Historic art movements and their visual characteristics have considerably paved the way for modern day architecture. For years, architects have been borrowing techniques and stylistic approaches to create their own architectural compositions, merging both disciplines together. Cubism, one of the most influential styles of the twentieth century, and heavily criticized for its experimentation with its non-representational art approach, is perhaps the most significant architecture inspiration. Just as the radical art movement rejected the then-rooted concept that art should mimic nature, architects found themselves following suit and designing structures that borrow Cubism’s avant-gardist features, creating buildings that, to this day, stand as iconic landmarks of the practice.
First invented in the early 20th century, Cubism was considered as a “revolutionary new approach to representing reality”, seen for the first time in paintings by renowned artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in 1907 following Paul Cézanne's retrospective work at the Salon d'Automne that same year. The style’s terminology is believed to have been first established by French art critic Louis Vauxcelles who described some of Georges Braque’s 1908 paintings as “reducing everything to ‘geometric outlines, to cubes”. The movement was developed in two distinct phases: analytical cubism (1908-1912), and synthetic cubism (1912-1914), where the first’s artwork featured interweaving planes and lines in muted tones, and the latter featured collage-like cutouts, shapes, and bright colors.
Cubism’s approach combined different views of objects within the same frame, resulting in art pieces that appear fragmented and abstract. Instead of using the traditional three–dimensional and linear perspective techniques to create the illusion of depth of perspective, Cubist artists experimented with two-dimensional planes to show different viewpoints at the same time, which was considered an avant-gardist approach especially after the rise of Renaissance art at the time. The subjects of these paintings and sculptures were fragmented, simplified, and reassembled in abstract forms, and depicted from several viewpoints as a means of representing the subject in a greater context using unidirectional and uniform brushwork.
The movement’s breakthrough began with Pablo Picasso's controversial Les Demoiselles d'Avignon painting in 1907, where human figures were distorted and painted with a muted palette, which then became key characteristics of the style. Shortly after, Braque used similar techniques in a series of landscape paintings in 1908, rendering trees and mountains as shaded cubes and pyramids, resembling architectural forms. Picasso and Braque formed a close collaboration in 1909, so much so that their genesis made it hard to distinguish the work of each one at some point. Although both artists created Cubist artworks continuously throughout their careers, the “two-man movement” did not last beyond the first World War.
Cubism’s stylistic approach influenced the way architects saw the built environment as well, resulting in the creation of Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Constructivism, Art Deco, and De Stijl to name a few as a response to the art movement.
The movement, which was highly controversial at the time, spread quickly throughout Europe in the 1910’s. Architects borrowed cubist keywords and characteristics like “faceted forms, spatial ambiguity, transparency, multiplicity, and abstraction”, and translated them into architecture. Three-dimensional forms were broken down, juxtaposed, and superimposed using simple geometric shapes, and made transparent to penetrate one another while maintaining a spatial and visual relationship. This stylistic approach became very prominent in modern architecture from 1912, as seen in La Maison Cubiste by Raymond Duchamp-Villon and André Mare, as well as projects by Peter Behrens and Walter Gropius.
Cubist-inspired buildings were distinct with their perspective-enhancing sharp lines and cubic, unaligned windows, serving as a contradiction to what architecture was supposed to look like. This revolutionary, “tradition-defying” approach further established its relevance in the architecture field. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s ideas influenced avant-garde architecture. The De Stijl movement employed the visual principles of Neo-plasticism, which were developed by Piet Mondrian, who was inspired by Cubist work in Paris. In 1918, Le Corbusier wanted to create his own style of Cubism, and translate it into architecture. Between 1918 and 1922, the architect focused on Purist theory and painting, and in 1922, he opened a studio in Paris, where his theoretical studies advanced into architectural projects. Some of the most prominent Cubist projects by the architect were the Assembly Building and Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, in which the latter had distinctive details from Pablo Picassos’ ‘Guernica’. Cubism also founded the Deconstructivist movement, seen in The Crystal at Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto by Daniel Libeskind, and Walt Disney Concert hall by Frank Gehry.
Initially, cubist buildings were built with bricks, which were difficult and costly to cut into geometric shapes. A few years later, concrete replaced bricks as the main material of choice since it could be poured into any geometric form, giving it an edge in the industry. In the projects’ interiors, architects were challenged by the dynamic shape of the structure, making it difficult to find furniture that could fit in with the stylistic identity of the buildings. However, this was later resolved with the creation of cubist furniture, a style that was very popular in France, Germany, Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia.
In the postmodern era decades later, Cubism’s approach was seen in Minimalism architecture and design, especially with its use of the grid. In today’s contemporary context, the movement is mostly referenced for its “breaking the paradigm” approach and how it challenged the foundations of Renaissance and historic art making.