Modernism has been the prevalent concept of artistic, design and architectural beauty for the last 100 years. Even though not as prevalent as its peak in the late 60’s, we have Modernism to thank for inspiring all things contemporary in the same way we have the Beatles to thank for today’s Top 40.
Whilst a fitting name for the style upon its inception, Modernism, (particularly when using it in the adjective form as Modern or modernist), causes great confusion within the English lexicon since it recognises the word as a synonym to current; trending; or contemporary.
In the architectural world using “Modern” & “Contemporary” in a synonymous fashion is seen as faux pas, since each define a different style. It is important when discussing architecture to use the correct terms and to establish that all those in the conversation have compatible terminology. Project-home companies who, sometimes having more credibility in their marketing than their design departments, spruik modern designs on glossy brochures of contemporary homes.
The origins of the modernist movement are hard to pin to a specific date, but whisperings of the style where circulating toward the end of the 19th century. In 1910, the Austrian Architect and theorist, Adolf Loos wrote an essay entitled “Ornament and Crime” which lambasted the Art Nouveau* and labelled decoration as frivolous, and decoration’s fans as buffoons. Instead, postulated Loos, design should be practical, basic, minimal.
The first of two cultural catalysts that gave this sentiment momentum was the current state of the built environment and the architectural profession. For over one thousand years prior to Loos and his contemporaries, a beautiful building had always been a classic building or variations thereof. Architects and their clients did not entertain the idea of originality because success was measured by the fidelity to the classical principles. Exact reproductions of antiquities were lauded as great achievements. Architects in the emerging Modernist school of thought saw this as a millennia’s worth of stagnation that focused incorrectly on the past instead of the present or future.
The second catalyst to the birth of Modernism was the technological and academic leaps in the field of Engineering. The origins of Engineering had largely been an experimental exercise which only developed into successful principles through centuries of trial and error. In the mid-19th century the first PHD was awarded helping to legitimise the field. With Engineering as a field of study in mathematics and physics, scholars now creatively asked questions and tested new demands of their materials to see what could be achieved. This new attitude allowed architects to achieve feats previously unfathomed with steel and reinforced concrete. The revolutionary concept of concrete slabs suspended by slightly inset steel columns around the perimeter changed architecture forever. Though perhaps an underwhelming concept in today’s context it allowed complete freedom to design a floorplan without needing to consider excessive structural elements.
These new engineering advancements gave those disillusioned with the classical mode an opportunity to create rather than be constrained by a prescribed, replicated style. Projects were now influenced by the architect’s creativity, response to the brief, the site and climate. Buildings for the first time in modern history were designed to adapt to the occupants/patrons rather than the contrary.
The Modernist’s adopted the creed “form follows function” which summarised the rejection of the old paradigm (that architecture’s sole purpose was to be beautiful) and elevated the values of a new functional architecture. Such was the shift in attitude that beauty was initially given little to no consideration. Instead all effort was dedicated to finding a formula for the perfect functional building. This very scientific process was articulated well by Le Corbusier who famously said “a house is a machine for living in”. However, the function-engineering process relaxed to give a less clinical atmosphere and beauty eventually revealed itself – this time not with decoration but with simplicity. It was a new type of beauty expressed perfectly by Mies in the now famous idiom “Less is more”. Clean, minimal buildings that had continuous wall surfaces, frameless glass and defined right angles created a product more attractive than the heavily adorned. It was not long before the concept became the international standard for beauty. Consider the little black dress vs. the ball gown, Picasso’s cubism vs. Matisse’s impressionist portrait, Hans Wegners shell chair vs. the Arts & Crafts furniture of Gustav Stickley and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye vs. Gaudi’s Casa Battlo.
The principles introduced by the modernists shape the architectural process that are still in use today. Clients expect their brief to be considered and the design to adapt to the site and environment. Clients with an appreciation for design also want their architect or building designer to use their creativity to produce something unique, bespoke and interesting. This is the case regardless of the style attempted.
Modernism has also shaped all contemporary design since it’s perception. Today within the contemporary design world there are distinct departures from modernism though the ethos of “less is more” generally remains.
Whether you are a fan of Modernism or not, it can still certainly be appreciated for the contribution it has made to art, design and architecture and the way we perceive beauty today.
*Art Nouveau in English is known as the “Modern style”, not to be confused with modernism which is entirely different.