The Evolution of Architecture, pt 1

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I’ve been blown away recently by the pictures coming out of Las Vegas of new music and entertainment venue Sphere. It’s a 30-storey high construction, which cost over $2B to build and is covered in millions of smart LEDs, producing the most incredible images on both the inside and the outside. I can’t wait to get over there and see it with my own eyes!

It got me thinking about groundbreaking constructions over the years (and even the not-so-groundbreaking ones), and I thought I might do a little deep dive on the past, present and future of architecture over the next few weeks.

In this first part of the series, we’ll look at the architectural revolution of the mid-20th century, which was a pivotal period in the history of architecture. This time witnessed the emergence of modernism and the rise of new design philosophies and materials that radically transformed the landscape of our cities.

Embracing simplicity

Modernism, which became prominent in the early 20th century, is committed to simplicity, functionality, and a departure from the elaborate styles of the past. Modernist architects aimed to create structures that were free from unnecessary embellishments, emphasising clean lines, open spaces, and the integration of innovative materials such as steel, glass, and concrete. These principles had a profound influence on urban planning and the development of cityscapes, particularly in the design of skyscrapers.

The focus was on achieving the purity of form and expressing a building’s structure, marking a significant change from earlier architectural styles. New materials, like steel and glass, played a pivotal role in this transformation, allowing for greater height, structural efficiency, transparency, and openness.

Modernist examples

The Seagram Building in New York, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, is a fantastic example of modernist architecture. Completed in 1958, it set a new standard for elegance and simplicity in high-rise buildings and influenced many subsequent office towers.

The UN Headquarters, also in New York, was designed by a team of international architects, including Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, and embodies the ideals of international cooperation and peace. Its design emphasises openness, transparency, and simplicity and the iconic glass curtain walls, curved forms, and the use of modern materials highlight the architectural optimism of the mid-20th century.

Of course, Le Corbusier was a hugely important figure in the Modernist movement: I’ve visited a number of his projects in France and think the chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut is just amazing. I also admire Norman Foster, who designed The Gherkin in London and Apple Park in California: his work really inspires me.

Back to basics

Alongside the rise of modernism, another significant design philosophy emerged: minimalism, which sought to emphasise a focus on essential elements and reduce design to its most basic and fundamental components.

I love the minimalist works of John Pawson, who built some of the most extraordinary homes I ever saw. However, I don’t think I could live in one unless I had a completely different life, one with no family and plenty of silent meditation!

The rise of concrete

Brutalism emerged in the mid-20th century and is renowned for its bold and rugged appearance; the term ‘brutalism’ comes from the French ‘béton brut,’ which translates to raw concrete. This style is distinctive for its unapologetic use of raw concrete as the primary building material, often left exposed. It places a strong emphasis on geometric shapes and bold, unadorned surfaces, creating a stark, geometric aesthetic that leaves a lasting visual impact, taking the simplicity of Modernism but evolving into a more unfinished aesthetic.

The Barbican Centre in London, housing a concert hall, theatres, galleries and residential units, is a great example of Brutalist architecture, with exposed concrete facades, elevated walkways, and labyrinthine design showcasing the Brutalist aesthetic. The design has always been controversial though: back in 2003 it was voted “London’s ugliest building”!

The 1970s and beyond

The late 20th century marked a significant departure from the strict principles of modernism that dominated the architectural landscape mid-century. This era witnessed a diversification of architectural styles and philosophies as architects and designers looked for new means of expression and explored a broader range of design possibilities.

One of the most notable architectural movements of the late 20th century was postmodernism, which challenged the perceived limitations of modernism by reintroducing elements of ornamentation, historical references, and a sense of playfulness into design. Architects like Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Michael Graves led the way in this movement, emphasising contextualism and complexity in their designs. Notable examples include the Portland Building in Oregon and the Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans.

Emerging in the 1980s, deconstructivism pushed the boundaries of architectural form and structure. It was characterised by the fragmentation, distortion, and manipulation of architectural elements: deconstructivism sought to challenge traditional notions of order and symmetry, often resulting in visually striking and avant-garde structures.

Architects such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid played a pivotal role in deconstructivist design, creating buildings like the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Vitra Fire Station. Initially, I found Gehry’s work a bit gimmicky but then visited the Guggenheim and thought it was just incredible. 

Growing awareness of environmental concerns

As the late 20th century progressed, architects began to acknowledge the importance of sustainable design and the need to minimise the ecological footprint of buildings. This shift in consciousness led to several key developments.

Architects and designers increasingly embraced sustainability as a core principle. They integrated energy-efficient technologies, passive design strategies, and environmentally friendly materials into their projects.

Rather than demolishing old structures, adaptive reuse gained popularity as a sustainable practice. Architects found ways to repurpose existing buildings, reducing waste and preserving historical and cultural heritage.

The concept of green building, which focuses on minimising resource consumption and reducing environmental impact, became a fundamental aspect of architectural design. Green roofs, solar panels, and efficient insulation were among the features incorporated into sustainable structures. We’ll explore this further down the line.

It was a dynamic period of architectural exploration and evolution, with styles like postmodernism and deconstructivism challenging the norms established by modernism. Simultaneously, architects recognising the critical role of sustainability in addressing global environmental concerns, led to the development of eco-conscious design principles that continue to shape architectural practice into the 21st century, and which we’ll be looking at next time. See you then!