Masterworks of the 1920s Architecture
The roaring ‘20s were a period of great change for America and Western Europe. Dominated by a rebellious thought of the influential avant-garde movements, it was an era of innovation in visual art and all creative fields.
Following this new breath of air, 1920s architecture was dominated by the use of new technologies, building techniques, and construction materials. The era saw a boom in the building industry largely in part due to the new ways that materials could be produced. Styles of this period were eclectic, taking elements of modern design and classical design to form new and interesting facades, breaking from the traditions that dominated the field before World War I.
Dominant Styles of the 1920s Architecture
Often described as a pastiche of styles and an eclectic combination of influences, materials, and shapes, Art Deco was certainly one of the most influential decorative styles in the first half of the twentieth century. First appearing in France in the 1920s as a combination of art and craftsmanship, the style quickly spread around the globe drawing from the different sources and affecting various disciplines. It became one of the most commonly used architectural style, most notably in the United States after it was first introduced in 1922 during the Chicago Tribune Headquarters design competition. The 1920s were also marked by the rise of Modernist Architecture that turned the entire context of architectural design upside-down. Introducing functionalism and purified architectural form to the most radical extremes, it coincided with some of the major artistic movements such as Bauhaus and De Stijl. Founded by the architect Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919, Bauhaus ended up as the most influential modernist school for art of the 20th century. Motivated by the liberating spirit of Modernism, it moved away from the ornamentation and introduced simplicity into architecture. First conceived in 1917 in the Netherlands, De Stijl was introduced as a total style centered around the idea to fathom the purity of form and the reality of nature. Having an awareness of a purified, universal form, De Stijl architecture was seminal for the development of what we today know as Modern architecture. Some of the most important De Stijl architects were Gerrit Rietveld, J.J.P. Oud, Bart Van der Lack, Cornelis van Eesteren, Jan Wils, and Robert van ‘t Hoff. Meanwhile, in the United States, Frank Lloyd Wright refused to associate himself with any architectural movements considering his work to be entirely unique. During the 1920s, he developed his “Mayan style”, houses decorated with textured blocks of cement. He identified his architecture as “Usonian”, a combination of USA, “utopian” and “organic social order”.
The Rise of a Skyscraper
In the American architecture of the time, there was an immense amount of development in both building design and engineering. The greatest influence was the rise of the industry that led to the rise of the skyscraper. Until the 19th century, buildings of over six stories were rare. The development of steel, reinforced concrete, elevators and water pumps have made possible the construction of extremely tall buildings, some of which are well over 300 meters. The first skyscrapers in Chicago and New York had been designed in a neo-gothic or neoclassical style, but 1920s buildings combined modern materials and technology, such as stainless steel, concrete, aluminum, and chrome-plated steel, with Art Deco geometry. They were designed to show the prestige of their builders through their height, their shape, their color, and their dramatic illumination at night. Skyscrapers constructed in Chicago and New York during this period became the tallest and most recognizable modern buildings today.
Chicago School of Architecture
Founded by the skyscraper architect and engineer William Le Baron Jenney, Chicago School of Architecture was seminal to the growth of skyscraper architecture that came to dominate building design across the United States. They were among the first to promote the new technologies of streel-frame construction in commercial building, and developed a spatial aesthetic which co-evolved with, and then came to influence, parallel developments in European Modernism. Although the School was conceived at the turn of the century, its influence was still strong in the 1920s as well. The Second Chicago School of Architecture emerged in the 1940s and it was centered around European Modernism and led by ex-Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Some of the most iconic buildings designed in Chicago during the 1920s were Carbide and Carbon Building from 1929, an Art-Deco style building with polished black granite and green terra cotta exterior with gold-leafed accents; Wrigley Building created between 1921 and 1924, a building with a gleaming white terra-cotta façade that glows when it is lit up at night; Tribune Tower built between 1922 and 1925, a building featuring ornate flying buttresses and a French gothic inspired façade; Mather Tower from 1928, a Neo-Gothic terra cotta clad building that is the most slender Chicago high-rise; The 300 West Adams Building from 1927, designed by an iconic Chicago landscape architect named Jens Jensen; and Chicago Board of Trade from 1930, a classic Art Deco style building that features large stone carvings on its façade, depicting various crops that are traded at the Board of Trade. Apart from the Art Deco, dominant style in the 1920s architecture in the US were also Neo-Gothic, buildings that featured decorative finials, patterns, scalloping and moldings with heavily arched windows, Baux-Arts, a movement featuring Neo-classical French and Italian designs, and Prairie Style, a quintessential Midwestern US design style not found anywhere else at the time.
Architecture in New York in the 1920s
The Manhattan skyline is a great example of a chronological skyline, showing how the development of the industry and technology led to bigger, stronger, more impressive buildings. In New York, the rise of the skyscraper led to a competition for the highest building. One of the best-known skyscrapers today, The Empire State building’s construction was hurried to completion in order to take the title of “the world’s tallest building” from the Chrysler Building. Other iconic New York City buildings created in this period are The Paramount Building from 1927, Bank of Manhattan Trust Building from 1929, now known as the Trump Tower, and City Bank-Farmers Trust Building from 1930.
Art Deco that dominated the architecture of the second decade of the 20th century has lost its popularity after the World War II. It gave a way to Modernism that became the single most important new style or philosophy of architecture and design of the 20th century. It promoted an analytical approach to the function of buildings, a strictly rational use of materials, and an openness to structural innovation and the elimination of ornament. The boom in skyscraper construction began to falter due to the Wall Street Crash and years of the Great Depression. In Chicago, the final pre-war skyscraper was built in 1934. The development was paused during the Second World War, only to begin again in the 1950s and ’60s. The skyscraper culture that rose at the turn of the century in the United States continues even today. Today, many U.S. cities which have been historically short are now looking up, with new towers rising high above their skylines.
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- Phillips, H. (2014) Color, Design, Shape: Architecture from the 1920s and 1930s, The Met Museum.
- Bragdon, C. “Architecture in the United States III: The Skyscraper”. In Shepherd, Roger. Skyscraper: the Search for an American Style, 1891–1941. New York, 2003
- Roppolo, L. (2014) Popular 1920s Era Chicago Architecture, Owlcation
Featured images: Chicago, via chicagoarchitecturebiennal.com; The Chrysler Building, via tishmanspeyer.com; New York, via 7-themes.com; Carbide and Carbon Building, via flickr.com