Art And Architecture During The First Half of the 20th Century (1900–1950)

With new styles and the availability of new construction material, there was a dramatic change in architecture during the first half of the 20th century.


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Although prefabrication had first been used in London’s Crystal Palace in 1851, it did not become popular until the early 20th century, which saw the rise in functionalism. However, some architects reacted sharply against this, the most well-known being perhaps British architect Edwin Lutyens, who returned to a simplified Georgian classicism with the Viceroy’s House in Delhi, India, and other projects. In Britain Norman Shaw was one of the main domestic architects.

The first half of the 20th century saw a massive increase in travel around the world and the publication of heavily illustrated photographic works, art books, and millions of postcards. This led to much use of iconography, with particular cities being identified by specific buildings or structures. Examples of these include the Empire State Building (1931) in New York, the Harbour Bridge (1932) in Sydney, and the Golden Gate Bridge (1937) in San Francisco. Postcards also became important for artists whose designs, drawings, and photographs were reproduced and sold around the world, exposing creative people to influences of which previous generations had not known.


In terms of art styles, Fauvism from France of the 1890s continued to influence painters, and cubism began to revolutionize the manner in which art and sculpture was produced, the latter producing artists Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Georges Braque. Expressionism emerged in the 1910s, and Dadaism peaked from 1916 until 1920, introducing an antiwar polemic through the work of Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and others. From the 1920s surrealism became a cultural movement, reflecting itself in visual artwork. In Germany the Bauhaus movement flourished under Walter Gropius during the 1920s and also led to work by Vasily Kandinsky and Josef Albers; the Swiss architect Le Corbusier became famous during the 1940s for his introduction of modernism and functionalism; and Buckminster Fuller was celebrated for his geodesic domes. Other notables include Max Ernst, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dalí.

The two world wars and several other conflicts also had a dramatic influence on both art and architecture. War artists wanted to record specific events or sought to capture the spirit of an event. At the same time photography emerged as an art form with Robert Capra’s depiction of the dying republican soldier during the Spanish civil war becoming famous—despite some doubts over whether it had been staged. The film and still photographs showing Adolf Hitler looking at the Eiffel Tower and the soldier flying the Soviet red flag over the Reich Chancellery in Berlin are also famous for what they symbolized. The pile of captured German flags dumped at the foot of Lenin’s mausoleum on June 24, 1945, signified the final destruction of the German war machine in the same way that the haunting photographs and later paintings of the ruins of Hiroshima marked the first use of an atom bomb in war. In terms of architecture, the massive destruction of many European and Chinese cities during bombing raids and land bombardment also saw many pieces of artwork destroyed, although a remarkable number survived, having been moved to safekeeping in time of war. The Basque city of Guernica in northern Spain, bombed in 1937 in what is now seen as a prelude to the World War II bombing raids, led to Picasso producing his famous painting Guernica later in 1937. In Britain painters such as C. R. W. Nevinson (1889–1946) recreated the horror of World War I, as did Paul Nash (1889–1946), while artists in communist countries depicted heroic scenes from battles that became part of their respective countries’ folklore.

The main way in which the world wars affected architecture was in terms of the war memorials and war cemeteries that were built. Then there were also the tombs to the unknown soldiers, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Westminster Abbey in London, the Victor Emmanuel Monument in Rome, and in many other capital cities. Although war memorials had been built in previous centuries, the number and the diversity of them after the world wars is important. The building of the Cenotaph in London, the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, the India Gate in New Delhi, the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, and the National War Memorial in Canada are only the most obvious examples, with small memorials throughout Europe and indeed throughout the world. In Japan Yasakuni Shrine not only remembers Japan’s war dead but also provokes foreign consternation over the reverence given to Japanese war criminals also remembered there.

It is also impossible not to mention military architecture, with pillboxes and fortifications constructed of such indestructible material that they will outlast ordinary buildings—both in places that were invaded and also as a preventive measure in places that feared attack. The Maginot Line, along the French-German border, was perhaps the most famous defensive structure of the period, with the Pentagon in Washington D.C., opened in 1943, still the largest-capacity office building in the world.


With changes in political arrangements around the world, a number of totally new capitals were constructed, the most well known being Canberra, Australia. In Turkey the move from Constantinople (Istanbul) to Ankara in 1923 represented a major change in Turkish thinking and attitudes to the world. While Canberra was built in what had been agricultural land, Ankara was constructed in what had been the city of Angora. In March 1918 Moscow became the capital of the Soviet Union, having been the capital of Russia until 1703. The period of great turmoil during the 1920s and 1930s also saw a number of countries establish new temporary capitals. Burgos in northern Spain became the nationalist capital during the Spanish civil war, with the inland city of Chungking (modern-day Chongqing) serving as the capital of Nationalist China during the Sino-Japanese War. In France the spa resort of Vichy became the capital of occupied France for three years. The growth of the urban environment saw a number of suburbs growing up. The British architect and civil planner Sir Ebenezer Howard designed Letchworth Garden City and in the 1920s moved on to found Welwyn Garden City.

Political forces of the far right and extreme left also supported designs that supported their views of the country in question. In Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, designed impressive and grandiose structures that gave rise to the term Albert Speer architecture, describing a building or edifice that makes the onlooker seem small. In the Soviet Union grand architecture and “heroic” paintings were popular. The former impressed observers about the wealth of the country, with the latter highlighting important historical scenes. The building of Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, initially in wood and then in stone, incorporated some of the design of the grave of Cyrus the Great of Persia.

The changes in technology during the first half of the 20th century saw the construction of many railway stations around the world, but not on the scale of the edifices built during the late 19th century. The Moscow Metro was opened in 1935 and was part of the attempt to show the Soviet Union as a modern and efficient country. The British architect Charles Holden worked extensively on the London Underground. In addition, airports and factories were built, some with impressive art deco buildings, others being functional and having small sheds and huts to cater to the air passengers, or in the case of many factories, unimpressive work areas behind the façade.

The rise of art deco during the 1920s and 1930s featured not only in architecture but in art, furniture design, and interior decorating. In terms of architecture, the spire of the Chrysler Building in New York (1928– 1930), the city hall of Buffalo, New York, and many other civic buildings follow this style. As well as in the United States, it was also popular in Italy, with the port city of Asmara being the best surviving example of an art deco city; the most famous art deco building in Latin America is the Edificio Kavanagh (Kavanagh Building) in Buenos Aires, completed in 1936. The most well known art deco architects included Albert Anis, who worked at Miami Beach; Ernest Cormier from Quebec, who designed the Supreme Court of Canada; Sir Bannister Fletcher, author of the famous work on architecture; Bruce Goff, whose Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa is regarded as one of the best examples of art deco in the United States; Raymond Hood, who designed the Tribune Tower in Chicago; Joseph Sunlight; William van Alen, who worked on the Chrysler Building in New York; Wirt C. Rowland from Detroit; and Ralph Walker of Rhode Island. The writer Ayn Rand set her book The Fountainhead (1943), about an idealistic young architect, in the office of the New York architect Ely Jacques Kahn, with some seeing it as being modeled on Frank Lloyd Wright.


In sculpture art deco saw Lee Lawrie, Rene Paul Chambellan, C. Paul Jennewein, Joseph Kiselewski, and Paul Manship; and expressionism, which had first flourished in Germany in the 1900s and early 1920s, led to artwork by Latvian-born American Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and others.

The prosperity of the 1910s and 1920s led to the building of many hotels around the world and the enlarging of many others. The Waldorf-Astoria in New York, an art deco building, was designed in 1931. In Africa Treetops in Kenya and in Asia the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, the E&O Hotel in Penang, and the Strand in Rangoon were all either built during this period or had major refurbishment work. There were also many holiday resorts emerging from the late 19th century concept of life in the Tropics with a place to retreat to in the hot summer: Simla in India, Hua Hin in Thailand, the Cameron Highlands in Malaya, Dalat in Vietnam, and Maymyo (Pyin U Lwin) in Burma (Myanmar). This coincided with many civic buildings being constructed: town halls, schools, hospitals, and libraries. The Bund at Shanghai teemed with magnificent stone buildings showing stability and the feeling of commercial wellbeing. In time of war some of these structures were actually best able to weather bombing raids, with the Fullerton Building in Singapore being used as a shelter during Japanese bombing raids in early 1942.

The new construction techniques led to the building of skyscrapers. The first of these was the Flatiron Building in New York City, which was completed in 1902 and is 285 feet tall. However, in 1913 this was overtaken by the Woolworth Building (792 feet), which in turn was overtaken in 1930 by 40 Wall Street and in 1931 by the Empire State Building, which was the first building in the world to have more than 100 floors.

Justin Corfield

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