What is modernist architecture and what is modernism?



Modernist architecture emphasizes function. It attempts to provide for specific needs rather than imitate nature. The roots of Modernism may be found in the work of Berthold Luberkin (1901-1990), a Russian architect who settled in London and founded a group called Tecton. The Tecton architects believed in applying scientific, analytical methods to design. Their stark buildings ran counter to expectations and often seemed to defy gravity.

Modernist architecture can express a number of stylistic ideas, including:

Modernist architecture has these features, as is shown above in the utilitarian design of Skelmersdale swimming pool.:

  • Little or no ornamentation
  • Factory-made parts
  • Man-made materials such as metal and concrete
  • Emphasis on function
  • Rebellion against traditional styles.



The term Modernism applied retrospectively to the wide range of experimental and avant-garde trends in the arts that emerged from the middle of the 19th century, as artists rebelled against traditional Historicism, and later through 20th century as the necessity of an individual rejecting previous tradition, and by creating individual, original techniques. ……Modernism was not merely defined by its avant garde but also by a reforming trend within previous artistic norms.

The second half of the 19th century has been called the Positivist age. In the visual arts this modernistic or positivistic spirit is most obvious in the widespread rejection of Romantic subjectivism and imagination in favor of the faith in the positive consequences of the close observation and the accurate and apparently objective description of the ordinary, observable world. The term Realism was the label used around 1850 by the artists and critics who pioneered the development.   In the modern opposition to this current historicism were a series of ideas, among which some were even direct extensions of the Romanticism itself- the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for example. But Impressionism– painting school originating in France, had particular impact on Modernism. It was initially focused on work done, not in studios, but in the “plain air”. They argued that human beings do not see objects, but instead, they saw light itself. The school became increasingly influential and the work of Eduard Manet attracted tremendous attention.  At the turn of century crucial ideas were:

  • the importance of the machine as being part of beauty,
  • the importance of subjective experience,
  • the necessity for system to replace the concept of “objective reality”.

These concepts were often in competition with each other.



In the first 15 years of the 20th century, the landmarks of Modernism include artists such as Gustav Klimt, Matisse, Mondrian, the abstract paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, culminating with the founding of the Blue Rider group in Munich, the Surrealism, the rise of Cubism with the work of Picasso and Georges Braque. Modernism’s cutting edges, to this point had been the exploration of subjective experience and the clarification and simplification of structure.



 The rise of cinema and “moving pictures” in the first decade of the 20th century gave the modern movement an artform which was uniquely its own. The use of photography, which had rendered much of the representational function of visual art obsolete, also strongly affected Modernism.  In period 1910-1930’s there were two trends of Modernism, to some extent, at cross purposes – Subjectivity and Criticism. Many early modernists were seeking increasing sophistication, and hence for greater difficulty in understanding a work, and others a greater transparency, and hence easier understanding.


On the eve of World War I the break out of the Russian Revolution introduced the increasing number of works which either radically simplified or rejected previous practice. Underlying strand of that thinking can be called the shift from idealistic to critical. This tendency mirrors that art is to communicate clearly.



Subjectivity, on the other hand, led to an increasing exploration of primitivism, with Paul Gauguin‘s paintings. Arts from Africa became increasingly prominent in the public consciousness, because of their geometrical nature, their perceived reaching for original or basic drives, and their phantasmagoric quality, such as is seen by ceremonial masks.



Thus in the immediate post-war years, the tendency to form “movements” and develop systems became increasingly entrenched in the modern movement. Examples include Dadaism, the “International style” of Bauhaus and Socialist Realism. By 1930, Modernism had entered popular culture with “The Jazz Age” and the increasing urbanization of populations. Such ideas rapidly became labeled “modern” or “hyper-modern.



 The pressures of communication, transportation and more rapid scientific development began placing a premium on search for simplification of diction in the work of various art forms. One example was the movement towards clarity, and the embracing of new technology, found in Futurism.



After World War II, Modernism began to merge with consumer culture, especially during the 1960s. In Britain, a youth sub-culture even called itself “modernists”. Modernist design also began to enter the mainstream of popular culture. The merging of consumer and modernist culture led to a radical transformation of the meaning of “modernism” itself. Firstly, it implied that a movement based on the rejection of tradition had become a tradition of its own. Secondly, it demonstrated that the distinction between elite modernist and mass consumerist culture had lost its precision. Many have interpreted this transformation as the beginning of the phase that became known as Postmodernism.

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