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Classical Eclecticism, Stripped Classicism and the Ascendency of Modernism


The first two are combined topics in nature, and these styles were predominant in architecture and design during the late 19th century and early-20th century. Modernism is quite the opposite of Eclecticism and rose during the beginning of the 20th century. Modernism rejects Eclecticism by far and prefers ideals of abstraction and geometric form. Eclecticism valued much of the historical precedents in architecture and used multiple sources to recreate and imitate various styles although, modernism also rejected this concept. Stripped Classicism after World War I still implied eclectic design, but used Roman and Renaissance precedents, whereas “post-war architects” (Duiker) of modernism regarded the past as “the enemy of the future” (Duiker).

Pennsylvania Railroad Station: 1904-10.  The Great Buildings Collection: Architecture and Places of the World.

Pennsylvania Railroad Station: 1904-10. The Great Buildings Collection: Architecture and Places of the World.

World's Columbian Exposition: Court of Honor, Chicago, United States, 1893. Brooklyn Museum.

World's Columbian Exposition: Court of Honor, Chicago, United States, 1893. Brooklyn Museum.

World’s Columbian Exposition: Administrative Building and Court of Honor, Chicago, United States, 1893. Brooklyn Museum.

World’s Columbian Exposition: Administrative Building and Court of Honor, Chicago, United States, 1893. Brooklyn Museum.


Eclecticism is defined as (1) the theory or practice of an Eclectic method and (2a) selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles and (2b) composed of elements drawn from various sources. (Britannica - The Online Encyclopedia (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)). Classical Eclecticism dates back to the 1880s – 1940s and consists of Neo-Renaissance, the Beaux-Arts, Neoclassical Revival, and Châteauesque. The McKim, Mead, and White, Pennsylvania Railroad Station, 1904-10, New York, New York is in Neoclassical Revival and is an “imitation of the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla”. (J. Pile)

By the latter part of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution was slowly developing, particularly in England, and machinery was increasingly producing many objects of interior decoration, modifying their form to suit the new methods and reducing the price to make them available to new markets, a situation envisaged by Wedgwood. (Interior Design). The less affluent of the middle classes became the largest section of consumers, and manufacture was increasingly directed toward catering to their tastes. (Interior Design). In the early years of the 19th century a new concept was beginning to take shape—the notion of eclecticism, which propounded that any style was as good as another. (Interior Design). This led to the idea that styles could legitimately be mixed together. (Interior Design).

During the late 19th century, Classical Eclecticism, as espoused by Beaux-Arts trained architects and designers, begins to dominate the design of public buildings and the mansions of the well-to-do in Europe and the United States. (Harwood). Four stylistic variations emerge: Neo-Renaissance, Beaux-Arts, Neoclassical Revival, and Châteauesque. (Harwood). Relying on forms and motifs from classical antiquity, the Renaissance, and/or the Baroque, the architectural compositions declare a classical or cosmopolitan European heritage, civic or national pride, or personal culture and prosperity. (Harwood). Inside, a team of designers creates richly decorated, often authentic, period rooms. (Harwood). In keeping with the period’s emphasis upon professionalism, interior decoration becomes known as a profession. (Harwood).

The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century is a period of relative peace and prosperity for Europe and North America. (Harwood). The Industrial Revolution continues to transform lives and societies. (Harwood). Capitalism creates enormously wealthy persons and nations that, among other things, undertake large building campaigns. (Harwood). Governments and individuals alike seek to create an image of prosperity, culture, and national pride. (Harwood)

The L’École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts), which replaces the French Academy in 1819, is the world’s premier architectural school throughout the 19th century. (Harwood). Beaux-Arts-trained architects strive to integrate architecture of the past with contemporary needs, materials, and technology. (Harwood). Most important buildings designed in America before World War II were influenced by the Beaux Arts imitative way of working, often called Eclecticism. (J. Pile). The word means “borrowing from many sources,” and this was the leading characteristic of Eclectic design. (J. Pile).

The World’s Columbian Exposition – 1893 – Chicago, Illinois: “introduces the world to Classical Eclecticism on its grandest scale”. The exposition establishes Classical Eclecticism as the standard for subsequent international exhibitions and large-scale governmental and commercial projects. (Harwood). The City Beautiful Movement was inspired by the exposition and “affects city and civic centers in the United States and Europe”.

As in architecture, the wealthy are at the forefront as tastemakers. (Harwood). Like princely patrons of the Renaissance, they have fine homes displaying their affluence, social standing, and erudition. (Harwood). The extravagant and elaborate rooms exhibit their collections and become settings for lavish gatherings and entertainments. (Harwood). They have sufficient wealth to use the best Beaux-Arts-trained architects and artists and professional decorating firms. (Harwood). Believing that they have a moral obligation to educate the masses in matters of culture and taste, the wealthy sometimes open their homes to the public or publish them in vanity publications or catalogs. (Harwood). In addition, they are the chief providers of funds and/or collections for public museums. (Harwood). Classical Eclecticism does not filter down to the middles classes until the first decades of the 20th century, when principles of lavish decoration diminish and less expensive means develop to carry them out. (Harwood)

The Reichstag, Berlin Germany, 1884-1894, Paul Wallot, Norman Foster. The Great Buildings Collection: Architecture and Places of the World. “House of the German Parliament, the Bundestag”.

The Reichstag, Berlin Germany, 1884-1894, Paul Wallot, Norman Foster. The Great Buildings Collection: Architecture and Places of the World. “House of the German Parliament, the Bundestag”.

Stripped Classicism

Stripped Classicism is defined as (1a) the principles or style embodied in the literature, art, or architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, (1b) classical scholarship, (1c) classical idiom or expression and (2) adherence to traditional standards (as of simplicity, restraint, and proportion) that are universally and enduringly valid. (Britannica - The Online Encyclopedia (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)). Stripped, as defined by the Britannica, is (1a) to remove extraneous or superficial matter from, (1b) to remove furniture, equipment, or accessories from, and (2) to make bare or clear. After World War I, eclectic design began to move away from the literal reproduction of historic examples toward a simplified, less ornamented version of Roman and Renaissance precedents, often called Stripped classicism. (J. Pile). Stripped classicism often echoed the form of the more fashion-oriented Art deco, but its dignity and reserve made it more acceptable for governmental and other monumental buildings. (J. Pile).

In America, a French Beaux-Arts graduate, Paul Phillipe Cret (1876-1945), was influential in promoting the Beaux-Arts approach to design teaching at the architectural school of the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a principle teacher in 1903. (J. Pile). When the United States government backed extensive public buildings as a form of work relief in the depression years of the 1930s, Cret’s stripped classicism came to be regarded as ideally suited to the many post offices, courthouses, and other buildings that were built under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and other federal programs. (J. Pile). Indeed, this style came to be informally labeled as WPA style. (J. Pile).

An example of Stripped Classicism, Neoclassical Revival, and Modern is depicted in the architecture of Paul Wallot and Norman Foster in the House of the German Parliament in Berlin, Germany, 1884-1894. Construction lasted from 1884-1894, initially by Paul Wallot. The Reichstag, in May of 1945, was used to fly the Soviet Flag, “symbolizing the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II”. (The Great Buildings Collection: Architecture and Places of the World). The Reichstag, renovated by Norman Foster from 1995-1999, included aspects of modern architecture such as the steel dome and curtain walls.

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) , describes the relevance of historic government buildings, the Great Depression, and the Works Progress Administration in the following excerpt. (U.S. General Services Administration: Architecture and Government).

"Toward the end of the century, sturdy Romanesque post offices and courthouses with campanile towers of rough cut stone, segmental arched entrances, and vast skylit work rooms quickly came into, and went out of, fashion, soon supplanted by classical white monuments popularized by the century’s last World’s Fair.

Most (85%) of GSA’s historic buildings were constructed between 1900 and 1941, years of great progress in technology, civic planning, and American emergence as a leader in western popular culture. The Chicago Exposition of 1893, with classical pavilions glowing in Edison’s new electric lights, spurred the city beautiful movement that substantially shaped the government’s approach to public building until after World War II.

Public buildings after the turn of the century were often planned as part of larger public building complexes, often grouping important civic buildings around landscaped public spaces. Federal public buildings embodied the Beaux Arts design principals of sophisticated proportioning and space planning, with monumental entrances leading to finely finished public lobbies and well proportioned corridors that graciously welcomed citizens visiting the offices of the federal government. Public building facades, most commonly clad in white limestone or marble, faithfully recreated classical and renaissance models associated with the great democracies of Greek and Rome.

Great Depression: Boom Years in Government Construction

Over half of GSA’s historic buildings were constructed during the Great Depression. During this time, an expanded federal construction program continued to maintain high standards for public building construction. Public building architects began introducing the new esthetic of industrial design, combining classical proportions with streamlined, Art Deco detailing. Integrated into many of these buildings were sculptural details, murals and statuary symbolizing or depicting important civic activities taking place inside. A major legacy of this era is the body of populist civic art commissioned under the Works Progress Administration program. It is a testimony to the durability of these buildings that most of them remain in GSA’s inventory and continue to serve the functions for which they were built.

President Truman created the General Services Administration in 1949 to oversee the federal government's immense building management and general procurement functions at a same time when the federal government was experiencing tremendous growth. Between 1960 and 1976, GSA undertook more than 700 projects in towns across the United States.

Architects of this era embraced modernist design as more efficient, up to date, and technologically honest. Concerned, however that the caliber of federal construction was declining, in 1962, President Kennedy convened an Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space whose “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” would articulate a new philosophy that continues to guide the design of public buildings today. This initiative called for design that reflected “the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American National government, [placing] emphasis…on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.”

When GSA built Modern at its best, it produced strikingly contemporary designs by modern masters – Marcel Breuer’s sweeping Washington DC headquarters building for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Mies van der Rohe’s sleek Federal Center in Chicago and Victor Lundy’s boldly sculptural U.S. Tax Court Building in Washington. However, as the government sought to house legions of federal workers and to achieve the goals of standardization, direct purchase, mass production, and fiscal savings, economy and efficiency were often stronger driving forces than architectural distinction. The majority of buildings GSA constructed prior to and during the period reflect typical office design of their time. Although few GSA modernist buildings meet the National Register criteria of exceptional significance required for buildings under 50 years old, some will become eligible when they reach 50, because of important historic events that have taken place within them, because they represent significant architectural types, or because they will, in time, meet other National Register eligibility criteria."

(U.S. General Services Administration: Architecture and Government)

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The Ascendency of Modernism

Modernism is described as (1) a practice, usage, or expression peculiar to modern times and (2) often capitalized: a tendency in theology to accommodate traditional religious teaching to contemporary thought and especially to devalue supernatural elements and (3) modern artistic or literary philosophy and practice; especially a self-conscious break with the past and a search for new forms of expression. (Britannica - The Online Encyclopedia (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)). Modernism begins during the 1880s-1930s and consists of Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession, Chicago School, the “Modern Forerunners”, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus.

During the 1880s through the 1930s, some architects and designers try to integrate design, mechanization, and the idea of modern. (Harwood). Within various countries, individually or in groups, they create forms or styles that strive to express the time in which they are living and thus advance the concept of modern. (Harwood). Although expressions of each individual or group are quite different in appearance, the integration of the machine and mechanization, their ideas come from some shared concepts. (Harwood). These include the rejection of historicism as no longer valid or appropriate, the integration of the machine and mechanization, and the adoption of new technologies and new materials. (Harwood). Additionally they respond to other factors such as the end of the 19th century, World War I, and economic stability. (Harwood).

Art Nouveau captures two trends at the end of the 19th century: curvilinear and organic and geometric and abstract. Art Nouveau represents the first major attempt to portray a visual language as modern, with no allusions to the past. (Harwood). Also influential on the development of Art Nouveau are England’s Aesthetic Movement, with its focus upon art for its own sake and little or no stress upon morality, and the Arts and Crafts Movement, which advances the individuality of the designer and emphasizes craftsmanship. (Harwood). Art Nouveau is a complex, eclectic international movement made up of various styles in Europe and North America. (Harwood).

Vienna Secession creates modern by using “simplicity in design, geometric forms, rational construction, and the rejection of ornament, which greatly influences subsequent modern development, including Art Deco”. (Harwood).Vienna Secession strives to create a modern style devoid of historicism and free from academic stagnation. (Harwood). Rejecting the more flamboyant Art Nouveau expressions, the Secession advocates simplicity, rational construction, and the honest use of materials, which will, in turn, influence subsequent modern developments. (Harwood). Founded in 1897 in Vienna, Austria […] it is more influenced by Britain, Scotland, and Germany […]. (Harwood).

Chicago School “progressive architects” introduce sky-scrapers “in the early 20th century” that “respond to the spatial needs of modern businesses coupled with the high cost of urban land” [and] additionally, they take advantage of new technologies such as reinforced concrete, steel frames, and the passenger elevator”. (Harwood). Following the Civil War, a second wave of the Industrial Revolution begins with America at its forefront. (Harwood). Significant advances in construction technology affect the structure, form, and composition of buildings in Chicago, New York City, and other metropolitan areas during the second half of the 19th century. (Harwood).

The works of [The Modern Forerunners, a group of individualist architects working in Europe and the United States]…provide important theoretical and functional foundations for the further development of modern architecture. (Harwood). Henrik Petrus Berlage – Netherlands; Frank Lloyd Wright – United States; Irving Gill – United States; Peter Behrens – Germany; Adolf Loos – Austria; Hanz Poelzig – Germany; August Perret – France ….because of their work and influence architecture becomes simpler and less ornamented, and adopts newer materials and construction methods; this sets the stage for future modern movements. (Harwood).

De Stijl or The Style is an art and design movement that tries to express universal concepts through abstraction; right angles; straight lines; an asymmetrical balance of rectangles; and the primary colors plus black, white, and gray. (Harwood). The movement strives to express universal concepts through removal, reduction, abstraction, simplification, and a dynamic asymmetrical balance of rectangles, planes, verticals, horizontals, the primary colors, and black, white, and gray. (Harwood). Termed Neo-Plasticism, these principles characterize an art and architecture of spiritual order and harmony, which the followers hope will transform society. (Harwood). Although producing few actual works of architecture, interiors, and furniture, De Stijl strongly influences the Modern Movement in art and design by articulating and exploring foundational design principles. (Harwood).

The Bauhaus, a German art and design school founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius, exerts a profound influence upon art education, architecture, interior design, textiles, and decorative arts through its theories, practices, and products. (Harwood). Although rejecting a common style, Bauhaus works have a similar appearance that results from emphasis upon function, mass production, geometry, absence of any ornament, and the use of new materials. (Harwood). The Weimer Republic is defeated in the 1933 election by the Communist and National Socialist Parties, or Nazis. (Harwood). The Nazis gain control and set up a totalitarian state led by Dictator Adolph Hitler. (Harwood). It is into this disarray, difficulty, and despair that the Bauhaus (literally, “house of building”) comes into being. (Harwood).

Political and social reforms intensify in various European countries (1900-1920s) as well as in North America. (Harwood). Important thinkers and theorists, such as Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche, identify causes of and propose solutions for the problems inherent in modern industrial life. (Harwood).

"The chief catalyst of transformation, however, is World War I (the Great War), which breaks out in August 1914. Countries involved are the Allied Powers of the United States, France, Belgium, Serbia, and Russia and the Central Powers including Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Japan. The United States enters the war as an Ally in 1917 after failing to remain neutral. Economic and political policies of Europe in the late 19th century are the basic causes of the war, which mobilizes millions of men as well as the entire populations and economic resources of the countries involved. When the war ends in November 1918, Europe is forever changed politically, socially, and geographically. New nations are created as the boundaries of older ones are changed. The German and Austrian empires collapse, and the war helps bring on the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The war’s cost in money, people, and physical destruction affects the stabilization of Europe for many years to come.

Like others before them, the forerunner architects, designers, and theorists, search for an architecture that reflects the times in which they live. Unlike many of their predecessors, they do not start movements or schools to achieve their aims. Recognizing the failure of Art Nouveau and previous art movements to come to grips with mechanization, they embrace or celebrate the machine as the means to express modern life and democratize art and architecture. They maintain the belief in the power of buildings to transform what they see as failing societies and are especially concerned with architecturally solving problems of industrialization and, most important, the demand for housing. They begin to challenge the traditional boundaries of architecture and engineering, arguing that the architect can and should design buildings for a modern society. Because each architect or designer approaches these problems differently, solutions are varied instead of unified. Their opinions and debates center on form versus function, use of new materials and construction methods, innovative planning, and the application of ornament. The forerunners are relatively few in number, and their work has little immediate impact on the public. However, their architecture and ideas give rise to and affect nearly all subsequent modern developments." (Harwood 603-604).

Works Cited

Britannica - The Online Encyclopedia (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). 2012. 22 November 2012.

Brooklyn Museum . flickr. 2012. 22 November 2012.

Duiker, W. Contemporary World History, 5th ed. . Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010.

Harwood, B., May, B., Sherman, C. Architecture and Interior Design - An Integrated History to the Present. Upper Saddle Rive, NJ and Columbus, OH: Pearson - Prentice Hall, 2012.

"Interior Design." 2012. Encyclopedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. 20 November 2012.

Pile, J. Interior Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.

Pile, J. A History of Interior Design: 3rd ed. . Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

The Great Buildings Collection: Architecture and Places of the World. 1997-2009. 11 11 2012.

U.S. General Services Administration: Architecture and Government. 23 02 2012. 25 November 2012.

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