March 14, 2012

Italian, German, and American Pre-WWII Architecture

I’m behind in reading all of you, and I apologize. I worked hard editing this piece yesterday, and just had time to start dinner and a new/old Dick Francis before himself arrived. G helped with the asparagus while I arranged the beets in a vinaigrette along side curried couscous. He loved dinner. It filled me up…that’s all I needed. Today this piece has been edited again, I admit it still needs more, but I inch toward done.

I must say, just today life is good and my dear Geezer spoils me.

The Same Under the Skin...

Pushing themselves away from the Beaux-Arts architectural style in the mid-twentieth century, America, Italy and Germany all produced public architectures that looked remarkably alike.

Public architectures before the 20th century were bold, heavily decorated, and often passionately ornate in a style called Beaux-Arts. It was considered the only form of acceptable architecture both on the continent and in America. "Beaux Arts" was the cumulative product of two-and-a-half centuries of design instruction under the authority, first, of the Académie royale d'architecture (1671–1793), then, following the French Revolution of the late 18th century, of the Architecture section of the Académie des Beaux-Arts (1795— ). It was taught until 1968. “Beaux-Arts training emphasized the mainstream examples of Imperial Roman architecture between Augustus and the Severan emperors, Italian Renaissance, and French and Italian Baroque models especially, but the training could then be applied to a broader range of models: Quattrocento Florentine palace fronts or French late Gothic. American architects of the Beaux-Arts generation often returned to Greek models.” (

In response to the continuing conservatism of the beaux-arts movement, a gathering of artists in Vienna withdrew from the Association of Austrian Artists in 1897and formed a new group. Art history tells us, “Secession artists were concerned, above all else, with exploring the possibilities of art outside the confines of academic tradition. They hoped to create a new style that owed nothing to historical influence.” "To every age its art and to art its freedom," was the motto posted on the front of their new and simply styled building.

By 1907, the secessionist influence had spread across Europe touching first German groups such as the German national designers' organization Deutscher Werkbund which was formed in 1907 by Hermann Muthesius. It also impacted other design groups such as “New Objectivity”…a group of working architects who had turned away from fanciful experimentation toward rational, functional, sometimes standardized buildings.

At the same time, Peter Behrens' pioneering industrial design work for the German electrical company AEG successfully integrated art, mass production, consumer products, standardized parts, and graphics. He built the modernist and dramatically simple landmark AEG Turbine Factory making full use of newly developed materials such as poured concrete and exposed steel.

Groups like these influenced the German modernists which were known as Neues Bauen. ( “They were an international architectural movement towards modernism that began in Germany before the 1920s as a protest against the imitation of historical Bauhaus Buildings styles. Architects of this Modernist movement advocated the expression of a building’s functionalism in its external form and sought to improve people’s standard of living.” These modernists were the chief influences on the new school that opened in 1919, the Bauhaus. The design innovations commonly associated with the Bauhaus—the radically simplified forms, the rationality and functionality, and the idea that mass-production was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit were already partly developed in Germany before the Bauhaus was Back of a founded,” and the school grew to encompass all forms of design including architecture.
While architects Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe invented architecture as we know it today at the Bauhaus, in Italy a new language of architecture called razionalismo was introduced in 1926. This form of Futurist architecture was pioneered by Antonio Sant'Elia and called Gruppo 7. After the dissolution of the group, this architectural style was adopted by single artists like Giuseppe Terragni (Casa del Fascio, Como), Adalberto Libera (Villa Malaparte in Capri) and Giovanni Michelucci (Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station). Novecento Italiano style soon overtook the Grupo 7 influences, and it rejected the avant-garde themes. The New Central Italian style aimed instead to revive the art of the past, and began by taking much of its structure from the classical Roman forms yet including some of the new thought coming from the Bauhaus. “This movement inspired Marcello Piacentini in his creation of a "simplified Neoclassicism" linked to the rediscovery of the imperial Rome. Two branches have been identified, a modernist branch with Giuseppe Terragni being the most prominent exponent, and a conservative branch of which Marcello Piacentini and the La Burbera group were most influential.”
In Germany, Hitler’s banning of the modern and industrial styled architectures of the Bauhaus in 1933 led him to architect Paul Troost’s monumental Roman influenced neoclassicism. Troost was Hitler’s architecture of choice, and the two of them became friends. After Troost’s death, Hitler continued with the Troost projects but also employed Albert Speer’s great talents to create his vision of a new and central neo-classical Germania and build the structures for his Olympics. For many, even today, Speer is considered Hitler’s architect.

In America, the architects and designers who left Europe as well as those fleeing Germany carried with them the modernist design philosophy of the Bauhaus which began to influence America. There were other architects whose sensibilities affected American architecture also. Eliel Saarinen arrived in America in 1923 after winning a design competition. Saarinen borrowed details from his native Finland. His abstracted classical style combined with the feelings of the arts and crafts movement mixed well with minimalism. He was asked to design the campus of Cranbrook Academy, America’s answer to the Bauhaus, and he taught at the University of Michigan influencing generations of Architects.
Important American born architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, H. H. Richardson, Irving Gill, and Raymond Hood, already had unique qualities to their work before the arrival of the Europeans. Wright’s early modern works, though stretching design into simplicity, still made use of Beau Arts decoration. Richardson’s Romanesque still retained the Beau Arts detail. Hood’s work adapted to the style called “Modern,” pronounced Mo-dairn, and used this influence to create such master pieces as Empire State Building while still using many decorative elements. Only Gill, working quietly on the west coast, used simplified design inside and outside.

From Germany came Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. By 1934, living in Germany had become untenable and Walter Gropius moved to England. In 1937 he was invited to teach at Harvard. In 1938 Walter Gropius brought Marcel Breuer to Harvard with him. Marcel Breuer was another modernist who studied and taught at the Bauhaus then fled to London in the 1930’s. He worked with Gropius on many east coast sites while He taught at Harvard's architecture school, working with students such as Paul Johnson and I.M.Pei who later became well-known architects. (,

The Pre World War Two depression severely affected the art and architecture in America in the 1930’s. The WPA and the Treasury Department Sections made the decisions for not only the architecture but the paintings and design of the period. Design was to be simple, paintings and murals were to be realistically done using the Regionalism Style, and buildings were to be simplified neo-classical. Today we can find many of these buildings in every community the period reflected in Post Offices and Civic Centers across the country often decorated by regionalistic murals.

Looking loosely at these German, Italian and American architectures, you can see the sameness of the era reflected in all three styles. Each country had a name for its “new” architectural style, but the architectures of the era for Italy, Germany, and the United States were all much the same. All three architectures reverted back to the classical model, and emphasized the sleek yet classical details that were comforting yet expected in public architecture. Splitting with the traditional Beaux-Arts or Federal Style, WPA era Neo-Classical buildings had the long pillars and decorative friezes much like those of Italy and Germany’s Neo-Classical. Many buildings of all countries showed a larger top façade, suitable for decoration or dentals, heavier entrances at either ends, long windows imitating columns on many German and American buildings, and there was a uniform and unique simplicity in the period that emphasized the sameness of the architectures.


  1. You will love some of the architecture here in Washington, although much of it is really neo-classical. But you have seen it before I think. Dianne

  2. We are all more alike than different. Wish people understood that.

  3. A great deal about architecture that I did not know. But then I am into Tuscan stucco and alabaster tile...nothing of real consequence.


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Peter in front of a wall sculpture. We were invited up to Peter Knego’s home to see the latest installation.   Abstract flat ...