Madison area Modernism

The Modern movement in architecture has roots in the Arts and Crafts movement in Europe in the later decades of the 19th century when some craftspeople and builders rejected machine-made goods and set about designing handcrafted goods and structures, inventing new forms, styles, and ornamentation.  Advances in structural engineering in the late 19th century and the development of new building materials gave architects, already primed to invent by the Arts and Crafts ethic, a new vocabulary for designing buildings.

Villa Savoye, by French Modernist architect Le Corbusier, built in 1929.

New architectural design ideals emerged simultaneously in Europe and America, but looked very different from each other. European architects, by the 1920s, had embraced the new materials made possible through modern industrial manufacturing processes. They adopted a clean, streamlined, utilitarian aesthetic based on the idea that buildings should be practical and utilitarian. Applied ornamentation was unnecessary and, in fact, dishonest because it has nothing to do with how the building is used.

American Modernism followed more closely the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts movement. Louis Sullivan and the Prairie School architects of Chicago endeavored to invent a new, uniquely American style of architecture, completely re-imagining form and function in residential, religious, and commercial buldings. Like the European Modernists the Prairie School architects valued simplicity, new materials and technology, and a complete rethinking of interior space.  Unlike the Europeans, though, the Americans did not subscribe to the rigorous confines of creating strictly utilitarian space. Prairie School buildings are warm, richly crafted, and often incorporate natural materials.

Kaufmann house (Fallingwater) by Frank Lloyd Wright, built in 1936.

While Modernism developed freely in Europe in the 1910s and 20s, development of Modern styles in America was stunted by the influence of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 which effectively promoted the use of classical and revival styles to a nationwide audience. Wright and other Prairie School architects in Chicago pushed through that influence to promote a new American architecture in the Midwest with some success. During the Great Depression and World War II very little progress was made  in the development of American architecture, and a uniquely American architectural style would again be threatened by the immigration of several European designers in the 1930s. During the oppression of Europe by Nazi Germany several European Modernists emigrated to America and were offered influential position in prominent architectural schools.  Their influence on American architecture competed heavily with Wright’s, while few other Americans designers were working to advance the American ideas of Modern architecture born in Chicago.

Eventually, Modernist architects in the early 20th century believed they could, and should, use architecture to bring about social change.  They could build innovative and inexpensive buildings and landscapes for rapidly growing and urbanizing societies in the postwar years.

The grand ideals of the Modernist pioneers were diluted by the time they were widely accepted in Madison, but the new language they formulated to create new buildings, using plate glass, steel framing and reinforced concrete, was appreciated by architects whose designs were built here.

Since there was very little built in Madison during the Great Depression or World War II, post-war Modernist design is the next distinct architectural era to become “historic.” We need to separate the masterpieces from the mediocrities before they are all sacrificed for density and infill.