A Rationalising Aesthetics

In Pioneers of Modern Design, Nikolaus Pevsner declares that the new style of the Twentieth century was already established by 1914. This is a remarkable statement, since the Nineteenth century had a far less comfortable relation with a style of its own. The long series of revivalist movements throughout the eighteen hundreds are the sign of a difficult research of identity, in which architects drew inspiration from all sorts of scenarios. The Neo-Gothic Palace of Westminster designed by Pugin and Barry and the Egyptian Avenue in Highgate Cemetery are two sides of the same coin.

Egyptian Avenue – London, Highgate Cemetery

To this confused rush for identity, the new century offered a defined style, more sober and free of the whimsical excesses of the past. In his essay Ornament and Crime, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos criticises the excessive use of finials in architecture. They are, at the same time, a waste of resources and the evidence of an uncultured mind, an immature taste, a primitive mentality. In a controversial passage, Loos even attempts to establish a direct relation between society’s evolution and its feeling toward ornaments. He is not able to conceive any new style for decorative arts himself, he argues, because he is too civilised to do so. Actually, David Watkin dismisses Loos’s claims, pointing out that he loved expensive pieces of craftsmanship, and that the severe shell of his houses hid opulent pieces of furniture.

Scheu House – Adolf Loos

Loos’s words, though bold as they may sound, reveal some features of the new style. It aspires to be rational and essential, and leave behind the excesses. The world, he also states, needs houses first, and then pieces of architecture. In this regard, the edifices do not hide their structure anymore, rather they tend to show it, as if the interior mimicked the exterior. A clear example of this change is Auguste Perret’s 25 Rue Franklin, in Paris. Here, the play of projections of the façade corresponds to the plan of the building.

25 Rue Franklin – Auguste Perret

The rationality of the new style was fully exploited by Le Corbusier. In The Lesson of Rome, he praises the works of architectures made up of basic forms, such as the sphere, the pyramid, the cube. Moreover, he based his buildings on steel pilotis, vertical structures bearing the walls’ weight. This allowed unprecedented uses of the plan, which did not depend on structural needs anymore. Furthermore, the use of raised edifices fulfilled an aesthetic need as well, elevating the heavy masses from the ground, and allowing the circulation of traffic and pedestrians below. This was, of course, the understanding of the architect, although Le Corbusier’s urban projects were never realised. The single buildings he projected though fully express his new aesthetics.

Villa Savoye – Le Corbusier

In conclusion, the early Twentieth century appears to be a liberation from several doubts and preconceptions of the past age. Architecture was reborn, shaped by the technical means of industrial production and a new array of versatile materials such as steel. Great men such as Le Corbusier and Loos foresaw the possibilities of this new context, and exploited them with a wide perspective. They both thought of architecture as something beyond the single building, but rather connected to the idea of cities, and thus society as a whole. They were indeed pioneers of the new style.


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Scheu House

25 Rue Franklin

Villa Savoye

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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