20th Century Architecture Movements

Table of contents


For this essay I will look at how the 20th century architectural movements have slowly progressed through time having a big effect on our contemporary built environment. I will start by writing about the main 20th century movements which encouraged certain architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Groupius to push the boundaries of modern architecture into a new sense. To define the ever changing architectural attitudes we categorise them into the following terms: individual, collective, expressive and rational. I will discuss these terms including relevant examples and show how we can apply them to our contemporary built environment to gain an understanding of our surroundings.

Firstly, in order for us to learn about our contemporary designed environment, we must start with how 20th century architecture can teach us about the influences and movements which changed the face of architecture and got us to where we are now. I have come across 10 essential architectural movements from this time period which can show how architecture developed through this period. The first is Art Nouveau, characterised by odd shapes with the use of lots of arches, curves and gardens that feature curvy floral designs with the use of plants. This type of design is expressive with odd striking shapes and detailed gardens it has no sense of rationality. The movement was a reaction to industrialisation and the boom of mass production, across the world its saw the likes of architects such as Victor Horta and his building the ‘Tassel House’. With it’s curved lines and vegetal ornament, making a statement with the idea of looking to the past traditional crafts in an attempt to revive artistic craftwork, which took skill and time. It was a clear rejection of the neo-classicism style of the 18th and 19th century which employed straight lines and strict proportions. Second is the Arts and Crafts movement using aesthetically pleasing shapes like The buildings of the Art Nouveau movement but was designed more to fit within its surroundings and create a more personal feeling for the client bringing the inside of the building outside and vies versa. This movement is individual and expressive but also slightly rational.

Art Deco architecture is taken from different pre-existing styles but made with modern materials such as stainless steel and aluminium. Seen as buildings of the future with sleek, smooth lines, geometric and zigzag shapes, also quite often painted in vivid colours with patterns influenced by Egyptian art. This is an individual movement using lots of different architectural influences and influences from art movements. The Chrysler building New York (begun 1928) is typically characteristic of art deco taking arched forms which are derived from classical models but reinterpreted in new ways.

This movement then called for a new style in architecture that entertained the idea to create buildings which were completely uninfluenced in the hope of expanding the mind to something never been seen before. This was known as the Futurist movement, ignoring all past architectural movements and create something entirely new using only modern technology and materials in the construction of this type of structure. This type of architecture was purely individual.

Modern architecture was designed to be simple and un-ornamental to adapt to social and political change. This could be due to a deflated feeling post war because of the severe loss encountered through that time not just humanity but architecturally also. There may have been a sense of relief and an appreciation for the simple things which saw a lack of need for beauty and aesthetics. The Bauhaus building designed by Walter Gropius is an early example of modern architecture. This was seen as a rational way of designing taking away all the ornamental forms and creating something minimalistic and simple to give a clean and bright space.

International style is taken from the modernist movement but designed to give a visual weightlessness, stripped of any ornamental or decorative forms with an open plan space and a cantilevered construction, with the use of glass, steel and less visible reinforced concrete. The functionality and use of the space within was also a main influence on the design. Again this type of design is rational but I think it could also be seen as expressive because it’s fundamentally modern but has been adapted to look more aesthetically pleasing.

Expressionist architecture is totally opposite to the previous two movements and began to taking a big step back to the beginning of the 20th century and creating buildings that have no thought into the functionality creating something totally ornamental which has odd and inconsistent shapes producing a reflection of the inner feelings of the designer.

An example of this architectural style is the Einstein tower in Germany which is used for astronomical research, built in 1919and finished in 1924. It was designed by architect Erich Mandelsohn who was well known for his expressionist architecture and for developing dynamic functionalism in his designs for department stores and cinemas. The style is reminiscent of previous movements such as Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts era in the sense that it is decorative and the quality is in the aesthetical value of the craftsmanship.

Number eight is Brutalism architecture a movement which was mainly driven by the need for cost-effective buildings to rebuild the buildings lost in the Second World War, mainly consisting of concrete and block shapes giving a dull and aesthetically displeasing appearance. This movement can only be seen as rational, only influenced by the fact that we needed new cheap buildings as a means to provide simple shelter which were only intended as a temporary measure until the country got back on its feet, however many have stayed around to prove the test of time and outdoing there functional purpose.

Postmodern architecture is contrasting of modernism but function wasn’t the priority of the design it was the appearance that became the driving force but whilst still considering the functionality. This style is still current and relevant to today’s architectural environment. It moves away from the idea that buildings need only to provide shelter and employs new techniques, materials and craftsmanship to create experimental architecture. It may be apparent that we have exhausted ideas when it comes to originality by this point. Even though postmodern architecture focuses on aesthetical value it may be that the original intention of function is compromised because of this and it is plausible that we have lost the essence that beauty can be derived from simple functionality.

The last one of the movements is New Urbanism which was more about creating a sense of community within cities and increasing affordable housing, taking things like sustainability and visual coherency into consideration and together using historical architecture styles to adapt to the surroundings of the area. This for me seems like a big jump way from the previous architectural movements because they have all been influenced by historical movements and forced to be something else but urban design embraces the different architectural forms and creates not only a new movement but a new way of life designing on a whole new level and scale.

All these different architectural movements have not only influenced one-another but have influenced Architects who then try to create something different for example Frank Lloyd Wright who’s designs where highly influenced by Japanese Architecture. He used the principals of Japanese architecture and created something new that represented him and was distinctly recognisable as his work.

A good example of his work a house he designed in 1935 called Falling Water. It was constructed in 1936-1939. It was a building not only influenced by historical architecture but by Wrights inelegance and ability to use the surrounding site to influence the shape and nature of the building. He then took it a step further and created something with meaning and extreme detail. He wanted to use the surrounding elements to interweave with the structure and space conforming to nature. Although it’s all open with bands of windows people inside feel sheltered as though they are in a deep cave and feel secure with the surrounding mountains. Their attention is automatically directed towards the outside by the low ceilings, the materials of the structure blend with the colourings of the rocks and trees; the interior is accompanied by occasional bright furniture that represents wildflowers or birds outside. The house many different entrances to connect it with the outside, “Sociability and privacy are both available, as are the comforts of home and the adventures of the seasons. So people are cosseted in to relaxing, into exploring the enjoyment of a life refreshed in nature”. (http://www.wright-house.com/frank-lloyd-wright/fallingwater.html) Too me wrights architecture seems to be a new type of architecture but just as important to Contemporary architecture. It could be that instead of architectural movements influencing contemporary architecture it’s the ideas and designs of architects like Wright which influence the way architects of today think and design. Without the history of architecture we wouldn’t be where we are now but because as architects we have tried to block out all of this knowledge and started to think of different ways to influence our designs to create something that is completely new. We are stopping ourselves from moving forward with architecture not using the way we create things as humans which is taking something and making it better this is the only we are capable of moving forward, nothing in life is truly original everything comes from some form of inspiration. One Architectural style I know of which is pushing the boundaries and edging away from our contemporary environment is ‘Blobitecture’ taking the same principals of the Futurist movement blocking out existing buildings and depending on architectural software to play around with organic shapes then letting the software figure out how the structure would work in order to build the design. Frank Gehry is a well know architect who has taken advantage of this type of architecture creating something that represents nothing but an abundance of organic shapes again creating a form of architecture which distinctively represents him. (Example. Hotel Marque de Riscal).

This shows that instead of creating a new architectural movement it is individual architects who are creating their own style of architecture. It could be that architect are afraid of plagiarism and other constraining legal reasons that were not taking advantage of these new and exciting ways of designing and therefore not creating a new architectural movement.

Although we have to design with lots of different things to keep in mind, like climate change, building regulation and economic growth their doesn’t seem to be any buildings that could be considered original especially when keeping in mind it’s mainly the aesthetics and architectural forms of the building that seem to determine an architectural movement. The fact that most project builds are designed with a budget in mind gives the architect an instant self-conscious decision to find the materials and labour that will be value for money which instantly restrains the architects design and what the outcome will look like. This could also be seen as an advantage in the sense that it also gives a starting point to a project knowing what materials you are going to be working with. Overall I think because we have so many different restraints as architects to design around, we are not moving forward in architecture and have been trying to create something original for years. A good example of this argument is the five points towards a new architecture, written by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret which talks about how a new generation of architecture is coming using five points that would determine the existence of this architectural movement. The five points where:

  1. The supports. To solve a problem scientifically means in the first place to distinguish between its elements. Hence in the case of a building a distinction can immediately be made between the supporting and the non- supporting elements.
  2. The roof gardens. The flat roof demands in the first place systematic utilization for domestic purposes: roof terrace, roof garden. In general, roof gardens mean to a city the recovery of all the built- up area.
  3. The free designing of the ground- plan.
  4. The horizontal window.
  5. Free design of the facade.

This in effect will give the architect the freedom to design freely producing something which represents him without the influence of past movements. Although this seems like an ideal way of design and something which would move architecture forward it is describing something which ultimately would control architecture and again restrain the architects ability to create something more individual. It also describes pretty much what contemporary architecture is therefore it was a step forward from 20th century architecture but hasn’t helped us to move forward from contemporary architecture.

What we can learn from 20th century architectural movements is that this was a time when technology was rapidly moving forward and getting more advanced which I think is one of the reasons why there where so many different types of architectural movements, this was a time when vision and a thriving ambition to create an idealistic community with an easy lifestyle, taking advantage of technology and continuing to modify and create bigger and better things which brought us to where we are using advanced technology and materials such as steel, concrete and glass to create buildings that are created through imaginative aesthetics which ultimately is just a shell to then think about the inside spaces afterwards and have the opportunity to move the internal spaces around. Architecture in the 20th century was trying to break away from the ornament and aesthetics of previous architecture which was designed to represent the architectural movement of its time and create a more meaningful and sophisticated look at how we should design buildings taking not just thins like architectural forms into consideration but taking everything that could be effected by the building into account for example, how the building will fit into its surrounding area, how we would get to the building or how we would enter it. Today we try to create something which can control the way you think and feel as you enter a building creating a sense of place which you will remember because of the experience and how it makes you feel instead of how it looks. Our contemporary built environment is influenced by all of the 20th century movements and events that happened through this period it seems as though the 20th century was and is the most important time for architecture which is why I think we have come to a standstill with architecture we may have gone too far ahead of our time and using technology as a driving force and because of the rapid development in technology we may need to use our creativity more instead of letting technology determine how our environment should look because technological advances have allowed a fast passed work load, it seems less time is concentrated on the idea and originality of a building, and so all too often we seeing repetitive and almost run of the mill buildings. It seems that today it could be necessary in architecture to start looking backwards as well as forwards to create a new and exciting contemporary built environment. This may not be what we are aiming for maybe we are blinded by trying to achieve something totally original instead of trying to use what we have already achieved to influence us and move us forward.


  1. Conrad’s, U. (ed.) (1971) Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press
  2. Hoffmann, D. (ed.) (1993) Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water The house and its History: Dover Publications Inc
  3. Jencks, C. Kropf, K. (1997) Theories and Manifestoes of Contemporary Architecture. Sussex: Wiley-Academy
  4. Kuhl, I. Lowis, K. Thiel-Siling, S. (2008) 50 architects you should know. London: Prestol Publishing Ltd
  5. Miller, J. (2009) 20th Century Design the definitive illustrated source book. London: Octopus Publishing Group Ltd
  6. http://www.bauhaus-dessau.de/index.php?bauhaus-1919-1933
  7. http://caad.arch.ethz.ch/teaching/nds/ws98/script/text/corbu.html 1/25/2003

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