How Modernism ‘opened’ our living spaces

Posted 3/19/21

Many of the architectural characteristics of the Victorian period came as a result of industrialization, that allowed for the mass production of all sorts of ornamentation, or Victorian …

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How Modernism ‘opened’ our living spaces


Many of the architectural characteristics of the Victorian period came as a result of industrialization, that allowed for the mass production of all sorts of ornamentation, or Victorian “gingerbread” to which it is often referred.

Similarly, the period known as the Modern Movement was also inspired by a new machine aesthetic, but this time, architects of the Modern Movement, were inspired by the concepts of rationalization and standardization. Building techniques that incorporated new materials, were used to create “lighter,” more spacious and functional environments.

Those early Modern designers hoped to change society for the better, incorporating a healthier and more “democratic” type of design for all.

Many balked at using the term “democratic” to describe architecture. Others used “egalitarian” to convey the same message: a building that was designed using themes, characteristics and new materials that would be used to create a bright, clean, utilitarian environment, suited to all individuals. The style relied on little or no decorative detailing. The materials that were used in the on the exterior and the interior were the rage of the day. Glass blocks, white painted or untreated concrete walls, plate glass horizontal windows and a hard “geometric” style were all employed resulting in what was a relatively inexpensive building model due to the easy availability of the mass produced materials.

Coming off a period of an abundance decorative plaster work, crown moldings, base moldings, and raised paneled wainscoting, this style shocked. But the architects of the day were not deterred.  Austrian architect, Adolf Loos, Marcel Breuer, and Walter Gropius all embraced the style. Although Gropius did encourage the idea of individual creativity along with artistic integrity, while still supporting a Modernist aesthetic.

The Modern Movement had a lot going for it. The generous use of glass and natural light, that provided dramatic views and brought nature to the interior was a big draw to these new modern buildings. The living spaces were no longer defined by walls, doors or hallways. Living, dining and kitchen spaces flowed together as part of one contiguous space, that reflected a more casual and relaxed way of life.

Of all the historic architectural styles, the Modern building is one that continues to be popular. Although developers of today are realizing that even though “open ”interiors are still preferred, there remains an interest in a more traditionally designed exterior. The scale, massing, roof lines, and fenestration patterns are still looked on as extremely important character defining elements, that retain a more traditional “sense of place”, and may not be as jolting to the eye. But these are topics for another day!

Chestnut Hill is home to numerous Modern buildings. Louis Kahn’s Margaret Esherick House, Venturi’s Mother’s House, and Mitchell/Giurgola’s Shipley White residence are just three Modern residences that have become nationally recognized. Several years ago, the Historical Society, (now the Chestnut Hill Conservancy) sponsored a tour featuring the wide collection of significant modern homes located in Chestnut Hill. The tour was so popular, we had buses arriving from as far away as New York and Virginia to see these remarkable buildings.

Over the past several weeks, we have traveled from the late 1700’s to the dawn of the Modern period in design. We have identified social, political, and economic factors that contribute to our surroundings and the way we live.

Can we draw any comparisons to what we are experiencing now? Stay tuned!

Patricia Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill and can be reached through her website:

By Design


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