The Rise and Fall of Modernist Architecture

Modernism first emerged in the early twentieth century, and by the prominent figures of the movement – Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – had established their reputations. However it was not until after that it gained mass popularity, after modernist planning was implemented as a solution to the previous failure of architecture and design to meet basic needs and slum clearance was one of the many social problems of this decade. Modernist planning was a popular idea, and used as a solution to these problems. But the movement could not adequately comprehend and cater for the dynamics of family and community, and a result, many modernist buildings were pulled down in the seventies. With reference to key architectural studies, this essay discusses the principles of modernism, how modernist architects initially worked to solve design problems through the creation of urban utopias, and why the ambitious modernist dream ultimately failed.

Students at the Bauhaus of design were taught purity of form and to design for a better world by Walter Gropius. The phrase ‘form follows function’ is often used when discussing the principles of modernism. It asserts that forms should be simplified – architectural designs should bear no more ornament than is necessary to function. Modernists believe that ornament should follow the structure and purpose of the building. Family life and social interaction was at the centre of the modernist dream for a planned environment. “The vision was for trouble free areas by mixing blocks with terraces to create squares, zoning services and amenities, all interlinked by roads”. The modernists planned for zoned areas where residential and commercial amenities were distinct and separate.  In his introduction to Modernism in Design, Paul Greenhalgh outlined key features in modernist design including function, progress, anti-historicism and social morality. These principles can be found in many of the key realisations of the modernist dream – Le Corbusier’s famous Villa Savoye in Poissy, France is a prime example. It shows no reference to architectural design; the pioneering plan was a progressive leap for the late. The form clearly follows the intended functions of the residential building, bearing no unnecessary ornament, and the open space surrounding the structure as well as the open plan interior lends itself to the ideals of social living and communication. The modernist ideals were not applied to social housing until, when Maxwell Fry’s Kensal House in London applied the principles of the movement to a housing scheme. It was a success and is still popular with its residents today. It then became the prototype for other social housing projects to follow the example of modern living.

Many projects of the modernist era were initially successful, and the public came to associate this strong aesthetic with prosperity and progress. In the post era, the ambitions of the modernists and their “strong sense of social responsibility in that architecture should raise the living conditions of the masses.

One successful project by the architect Ralph Eskrine was the Byker Housing project in Newcastle, which began, Byker began as a village, but by the late 19th century the dominant type of housing in the working class area was the Tyneside flat. Conditions were poor, and occupants of the area generally suffered from overcrowding, poor sanitation and poverty. Despite the less that desirable situation, Byker was noted for it’s character, and the strength of neighbourly relationships.