26 September 2005

International Style and Organicism

The modern style of architecture that was developing at the beginning of the twentieth century was not a singular movement, but many styles and ideas that often conflicted as much as they had in common. Modern construction allowed for new architectural devices, the steel frame, the concrete skeleton, planar facades, etc., which became some of the common threads between the modern styles. The International Style developed by Philip Johnson, Henri-Russell Hitchcock, and Alfred Barr tried to wrap architecture into one generic, placeless style. Organicism contrasted with this style because it put the emphasis on architecture relating to nature, resulting in site-specific buildings.
Some of Le Corbusier’s work illustrated the best of what the International Style could be. The Villa Savoye is a prime example of the style because it illustrates the three principles: Emphasis on volume, Regularity, and Absence of applied ornament. It is conceived as a volume, with planar surfaces stretched around it. It has a regularized structure which pierces through the volume allowing the spaces to be free forming. The details in the window fenestration and railings take advantage of standardized parts and become the buildings non-applied ornament. One characteristic of the International Style is that it is placeless. The Villa Savoye is lifted up on its structure letting nature continue under it undisturbed. The building could be placed anywhere in the world and look like it was meant to be there. This becomes a problem when it is tirelessly and poorly imitated by other architects. Unfortunately, most of the architects practicing the International Style had nowhere near the talent of Corbu.
The opposite of “international” is Organicism due to its stressing the importance of the site. Not only is architecture going to be different between Germany and England, but the house on this hill is going to be different than the one in the valley next to it. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the leaders of this movement. The Millard House is a good example because it shows some parallels with the International Style, like a compact plan, simple mass, and standardization, but is distinctly different. The house is sited at the bottom of a ravine in southern California and reflects this carefully chosen site in it’s materials and design. Wright used a standardized concrete block woven with steel for the construction. Some of the replicated custom blocks become perforated and express on a small scale the interpenetration of spaces apparent in the other volumes of the house. The masonry block walls are neither traditional load bearing, nor thin screens of the International Style, but are still expressive of modern architecture in their unique way.

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