Modern vs. Postmodern Architecture

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt
The differences between modern and postmodern architecture focus on issues of utility, originality, and the struggle between local and cosmopolitan values. In this lesson we will examine both schools of thought and look at examples of each.

Imagine you and a friend drive through a city, and get into a debate about whether a newly constructed building is ugly or soulless. You may find the use of curves and edges interesting and significant, but your buddy doesn't see how they serve any practical use. You may not know it, but you are engaged in a debate over the merits of modern and postmodern architecture!

Modern architecture is recognizable by its adherence to Le Corbusier's dictum 'Form Follows Function', which means that structures are given their aesthetic merit based on their utility. The postmodern response rejects this philosophy without offering any specific replacement. As we will see, modern architecture is part of a cosmopolitan look that is uniform and purposeful, while postmodernism seeks a more unique look that emphasizes originality and local flavor.

Modernism in Architecure: Le Corbusier

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, or Le Corbusier (1887-1965), was the pioneer of modern commercial architecture. As the world was transitioning to urban living, Le Corbusier and the modernists sought to maximize the utility of limited spaces. While many commercial structures were made with an eye towards a given aesthetic (such as how they fit into the neighborhood, or paid homage to European fashion), Le Corbusier focused on how to make a structure whose design stemmed entirely from its use. This philosophy in architecture was summed up as 'form follows function'. If we look at one of Le Corbusier's designs, we can see this philosophy at work. Look at Gustavo Capanema Palace in Rio de Janeiro.

Gustavo Capanema Palace
Gustavo Capanema Palace

Does this remind you of apartments in your neighborhood? The design uses material efficiently to create uniform living spaces that are functional. There is no façade or extraneous material used to decorate the structure, rather its elegance stems from its symmetrical and functional design.

Postmodernism in Architecture: Michael Graves

Other architects, like Michael Graves (1934-2015), who was a former follower of Le Corbusier, found this look to be stifling and soulless. By the end of Le Cobusier's life, skyscrapers and apartment buildings like Gustavo Capanema Palace were everywhere and often stood out like eyesores against the local flavor of the cities that surrounded them. Graves rejected the idea of function's centrality in design and set about incorporating whimsy and style into his structures. He employed the use of façades, asymmetry, and decorative finishes in commercial architecture and made buildings that were unique and different from the 'soulless' look of modern architecture. His designs were not without controversy, as many found them jarring or ugly, but he sought to make structures that were unique and made reference to local culture, rather than universal and cosmopolitan.

Consider his Steigenberger Hotel in Egypt. This unusual building has modern amenities, but it pays homage to the architecture of the region with the shape of its windows, and its concrete façade gives the structure an asymmetrical and anti-modern feel.

Steigenberger Hotel in Egypt
Steigenberger Hotel

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