Modern architecture and the commonplace

Alex Thomas Anderson, University of Pennsylvania


In this dissertation I demonstrate that, unlike the modernism that emerged out of a quest for timeless universal truths, modern architecture was fundamentally committed to the ordinary, mundane circumstances of contemporary life, to the commonplace. Tracing the development of this theme in European architecture from the Enlightenment to the early twentieth century, I show that modern architects did not intend for their designs to be universally appropriate or significant; they proposed that a work of modern architecture would acquire singular meaning in relation to its location and to the lives of those who occupied it. In France, modern architecture elaborated this notion in a unique way. Whereas English and German designers considered the production of modern domestic equipment to be critical to the development of a modern architecture, modern designers in France sought to assemble, rather than to produce, domestic effects in an architectural framework amenable to contemporary life. This sense that modern architecture would accommodate the lives of ordinary people contrasted strongly with its conception in Austria, where modern architecture generally reflected the habits of a cultural elite. It contrasted also with contemporary assertions in Italy that architecture must proclaim the energies of the modern metropolis. I demonstrate that a uniquely French vision of modern architecture developed largely from the work of decorative artists, particularly those who identified their work with Cubism. It became evident especially in the ensembles that they displayed in the Paris salons from 1910 until 1925, when Le Corbusier could declare that 'the hour of architecture' had arrived. By re-examining the origins of modern architecture, particularly as it emerged in France, I show that modern architecture was intended to be flexible and amenable to habits and aspirations of ordinary people, not rigid, universal or monumental. Understanding this, we might rediscover in modem architecture some insight into how architecture can commit itself more fully to contemporary life.

Subject Area

Architecture|Design|Interior design|Art History

Recommended Citation

Anderson, Alex Thomas, "Modern architecture and the commonplace" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9727186.