The Agglomeration of Modern Materials in Architecture
Building materials are both a facilitator and constraint in architecture and design. The development of new materials helps promote the actualization of built structures derived from novel ideas. Throughout the history of architecture, from early constructs into the modern era, materials have manipulated the way we plan and erect our cities and urban landscape. This can be seen in the evolution of Paris, Hong Kong, and Mexico City where different levels of modernization has taken place each with their own understanding and adaptation of building materials. Additionally each of these cities adopted its modern form during different time periods, which creates a dichotomy of overlapping similarities, while at the same time highlighting stark contracts in the use of materials and in architectural forms.
Paris began to modernize in the 1800’s under the Haussmann plan during the reign of Napoleon the Third. During this time a large portion of the city’s medieval blocks were demolished and a rigid and unifying city plan was instated. The master plan of the city regulated sizing for blocks and building lots while establishing a new central axis for efficient circulation between the monumental institutional buildings. In conjunction to the rigorous urban planning, many new developments that were being constructed followed a central form. The principal typology that was established by the Haussmann plan was the bourgeoisie apartment that that lined the newly carved out boulevards. These edifices continued to use masonry structure, but now installed with shimmering fenestrations. The continuous glass of their uniform façade was facilitated by the advancements of glass production technology that had occurred in preceding years. Paralleling the redesigning of Paris’s housing, construction structural materials began to shift from masonry to a system of light cast iron columns and beams. New municipal buildings that required large open spaces began operating with iron trusses and vaulted ceilings. In 1850 the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, designed by architect Henri Labrouste illustrated cast iron’s capacity to develop space and form through the field of columns that articulated the main reading room of the library. However, the Bibliothèque retained a strong neo-classical and Beaux-Arts styled elevation thereby masking its interpretation as a modern building. Furthermore, this trend was reconstituted ten years later in the Paris opera house, the Palais Garnier designed by, Charles Garnier, where much of the internal structure consisted of cast iron concealed with stone cladding. Palais Garnier is know as being the paragon for Beaux-Art architecture; its interior special conditions are highly sophisticated and modern. The opera house’s main foyer is a grand reception hall that connects a series of galleries that look back at the central promenade of the ground floor. The conditions of lightened construction and contemporary structural systems enable the design of this grand hall.
While some of the Haussmann plan’s ideas were translated into Mexican architecture during the 19th century by means of the French regent, Emperor Maximilian I, the nation and especially Mexico City did not experience the full aptitude of modernization until the 20th century following the Mexican revolution. With that came the instilment of socialist architectural ideologies drawn from building designs and construction methods in the Soviet Union and the international style. As in Paris, the newly established government following the 1917 revolution sponsored much of Mexico’s construction. Likewise the Mexican government also dictated the designing principles for housing projects, as well as government and institutional buildings. While glass and masonry walls were standard throughout the construction of Paris, concrete became the preferred material by Mexican architects. Juan O’Gorman, a leading artist and architect in the 1930’s expressed the necessity to “eliminate[ing] all architectural style and executing constructions technically (Guillen, Modernism without Modernity),” within his design of low-income housing and government complexes. This statement manifested itself through the use of “industrial prefabrication (Guillen),” techniques and concrete in a series of schools that were designed for the Mexican Department of Education. Following O’Gorman’s practices, architect Juan Segura separated himself from neo-classical ways of building that he learned at the Escuela de Bellas Artes, and his buildings employed steel and concrete structure as seen in the Ermita Building designed, built in 1930. The Ermita was Mexico City’s first high-rise and its program served multiple levels of urban life, similar to the Haussmann apartments, which often had a first floor store or workspaces with housing on the upper floors. Segura’s planning was progressive—he paired a theater and stores with mixed income apartments—diversifying the tenet population. This mixed-use typology became a cornerstone for modernist planning, reused by organizations such as International Congresses of Modern Architecture and other leading architects of the 20th century and even into the 21st.
The next period of modern architecture in Mexico continued to rely heavily on concrete. In the 1960’s Pedro Ramirez Vazquez became the new face of Mexican architecture, and through his role of lead designer at the 1968 Olympic games exhibited a profound influence on the direction for contemporary Mexican design. Through investigations into concrete Vazquez created prolific forms leveraging the monumentality of the material. Vazquez ‘s execution of form through concrete is best illustrated by at the National Museum of Anthropology and the Azteca Stadium. At this impressive Museum, the most signifying feature is single colossal concrete column that supports an equally enormous concrete “umbrella,” that shades an exterior courtyard. The magnitude of this shading device as a statement of form is only comprehendible through the dependency of the cantilever on the structural integrity of reinforced concrete. Similarly, at the Azteca Stadium, which served as the primary stadium for the 1968 Olympic games and the 1970’s World Cup, the system of exposed concrete ribs opens the exterior ground floor for free flowing circulation while supporting the arena seating above.
Similar to Mexico, the modernization of Hong Kong began evolving the in 1930’s with the first official high-rise built in 1935. However, the iconic skyline of Hong Kong’s Central Island did not come into fruition until a real-estate boom during the 1980’s and through the 1990’s. Now the city forest of over 7000 skyscrapers serves as an example of complete agglomeration for contemporary building methods and materials. The skyscraper typology no longer uses large masonry structures found in the boulevards apartments, as concrete and steel framing phased out brick and stone during the late 1890’s and early 1900’s as seen in the Mexican buildings by O’Gorman and Segura. Nevertheless, the building methods used today draw upon techniques established during France’s Second Empire, glass curtain walls in Hong Kong recall the expansive use of glassing of the apartments and the application of uniform facades is similar to the Palais Garnier’s exterior cladding on structural frame. Furthermore, the prefabrication techniques used in Mexican concrete construction have played a vital role on increasing construction efficiency and stream lining skyscraper’s design. Free of ornamentation of the Beaux-Arts era, most skyscrapers rely on simple geometric principles. For example, I. M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower completed in 1990 uses a triangular steel space frame structure that is then inset with a glazing curtain wall. Because of the inherent monumentality of the tower it acts as an object in the urban condition much like the Garnier’s opera house or Vazquez stadium.
While separated by era and styles, modernism has built upon itself over the course of its development. It began with restructuring Paris, which allowed for expanded uses of glass and iron, followed by the international style of efficient reinforced concrete and steel structure that fit the needs of a socialist society. Ultimately these gains embodied themselves in the skyscraper typology of the 20th century and most evidently in Hong Kong where “starchitect” from around the globe engage with monumentality and bigness through the most modern means of construction and materiality.
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