Architecture reflects the evolving spirit of the culture of its space in time. The more revolutions of evolution a culture goes through the vaster and more dynamic are the influences on which future evolutions may revolve upon for inspiration and commentary upon its emergent themes. Throughout Western culture the Modern period has done this with grace and skill, paying homage to its forbears while emphasizing a new harmonics of form. While the speed of contemporary life may eclipse the Modernist perspective, this time in history cannot be underestimated for its revolutionary effect on the American psyche, character, and the art which this mix produces.
Modern architecture represents the ideal of the American psyche in its time and place. While this may appear far removed in fact, a researcher reflecting on this influence in 1937 sounds very much like a reflection from today. As William Lescaze commented in the thirties in The Meaning of Modern Architecture, “Life today is mobile, swift, dynamic. We move freely and quickly from place to place, office to home, city to suburb. Activities crowd our days, and time is weighed as never before” (110). Coming out of the depression era, enriched by the stress of international conflicts, the Modern period liked to envision a simpler life governed by reason and principle. This would be translated into a strong design line in modern architecture and a renewed appreciation for function over the more traditional Victorian flourishes.
One of the biggest challenges modern architects met was integrating their designs with the surrounding environment, since strong linear lines and geometrical perfection do not exist in nature but at the fractal level. Looking at the building from a sacred geometrical foundation such as this a modernist home may be seen to be a fractal growth of harmonic perfection out of the chaos of indeterminate forms which are at the heart of nature. The star child of the modern period in architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright took strong direction from his mentor, Louis Sullivan, who coined the concept, “Form follows function” (Distinct Build Okanagan). In this way, modernist architecture can be seen as a form manifesting itself to fulfil the desire and function of the gestalt consciousness of its age. Wright overcame this challenged through total submission to the land on which his project would be, and could not create in a vacuum. The form is function concept, This idea is expressed by Modernisms’ tendency to have land or the function of a project dictate much of the design ideas. For example, Wright was famous for building with the land - his residential homes almost always relied on the lot to determine how the building was to be laid out. Wright believed that a building should be “one with the land” and not simply plopped down on top of it. (Distinct Build Okanagan)
Frank Lloyd Wright also evolved this naturalistic ideal even further by integrated the exterior environment with the exterior landscape. Windows were placed with regard to the directions and how the light would move through the home. Sprawling open layouts would give way to terraces inviting reflection and connecting the inner and outer. This is seen in every one of Wright’s designs, but is especially dynamic in “Fallingwater” the Edgar J. Kaufmann house (1935-38) in which the house was built atop a natural waterfall, on which the foundation allows the water to flow freely (Wiebe). This was done not only as an expression of his art, but as a critique of the thoughtless design of his day. Anyone who has studied The Master knows,
Frank Lloyd Wright hated cities. He thought that they were cramped and crowded, stupidly designed, or, more often, built without any sense of design at all. He once wrote, ‘To look at the plan of a great City is to look at something like the cross-section of a fibrous tumor.’ (Meis)
Lloyd’s ideal would be a seamless integration of nature with the city, which would have transformed the concept and experience of a city in ways which would have had profound influences on culture. If this had been accomplished on any scale, one city, the possibilities for expansion would have been great. For instance, this integrative style would have required that all building materials and energy functions be environmentally stable in order to allow the integrated nature to survive and thrive. This would cut back on the waste, toxicity, and pollution of city life which increases stress, illness, and the psychological degradation which occurs when people are cut off from nature. Including a balanced amount of greenery would increase the oxygen content and quality for all in the city, cutting down on smog and the depression which inevitably results from lack of fresh air. In this way, Wright was a pioneering environmental ethicist in the effort to merge the ideal with the actual which is at odds with consumerism.
Pulling back a bit to the present, the contemporary movement of pre-fab plastic and ply-wood homes reflects a degraded perspective on the art of creation which fits with the dominant value of the age-consumerism. Architecture is often designed with no thought to the environment other than how much one may profit from a view. Unlike many modernist creations which are still standing and resplendent nearly 100 years after their creation, today nothing is built to last in keeping with the planned obsolescence of consumerism. The artistic vistas opened up by the voyeurism and innovativeness of modernist architectures is now being taken advantage of by increased technologies which make such extortion of nature too easy (Kennicottt). As a result contemporary buildings and homes are often ugly, short lived, and cost more than ever to maintain since they were built so poorly.
Hopefully, in the evolving spiral of consciousness the current degradation will subside, and give rise to a new vista of taste and inventiveness. The purity of the design style modernism represents is proof positive that this can occur since this style arouse out of a similar bleak cinderblock functionality without spirit. The frustrations and limitations of architects prior to the modern movement was largely measured by their limited technology. This innovation period spurred on by the threat of war created, New materials, methods technique [which] not only enlarged the possibilities of but fundamentally changed its character. Steel and concrete, increasing strength, opened new structural vistas. They gave us freedom of ground and independence from supporting wall. The whole building bulk was loosened and lightened. Space, formerly so firmly enclosed, could now be treated as something free. (Lescaze 110)
Such innovations are still occurring through the expansive technology boom, but as of yet this has not translated to stronger, more beautiful architecture.
Innovation relies upon what has been made possible through technology, and modernism flourished in the newfound supports for light, space, and air. As R.J. Bogumil emphasized in Social Implication of Technology, “The limits of all human societies have largely been defined by their engineering achievements” (Gunn). Such innovations in technology led to many windows being included in the design, and a lack of disguise and guile of the materials utilized. As such, “Rather than concealing the nature of the home, Modern style wants the viewer to see the inner-workings and the true nature of the project…Nothing is hidden or altered to look like something else” (Distinct Build Okanagan). This also reflected the spirit of the times which was quite earnest and eager to communicate without veils of innuendo, sarcasm, or glibness. As a result, the structure of the modern home are proudly displayed like the finely tuned bones of an athlete. The light invites revealing, and “The idea of a sense of ‘Truth’ is present in the home, where all materials and architectural elements are bare and revealed honestly” (Distinct Build Okanagan). This sense of vulnerability was enabled by the new stronger building materials made available, and reflects the paradox of virtue that it requires strength to be gentle.
This is a more elevated ideal brought into form, and it is reflected in every aspect of modern design. Linear supports are emphasized by bold roof lines in cascading geometrical perfection which harkens back to Asian designs inherent in the naturalistic ethic. Like Asian temples, modernist homes might have multiple roof lines at different levels, showing off the complexity of the overall design and the uncommon silhouette of the structure. Varying lines and elongated vaulted ceilings, as well as interesting overhangs or unusual linear are mixed to create a more unique statement. This focus on the exterior design in one of the highlighting feature of Modern design. The house exists as more than simply a home - it is an artistic and sculptural statement. (Distinct Build Okanagan)
The power of the statement, and the ideal behind it rooted in many traditions is one of the reasons that modernism is regarded as Western Classism.
Modernism’s innovations both in complexity and simplicity were inspired by the multifaceted movement of Modern Art. Cubism, Bauhaus, Abstract Expressionism, and the many variegated movements of form, color, and expressive art which exploded at this time enabled the context in which modernist architecture flourished (Shiner). Artists working in paint, sculpture, and concept broke first ground in the Modern movement, freeing up the space for architects to apply their designs in the newly exposed space. So, just as Picasso was the glory child of the modern movement, Wright was his counterpart in the modern architecture movement. The organic movement Wright made to harmonize buildings with their environment is similar in spirit to the Impressionist movement which sought to free painting from the rigidity of fixed perspective, and include the lucidity of the individual being moved as light moves across a landscape.
Modern architecture and design continue to inspire and guide those with a mind inclusive of the ideal. The ideal harmonizing of mankind and their environment, the possibilities for harmonizing an ethical perspective with sprawling abundance, and the need for honesty in attempting this paradoxical balance. This ideal is in need of a resurgence in the American aesthetic as people suffer from a lack of value and quality in all they pay so dearly to behold. The revolving movements of evolution continue to challenge the application of the ideal.
Distinct Build Okanagan. “Modern Architecture Defining Characteristics.” Distinctbuild.ca, 2016. Retrieved from: http://distinctbuild.ca/modern_architecture_defining_characteristics.php
Gunn, Alastair, S. “Rethinking Communities: Environmental Ethics in an Urbanized World.” Environmental Ethics, vol. 20, (1998), pp. 341-360. Retrieved from: http://hettingern.people.cofc.edu/Environmental_Studies_695_Environmental_Philosophy/Gunn_Rethinking_Communities.pdf
Kennicottt, Philip. “’ The Last Wright’: Green Issues as Wide as the Prairie.” The Washington Post, 13 Mar. 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/12/AR2008031203677.html
Lexcaze, William. “The Meaning of Modern Architecture.” The North American Review, Vol. 244, No. 1 (1937), pp. 110-120. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25114911?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Meis, Morgan. “Frank Lloyd Wright tried to solve the city.” The New Yorker, 22 May 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/frank-lloyd-wright-tried-to-solve-the-city
Shiner, Larry. “Architecture vs. Art: The Aesthetics of Art Museum Design.” Contempaaethetics.org, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=487
Wiebe, Charles. “Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater.” Khan Academy, n.d. Retrieved from: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/architecture-20c/a/frank-lloyd-wright-fallingwater