american art

from the colonial period to world war two

John and Washington Roebling, Brooklyn Bridge, New York City, 1870-83

Louis Sullivan, The Wainwright Building, St Louis, 1890-91

Cass Gilbert (architect), Woolworth Building (under construction), New York City, 1910-13

Frank Lloyd Wright, Robie House, Chicago, 1908-09 (exterior)

Frank Lloyd Wright, Robie House, Chicago, 1908-09 (floor plan and interior, living room)

modernist architecture


people, terms, and concepts: historicism, modernism, loadbearing wall construction, frame construction, masonry, functionalism

Modernist architecture is characterized first of all by its rejection of the historicism and eclecticism of most nineteenth-century architecture. Rather than design their buildings using past architectural styles as a basis, modernist architecture creates a new style based on modern needs and conditions (cities, machine production), using modern materials and construction techniques (see below); and rather than use a hodgepodge of different styles and motifs, modern architecture tries to create a fully unified architecture, from the structure itself down to the details of furnishings and interior decoration.

American architects took a leading role in creating the structure and form of modern architecture. In question 1 below we will review how Frank Lloyd Wright created a modern domestic architecture in his suburban prairie homes. The other major area of architectural innovation in America was in the tall office building or skyscraper. New materials and techniques of construction are of paramount importance to the form these buildings eventually took. Rather than use masonry (stone or brick) as their basic element, skyscrapers use metal (at first iron and later steel), which has a much higher structural strength (both compressive and tensile) than masonry, allowing for taller structures and larger interior spaces with fewer and lighter structural supports. And rather than use loadbearing wall construction, these buildings use frame construction from which walls are ‘hung’ like curtains:  walls now have only a space-dividing function, no loadbearing function.  As we will explore in question 2 below, architects very early on defined the aesthetic of modern architecture as functionalism (‘form follows function’), defined in two ways:  first, the design of the building should fit its intended use or uses; and second, the design of the building should include nothing that is not a necessity from a structural or engineering point of view (nothing just for aesthetics or significance).

The use of these new materials and techniques in structures such as Penn Station, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the commercial skyscrapers that dominate American downtowns (starting especially with New York City and Chicago) not only served practical social and economic functions, they also had enormous symbolic significance as evidence of modern technological ingenuity  and of the power and potential of the new industrial economy, and of course they provided entirely new aesthetic and social experiences for artists to explore (see question 3).


Readings:  Craven chapters 21, 24 (pp. 349-54), 27, & 33, plus Sullivan, "The Tall Office Building" (PDF)

{}Everyone should consider the following questions while reading the selection for this week.  Some of you will have the specific assignment of presenting brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) responses to one of these questions.  Not all answers are directly in the readings: don’t hesitate to think on your own, consult other (reliable) sources, and browse image banks such as www.artstor.org.  Please email me by Monday at 11 pm with the artist, title, and date of the work(s) you analyze in your response (if you use any) so I can bring reproductions to class.


     1)   American Impressionism is from around the same time as the Ashcan School.  What are the key similarities and differences between the two movements?  Take into account both the kinds of subjects that artists of each movement tended to choose and the overall style, with particular attention to their use of brushwork and color.  Give a couple of compare/contrast examples -- let me know what works you’d like me to bring by Monday evening.

     2)   Analyze the architecture, furniture, and interior decoration of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater (you can find tons of images of it on the internet) to discuss (a) how it fulfills Wright's aims for domestic architecture as we discussed them in class; and (b) how it is "modern" in contrast to nineteenth-century domestic architecture and furniture/design illustrated in Craven chapter 22.  (I’ll bring a bunch of images both interior and exterior, but if you want to email me any specific images that you want to discuss in detail by Monday, that’d be great.)

     3)   From the PDF reading, what does Louis Sullivan define as the key features of the tall office building in terms of its intended functions?  How do his Wainwright Building and Guaranty Building fulfill his stated philosophy that "form should follow function"?  In what way(s) do they go against a strict functionalist aesthetic?  (I’ll bring images of the exteriors of the Wainwright and Guarantee buildings; if you want to talk about other images, email them to me by Monday evening.).

Childe Hassam, Marlborough Street, Boston, 1889