Modern Architecture in the United States
At the end of the nineteenth century, there were basically two kinds of buildings in the United States. On one hand were the buildings produced for the wealthy or for civic purposes, which tended to echo the architecture of the past and to use traditional styles of ornamentation. On the other hand were purely utilitarian structures, such as factories and grain elevators, which employed modern materials such as steel girders and plate glass in an undisguised and unadorned manner. Such buildings, however, were viewed in a category separate from "fine" architecture, and in fact were often designed by engineers and builders rather than architects. The development of modern architecture might in large part be seen as an adaptation of this sort of functional building and its pervasive application for daily use. Indeed, in his influential book Toward a New Architecture, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier illustrated his text with photographs of American factories and grain storage silos, as well as ships, airplanes, and other industrial objects. Nonetheless, modern architects did not simply employ these new materials in a strictly practical fashion-they consciously exploited their aesthetic possibilities. For example, glass could be used to open up walls and eliminate their stone and brick masonry because large spaces could now be spanned with steel beams.
The fundamental premise of modern architecture was that the appearance of the building should exhibit the nature of its materials and forms of physical support. This often led to effects that looked odd from a traditional standpoint but that became hallmarks of modern architecture for precisely this reason. For example, in traditional architecture, stone or brick walls served a structural role, but in a steel-beam building the walls were essentially hung from the internal skeleton of steel beams, which meant that walls and corners no longer needed to be solid but could be opened up in unexpected ways. At the Fagus shoe factory in Germany, for example, German architect Walter Gropius placed glass walls in the corners, effectively breaking open the box of traditional architecture and creating a new sense of light and openness. Similarly, steel beams could be used to construct balconies that projected out from the building without any support beneath them. These dramatic balconies quickly became a signature of modern architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright'zs most dramatic residence, Fallingwater, has balconies that thrust far out over a stream in a way that seems to defy gravity.
The ways in which new technology transformed architectural design are dramatically illustrated through the evolution of the high-rise office building. After ten or twelve stories, masonry construction reaches a maximum possible height, since it runs into difficulties of compression and of inadequate lateral strength to combat wind shear. Steel construction, on the other hand, can support a building of 50 or 100 stories without difficulty. Such buildings were so different from any previous form of architecture that they quickly acquired a new name-the skyscraper.
From the standpoint of real estate developers, the purpose of skyscrapers was to increase rental space in valuable urban locations. But to create usable high-rise buildings, a number of technical challenges needed to be solved. One problem was getting people to the upper floors, since after five or six stories it becomes exhausting to climb stairs. Updated and electrified versions of the freight elevator that had been introduced by Elish Graves Otis in 1853 (several decades before skyscraper construction) solved this problem. Another issue was fire safety. The metal supporting buildings became soft when exposed to fire and collapsed relatively quickly. (They could melt at 2,700 Fahrenheit, whereas major fires achieve temperatures of 3,000 degrees). However, when the metal is encased in fire-retardant materials, its vulnerability to fire is much decreased. In Chicago, a system was developed for surrounding the metal components with hollow tiles made from brick-like terra-cotta. Such tiles are impervious to fire. The terra-cotta tiles were used both to encase the supporting members and as flooring. A structure built with steel beams protected by terra-cotta tiles was still three times lighter than a comparably sized building that used masonry construction, so the weight of the tiles was not a problem.