Influential 19th & 20th Century Architects

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  • 0:50 Skyscrapers
  • 1:40 Revivals Galore
  • 2:38 Modern Architecture
  • 4:25 Bauhaus and…
  • 5:55 High-Tech Architecture
  • 6:35 I. M. Pei
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Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the world of late 19th and 20th century architecture. We will learn about major architectural movements in this period and meet some famous architects.

Buildings for the Modern World

What do you think about when you hear the word 'architecture'? Do you envision the great temples and monuments of the ancient world? Do you picture the castles and Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe? Do you recall famous symbols of government, like the United States Capitol or Buckingham Palace? All of these are indeed examples of architecture, but architecture, which is the science of designing and constructing buildings, is very much a part of the modern world, too. In fact, architects of the late 19th and 20th centuries have created many famous styles and buildings, and in this lesson, we will meet a few of these architects and learn about their work.


They are the most prominent buildings of every city's skyline, but 'skyscrapers' are actually a fairly recent development. Technological progress in the late 19th century allowed architects like William Le Baron Jenney and Louis Sullivan to launch their buildings high into the sky. Jenney, Sullivan, and others employed new styles of foundations that distributed a building's weight more evenly and widely and new metal frameworks that were light enough to rise up for many stories. Soon, skyscrapers like Jenney's Home Insurance Building in Chicago, completed in 1894, and the Empire State Building in New York City, completed in 1931, became a common sight in cities throughout the world.

Revivals Galore

While some architects reached for the sky, others looked back into history. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were years of historic revivals in architecture. Architects like James Renwick revived the medieval Gothic style and created great cathedrals, such as St. Patrick's in New York City. Built from 1858 to 1879, St. Patrick's features all the vaults, pointed arches, flying buttresses, and fortifications of much-older cathedrals. Other architects, like Henry Hobson Richardson, looked back to the Romanesque period of the early Middle Ages and employed its massive semicircular arches and thick, heavy stone walls. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is an example of the new Romanesque style, which came to be known as 'Richardsonian Romanesque.'

Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Architecture

As the 20th century took off, a new architectural style developed. Modernist architecture, as it was called, used all the latest building materials, including glass, concrete, iron, and steel, and employed the very latest in building techniques. Functionality became the primary focus of this school of architecture, and architects began experimenting with designs that looked very different from traditional homes and business buildings.

Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most famous modern architects. Wright worked for Louis Sullivan at the beginning of his career. He learned much from Sullivan, including the maxim that 'form follows function.' After leaving Sullivan and striking out on his own, Wright began designing and constructing buildings that were long and low with horizontal lines, rows of windows, and overhanging roofs. These structures, which included both private homes and public buildings, were made from natural materials and featured open interiors. This style of architecture became known as the prairie style, and examples include Chicago's Robie House, the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, and Wright's own home, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

As time passed, Wright's style evolved, and he experimented with different techniques and designs. He built concrete textile blockhouses in Los Angeles; flat-roofed Usonian Houses, which were designed for middle-class families; the exquisite stone, concrete, and glass Fallingwater in Pennsylvania; and New York's Guggenheim art museum with its spiral appearance, which makes it a work of art in its own right.

Bauhaus and International Style

Wright's European contemporaries were also active in architectural developments. Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus School in Germany in 1919 with the goal of creating buildings of the future that mixed traditional arts and crafts with modern designs, construction techniques, and mass production. Bauhaus buildings included interior design touches like cabinetry, furniture, pottery, textiles, and painting. The school faltered as World War II approached, and Gropius and his successor, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, immigrated to the United States.

The two architects further developed what came to be known as the International Style of architecture. The international style sought to streamline modern architecture. It used rectangles and flat surfaces, scorned ornamentation, and valued wide-open interiors. Glass facades with steel supports and concrete floors were the norm, as architects tried to create a functional, clean, modern style for the modern man and corporate society. Examples of the International Style include Mies van der Rohe's IBM Building in New York City, Gropius' John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston, and the Sears/Willis Tower in Chicago.

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