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For much of history, the world
has been dominated by a changing set of empires and conquests. This meant that
pride and nationalism could run rampant along the face of the Earth, through
the creation, destruction, and reconstruction of sites, in the form of
architecture. At the time, the emphasis behind the creation of buildings and
landscapes was to give rise to an aesthetic image, which would encapsulate a
movement or a moment in time. This meant that practicality, efficient use of
space and resources, and optimization of labor and time had to take a step back
so that the magnificent structures of the world could take rise. However, the
need to create a world, with a limited amount of space, for a population that
is constantly expanding, has shifted the priorities from the construction of
elegant works of art, to the practical concerns which naturally predominate a

Sometime along the late 19th
to mid-20th-century a new art movement surfaced which broke away from the
incompatibility of “Victorian morality, optimism, and convention.”1 After the horrors
experienced during WWI, many of the artists of the time shared a common sense
of disillusionment, “a sense that European culture had failed and would have to
be replaced by a transformed society.”2 It was under such conditions
that the Modernist movement came to rise, in an era that valued “a radical
break with the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression.”3 The Modernist era was
characterized by industrialization, rapid social change, and advances in science
that gave rise to new ideas in psychology, philosophy, and political theory.
With regards to architecture, the Modernist upheld the importance of economy
and functionality. In their eyes, “rational designs could best be produced
through mechanization, yielding efficient, somehow machine-made buildings.”4

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The Modernist movement started
as a literary response, to the destruction of the world, which sought to
capture the disillusionment and fragmentation of the era. Something which made
the Modernist writers different from their predecessors is that they were well
versed in the styles and motifs of those who had come before them. In his essay
“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Elliot highlights how a poet must
be aware of the historical sense, “which is a sense of the timeless as well as
of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes
a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most
acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.”5 This approach, towards
poetry and towards the arts, is what enabled Elliot and other modernists,
across multiple disciplines, to transcend beyond the cultural landscape, which
they had known, and into a world that sought to redefine tradition.

Perhaps the reason why the
modernist took such a holistic approach towards their art was to try and
understand the conditions which gave rise to warfare, so that they might create
a world and art that was free from it. Elliot expounded upon the idea of the poet
and the past and how “he can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate
bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor
can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period.”6 He also instills the
concept of awareness of the history of culture, and its changes, “He must be
aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he
learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind
which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en

Herein, it is evident how the
Modernist understood that their work would affect the art of their time, as
well as that which had preceded them. They understood the significance of
creating a work which understood the contemporary history of the time, as well
as the history before it. Maybe this is the reason the Modernists sought to get
away from the European conventions which had placed emphasis on aesthetics,
optimism, and the presence of structure in work. They understood that, in a
time that was plagued by warfare, poverty, and disarray, it was meaningless to
create work that idolized those concepts. Instead, they opted to place their
faith and hopes in the rise of industry and the creation of a world that placed
practicality before beauty. In literature, Modernists like Virginia Woolf,
Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner challenged their audiences by
incorporating a technique known as stream of consciousness, into their writing.
This parallels the ideals of the movement because it “commonly ignores orderly
sentence structure and incorporates fragments of thought in an attempt to
capture the flow of characters’ mental processes.”8 One of the biggest
takeaways from the Modernist movement is that everyone had a different method
for making sense of the world and what was going on around them and, as such,
this meant that each created different form of art. This stray away from
structure in style, particularly with the emergence of free-verse in poetry,
highlighted the idea that order was absent at the time and that it was up to
each person to find meaning and solutions.

With regards to architecture,
modernism has “given way to mass culture, economy to parsimony, and honesty to
banality.”9 The movement removed
itself from the capitalistic livelihood which had dominated prior to the war
and chose to promote Socialist ideals. Some of the critics of the Modernist
movement describe the way the buildings are “reductivistic, or stripped of all
but its essential part”10 to the extent that it
leaves room for little or no meaning. When making this statement, the prime
example would be the Home Insurance Company built by William Le Baron Jenney
from 1883-1885. As one of the first skyscrapers to be built, the building had
little room to be concerned with ornamentation and aesthetic appeal, rather it
was created to serve a function, to be a home insurance company. More
importantly though, the technological accomplishments of the building,
successful attempt at fireproofing steel frame buildings, created the
foundation for a further propagation of skyscrapers and solidified the
influence of the Industrial style in America. 
As is true with the literature of modernism, the architectural motifs
present in this building had a didactic and informative intent. This meant that
the onlooker had to be acquainted with the elements of the building, as well as
the elements which had been eliminated by the Modernists, those to which they
were reacting.

The modernist architecture was
the “manifestation of the future with no thoughts of the past.”11 centered around
technology, life, and optimization. However, “to understand the creation of the
modern design, one must first understand the evolution in building materials.”12 To transform society,
Modernists first had to set out and industrialize the building process with
“new construction techniques and the use of materials such as steel, concrete
and glass” which “would reduce costs and so allow more housing to be built.”13 Furthermore, beyond the
economic benefit of using these materials, the Modernist architects found a
sense of awe in how novel they were. “They admired steel for its tensile
strength, concrete for its resistance and glass for its ability to admit light.
They sought innovative and expressive ways to reveal these properties, and used
steel and glass to create visual transparency.”14

Prior to these innovations,
the British architects were celebrating and showcasing these new materials. The
construction of Britain’s Crystal Palace, built by Joseph Paxton, was a
revolutionary concept which epitomized the efficacy and rigor of the industrial
revolution. During the construction of the building, the contractors Fox and
Henderson “made one of the large-scale demonstrations of prefabrication.”15 Moreover, due to the
repetitive iron-and-glass sections, that made up the bulk of the building, only
a limited number of components had to be made, which meant that “supplying
factories could easily mass produce the material needed.” At the time of
construction and assembly, the materials arrived, at the site, preassembled
into subsections, and the “final assembly proceeded at an “unprecedented rate.”
Although it was regarded with heavy criticism, nicknamed “glass monster”, much
of the success and public praise for the Crystal Palace has to do with it
serving as a precursor for the modernist movement and the International Style,
“increasing acceptance of a larger amount of glass and iron in buildings
designed by architects.”16

Before making a full
transition into the modernist movement it’s important to look one step further
into the transition. The Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York, designed by
Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, found artistic expression by turning to
classical precedent for inspiration. “Rather than a layering of horizontal
elements drawn from one or more historical periods” the building has a base, a
middle section, and a top, like a classical column. Sullivan explained his
reasons for the organization of the building, in his essay “The Tall Building
Artistically Considered.”17 The ground floor was
conveniently made to allow easy access from the street “into banks, shops, and
the like,”18
The mezzanine or second floor could be easily reached on foot and served as a unit;
“he laced stacked offices on the third-through-top floors, where repetitive
windows illuminated floor areas that could be subdivided to suit the
requirements of various tenants; and he locate the mechanical systems, from
tanks and pumps to elevator machinery, behind a deep cornice”19 Sullivan evolved a
characteristic ornamental style derived from natural plant forms and found an
“unashamedly vertical expression for tall buildings” which would later be
solidified in the modernist movement.

Over time, the use of these
materials, steel, concrete and glass, was “codified as the International
Style.” The International Style was an architectural style that became the
preeminent tendency in Western architecture. “The most common characteristics
of International Style buildings are rectilinear forms; light, taut plane
surfaces that have been completely stripped of applied ornamentation and
decoration; open interior spaces; and a visually weightless quality engendered
by the use of cantilever construction. Glass and steel, in combination with
usually less visible reinforced concrete, are the characteristic materials of
The revolutionary use of the International Style grew out of three problems
that confronted architects in the modern period. The first problem was the
creation of buildings with eclectic themes and decorative elements, from
different architectural periods and styles, that bore no relation to the
function of the building. The second was the need to create a large number of
“office buildings and other commercial, residential, and civic structures”, in
the most cost-effective manner, to serve the rapidly industrialized society.
The third was “the development of new building technologies centering on the
use of iron and steel, reinforced concrete, and glass.”21 

These three principles led to
the search for a “honest, economical, and utilitarian architecture that would
both use the new materials and satisfy society’s new building needs while still
appealing to aesthetic taste.”22 Herein, the Modernist
ideal of practicality and efficiency is displayed through the implementation of
the International Style into modern architecture. Rather than placing emphasis
on the aesthetic appeal and decorative features of the building, the Modernist
believed that a pure focus on efficiency and structural engineering would
naturally bring about a pleasant outlook upon the landscape. “A harmony between
artistic expression, function, and technology would thus be established in an
austere and disciplined new architecture”23

An epitome of Modernist
thinking and values can be found in Louis Sullivan’s phrase, “form (ever)
follows function,” which upheld the idea that the external features of a
building should be reflective of the internal function which it serves. In his
design, of The University of Arkansas Fine Arts Center in Fayetteville, Edward
Durell Stone illuminates this thinking by following a pattern of simple lines
and a lack of unnecessary ornamentation in his design. It was one of the first
educational facilities in the country to combine the Fine Arts under one roof,
and the design of the building created a collective aura which resonated in the
different disciplines being taught.

 However, to fully understand the extent of
modernism, it is necessary to look at the Seagram Building in New York City,
designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The building was Mies’ first attempt at
the construction of a tall office building. Soon after it was finished it
became the “standard for the modern skyscraper.” The building interacts with
the surrounding areas by juxtaposing the large granite surface of the plaza
below with the bronze and dark glass that envelops around its structure.  Mies also opted to set the building back 100
feet from the edge of the street, which in turn enabled him to have a highly
active open plaza. This detail allowed Mies and his building to distance
themselves from “New York urban morphology, lot line development, and the
conventional economics of skyscraper construction.”24

Beyond the plaza, Mies
designed a lobby with white ceilings that stretch throughout all the entry
doors to further dissolve the “defined line between interior and exterior.”25 The beauty of this detail
lies in the fact that it creates a space in the building that allows it to blend
into the landscape in the most natural manner, as if it had been there all
along. This concept, of blending the natural elements of the landscape into the
building, is further exemplified in his design of the office buildings above
the lobby. Each floorplan was designed with the intent of allowing the greatest
amount of natural light into the offices. He achieved this by using gray topaz
glass, which is used for sun and heat protection. His primary goal with this
design was to create lighting indoors which didn’t have a big contrast with the
one outside. These details, concerned with lighting, blending into the
landscape, and consumption of energy, illustrate the practicality which the
Modernist used to approach the design of their buildings. Furthermore, Mies was
capable of inserting aesthetic elements, in the design of the building, that
didn’t remove emphasis from the importance of its functionality, but rather
brought light to it. “The metal bronze skin that is seen in the facade is
nonstructural but is used to express the idea of the structural frame that is
Likewise, “vertical elements were also welded to the window panels not only to
stiffen the skin for installation and wind loading, but to aesthetically
further enhance the vertical articulation of the building.”27 The Seagram Building
became the model for many surrounding office buildings who valued the use of
modern materials and the setback from the city grid.

The Modernist movement was
highlighted by an optimism following the post-war era, “it meant looking
forward rather than backwards.”28 This was particularly
appealing to an American nation that had little history to look back on and
borrow from. At a time in which the country became a powerhouse and forerunner
in the industrial movement, the modernist approach provided the conditions necessary
to implement the ideals of the International Style, into the landscape. This
was a nation concerned with aerospace, automobile, and technological endeavors
and the modernist style for design provided an epitome to these ideals.

Once the preeminence of
Modernism had been established, new styles began to form, in an era of
experimentation, that sought to find new ways to depict the “capabilities of
reinforced concrete, structural steel, and glass.”29 The mid-century modernist
movement was not concerned with class or previous social structures, instead it
looked to find something “fresh and new.” This follows the idea of the
Modernist movement as a catalyst for innovation and the creation of multiple
solutions to the problems exhibited in the past. In a way, the modernist
architecture “filled a void” that was left by the warfare of the previous
years. It gave a sense of optimism into the future and the idea that there was
something to be found there, rather than dwelling on the past. A new place for
the new generation to grow and live. The modernist style was honest and did not
seek to embellish the world with ornaments and designs which sought to hide the
reality of the world, but instead focused on the progression towards a world
that could, hopefully, provide a new beginning.

The efficiency of the
modernist movement enabled the creation of cities and landscapes that could
grow at the same rate as a population which sought to repopulate the earth.
Rather than removing itself from the landscape and creating a future that
seemed outlandish, the architects of the modernist movement were very careful
to make their designs blend with the historical past, the present, and the
future that was to come. Likewise, the modernists innovated methods to provide
aesthetic qualities to their work without taking emphasis away from the
functionality of the building.

Ultimately, the presence of
Modernism in the history of architecture provided the world with optimism after
a time of horror and bloodshed. It shifted focus away from the aesthetic
details which had adorned the cultures of the past, and instead focused on the
simple details and practicality. Moreover, it placed emphasis on the use of new
materials like steel, concrete, and glass in ways that highlighted the importance
of engineering and the industrial movement with regards to the future. Rather
than pretending that things could go on in the structure which they had before,
they acknowledged that changes needed to be made to provide the world with a
landscape that resembled the political, economic, and technological ideals of
the new society. Along with this, the Utopian principle, behind modernism,
promoted the idea that there was a correct way to build the future. This meant
that each and every single modernist building could be modified and constructed
in different sites throughout the world, providing the perfect landscape for
the future.

1 The Editors of
Encyclopædia Britannica. “Modernism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. February
22 February. 2016. Accessed 01
December. 2017.

Michael W., Marian Moffett, and Lawrence Wodehouse. Buildings across Time: An
Introduction to World Architecture.  4th
ed.  Boston:  McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2012. 455.


3 The Editors of
Encyclopædia Britannica. “Modernism.”

4 Fazio,
Michael W., Marian Moffett, and Lawrence Wodehouse. Buildings across Time:  An Introduction to World Architecture. 455.

5 Ibid., 456

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 The Editors of
Encyclopædia Britannica. “Modernism.”

9 Fazio,
Michael W., Marian Moffett, and Lawrence Wodehouse. Buildings across Time:  An Introduction to World Architecture. 455.

10 Ibid.

11 YouTube. “CLEAN LINES,
OPEN SPACES A VIEW OF MID CENTURY MODERN ARCHITECTURE Full Version.” YouTube, uploaded by IbrahimSiddiqConlon.
09 July. 2015. Accessed 03
December. 2017.

12 Ibid.

13 “Modernism.”
GAMSWEN. 05 January. 2011.
Accessed 04 December. 2017.

14 Ibid

15 Fazio,
Michael W., Marian Moffett, and Lawrence Wodehouse. Buildings across Time:  An Introduction to World Architecture. 415.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.,

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20The Editors of
Encyclopædia Britannica. “International Style.” Encyclopædia Britannica.
18 October. 2016.
Accessed 04 December. 2017.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 The Editors of
Encyclopædia Britannica. “International Style.”

Perez, Adelyn.
“AD Classics: Seagram Building / Mies van der Rohe.” ArchDaily. 09
May. 2010. Accessed
05 December. 2017.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 YouTube. “CLEAN LINES,

29 Ibid.

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