Modern architecture represented the first complete and clear break in the history of architecture. Nothing done until that point was considered relevant and the modernists wanted to reinvent architecture. So new rules about what this new architecture should be appeared and soon modern architecture took off with unprecedented vigor. Now, in our post-modern world, we condemn some of the excesses of modern architecture but, we can agree that this was an important and necessary step to get to where we are today. So, let’s see what the most important characteristics of modern architecture are, and what kind of legacy it has left for us.
1. Ornament is a crime: This was the name of an essay written in 1908 by Adolf Loos, one of the most influential architectural critics of his time. This can be considered one of the manifests of modern architecture. In this essay he literally considers that any form of ornament should be punishable by law. He considers tattoos disgraceful and that their only fit for lesser humans. He considers that our culture has led us to a world without ornament, and any educated man who is in favor of ornaments should be considered a criminal. The lack of ornamentation became one of the central characteristics of modern architecture. Instead of ornaments, the volumetric shape of the building was favored. An expressive and beautiful volumetric exterior using basic geometrical shapes, composed in an interesting way was considered the way forward, while ornaments were considered old-fashioned, and belonging to a lesser culture.
2. A complete break with history: Modern architecture had a new perspective on architecture and it decreed that anything done before it has no value. This is why modern architects and urban planners would have had no problem in completely whipping out a whole medieval town center in order to build a sky-scraper, which for us in our post-modern world would be considered a crime. In modern architecture schools the discipline of the history of architecture was taken of the curricula. This clean and complete break with history is one of the key characteristics of architecture.
3. Form follows function: These words are attributed to one of the fathers of modern architecture, Mies van der Rohe. While in most styles before modernism the facade and the form of the building were dictated by esthetic criteria, Mies suggested that a good architect should always put the function as a priority. So, a building has first and foremost served the purpose for what it was built. After all the problems arising from circulations, relations between different parts of the building, easy accesses to important parts of the construction, were solved, the form would resolve itself. After the skeleton of the building was constructed, after all the criteria of functionality, than the other bits would fall exactly into place, including form.
4. Sowing off the structure: Modern architecture put an emphasis on the structure of the building. While for a great part of architectural history structure was considered something unimportant, something that needed to be shoved aside and hidden where possible, modern architecture embraced the idea that structure should become a central part of this new style. So structure was considered esthetically beautiful and a big part of the new idea of sincerity in architecture. What you see is what you get.
5. The embrace of new materials: Modern architecture is closely related to the use in large scale of the new material called armed concrete. It was embraced by many architects for its versatility and its resistance. The thing that made armed concrete so special was that it was relatively cheap and could be poured into almost any form, with the advantage that it had a very high resistance to compression, because of the concrete and very high resistance to tension, because of the steel mesh. This was a revolution, because the two materials concrete and steel worked together like a charm. Also, modernism was all about the sincerity of the materials used. Wood should be used as wood, and should look like wood, and so on for every other material. This came because of the practice that was established for many centuries, using different kinds of materials to decorate or mask the structure. The embrace of new materials and the so called sincerity of expression are also very important characteristics of modern architecture.
Modern architecture was a crucial turning point in architectural history. I believe that its effects were overall benefic and a great impulse for the stirring of new ideas and concepts about how the architecture of the future should be made. Radical modernist had radical solutions, calling everything done up to that point worthless, but this is actually a pretty common occurrence, in the history of architecture, because almost every style appears as a form of rebellion towards the style that precedes it. I believe the characteristics of modern architecture make it one of the most important periods in the development of architecture.
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