Why does Architecture Look the Way it Does?

A look at the ways that American architecture has changed from the 1880’s to the present day.


By Aaron M.

1.1 An example of architecture

In the late 1800s, it was the peak of the industrial revolution. The economy had seen massive growth, and the people of the United States and Europe felt those changes almost everywhere in their lives. The Modern Era was taking off.

1.2 An example of Victorian architecture

However, it was also the Victorian Era, and that meant that the design of buildings and furniture was not in line with modernity. The Victorian Era looked back to the past for inspiration, and was exemplified by frilly, over styled furniture and buildings.

But, in the first decade of the 20th century, modern design became popular. It was especially pronounced by the Prairie style homes and accompanying furniture pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright. These design principles replaced frills with well-proportioned design.

1.3 Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mid- Century style masterpiece

The Prairie and Arts and Crafts styles was followed by the Art Deco style. Art Deco moved from unpainted wood to adobe, chrome, and black leather as its materials of choice. The Art Deco period, the 1920s and 30s, produced gems such as Wright’s Fallingwater house and Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair.

1.4 The Chrysler Building, a famous example of Art Deco design

Then, World War 2 occurred, and it spelled the end for the Art Deco movement.  

All the famous architects and designers were called to help with the war effort on their respective sides. The Bauhaus, a modern design school in Germany, was shut down by the Nazi regime.

However, when the war ended in 1945, the doors were opened for a new era of modern design. The economies of many countries were improving and design changed. New names surfaced as the leaders of this renewed modern movement.

Charles and Ray Eames had designed wartime products out of molded plywood, and as early as 1946, they used their talent with the material to design chairs. The Eameses designed a large number of famous chairs, often using molded plywood or fiberglass. Along with Van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen, they defined mid-century design.

1.5 The iconic Eames  670 Lounge Chair

After the 1950s things changed. The look of older renowned designers had retired and residential design was slowing down. In the 1960s and 70s, skyscraper design took off and many very tall buildings were constructed.

From the 1970s Brutalist architecture, where lots of concrete was used, things moved on to glitzy 1980s style.

But, in my opinion, the worst was still yet to come. In the 1990s suburbs grew and there was suddenly a demand for upper-class housing. The result were houses that were crude copies of Victorian architecture that, if anything, boosted the flair. These houses often had only one floor that contained enormous vaulted and cold great rooms with soaring ceilings. They were often made of tan or light red brick or fake stone. Most importantly, these houses were huge and often had many conflicting and seemingly random rooflines. Made between the early 1990s and the 2008 financial crisis, they are generally not considered pinnacles of modern architecture.

1.6 An example of overstyled contemporary architecture

The 1990s also brought on a new focus of design. People began to think about the environment and greenhouse gases, and there was a demand for environmentally friendly architecture. Passive and active solar energy became a common feature of buildings and certifications such as LEED boosted standards for sustainable building construction. Practices such as straw bale construction and high levels of insulation gained popularity as ways to save energy.

Today we are experiencing the tiny house movement. In the last few years many, mainly younger people, have left mainstream lives and moved to miniature homes. These houses are a centerpiece of alternative lifestyles extremely environmentally friendly..

The current world of design is quite interesting. The hideous suburban behemoths are still being built, but they share the stage with ultra-modern architecture and environmentally conscious tiny houses. In addition, art deco and mid-century modern furniture are still popular and are sold new. What will the future of design be? We have yet to find out.