Architectural Styles in the 20th Century: Evolution, Modernism, and Postmodernism

Styles of Architecture in the 20th Century

Throughout history building has evolved out of the dynamics between needs (shelter, security, etc.) and means (building materials, available skills).

In the nineteenth century iron and steel became widely used, decreasing costs and allowing for large-scale and creative buildings. Sullivan took new industrial materials and pushed the idea of form following function to its logical extreme, creating buildings that were almost monolithic.

The International Style

Although the tenets of modern architecture were first articulated in Europe in the 1920s, it was not until World War II that they caught on in America. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius were among a group of leading architects from the Bauhaus who fled to America after the school closed, and they published several projects that were deemed examples of the International Style. These buildings used flat, hard surfaces and glass walls, eliminated ornament, and incorporated advanced building technologies.

Other American architects also exhibited elements of this design style, most notably Raymond Hood’s Daily News Building in New York City and the McGraw-Hill Building in Detroit, which were composed of asymmetrical setbacks. Frank Lloyd Wright, however, eschewed the International Style, and his designs emphasized the use of natural materials and the integration of the buildings with their surroundings. Nevertheless, he had already embraced some aspects of modernism through the Arts and Crafts Movement that lasted between 1880 and 1910.

The Neo-Gothic Style

During the neo-Gothic movement, many enlightened amateurs such as Horace Walpole and William Beckford embraced medieval culture and architecture. Their lavish architectural follies like Strawberry Hill and Fonhill Abbey show the public’s newfound enthusiasm for the Middle Ages. In contrast, the Utilitarians viewed this style as antiquated and not suited to modern life.

When the government announced that the winning design for the Houses of Parliament would be designed in the Gothic Revival style, it set a precedent for imperial buildings worldwide. Across the colonies, men with connections to the architects that created Parliament designed similar public structures in the same architectural form.

These new Gothic structures emphasized stone and vertical features, including carved turrets and pointed windows. A classic example is the Whalen Building in downtown Portland, built for a logging magnate in 1913 with decorative carvings and mullions. The carved gable ends also feature Gothic-style ornamentation. This building is a perfect example of the Neo-Gothic architecture that was popular in this period.

The Modern Style

With the rapid growth of technology, engineers, and building materials came a shift in how architects approached buildings. They became less concerned with reviving historical styles and instead focused on creating structures that were unique, experimental, and innovative.

Skyscraper construction increased. The architecture firm of McKim, Mead, and White favored a three-part facade design that resembled the bases, shafts, and capitals of classical columns. This style was also used by Frank Lloyd Wright in buildings such as Robie House and Fallingwater.

After World War I, Modernism emerged as an avant-garde architectural movement with moral, philosophical, and aesthetic underpinnings. Pioneering Modernist architects sought to develop a completely new style that would be suitable for a postwar social and economic order that was focused on meeting the needs of the middle and working classes. The Modernists promoted an analytical approach to function, a rejection of ornamentation, and an openness to structural innovation. Louis Sullivan popularized the aphorism “Form follows function” to emphasize utilitarian simplicity in architecture.

The Postmodern Style

One of the most controversial styles of architecture in the 20th century, Postmodernism reached a peak of eclectic non-conformity in the 1970s and 1980s. This architectural style is characterized by a mix of many different styles, often incorporating elements that are not connected or harmonious in any way. A 1966 book by the American architect Robert Venturi called Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was a key influence on this movement. In it, Venturi argued that Modernism was based on a misunderstanding of the ambiguities and contradictions of the architectural history of Rome and other ancient buildings, and also the architecture of popular culture like the houses on the average American street.

Postmodernist architects sought to solve the problems of modernism, communicate meanings with ambiguity and exhibit sensitivity to their buildings’ context. The latter could mean incorporating vernacular design features, such as the use of brick or ceramic tile, in new designs, or responding to neighboring buildings with color, such as Mexican architect Luis Barragan’s bright sunlight colors on his buildings.

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