At the peak of the Period Revival’s popularity, the American public received a glimpse of a new kind of architecture, an architecture that rejected historicism. The new architecture, as it was called by its European pioneers, soon became known in this country as “modern architecture.”
Its American premier was not without controversy. The first glimpses came in the form of a number of European entrants to the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition. The architects of these designs seized the opportunity to apply their theories of modern design to that uniquely American building type—the skyscraper. The winning design, however, was a tower in the Gothic Revival style, and American architecture did not assimilate modern European design ideas for almost a decade.
By 1923, one of the foreign entrants in the competition, Eliel Saarinen, had permanently settled in the United States. The same year also saw the immigration of a young Viennese architect, Richard Neutra, to southern California. Before the decade ended, Neutra’s design for Dr. Lovell’s Health house in the Hollywood Hills presented America with its first major residence in the International style of modern architecture.
In Europe, a number of significant events took place during the 1920s that affected the future of modern design. Architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus, a new school of design in Germany, in the early 1920s. By 1926, a new school facility designed by Gropius became symbolic of both the new architecture and the school’s philosophy.
In 1925 Paris hosted the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes–the origin of the name of the popular Art Deco style. The 1927 League of Nations Competition also brought to public attention a number of modern European architects, in particular the French-Swiss Le Corbusier, who had previously been known for his elegant, modern country villas.
Also in 1927, his work and the work of a number of other modern European architects appeared at the highly influential housing settlement of Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart, Germany. Sponsored by the German Werkbund, it was the first major exhibition of modern architecture in Europe.
By the end of the 1920s America had become more familiar with modern architecture. Neutra’s unique steel-framed Lovell house had been completed and the planning of architects Howe and Lescaze for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building, America’s first International Style skyscraper, was well under way. But it was not until the following decade that modern design received full recognition.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City gave the new architecture its seal of approval by producing an exhibition in 1931. Organized by two architectural historians, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, “The International Style: Architecture Since 1922” presented the work of 40 architects from 15 countries. So influential was this exhibition that the term “International Style” has stuck, for better or for worse, in the minds of many as the synonym for modern architecture.
In his preface to the catalog The International Style, which was published to accompany the exhibition, museum director Alfred H. Barr Jr. enumerated the “aesthetic principles” of the style:
Emphasis upon volume—space enclosed by thin planes or surfaces as opposed to the suggestion of mass and solidity.
Regularity as opposed to symmetry or other kinds of obvious balance
Dependence upon the intrinsic elegance of materials, technical perfection, and fine proportions, as opposed to applied ornament.
The authors of the catalog carefully chose works illustrating these points, and included four American buildings: the works of Raymond Hood, Howe & Lescaze, and Richard Neutra.
Full theoretical impact of the teachings of Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, both of whom would eventually head architectural departments at American institutions, and of Le Corbusier, among others, was interrupted by the Second World War. Still, by the end of the 1940s, American architectural education had gone through a major revamping, despite a good deal of protest by more traditionally trained architects.
Pre-World War II modern architecture in the United States has been analyzed and divided into a number of styles, the names of which sometimes allude to important exhibits in the modern movement. For example, the Art Deco derives its name from the decorative motifs of the 1925 Paris exhibition, and the International Style is based upon the design characteristics in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition of the same name. Art Moderne was influenced by the streamlined designs of industrial products of the 1930s and 1940s.
A more recently recognized style is the PWA Moderne. Congress created the Public Works Administration in 1933 as the Federal Administration of Public Works. This agency administered the construction of public works and loaned money to states and municipalities for public projects. Public works projects of the 1930s often used the PWA Moderne style, which used certain Classical principles incorporating Art Deco decorative motifs and molded ornamentation.
The popularity of these styles in Utah did not match that of other western states, most particularly California. International Style or Art Moderne houses in residential neighborhoods are unusual, and those that do exist often find themselves surrounded by more traditional Period Revival styles. More frequently, commercial storefronts and movie theaters used the modern styles. In Utah, most of the buildings in these modern-style buildings were supported by federal monies and included schools, institutions of higher learning, city halls, federal buildings, and county courthouses.
Rejecting all references to historicism, this style emerged in Europe during the 1920s and eventually became known around the world for its unadorned, smooth-surfaced, flat roof designs. Based on the machine aesthetic, which borrowed the appearance of machined surfaces and used machine-finished industrial products, it was made popular by such European architects as Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius.
The latter two men immigrated to the United States prior to World War II and both taught and practiced in this country. No building type escaped the influence of this style. It was less popular in Utah than its close kin, the Art Moderne style.
–stucco over masonry walls
–flat roofs without cornices or eaves
–extensive use of glass
–double cantilevered, corner windows
–metal pipe railings and balustrades
Art Moderne 1930-1940
Also known as “streamline moderne,” this style was influenced by the International Style and the work of industrial designers. Flat-roofed Art Moderne buildings recall the machine aesthetic, nautical imagery, and especially the aerodynamic imagery of the locomotive and the airplane. The designs incorporated curves: rounded corners, curved windows, or smooth wall surfaces (some of them stucco) highlighted with metal trim or sash. Machine-age materials such as steel pipe railing, aluminum and stainless steel, circular windows, and translucent glass block produced a decorative effect.
–irregular plan and asymmetrical façade
–smooth-surfaced, flat-roofed volumes usually incorporating rounded corners
–stucco or masonry wall surfaces
–class block windows and walls
–circular windows similar to a ship’s porthole
–double-cantilevered corner windows
–unpainted metal trim and/or cornice
–steel pipe railings
Art Deco 1930-1940
Referred to by some as the “zigzag” phase of Art Moderne, this style relies upon stylized plant and animal motifs as well as hard-lined, angular geometric patterning in exterior and interior ornament. Influenced by the International Style, this modern style also derived its reliance upon ornamentation from the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs.
Decorative parapets, echoing the effect of crenellation, surrounded the flat-roofed buildings of this style. Ornamentation in the form of panels, cornices, parapets, and window and door surrounds were composed of contrasting materials such as terra-cotta, colored glass, glass block, and various exposed metals. Large-scale monumental buildings often contained central towers, some of which were buttressed by side wings.
–angular geometric decorative patterns
–vertical molded ornamentation
–tower suggestive of high-rise buildings
–central tower with stepped wings
–ornamental door and window surrounds
–metal sash windows
–polychromatic decorative glass or glazed brick
PWA Moderne 1935-1940
Art Deco and Art Moderne styles as well as Beaux Arts Classicism and Neoclassical styles influenced the design of Public Works Administration buildings. This use of a stripped-down Classicism has resulted in the term PWA Moderne. Generally associated with governmental buildings, it may also be seen in some commercial buildings. These formal, symmetrical buildings with their Classical roots also contain Art Deco and Art Moderne details that give them an updated appearance.
–smooth wall surfaces, flat roof, and plain, narrow cornices
–vertical molded ornamentation
–Art Deco decorative motifs
–piers, usually without capitals