Friday, August 15, 2014

Modern American Residential Architecture of the Early 20th Century

At the close of the 19th century, our country’s neighborhoods maintained a decidedly traditional feel with decades of ornate Victorian-era style homes and throwback revival styles referencing earlier Colonial, Neoclassical, Tudor, and Mission architecture.  Things changed when new and pioneering Prairie and Craftsman styles came into popularity in the early 1900s.  These styles featured low-pitched roofs, widely overhanging eaves, cornice/façade details emphasizing horizontal lines, and brawny porch supports, and were the first ‘modernist’ buildings in the sense that they were new indigenous architectural styles not based on historical precedents.  Although distinct from contemporary Victorian and revival styles in appearance, both Prairie and Craftsman houses were still partially defined by their use of decorative elements, which tied them to the Arts and Crafts movements that placed great value on the expression of craftsmanship and the manual arts.  

At the same time that Prairie and Craftsman styles were spreading en masse across the country through new suburban developments, a radical new style was emerging:  Modernism.  Inspired by modern art movements such as Cubism and industrial mechanization, the new style embraced a more stripped-down expression of building parts.  Pioneering uses of concrete instead of wood meant that traditional building structural elements were physically unnecessary and revolutionary new forms could be accomplished.

G. Crès & Cie Pavilion, International Exposition; Hiriart Tribout et Beau, arch.
The Modernistic styles – which include Art Deco, Art Moderne, and Streamline Moderne – were initially and most commonly used for larger commercial or public buildings.  The first well-known examples of Modernism were Eliel Saarinen’s 2nd place design for a competition to design the Chicago Tribune’s new headquarters building in 1922 (never built), and the designs featured at the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Design Arts in Paris where architectural, furniture, and other design work was exhibited. 

Source: Wikipedia Commons
The Art Deco movement blossomed out of this exposition. It was immediately distinctive for its applied geometric ornamentation and emphasis of vertical lines.  Art Deco’s heyday was fairly short-lived, and the style quickly grew into the Moderne movement in the early 1930s.  Moderne buildings embraced curved walls and horizontal lines, and, influenced by steam ships and cars of the era, had a sleek look that implied movement.  The International Style was introduced to the United States in the 1930s as an extension of the Moderne styles developed by European architects such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  The International Style eschewed meaningless ornamentation and embraced modern building materials and technologies:  namely, the use of steel skeleton construction, stronger and lighter than iron, and which could be covered by a thin skin.

The Modern styles never eclipsed the more traditional building design in American residential architecture.  This owed in part to the ease of construction of more traditional styles – with readily-available dimensioned lumber – and partly to the sentimentality of Americans in the period between the World Wars.  This feeling was stronger in the United States after World War II, when most residential architecture consisted of stripped-down versions of more traditional styles.  Elements of the International style were softened and adapted into what is generally known as Modern residential architecture across the country.  Most major examples of the Moderne and International residential styles are grouped in certain urban areas on the East and West Coasts, although houses of these styles can be found scattered throughout cities of all sizes across the country.  The houses are generally noted within the community for their unique and stylistic appearance. 

Each Modern style has certain hallmarks, known in historic preservation fields as character-defining features.

Art Deco architecture generally features smooth wall surfaces with applied ornamentation in geometric motifs. 

Buildings have towers and projections that, along with the ornamentation, emphasize verticality. Residences generally have flat roofs with parapets, but these may also be stepped, with upper floors set back to create a stacked block appearance. Traditional Building elements, such as window and door surrounds, are still present, but are exaggerated or stylized.

Source: A Field Guide to American Houses

Moderne architecture also has smooth wall surfaces, but minimal ornamentation.  

Traditional building elements are minimized, with the use of steel to invisibly frame window and door openings.  Windows are often set at corners as a structural trick.  Round windows mimic steamship portholes.  Glass block adds a futuristic touch.  Houses often feature a curved wall or walls.  Roofs are flat with parapet walls that have an emphasized coping.  Porch roofs have curved corners and are cantilevered with no visible means of support, or with overemphasized fin walls.  Architectural elements generally have a horizontal line, mimicking the movement of air across the building. 


International style architecture removes most elements that serve no purpose other than decoration. 

Houses are boxy, with only occasional use of curved walls.  Flat roofs have parapets with minimal or no coping or are projecting slab roofs with deep overhangs.  Design details are based on the function of materials.  Development of curtain wall structural systems allow for extensive use of glass and windows are often grouped into long rows and turn corners. 
Source: A Field Guide to American Houses