A Very Brief History of Architecture 2. The Modern Movement

2. The Modern Movement was characterised by a radical rejection of the principles of traditional architecture and embarked on a titanic quest of rethinking architecture from a strictly functionalist perspective. According to modernists, the purpose of architecture is not to symbolise, but to function, to fulfill our needs. Ignoring existing social categories and hierarchies, they focused on the needs of the universal Human, generally aiming to improve the conditions of the lower classes. The new cities envisioned by Le Corbusier were divided into distinct areas based on functions: work, leisure, living, infrastructure. Buildings were divided similarly into circulation, living and sleeping zones. Housing had to respect specific standards of hygiene like a minimum amount of sunlight, green space, interior space etc. Le Corbusier, the most iconic figure of the whole movement, enounced five basic principles for the new architecture, all of them exemplified in his Villa Savoye:

a. pilotis – replacement of supporting walls by a grid of reinforced concrete columns that bears all load.
b. the free designing of the ground plan – the absence of supporting walls.
c. the free design of the facade, which being detached from structure, is freed from constraints
d. the horizontal window which cuts the facade along its entire length, ensuring an abundance of light
e. roof gardens on the flat concrete roofs, protecting them from weather

All these principles were discussed, published and widely spread from 1928 until 1959 by an organisation called CIAM (Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne), to which all major modernist architects belonged. The norms of the new architecture became mainstream, were taught in Universities and were massively put into practice all across the world, transforming the landscape of many cities.

The Modern Movement managed to solve the post-industrial housing crisis, creating affordable housing and significantly elevating the standards of living of the lower classes. On the other side, it had many negative consequences which led to its downfall in the 70s. As any utopian project, it finally proved its limitations. Firstly, the modernist aesthetics remained a thing of the initiated. While modernist architects derived pleasure from contemplating the pure, stylised cubic forms, stripped of any excess, the vast glazed facades, free to function and reflect their role without hiding it under decoration, the shapes derived from purely rational considerations, the buildings with no clear boundaries between interior and exterior (see Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion), the general public found the new architecture to be bland, monotonous and simply ugly.

Soon many critics from within the profession shared the public’s discontent and started criticising the movement from various standpoints. Some showed that the principles of Modernism were not as rational as it was claimed; they were first and foremost the manifestation of a new mythology of progress which idealised the machine, an aesthetics of purity and liberation. By proposing a universal architectural recipe and by focusing on the needs of Man in general, Modernism lacked the means of addressing local and regional factors; the terrace roof wasn’t suitable for certain climates; the new urbanism with free standing buildings surrounded by vegetation brought the dissolution of the traditional street; the forced separation of functions in cities, as well as the tall habitation units caused social alienation; hundreds of sleeping neighborhoods emerged, with no activity during day, while areas destined for leisure weren’t as successful as anticipated. In short, aiming to rationalise the needs of an Universal human (like the assumption that this abstraction actually applies to humans regardless of culture) and design in order to fulfill them would eventually prove a failure. Courageous Modernist manifestoes like the city of Brasilia by Oscar Niemeyer, the Pruitt-Igoe high rise development, the Nakagin Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa, Villa Savoye and many others were ultimately rejected or disregarded by their inhabitants, or showed multiple dysfunctionalities and were drastically transformed over time.

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