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Architecture and Modernism Connections Review Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Sep 10th, 2021

Current essay deals with difficult though important topic of interrelation between historical currents in architecture such as classicism, gothic style, baroque with modernism and other contemporary architectural styles and theoretical approaches to architecture design and construction which are often described as being total departure from the formerly predominant forms.

The main thesis that we defend here in this regard is that modern and postmodern architecture (or to say it more definitely – contemporary ‘nontraditional’ approaches to architecture) shouldn’t be conceptualized in terms of complete departure from earlier traditions but in fact borrow much impulse from them which is transformed in peculiar modernist and postmodernist architectural forms. To these ends some historical perspectives and examples would be mobilized to support our point of view. The second intention of current research is to provide the analysis of Oscar Niemeyer’s architectural works: National Congress building in Brasilia and some other projects. We hope that drawing on interesting examples from this architect’s work will help us to comprehensively support our point of view.

There is no denying the importance of the fact that architecture is not only the aggregation of a given level of techniques, engineer capacities, approach to design, materials and form but what is more important is certain reflection of political and cultural symbols of the epoch in which it is created. For instance, Roman and Egyptian architecture does not only provide us with some valuable data on the level of technical development of corresponding civilization but is very important for understanding the spirit of its culture, religion, social and political relations.

To understand the relation between earlier forms of architecture and modern architecture it is important to recall the original meaning of this word. This word comes from Greek ‘arkitekton’ meaning precisely ‘master builder’. In premodern time architects and their work were under strict control of state and ruling elites like in Ancient China and Egypt where the strong architectural system was operating. The architectural sites were understood not as simple buildings which should be used for specific purposes but as works bearing some greater and important religious and cultural meaning.

It can be proved by the fact that the earlier period of architecture development are mainly presented in cult and religious buildings like in Ancient Greece, Egypt, China, Muslim world, Christian Europe and elsewhere. Besides this there is no denying the importance of the fact that many of famous architectural sites such as palaces, theatres etc. were created for self-indulgence of the ruling elite, hence it was the primary driving force of architecture development. In this regard older architecture should be regarded as the reflection of enormous wealth of ruling elites in tributary and feudal world.

To be more specific it should be noted that unlike modernist architecture (which will be described later), classical, medieval, renaissance and industrial architecture drew on the dominant cultural and historical patterns and forms reflected in architectural design. In the absence of what now we call standardized industrial design each new architectural site was unique though following the same cultural and religious patterns. Besides this it should be specifically noted that what even more differentiates classical architecture from modernist is little emphasis on bureaucratic functionality but rather on different forms, traditions borrowed from Ancient Greece, Rome etc.

For instance, there is no denying the importance of the fact that medieval Muslim architecture is a reflection of certain religious worldview which dictated architectural canon and design at the expense of functionality. Greatness of architectural building was for Muslim architects more importance than the considerations of functionality and this makes this architecture be the representation of culture, religion and historical conditions simultaneously.

Such architectural styles such as Gothic style in medieval Catholic architecture are also quite important for understanding the difference between medieval and modernist architecture (Hamlin, 1911, p.143). Many scholars claim that Gothic style represented in various cathedral and churches such as Notre Dame de Paris reflects the monumental and majestic character of Catholic church as the dominant actor in Western societies during medieval period. The forms of Gothic architecture are strict, severe and sometimes frightening (Harvey, 1950). With the rise of Gothic architectural style increased the complexity of design and the means of construction. Besides this medieval period saw a considerable increase of building hospitals, houses, recreation institutions etc.

Renaissance architecture also followed ideological and cultural impulse of the epoch. Renaissance, as we know, is characteristic of major emphasis on individuality, humanism rather than religion and hence it was realized in architecture projects. They in their turn became personalized in the work and talent of different architects such as Alberti, Palladio, Michelangelo etc. which was a considerable breakthrough if compared with Christian era. The classical epoch which is characterized by the dominance of absolutist feudal state also produced its own peculiar forms of baroque architecture characterized by formalism, pretentiousness and other features which can be ascribed to the cultural patterns of royal court society, aristocratic mentality and other features characteristic of classical period.

Industrial revolution was also a revolution in architecture as the growth of technical capabilities allowed separating architecture from mass engineering. Besides this the rise of capitalist economy created a new sphere for creating beautiful architectural sites, that is bourgeois mansion in countryside and in cities which were designed in neo-gothic and Scottish Baronial style.

The beginning of the 20-th century is characterized by the rise of modernism which is described as significant transformation of theoretical approaches to architecture which are tied with the development of industrial design as a profession.

It is important to note that going in line with our topic we should say that modernist architecture refused to follow historical traditions and considered architecture to be a synthesis of craft, art and technology devoid of any historical and cultural content.

Of course, it would be absurd to claim that this means that modern architecture is completely distinct from premodern and does not correspond to the notion of architecture. There is no denying the importance of the fact that it transformed some of the major approaches to architecture but that does not mean that it is not architecture. Though it refuses to abide to the patterns of historicity and tradition, it itself is a reflection of certain historical conditions when the rise of rational society led to considerable rationalization of architecture.

Modernist architecture was represented by the avant-garde movement in its own right which had its own philosophical, moral and aesthetic underpinnings. The main impulse of modernist architecture that should be taken into consideration is the desire to create new convenient and cheap buildings to satisfy rising interests of low and middle classes (Hvattum, Mari, and Christian Hermansen, 2004). That is why they radically torn with the formerly dominated architectural practices which placed emphasis on academic refinement of various historical styles which was the main cultural instrument of the declining aristocratic order.

What makes modernist architecture significantly differ from earlier patterns in architectural design is its approach which was to reduce architecture to pure forms by means of removing various historical references and ornaments in favor of different functionalist details. New buildings that exposed their inner structure and construction: steel beams and the concrete surfaces were considered to be beautiful instead of traditional architectural forms. For instance, such architects as Mies van der Rohe considered architecture to be the use of inherent qualities of materials and various modern construction techniques, using simplified geometric forms etc.

Modernism and other architectural styles such as classic style, baroque etc. are considerably different but this does not mean that modernism and postmodernism in architecture represent essential departure from architecture – they instead should be regarded as historical periods in architecture development (Sankovitch, 1998, p.689).

The succession between modernist and postmodernist architecture (two contemporary architectural styles) is more evident. Many architects criticized modernism for its austerity and the absence of decorative richness. Hence, Postmodernism should be regarded as the response to austerity of Modernism. Postmodern architecture following modernist considers it important to create functional buildings (they are even more functional than modernist), but such architects as Robert Venturi claimed that functionality should be maintained inside but a façade should present the mixture of different styles that is eclecticism of styles. Postmodern architecture utilized classic Roman and Greek styles in extraordinary way transforming strict architectural paradigms in the melting pot of mass culture and urbanism. In fact Roman and Greek architectural styles were used as referents and quotations not having too much in common with Greek and Roman approaches to architecture as it was the case in neoclassicism. There is bitter confrontation between modernism and postmodernism notwithstanding the fact that they have much in common. Modernist architects claim that postmodernist are vulgar and incapable of realizing aesthetic truth of the building. Postmodern architects instead often regard modernist building as being soulless and blank and try to replace this minimalism with the play of techniques, angles and various stylistic references.

Oscar Niemeyer work is important point of reference for understanding modern conditions of architectural development. His architectural approach lies between strict modernist utilitarianism, austerity and functionalism and postmodern eclecticism. Thought Niemeyer is oriented at modernist approach to architecture his buildings have such dynamic forms and sensual features that some say that he are a sculptor rather than architect. Niemeyer is famous for building many building in administrative capital of Brazil – Brasilia which in fact was created by his architectural wit (Papadaki, 1950).

Palacio Gustavo Capanema was one of the first modernist work ordered by state government. It was designed to house Ministry of Culture and included everything that was further considered as Niemeyer unique architectural style: employing local materials, making adjustments to colonial architectural style, using bold colors etc.

Another work by Niemeyer which is Brazilian pavilion on New York World Fair is characterized by the language of elegance and grace, spatial fluidity and lightness which became associated with Ionic current in modernism represented by Oscar Niemeyer. This shows how different can be the styles and approaches within one dominant architectural tradition and how much is the space for improvisation.

The fact that Niemeyer was deeply opposed to the dominant ‘form and function’ orthodoxy of modernism can be proved by his own accounts: “I was attracted by the curve – the liberated, sensual curve suggested by the possibilities of new technology yet so often recalled in venerable old baroque churches. […] I deliberately disregarded the right angle and rationalist architecture designed with ruler and square to boldly enter the world of curves and straight lines offered by reinforced concrete. […] This deliberate protest arose from the environment in which I lived, with its white beaches, its huge mountains, its old baroque churches, and the beautiful suntanned women.’ (Niemeyer, Oscar, 2000, p.169-170).

Oscar Niemeyer is also widely know for the construction of buildings for new Brazilian capital – Brasilia including the president’s residence, the National Congress, Parliament, The Cathedral of Brasilia and various other buildings. Viewed from the air, a new city had formal elements that repeated in every building thus giving city its beautiful structure and formal unity. The Brasilia cathedral is especially interesting combining modernist symbolism. Its entrance is poorly-lit corridor which totally contrasts with bright and illuminated hall. Buildings designed by Niemeyer were floating off the ground while supported by columns which allowed them to be integrated with nature. Besides this Brasilia was realization of socialist ideology for there were no wealthier regions and ordinary workers lived in the same houses occupied by top ministers.

To sum it up, Niemeyer’s approaches to architecture proves our thesis that modern architecture is different from its precursor which is not surprising but does not mean that it does not play the same important historical role. The opposite is postulated by the works of Oscar Niemeyer.


  1. Hamlin, A. D. F. History of Architecture. 8th ed. New York: Longmans, Green, 1911.
  2. Harvey, John. The Gothic World, 1100-1600: A Survey of Architecture and Art. London: B. T. Batsford, 1950.
  3. Hvattum, Mari, and Christian Hermansen, eds. Tracing Modernity: Manifestations of the Modern in Architecture and the City. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  4. Niemeyer, Oscar. The Curves of Time: The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer. London: Phaidon.
  5. Papadaki, Stamo. Lucio Costa, and Oscar Niemeyer. The Work of Oscar Niemeyer. New York: Reinhold, 1950.
  6. Sankovitch, Anne-Marie. “Structure/ornament and the Modern Figuration of Architecture.” The Art Bulletin 80.4 (1998): 686-707.
  7. Schneekloth, Lynda H. “Unredeemably Utopian: Architecture and Making/unmaking the World.” Utopian Studies 9.1 (1998): 1-34.
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