The Close Relationship Between Art and Architecture in Modernism

The Close Relationship Between Art and Architecture in Modernism

The idea of integration between art and architecture dates back to the very origin of the discipline, however, it took on a new meaning and social purpose during the Avant-Garde movement of the early twentieth century, becoming one of the most defining characteristics of Modernism. This close relationship is evident in the works of some of the greatest modern architects, such as Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Oscar Niemeyer, to name a few.

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Needless to say, modernism emerged from an expectation of moral and material reconstruction of a world devastated by war, serving as a tool to strengthen a collective identity and, consequently, the bond between the city and its inhabitants. In this context, artistic expression is used as a tool to shape the emotional life of the user, to which art and architecture combined can give a new meaning, offering a place that represents a sense of community, in addition to function and technique.

The professional development at Bauhaus was marked by what Argan (1992) calls "methodological-didactic rationalism," encouraging the unification of all the arts through a Gesamtkunstwerk, which roughly translates as a "total work of art," incorporating architecture, painting, sculpture, industrial design, and crafts. This collaboration was expected to happen even on the building site, thus bringing together intellectual and manual work in a shared experience. As their leading exponent Walter Gropius used to say, an architect should be as familiar with painting as a painter should be with architecture. One should not design a building and commission a sculptor afterward; this would be wrong and detrimental to the architectural unity.

Apart from the Bauhaus program, this integration between disciplines was also, and most notably, brought up by Le Corbusier through the combination of elements from painting and sculpture with the formal concepts of architecture. In this sense, Le Corbusier - despite being a "one-man show" who preached the synthesis of the arts in his designs, but always worked as a solo artist - argued that the roles of architects, painters, and sculptors were of equal importance contributing to productive collaborations in the real world, that is, on the building site, by creating and designing in complete harmony.

To some extent, this inseparable relationship sounded so utopian that Lucio Costa stated that this greater art would require a level of cultural and aesthetical evolution that was almost impossible to achieve, in which architecture, sculpture, and painting would form one cohesive body, a living organism that could not be disintegrated. Nevertheless, the Capanema Palace in Rio de Janeiro is arguably the closest one could get to this utopia in Brazil by relying on painter Candido Portinari, sculptor Bruno Giorgi and landscape architect Burle Marx from the very beginning of the project development. As French historian Yves Bruand states, the result is an ensemble of great artistic value, brilliantly enhancing and complementing architecture, but subordinated to it at the same time.

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AD Classics: Ministry of Education and Health Building / Lucio Costa e equipe. © Marina de Holanda
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Gardens of the Gustavo Capanema Palace. © Flickr jcoarq. Used under Creative Commons

While his works turned out to be prime examples of the fusion of architecture and art, Oscar Niemeyer also shared Costa's opinion that only in extraordinary circumstances could a true synthesis of the arts be achieved. He also stressed the crucial need to establish a team that would work together from the very beginning of the architectural sketches to amicably discuss the problems and smallest details of the project, without dividing them into specialized fields but considering them as a single balanced entity.

The ideal goal is to integrate all disciplines from the beginning of the project, but inviting artists to participate later in the design process does not necessarily compromise the final result. A good example is the Salão Negro (Black Room) at the National Congress in Brasília, where artist Athos Bulcão, invited by Niemeyer after the project was finished, created an abstract and simple language using black granite on the floor and white marble on the walls, which resulted in a mural fully integrated with the architecture and building materials. This mural with abstract patterns is often cited by academics, including Paul Damaz when he states that non-figurative language is the best match for modern architecture. In this regard, the author also mentions Maria Martins' semi-figurative bronze sculpture in the gardens of the Palácio da Alvorada, highlighting the "formal affinity between the curves" of the sculpture and the "graceful pillars of the building," as a perfect example of integration.

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Mural in the Nation Congress in Brasília. @ Flickr genciasenado. Used under Creative Commons

However, while Damaz praises the integration between architecture and art in Oscar Niemeyer's projects, he rejects one of the most important examples of integration between disciplines in the history of modernism, which is Mexico City's UNAM Campus. This complex is one of the most emblematic architectural achievements in Mexico, a country considered to be a pioneer in the incorporation of art into architecture, as seen in their tradition of mural painting since the 1920s. Inaugurated in 1952, parallel to the CIAM VIII, the University Campus was designed by more than 100 architects, as well as engineers, artists, and landscape designers. Some of the most remarkable artworks featured in the project are the murals by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Juan O'Gorman, and Francisco Eppens, which were criticized by the author for being figurative, creating a disparity in style between social realism and functionalist architecture, to the detriment of the latter. Nevertheless, despite the critiques, one cannot ignore the fact that UNAM is an open-air art museum and an example of cooperation and collectivity.

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Photographer Yueqi “Jazzy” Li Captures the Dynamism of Mexico City's UNAM Campus. © Yueqi "Jazzy" Li

On a different scale but equally important, is integration between art and architecture through the inclusion of occasional individual elements such as the iconic Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. Indeed, the sculpture Der Morgen, also known as Alba, by German sculptor Georg Kolbe (1877-1947) is not essential to the pavilion. But what else is essential in this new architectural concept, if not only the arrangement of planes and vertical supports? The pavilion is completely independent of the sculpture, as well as of the materials however, one cannot picture it today without this human figure with arms outstretched precisely positioned and framed for the user's experience. As Claudia Cabral beautifully explains, "in Mies' delicate balance, guided by partial asymmetries, and by a system of compensations, the sculpture is the only element that has no counterpart [...] Mies decided to place only one sculpture, a single figurative element in his abstract plane. Within the pavillions play with reflections, transparency, and parallels, we are the only possible partners for the bronze figure, we humans of flesh and blood, the visitors."

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Barcelona Pavilion. @ Commons Wikimedia Rodrigo Pereira da Silva. Used under Creative Commons

Every form of integration of different disciplines consists of a coherent dialogue between architects, painters, and sculptors, whether from the very beginning of the project development or later on, during construction, whether on a large scale or with individual elements. Having this in mind, it is very alarming to witness events such as the relocation of the panels by artist Athos Bulcão in the Planalto Palace in Brasilia in 2009 due to a renovation. Even the Athos Bulcão Foundation - Fundathos opposed it since the original location was defined by Athos himself, along with Niemeyer while he was designing the palace in 1950.

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Mural by Athos Bulcão at Planalto Palace. @ Commons Wikimedia Agência Brasil. Used under Creative Commons

As Rino Levi once said, architecture is not secondary, but neither is it the mother of all arts. There is only one art and its value is measured by the emotions it triggers in us. Painting and sculpture can be independent, however, when applied to architecture, they become part of a whole. This lesson on collectivity and shared experiences starts during project development and touches every single person who has the opportunity to visit the architectural work.

Reference List
ARGAN, Giulio Carlo. Arte Moderna [Modern art]. São Paulo: Cia das Letras, 1992.
BRUAND, Yves. Arquitetura contemporânea no Brasil. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2010.
CABRAL, Cláudia Costa. Arte e arquitetura moderna em três projetos de Oscar Niemeyer [Art and modern architecture in three projects by Oscar Niemeyer]. DOCOMOMO Brasil, Salvador, 2019.
CABRAL, Cláudia Costa. Arquitetura moderna e escultura figurativa: a representação naturalista no espaço moderno [Modern architecture and figurative sculpture: naturalist representation in modern spaces]. DOCOMOMO Brasil, Rio de Janeiro, 2009.
DAMAZ, Paul. Art in Latin American Architecture. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1963.
DIÓGENES, Beatriz Helena Nogueira ; PAIVA, Ricardo Alexandre. Diálogo entre arte e arquitetura no modernismo em Fortaleza [Dialogue between art and architecture of modernism in Fortaleza]. DOCOMOMO Brasil, Recife, 2016.
TAVARES, Camila Christiana de Aragão. A integração da arte e da arquitetura em Brasília: Lucio Costa e Athos Bulcão [The integration of art and architecture in Brasília: Lucio Costa and Athos Bulcão]. Dissertação de mestrado [Master's Thesis] UNB, Brasília.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Collective Design. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 01, 2021.

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Cite: Ghisleni, Camilla. "The Close Relationship Between Art and Architecture in Modernism" [Arquitetura como síntese: o diálogo entre projeto e arte no modernismo] 21 Jul 2023. ArchDaily. (Trans. Duduch, Tarsila) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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