The Formative Strands of Modern Architecture

Architectural movements are not born. They don’t mature and die. Modernism arose from a historical process that doesn’t have an identifiable beginning, leading on from several predisposing strands. Although the critical synthesis of “modern” architecture began at roughly the turn of the century the idea of creating a new style, as opposed to a revived style from previous eras, had been around for more than half a century.

However, the meaning of the term modern had been in development from the time it was first conceived, nevertheless maintaining the stance that, like a Greek temple or a gothic cathedral, it would express the time in which it was built. Consequentially, any revivals of old movements would be regarded as failures, since mimicry of past styles and periods limited the building’s ability to reflect the context into which it was born. This however meant that an authentic style, new and accessible to the period, would need to be created. The issue was that this would require the creation of new and ‘contemporary’ forms that could facilitate the development and creation of truly modern buildings.

There were multiple approaches, all based off of varying ideas and theories. One major force in the fabrication of more developed forms was that of the industrial revolution. It generated new problems, new methods of construction and new patrons. All of this created new possibilities and created new necessary routes of exploration that were in direct response to the newly formed environment. More significantly, the growth of an industrial world disrupted the art of crafts and vernacular traditions.  Machine work created a rift between the physical activity of creating utilitarian objects and this created a loss of vital touch and impulse, something a craftsman could achieve. This became evident in the work of the time and as a result nineteenth century moralists felt that mechanisation was inevitably going to cause degradation in not only the quality of previously hand crafted pieces but also the standard of all features of life. The advancement of industry strongly impacted the nature of the “era” and this became evident in the buildings of the time.

In a model involving the advancement of technology throughout history, by French architect Viollet-le-Duc, written in the 1860’s it became increasingly apparent to the Frenchman the huge impact made by the advent of materials like iron and plate glass. He felt that architects of the period should formulate their own appropriate forms in direct response to advancements in technology, which worked well with new materials available to them and the changing social and economic conditions. In theory this was a sound idea but the issue of practically creating new forms remained.

Naturally there were several approaches taken which varied significantly. Two of arguably the most significant contrasted significantly. The first was to rely on individual leaps of invention and induction, while the other suggested that the issue of generating new forms and style would naturally evolve without conscious intervention by designers. Despite the focus on advancing into a modern age of architecture which truly reflected the context in which it was born, there was relatively little admission and belief that a new architectural style was likely or, more significantly, even possible. We now know, of course, that it was.