Architectural Design Through The Ages: Part 3 (Modern)


Superlatives are bandied about nowadays with careless abandon, their impact and value somewhat lessened by their overly-frequent usage. When it comes to modern architectural styles, however, you’ll find that superlatives are still very much appropriate. Contemporary architectural design (from the turn of the 20th century to present day) includes some of the most innovative, most provocative and most daring structures ever to have been conceived.

Some of the styles we’ll cover in this post built on the rules laid down by their forebears. Others, however, ripped up the rule book entirely. All of them, however, left their own distinct mark on the world of architecture. This is the third and final part of our series on architectural design through the ages (you can read part one here, and part two here).

Art Nouveau

In the second part of this series, we saw just how influential ancient Classicism was on subsequent styles (namely in the examples of the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods). Those latter styles refined and adapted what had come before them, but for all their, undeniably, breath-taking design, their bases were firmly rooted in the past, as opposed to looking forwards. If the Art Nouveau period of the late 19th century did one thing more than anything else, it was that it pushed away from this imitative mind-set, opting instead to follow a more languid, free-form approach – pursuing designs rooted in the organic rather than in the orderly.

The Art Nouveau period placed an emphasis on the asymmetrical that, whilst first explored in movements such as Aestheticism and the Arts and Crafts, only really began to take hold in the early 1890s in the galleries of Europe’s cultural behemoths – Paris and Milan, for example. In this period, nature was muse. Looking at it from an architectural perspective, we see that the lines between form and function became increasingly blurred. Arguably, when you look at the most famous examples of Art Nouveau architecture today, you’ll see that they’re as much sculptures as they are buildings.

Casa Battlo

Famed Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi pushed the style to its very extremes with his Casa Battlo (also known as Casa dels ossos – the House of Bones) nestled in the heart of Barcelona. This eccentric building has something of a biotic quality to it. It looks, both outside and in, as though it would be just as at home on the set of a Tim Burton movie as it would in a European capital.

La Sagrada Família

Gaudi’s Gothic-tinted work didn’t just end there, however. La Sagrada Família, also in Barcelona, is considered to be the architect’s great, unfinished masterpiece. This sacred space, which wasn’t even a quarter finished upon Gaudi’s death in 1926, was built on the traditional concept of a Gothic cathedral, but had Art Nouveau modernism added to it. This fusion of styles is apt when you consider that one of the quotes attributed to Gaudi was:

The straight line belongs to men, the curved one to God.”

Gaudi was a visionary mind in so many ways, but especially when it came to his architectural design.

An image of La Sagrada Familia church, in Barcelona.
La Sagrada Família, Barcelona

Later Influences

Although no longer fashionable by the 1910s, vestigial remains of the Art Nouveau movement were seen throughout the 1900s. This was perhaps most notable in the ‘Hippy’ and ‘Pop Art’ movements. The movement represented a freedom of thought and expression that was, by turn, both liberating and outrageous; the side on which you fell very much depending on your social views at the time.

Art Deco

The Art Deco movement represented a very different kind of expression to the Art Nouveau style. Whereas the Art Nouveau era placed an emphasis on the organic – on curves and flowing forms – Art Deco was, by contrast, all about sharp, clear-cut lines, simplistic shapes and patterns. Cubism was amongst the leading influences of the Deco movement. Its impacts can be clearly seen within the geometric forms that featured in many prominent examples of Deco architectural design.

Art Deco Architectural Design

Deco architecture made a point of using the most advanced and up-to-date technologies and construction methods possible. The calibre and quality of materials used also held high importance. Ivory, for, example, was a prominent material within Deco work, as was ebony.

Stylistically, Art Deco was very much ‘of its time’, and it summed up the opulence of the roaring twenties perfectly. There is perhaps one building more than any other which encapsulates the workmanship, geometry and sheer boldness of the period – the Chrysler Building, in New York. With its abundance of zigzagging, overlapping rectangular forms rising from the building’s base and culminating in the distinctive, telescopic-looking spire, the Chrysler Building is about as evocative as it gets.

Here at Munday + Cramer, we completed a job on a prominent Art Deco building in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, back in 2018. The block of flats we worked on (Argyll House) is really evocative of the time. You can very much picture an Agatha Christie novel being set there! You can find out more about the work we undertook there (as well as one of our apprentice schemes) here!

Bauhaus

Whilst the Deco movement was busy flourishing over in the States and various parts of western Europe, in Germany an altogether more idealistic school was making waves. The Bauhaus movement saw only a brief period of popularity. Within that time, however, it managed to pack quite the socio-political punch, all the same. Encapsulating a socialist, utopic vision of the future with its pairing of simplistic form and function, the Bauhaus school ran between 1919 and 1933. Its pragmatic approach to design advocated the idea that mass production should be melded with that of aesthetics – that art and technology should come together as one. This was both progressive and radical. Too radical, in fact.

In 1933, under pressure from the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (more commonly known as the Nazis), the Bauhaus school (from which stemmed the movement’s entire creative output) was forced to close down. By then, however, the school’s guiding principles had spread out of Germany and beyond the net of fascist Germany. Architecturally, its legacy still lives today in Tel Aviv, in Israel, with the city boasting over 4,000 Bauhaus buildings. Love trumps hate, and apparently, so too does iconic architecture!

An image of the Bauhaus Archives, in Berlin
Bauhaus Archives, Berlin

Brutalism

It’s worth stating from the outset that Brutalism is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most divisive architectural styles ever to have graced the planet. It’s like marmite. You either love it, or you really, really hate it. There’s no place for fence-sitters when it comes to this particular post-war style. Its proponents lavish praise upon the style for its, at-the-time, revolutionary thinking and use of materials. For its critics, on the other hand, ugly doesn’t even begin to cover it. The principles behind Brutalism were that of the welfare-state, of a nation which found itself in soul-searching mood following the most devastating war the world had ever seen. Prominent from the 1950s through to the late 1980s, the defining features of this utilitarian movement were as follows:

  • Concrete as the primary construction material
  • Modular elements
  • A lack of adornment or decoration
  • Rigid geometry giving a block-like appearance

One of the most famous examples of Brutalist architecture is the Barbican Centre, in London, whose rooms and halls host world-class musicians, artists and entertainers. Say what you like about this contentious style, it will always be a good talking point!

An image of part of the Barbican Centre, London.
The Barbican Centre, London

Modern-Day

In its strictest sense, modernism was itself a distinct architectural style. The period ran throughout the 20th century, placing its importance on functionalism above anything else. But then there was also postmodernism which acted as a counter-movement to that sparsity of form. Postmodernism, itself, branched out into various sub-branches, including neo-futurism and deconstructivism. What we’re referring to here, though, is what’s happening in the world of architectural design right now.

Contemporary architecture is a hodgepodge mix of all that has preceded it. No one style can be said to definitively representative of the current period. The variety of styles utilised today is staggering. Whether it be towering glass monoliths or organic bio-structures, architecture today has it all.

If there is one definitive feature that’s universal to the thought processes of most contemporary architects, though, it’s the desire to increase sustainability across an asset’s life-cycle. In recent years, there’s been a proliferation in the number of ‘living’ rooftops, the usage of recycled building materials and in the implementation of energy-saving features within homes. Technology too plays a more important role, with the parts that BIM (Business Information Modelling) and virtual realities are playing growing in importance, daily.

The Future?

What, then, will the future of architectural design hold? Therein lies the ultimate question, and it’s a braver soul than I to lay out any predictions with certainty. Sustainable design will undoubtedly continue to be a major focus, as will the use of our land more generally. Seeking out ways in which to develop the built environment whilst simultaneously protecting the environment is undoubtedly a challenge. Innovation and ingenuity is most often borne out of challenging circumstances, however; there’s no reason to think that today’s bright young architectural minds won’t rise to the test in the coming years!

Conclusion

Throughout this series, we’ve seen the ingenuity of humankind coming to the fore time and time again. Beauty being realised in structural form and successive feats of engineering managing to constantly raise the bar as to what we think possible. What these styles have demonstrated more than anything else, however, is that architecture offers a fundamental reflection of the demographic it seeks to serve. Architecture is social, it’s human – and may that forever be the case.

So, if you’d like to find out more about our various architectural and surveying services, then get in touch! Contact Munday + Cramer today on 01245 326 200.