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19th Century versus 20th Century Architecture

                             A Comparison

                    From Many Styles to One





If we compare the architectures of the 19th and 20th centuries NOT in terms of their obvious stylistic differences, but rather in terms of the degree of stylistic choice available to architects of the time and its consequent effect on form, we can note several significant similarities and differences. For instance:


  • In both the late 19th and the late 20th centurıes there exısted a wide range of equally-valid architectural styles.


a)  In the late 19th century architects could select from the many versions of Romantic Classicism, regional pastiche, Neo-Gothic or, its more modest cousin Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and many other eclectic combinations.


b)  Similarly, in the late 20th century (roughly from the late 60s onwards) there were also a range of styles available to architects including: Historicism, Hi Tech, Deconstructivism, Regional, Pop, Eclectic and Neo-Modern. This apparent stylistic pluralism has been called the defining feature of the Postmodern period.


1.2   In the 19th and 20th century the plurality of style described above came at the end of a long and very uniform stylistic phase in architecture. For instance:


a)  The mid to late 19th century saw the final dissolution of Graeco-Roman Classicism nearly four hundred years after its development and definition during the Renaissance.


b)  In the late 20th century, the Postmodern period, as its name suggests, saw the dissolution of Modern Architecture as a single coherent style.


These dominant architectural styles finally fragmented into a number of variations on their original themes each of which then operated as autonomous architectural style.


1.3   Compare the fragmented state of architecture described above with periods when there was, in effect a single architectural style. For instance:


a)  Between the 1920s and the 1970s during the Modern and International Style period there was, in effect a single dominant or preferred style which would be used to carry out any and every building program.


b)  This dominant style was a combination of two very closely-related variations on the same Modern Movement theme:


i)      The concrete, expressionist, essentially European, version of the Modern Movement exemplified by the work of Le Corbusier.


ii)     The Steel, Glass, ‘classical’, essentially American version of the Modern Movement exemplified by the work of Mies van der Rohe, or Skidmore Owings and Merrill.


Given the circumstances outlined above, the first question worth asking is how architecture shifted from a situation where there were many different styles (as in the 19th century) to a period where only one style (Modernism) was dominant. To answer this one must look closely at the state of things in the 19th century.


2.0     The Confused State of Things in the 19th Century


In the mid to late 19th century architecture displayed a unique group of interconnected characteristics. These were:


2.1     The collapse of Classicism as the single dominant architectural style


Classicism whose typical elements had been combined and re-combined into many different kinds of buildings for over two thousand years had, by the middle of the 19th century become to some extent a decorative exercise. The disintegration of Classicism as a coherent style can be considered in terms of the following factors:


  • The possibilities for recombining its elements to represent new building programs had by then been fully catalogued and used up after nearly 400years of development since the Renaissance.


  • By the late 19th century it had already fragmented into a number of non-canonical variations or sub-styles. These were an attempt to overcome the rigid formula-driven design processes which made it difficult to respond pragmatically to ‘modern’ design problems. (For instance, classical compositional techniques, symmetry and proportional systems required by the selection of specific classical orders prevented a direct response to the immediate functional and spatial needs of the building).


  • The fragmentation of the Classical order occurred even though architects continued to use the same design processes as before: modifying conventional formulae to achieve a particular design solution. No new concepts or design processes or techniques were involved in the decline of the style, which occurred as a result of the long-term internal dynamics of architecture. That is through the cumulative effect of exchange processes within the architectural community.


  • One must remember that critical transitions from one period to another including the fragmentation of Classicism are not the product of discussion and choice by architects. They are a result of the normal processes of communication and exchange between many architects and their selection and combination of the same set of forms over long periods of time. In its later stages, the cumulative effect of this is to produce a continuous stylistic shift towards non-canonical forms. One can imagine it as a form of entropy. Like all dynamic systems, the reality of architecture is one of continuous gradual change.


  • Architects could get all the architectural ‘order’ they wanted from Classicism. It provided a clear-cut and familiar meaning (set of associations). Its design flexibility however, its capacity to respond to the unique and the particular was another matter entirely. Any building is made up of a large number of requirements which are very specific to its institutional, locational, technical and financial circumstances and which should be reflected in the final form of the building. The inflexible stereotyped forms of late Classicism prevented the architect from improvising on the standard or typical forms of the style to represent theses unique aspects of the building.              


  • The struggle to maintain both the flexibility of Classicism and its strong characteristic order – which were mutually exclusive demands at this point - was the underlying justification for the proliferation of numerous variations of Romantic Classicism available in the 19th century.


  • In much the same way as languages change over time and through constant collective use so architecture changes. At the same time one must also note that Styles not only adapt over time to changing social or technical circumstances –new experiences which must be represented with available forms - but also change due to the dynamics of communication and exchange within the architectural community itself.


Given the continuous nature of change, perhaps the word, ‘collapse’ suggests too quick and dramatic an end to the Classical period when in fact the problems were cumulative. Yet the reality is that by the end of the 19th century, Classicism as the dominant force in architecture had outlived its usefulness and dissolved into a set of related variations.


2.2     A Remarkable Diversity of Architectural Styles.


The 19th century displayed a virtual catalogue of styles: Romantic Classicism and its variations, including: Neo-Renaissance; Neo-Baroque; Neo-Neo-Classical and so on. But so too Egyptian; Neo-Gothic; Venetian Gothic; Arts and Crafts; Art Nouveau; Japanese motifs, Romantic Regional; Vernacular; Industrial cast iron building. There were also a few exotic experiments which included Moorish, Moghul and Persian forms. Of course there would also be eclectic mixtures of forms within single buildings. Inevitably in this chaotic state, there were calls for a return to order. That could only mean reducing the range of available styles and ultimately coming up with one meta-style which could offer a single solution to a great many diverse problems. In other words a style which was both unified in form and flexible in use. It was the age-old demand for that perfect balance between order and freedom but written out in architectural terms. For this reason a great and ultimately futile debate raged about the relative merits of currently available styles such as Classical or Gothic as the representative architecture for 19th century Western societies. The assumption here that such a choice could actually be made and put into effect by architects was, of coursed wrong since such issues are not a matter of deliberate choice but of the unforeseen results of cumulative and collective actions.


This multiplicity of styles was partly a result of a ‘natural’ process of fragmentation of the dominant style (discussed above) that inevitably occurs at the end of a long period of stylistic uniformity. Other factors were also at work:


  • Cumulative long-term effects of communication and exchange processes within architecture leading to stereotyping of forms.


These are the systemic effects discussed above which reduce the flexibility and economy of Classicism, the prevailing architecture and which produce a stylistic shift. The critical changes which took place in the 19th century should not come as a surprise when one realizes that this architectural currency had been continually used and exchanged, combined and recombined for nearly 400 years beforehand. The stereotyping effects are a product of the involution of the style over this time period.


  • The search for alternative and more expressive architectural forms which would allow the architect to express the circumstantial differences between buildings.


This point is directly related to the first, namely, a search for more flexible and expressive means of designing buildings. In the most pragmatic sense if one could not achieve this within Classicism, the dominant style, then one would be forced to find it with other architectural options, even the most exotic. In fact the only architectural value that some of the more exotic styles had was that they were ‘different’. They were, by definition able to express the difference between one context and another. Compare this to the uniformity of Classical architecture where the remarkable similarity between buildings threatened to eliminate the identity and therefore the meaning of individual buildings. It was only the prolific use of decoration that prevented this by giving a semblance of individuality to each building. The use of other styles offered a means of avoiding that problem. For instance, the 19th century saw a surge in the popularity of ‘medievalism’ in various forms. The social reason for this fashion may have been a sentimentalist rejection of the industrial age and its brutalities in favour of a mythical golden age (as in Morris and Company). However, part of its architectural success was undoubtedly the remarkable flexibility of Gothic vernacular planning and the fact that Gothic allowed a high degree of improvisation in the design of buildings. Neo-Gothic and its vernacularist variations offered a 19th century version of the ‘free plan’ where the spaces could be distributed in a more pragmatic manner unhindered by strict compositional rules which inevitably produced very compact and integrated plans.


Where did these alternative styles come from? The answer is that they already existed in one state or another because styles, as collective templates are never just fantasies or inventions. That is, they do not come from nothing but are always a development of some previous set of forms. We can summarize the emergence and use of alternatives to Classicism in the following way:


i)        There is always more than one style in existence at any given time. While one of these may be dominant and thus highly visible, the others still operate in some architectural niche or other.


ii)        Usually these less popular styles are very specialized in their function so that there is a close and predictable relationship between the style and the building type. For instance, before its recovery in the late 19th Century as a general stylistic option for many building types, Gothic was usually limited to designing local parish churches or, in its vernacular version, for designing rural houses.


  • Note that while a dominant style such as Classicism poses as one solution for many different kinds of problems, these other lesser styles offer only one (stylistic) solution for one kind of problem. From an evolutionary point of view these styles (such as Gothic) have at some point in their history become overspecialized and locked into very particular roles. In design terms they became ‘vernacular’.


  • So too with the more obscure styles such as Moorish or Japanese: forms are resuscitated or liberated from their exotic role as a result of 19th century archaeological and historical exploration of the ‘East’. 19th century travel and expertise in classification, archeology, Western purchasing power and of course, imperial influence made a large number of foreign design styles available to Western Europe. Note for instance: Owen Jones' highly influential Grammar of Ornament, published in 1856 which provided a wealth of design motifs from many foreign sources. The fact that such exotic styles could be contemplated for major public buildings in 19th Century Europe, says something about the state of Classicism.


  • The 19th century, the age of acquisition and classification, saw the establishment of the major museums and natural science collections. So too in the arts. What might in other times be regarded merely as artistic curiosities became instead source material for serious stylistic exercises. These exotic motifs provided a welcome and necessary infusion of pure stylistic difference into the jaded repertoire available at the time. The International Exhibitions of 1851 and 1862 provided public display of these stylistic exotica.


  • Both Gothic and other more obscure styles were, in a way ‘dredged up’ from the past and from other societies to serve the present. In one sense they may be regarded as the equivalent of decoration used on Classicist buildings, serving the same purpose. They were, in other words attempts to differentiate one building or context from another.  Only in this way could architecture as a whole preserve its meaning in the face of a crushing uniformity of style which offered the same design response to entirely different situations.


vii       The same romantic and medievalist tendency saw the emergence of the Arts and Crafts movement as a relatively short-lived attempt to provide more responsive design options. It is interesting that while it pursued obvious aesthetic goals, these were to be achieved through craftsmanship: simplicity, practicality and an attention to the nature of the materials at hand. This was an early, though muted functionalism.


It is worth considering that 19th century reactions against both industrialization and against Classicism had the same underlying argument, namely that both these movements could be condemned for their ‘inhumanity’. This, so the argument goes, was a result of the mechanical and repetitive processes used to produce their respective products. In Classicism for instance, once the architect had selected the appropriate columnar order based on its associations with certain functions, all the other aspects of the building, plan layout, proportional system, decoration and so on were derived from this initial choice by the rules of the Classical game. Even the initial choice of which order to select would be dictated by precedent. Thus, both industrialization (machine repetition) and Classicism could be seen by romantics as strict rule-driven systems which eliminate the creativity which comes from spontaneous human intervention. In the 19th century the choices seemed to be clearly established: Humanity or the dictates of the System.


2.3     The lack of a distinctive 19th century architecture


The 19th Century did not have a ‘style of its own’; a fact noted with some gloom by contemporary architects. That is, a set of forms which were unique to the century and derived out of its own distinct social and cultural conditions. The Greeks had theirs, so the argument went. So too the Romans, Renaissance, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment and so on. Why not the 19th Century? What was so strange was that 19th century society was indeed socially, technologically and politically unique; in many ways radically different and more complex than any society that had gone before. Yet it had not as yet developed a new and particular architecture which could represent the technical and institutional realities of the time. As we now know this was simply a matter of a time lag between developing conditions and effect. The difference between the abstractions of calendar time and measurable changes of developmental time. A new architecture would finally arise in the form of Modernism.


This lack of a style unique to the 19th century was a question which was continually debated by architects and critics of the time. It was a debate however which, for most architects simply revolved around the relative merits of the two existing styles: Classical or the Gothic. While 19th century architects might have thought that the unique historical content and characteristics of Classicism (The five orders and the origin of western civilization) and Gothicism (gleaming spires and Christianity) were the most important issue, history would show otherwise by dissolving both of them. This was, to a large extent a futile debate although by stating the advantages of each style, the proponents did by default identify the key features of an ideal architecture. As usual, the ideal always involves a balance of the kind of factors mentioned earlier on such as: flexibility and order; uniform yet diverse; responsive to particular and general design factors. But a description of these ideal characteristics is not enough to produce a new architecture – a new set of forms. Since nothing comes from nothing, this new set paradoxically had to come from a radical recombination of forms that already existed. In other words the desired ‘flexibility and order’ required in the design process was not an abstract consideration, but had to come about as usual through the selection and combination of forms - the vocabulary and syntax of the current language of architecture. Modernism, in other words, did not arise out of nothing. It was not spontaneously generated by circumstance or wishes, nor did it arise out of one or the other of the prevailing styles. Such a fundamentally new architecture had to come from some kind of profound integration of the most essential characteristics of prevailing styles. To that extent, one can imagine that (though there were other influences and factors) these two main styles displayed a set of complementary values which together would form the basis of a new architecture. These were:


a)       For Classicism: order, rule-based discipline, proportional systems and pure Euclidian geometry and ‘the grid’.


b)       For Gothicism: truth to materials, flexibility, pragmatism and direct expression of function.


One must also add to these sources, 19th century industrial power which would provide the technology and materials to allow the elegant fusion of these stylistic sources.


Somewhere in this combination of Classical discipline, Gothic Revival Morality and the force of industrial power lay a powerful new synthesis called the Modern Movement. That is, Design no longer derived from historical precedent, but grounded in the social and institutional circumstances of the time. Later, when stripped of their decorative features, when reduced to essentials, the merger of these two styles would give the discipline, flexibility, truth to materials and functionalism which would resolve the cultural tensions of the 19th century.


While the 19th century may not have witnessed the birth of a new and unique architecture, it established the intellectual and material conditions for the emergence of Modernism in the first part of the next century. The intellectual basis of the new architecture would be:


  • Utility and pragmatism at the level of use

  • Truth to function and materials

  • Coherent organization of forms – a clear order.

  • By analogy with the functional or logical clarity of the ‘machine’

  • The rationality of the new mass-production technology

  • Economy of means (such that one set of typical elements could solve many different design problems)


The new architecture, while radical in expression, would still only be a result of the merging of available styles and materials.


The goals outlined above suggested that the search for a new and appropriate style would be found not through a (horizontal) comparison of currently available styles but through a (vertical) grounding of design processes in a functional base. The appeal to shaping the building according to functional and essentially pragmatic criteria was indeed a radical way out of prevailing problems. Once again architecture was to be grounded in a physical and social reality, or, to put it another way: architecture was to emerge from social and functional conditions rather than be superimposed on them.


2.4     The Overwhelming Use of Decoration


Looking at the history of architecture and design since the Industrial Revolution till now it is clear that decoration and ornament have played a major part in the design of products. In fact most of the products designed during this time have involved decorating the basic form with added and essentially non-functional forms and details, a secondary language of forms.


In Western design history, decoration usually involved adding Classical or Gothic details to basically functional forms. Even steam engines and large span bridges had Classical details fitted to their utilitarian forms.


The Modern Movement rejected the idea of decoration in favour of 'pure' & uncluttered forms - smooth, colourless and preferably cubic in shape. Indeed as early as 1908, the architect Adolf Loos commented in his essay 'Ornament and Crime':


"The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects". 


From a Modern perspective, of course, the need for lavish decoration demonstrates some kind of semantic or aesthetic ‘lack’ at the centre of the available styles. For Adolf Loos for instance, decoration was ‘a crime’! Yet, for pre-Modern architects, decoration was regarded as an essential attribute of design. Indeed, before the 20th century it would have been unimaginable to design anything without the use of decoration. The function of decoration could be summarized as follows: 


a)              Visually integrates the building with its interiors, furniture, fabrics, products (clocks, table sets) and so on with the same classical allegories, motifs and character. This unifies all artifacts with their environment. It also integrates many of the design arts with literature, myth and painting by using characters and images drawn from the same allegorical collections. In a kind of Renaissance perfection it unites and harmonizes the whole environment


b)              For 19th Century architects decoration was the usual way to increase the aesthetic value of the building; making it more beautiful by emphasizing and reinforcing the character of the primary elements of the building. Decoration made the building more articulate by clarifying the detail level of the building; increasing the complexity and visual interest of the whole event. It was seen as a way of maintaining or even establishing the semantic value of the building.


c)       Decoration was seen as an integral part of the building design and in Renaissance terms was regarded as the ‘corporeal’ aspect of a building as against its organizational framework. That is the tactile, sensual and physical presence of architecture at all scales.


d)       In the face of a now stereotyped classical architecture, decoration provides the unique, improvised and spontaneous character of a building. In the post Classical world it was the only thing that could respond to the particular circumstances of a building, its environment and its context. This capacity to finely adapt the form of the building to very local circumstances was is not something that could be lightly discarded.


  • Decoration in this sense is about the particular circumstances of the building - its context and its making, whereas the primary forms of the selected style could only speak about the general state of things, about tradition, language, history and (theoretically at least), the unchanging elements of architecture which they represented. If the typical elements of a style represent the general language available to architecture, decoration represents the particular and the contextual.


  • Without decoration, the forms of the building would have seemed crude and lacking in refinement and detail and fundamentally unable to communicate the full meaning of the building and what it represented.


  • Decoration integrated the primary forms of the building, rendering them more articulate by providing determinative clues (decoration) about the intended meaning of the building in this time and this place. So too it linked the forms of the building together, providing a kind of visual armature to a system that was increasingly an assembly of stereotyped forms.


  • The prolific use of decoration in the 19th century can be seen as a pragmatic response to the threatened collapse of the whole architectural system of representation; to the ambiguities and uncertainties brought about by the dissolution of the Classical paradigm. Ultimately it is a response to an increasing and threatening diversity of things and in these circumstances decoration remained perhaps the last way to maintain the unity of architectural from.


3.0     The Impact of the Industrial Revolution on 19th Century Society


These arguments about different styles, design theories and practice were taking place in a truely revolutionary social and economic situation. In Western Europe and in the United States, society was changing rapidly not only in terms of new inventions (electricity, telegraph, automobile, camera, machine guns, steam ships, gramophone, and so on), but in the reality of everyday life:


  • The Industrial Revolution brought about a major increase in the population of cities centred around newly-created industries. Most of the increase, at least initially was from internal immigration as rural populations moved to the cities, in search of better living conditions and the possibility of a better life.  Society changed from being an agricultural to being an urbanized society


  • Societies at the time were incapable of organizing cities to cope with such a vast increase in population.  Existing buildings and services were completely inadequate to handle the rate of increase. The result was the unchecked and unplanned growth of the  industrial city and its brutal environment.


  • With laissez faire economic policies and an extremely limited political franchise, the lack of interest in the conditions of the working class went unchallenged by existing political institutions until those conditions began to affect the lives of the middle and upper classes.


  • Overcrowding and insanitary conditions brought diseases such as cholera and typhoid, both of which are extremely democratic in their choice of victims thus the middle and upper classes found it necessary to take an interest in these matters. 


  • So too with crime and political riots which were an effect of the glaring injustices which plagued industrial cities requiring the establishment of an organized police force and more fundamentally a widening of the political franchise to resolve the political tensions of the time. In effect a whole new political class emerged at the time: the industrial working class with its own political parties and self-help organizations.


  • It became necessary for the political institutions to try to get some control over the physical state of the city. This required legislation for new planning and building laws and practices such as new space standards, space between buildings, sewage, water, street lighting, and so on.


  • The extreme conditions to be found in the Victorian cities also brought intervention from religious and philanthropic groups who established educational, medical and social charities for the working class population.


For those countries where it took place, the Industrial Revolution generated vast wealth which not only allowed the necessary large scale reconstruction of the city and its infrastructure, but, spurred on by imperial grandeur and pomp also allowed the establishment of numerous new national institutions such as museums, universities, government functions and the many buildings needed to house them. All in all the major social, technological and political changes that took place in the 19th century as a consequence of the industrial revolution required the almost complete expansion and re-building of Western cities.


  • The Impact of the Industrial Revolution on Architecture


The 19th century produced a major increase in the number and type of buildings being built. While for architects this great building activity was obviously of considerable material benefit, for the design process it presented a serious problem given the conditions of a collapsing architecture. The problem was simple: Continuous pressure to come up with an increasing number of appropriate formal solutions for new buildings, but (given the state of architecture), decreasing expressive or stylistic means of doing so. The result of course was the stylistic chaos discussed above, but also an increasing tendency to try to integrate diverse solutions into a single all-encompassing meta-style – a new architecture.


Note that in the 19th century architects were required to produce:


  • An increased number of buildings.

  • An increased number of different types of buildings (specific to the new social, industrial and transport functions which arose in the 19th century).

  • A scaling up and complexification of previously-produced building types (consistent with the new scale of government and commercial institutions).


Thus, new and scaled up building types dealt with by 19th century architects included:


railway stations, office buildings, industrial buildings, mass housing, libraries, museums, city halls, and large government buildings generally, theatres and concert halls, educational buildings, large banking halls, exchanges, power stations, and, of course a vast amount of urban housing. One can also add the contribution of religious and philanthropic organizations in the form of the very large number of churches and charitable educational and medical buildings. The evidence for this enormous building activity can be seen in the fabric of the major cities of the Western world, large parts of which were built in the 19th century.


4.1     Government regulation of the Architectural Profession


Another effect of the rapid expansion of building activity was the need to regulate the profession to eliminate low standards of practice and unprofessional behaviour amongst those who called themselves architects. The demand for this came from the profession itself in an attempt to maintain the reputations of its members by eliminating suspect or questionable practitioners who had flourished during the 19th century building boom.


The result of this was the re-shaping architecture as a profession:


a)              The introduction of legal requirements for registration and practice as an architect and the establishment of government-backed professional institutions to oversee those standards and decide who had the right to practice. In some countries the very use of the name: ‘architect’ was legally restricted to those whom the institution decided had the right to register.


b)              Education was re-organized away from the apprenticeship tradition of learning in the office (essentially a Renaissance practice) towards full or part-time technical education at a recognized design institution. This requirement coincided with a more or less voluntary reorganization of design education where two traditions, fine art schools and craft schools, merged to form new schools of architecture and design. The importance of this development was the new kind of curriculum which would be followed in these schools and which would influence a new generation of architects.


The overall result of these measures and the increasing intensity of practice and architectural activity was a gradual change in the character of the membership of architectural institutions. Formerly many of these had been ‘gentlemen-architects’ who practiced architecture in the loving manner of an art. They were, in real sense, ‘amateurs’. However, what one might call production pressures coming from increased building activity, rationalization of office procedures and management to handle this situation and also the legal regulation of the profession brought about a new kind of architect: the professional, who, we might say ‘did it for money’.


  • A new Class of Patrons










While in one sense the wide range of styles available in the 19th century seemed to offer a diversity of solutions and possibilities for architects; a kind of stylistic freedom perhaps, it also posed an equivalent set of problems. The most obvious of these being that it created a fundamental ambiguity in the design process. Why choose one as against another? There was nothing inherently more valid about any of them since they could all offer equally credible solutions to the same architectural problems. Indeed the ‘Great Debate’ between Classicists and Gothicists revolved around a futile attempt to justify the superior validity of one or the other and thus resolve the ‘agony of choice’ in the design process. 


The fundamental problem of the times was too much choice. Given a fairly wide selection of possible and popular design styles, the question was: on what basis could one select the one or another for particular design problems? What criteria could one use? In this situation what options did architects have:


  • Continually select the same style, for personal or ideological reasons.


This avoided the problem (of choice) but limited the architect’s design options since no style of the 19th century was spatially or semantically adequate for all possible purposes. This is because they were, in a sense, just fragments of past dominant styles.

  • Use an eclectic mix based on personal taste.


Again, an essentially individual approach. But the problem remained, on what basis would one select an appropriate style for a particular occasion? The problem is reinforced simply because there are no built-in limits or constraints on the choices made and this increases the danger that an inappropriate form may be used by accident. The truth was that this problem could not be solved on an individual level. There had to be some consensus amongst architects about which styles were appropriate for what purposes. Decisions like this could not possibly be taken by individuals.


  • Classify and select different styles for different purposes.


Here we had a somewhat more rational approach to the problem of design in the 19th century. We could select a style based on its historical associations with the building type in question  and the institution to be designed. All that this approach needed was enough styles or varieties around to cover the full range of building types that were likely to be dealt with. By the middle of the century there were certainly enough sub-styles of Classicism plus Neo-Gothic and regional variations of both to provide a numerically adequate repertoire of forms. Again, up to the middle of the century the number of building types which an architect would meet would not be too large or varied in type.


d)       The Concept of Appropriate Form


Yet having so much stylistic choice implied that it was somehow still possible to ‘get it wrong’. That is, to choose a style which was in some sense inappropriate ‘for the occasion’. It was inevitable in this situation that the idea of ‘appropriate form’ should become a major factor in the design process. The idea was that the chosen style would have some fairly obvious historical or semantic connection with the building task to be performed. In other words that the choice of style should not be seen to be arbitrary, but would, in some sense be appropriate for the given design project. By consensus it provided a rule which, no matter how apparently subjective, limited the number of options and thus the possibilities of failure in making an appropriate choice of style for the occasion. Thus, to overcome what might, (to the cynical), seem like an arbitrary choice, architects as a group quite readily used a rule-of-thumb design process to select appropriate form. This design process can be called: Design by Association or, more generally, Design by Precedent. Where did this collective decision come from? It came from the endless discussions between architects of the 19th century about the relative merits or the validity of various styles. In a real sense a consensus had emerged out of continuous communication between architects. Thus the use of a particular style could be justified by showing that it had some kind of association with the nature of the design project it represented. That is, that there was some kind of relationship between the style selected and the building type required.


  • Integrity in the Choice of Style


It is worth noting that even here in the midst of chaos architects sought some degree of integrity in their choice of style. Theoretically one could of course have taken the position that the style selected for a particular project did not matter, that there was no necessary relationship between style and building type. This somewhat media-driven late 20th century attitude that splits image and function, was not conceivable in the 19th century where there still remained that lingering Renaissance concept of a unified and harmonious cosmos. Things had to be connected to each other in some way. There had to be a demonstrable relationship between them for it was only in this way that each of them could be ascribed a definite meaning - by deriving it from their relationship to all other things. In an integrated cosmos, isolated entities could have no meaning. If we substitute the term ‘function’ for the term ‘style’ in this context, we have the basis of functionalism where there must always be a definite relation between form and function/purpose.


  • Design by Association


As stated above, given the wide variety of equally-valid styles available in the 19th century, the issue was to provide a method of selecting an appropriate style for a particular project or building type. At its simplest the architect constructs a chain of associations between the design project and the appropriate style. Its really a bit like a ‘word association’ test with the links being visual.


The following examples of Design by Association is obviously a somewhat humorous version of the process but gives a clear idea of the kind of thinking involved:


Example 1.: An Islamic Carpet Factory


Step 1.                 Architect gets commission to design a factory for producing carpets.

Step 2.                   Architect has to decide what style this factory will be given its ‘subject matter’.

Step 3.         Architect starts with the idea of ‘carpets’ and pursues the following chain of association:


Carpets, Turkish, Middle East, flying carpets, Alladin, Bagdad, Islamic art, Islamic art in Europe, Moorish civilization, Islamic Moorish architectural style……………….


Step 4.                   Architect does research on typical elements and forms of Moorish architecture.

Step 5.         Architect designs project which results in a 19th century industrial building looking like a Moorish castle!


Example 2    Florentine Palazzo Bank   


Step 1.                   Architect gets commission to design a bank.

Step 2.                   Architect has to decide what style this bank will be.

Step 3.         Architect starts with the idea of ‘bank’ and pursues the following chain of association:


Bank, banking halls, origins, the Medici, Florence, the Florentine Renaissance, Early Renaissance architecture…………………..


Step 4.                   Architect does research on the forms of Florentine Renaissance architecture.

Step 5.         Architect designs building which results in a 19th century commercial bank looking like a 15th century Renaissance palazzo!


One other slightly different example of the same process will suffice. Two small German children accompanied by their parents are visiting Istanbul. They come to the Hagia Sophia Mosque. The building prompts the children to ask: “Why has that building got four chimneys?”  A story like this makes it understandable why the city of Potsdam has a 19th century power station in the form of a mosque. What better way to integrate the stark forms of the station’s chimneys into a recognizable stylistic frame than to cast them in the role of minarets?


The point of all of this was of course to ensure that there was some connection or justification for the form of the building (no matter how tenuous). However, the one interesting feature about chains of association is that they can sometimes lead to unpredictable end results. To some extent the effects of this on architecture were limited because excluding personal idiosyncrasies, most of the architects of the time were similar in their social class and the classical bias of their education. So too in their professional role they would be very familiar with the numerous style handbooks, typological studies, catalogues of decorative and ornamental motifs and the substantial works on allegorical meanings and iconography.  This would narrow the range of likely associations that they would make from any given building type and thus maintain some degree of coherence in the urban environment.


5.2     Design by Precedent


Once the style has been selected using associational methods, the typological rules of that style come into play. These are historically-derived compositional rules that have been built up over long periods of time by the interaction of many architects using the style. From Design by Association one can therefore shift quite naturally to Design by Precedent. The main points about the Design by Precedent method can be outlined as follows:


  • The fundamental point about Design by Precedent is that many elements and compositional rules of the style and much of the design process itself are standardized.


  • To some extent the elements and the typical forms of the style (its vocabulary)  together with the distribution of spaces and volumes are predetermined by the rules of the style, (what one may call its syntax).


  • For instance, as mentioned above, classical planning defined a tripartite division of the plan with the spaces arranged symmetrically along an axis. The appropriate columnar order would be selected based on associations with the building type. (The particular character of each columnar order, whether ‘male’ or ‘female’ or its associations with particular building types had been established since the Renaissance). Building mass and elevational issues would be handled by using proportional dimensions derived from the relationship between the column type and the required actual size of the building. Vertical division of the elevations, pediments, domes, window types, entrance porches, aedicules, details, masonry scale, type and cut could all be specified from catalogue based on the initial selection. This was a true triumph of System.


d)       The functions of the building program would be adjusted in size and shape and (to some extent) functional relationship to fit into this preordained pattern.


e)       This formalist design method could sometimes produce some serious compromises in the pragmatic planning of the building and its convenience or functionality but that had more to do with the skill of the individual architect manipulating the elements of the system.


  • The range of standard elements of the style, their combinatory possibilities and the ability to adjust their proportions to suit various sizes could solve most of the architectural problems the architect was likely to meet.


  • Up to a point therefore, this design process of variations on a strong Classical theme actually works. Its inherent familiarity of image and its clear-cut visible order tended to outweigh any problems of inflexibility or functional inconvenience the style might have. Buildings are never just diagrams of their functions. All buildings, then and now, are compromises between function, planning, available forms, semantics, structure, site location, access, money and so on and these arise naturally in the process of integrating so many design factors.


  • The imposition of the historically-derived and (relative to the program), arbitrary planning pattern of Classicism creates contradictions and inconveniences at a much more fundamental level of the design process. By using predetermined forms and patterns, Design by Precedent was already compromised before any functional planning takes place. So too the volumetric distribution of spaces was established, not on the basis of practical or semantic needs but on the basis of forms or compositional rules arbitrarily selected from a historical or typological catalogue, whether some version of Classical or Vernacular/Gothic.


Design by Precedent could and did work as a practical design method for building types typical of architecture from the Renaissance till the beginning of the 19th century. In other words, over time the method had become well-adapted to the kind of tasks it had to handle. By the 19th century however, many those tasks had changed in type, scale and complexity and well beyond the limits of this design method. Spread out over a longer time scale no doubt architecture would have learned to deal with these new design problems within the limits of its traditional forms and methods without the need to introduce a radically new architecture. However, the extreme nature of the crisis stemmed from the fact that the rate of change of 19th century society had speeded up considerably. The reason was the ‘accidental’ occurrence of the Industrial Revolution which triggered very rapid changes across society in a very short period of time. It was simply impossible to adapt traditional forms and the use of precedent to these new circumstances in the time available. The environment had changed too rapidly for the ‘architectural species’ to handle it.


6.0     A Note on Style as a Unit of Analysis   


The concept of style has been the unit of analysis used in this study. At this stage it is worth  reminding ourselves of the following points:


a)              The issue being discussed is not one of the particular formal content or characteristics of each or any style. In other words, the emergence, development and final demise of a style is not a matter of ‘the way it looks’.


b)              The historical developments which took place during the 19th century did not occur because some styles were deemed to more ‘beautiful’ or ‘powerful’ or ‘significant’ than others.


c)               The central issue was not a qualitative one but the quantitative one of the changing number, type and distribution of styles during that period; a quantitative factor derived from the cumulative selection activity of many architects in a changing social and economic environment. 


d)              While individual architects may prefer this or that style, the collective mass of architects has no preference, but their collective actions can produce dramatic, yet unforeseen results.


e)              In this case the result of collective activity in the 19th century was the transformation of a number styles into a single dominant style called Modern.


f)                The shifting stylistic balance of the 19th century and its radical change in the 20th century is more akin to the unpredictable movement of shares on the stock exchange or the changing fortunes of groups of species in a local ecology over time including perhaps their extinction as a result of radical environmental change.


g)              The capacity of styles to adapt to new institutional demands by allowing their forms to be combined and recombined to suit new building programs becomes a major factor in their selection by architects.


h)              The cumulative effect of these many acts of selection and combination provides the filter mechanism (‘natural selection’) which reduces the number and distribution of available styles.


7.0     The Limits of 19th Century Design


Given the circumstances, design techniques and developments outlined above we can clarify the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the development of 19th century architecture by emphasizing the following points:


i)                Generally there was a dramatic increase in the number of new buildings built, the rate of building and, equally important: the number of new building types required.


For architects this meant having to come up with design solutions more quickly. For this reason and others, there was an involuntary shift from the contemplative artistic approach to architecture that had been the traditional approach of the architect towards the more focused and analytical approach of the designer. In order to cope with increasing demands for production, architectural management, practice and thus the design process had to be rationalized. In other words, one can suggest that there was a shift from the architect as artist to the architect as designer.


ii)              Increasing pressure to stretch the capacity of existing architectural styles to handle increasing numbers and types of buildings.


Up to the beginning of the 19th century the kind of buildings that architecture dealt with had been fairly predictable in terms of number and type. While the numbers of buildings to be built might vary to some extent due to economic expansions and recessions, the kinds of building type remained fairly standard. In most cases these building types had been around since at least Renaissance times. For instance, banks, palaces, houses, theatres, churches and so on. These could all be represented using fairly standard combinations of Classical architectural forms with only very occasional sorties into stylistic exotica. Indeed many of solutions to these design problems had also been catalogued in large compendia of typological studies. Theoretically at least, most of the possible permutations had been worked out. Design in these conditions could almost be reduced to checking the catalogue. However, with the Industrial revolution, a whole new range of building types emerged some of which have been listed above. How could existing styles be stretched to handle these really new kinds of problems? In many cases, the standard combinations of form would not work well for new building types or they would produced incongruous solutions.


This and the vast numbers of buildings that had to be built quickly as populations and cities expanded more rapidly pushed Classicism, its variants and the numerous other more marginal styles to their representational breaking point. They simply could not adapt their historically-derived forms or compositional rules to represent the wholly new environments emerging in the 19th century.


iii)      Un-Precedented Design Problems


What happens when there is no possibility of Design by Precedent? What happens when building types or programs are too new, too radically different, in other words – too unprecedented in character, to be represented by traditional forms (classical, vernacular, gothic or other historical styles?). What for instance is the appropriate style for a factory or very large office building such as those built in Chicago in the 1880s? Was an Islamic-styled factory an appropriate solution to the problem of designing factories? Was a Venetian Gothic or Egyptian form a suitable solution to the design of commercial buildings? Was Neo-Gothic a suitable association for a new Museum of Natural History or even more so, for a new building for the Mother of Parliaments?


The problem was not only a superficial matter of appearance. Equally, existing styles had built-in rules of composition which demanded certain kinds of spatial organization and articulation when designing buildings in that style. In many cases it was simply not possible to respond pragmatically to the spatial requirements of the new building types while maintaining the spatial template and integrity of the style. The solutions arrived at through Design by Association and the strictures applied in Design by Precedent and the desperate resort to increasing decoration to solve some of the problems were obviously in some cases grotesquely inappropriate. The situation for architecture, like the nature of the new building types themselves, was ‘without precedent’. With increasing pressures to produce buildings and an increasing divergence between the stylistic means and the functional/semantic ends, architecture seemed to be in a race to come up with a comprehensive behavioural formula – a radical adaptation – to solve these problems before the whole semantic edifice collapsed. The architectural problems which stemmed from a rapidly changing social, technical and economic environment can be summarize as follows:


1.       The semantic/historical associations between new, more complex or massively scaled-up building types and forms were becoming increasingly tenuous, incongruous and sometimes even ludicruous.


2.       The compositional rules which governed the use of certain styles were in effect being exploded by the scale and complexity of new building tasks. A whole new spatial and functional apparatus was emerging out of what was essentially a set of Renaissance spatial and decorative forms.

8.0     Resolving Contradictions in Architecture.


The late 19th century saw the impact of mutually-exclusive demands on architecture as the exigencies of new functions clashed with the semantic requirements of historical precedent. If architecture is the information that informs buildings, then that information no longer corresponded with the new socio-technical reality that had emerged out of the Industrial Revolution. The result was the futile attempts to contain a whole new set of functions in the ruins of past architectures. Yet in this clash of demands and in the struggle to resolve these contradictions lay the seeds of a new architecture.


It is useful at this point to re-state the fundamental contradiction in the architecture of this time. This coincides as mentioned before in the general demand in architecture for both freedom and order, unity and diversity. The peculiar circumstances of the 19th century produce a conflict between two requirements:


  • The need to pragmatically respond to the functional requirements of building programs.


  • The need to simultaneously provide a clear and coherent symbolic order for the building.  


(These can be considered as contradictions only in the sense that 19th century architecture prevented these two requirements from happening simultaneously. At other times and in other architectures, this kind of problem would not arise).


The most pragmatic way to resolve this contradiction would seem to lie in splitting architecture into two distinct systems.














Mutually-exclusive demands means DOUBLE BINDS. The resolution of the double bind is the splitting of the system into two distinct systems.  In other words the free plan gradually emerged out a combination of programmatic requirements and technology while a thin skin of stylistic information still allowed the building to be semantically decoded. Bottom line:


Architects design the buildings functionally but (like railway station hotels), this is hidden behind a stylistic façade. The façade really does become a separate element.


The splitting of architect and artist

The splitting of function and form

The Victorian moral hypocrisy

The split into the free plan need and the grid: two separate but interlocked systems.


Finally, the stylistic skin withers away. Cocoon, chrysalis with function emerging.


Le Corbusiers domino building and villa savoie as prime examples.



(as information which organizes form) lay the seeds of a new architecture. )******its not enough to produce function, one must also NAME the function. The thing and its name: two separate things/orders.










What is the solution to a growing lack of fit between available architectural forms and new building types.


One can also see in this period an increasing tendency towards abstraction, an attempt to find more fundamental design categories that could be applied to a wider range of projects. An attempt in other words, to break out of the stylistic and decorative trap. In French typological studies for instance, classicism was stripped of its decorative or characteristic forms in order to reveal their typical volumetric organization. This made them available as all-purpose spatial or organizational models.


The use of precedent no longer works. There was no identity between such programs and the available style. No identity between the language and that which it must represent.

An architecture had to develop which allowed the architect to deal pragmatically with increasingly complex building programs and with entirely new semantic issues. What in previous time would be called the APPROPRIATENESS of the style chosen. Its capacity to suggest or indicate the meaning of the building purely by difference or similarity with other buildings.

The whole issue of precedence and appropriate form had become meaningless. The number and type of buildings had multiplied well beyond the formal capacities of the historical styles.


Clearly it had become necessary to discover a style which could represent any building program or building type whatsoever. That is, to produce a multi-purpose, functionalist, context-free style which allowed the pragmatic distribution of spaces and forms in exact accordance with the functional and semantic requirements of the building in that place at that particular time. In the historically-derived styles it was formal architectural precedents which determine the distribution of spaces and the volumetric organization of the building. The design process in that case had been more a matter of permutation (of ready-made forms) than of design. 


The rise of ‘Functionalism’ at this point in the late 19th century reflected not just a renewed  interest in the practical, physiological or ergonomic needs of human beings, rather it reflected a purely architectural requirement for freedom and flexibility in the design process in the face of multiplying design problems. Functionalism in this context is an architectural concept designed to solve spatial, volumetric and ultimately, formal/semantic problems generated strictly within architecture itself. Obviously this ‘freedom’ from historical precedent would allow a pragmatic response to planning and the practical issues of buildings, but its effect went much wider than that. It was a radical and successful attempt to produce a new architecture, not just a new building technology.


(It is worth restating the definition of architecture put forward elsewhere (see ‘Architecture as Dynamic System’ article.


Architecture is the information which produces a uniformity of style across a large number of buildings. Architecture is a relation of similarity between a large number of buildings. Buildings are material things while architecture is the information which characterizes those things and gives them a specific identity).


In other words architecture is not primarily about physical shelter. It is about producing a coordinated (and thus semantically coherent) physical environment. Construction and buildings deal with that physical or physiological aspect of human survival. Thus the use of the term ‘functionalism’ in architecture must not be confused with practical planning issue or the use of certain kinds of technology. technology. strictly regarded as referring to a redefinition and liberation of the design process from reference to historical precedent.



While the concept of functionalism was certainly associated with the clarity and functional elegance of the machines produced by the Industrial Revolution,



In strictly ideological terms, of course Modern buildings were not supposed to be based on such contextual formulae. Functionalism and technology were meant to be the only generators of a universal form. They were not of course, and the problem of ‘appropriate choice’ remained a key factor in the design of Modern buildings. This will be discussed in greater detail later on. However, suffice to say that in the design process selection from a number of equally valid styles can only be based on expectation, convention or historical association between certain forms and certain building types. Thus, in the case of the International Style, the Miesian glass tower was deemed ‘appropriate’ for corporate or institutional buildings  while in general, community or religious buildings used the more expressive, ‘tactile’ forms derived from Le Corbusier’s oeuvre. There were of course regional variations on these conventions between say Europe, the United States, the rest of the Americas and Japan. It may also be that available technology provided one of the constraints on selecting appropriate form. One thing was sure: the idea of a universal form emerging from a functional matrix  remained more a matter of ideology than practice.


Either way, the final result was Modernism triumphant.))








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