Walter Gropius; and steel and glass skyscrapers designed by German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.



Modern architects reacted against the architecture of the 19th century, which they felt borrowed too heavily from the past. They found this architecture either oppressively bound to past styles or cloyingly picturesque and eclectic. As the 20th century began they believed it was necessary to invent an architecture that expressed the spirit of a new age and would surpass the styles, materials, and technologies of earlier architecture. This unifying purpose did not mean that their buildings would be similar in appearance, nor that architects would agree on other issues.

The aesthetics (artistic values) of modern architects differed radically. Some architects, enraptured by the powerful machines developed in the late 19th century, sought to devise an architecture that conveyed the sleekness and energy of a machine. Their aesthetic celebrated function in all forms of design, from household furnishings to massive ocean liners and the new flying machines. Other architects, however, found machine-like elegance inappropriate to architecture. They preferred an architecture that expressed, not the rationality of the machine, but the mystic powers of human emotion and spirit.

Modern architects also differed in their understanding of historical traditions. While some abandoned historical references altogether, others used careful references to the past to enhance the modernity of their designs. Italian architect Antonio Sant'Elia resoundingly rejected traditional architecture in his Futurist Manifesto of 1914 (Futurism). He called for each generation to build its houses anew and celebrated glass, steel, and concrete as the materials to make this possible. The modern designs of his countryman Giuseppe Terragni, on the other hand, referred explicitly to the past. Terragni’s Casa del Fascio (Fascist Party Headquarters, 1932-1936) in Como, Italy, featured an inner atrium for public assembly inspired by the courtyards of Italian Renaissance palaces, and windows laid out according to ancient Greek and Roman theories of ideal architectural proportions. Terragni saw tradition as providing ideal building blocks for a new architecture. But the building’s concrete and steel construction and its sleek, unornamented form expressed a thoroughly modern aesthetic.

In the United States Frank Lloyd Wright also rejected 19th-century European architecture. He attributed his new architectural concepts to educational building blocks he had played with as a child, to Japanese architecture, and to the prairie landscape on which many of his houses were built. Yet the fireplaces with adjacent seating that occupied a central position in his houses referred to the very distant past, when tending and maintaining a fire was essential for human survival. In Wright’s houses, few dividing walls separated rooms and one room seemed to flow into the next. Wright’s open design was extremely influential, and variations of it were used, not only for the houses of the wealthy, but for apartments and middle-class homes in Europe and the United States.

Modern architecture also challenged traditional ideas about the types of structures suitable for architectural design. Important civic buildings, aristocratic palaces, churches, and public institutions had long been the mainstay of architectural practices, but modernist designers argued that architects should design all that was necessary for society, even the most humble buildings. They began to plan low-cost housing, railroad stations, factories, warehouses, and commercial spaces. In the first half of the 20th century many modernists produced housing as well as furniture, textiles, and wallpaper to create a totally designed domestic environment.


New Materials and Technology

Developments in two materials—iron and concrete—formed the technological basis for much modern architecture. In 1779 English architect Thomas Pritchard designed the first structure built entirely of cast iron: Ironbridge, a bridge over the River Severn in England. At around the same time, another Englishman experimented with a compound of lime, clay, sand, and iron slag to produce concrete. Iron had been used since antiquity to tie building elements together, but after the erection of Ironbridge it took on a new role as a primary structural material. Builders throughout Europe and North America began to erect warehouses with beams of iron instead of wood and to create storefronts with cast-iron façades.

One of the most spectacular examples of early iron construction was the Crystal Palace in London, England, designed by English architect Joseph Paxton to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Spreading over 7.3 hectares (18 acres), the building consisted entirely of panels of glass set within iron frames. Paxton adapted two major features of the Industrial Revolution to the architecture of the Crystal Palace: mass production (in the manufactured glass panels and iron frames) and the use of iron rather than traditional masonry (stones or brick). He managed to erect this vast building in less than six months, a feat he accomplished by detailed planning and by prefabrication of the building parts off-site. In 1889 French engineer Gustave Eiffel carried forward Paxton's daring ideas for iron construction in his 300-m (984-ft) tall Eiffel Tower in Paris. Steel for construction also became abundantly available in the 19th century.


Reinforced Concrete

Improvements in concrete ran parallel to developments in iron and steel technology. In 1892 French engineer François Hennebique combined the strengths of both in a new system of construction based on concrete reinforced with steel. His invention made possible previously unimaginable effects: extremely thin walls with large areas of glass; roofs that cantilever (project out from their supports) to previously impossible distances; enormous spans without supporting columns or beam; and corners formed of glass rather than stone, brick, or wood.

One of the earliest architects to experiment with these new effects was Belgian architect-engineer Auguste Perret, whose 1903 apartment building on Rue Franklin in Paris, France, exemplified basic principles of steel reinforcement. On the façade, Perret clearly separated the structural elements of steel-reinforced concrete from the exterior walls, which were simply decorative panels or windows rather than structural necessities. The reinforced concrete structure also eliminated the need for interior walls to support any weight, permitting a floor plan of unprecedented openness. Perret's building stood eight stories high, with two additional stories set back from the front of the building, the typical height of most Paris buildings at the time.

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