Charles Edouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, b. La Chaux-de-fonds, Switzerland, Oct. 6, 1887, d. 1965, was a Swiss-French architect who played a decisive role in the development of modern architecture. He first studied (1908-10) in Paris with August Perret, and then worked (1910) for several months in the Berlin studio of industrial designer Peter Behrens, where he met the future Bauhaus leaders Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Shortly after World War I, Jeanneret turned to painting and founded, with Amedee Ozenfant, the purist offshoot of cubism. With the publication (1923) of his influential collection of polemical essays, Vers une architecture (Towards a New Architecture, Eng. repr. 1970), he adopted the name Le Corbusier and devoted his full energy and talent to creating a radically modern form of architectural expression.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Le Corbusier’s most significant work was in urban planning. In such published plans as La Ville Contemporaine (1922), the Plan Voisin de Paris (1925), and the several Villes Radieuses (1930-36), he advanced ideas dramatically different from the comfortable, low-rise communities proposed by earlier garden city planners. During this 20-year span he also built many villas and several small apartment complexes and office buildings. In these hard-edged, smooth-surfaced, geometric volumes, he created a language of what he called “pure prisms”–rectangular blocks of concrete, steel, and glass, usually raised above the ground on stilts, or pilotis, and often endowed with roof gardens intended to compensate for the loss of usable floor area at ground level.
After World War II, Le Corbusier moved away from purism and toward the so-called new brutalism, which utilized rough-hewn forms of concrete, stone, stucco, and glass. Newly recognized in official art circles as an important 20th-century innovator, he represented (1946) France on the planning team for the United Nations Headquarters building in New York City–a particularly satisfying honor for an architect whose prize-winning design (1927) for the League of Nations headquarters had been rejected. Simultaneously, he was commissioned by the French government to plan and build his prototypical Vertical City in Marseille. The result was the Unite d’Habitation (1946-52)–a huge block of 340 “superimposed villas” raised above the ground on massive pilotis, laced with two elevated thoroughfares of shops and other services and topped by a roof-garden gymnasium that contained, among other things, a sculptured playground of concrete forms and a peripheral track for joggers.
His worldwide reputation led to a commission from the Indian government to plan the city of Chandigarh, the new capital of the Punjab, and to design and build the Government Center (1950-70) and several of the city’s other structures. These poetic, handcrafted buildings represented a second, more humanistic phase in Le Corbusier’s work that also was reflected in his lyrical Pilgrim Church of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp (1951-55) in the Vosges Mountains of France; in his rugged monastery of La Tourette, France (1954-59); and in the structures he designed (from 1958) at Ahmedabad, in India. Le Corbusier accidentally drowned in the Mediterranean on Aug. 27, 1965.
Frank Lloyd Wright, b. Richland Center, Wis., June 8, 1867, d. Apr. 9, 1959, was one of the most innovative and influential figures in modern architecture. In his radically original designs as well as in his prolific writings he championed the virtues of what he termed organic architecture, a building style based on natural forms.
After briefly studying civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Wright moved to Chicago, where he went to work (1887) as a draftsman in the office of Adler and Sullivan. While working under Louis Sullivan–whom Wright called “Lieber Meister”–he began designing and building on his own a few private houses for some of Adler and Sullivan’s clients. These “bootlegged houses,” as Wright called them, soon revealed an independent talent quite distinct from that of Sullivan. Wright’s houses had low, sweeping rooflines hanging over uninterrupted walls of windows; his plans were centered on massive brick or stone fireplaces at the heart of the house; his rooms became increasingly open to one another; and the overall configuration of his plans became more and more asymmetrical, reaching out toward some real or imagined prairie horizon.
In contrast to the expansive openness of those houses which inspired the prairie school, Wright’s urban buildings (unlike Sullivan’s, for instance) tended to be walled in, somewhat inhospitable to the city, and lit primarily through skylights. Whereas two of the finest buildings of Wright’s early period–the Larkin Company Administration Building (1904; demolished 1950) in Buffalo, N.Y., and the Unity Church (1906) in Oak Park, Ill.–seemed to proclaim Wright’s distaste for urban environments, houses he designed in the same period (such as Buffalo’s Martin House, 1904, and Chicago’s Robie House, 1909) reached out into the landscape with large, glazed walls, terraces, and low-slung roof overhangs.
Wright worked on his own after 1893, when the issue of his bootlegged houses finally caused a break with Adler and Sullivan’s office. During the 20 years that followed he became one of the best-known (and, because of a tempestuous personal life, one of the most notorious) architects in the United States. Two editions of his work brought out (1910, 1911) by the Berlin publisher Wasmuth, along with a parallel exhibition that traveled throughout Europe, boosted Wright’s fame in European architectural circles and influenced such key figures in contemporary architecture as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.
His reputation assured on both sides of the Atlantic, Wright began to reinforce the philosophical underpinnings of his innovative building style. In keeping with his agrarian bias, Wright proclaimed that the structural principles found in natural forms should guide modern American architecture. He praised the virtues of an organic architecture that would use reinforced concrete in the configurations found in seashells and snails and would build skyscrapers the way trees were “built”–that is, with a central “trunk” deeply rooted in the ground and floors cantilevered from that trunk like branches. Spaces within such buildings would be animated by natural light allowed to penetrate the interiors and to travel across textured surfaces as the incidence of sunlight and moonlight changed.
His view of architecture was essentially romantic. Although Wright often paid lip service to the rational systems called for by mass-produced building (modular planning and prefabrication), his efforts in those directions seemed halfhearted at best. The most spectacular buildings of his mature period–Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel (1915-22; demolished 1968); Fallingwater (Kaufmann House; 1936), Mill Run, Pa.; the S. C. Johnson and Son Wax Company Administration Center (1936-50), Racine, Wis.; Taliesin West (1938-59); and New York City’s Guggenheim Museum (completed 1959)–were based on forms borrowed from nature, and the intentions were clearly romantic, poetic, and intensely personal. At his death he left a rich heritage of completed buildings of almost uniform splendor; few disciples, however, could match the special genius reflected in his works. Unlike Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and other giants of modern architecture, Wright was, at heart, an essentially idiosyncratic architect whose influence was immense but whose pupils were few.
Modern architecture is a form of building design characterized by the use of unornamented industrial materials–principally steel, glass, and concrete–to make simple, geometric forms standing free in space. Such buildings, which began to appear around 1922 in Germany, the Netherlands, the USSR, and France, were first grouped together under a single stylistic heading in a 1932 exhibition titled “Modern Architecture” held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibition’s organizers, the critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock and the architect C. Philip Johnson, detected in a variety of post-World War I buildings from several countries a shared emphasis on volume over form, asymmetrical composition, and avoidance of ornamentation. These elements, Hitchcock and Johnson proclaimed, constituted an International Style–the result of a century-long search for a style suited to modern materials and engineering techniques, freed from borrowed forms.
Some of the architects cited by Hitchcock and Johnson as exponents of the International Style resisted this narrow, formal definition. The dissenters asserted that their work was only the direct, logical manifestation of contemporary science and society, that it would change as its preconditions changed, and that architecture had in fact finally escaped the limitations of stylistic fashions. The course of architecture since 1932 has proved both camps correct: if the International Style has been universally accepted as the symbolic expression of modernity in building, it has also been shown to be essentially an artificial construct that is neither the inevitable nor necessarily the most logical reflection of 20th-century conditions.
Among the architects who developed the International Style, the Germans formed the largest and initially the most important group. By 1918 a group of radical designers, centered in Berlin, had emerged as the champions of an architecture featuring simple shapes in steel and glass and based on an industrial and socialist ethic that had as its primary goal the overthrow of 19th-century eclecticism. The strong intuitive flavor of this so-called expressionism in turn triggered a reaction led by Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who accepted steel-and-glass construction and pure geometric forms as architectural ideals.
The chief theorist of what its adherents called the Neue Sachlichkeit, or the new factualism, was Gropius, who from 1919 served as director of what had formerly been the Weimar Art School and was now called the Bauhaus. When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925, Gropius implemented his theories in the buildings that he designed for the new site. After Gropius left the Bauhaus to go into private practice in 1928, the leading light of the movement became Mies van der Rohe. In his German Pavilion at the Barcelona Trade Fair of 1929, Mies carried the features of the International Style to their furthest limit of abstraction.
Neoplasticism and Constructivism
The Bauhaus architects’ final step from expressionism to the Neue Sachlichkeit is widely credited to the influence of two contemporary art movements: Dutch neoplasticism, usually called de Stijl, and Soviet constructivism. The neoplasticist group was assembled (1917) by the poet-painter Theo van Doesburg. Van Doesburg and Cornelius van Eesteren outlined the neoplasticist ideal in a 1922 Paris exhibition of a series of house projects whose arrangements of colored planes resembled the paintings of abstract artist Piet Mondrian made three-dimensional.
Constructivism was initiated in the Soviet Union with the nonobjective sculptor Vladimir Tatlin’s execution (1918) of a model for a hypothetical Monument to the Third International, in which a series of glass volumes were to rotate within a spiraling steel tower meant to express the triumph of the new technology over traditional masonry construction. Once brought (1922) to Germany by emigres such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the constructivist concept of a building as a technical mechanism in motion soon assumed a key role in European architectural theory.
The contemporaneous work of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, differed in its premises, if not in its outward appearance, from that of the Germans. His early buildings–for example, the Villa Savoye (1929-30) in Poissy–resemble those of Gropius and Mies in their asymmetrical and flowing spatial arrangements, as well as in their unornamented glass and stucco planes.
Le Corbusier’s explanation of his art in his immensely influential Vers une Architecture (1923; trans. as Towards a New Architecture, 1927) emphasized that a new and purer classical architecture of forms seen in light could be created by following the logical conceptual processes of the engineer. He also insisted that the reorganization of the city was the first task of modern architecture. His 1922 exhibition entitled “Modern City for Three Million Inhabitants” led eventually to a model apartment tower that he called a Unite d’Habitation, the first of which was erected in Marseille in 1946-52. An overriding concern for urban planning made him one of the key figures at a 1928 meeting of modern architects that resulted in the formation of the Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). Greatly influenced by Le Corbusier, the CIAM architects overruled the aesthetic goals of the expressionists by setting urbanism, rather than design, as the organization’s chief concern.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Also active at the time of the epochal “Modern Architecture” exhibition was another leading exponent of modern architecture, the American Frank Lloyd Wright. Although his work was recognized in the 1932 exhibition, Wright was set apart from the practitioners of the International Style because of his “individualism” and “romantic” attachment to nature. He was also a generation older than his European counterparts and had actually influenced some of their work through the publication (1910) in Berlin of the Wasmuth Portfolio of his work. Wright accepted the machine as an aid to architecture and made early use of such modern materials as reinforced concrete in his compositions of cantilevered roof planes, unornamented surfaces, and flowing spaces. On the other hand, he believed in what he termed the “organic” use of building materials and in the close relationship of a building to its site–19th-century ideas rejected by his European contemporaries. His idea of modern organicism is expressed in such works as the Johnson’s Wax Company Headquarters (1937-39) in Racine, Wis., a great space wrapped with brick and fiberglass tubing whose roof is supported by slender, mushroom-shaped columns; and in the dramatically cantilevered concrete-and-glass Kaufmann House, “Fallingwater” (1936-37), at
Mill Run, Pa.
Triumph of the International Style
In 1932 the International Style embraced only a small proportion of recent architecture; outside of private houses its influence was limited to certain housing projects in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. During the great Depression of the 1930s, however, the simplicity and economy of the International Style posed a desirable alternative to the extraneous ornamentation and lavish use of space inherent in eclectic architecture, and only CIAM seemed to have any clear solutions to the pressing problem of social housing. This new socioeconomic environment, as much as the aesthetics of modern architecture, paved the way for the triumph of the International Style in France, Great Britain, and the United States, particularly after its German masters were forced into exile by Hitler.
After World War II the International Style provided the basis for the rebuilding of European cities–for example, van den Broek and Bakema’s Rotterdam rail terminal (1953-54). In the United States the architects of the building boom of the 1950s and 1960s turned to the International Style in designing technocratic office buildings such as New York City’s Lever House (1950-52), by Gordon Bunshaft of the firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM).
Equally attracted to the philosophy and the aesthetics of the new architecture were institutions that sought to project a modern image, such as the Air Force Academy, whose Colorado Springs, Colo., campus was designed (1954-57) and built (1956-62) by SOM. Even the New York City headquarters of the United Nations (1947-50) was rendered in the International Style by a team of architects that included Le Corbusier, who had been passed over (1927) for the design of the
League of Nations building.
Limits of the International Style
If the term modern architecture is understood to consist of a particular form-vocabulary (the International Style) embodying a certain philosophy (functionalism), then the term cannot be used to signify all the architecture produced in the modern epoch, but only one architectural tradition extending backward and forward from an accepted year of conception (1922). Frank Lloyd Wright’s so-called Prairie style (from c.1900; see prairie school) clearly foretells the International Style, as do the contemporaneous concrete designs of Auguste Perret and Tony
Garnier in France.
In another vein the Art Nouveau movement of the 1890s also sought to produce an innovative modern style using the industrial materials of metal, glass, and concrete; only its sculptural, biological form-vocabulary separates it from the buildings of 30 years later. Art nouveau, in turn, represented the culmination of a search for a new style adapted to new materials and new institutions that commenced around 1830 with the work of European romantic rationalist architects. Going back in time even further, direct expressions of materials and function in works of engineering can be discerned in the mills and iron bridges of England dating from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (1770s).
The fact that such pioneering movements of modern architecture can be identified as much as two centuries ago indicates that modern architecture did not primarily evolve out of the conditions and demands of modern society. Its aesthetic and philosophical roots can actually be traced back through a long line of artists and theorists.
Modern architecture claimed to be based on a logical expression of the spatial and structural facts of building, yet its practitioners have rarely approached the structural ingenuity of conceptual technicians such as R. Buckminster Fuller. Similarly, although its apologists claimed that modern architecture represented a democratic style expressing the taste of the general public, its works often have been seen as aloof and oversophisticated by their residents. Finally, modern architecture’s efficacy in solving the problems of redesigning cities into finely tuned social organisms was questioned by those who saw it as the destroyer of cohesive neighborhoods through wholesale urban renewal.
Modifying the International Style
As these contradictions in modern architecture began to emerge clearly in the 1950s, many architects sought to modify the codes of the International Style so as to create buildings at once modern and monumental, as well as functional and responsive to the needs and expectations of a wide audience. An international group of architects formed (1953) under the name Team X succeeded in 1959 in dissolving CIAM and setting its own goals for a new, more humane system of public housing. Team X members such as Alison and Peter Smithson and Aldo van Eyck, working from the aesthetic basis of the International Style, evolved from it more visually complex, texturally rich, and physically substantial buildings. Late in his career Le Corbusier himself became a major figure in this development, particularly with his sculptural concrete chapel at Ronchamp, France (1951-55). Another convert was Philip Johnson, the theorist of the International Style, who executed a number of monumental public buildings in rich materials.
If Eero Saarinen turned the International Style to expressionistic ends in works such as his TWA Terminal (1956-62) at J. F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, his buildings are scarcely more extraordinary than the later works of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose spiraling, concrete Guggenheim Museum was conceived in 1942 and completed in 1959. Finally, Louis I. Kahn developed a new monumentality that was first expressed in his Yale University Art Gallery (1951-53) and culminated in such buildings as the Exeter Library (1967-72), a symmetrical, almost classical composition of brick, wood, concrete, and glass. Kahn was perhaps the last of the great modern architects. The full emergence of postmodern architecture took place shortly after Kahn’s death (1974), and many prominent architects are now pursuing a variety of formal images beyond the doctrinal limitations of the International Style.
Two opposite forces have coexisted in American art since the establishment of the first colonies. On the one hand, American artists have been aware of their European cultural heritage and of continuing innovation in Europe; on the other hand, they have had to adapt European forms to the exigencies of their native situation. This interaction between rival forces is hardly unique to American art–all art grows within a tradition–but what distinguishes the American experience is the ambivalent attitudes brought to that tradition. To many of the early settlers, the ambivalence was clear, since so many of them were religious and political exiles. Yet despite the pressures of conscience and conviction, the European traditions persisted in memory, so that the first American art and architecture were adaptations of European styles and modes, modified to suit the colonists’ urgent needs in a new and often hostile world. The conflict, aroused by traditions at once alienating and indispensable, has served as the underlying dynamic for the rise and progress of art and architecture in the United States.