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Rationalist Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Western architecture has long been guided by some very important principles. In this lesson, we are going to explore the concept of rationalism and see how it has impacted architecture throughout history.

Rational Architecture

Famed novelist Ayn Rand once wrote that happiness is possible only to the rational. Aristotle argued that ration was what defined humans as a species and separated us from animals. Throughout European history, the concept of human rationality, or the ability to be logical and reasonable, has been a critical debate. To many, like Aristotle, it was a definitive element of the human experience. In this devotion to ration, it was logically concluded that a rational existence required an environment that fostered rational thought.

Enter the architects. In architecture, the concept of rationalism refers to a building committed to a logical, mathematically ordered design. However, while many buildings have rational qualities, only some can be said to be fully rationalist. Rationalism as a movement implied the complete devotion to logical, functional, and mathematically ordered architecture. Rationalism has often been proposed as a way to create an environment perfect for rational beings. Is it true? Well, only if it's rational.

Early Rationalist Architecture

Rationalism as a strict style can be divided into three main eras: the 17th century, the early 20th century, and the late 20th century. However, to understand rationalist architecture, we have to go back a bit further. The concept of rational architecture first emerged with the ancient Greeks. Philosophers like Aristotle proposed that humans were rational beings, and they designed architecture to fit that need. Thus, from the very beginning, rational architecture was defined by its function as much as its form.

The ancient Greeks built mighty temples based on mathematical principles, making them perfectly symmetrical and geometrically ordered. The ancient Romans expanded upon this ideology. Vitruvius, the first person to codify architecture into a consistent discipline, formally asserted that architectural forms could be rationally deduced. From there, rationalism as a formal ideology began.

Rationalism in the Enlightenment

Fast-forward a few centuries to the 1500s. Italy is in the midst of the Renaissance, in which ancient Greek and Roman ideas were reinvigorated. Then, in the 17th century, Europeans entered a new intellectual era called the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was defined by the idea that nothing should be trusted that could not be proven. Science emerged as the new language of Europe, championed by people like Isaac Newton. Enlightenment architects sought to create buildings that encouraged human logic and rationality. Building on the Renaissance interpretations of classical architecture, Enlightenment architects developed the first unified style of rationalism.

17th-century rationalist building by Claude Nicolas Ledoux
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So, what made this style so . . . rational? Enlightenment architecture revived classical styles, seeking the ordered symmetry and cool, collected logic of antiquity. This also connected Enlightenment philosophies of human agency and the rights of the people to Greek democracies and the Roman Republic. At the same time, they focused on simple geometric shapes like circles, squares, and triangles, breaking complex forms into basic units. This movement was largely a rejection of the extremely fancy and ornate Baroque movement. All excess was stripped away, revealing the structure in terms of basic shapes, elements, and materials. Thus, another tenet of rational architecture was introduced: honesty. By the end of Enlightenment, architects were embracing a full revival of classical architecture. Neoclassicism was a major movement, adopted particularly by the brand new United States of America as a way to connect their fledgling republic to that of ancient Rome.

Rationalism in the Early 20th Century

Rationalism remained a component of Western architecture, with classical elements and logical structures popping up across the centuries. However, rationalism as a unified movement really took off again in the early 20th century. The 19th century had seen the rise of several styles defined by high amounts of decoration, and 20th century architects began reconsidering the aesthetic of a structure without ornamentation. The building was the design, composed of basic geometric shapes, functional space, and a logical aesthetic. This time, rationalist thought led to the development of the international style known as modernism.

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