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Modernism and African Architecture

Modernist design not only inspires our work at Optima but, for decades, has also inspired the work of countless other architects and movements across the world. It’s always a delight to explore how Modernist design translates through the influences of other cultures. Today, we’re delving into the rich connections between Modernism and African architecture. 

The History

Beginning in the early 20th century, the Modernist Movement traversed the world, leaving its mark on various cultures and countries. Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier became pioneers of the movement, and numerous other architects quickly became inspired by their unique perspectives. However, even with its momentum, the movement’s journey to African architecture was prolonged. 

From 1957 to 1966, many African nations declared independence from the European colonizers that ruled them for nearly one hundred years. With this newfound independence, many African countries became inspired by the freedom that came with Modernist design. As elected governments started forming, architecture quickly became an asset to them, and hundreds of Modernist wonders flourished, frequently overlooked by the rest of the world. 

Even though Africa’s countries had vast differences in their culture and economics, they all shared aspirations for modernity – specifically through architecture – and each created an identity of their own. And by the mid-20th century, everything from educational to ceremonial builds filled with rich cultural significance and symbolism sprouted across the continent. 

Notable Builds

One of the first builds of modern architecture in Africa belongs to Burkina Faso’s La Maison du Peuple or House of the People. After the country declared independence from France in 1960, René Faublée sought to build a brutalist structure inspired by the country’s native culture for their newly-formed government to meet. After opening in 1965, La Maison du Peuple served as a popular location for political debates and other democratic exercises. 

La Maison du Peuple, 1965, Burkina Faso

The concrete structure features vibrant colors mimicking the textures and patterns of the earth that surround it. The magnificent lanterns on its roof reflect architecture traditional to Mossi, the nation’s native people, and they also provide natural light to its 2,500-seat auditorium while serving as passive ventilation ducts. 

Found in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, La Pyramide is another example of the visionary Modernist designs that sprang up across Africa in the 1960s. Built from 1968 to 1973, it is one of the most famous Modernist buildings in Abidjan, known for being one of the first high-rise buildings in the country. Architect, Rinaldo Olivieri, aimed to capture the bustle of an African market in an urban setting through his design. 

The iconic building exhibits a traditional cascading pyramid shape. Olivieri designed the building to house residences for the country’s elite on its top and shops and boutiques at its base. The building has faced some deterioration over its 60-year lifespan, but the Ivorian Government has plans to update its architecture and make it a tourist attraction in the coming years. 

Independence Arch is another significant example of the power independence had on Modernist architecture in Africa. The concrete arch was funded and built by Accra’s Public Works Department after Ghana’s independence in 1957. Construction finished in 1961 at Accra, Ghana’s Independence Square – the second largest city square in the world – where the beloved arch shares a home with various other monuments symbolizing freedom.

Independence Arch, 1961, Accra, Ghana

The monument is made of three towering concrete arches that hold two other structures meant for government use in between their peaks. Underneath, the Eternal Flame of African Liberation, lit by Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, still burns. 

For decades, African countries brought their perspective and culture to the movement, building some of the world’s most distinctive yet forgotten works of Modernism. Through noticing and appreciating where these styles journey, we gain a greater knowledge and understanding of the world of architecture and architecture throughout the world.

Women in Architecture: Kazuyo Sejima

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re putting a spotlight on one of the world’s most cherished architects, Kazuyo Sejima. Throughout her breathtaking portfolio of work, Sejima has exhibited her enigmatic and refined point of view and became the second woman ever to receive the acclaimed Pritzker Architecture Prize. Today, we’re diving into Sejima’s notable life, work and achievements.

The Life and Career of Kazuyo Sejima

Sejima was born in Mito, Ibaraki, Japan in 1956. After discovering her passion for architecture and design at a young age, she began her studies at the Japan Women’s University, where she completed both an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in architecture. Following her graduation in 1981, Sejima began apprenticing with Toyo Ito – a renowned Pritzker Award-winning architect also from Japan. 

After nearly seven years working with Ito, Sejima felt empowered to launch her architecture firm, Kazuyo Sejima & Associates, in 1987. Directly after opening, Sejima convinced her long-time confidant, whom she worked with under Ito, Ryue Nishizawa, to work with her at her firm. Nishizawa gladly joined Sejima, and nine years later, the pair founded a firm of their own, Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates (SANNA). And, thanks to Sejima and Nishizawa’s visionary designs, SANNA quickly became a nationally renowned firm after only a few years. 

Sejima’s designs are frequently recognized for their vibrant materials and colors, including various types of marble, glass and metals. She also often takes advantage of organic forms and aesthetics in her work, thoughtfully exploring each design as an instrument for human experience. Sejima’s appreciation for sheer glass in many other builds allows for an abundance of natural light, helping to create a more fluid transition between interior and exterior environments. 

The exterior of Platform House I featuring its corrugated metal roof, 1987

Throughout her career, Sejima has expressed the same concern for each of her projects: the functionality of the space’s social uses and their potential for adaptation. This philosophy explains why she doesn’t consider any of her builds finished until each of its inhabitants places pieces of their lives into the space through their various actions and interests. 

Notable Works and Achievements

Sejima translated her vision and architectural philosophy into her first project, Platform House I, in 1987. Sejima built the Platform House in a Japanese suburb and took inspiration from western designs, intermixing traditional Japanese values with European elements of architecture. With her first project, Seijam set out to create a living environment built with a platonic ideal of architecture – where it would function as provisional to the residents based on their actions and lifestyle. 

Throughout the house, Sejima experimented with large spaces, positioning the building’s central living area a half level below the kitchen and a half level above the sleeping floor below. Sejima also adopted her signature use of bright materials throughout the home, utilizing floor-to-ceiling windows in the home to illuminate its interior spaces and a gleaming, corrugated metal roof to signature the movement and human interaction that occurs below it. Following Platform House I,  Sejima designed companion projects: Platform House II and III.

New York’s New Museum for Contemporary Art, 2007, Photo by Dean Kaufman

Sejima extended her vision across the world, and in 2007 she, along with Nishizawa, designed the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Their design was chosen due to its adaptable atmospheres – mirroring the ever-changing nature of contemporary art. From the exterior, the building’s bold design consists of four white cubes that sit on top of one another, further symbolizing the dynamic energy of contemporary culture. After its completion, the building received praise, and Conde Nast Traveler named it one of the architectural New Seven Wonders of the World

Most recently, Sejima constructed a vibrant tribute to renowned Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika through the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo, Japan. Sejima thoughtfully designed the building to blend in with its surrounding urban environment, making it more accessible to its visitors. Sticking to her trademark design elements, Sejima used reflective aluminum panels to cover the façade. The building’s exterior also features various slits on all sides, eliminating the notion of a “front” and “back”, and providing outdoor walkways connecting each first-floor area.

The Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo, 2016

Alongside her extraordinary work, Sejima has also received numerous architecture and art awards as well as achievements:

  • Young Architect of the Year, Japan Institute of Architects, 1992
  • Prize of Architectural Institute of Japan, 1998, 2006
  • International Fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 2007
  • Pritzker Architecture Prize, 2010

Today, Sejima continues to fearlessly voice her unique architectural perspective, gifting the world with her ambitious designs. She currently teaches as a Visiting Professor at Tama Art University and Japan Women’s University. And, succeeding Zaha Hadid in 2015, she leads an architectural design studio at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Modernist Treasures: A Visit to Columbus, Indiana

When you’re feeling a bit of wanderlust and looking for beauty in unexpected places, hit the road and make a beeline to Columbus, Indiana. Just 3-½ hours by car from Chicago and 50 miles south of Indianapolis, Columbus is a small city by American standards — and yet finds itself ranked 6th in the nation for architectural innovation and design by the American Institute of Architects.

As the website for Columbus explains, “Columbus is an improbable town. Every year thousands of visitors arrive to explore its streets and study its buildings, for it is one of the rare places on earth where the idea that architecture can improve the human condition has been put to the test. It’s a small, southern Indiana community with no apparent call to destiny that remarkably became an architectural ‘mecca.’”

The Robert N. Stewart Bridge, 1999
The Robert N. Stewart Bridge, 1999

The evolution of Columbus into an extraordinary experiment in modernist architecture began in the early 1940s when the industrialist J. Irwin Miller began commissioning world renowned architects to come to the city and undertake the design of commercial and municipal buildings. 

A tour through the city will take you to a host of treasures including  First Christian Church by Eliel Saarinen, the Irwin Union Bank, Miller House, and North Christian Church by Eliel’s son Eero Saarinen, and the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library by IM Pei. These commercial buildings and houses of worship expressed the deep beliefs held by J. Irwin Miller about the power of great architecture to shape the civic experience. 

Besides being meticulously preserved, the buildings are situated in proximity to impressive public art installations that include works by Henry Moore, Dale Chihuly, Jean Tinguely, and Robert Indiana.

First Christian Church, Eliel Saarinen, 1942
First Christian Church, Eliel Saarinen, 1942

Adding to the caché and allure of Columbus is a feature film that has drawn even greater attention to this unique metropolis. Columbus is a 2017 American drama written, directed, and edited by Kogonada was shot on location in 2016 over a period of 18 days. The film follows the son of an esteemed architecture scholar who gets stranded in Columbus and strikes up a friendship with a young architecture enthusiast who works at the local library. The film premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and was released in the United States by the Sundance Institute, receiving broad acclaim from critics. 

When planning a visit to Columbus, visit the city’s comprehensive website for a guide to the city’s architecture or to schedule a tour. And if you want to get inspired in advance, you can stream the film Columbus on Amazon Prime.

Modernist Buildings in Chicago Everyone Should Know

Modernist tradition and design practices have been rooted in our identity at Optima for over four decades. The same appreciation for modernism is across countless iconic buildings throughout Chicago, where many of our multi-family residences reside. Here are just a few of the city’s modernist buildings we feel like everyone should know a little about:

Lake Shore Drive Apartments

Built in 1951, the twin residential towers, which reside at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, exhibit modernist less is more ideology adopted by its architect, Ludwig Mies van der Roh. Originally seen as too complex, the project’s materials don’t stray from the norm as it utilizes steel, glass and aluminum. Not long after their completion, even with the critics at the time, the Lake Shore Drive Apartments became a template for modernist buildings across the globe.

875 N Michigan Ave

875 N Michigan Ave

Previously known as the John Hancock Center, 875 N Michigan Ave is one of the most recognizable buildings in Chicago’s skyline. At the time of its completion in 1968, the modern masterpiece became the second tallest building in the world and the tallest in Chicago – a title it held for over 20 years. Skidmore, Owing and Merill, the architects behind the skyscraper, were pioneers for the new era of skyscraper design at the time and were the same architects behind the Willis Tower. Complementing the building’s basalt-black color, its façade is complete with unique X-bracing and a system of framed tubes which have allowed it to become an architectural icon. 

Marina City

Marina City

Often referred to as “the corn cob”, the mixed-use buildings became the first of their kind when built in 1964. The circular complex was designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg – a student of Mies – as a self-contained town. Each building shares identical floor plans and includes a theater, bowling alley, and various stores and restaurants. One of the most unique features of the towers is the near-complete lack of right angles found in their unique interiors. 

Charnley-Persky House

Charnley-Persky House

One of the oldest houses in Chicago, the James Charnley Residence was built in 1892 and is one of the only surviving residential works of Louis Sullivan. Often referred to as the “father of skyscrapers and modernism”, Sullivan was a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright and helped establish Chicago School architecture. The building is often considered to be the first modern house in Chicago. Although it has an essentially classic form, Sullivan introduced modern aesthetics, like it’s clean and simplistic design, which separated it from other structures at the time.

S.R. Crown Hall

S.R. Crown Hall

Created to house his alma mater’s – the Illinois Institute of Technology – departments of architecture, planning and design, S.R. Crown Hall is one of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s most notable designs. The modern masterpiece was built in 1956 and is often recognized as one of the most architecturally significant buildings of the 20th century. Mies created Crown Hall utilizing basic steel and glass construction styles, creating a one-of-a-kind open space without interior obstructions. The building’s 18-foot-tall extended roof also helps to establish the feeling of universal space. 

While these five of the city’s most iconic modern buildings, our list could go on forever. Next time you find yourself in downtown Chicago or traveling through the midwest, we encourage you to explore the modern masterpieces for yourself. 

Frank Lloyd Wright Site Virtual Tours

At Optima, we believe that design has the power to inspire awe and wonder — and even to unite us in challenging circumstances. We’re seeing proof of this, as the architectural world makes leaps and bounds to innovate and ensure we can continue sharing our love for exceptional design, even while social distancing. As part of this response, a dozen historic sites designed by Modernist master Frank Lloyd Wright have teamed up to offer a series of weekly virtual tours.

12 Weeks of Frank Lloyd Wright

A collaborative partnership between Frank Lloyd Wright participating sites, with leadership from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, the virtual tour series kicked off on April 2. The idea behind the series is to keep the doors to historic Frank Lloyd Wright sites open, at least virtually, so that architecture lovers can continue to experience beauty and inspiration from home. It deeply resonated with our own values when the foundation stated: “Wright’s works bring people together in harmony with the natural world, reminding us that we are all connected, even when we’re apart.”

The series, which will run until at least July 15, brings a new immersive video experience shared every week on Thursday at 1 PM EST, united by the hashtag #WrightVirtualVisits. Participating sites are publishing videos, each to their own social media platforms, in the hopes of introducing the sites to a wider audience and providing interesting and informal glimpses into the sites’ history and design.

For a full overview of the tour series, and to discover participating sites, visit the event page here

Modernism in Chicago

According to the Tate Modern Museum, Modernism “refers to a global movement in society and culture that from the early decades of the twentieth century sought a new alignment with the experience and values of modern industrial life.” Within a broader cultural narrative, modernism emerged as a criticism of nineteenth-century societal order, and trickled down into everything from political activism, urban planning, psychoanalysis, art, and of course, architecture. As we’ve previously explored, Modernist architecture has an important place in America’s history. But how does it factor into Chicago’s past?

After the great Chicago fire in 1871, the city was a blank slate, re-planned over an entirely new grid. With the world’s first skyscraper completed by 1884 (at only ten stories), Chicago was positioned to be a groundbreaking city for architectural innovation. Our triumphant World’s Fair of 1893 solidified the city’s confidence and paved the way for Daniel Burnham to create his comprehensive city plan. Chicago’s architects banded together to decide how to best develop ever-evolving skyscrapers within the city. One such architect was Louis Sullivan, who helped found the Chicago School of architects around his belief that “form forever follows function.” 

If Sullivan’s creed sounds familiar, it’s because function over form is a cornerstone belief embedded in the Modernist tradition. In the mid-1900s, architects from the growing practices in Europe came to the United States to avoid World War I, and subsequently, World War II. Iconic architects, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, came to Chicago to set up shop. Striking buildings of steel and glass defined an entire generation of skyscrapers, and still add to Chicago’s diverse range of architecture. 

Chicago was a city that pioneered the world’s forte into stretching and sweeping skylines. Beginning with sleek and simple Modernist structures, Chicago’s architecture is now made all the more standout by the dynamic mix of styles it holds. From Art Deco to Art Nouveau, Chicago School to International Style, Modern to Postmodern, each style is made more its own when juxtaposed with its counterparts.

Through our own addition to Modernism in Chicago, we are proud to create buildings that contribute to the movement’s and the city’s larger legacy. To learn more about Chicago’s Modernist history, the Chicago Architecture Center offers tours specifically dedicated to the style and craft. 

The Legacy of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Our story is influenced and molded by those that came before us. The vision for Optima was seeded during David Hovey Sr.’s time at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), where he studied under the program built by modern architectural legend, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. To understand where modern design is today, it’s insightful to look back on the legacy of Mies van der Rohe.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, designed and constructed between 1945 and 1951.

Mies van der Rohe

Mies was a German-born architect and educator, born in 1886 in Aachen, Germany, with Chicago becoming his adoptive hometown later in life. One of the 20th century’s greatest architects, he designed with an emphasis on open space and revealing materials. His steel-and-glass aesthetic defined modern architecture; he himself referred to it as “skin-and-bones architecture.” Mies didn’t design with style in mind, but rather, considered the philosophy of design within the frame of functionalist and industrial concerns at the time. “Less is more,” the legendary aphorism, was first said by Mies in reference to his architectural work. 

The Barcelona Pavilion, designed by Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe
The Barcelona Pavilion, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lily Reich – the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain.

Early Years in Europe

Destined for greatness, Mies’ first commissioned project (Riehl House) came to him at the age of 21 while he was working for Bruno Paul. What really set his design aesthetic apart, however, was the Barcelona Pavilion. Designed for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain, the temporary structure was the most powerfully pared-down building imaginable. Consisting of horizontal and vertical slab elements, it fulfilled the minimum requirements to define space — nothing has ever personified “less is more” in quite the same way. As Mies garnered attention, he became the director of the Bauhaus school of design in Germany in 1930. He remained there until the school closed in 1933 under the mounting pressure of the Nazi regime, and it was at this point in time that Mies took his leave from Europe.

An Educator and Architect in America

Mies arrived in the US in 1938, heralding in a new era for his life and the life of architecture in Chicago. He was head of the architecture department of IIT from 1938-1958, and when Mies’ position was announced, he was introduced by the one and only Frank Lloyd Wright himself. It was virtually unheard of for Wright to admire the work of another architect — and vocalize his admiration no less — but in his introductory speech, Wright said of Mies: “I admire him as an architect, respect and love him as a man. Armour Institute, I give you my Mies van der Rohe. You treat him well and love him as I do. He will reward you.” 

Wright knew what an influence Mies would have on IIT and on architecture. The period of transition allowed Mies to entirely redesign the school’s program and campus both — he “rationalized” the curriculum by returning to the basics. At IIT, students focused first on learning to envision and draw their creations, then master the features, functions and materials involved in building, in order to finally evolve as architects whose discipline was enmeshed with the fundamental principles of design and construction. 

A Lasting Legacy

Mies has left his mark in many places — along the Chicago skyline, across the IIT campus and on our work here at Optima.The fundamental principles behind Modernist design influence how we create and think here, and the innovative and groundbreaking thinking of Mies is something that we seek to embody in our everyday operations. To this legend, we say thank you for paving the way and inspiring us all. 

 

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