Saturday, November 3, 2007

International Modernism

The phrase “international modernism” was first coined by Philip Johnson to describe the architecture of the International Style Exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1932. The phrase is self explanatory in that it refers to the fact that, during the first half of the twentieth century, modernism had found a place for itself in the newly conceived national styles across the globe.

The design of this era (per Raizman) was founded upon the use of new materials such as glass and concrete, the implementation of new technologies for production, recognition of the factors of comfort, importance of fitness to purpose, and the respect of individual expression, Visually, (per Johnson), evident was an expression of volume instead of mass, reliance upon balance instead of preconceived symmetry, and, most definitively, the abandonment of ornament.

The emergence of international modernism can largely be credited to the shared desire of nations across the world to create their own national identity within the global community. These identities were meant to demonstrate the status and power of a nation, to its citizens and to the world, at economic, technological, cultural, and political levels. Design was used as the “commercial face” of the identities, thus resulting in national styles. In order for nations to be able to “stand their ground” within the international marketplace, their style had to be one not only of function and efficiency, but of beauty and appeal as well. Thus, the successful national styles can be described as that of a “marriage of industry and art” which, in turn offers a definition to what is modern. This expanded at an international level as a marriage of “commerce and culture”. Conclusively, international modernism was a result of national identities, shaped through modern design, to offer international appeal.

The International Style, mentioned earlier, was an extreme version of international modernism with strict Rationalist principles. The public buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe (Miles if your Josh) exemplifies this style. They are essentially floating, glass boxes and technically all look the same. They demonstrate the style’s essence in that, design solutions were indifferent to location, site, and climate. There were no historical ties, nor any vernacular qualities. They could literally be built anywhere.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s theory pertaining to the relation of the interior to the exterior was in direct opposition with that of the International Style. Site and location were central to his designs, and his ability to create architecture as the manmade extension of the land played a big part his success.

So, who wins? Was the indifference of the International Style a strength, or weakness? Is a universal solution the best solution, or a limited one? Does the anonymity of the International Style undermine it origins as a symbol for patriotism and nationalism? Give your opinion and reasoning.


jessica said...

I've read over the blog several times and I can't seem to come to one conclusion I see points of both sides. In a way the international style was a way to unite a country especially at post war times when cities were in the rebuilding stage and looking for an identity. One example of this style that we saw in Chicago was the post office and the Federal Center by Mies van der Rohe. These building seem to stick in my mind, as a spectator looking at his buildings they don’t really do anything for me, to me there's a lack of character and significance which in a way is ironic because that’s what the style was all about. To me a building should stand out from another one but like the international style suggests there still needs to be a certain amount of unity to tie everything together.
This brings me to the other side of the question, Frank Llyod Wright’s point of view about wanting things to relate to nature and be an “extention of nature." I definitely see his point because I feel like you can't just build a structure and not take into consideration of the place in which it will be located which is what the international style essentially did. A building should have some amount of character not to go as far as they did in the rococo revival but there should be a balance of both character from the region and a unifying element or theme to connect everything.
This is something that is becoming very popular where I live. Many of the surrounding towns are requiring a store to conform slightly with the town’s image. Instead of the store building their typical stores that the general population is accustom to the town will require the stores façade to be brick with certain architectural characteristics in order to create a unified feel. Another restriction that is being enforced is the heights of signs that a company can have. All of this is to create in a sense what the international style was aiming for …a unified look but in this modern day example its not a country wide “look” but more regional and having to do with a particular place and relating to their landscape like FLW would have wanted. But I feel that a balance of the two would be the ideal pick since to me both are very important and essential to a successful design.

Laurel said...

I think that there is a clear answer to this question, and that answer is: Frank Lloyd Wright! (But that is just my opinion.)
Here is my thinking on the matter:
How can the International Style claim to symbolize nationalism, when it is, by name, INTERnational? It is rooted directly in pure geometric forms, which are a common thread among all nations, and in new methods of industrial production. This is a wonderful style in which many great architects and designers practiced, but it simply doesn't convey the idea of patriotism or nationalism that sparked it's creation. This I do not understand. How can you build a national identity without drawing from your nations history, your past? Then again, this is just another rejection of styles that happens routinely throughout the history of design.

I believe that Frank Lloyd Wright's opposing theories on design were much more successful and, dare I say, "true" to themselves. Wright related the design to the landscape, and echoed it's characteristics. He tried to make minimal impact on the landscape, rarely digging into the ground to accommodate for a basement.
He did experiment with new materials - as we saw in his studio in Chicago, he took a risk by using a newly developed material, magna-cite (which actually never grew in popularity).

It is kind of like what Mrs. Dickson said, we were intended to live in nature, so if you surround us with plants and natural light we will feel more comfortable. We are humans - we came from nature and it is in our blood to live in nature, so it is important that we incorporate this into our designs. The International Style completely rejected that. Wright embraced the idea fully and tried to merge the landscape and it's unique characteristics with the philosophies and practices of modern living.

So, in conclusion, I believe that the philosophies of the International Style, which supported a design aesthetic that could be adopted across the board, were indeed weakened by their lack of cultural connection and historical reference.

NBUSHdesign said...

First I would like to say that I really like the background given on what the international style and international modernism has come to be today. Good definitions. As well, I also like your pairing of two completely opposing views that are backed behind two people who express these two radically different ideas through their architecture. It really gets me thinking.
On to the questions. Well…I’m trying to move onto them. I am finding this very hard to decide upon. Anyone that has seen me in studio has witnessed my often modern, and Bauhaus type designs. I lean more toward that style. However, I like to take into account human scale, ergonomics, and comfort ability. I like to marry these two things together to make a progressive, comfortable design.
That being said, I think that neither the vernacular architecture nor the international style wins. They can’t, because they both have their own place in the world. There are very suitable places for both of these styles of architecture. We shouldn’t be “racist” against certain architecture is my crude way of putting it. Neither side is particularly better.
What I find, is that there is a tipping point in the structure, aesthetic appeal, and feel of a city, town, village, or community after they have existed and mutated into something different over the course of time. The places that have changed into a cityscape, such as Chicago, rightfully should allow international styles to enter their skyline. It does not particularly adapt to the surrounding nature, but I think that it adds upon it and creates a monumental focal point much like the Ayers Rock in Australia. We can create new naturalistic forms.
Vernacular architecture often has more sense to be implemented in areas that have more natural settings next to them, rather than more pavement, concrete, and buildings. They owe their form to their surroundings…Falling Water to the trees and water (cohesive)…Sears Tower to the skyline of Chicago (stands out as man made form).
The international style is a strength of man and a good thing. A universal solution however is not good. All of society should not be homogeneous. However, abstract forms or varying types can be very interesting and engaging. I do think that the international style undermines nationalism as a whole because of it’s abstraction there is no clear voice of who it is representing.


Megan Funk said...

Of course the indifference of the International Style was a strength. How else could something transcend so many cultures? If it was particular to one culture or one location then it would not have spread and grown to be a part of so many cultures like it did. This anonymity led to it becoming a part of many cities worldwide, but it’s is also important to note that it was mostly in cities. You wouldn’t find one of Mies van der Rohe’s buildings at Bear Run but you do find many well known works of Frank Lloyd Wright in large cities as well as secluded areas. This gives a weakness to the International Style in comparison with other architecture styles of the time in that they were not as diverse and didn’t fit in as many locations, but at the same time I still see this as a strength. Architecture of the International Style was meant to leave an impression of awe and to display the use of new materials. It accomplished that to a tee and for that reason it was adopted by so many places to give them an image of strength and power.

As far as whether or not a universal solution is best, I’m not sure. I find it hard to believe that one could be and am somewhat reminded of reading “The Giver” in fifth grade where the whole community was static and controlled. Architecture and design aren’t something that can be solved with one solution. Sure, Mies designed each of his buildings to be very similar, but for every post office to follow those rules and for none of them to totally push the limits or add some interest would be, well, boring. Architecture and design are there not just for function and to give people places to live or work but to give them a place where they want to live or work, a place that has interest. If there was developed a true “International Style” then how could this interest be created, where would it come from? For design to maintain our interest as well as continue to meet our needs, it has to grow and change and much of that growing and changing is a product of diverse designs coming from different places.

I was also struck with a bit of confusion from the book explaining this “International Style” as originating from patriotism and nationalism. I thought to myself “how can something be patriotic or a symbol of nationalism if it is a part of a worldwide movement?” But I came to realize that it was more a symbol of power and by taking part in this movement the country was showing strength and claiming its place as a modern city, which deserved attention and respect as much as any other city.

Audrey said...

I know...My response is late and I am sure it will be a bit incoherent. Frankly, this question goes a little over my head but I will do my best.

1. I do not feel that I am any authority to choose between Wright's more personal internationalism and Van der Rohe's perfection. I know that having inhabited both I have am more comfortable in Wright's spaces. Still this is merely my preference. We should also keep in mind that Wright was primarily a domestic designer while Van der Rohe did many more commercial type spaces. That being said it can probably be asserted that the more institutional the design the more international the design must become.

2. Is it our humanitarian duty to create spaces that can accommodate everyone? Internationalism is, aesthetically, for everyone. Still I wonder, aren’t we dong the same things in design today? With all the codes and restrictions that control every space we create; are we forced into a modern day Internationalism? Internationalism is American way. Being politically correct even in design is important. But as I stated earlier this is primarily true in institutional spaces rather than residential ones.

This blog is intended for the interior design students in the college of design at the University of Kentucky. It was created with the intent to present students with information, providing them with a channel for contemplation and discussion.