In the past century, the word “masterpiece” was used to identify the extraordinary architectures built by designers such as Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, which altered earlier architectural tradition and led to the foundation of Modern and Organic Architecture.
When Mies built the Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona Exhibition, he did not mimick history in a neoclassical way. Instead, he arranged a group of intersecting slabs made of different kinds of marble to define an apparently massive, yet airy space, which was to prefigure his future works, as the Villa Tugendhat and the Farnsworth House. When Le Corbusier wrote Vers une architecture in 1923, he clearly defined the principles of a new architecture in his cinq points: pilotis, Free Design of the Ground Plan, Free Design of the Facade, Horizontal Windows, Roof-Garden. This was a revolution in architectural language that would influence the development of future architecture around the world. The organic architecture of Wright also brought a change of approach to design, by stressing the horizontal dimension of architecture and paying great attention to construction details: an attitude that was uncommon in the concise and rational European Modernism, with the only exception of Mies’s pleasant obsessions. Just as Wright’s architecture became extremely influential in Europe, as shown by the De Stijl group, the work of Le Corbusier affected architectural production outside the European borders: as in USA and Brasil, for example.
The iconic work which, in its uniqueness, synthesizes and expresses the thinking of its author, showing extraordinary spatial and formal qualities, is a typical feature of early architectural Modernism. Later on, an international style developed, as written by Philip Johnson in the introduction to the catalogue of the famous 1932 MoMA Modern Architecture exhibition: “Before the War modern architecture was the creation of great individualists. Since the War, an international style has grown up throughout Europe, not the invention of one genius, but the coordinated result of many parallel experiments”(1).
After the Second World War, and especially with the 1959 CIAM in Otterlo, the development of the so-called International Style led the period of Modern Architecture to an end. As architecture historian William J.R. Curtis writes: “In the history of architecture, the most important revolutions generally mixed new forms and technical expedients with spatial conceptions that were the incarnation of a changed vision of the world”(2). The new and highly influential vision of the world incarnated by the International Style determined a worldwide standardisation of building techniques, giving an impulse toward the repetition of similar shapes regardless of their contexts, in order to follow the logic of the market society. This change of paradigm made tabula rasa of the concept of “masterpiece” in architecture, and indeed it is difficult to speak of architectural masterpieces in these and the following decades. Both the late 1960s and early 1970s – with the rise of counterculture movements and the radical experiments of groups such as Archigram, Superstudio, Archizoom and Haus Rucker-Co – and the late 1970s and 1980s – with the Postmodernist colonization of architectural thinking – seem periods incapable of producing masterpieces (if not for the disciplines of Aldo Rossi, of course). It will be necessary to wait until the late 1980s and 1990s, with the advent of deconstructivism and especially the work of Frank Gehry, to talk again about architectural masterpieces. Among many, the best example is the Guggenheim in Bilbao, arguably the last masterpiece of the twentieth century.
As for today, we have to stress how the concept of “masterpiece” should not be reduced to a matter of pure form, as it did happen in the twentieth century and as the ambassadors of parametric architecture keep reiterating. On the contrary, contemporary society and architectural production clearly show how parametricism, twenty years after its theorization, has failed in its mission of becoming “the great new style after Modernism” (3), as Patrik Schumacher famously wrote in 2008 (with his customary arrogance). Based on a self-referential formalism that establishes no relationship with its context, parametric architecture is a sort of contemporary neo-baroque that celebrates technology without a theoretical base.
And so what does the word “masterpiece” mean, today? Clearly, the paradigms according to which masterpieces were defined and judged in the past century have changed, just as changed is society in its capacity to ask architecture for more than populist, consensus-seeking icons. New factors have to be considered for the definition of an architectural masterpiece: from the verification of the intentions of the author, to the capacity of an architecture to respond to the instances of its community. Looking at current trends in architecture, it seems possible to postulate that in the future we will no longer have unique works and masterpieces as standalone monuments, but rather a series of works which, together, will constitute a masterpiece.
But then the real question is: will we still need masterpieces, in our post-pandemic, liquid society?
1. Philip Johnson, “Historical note”, in Modern Architecture, ed. Philip Johnson, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1932), 19.
2. William J.R. Curtis, Architettura moderna dal 1900, (Londra: Phaidon, 2006), 258.
Emanuele Piccardo is an architecture critic, curator and photographer, editor in chief of archphoto.it. In 2013 he was awarded with the Graham Foundation Grant for the project Beyond Environment. In 2015 he was awarded with the Autry Scholar Fellowship for the project Living the frontier. He currently leads a research project focused on the architecture and artistic experiments in the American Frontier.