Thursday, June 25, 2009

Compare and contrast Modern and Postmodern architecture

Critically compare and contrast the history, philosophy and characteristics of modern and postmodern architecture in the mid 20th century.

Architecture is the designing and constructing process of buildings to provide an appropriate shelter for human beings (Wikipedia 2009, para. 2). There is no doubt that each age has its own architectural movement which reflects social and cultural needs in urban societies. Around the mid 20th century there were modern and postmodern architecture, two different movements which are still active to the present day. This essay will be about the main differences and similarities between modern and postmodern architecture in terms of definition, history between the 1930s and the 1980s, philosophy and character of design concept, space, form and function, materials and facade.

Modernism and postmodernism in architecture are interpreted as two unlike movements. Modernism is the innovative design of buildings that are made in the modern age as a step to move away from classical architecture and using the new technology that was invented after the industrial revolution in the late 18th century (Colquhoun 2002, p. 9). Postmodern, also called late modernism, is another style of architecture which was invented as opposed to the last prevailing style in modern architecture, which was International style, by using classical and modern language together. In postmodernism, architects are free in using any architectural style and element in their designs (Washington State University [WSU] 2009, para. 1; Moffet et al. 2003, p. 543).

Both movements started at a different time and age. Most architectural critics agree that modern architecture originated in Europe and USA in the late 19th century and extends towards the end of 1960s (Ghirardo 2009, cited in Encarta 2009, p. 1), whilst postmodernism was first developed in the late 1960s, developed its principles in the 1970s and lost its dominance in 1980s (Wiseman 1990, p. 176; Avery 2003, p. 33). However, as mentioned earlier, due to the free nature of postmodernism, the architects still use certain elements from the modern architecture era.

The philosophy of both modernism and postmodernism is still being debated (Colquhoun 2002, p. 9). After the First World War many modernist architects believed that their new modernist ideologies in architecture should come and change the society (Moffet et al. 2003, p. 475). They argued that architecture should provide the needs of society and all humans should be equal, which is why they ignored the social and cultural structures of the society and also its religious faith, because they thought modernism was a suite of new beliefs that people needed to follow (Teige 2002, cited in Heynen 2004, p. 3). For instance, the idea of creating the International style in modernism was to design prototypes and mass production so that all buildings would have a similar appearance in a certain way. This had a negative side to it, which was repetition in design (Moffet et al. 2003, p. 518).
According to many critics, postmodernism is “neo-eclectic” (Bertens 1995, p. 5), where reference and ornament returned to architecture. In the mid 1980s this idea of “neo-eclecticism” changed to deconstructionism which was established by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. He claimed that the foundation of shapes should be unstable and complex. For many architects this philosophy is not acceptable, because deconstructionism is based on unbalanced ideas (Fig. 1). Similarly, both modernism and postmodernism deviated from the social order (Bertens 1995, p. 5).
There are many differences between modernism and postmodernism in terms of design concepts. It is a fact that the ways of thinking in both movements have an opposite direction. For example, the German architect Mies van de Rohe stated that “Less is more” (Douglas 2008, pp. 55-63). This quotation means that the concept of design should be based on simplicity; Mies in his Barcelona Pavilion (Fig. 2) used pure design elements, right angles, unambiguous meaning and the use of an open floor plan idea, simple lines, pure and cubic shapes (Rulli 2007, p. 2). In general, any part of any of his design has functionality and rationality rather than a form based on aesthetics. He also rejected any kinds of decoration. So design concepts in modernism are exclusive to each design (Avery 2003, p. 33; Douglas 2008, pp. 55-63).
In contrast, American architect Robert Venturi, one of the founders of postmodernism had his own idea, “Less is a bore” (University of Uppsala [UU] 2004, para. 1; Douglas 2008, pp. 55-63), which means postmodern buildings should break the simplicity of modernism. Postmodernism also needs to have aspects like hybrid or mixture, irony, surprise, contradictions, often non-orthogonal angles and historical elements, which replaced the purity and clarity of modernism. For instance, Venturi designed a house for his mother (Fig 3, 4), which includes traditional, symbol and contrast elements, and connection between simplicity of external form with complication of interior plan. For example, the fire place is next to the stairs-like vertical elements and the gable end and shingle style roof appeared especially in the front elevation. This means design concepts in postmodernism are inclusive and general (Moffet et al. 2003, pp. 542-543; Avery 2003, p. 33).

Another aspect is that the idea of architectural space is used in a dissimilar way among architects. For example, Mies van der Rohe in the Barcelona pavilion (Fig. 2.1) used space in a manner and technique that created a unique feeling that had the objects and rooms flexible through free-flowing space, the very idea that the American modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright incorporated in the iconic Falling Water House. Both architects were successful in using spaces (Rulli 2007, p. 2). On the contrary, not all modern architects follow Mies’s and Wright’s style.

Indeed, modernism ignored the sacred space of European and American cities, because it divides space on the basis of functional thinking. Postmodern architecture in some cases reverses modernist moves in terms of unity, transparency and integrity. It tried to provide different kinds of historical and social space in a free manner. In spite of that, the use of space in postmodernism is rich, more plural and in a dialectical style, though some critics reported that late modernism lacks vision and honesty (Smethurst 2000, pp. 47-52). The use of architectural space depends on architects` thinking and their own style.

The understanding of form and function in these two movements to some extent are different. Most modernists focused on function rather than form and they used simple form. In fact, an American modernist architect Louis Sullivan has a famous statement that “Form follows Function” (Moffet et al. 2003, p. 469). The dictum explains that many modern architects, especially in the International style, first started to think about function rather than form during the designing process and they preferred simple form like a box, where one form can serve multiple functions. For example, the lake shore drive apartment and the Seagram building (Fig. 5) followed the same scheme which consists of two glass boxes. On the other hand, Frank Lloyd Wright disagreed with that principle by saying both function and form are of equal value. In fact, Wright moved towards function and form similar to postmodernism. This idea is clear in the Falling Water House (Fig. 6), where equal amounts of attention and thought have been given to both the form and the function, the arranging of horizontal and vertical planes like cantilevers to achieve the unique form (Moffet et al.2003, p. 524). Significantly, modernism is functionality rather than formality.

Nevertheless, in late modern architecture both function and form have their own value (Avery 2003, p. 33). Charles Jencks, an American architectural theorist, described postmodernism as “double coding” architecture (Moffet et al. 2003, p. 544), which is the language for both modernism and classicism. In postmodernism, form is an integration of both conventional elements and modernism with new ideas, while the function still has its own importance as the form. In the AT&T Headquarters (Fig. 7), viewers can see a traditional form at the top of the building and modern shapes in the bottom and middle of the building. Also it is functioning well (Moffet et al. 2003, p. 545). Yet, not all postmodern style buildings have adequate function, for instance, the Portland building (Fig. 4) is often criticised that it is not working well because there are structural defects like cracks and gloomy spaces inside the building. In general, in postmodernism, form is adopted for its own sake and function has a strong combination with artistic form.

The new construction materials such as steel, reinforced concrete and development of technology have mainly affected the façades and structures of modern and postmodern architecture. Both movements are similar in using these materials yet are different in their facades. In the design of the Seagram building, which is an office building, Mies for the first time in the USA used glass and steel frame skyscraper. He preferred that the steel structures in a building should be visible from outdoors. However, this is not acceptable according to American building codes because steel is flammable. Therefore he decided to use non-structural glass walls (curtain walls) for the facades including I- sections of bronze beams and columns. He also used window blinds to give the building an attractive appearance when windows open or close (Fig. 5) (Frampton 1985, p. 237; Moffet et al. 2003, p. 522).All elevations of the building are covered by steel and glass.

Postmodernism elevations contain ornamental and classical elements like the Portland building, which is recognized as an icon of postmodern architecture. It has a rendered elevation with its fluted pilasters of indefinite order and tiered stylobate. The building also has green colour in the bottom part and mud-coloured columns. In particular, the façade of the Portland building (Fig. 4) is the huge key stone of a flat arch, having tan flanking walls and square windows (Moffet et al. 2003, p. 547; Galinsky 1992, p. 4). Architecturally, postmodern elevations have more aesthetic appearance than modernism because observers can find historical elements and a mixture of materials.

In conclusion, although the modernism phenomenon began over 100 years ago to spread new ideologies in terms of space, new design, functionality and façade, it could not provide the aesthetics for viewers because of repetitive design features, which led to it being dismissed by most people. As a result, postmodernism replaced it because each movement in architecture brings new ideas and covers the flaws of the former movements.
Word count: 1840 words


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