Expansion and Changes in Architecture in the 20th century

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The changes which took place in British architecture during the 20th century were diverse and were nothing like the styles of the past. Before the 20th century most buildings, which had been built, were either Gothic or Classical in style. This was also very typical of most of the architecture in Western Europe and had been for several centuries. Changes were about to be made.

After the First World War many architectural designs were based on the use of materials such as glass, concrete and steel. There were several significant changes in the 20th century, which continued to thrive for the next 100 years.

These changes in styles were brought about because of new influences in architectural design in Britain, Europe and even as far as the U.S.A. In this country the traditional schools of Lutyens and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott were particularly important, so too were the German college of Gropius and Bauhaus (1929-34) and The Art-Nouveau Movement (1920), although not specifically related to architecture, certainly had its influence.

Before 1945 modern architecture in Britain was uncommon. There were a few examples but they were mainly built by architects who had come over from their own countries in the 1930’s to seek political asylum. For example in 1934, Walter Gropius designed Impington Village College in Cambridgeshire. Similarly, Erich Mendelsohn who came from Germany built the De la Warr Pavilion at Bexhill on Sea in 1936.

Buildings such as these influenced and enabled young British architects who were beginning to break away from the traditional schools of design in order to develop their own styles and structures using steel, concrete and glass. For example, some of the first of these modern designs using plain blocks of brick constructed around a steel framework included the Royal Masonic Hospital at Ravenscourt Park (designed by Sir John Burnet in 1930-33) and the London Circular line underground station at Arnos Grove, which was built in 1932.

British modern design in the 1930’s experienced a great deal of architectural difference and change since 1945. This can be seen, in particular, in the educational buildings, garden cities, housing and industrial estates, the flats and skyscrapers we see in our urban landscapes today.

These changes were beginning to form in the approach, styles and production of new buildings. There are several reasons as to why there have been noted developments in modern architecture.

These include the nineteenth century population explosion in Europe as well as the UK. Together with the effects of the 19th century industrial revolution, this ensured that a wide range of different new buildings would be required to suit all the needs of a growing population of more technologically advanced people.

The development of new building materials and new methods made more young and ambitious people want to become more involved in architecture as they had a whole new medium to work in. Their possibilities in architecture were almost endless at that time.

There was also a certain desire for change following a prolonged boredom with the architectural styles of the 19th century. The young architects wanted to expand and even the more established architects wanted to create a range of new and more interesting buildings with the new methods as their means.

Frank Lloyd Wrights Water House, Pensylvania.

Following 1945, the extensive destruction that was experienced during both the two world wars became more noticeable. This required the re-building of entire towns and cities such as London, Swansea and Coventry.

As stated, the aftermath, the view of

London, following a blitz.

However a decade passed and a new problem had arisen. It was not anticipated that the effects of the fast growing use of motorcycles and cars had posed problems in the inner city areas, such as parking and even enforced regulations about driving through city centres were not at all established. Hence in the 1960’s and more so in the 1970’s there was the introduction of the multi-storey car park. A problem solving expansion, and what seemed to be a good idea has formed into a series of ugly raised buildings littering town and city centres as they still exist today, unchanged.

An abandoned multi-storey car park in the inner city of London

The changes of the 20th century owed nothing to the previous classical styles of the 19th century, as it had absolutely no links, cultural or structural, with the past. It had started to evolve following the events of World War I and progressed gradually in between the wars, it was then halted at the start of World War II and then exploded afterwards. The availability and use of all the new materials such as glass, concrete and steel ensured that many new buildings were erected very quickly. The new stages in the architecture of new buildings were continuously developing and changing as more and more architects experimented like scientists with new ideas and methods ensuring that no two buildings were the same and in a lot of cases not even similar.

All this change that occurred immediately following the war is now known as the Modern Movement. It based itself on two philosophies; it was experimental with the inter-war creations and it rejected ornament and over-decoration. The elaborate guilding and decoration, which was so prominent before the modern movement, was not evident in any of the new architects plans, “the design was stark without embellishment” as Doreen Yarwood claimed. It was concerned with sound architectural structure and realistic materials and this was difficult before the 20th Century due to a sheer lack of materials.

Architects when designing buildings in the modern movement made them stylish yet practical therefore suitable for their purpose. The leaders of the modern school were impressed by the structure and not concerned with the classical movement previous to it. The movement motivated new technology and engineering, which had been evolving steadily since the industrial revolution. New shapes were being produced such as spheres, cylinders and cubes with their cheap production being important too, therefore, architects strived in their development in order to combine the two.

A Brazilian corporate office, 1990.

The Sydney Opera House, Australia, 1989.

The architects were working under many constraints such as municipal and parliamentary authorities which restricted the money available to invest in the creation of new buildings. All of the big corporate companies that could afford to build new offices and head quarters had done so. Therefore Britain lost many of its best architects to Europe, the USA and Japan.

In this country this lack of money resulted in plain concrete blocks relieved only by a railing or gate, of which perhaps the most recognisable example is the multi-storey car park. So this stark simplicity was a characteristic of the time but gradually the architects were able to develop their designs when they learnt to handle the new materials. These concepts of concrete blocks were then abandoned. The concept of steel and concrete producing weight, support and strength as well as far more interesting design enabled the architects ability to ‘go to town’ with their design. This massive expansion gave architects of the time and capability to experiment with the design of buildings that had not been possible before this time.

With housing, the use of brick, stone, wood and slate was not lost, however it had changed. The design and use of these materials became far more individual and creative as opposed to the formality up to the present time. Interiors became more colourful after the 1950’s, which in turn, led to the exteriors being painted baby blue or even pink. This was unheard of and would have been frowned upon before that time.

In summary, the modern movement led to drastic but very innovative and exciting changes in the 20th century. It expanded to form a new contemporary art form. Architects had ‘new toys to play with’ and over time produced some spectacular results. It was much a case of trial and error, and there were a few misguided ventures, but resulted in many more exciting and impressive developments.

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