For more than a century what we know of as Modern Architecture has spread and flourished in every corner of the globe. Though the term International Style was not popularized until the 1930s architects the world over had been discovering the ways in which modern technologies and materials made possible by the industrial age could be put to use in the art of building since well before the turn of the last century. Starting with such great architects as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Philip Johnson, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Modern movement in architecture was, and is still, an expression of man’s conquest over his environment; his ability to place the exact same building in any city on any continent anywhere in the world and have it function, look, and feel the exact same. It was the homogenization of architecture, and it was a great fault in human history.
As with every movement in architectural style and theory before it and since, the Modern movement of the last century was a reaction to those styles that came before it. From the Neoclassical and other Revivalist styles of the 18th and 19th centuries, architects in the 20th century moved forward with new technologies and new ideas, abandoning what was once great for what would then become great. Up until the industrial revolution, paradigm shifts in architecture were for the most part theoretical and based upon the needs and lifestyles of the zeitgeist. Building technology hadn’t changed substantially in hundreds of years. Not since the renaissance had a flourishing of new technologies and ideas outside of architecture seen such a profound impact on the profession. And they still only had wood and stone to work with.
After the industrial revolution – with its plate glass and steel – made skyscrapers like the Wainwright building in St. Louis possible, all bets were off about where architecture was going next. Mix the new technologies and materials of the industrial revolution, the now widespread prevalence of energy, and the obsession with mechanization and industrial processes that ruled the minds of the world and what else could you get? For a hundred years buildings buttoned themselves up and swore off the world outside the mirrored façades of their towering curtain walls.
These “machines for living”, as Le Corbusier described them, were concerned (as all architecture has ever been concerned) with three things: Utility, economy, and beauty. Function, firmness, and form. Call it what you like, but those three qualities are what architectural theorists have been arguing over ever since Vitruvius penned them in his Ten Books on Architecture more than two thousand years ago (in the original latin, he describes these three pillars as utilitas, firmitas, and venustas). Does it fulfill the purpose for which it was designed, does it stand up to the physical forces of the world, and is it proportioned properly so as to be pleasing to the eye.
Now we stand knee deep in both another technological and scientific revolution, but also within the beginnings of a new architectural style. Like the Modernists before us, we are rebelling against the paradigm of our predecessors, fueled by the technology of today, to build what we see as a better tomorrow. The only difference being that we have introduced a fourth pillar for our so-called Sustainable movement: performance. Performance is a slight mix between what Vitruvius called utility and economy, but at the same time a completely new thing. Before the Modern movement and the technologies that made industrial architecture possible, there was no concept for a building’s ability to perform environmentally. Before the Modernists, there was reason to think that buildings could perform much differentially than the environment on the other side of their walls.
The Sustainable Pillars of Architecture
Sustainability, in general, is defined as our ability to meet our present needs without compromising the abilities of future generations to meet their own and there are already several 3s of sustainability. For example, the three Es (Economy, Ecology, and Equality) and the three Ps (People, Planet, Profit) are great pneumonic devices to help guide sustainability decisions in both public and private industries. I have adapted these ideals of sustainability and combined them with the current three pillars of architecture to come up with my own series of precepts: program, economy, operation, and harmony.
Program describes the purpose of the building and its ability to carry out that function for the ease and comfort of those who would inhabit it. It is most concerned with people and the human element of the architectural experience.
Economy speaks to the ability of a building to stand and is concerned primarily with its production and use of materials both physical and nonphysical. It is most concerned with the component parts of that which makes up a building and minimizing waste.
Operation is all about the performance of a building in all of the non-human aspects, such as light, air, water, and energy. Economy and operation are very strongly related and can be seen as opposite sides of the same coin; one often has profound effects upon the other.
Finally, harmony is an expression of the building as a whole and how well it relates to itself, the world around it, and those who use it. It is the most subjective of the four pillars and is concerned mostly with aesthetics. Similar to the relationship of economy to operation, harmony is the reciprocal of program; one is the consideration of the building unto itself, the other the consideration of the building unto the world.
In the weeks to come I will explore these four pillars each in more depth looking at the theoretical, practical, and technological ins and outs of each in order to describe in full the precepts of this Sustainable architecture; the International Style of the 21st century.