Impact of Neoclassicism, Industrial Revolution and Art Nouveau on modern architecture

Modern architecture as we see it today is a culmination of the efforts and struggles of men and women over the past centuries. These efforts were made not only by architects, but also by civil engineers, real estate developers and numerous others who directly or indirectly have contributed to the development of architecture on the whole.

In fact, over the years such has been the influence of various factors on architecture at different points of time that it is almost impossible to single out the one movement that is responsible for the development of modern architecture. However, which factor had the greatest impact on modern architecture is an opinion that varies from person to person.

Though neo-classicism can be said to be the start of the intellectual revolution, it was more of an anti-reaction towards the excessive ornamentation of baroque and rococo styles. Classical architectural models were adapted or referenced in a range of architectural forms, including churches, arches, temple, house, terraces, garden monuments and interior designs. Rather than coming up with something original the neo-classicists went back to classical architecture and derived eclectically from it. Though visionary neo-classicism was to some extent an attempt to create something revolutionary, none of it was actually executed. In a nutshell, we can say that neo-classicism got caught up within the confines of historicism and eclecticism thus failing to come up with something radical.

The Industrial Revolution, which began in England about 1760, led to radical changes at every level of civilization throughout the world. The growth of heavy industry brought a flood of new building materials such as cast iron, steel, and glass with which architects and engineers devised structures hitherto undreamed of in function, size, and form.

In the rapidly growing economy new types of buildings like rail road stations, warehouses, exchanges, shopping malls, exhibition buildings were required. However, most of these buildings had no architectural precedents and so the architects were required to come up with new architectural solutions. At such a stage the architect’s responded with returning to Renaissance, borrowing from the principles of Classical Architecture, Gothic revival and eclecticism at the most. Thus, once again they were unable to break the shackles of the architectural influences of the past.

It was in fact art nouveau that represented the beginning of modernism in design. It occurred at a time when mass-produced consumer goods began to fill the marketplace, and designers, architects, and artists began to understand that the handcrafted work of centuries past could be lost. While reclaiming this craft tradition, art nouveau designers simultaneously rejected traditional styles in favour of new, organic forms that emphasized humanity’s connection to nature.

In fact, art nouveau is viewed as a stage in the entire cultural movement called modernism, not so much from the character of its superficial details but in its fundamental inspiration, which was motivated by the search for a new style that would not depend on any of the styles of the past.

Also, it were art nouveau designers who erased the barrier between fine arts and applied arts, they applied good design to all aspects of living from architecture to silverware to painting. In this integrated approach art nouveau had its deepest influence on society.

Following the rapid commercialization of art nouveau in the decade 1900–10, designers reacted in two fundamentally different manners. While a decorative school of designers turned to new sources for decor and produced Art Deco, the other, a radical approach, swept away all decorative detail as degenerate and looked to a sleekly machined functionalism and was epitomized by Adolf Loos. Out of that reaction evolved Bauhaus styles and International Modernism.

Although the stylistic elements of art nouveau evolved into the simpler, streamlined forms of modernism, the fundamental art nouveau concept of a thoroughly integrated environment remains an important part of contemporary design. I, therefore, feel that it was in art nouveau that the seeds of modern architecture were first sown.

Courtesy: Vaibhav Shekhar

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