The Modern Era
In the mid-nineteenth century, Viollet-le-Duc published a series of tracts on architecture. He decried the fact that with the notable exception of engineers like Eiffel, new structures were being built with old methods. In the face of the new material, architects had either substituted the new material for the old (the Coalbrookdale Bridge), or adapted old methods to the new material (the truss). What architecture needed, according to Viollet, was to uncover new methods that tapped the potential of the new materials.
Some of the most significant advances in architecture at this point were made by a group of architects collectively known as the Chicago School, developers of the modern skyscraper. The skyscraper was developed in response to the rising price of city land. To maximize use of ground space, it was necessary to construct buildings 16 or more stories tall. Initial attempts included iron frame construction with heavy masonry walls requiring massive, space consuming piers. This was an extension of the traditional methods in which the exterior walls of a building added structural support, unnecessary in the face of iron/steel framing. The approach was merely an adaptation, at a time when a completely new approach was needed.
The solution, developed in Chicago, was to separate the load-bearing frame of the building from a non-structural facade. The facade became a curtain wall that was supported by the steel frame story by story. Because the facade material on a given story supported only itself, it could be very light and thin. The further evolution of this approach by architects of the Chicago School led to the modern skyscraper, with its fireproof steel frame, curtain wall facade, and internal wind bracing.
Much of the architecture of the twentieth century has been a process of refinement, of learning to work with the multitude of new materials and techniques presented by the Industrial Revolution. The various movements, such as art nouveau, art deco, modernism, and postmodernism have all been about design and ornamentation rather than major structural innovation. Certainly architects during this period have explored the possibilities of the new materials and construction techniques. Most recently, however, architecture has been working through a revival period in which old styles are being reinterpreted, similar to the eighteenth century. Perhaps, like the eighteenth century, we are poised at the start of a new period of innovation.
This entry is only a brief discussion of the role of technical advances in the history of architecture. It is by no means a thorough discussion of architecture itself. Technology permits architecture, but architecture is not about technology. Architecture can perhaps best be expressed in the words of Le Corbusier, one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century: "You employ stone, wood, concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. This is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say 'This is beautiful.' That is Architecture. Art enters in."
Allen, Edward. The Architect's Studio Companion. 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001.
Allen, Edward. Fundamentals of Building Construction. 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.
Ching, Francis D. Architecture: Space, Form, and Order. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1979.
McCoy, Esther. Case Study Houses, 1945-1962. Santa Monica, CA: Hennessey & Dyalls Inc., 1977.
Trachtenberg, Marvin, and Isabelle Hyman, Architecture from Prehistory to Postmodern. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1986.
Stephen K. Lewotsky
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