Article, History

Old School Modern

Gimme Shelter: Modern Architecture Addresses Health and Quality of Life
Old School Modern

While it’s easy to associate the clean surfaces and open spaces of modern architecture solely with the post -World War I world, in truth, the emphasis on minimal design and architecture began earlier. At the turn of the century, there were modern developments in Europe and the United States that predated the Bauhaus, the school of architecture and design that opened in 1919, first in Weimar and later in Dessau, Germany, which we often consider as the great generator of European Modernism.

In the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Vienna, architectural innovation was encouraged by governmental leadership during the second half of the 19th century. Otto Wagner, the architect associated with Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession, would design buildings that eschewed traditional classical design for lighter, more natural, decoration. His Österreichische Postsparkasse (Austrian Postal Savings Bank) of 1905 presented streamlined design and pure forms that, while still decorative, felt fresh and new. Nonetheless, Wagner was not rejecting all traditional aspects of classical architecture.

Adolf Loos, who had been born in 1870 in the Austro-Hungarian town of Brünn (today Brno in the Czech Republic) would make his way to Vienna where he would take the development of architecture further along the lines of simplification. His firm opened in 1897 (just following several years spent in the U.S.) and two years later his Cafe Museum of 1899 would exemplify his design direction of reduction. Nearly a decade later in 1908, Loos would publish a seminal essay on the subject of the rejection of the decorative, Ornament as Crime. Among his many projects, his American Bar of 1908 and Steiner House of 1910, both in Vienna, concretely evinced these ideas.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the great American architect, who Philip Johnson infamously had quipped “was the greatest architect of the 19th century,” without question powerfully influenced early 20th-century architecture, in the U.S. and abroad. Known first for his Prairie Style house designs, which began in 1893, Wright was hardly restricted to the 19th century. In 1905, he first traveled to Japan, which would both affect his embrace of open plans within architecture as well as his interest in collecting Japanese woodcuts. Japanese architecture for centuries had embodied the idea of simple planes and flowing space. What might well have looked like unfinished Interiors and radical simplicity to Wright, a man born in 1867, these spaces nonetheless would directly affect his approach to architecture.

Five years later, in 1910, Wright’s ideas on architecture would be published in Berlin via what became commonly known as the Wasmuth Portfolio. This publication presented Wright’s work through line drawings and plans that reduced the designs to a monochrome essence and may well have given the impression that Wright was more in line with Loos than was actually the case. It is believed that this book’s distribution in Europe vastly influenced later practitioners of modernism who saw in it a transformative approach to living in “space” rather than in highly defined “rooms.”

Therefore the reductive modern style we associate with the International Style and later mid-century modern design has roots in Japan, the American Midwest and the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, all before Walter Gropius ever led the Bauhaus.

Hilary Lewis
Chief Curator & Creative Director
The Glass House

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