top of page
© Copyright

History of Modern Architecture III


19th century and 20th Century Architectures


By Alex Brown


1.0 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:


1.    An increased Number of buildings


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

3.    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.


2.0    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’.


3.0 The Emergence of new Building Types


The  19th century produced new industrial and commercial building types derived from the rapid expansion of new steam-driven large scale industrial processes requiring factories, power stations. At the same time there was the need for large commercial buildings such as banks, office buildings and department stores which were entirely new building types of quite a different scale and content than before and quite unprecedented in the history of architecture. Equally, given the social presures on 19th. century society there arose the need for schools, hospitals, museums, town halls and a whole range of unprecedented building types that had to be represented in architectural terms while architectural styles drifted around in a romantic haze of Classsicism and Gothicism. How were such new types to be represented given the strict and hallowed protocols of the 'traditional styles? The answer of course was radical functionalism at one level and stylistic containment at another. In other words, solve the functional problems at one level and wrap these solutions in decorative traditional forms for public consumption. This was not a form of hypocracy. Architects of the time understood that forms, all forms, had to be integrated into a common and familiar language of form. How else could they be integrated into the great harmony of the society? One must not assume that the architects of the time displayed some cynicism about representing such new functions in traditional forms. Quite the opposite, they sought to incorporate these new functions suitably clothed into the canons of the dominant styles. This task was, of course useless. The continuous adaptation of traditional forms to suit new functions inevitably stretched those forms to breaking point, reduced to their most fundamental geometric essence, stripped of historical or allegorical meaning. Their association with classical or gothic precedents dissolved into strict geometrical arrangements. The Modern had begun.


4.0    Too Many Styles and too Much Choice


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:


a)     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.


b)     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.


c)     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.


e)      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.


5.0    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.


6.0     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:


a)         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.

b)       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).


c)      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.


f)             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.

g)          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.


h)             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:

a)     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.


b)     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.


c)      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:


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


2.   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 involves 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. Note the parallels:


The splitting of architect and artist

The splitting of function and form

The Victorian moral hypocrisy

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


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



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


One can 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.


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.)




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