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, living room, dining room)

modernist architecture

people, terms, and concepts: historicism, modernism, load-bearing 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 load-bearing wall construction, these buildings use frame construction from which walls are ‘hung’ like curtains:  walls now have only a space-dividing function, no load-bearing 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.  The students named below will be asked to present a brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) response to their assigned question. Sometimes the works named in the question will not be in the readings, in which case you should use the concepts of the readings and lectures to analyze them independently.

Click on the names of the works to see large-scale reproductions.

1) (*Mikayla Cavanaugh*) Analyze the architecture, furniture, and interior decoration of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater (exterior, interior detail 1, interior detail 2) 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 the domestic architecture and design illustrated in Craven chapter 22.

2) (*Amelia Tausek*)  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 (+ exterior detail) and Guaranty Building (+ exterior detail) fulfill his stated philosophy that 'form follows function'? In what way(s) do they go against a strict functionalist aesthetic? You can find details of both buildings online.

3) (*Amber Herrick*) Was the original 1893 design of Boston North Station historicist? What historical style(s) does it use? Is this use of historicism appropriate to its function or not? Would Louis Sullivan approve of the 1928 redesign of North Station? Why or why not?

4) (*Piper Hugus*) Flip through the illustrations in Craven chapters 29 and 30. Which artists and works do you see responding to the new architecture and the experience of the urban environments? Choose and analyze two works as examples -- be sure to analyze the style/form of the works (composition, color, line/shape, etc) as well as their subject matter.