Ins and Outs of Style: Nine Stories Trace the Arc of 20th Century Architecture

Architectural history is often explained in terms of movements, in turn defined by broad and sweeping aesthetic descriptions. In reality, buildings are individual creations, and understanding the larger arc of of different styles requires delving into specific stories. Below are a series of 99% Invisible episodes that offer a different kind of historical tour, one told through the lens of specific times, people and places that each inform a bigger-picture understanding of architectural design.

Modernisme: Even in an architectural era that celebrated complexity and ornamentation, La Sagrada Família pushed both structural and aesthetic conventions. It is often considered a work of Catalan Modernism, a movement that spanned architecture, painting, sculpture and the decorative arts. The building would be inspired by the Neo-Gothic style which was popular at the time in Europe, but Gaudí also wanted this creation to be something completely unique, new and different, inspired by nature. Its construction has spanned generations and this church has become a bridge from the past to the present.

Bauhaus: Founded by architect Walter Gropius in 1919, the Bauhaus school in Germany sought to combine design and industrialization, creating functional things that could be mass-produced for the betterment of society. It was a nexus of creativity in the early 20th century — most now-famous designers and artists who were in Europe during the 1920s and 30s spent time at the Bauhaus. And much of what we know about the work done at this critical school during that period is thanks to the surviving photographs of Lucia Moholy.

International Modernism: In the late 1920s, the International Congress of Modern Architecture was formed to discuss bold new ideas for the future of architecture and urban planning. Theories developed in part by the group’s founding organizer, Le Corbusier, would have a profound impact on an emerging International Style and a huge development outside of Amsterdam. This project was to be the culmination of forward-thinking Modernism, a carefully organized “city of the future” based on egalitarian ideals (click here for Part 2).

Organic Modernism: While the Bauhaus backed mass-production and Modernists advocated the use of new industrial-age materials, Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned a world of mass-customization and often used natural wood and stone. Famous for Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum, Wright also had a grander plan — Usonia embodied an idea that proper architecture could shape American culture. Design, he believed, could make the world a better place (click here for Part 2).

Modernists: Buildings are physical parts of our built environments, and we generally see them as speaking for themselves. But what goes on in the minds of the people who design them? One mid-century inquiry brought together famous figures from the field and attempted to find out. If nothing else, the lasting legacy of these studies might be the drawings, doodles, written answers and best of all: recordings of these great architects as they discuss essential creative problems.

Brutalism: There is a great divide between those who love and those who hate imposing buildings made of concrete, often classified as Brutalist architecture, which has many fraught associations. Yet Brutalism is not one style — it is a broad label used inconsistently in architecture, about which architects often disagree on a precise definition. Furthermore, the word itself has intense connotations, even though it’s not actually related to “brutality.” It derives instead from the French “beton brut,” which means raw concrete, referring to structures like Le Corbusier’s famous Unité d’Habitation, a visionary sky village.

Eclecticism: Not all architecture and not every architect can be easily defined. Los Angeles, for instance, is rich with architectural diversity. A retro-futuristic Googie diner can be found on the same block as a Spanish-style mansion, sitting comfortably alongside a Dutch Colonial dwelling, all in close proximity to a Deconstructivist concert hall. While some architects hone a signature style, others like Paul Williams have proved adept at adapting to specific sites, clients and contexts.

Postmodernism: Reacting to mainstream Modernism’s focus on glass, steel and concrete and top-down paternalism, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi wrote books and designed buildings that revived pre-Modern ornamentation. Learning from the architecture of Las Vegas (often overlooked by the establishment), this architectural duo used the same critical processes and tools architects employ to study famous old cities but applied them to popular everyday spaces.

Sustainability: Much of the 20th century was shaped by the spread of concrete, a building material made of a seemingly abundant resource: sand. As the scarcity of this material becomes increasingly evident, 21st century designers are beginning to rethink their use of this ubiquitous material, turning to both traditional and new materials in the process. To understand what architecture will look like going forward means looking beyond aesthetics to the challenges of our present age.

For more episodes and articles on architects and their designs, click through to 99pi’s architecture category.

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