Thursday, March 19, 2009

The period 1880–1920

It was this period that saw the end of ancient and historical architectural styles, such as Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and the later Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, thus paving the way for twentieth-century modernism. Independence was achieved by what were former colonies as, for example, in Latin America. The benefits of scientific revolution and industrial development were reaped mostly by the leading powers of the day: Great Britain, the United States, France, Germany and Japan. Their conflict resulted in the First World War of 1914–18. At the end of this war it seemed that society was being impelled by democracy and the ideas of liberal capitalism and rationalism, and it was hoped that scientific and economic progress would provide the means for solving the world’s problems.

During this 40-year period the construction industry progressed enormously. Even earlier in the 1830s, railway construction was expanding at first in the industrialized countries, later extending to other parts of the world. The growing steel industry provided the new structural building material. A few decades later, the use of reinforced concrete began to compete with steel in this field. The progress in construction during this period was perhaps best symbolized by the Eiffel Tower, designed by Gustave Eiffel (1832–1923), a leading steel construction expert of his time. In fact, the Tower was built for the Paris World Exhibition in 1889 and the intention at the time was that it should be only a ‘temporary’ exhibit. Originally 300 metres high, it was taller than any previous man-made structure. More than a century later, during which it has become one of the best-loved buildings in the world, it is still standing intact.

The Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, 1887–89, structural design: Gustave Eiffel, 300 m high.
One of the first spectacular results of technical progress in construction.
© Sebestyen: Construction: Craft to Industry, E & FN Spon.

A subsequent engineering feat was the Jahrhunderthalle in Breslau (now Wroclaw), designed by Max Berg (1870–1947), and completed in 1913, a ribbed reinforced concrete dome, which, with its 65-metre diameter, was at its time of construction the largest spanning space yet put up in history. In this heroic period, such technical novelties as central heating, lifts, water and drainage services for buildings became extensively used.

Jahrhunderthalle, Breslau (Wroclaw), Germany/Poland, 1913, architect: Max Berg.
The first (ribbed) reinforced concrete dome whose span (65 m) exceeds all earlier masonry domes.
© Sebestyen: Construction: Craft to Industry, E & FN Spon.

In architecture and the applied arts, there were attempts to revive historical styles, such as the neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance. Later, the mixture of these historical styles and their reinterpretation gave rise to the Art Nouveau or Jugendstil movements, collectively known as the ‘Secession’, which literally meant the abandonment of the classical stylistic conventions and restraints. A similar style was propagated in Britain by the designer William Morris (1834–96), and in America by his followers, in the Arts and Crafts movement, whose aim was to recapture the spirit of earlier craftsmanship, perhaps as a reaction to the banality of mass production engendered by the Industrial Revolution. Consequently, a schism occurred amongst artists, designers and the involved public, between those who advocated adherence to the old academic style and tradition and ‘secessionists’, who favoured the use of new techniques and materials and a more inventive ‘free’ style. Also during this period some architects, both in Europe and America, began to experiment with the use of natural, organic forms, such as the Spaniard Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926) in Barcelona and the American Frank Lloyd Wright (1869–1959) (Plates 1 and 2); the latter; in addition, drawing on local rural traditions and forms. Amongst European protomodernists, the Austrian Adolf Loos (1870–1933), the Dutchman Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856–1934) and the German Peter Behrens (1868–1940) merit mention. Using exaggerated plasticity and extravagant shapes, the German Erich Mendelsohn (1887–1953) and Hans Poelzig (1869–1936) were important figures in the lead into modern architecture.

Sebestyen, Gyula. 2003. New Architecture and Technology.

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