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Characteristics and Theoretical Framework of Modernism

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The following research paper will critically engage with the architectural movement known as Modernism. This will be done by engaging in its formal, spatial, tectonic, philosophical and the broad contextual characteristics, to establish a theoretical framework. This framework will then be applied in evaluating four architectural projects, to establish how successful the buildings follow or differ from this framework.

Modernism can be seen as a style or a philosophy of architecture. It is a huge global movement known for clinging minimalism and pushing away ornament. Minimalism strives to broadcast a message of simplicity, with basic geographic forms, simple materials and elements with no decorations.

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Modernism is infused and surrounds or has a hold on Futurism, De Stijl, Bauhaus and constructivism. All these themes have an influence in modernism and help shape the theoretical framework of Modernism. Modernism gets various characteristics from other influences. The main characteristics used to describe modernism are; asymmetric compositions, use of reinforced concrete, flat roofs, use of general cubic shapes, use of ribbon windows and no ornaments or moldings.

History of modernism

According to various sources, modernism developed from romanticism’s fight against the results of the industrial revolution. There are three periods in which the history of modernism in architecture can be divided into, the being; early, modern and late. Between the 1920’s and the 1950’s, modernism in architecture arose, although the age of reason and growth to higher technology is where it originated from. As best stated by Ela Poursani in her book called Modernism as a Response,” 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.”

This statement by Ela Poursani is supported by many well-known architects, as it describes one the concept linked to modernism. As many architects had to adjust their way of thinking and designing due to the industrial revolution and the great use of machinery across the world. Many architects said they then followed no style, as modernism was more than a style, it was a new view at the world, stimulated by a new way of looking at time and space. Modern designers in the 1920s, started to adapt to the possibility of mass production and new technologies. The central theme in modernism then became the aesthetic of the machine. Two architects then started to promote this language, namely; Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier.

Characteristics of Modernism

Clean Lines and simplified forms

Simplicity in form and design represents the “modern look”. Basic shapes, forms and clean lines create an abstraction which modern architecture is based on. Therefore, the characteristics of modernism are simple, geometric forms, plain rectangular shapes and linear elements. This can be seen in the Weissenhof Siedlung building which will be further evaluated further on in the research paper.

Open Floor Plan and Functionality

Functionality is also a term that characterizes the form of a modern building. Functionality means things are build or done for a specific purpose. The saying ‘Form follows function’ best defines the term functionality. The concept of an open floor plan is entangled into functionality. One of modernisms characteristics is to allow multiple working and living spaces to not be separated spaces but rather function as a multi-use area.

The Use of Modern Systems and Materials

Modernism is well known for making use of modern materials like reinforced concrete and steel columns, which could not be done until the industrial revolution. Steel columns are often exposed, and concrete blocks are used as a finishing material as well as a functioning as a structural material. Concrete floors add emphases to the use of mass concrete in modern buildings. Modern systems like steel trusses which are spanned over long distances, allows for the ability of open floor plans as spaces would be column free. Modern systems like radiant heating systems increase human thermal comfort within buildings.

Use of natural light and glass

In modernism, windows are no longer small frames used to peek outside, but rather a much larger floor to ceiling expanded glass. This provides natural light that reaches far into the interior of the house and introduces dramatic views due to the light. These glass windows vary from large windows to horizontal ribbon windows. Ribbon windows is an expression of the facade which hangs from the structural framework. This created a break in the load bearing exterior walls there were not only structure but also façade. These horizontal windows were not able to be with traditional enclosures but became symbolic for a new direction in modern architecture.

Lack of Ornaments and Moldings

Clean aesthetic is a well-known characteristic of modernism. The removal of elaborate trims and decorative moldings gives rise to a clean aesthetic, as the materials meet in simple yet well executed joints. Ornaments and moldings are used for decorations. In the past these were a trend as people believed that ornaments were a beauty of the buildings. In the 19th century however, Adolf Loof (a modernist architect), claimed that “Ornament is a crime”. According to his essay “Ornament is a crime”, he states that ornaments are a social crime as destroys function and potential of materials. To me, Ornament is unnecessary and does not have a function in a building. In modernism, simplicity is beauty, therefore ornamentation is unnecessary. Simple forms of materials have more function and purpose that moldings and ornaments.

Evaluation of Modern Buildings

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye

Villa Savoye is a key building in the development of the modernism movement. It is part of a very few houses in France to be declared a national Monument during Le Corbusier’s life time. The Savoye Family approached Le Corbusier to design them a weekend holiday home, which lead to it being the last building of Le Corbusier’s “white Villas” series. The Holiday home is situated on a site in Poissy, a small town outside of Paris, in an open field which once was surrounded by woods. Le Corbusier’s Five points of architecture was evident in this building as he was allowed freedom to explore these points due to the minimal restrictions given by the client. The key features he felt necessary for modern architecture include:

  • The building being lifted off the ground by pilotis
  • Open plan interiors
  • A free façade independent from the buildings load bearing structures
  • A flat roof that could be occupied as a terrace and a garden
  • Ribbon Windows for ventilation purposes and natural lighting.

Villa Savoye also shows Le Corbusier’s strong belief in a home as a “machine for living”. This belief is expressed through spatial planning, as the spaces is arranged to provide a minimalistic aesthetic and it allows the efficiency to be maximized. The sliding glazing, which is curved, at ground level is derived from the concept of the turning radius of cars of 1929. This allowed the owner to drive underneath the larger volume and easily pull into the garage which is integrated. This also gives reference to Le Corbusier’s interest in car design. A line of thin white painted concrete columns acts as support to the upper level. The lower lever is however then set back and is painted a green to resemble the surrounds forests. This creates an illusion of a floating volume above the lower level. A common feature in Le Corbusier’s work and a characteristic used to define modernism are strips of windows. This is incorporated in the building to allow them to slide open over each other and are placed on the upper level in the middle of the façade to allow as much light as possible into the interior of the building. The various characteristics defined in the framework of modernism are evident in this project, that is why it is successful in following this framework.

Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe

Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion at the Barcelona Universal Exposition, known simply as the Barcelona Pavilion, was designed and built around twenty years before his Fransworth House. The main concept Ludwig Mies van der Rohe tried to apply in designing this project is “Less is more”. This is expressed using as little components as possible yet still containing the possibility of multiple purpose rooms and well-organized functional spaces. This comes hand in hand with the simplicity is key characteristic of modernism. The Barcelona Pavilion has a low horizontal orientation that is highlighted by the low flat roof which causes the illusion that the roof floats over both the interior and the exterior of the building. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe got his idea from the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, he learned that rectilinear spaces whose forms were fully defined. Forms were then joined so that they form an open plan, which makes the exterior and the interior of the pavilion look the same. This was what made it clear to him that less is more.

The structure of the building is created with eight steel pillars in the shape of a cross to hold up the flat roof. Large glass structures fill the interior that creates the interior walls. The grid system that was designed by Mies not serves as an underlying framework of working systems, but also as a pattern for laying pavers made of travertine. Horizontal planes are divided by vertical planes of marble and glass that seem to be free-standing in an open floor plan. This adds emphasis to the strategic layout of walls to allow a simple floor plan to seem complex in its own form. Walls in the building therefore act as directors of the spaces instead of being just structural support. Therefore, this project shows evidence of various characteristics of a modern building and helped shape modernism and its framework in many ways.

Ronchamp Chapel by Le Corbusier

In 1954 the Ronchamp chapel was built to function as a catholic church. The previous pilgrimage site had a stone building on it which was destroyed during the Second World War. This chapel is considered one of the most important buildings of the 20th century and played a huge role in the shift away from Le Corbusier’s display of functionalist form in his earlier projects. The Roof is a monumental concrete shell structure which is curved, it is supported by columns hidden in the walls. There is a small gap underneath the walls which allows a slither of light to filter into the inside of the building. Like most of Le Corbusier’s work, the interior follows a simple floor plan, even though the exterior gives the impression of a complicated layout. The main structure of the building contains thick masonry walls, provide structural support and more stability because of its curved nature.

The interior and exterior walls of the chapel made use of mortar as finishing and the roof was left as is to show the marks from the casting of the concrete. This is a fundamental characteristic of modern buildings as what materials are used to influence the successfulness of that building within the framework of modernism.

Mass concrete is a characteristic most modern buildings obtain. Three thick walls curl from the outside to create small chapels on the side of the main space. This technique used by Le Corbusier differs from his previous works as it is normally not thick walls used to define spaces but, yet this chapel still functions as a simple plan building. In 2011 the Renzo Piano workshop created a monastery at the bottom of the hill of the chapel, but in 2014 the chapel was vandalized. After this occurrence a famous photographer Xavier Delory created various images which contained Le Corbusier’s Building wrapped in his own murals. He said that that would serve as a reminder that modern buildings were designed to be able to adapt to any changes no matter how big. And that is a characteristic which arose from my analysis of this building. Although there is a lack of major characteristics established in the framework of modernism, like ribbon windows or a flat roof, it still adapts to its circumstances and provides aesthetic as well as functionality through its design.

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