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Modern Architecture Essay

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The Nineteenth Century and the Modernist period was a time of rapid growth and development in almost every aspect of human exploration, shaping design in a monumental way and which still continues to have an influence on Architectural work that is produced today.

Developed as a means to improve quality of life, Modernisation took Architecture out of the perpetual loop of meaningless ornamentation that it seemed to be stuck in and gave it a new purpose beyond aesthetics, provoking a fresh outlook on Architecture, which in turn, ignited a new style of design.

The ideas behind modern architecture are still of major importance today and have unlocked a new way of thinking about architecture.

This essay will trace the development of architecture in relation to design and planning, by touching on what sparked the movement, its influences, as well as its effects, with the intention to clarify how modern architecture has changed and adapted as a result of a shift in thinking partnered with developments in technology.

The essay will be structured chronologically, highlighting major shifts and influences on the modern movement by touching on the related architectural works of the modernist period to clarify how these works pushed the boundaries of the then-current architecture and sparked new possibilities, changing people’s perceptions of space.

[bookmark: _Toc9204846]I have purposefully chosen examples of buildings that I believe have had generic importance or have had a pioneering effect in the development of architecture during the 1900’s up until 1968 (the end of the modernist period). The buildings used in this essay are in no sense the most famous buildings of the modernist period nor the most exciting, however, I would argue that they have had some of the greatest influences on architecture as a whole, sparking new outlooks and conventions and/or are seen as an embodiment of what architecture was at that specific time.

Architectural evolution

In analysing a time of rapidly changing ideas, fashions and tastes, the difficulty is in finding the exact point to where it all started.

Naturally, there are a number of different opinions, most believing modern architecture was founded in the early 1900’s, however through research it is apparent that its roots stem far earlier than that. Many attribute the industrial revolution as the ‘seed’ that sprouted modern architecture due to the largescale iron production (macleod, 2013) which prompted the construction of more efficient structural elements, better lateral stability and wider beam spans.

The early innovations in steel production meant that the “quality, quantity and speed of construction were able to be increased drastically” (Theodore H.M. Prudon, 2008), and very importantly, the cost decreased. For a long period, buildings were using these new advanced materials in construction, however it wasn’t until the construction of the Eiffel tower did people begin to diverge away from traditional designs and aesthetics, and now began to push the limits of what they knew architecture to be.

The research going in to producing taller, slimmer buildings, to maximise the use of the site, while decreasing the area it used on the ground urged improvements in steel framing arrangements. Although being hailed as an ‘abomination’ in its early years, the ability of the Eiffel Tower to extend to such a height with fairly lightweight materials, was unheard of and broke down old boundaries, sparking new innovations. These new technological advancements were used to create never before seen complex structures and forms (such as the Zeiss-Cupola, which perfected the geodesic dome shape).

These advancements in steel production lead to perhaps the most important technical discovery of Modern Architecture, that being the development of reinforced concrete; the combination of the compressive strength of concrete and the tensile strength of steel offered possibilities in building design that architects before never knew possible. The characteristically plain surface of the reinforced concrete also established the un-ornamented look, which is so closely linked with Modern Architecture.

Why a new movement?

With the aftermath of World War 1, there was a need for a large amount of reconstruction all over the world. The sheer amount of destruction meant that large amounts of people were in need of homes – an expensive problem- therefore construction demanded efficient planning methods which would be cost effective.

The general outlook on Architecture was a bleak one, shocked by the effects of the first World War

The solution was to build high-rise apartment buildings that could house many families (Severino, 1970).’ Compactness’ became a key concept in space-saving and money-saving and was integral in rebuilding these countries.

Back to basics

Before, where buildings were designed with a major focus on aesthetics and form, the major focus shifted, and designs became function obsessed; rooms were designed to have more than one function to increase its efficiency and to allow greater utilization. Spaces were now designed in a way where they had flexible use, with the aesthetic part of the building being seen as no more essential or perhaps even less essential than any other aspect of the building.

Due to the war, there was a major need for improved, healthier living and working environments which would be affordable and therefore accessible to most people, visually, this meant that buildings of the early modern movement were distinctly different from that of the past with horizontal, flat rooftops, large windows and fully concrete walls. The new design distanced itself from ornament, with new focus on design simplicity and spatial clarity, this was a long way away from the load-bearing, decorative style of before.

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The Bauhaus by Walter Gropius, designed in 1920 is one such example of an early modern building which favoured simplicity and functionality over ornamentation. The style combined a practical design with social needs. The building disregarded symmetrical design which before was preferred by Architects, and instead payed more attention to the spatial design of the building, which consequently, was asymmetrical. The massive curtain wall shows the importance of natural light in the building, which was a characteristic ignored in premodern buildings. The curtain wall itself is a predecessor of the efforts of the Eiffel Tower to build a taller building; further “developments [of steel frame design] encouraged the separation of the structural frame from the exterior envelope” (Theodore H.M. Prudon, 2008) ; from this separation, the curtain wall was created.

Experimentation in modern architecture

Early modern architecture, characterised by its plain, box shaped buildings and simple design, while bringing solutions to many problems such as cheaper housing, better living conditions and faster construction was criticised for its lack of narrative; modern buildings were seen as boring and formulaic; it seemed that the relationship between creator and building was lost (MacLeod, 2013) and the unending search for “task in architecture dulled and deadened designs” (MacLeod, 2013), this was, until a pioneer by the name of Buckminster fuller, inspired by the quest for a better quality of life with the end of World War 2 in sight, decided to partner advanced technologies of the War with architecture to do so (Designing a New Industry, 1946).

Fuller shied away from the conventional building shapes of early modern architecture as he believed the architecture of the future had no specific shape (Theodore H.M. Prudon, 2008); the Dymaxion House was one such project. Its irregular shape and construction methods were techniques before unapproached by other architects and never before seen in other works of architecture, however it did benefit from advancements in metal construction, that began before the modernist period, also seen in the construction of the Eiffel tower.

Aesthetically and structurally, the building took on a more lightweight and ‘aerodynamic’ design as opposed to many other concrete buildings of the time. Having been inspired by aeroplanes and fighter jets, the structure and façade consisted mostly of a lightweight aluminium material, which consequently gave the building a futuristic appearance.

Fuller had the best interest of the environment in mind and designed natural systems to combat factors such as wind, energy consumption and undesirable temperature (Designing a New Industry, 1946), he designed a system from which air was drawn from the roof of the building, which was then cleaned and humidified and distributed into different rooms in the form of warm or cold air (Designing a New Industry, 1946), this brought a focus on to the environment in relation to architecture that was not a major concern in previous works, “linking architecture to ecology and the environment’ (Designing a New Industry, 1946), he included things like garbage disposal and electricity generation in to his designs, instead of seeing it as an add on. It was in this period, that ‘sustainable design’ really started to become an important factor in architecture.

After the 2nd World War had ended, the levels of technology were extremely rich. Thanks to advanced computer technology, new building materials, and methods, architects were able to conceptualize, represent, fabricate and erect almost any form as long as it obeyed the laws of physics, and were able to do so with a certain degree of ease. Architects were no longer limited to straight lines and conventional shapes. Globally, architects began to use these advancements to master the use of these materials, and to better construction which lead to more refined designs (macleod, 2013).

The following years of architecture represented an accumulation of many of the principles that were unravelled since the beginning of modernisation. Architects began to integrate the very function of the building in to the physical appearance of the building, with beautiful outcomes; the same can be said with regards to sustainability; systems were designed in to buildings that fit seamlessly with the character of the buildings.

The Sydney Opera House, which began construction in 1959, is a perfect example of a building which fits the ‘Form Follows Function’ theory; the idea was to create a multipurpose building, with main function to support theatre performances; this entailed that the building should be designed for acoustical clarity. This is where the shell shape of the building is derived, not to mention the fact that the shell-like appearance was perfectly suited to its location, ‘floating’ on top of the Sydney harbor, providing the building with a narrative that brought back the old sense of romanticism of premodern buildings. The Sydney Opera House reflects on the importance during that time to introduce sustainability in to the building’s design; most notably, where the air conditioning of the building system utilizes sea water (Utzon, 2002).

This building represents the peak technological design of the Modern movement as opposed to the Eiffel Tower which [arguably] started it all. It shows what the refining of technology, materials and principles has done to create another extravagant piece of architecture.

Fundamentals of modern architecture

Regardless of location or background, we can derive a few fundamental principles from buildings that were established during the modernist period.

It was important that architects derived the utmost utility out of spaces, ridding designs of ornamentation and wasted space, and giving them purpose.

It is clear also that there was a new appreciation for materials and structure; before where the structure which kept a building standing upright, did solely that and was hidden by an ornamented façade, modern architecture looked to showcase structures in a different light and saw beauty in the raw form of the building.

Modern architecture saw no separation aesthetically between the front of the building, its back, its ground plan, or its surrounding area; no detail existed solely for its own purpose but was designed to fit together in to the general design of a building.

Lastly and most importantly was the belief that all buildings should place function as a top priority because all buildings that function well, look good; the belief was nothing could truly look unappealing if it functioned well.

The final product, was therefore something that had a strong aesthetic attitude, as well as psychological, social and technological ones.


From a movement that has neglected decoration and ornamentation, with greater favour to function… modernist architecture has had an influence on buildings since the First World War. The marriage of design and technology has influenced architecture in a considerable and important way, allowing us to move further towards a progressive future; one that takes into consideration all aspects of life, be it economic, social or environmental and making new designs possible, allowing complete expression and allowing our wildest ideas to become a physical reality.


  1. (1946). In K. Sykes, Designing a New Industry (pp. 154-164). New York: George Braziller.
  2. Macleod. (2013, Jan 28). modernism to Post Modernism. Retrieved from Macleod 29:
  3. Severino, R. (1970). Equipotential Space. New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc.
  4. Theodore H.M. Prudon, F. (2008). Preservation of Modern Architecture. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  5. Utzon, J. (2002, May). Sydney Opera House Trust [AU]. Retrieved from

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