New Internationalist

A History Of Architecture

Issue 202

new internationalist
issue 202 - December 1989

A history of architecture

THE WESTERN TRADITION [image, unknown] Location: Europe

Venetian architect Andrea Palladio. Form: Europe's rich architectural tradition ranges from the temples of ancient Greece to nineteenth-century government buildings that evoked the grandeur of the nation state. Its many styles - from the heavy flamboyance of Gothic with its gargoyles and flying buttresses to the ordered formality of the Renaissance - still give us pleasure and a sense of well-being. Construction took a long time: Chartres Cathedral took 25 years to complete and at the time that was considered miraculously quick. Every detail was handcrafted and each major building was seen as inescapably part of a larger vision of the age.

Examples: Any guidebook of Europe is crammed with the architectural treasures of Western civilization. The grandeur of imperial Rome can be experienced through the Colosseum and Pantheon that draw millions of visitors each year. The most outstanding of many beautiful Gothic cathedrals is probably that at Chartres in France. One of the great architects of the classical tradition was the Venetian Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) who started out as a stonemason and became the designer of the palazzos and villas of the mercantile aristocracy. Palladio's concern with classical form and proportion had an influence far beyond both his century and his native Italy. Christopher Wren. who rebuilt St Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire of London. sought to combine both classical and baroque elements in a period rich in design solutions that were hybrids of past styles. By the 19th century the 'gothic revival' movement inspired by John Ruskin was reacting against the discipline of the classical tradition.

Gothic gargoyles overlooking Paris.
Photo: John Elphinstine / CAMERA PRESS

Philosophy: Each style within the Western Architectural tradition had its own set of ideas to underpin design. The imperial architecture of Versailles or St Petersburg speaks to the expansive self-image of empire. The spires and domes of cathedral architecture suggest the glory of God while intricate detailing lower down addresses the finer points of theology.

Impact: It is on the Western tradition that our mind focuses when we think of architecture. These classical designs and their features - the loggia, the arcade and the well-proportioned facade - have provided pleasure to both user and onlooker for centuries. It is also to this tradition that critics such as Prince Charles turn when they look beyond modernist sterility. Although it is possible to learn from the classical tradition it is certainly not possible to recreate the bygone eras that gave rise to particular styles and forms of building. Also unlikely is a return to the handcrafting and painstaking attention to detail that characterized the classical era.

REVOLUTIONARY MODERNISM [image, unknown] Location: Germany / Russia / France / Holland

Form: This movement in architecture bloomed in Europe after the First World War. The inclination was to use the sharp clean lines of the machine as a model for building. The expressive features of this new architecture were the ramps, stairways, lifts, heating ducts, chimneys, escalators and structural supports which were suddenly made visible after centuries of being hidden behind thick walls of masonry. Technology was not something to be hidden away but something to be glorified. The use of reinforced concrete allowed for much more flexibility in design. As Le Corbusier, one of the pioneers of modern architecture, put it: 'the house is a machine for living in and the chair a machine for sitting in'.

The celebrated Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965).
Karsh / CAMERA PRESS

Examples: A central goal of the pioneers of modernism such as the German Bauhaus school was to create healthy housing projects for the workers as an alternative to the dark TB-ridden slums of European cities. These often combined living spaces with recreational and educational facilities - or with work places, as in the case of Walter Gropius' design of the Bauhaus school itself.

Philosophy: These modernists were inspired by the Russian Revolution and the Soviet constructivist school was an attempt to put technology at the service of the Revolution. The inspiration was radical and idealistic: to sweep away the corrupt old world of buildings that were simply dishonest monuments to the powerful and embrace a technology that could liberate all humanity from want.

Impact: The early modernists had trouble getting commisions. But the buildings they did get a chance to build stood out like a sore thumb from their more traditional surroundings. Their desire to 'start over' set the stage for the later wholesale destruction of neighbourhoods for commercial development or urban renewal. What was old was bad and what was new by definition better. The constant rectangles, machine-like shapes, and lack of decoration made the new buildings difficult for even the workers to accept. While modernism difficult for even the workers to accept. While modernism was inspired by socialism it was very much the product of 'grand designers and planners' and there was Iittle attempt to involve the user in the design process.

THE INTERNATIONAL STYLE [image, unknown] Location: United States

Form: The revolutionary innovations of the early modernists quickly gave way to the international style. But here a social vision was reduced to a mere architectural style. The clean lines and mechanical forms remained but utopian experiments in worker housing disappeared. Many of the corporate skyscrapers and high-rise apartment blocks that we are familiar with today are variations of the international style Glass curtain walls shroud these often hermetically-sealed megaliths that tower over their surroundings. One of the founders of the international style was the prolific Mies Van der Rohe (an ex-Bauhaus architect), who sought pure Platonic forms for his soaring buildings. The international style fitted the needs of developers for cheap and fast construction in the US economic boom and the rebuilding of Europe after World War Two.

The Seagram building, New York.
J. Allen Cash / CAMERA PRESS

Examples: German architects like Van Der Rohe and Gropius fled to the US to escape Hitler's crusade against such non-Aryan tendencies in design as flat roofs. They quickly began to have a profound influence on US-style high-rise development. Van Der Rohe's 1950s Manhattan headquarters for the Seagram liquor company is a key example. The US skyscraper certainly predated the international style, going back to architects like Louis Sullivan (the Guaranty Building in Buffalo) and later Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings in the US mid West. Even in the early days Sullivan saw the high-rise as not simply a work of art but 'the joint product of the speculator, the engineer, the builder'.

Philosophy: The international style tended to maintain those modernist prejudices that were most acceptable to the real-estate developer - those that reduced costs and increased usable space. Purity of form meant cheaper pre-fabricated material and no time and money wasted on hand-crafted ornamentation. The office high-rise began to be seen as a 'package'. In residential development the tower block was a 'quick fix' to the housing crisis - particularly in parts of the Third World and the Soviet bloc. Le Corbusier had argued for urban density that allowed for 'sun, space and greenery' in a 'ville radeiuse'. But open and green spaces dwarfed by high rises quickly fell into disuse.

Impact: The international style has become the main vehicle for modern commercial and residential towers. The cell-like living associated with high-rise dwellings has led to a destruction of public community and increased isolation of the individual. Cheap pre-fab public housing is prone ot physical deterioration and vandalism. Two prime examples are the once highly regarded Pruitt-Igoe flats in St. Louis and the Quarry Hills flats in Leeds. The curtain walls typical of the international style are highly energy efficient - taking on heat in the summer and losing it in the winter. Manhattan's World Trade Center uses as much electricity as the entire city of Rochester in New york State. For most of us these towers are an inevitable part of modern life - 'like traffic jams or plastic forks'.

POSTMODERNISM [image, unknown] Location: North America / Europe

Form: In the 1970s and 1980s the international style began to fall out of favour with both architects and building users. The sterility and uniform repetitiveness of this type of architecture was wearing thin. Some post-modernists like the Luxembourg architects Robert and Leon Krier are radically rethinking modernist assumptions about style, scale, building materials and even the purpose of design. But the dominant post-modernist tendency- as seen in the work of US corporate architect par excellence Philip Johnson - is merely to tinker with the 'engineering aesthetic' of the modernists. This is often done by stylizing otherwise modernist designs with the addition of an elaborate roof or the odd column on otherwise conventional high-rises.

Examples: The term post-modernism covers a wide range of differing architectural practices. It attempts to counter the alienation of stark modernism by the use of curved shapes, pitched roofs different building materials and more ornamentation. It speaks to the need of the captains of finance and industry for a more flamboyant celebration of their power (Johnson's AT&T building in New York for example) than modernist austerity allowed. Like many other art forms post-modernism has fallen prey to a preoccupation with producing buildings as mediagenic events and elevating the architect in question into a cultural superstar.

Philosophy: There is little that unites post-modernism but the rejection of strict modernism - the most recent manifestations of which are the 'high-tech' work of the UK architects Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. Post-modernism represents a break-down in the modernist consensus and an opening of the door to different approaches to design. At best it tries to recover a sense of 'place' denied by a modernism that looks the same whether it is in Tokyo or Nairobi. At worst it is mere decoration devoid of any social vision or sense of public responsibility. As one cartoon of an old coupIe has it: 'We used to be old-fashioned but now we are post-modern'.

Post-modern civic centre, UK Impact: The hope for post-modernism lies in the sense of new possibilities combined with a willingness to learn from (rather than deny) past architectural achievements. The danger is that it will degenerate into a self-enclosed culture of competing in-groups debating the use of clever historical references that no one else can understand or even see. What on the surface seems a rich variety of views tends in practice to a drab uniformity of buildings: differences are only in detail with essentials shaped by the commercial interests of the client. An eye to publicity and self-promotion is no replacement for a more fundamental rethinking of the relations between architecture and society that includes the community and the users of buildings as a vital part of the process of design.

THE VERNACULAR [image, unknown] Location: Almost everywhere

Form: By most estimates between 90 and 95 per cent of buildings are designed without the help of professional designers. Local designs evolved in accordance with the demands of economy, climate and topography. Unlike industrialized architecture such buildings have a much closer connection to local materials and must fit into the social and natural environment. The vernacular is the source of many interesting innovations in building. The arcade, the porch and the gable all pre-date the arrival of the professional designer. There are vernacular versions of floor-heating, air conditioning, light control - and even of elevators. There is also a widespread use of natural features: hillsides, caves and trees have been integrated with living and public spaces.

Examples: Vernacular architecture varies from spectacular temples such as the Incas' Machu Picchu or the Mayan Tikal to more humble dwellings such as the Asian sampan or houseboat. Dwellings, granaries, religious institutions and fortifications are the most frequent vernacular structures. They often include ingenious adaptation to local conditions such as the scoops on top of houses in the Sind district of Pakistan that channel wind from the roof into each building. Summer temperatures of 120 degrees are cooled to a 'pleasant' 95 by these breezes.

Architecture in Saudi Arabia. These houses are made of straw-reinforced sun-baked mud bricks. They have been known to last over two hundred years.
John Deverill / CAMERA PRESS

Philosophy: If there is a belief system behind vernacular architecture it is a combination of divine inspiration and common sense. The evolution and adaptation of these forms over centuries involves drawing from experience and consultation within the community as to what works best. While temples and ceremonial buildings were designed primarily by priests they tended to reflect a consensus of communal belief that does not often exist in the modern world.

Impact: Many movements in architecture have sought inspiration in the vernacular. It is of course possible to romanticize vernacular architecture - to ignore the multiple discomforts and inconveniences. But its fit with nature and community stands in sharp contrast to design formulas where the developer and architect, in their search for the profitable masterpiece, pay scant attention to such details. Vernacular architecture also shows that ordinary people have a design capacity that if tapped might reduce not only costs but also their own alienation from the urban environment. This is particularly true in the Third World where there is simply not the capital available to solve the housing crisis without the active participation of the homeless in designing and building their own communities.

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