A classical modernist architecture was not created at the very first attempt. Its appearance was preceded by several failed experiments. The largest of them – cubist. Cubism was one of the numerous artistic movements of the early 20th century, but its creators had larger ambitions.
They thought that cubism was a new style of the era, which meant that this style was universal and could be common or applicable to all the arts. They almost succeeded in creating cubist architecture. Perhaps they were also thinking about the possibility of creating cubist music but, obviously, this project was not so successful.
In their theoretical rules, cubist architects expressed the need for dynamism, which would prevail over the essence and peace contained in it through a creative idea, in order the result to cause a sense of expressive plasticity.
This should be achieved through the shapes obtained from pyramids, cubes and prisms, positioning and comparison of sloping surfaces, mainly triangular, sculptural facades in crystal-like protruding elements, similar to the so-called diamond faceting or even cells that resemble late gothic architecture.
Thus, all surfaces of the facades, including pediments and attic windows, have their form. Grills, as well as other architectural ornaments, acquire three-dimensional shapes. Besides this, new forms of windows and doors, for example, hexagonal windows were created.
The Birth Of Cubist Architecture
Cubist architecture had a pretty spectacular start. At the autumn Parisian salon in 1912, a group of authors exhibited a large, 10 by 3 meters, model of a cubist house. The facades were designed by a French sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon, room interiors (they could be seen from the other side of the model) were designed by several people, among whom the main person was a French painter and designer Andre Mare.
The rooms were fully furnished and small cubist paintings hung on the walls. After Paris, “Cubist House” was shown at the Armory Show in New York. Shortly after this event, the first erections of cubist architects appeared. But they were not in Paris. Original cubist architecture is extremely rare. There is only one country in the world where cubism really applied to architecture. This country was called Bohemia (now Czech Republic), especially its capital Prague.
Czech architects Josef Crest, Josef Gočár, Pavel Janák, Otakar Novotný were the first and only ones in the world who ever designed the original buildings in the style of cubism. Moreover, during these three years, Czech architects have created a lot of cubist furniture and interior items.
Cubist architecture flourished mostly in the 1910-1914 years, but the buildings in the cubist style, or at least, under its influence, were also built after the First World War. After the war, an architectural style called “rondo cubism” developed in Prague. It was a combination of cubist architecture and round shapes.
The most famous cubist house building is considered to be the House of the Black Madonna which is situated in the historic old town of Prague. It was built in 1912 by Josef Gočár and it houses the only Cubist café in the world called Grand Cafe Orient. In 1912-1914, Vlastislav Hofman built entrance pavilions of Ďáblice cemetery. Joseph Crest designed several residential buildings under Vysehrad fort. Not far from Wenceslas Square, there are some preserved cubist lights designed by Emil Králíček in 1912, who approximately in 1913, also built the Diamant House in New Town Prague.
Cubist architecture is avant-garde and amazingly traditional at the same time. It uses the same symmetrical facades, gables, lucarnes, portals which can be found in the previously built houses but only subjected to a characteristic triangular pixelation. It’s like art nouveau mansions, seen through the eyes of Robert Delaunay. Cubist architecture did not totally deny the experience of the past. It only decorated the facades of buildings with new ornaments but the structure remained the same.
Czech cubism was pretty short. After the First World War, the same architects, now citizens of the independent Czechoslovak Republic, returned to the profession but their buildings were not the same. After playing around with triangles, in the 1920s, they became fascinated with half circles and cylinders. This architecture is called “rondo cubism” and it’s quite different from their pre-war constructions. We can say that the story of cubist architecture ends here.
The Traces Of Cubist Architecture
It was all kept within the three pre-war years, but its individual motifs can be often found in buildings constructed in the following decades. It is known that cubist artists greatly influenced the formation of the Art Deco style. Well, actually, they were the authors of this style.
Shortly after the war, the author of the cubist house interior, André Mare, became pretty successful at designing Art Deco furniture. In 1925, together with a French designer and architect Louis Süe, he designed two pavilions at the famous Parisian exhibition.
The most famous French art deco interior – the interior of the house of Jacques Doucet in Neuilly-sur-Seine (1929) – was created by the entire team of cubist artists. The Art Deco style was not only limited to the cubist motifs. It drew inspiration from many other sources. In addition, the cubist painting also underwent some changes. Analytical cubism of the 1920s was different from the paintings that could be seen at the pre-war art exhibitions.
The reality was not subjected to the monotonous triangular deconstruction to such a degree like it was before. At the same time, it’s pretty surprising, that in the Art Deco architecture, the motifs of a pre-war angular cubism can be found. We can see it in the built-in Oviatt shop ceiling lamps in Los Angeles (1928, architect – Frenchman Ferdinand Shan), in the ceilings of a “Paramount” theater in Oakland (1931, architect Timothy Pflueger), and so on.
Numerous trends in 1920s painting, contending with each other for the right to be the successor of cubism, almost all, one way or another, used its methods and techniques. Its shattered, crystalline forms were the common heritage of all of the avant-garde paintings of that time.
These motives can also be found in the paintings of expressionists, as well as in the buildings which were built by German expressionist architects. From a formal point of view, some of these buildings (for example, a Mendelsohn factory in Luckenwalde, a Sommerfeld house in Berlin, the unpreserved masterpiece of the young Bauhaus professors) can rightly be called cubist.
However, the Sommerfeld house was also strongly influenced by Wright. Frank Lloyd Wright himself, though stayed away from the European avant-garde, from time to time borrowed some techniques from it.
Wright was also a lover of the diagonal and acute angle, but in some of his 1950s buildings, for example, in the Unitarian Church meeting house in Madison, gas station in Cloquet – diagonal plan loses its regularity, and the planes puff up as in the buildings of Cubists and Expressionists.
Milanese architects of the second half of the 20th century also felt pretty confined within the frames of a modernist canon and they all somehow violated it. The most famous architect of Northern Italy, Gio Ponti (he began in the 1920s as a moderate classic) in his late buildings suddenly turns to cubism, which did not interest him before.
In his Venezuelan Planchart villa in Caracas, cornices and facades are broken up, their pieces crawl each other like ice floes, and in some places, you can take a look at the thin as a sheet facade plane from its end face. It looks like as if the villa was frozen, and then someone hit it with a hammer, splitting it.
In the church of San Francesco d’Assisi al Fopponino and the cathedral in Taranto, Ponti recalled the experience of German Expressionists who subjected gothic motifs to cubist geometrization.
The End of Cubism In Architecture
In general, the cubist architecture was a failed, might-have-been project, and it’s pretty easy to understand why. In the mid-1920s, the founders of the “modern movement” developed new principles of architecture, invented it anew, from scratch. In the early 1910s, cubists only figured out how to decorate or diversify it in a new way.
Modernists were building a new, unprecedented world, paradise on earth, and were pretty serious about it. Social ambitions of cubists were mostly limited to the dream of wealthy collectors. Cubists were reforming the art and didn’t crave for more, but modernists were twisting the world inside out.
It’s obvious, that this task was much more interesting and absorbing. That’s why the majority of German expressionist architects and all Czech Cubists, in the middle of 1920s, quickly forgot about their previous experience, and with a great enthusiasm started building white houses with flat roofs. This trend prevailed in the architecture for about thirty years, spread to the entire planet and shaped the environment in which still lives the majority of mankind.
But all this time it was accompanied by a ghost of the cubist architecture, hiding in the shadows, in the folds of a history, peeping out from time to time, as if trying to live the life which ended too early.