Modernism in Architecture: Definition & History

Instructor: Ela Poursani

Ela has taught college Architecture, Interior Design, and Culinary Design and has a doctorate degree in architecture.

Technology can drastically change life and society, thus architecture. This lesson is about modernism and its history in responding to social changes with architecture, design, and technology.

Modernism as A Response

Imagine the shock of Charlie Chaplin at seeing people using a cell phone for almost everything, today. Though, because of the Industrial Revolution, he had an idea of technology and how it can drastically change daily life and society. For instance, the transition from traditional hand-and-home making to machine-and-factory production happened in Chaplin's time.

The Industrial Revolution came with more poor quality mass produced goods in homes, more people, industry in cities, and more social, political, and economic problems. Looks like 'more' is the word best describes the world before Modernism.

Architects of the time reacted to the failure of architecture in meeting social needs and responded to the issues with a new architecture called 'Modernism'. They believed design and technology would transform society and raise the standards of living for all people. Let's see how.

What is Modernism in Architecture?

Modernism is a global architecture and design movement emerged in the 1920s as a response to accelerated industrialization and social changes. Pursuing 'order' and 'universals' in architecture, modernism utilized new materials and advanced technology and rejected old, traditional, historical ideas and styles, and ornamentation. Modernism emphasized function, simplicity, and rationality, and created new forms of expression with a new aesthetic.

Mies, Barcelona Pavilion, Barcelona
Barcelona Pavilion by Mies

This new aesthetic resulted in modern buildings characterized by clean lines, simple geometric shapes, pure cubic forms, ribbon windows, flat roofs, and functional, flexible open interior spaces with plain exposed structures that were considered appropriate for all nations and cultures.

History of Modernism

The rise of modernism in architecture is between 1920's and 1950's. But, its origins go back to the Enlightenment and expansions to the High-Tech. Thus, its history can be divided into three periods as early, modern, and late at which the most famous mottos of architecture were coined.

Early Modernism (1650 - 1914)

Eighteenth Century

Modernism was influenced by the Enlightenment (Age of Reason) which brought the Industrial Revolution. This influence was based on 'rationalism', a foundational term for the Enlightenment which goes back to Descartes who saw the world as a machine, functioning by mechanical laws. Modernism took rationalism as accuracy in designing and adaptation of architectural conditions to industry.

The modernist motto ''A house is a machine for living in'', stated by Le Corbusier in 1921, refers to a building having the purity of form of a well-designed machine and an architecture that is functional as machine parts. This 'machine aesthetic' that originates from Descartes defines one of the central concepts of modernism.

Le Corb, Villa Savoye, Poisey
Villa Savoye

Late Nineteenth Century

Early modernist Adolf Loos had an impact on modernism, too. His essay published in 1908 created the slogan ''Ornament is a crime''. With crime, Loos meant the waste of money, labor, and materials thus the economics of building. For him, as modern man appreciated simplicity, ornament had no meaning, place, or value within 'modern' society.

This aesthetic purism with pragmatic reasoning was reflected in modernism as simplicity and elimination of ornament. Echoing Loos in their works, modernist architects regarded ornamentation as a symbol of the past, traditional, historical styles and rejected it in favor of clean structures with plain, unornamented surfaces.

Early Twentieth Century

Father of modernism, Louis Sullivan coined another famous motto ''Form follows function'' in 1918. Modernist architects like Mies van der Rohe were highly influenced by Sullivan's slogan expressing the purpose of the building by emphasizing function and design from inside out. In modernism, priority was given to function, and function was the basis of form.

Modernism (1920 - 1950)

Bauhaus Modernism (1917-1933)

Modernism in architecture grew from The Bauhaus, a German architecture and design school established in 1919 by Walter Gropius along with Mies, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. Bauhaus combined art with technology, crafts with industrial production to revitalize design for everyday life.

Because, for Bauhaus architects, the 'new machine age' demanded a new way of living and a new architecture with new materials as reinforced concrete, steel, and glass. They believed their design principles (simplicity, rationality, functionality and universality) would change the world. Modern architecture was a better architecture thus the solution for a better life.

Gropius, Bauhaus, Dessau
Bauhaus School by Gropius

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