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  Modernism, in all the arts, is a term used to describe what critics saw as a characteristic mind-set among European creators at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. It consisted in a rejection of tradition, a self-conscious determination to reinvent the purposes and techniques of all the arts, and (in some arts) a rejection of realism in favour of exploration of the unconscious on the one hand and the self-validating image on the other. It would seem that the avant-garde of every age appear to ‘outsiders’ to be iconoclasts or barbarians, and yet 20th-century adherents of new art forms, for instance, atonality, the international style or surrealism, were doing no more than Latin poets of the ‘Silver Age’, medieval contrapuntalists or painters who used perspective had done before them. What is, perhaps, especially interesting about 20th-century modernism, is that so many creative figures, across such a wide swathe of the arts, all felt the same impulse at the same time. Some writers see this as a response conditioned by historical and social events in Europe, notably World War I and the rise of social equality of all kinds. But again, such momentous events and movements have their parallels throughout history. Perhaps modernism is no more than a critics\' convenience, of no use outside academe. Certainly the invention of derivative expressions such as ‘palaeomodernism’ and ‘postmodernism’ takes us into the rarefied world of academics, a long way indeed from primary creation.

Modernism is particularly important in architecture, and is most properly identified with the Modern Movement; a 20th-century European movement in architectural design, which sought to find an architecture appropriate to modern society, by means of full use of modern technological advance (for example the reinforced concrete frame) and a conscious repudiation of historicism, particularly that of the 19th century.

The meaning of ‘modern’ in this context can be confusing, as when it was first coined it meant only ‘contemporary’ and now it refers to a period movement which can be dated from the first decade of the 20th century to the late 1970s.

The first wave of the modern movement in architecture was already being defined by a handful of Dutch painters, designers and architects, in their journal De Stijl, as a movement dedicated to a clean, uncomplicated abstract purism and rectilinearality in design. The early modern movement can also be closely identified with the setting up of the Bauhaus school (Staatliches Bauhaus) in Germany in 1919, which lasted until suppressed by the Nazis in 1933. The first director was Walter Gropius (1833 - 1969), who taught an ideal of an inspired, committed craftsman, practising a unity of the arts and educated in the principles of formal perception. Architecture became the chief subject and functionalism, particularly under the second director Hannes Meyer, the principal ethic. Functionalism is the idea that the form of a building should be decided by practical considerations and not aesthetics.

The modernists of the earlier generation sought to improve the material conditions of modern society through good, honest design. This aim can be identified with the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 19th century. Unlike the Arts and Crafts Movement, modernism did not look to the past for its models, such as the medieval craftsmen, but rather to the possibilities of the present made available by modern technology.

One of the principal ideas behind the activities of modernist architects was a self-conscious reaction to the revivalist, historicist architecture of the 19th century and early 20th century. Modernist architecture attempted honesty in construction, and repudiated the practice of concealing structure, particularly with historicist ornament. Many of the active concerns of modernist architects were social; the breaking down of cultural and social barriers which contributed to the alienation of the mass of working people.

From 1928 the Congrès Internationaux Architecture Moderne (CIAM) began to formulate and propagate the tenets of modernism, attempting to bring an international order to the various practitioners of the new architecture across the world. An important forum from this date until the late 1950s, it dominated architectural training in the postwar period.

The devastation of World War II provided the enormous challenge of rebuilding cities devastated by bombing. The rational aspect of modernism was highly adaptable to these tasks, particularly the speedy provision of houses and offices, so that after the war, modernism quickly became the accepted norm, and characterized most architectural and industrial design, from then until the 1960s and 1970s, until seriously challenged by theorists and architects, particularly over the unpopularity of high-rise accommodation, and the issue of the role of history in design and town planning.

Two further ‘modernist’ trends are defined in architecture: Late Modernism and Organic Modernism.

Late modernism is a term used to define the architecture that can be seen in the continuing tradition of the modern movement: not Postmodern, but a literally late ‘modernism’ (as one might speak of ‘early’ or ‘late’ Renaissance). The suggestion is that ‘late modern architecture’ takes the forms and principles of the modern movement ‘to an extreme, exaggerating the structure and technological image of the building’. An example of which would be the Pompidou Centre (1971-77) in Paris, by Renzo Piano and Richard Rodgers. Such buildings are sometimes referred to as ‘high tech’.

Organic modernism is particularly identified with the work of the US architect , Frank Lloyd Wright (1869 - 1959). It can be seen as an American extension of European expressionist architecture of the postwar period following World War I; a rebellion against the purist tyranny of ‘right-angle’ modern movement architecture.

‘Organic architecture’ was a term used by Wright to convey his understanding of Louis Sullivan\'s version of Functionalism ‘that every problem…contains and suggests [its own] solution’. Wright interpreted this by stressing the unity of form and function of a building, the relationship of the parts of a building to its whole, and, perhaps most importantly, the close relationship between the building and the natural landscape. In Wright\'s architecture, buildings are irregular in form and plan, and low in height, so that they appear as if rooted to the ground. Wright believed that the architect\'s principal inspirations should be the genius locii (‘spirit of the place’), and the nature of materials to be used. He also drew inspiration from organic forms: for example, the 1956 Guggenheim Museum in New York, perhaps his best-known work, has an internal staircase modelled on the spiral form of a seashell. PD MG JM KMcL

Further reading R. Banham, Architecture in the First Machine Age; , L. Benevolo, History of Modern Architecture; , B. Bergonzi (ed.), Innovations: Essays on Art and Ideas; , C. Jencks, Late Modern Architecture and other Essays; , Frank Lloyd Wright, An Organic Architecture: the Architecture of Democracy; , Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New; , B. Zevi, Towards an Organic Architecture.



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