'Modern' architecture can be hard to nail down

SLUG: sm_stmarys26 DATE: 04/22/09 CREDIT: (photog)/freelance: James A. Parcell LOCATION; St. Mary's City, Md. CAPTION: tour of
SLUG: sm_stmarys26 DATE: 04/22/09 CREDIT: (photog)/freelance: James A. Parcell LOCATION; St. Mary's City, Md. CAPTION: tour of "Clocker's Fancy" historic home in St. Mary's City. Kate and Dan Ingersoll, professors at St. Mary's College live in house. view showing the joists in the ceiling of living room StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Thu Apr 23 08:02:02 2009 (James A. Parcell - Freelance)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Friday, October 22, 2010; 8:22 PM

Can you name the architectural style of your home or apartment building, or the building in which you work? You might reply "traditional" or "modern," but these are vague terms. While "traditional" at least suggests allusion in some way to architectural styles and building types of the past, "modern" is even more imprecise. It defines neither a style nor a building type.

Nevertheless, "Are you a modern architect?" is a question architects often hear, usually asked by those who consider "modernism" a style of architecture analogous to Roman classicism or Gothic revivalism. If an architect says she is a modernist, it only means that she doesn't do traditionally styled work.

Rather than referring to a style, modernism today refers to a generic design approach that is not era-specific. Embracing modernism means applying up-to-date knowledge - social, cultural and environmental - and using available materials and technologies to address contemporary needs, but without replicating antique architecture or historic motifs.

The diversity of modernism is extraordinary. Visualize a few contrasting modernist buildings familiar to Washingtonians: the Dulles and Reagan National airport terminals, the latter designed four decades after the former; the East Building of the National Gallery of Art and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, both designed by the same architectural firm (but by different partners, I.M. Pei and James Ingo Freed, respectively); the Hirshhorn Museum, designed in the 1970s, and the German Embassy on Reservoir Road, designed in the 1960s. Designed since the 1990s are the World Bank headquarters building, facing Pennsylvania Avenue, and the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, facing the Mall.

These edifices all reflect modernist thinking, but their exterior form and geometry, materials and details have little in common. Contrasting even more dramatically in the realm of modernist architecture are the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao, Spain, designed respectively by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1950s and Frank Gehry 40 years later.

Believe it or not, modernist thinking in architecture began in the 18th century in reaction to persistent neoclassical precepts of architectural beauty originating in ancient Greece and Rome. A few inventive, Enlightenment-age architects envisioned structures serving new purposes with unprecedented forms that departed radically from universally understood and accepted design conventions developed during the European Renaissance.

The pervasive influence of Renaissance architecture can be readily seen in models and drawings by 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, currently exhibited at the National Building Museum in the District. The rigorous compositional artistry evident in Palladio's use and transformation of classical forms and motifs was aesthetically compelling, yet formulaic. Furthermore, Palladio's structures were built the same way as ancient structures: Masons cut and placed stone upon stone to make walls, pilasters and columns; entablatures and pediments; arches, vaults and domes; and carved ornamentation.

Despite historicist revivals during the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution enabled architectural modernism to firmly take hold in Europe and the United States. Factories mass-produced structural iron and, later, steel for building skeletons, eliminating the need for thick masonry columns and bearing walls. Reinforced-concrete technology evolved, along with plate-glass manufacturing, indoor plumbing, electrification, elevators and ever-larger and more powerful construction equipment.

In the 20th century, buildings could be mechanically heated, cooled and ventilated. Metallurgists, chemists and industrial engineers discovered or synthesized innovative materials and methods allowing buildings to soar skyward, withstand earthquakes and become transparent.

In recent decades, architects and engineers designed more energy-efficient buildings that consume and emit less carbon. And with computer technology, buildings could assume almost any shape that doesn't violate building codes, budget ceilings and the laws of physics.

But none of these innovations automatically leads to a particular architectural style. In fact, they enable creation of buildings in all styles, including traditional ones. Moreover, intermingling historicist and modernist elements can produce a stylistic stew, a characteristic of many suburban homes. Of course, any building still can succeed or fail aesthetically.

Talented "modernist" architects do not begin design by preselecting a style, whether traditional or modern in origin. Rather their design concepts evolve, shaped by site and context; by clients' functional and economic requirements; by zoning and building codes; by technology, and, most important, by the designer's imagination and creative will. If successful, their architecture will possess its own aesthetic style, for which there may yet be no name.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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