top of page
© Copyright

History of Architecture II



19th century and 20th Century Architectures


By Alex Brown


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:


1.1   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:


a)    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.


b)    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).


c)    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.


d)   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.


e)    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.              


f)      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.


g)    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:


a)     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.


b)    The search for alternative and more expressive architectural forms which could 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.


2.3   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:


a)       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.


b)        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.


c)    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’.


d)     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.


e)   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.


f)     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.


g)    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:


1.     Utility and pragmatism at the level of use

2.     Truth to function and materials

3.     Coherent organization of forms – a clear order.

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

5.     The rationality of the new mass-production technology

6.    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.


e)    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.


f)   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.


g)    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.


h)    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:


a)    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


b)     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.


c)    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.


d)     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. 


e)   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.


f)     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.


g)   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.



architecture, design history, cultural history of Europe, US, Asia, gothic, islamic, renaissance, baroque, modern, postmodern, 

Architecture Art Design Cultural History and Theory and More

From Undergraduate to Graduate: its all here. Packed with information. Everything you wanted to know about :



bottom of page
free html visitor counters
free html visitor counters