Almost a century ago, the once-flourishing school of design known as the international style represented architecture’s highest hopes for the 20th century. Though it fell far short of its expectations, it left us with a valuable lesson — that theories alone can’t make for a humane environment.
The international style was really more of a social philosophy than a style. Its roots reach back to post-World War I Europe, where widespread social problems convinced many architects that a revolutionary change in architecture was in order. To them, this meant discarding every trace of the historically based styles of the past and replacing them with a completely “modern” architecture.
The most famous proponent of these radical views was a German school of design known as the Bauhaus. By the late 1920s, the Bauhaus was proposing austere new forms of architecture meant to provide the masses with clean, dignified housing, workplaces and civic buildings. At the same time, they theorized, these buildings would raise the moral and spiritual levels of their occupants.
The Bauhaus rejected ornament as a useless trapping of the elite and replaced it with the so-called “machine aesthetic,” producing buildings that were intentionally stark and severe. Traditional pitched roofs were discarded in favor of flat roofs with little or no overhang. Windows were replaced by great walls of glass that frequently couldn’t be opened, and walls were left plain and invariably painted an antiseptic white. Such designs soon began to find favor throughout Europe.