Monday, July 20, 2009
Modernist architecture can't be ignored
By Ann Robinson and Annie Schwemmer
We need to spend one more week on house styles because we cannot ignore the modernist movement.
The very concept of "modern" houses gives some people indigestion. Some feel that this design approach results in cold, impersonal boxes, and they certainly don't want them in their neighborhood.
While homes designed with a modernist approach are a far cry from those that take their inspiration from English cottages or Italian farmhouses, they are a legitimate approach to housing issues. As with most things, greater understanding can lead to greater appreciation.
At the turn of the 20th century, European architects began exploring architectural solutions for a society that was rapidly changing and for new technologies and building materials being developed.
With the rise of Nazi Germany, many of these architects fled to America, bringing with them their new approach to housing. Their design philosophy resulted in a drastic simplification of form, rejection of ornamentation, and the acceptance and use of mass-produced materials, such as glass and steel.
Art Deco was a design school that flourished from the 1920s through the '40s. This approach used the new, simpler forms of the European designers, but it could not give up references to the past.
The preferred ornamentation that was added to the base design was geometric in nature (zigzags, chevrons), being heavily influenced by the impact of one of the major news stories of that time — the discovery in 1922 of King Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt.
Strong vertical elements in the form of towers were also common. This style was rare in individual residential design, but it was used in commercial and public buildings, including apartment houses.
Another school of design, Art Moderne, arose about 1930 and was able to finally break with the tradition of historical reference. This style was used for individual homes.
The hallmarks of Art Moderne include flat roofs, smooth walls (usually stucco) and windows set flush with the outside wall, which were devoid of trim or detail. Often one or more corners were curved. Windows could be continuous around corners, and glass block was popular.
These movements were stepping stones in America to accepting the International style that began in Europe in the 1920s and is still seen in residential design today.
With the advent of steel structures, exterior walls were no longer needed for structural support. Instead, the exterior walls became merely "curtains" hung in front of the steel frame. Large floor-to-ceiling windows mixed with expanses of blank walls, and cantilevered portions (such as balconies, roofs or second stories) emphasized the non-structural role of the walls.
The application of true International style to homes is limited to high-end residences due to the cost of using a steel structure, though some of the principles can be adapted for wood frame homes.
While the interior layout of Art Deco and Art Moderne homes was not substantially different from other homes, International style homes were radically different.
The use of the steel structure affected the interior as well as the exterior. Interior walls also were freed from being needed to support the roof, which resulted in large, open interior spaces. Houses were described by Le Corbusier, an early proponent of modern design, as "machines for living."
In this vein, the latest inventions were added to kitchens and bathrooms with a great emphasis on efficiency.
Taste in home design is highly personal. Whether you crave the comfort and familiarity of traditional residential design or feel that homes should reflect the current time and society, we are blessed to have neighborhoods and communities with a wide range of diverse design. How boring it would be if we all lived in matching boxes! As always, we welcome your home architect design questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.