Modernism evolved as an outcome of the industrial revolution in Europe and America and gained widespread critical acclaim in the 1900s. In Asia, the 1900s saw countries obtain freedom from colonialism and monarchy and the emergence of democracy and communism in addition to the Two World Wars. It also saw major shifts in power with the disintegration of the USSR and the retreat of European colonizers. The architecture was a backdrop and a reflection of the geopolitics of Asia. Modernism percolated into Asia through its colonizers and was propagated by its visionaries. Today, modern architecture is still practiced but shares the stage with high-tech architecture, brutalism, and climate-conscious design. Below is an overview of Asian architecture from the past century.
“A house is a machine for living in”, believed by Le Corbusier, is one of the key ideologies of modernism-one that the East Asian traditional architecture already embodied. This philosophy found a natural home in Japan in the 1920s. Le Corbusier’s architectural language did have a marked influence on Japanese architecture through the works of Kunio Maekawa and his contemporaries. In addition to these principles, Japanese architects like Tadao Ando articulated light as a defining element in the geometric forms of modernist architecture.
As Japanese society recovered from the World Wars, Japan grew as a global superpower and strengthened its industries and infrastructure. Society began to westernise and architecture began to take a global form. Yet, to this day, Japanese architecture continues to create impactful spiritual experiences regardless of the scale of the project. The practice of creating subtle, thoughtful surprises can be seen in the works of SANAA and Tadao Ando. Also, a sense of unity and totality can be observed when fragmented functions are unified by flowing forms. The importance given to light and the meticulous detailing that helps realise places Japanese modern and contemporary architecture in a separate niche.
West Asia saw rapid changes in architecture in the 20th Century. In Turkey, the government transitioned from a monarchy to democracy, and modernism that was limited to the elite became commonplace. Architects from Germany and Austria were invited to plan the incentivized development plans who in turn coached local architects to adopt newer materials and geometry. In the present day, Turkey is an intersection of globalization, history, and culture and its architecture continues to draw on these influences. In the UAE, the retreat of its colonizers and the commercial potential of oil led to the accelerated growth of cities in the late 20th Century. Rapid and large-scale developmental projects led to the adoption of cutting-edge construction techniques and iconic architecture that embodied the prosperity of the region. The nation is also a seat for explorative architecture projects in the form of island developments, museums, and other luxury tourist attractions.
The Modernist movement that went on in the Western world entered Russia as ‘Soviet Modernism’. This style evolved in correspondence with European architects who were part of the Bauhaus school of thought. As the political powers of the USSR moved towards conservative-ness, the architecture reflected the same. A paradigm shift occurred in the 1960s and’70s when Russian society became westernized and questioned modernist principles. A local style of modernism like the Tashkent museum, with traditional influences, was practiced. The disintegration of the USSR in the ‘90s sent waves in the largely uniform architecture language. This brought in international architects and newer construction techniques to create unique, dynamic, large-scale buildings-ripples of which are present to date.
Modernism had percolated into Central Asia when it was governed by the USSR. Examples of global influences of Brutalism and Postmodernism were also seen. They are characterized by raw concrete finishes and massive volumes. They were the result of a vision to have uniform architectural language throughout the massive nation. After the fall of the USSR in the 90s, these buildings contribute to the modernist heritage of the newfound nations. These nations have adapted a futuristic approach to infrastructure and public architecture. This has given rise to iconic landmarks and dynamic forms in countries like Kazakhstan.
Modernism entered South Asia in the 1950s when Le Corbusier was commissioned to plan the city of Chandigarh in India. Even though modernism had trickled into India during the British Colonial period, the planning of Chandigarh transformed how buildings were constructed. Modernism brought with it a political vision of a new India and this style of building was associated with progress. The ideas sown by Le Corbusier continued to inspire generations of architects. Modernism evolved into a climate-responsive style with a sensitivity to the lifestyle and beliefs of people. This style can be seen in the works of B. V Doshi and Geoffery Bawa and is often termed as ‘Tropical Modernism’. Architecture in South Aisa has adopted global architectural trends and construction technologies while continuing to retain its cultural beliefs, like Vaastu and Feng Shui.
South East Asia
Le Corbusier’s modernist ideas influenced the architecture of South-East Asia as well. It entered in the form of large infrastructure projects and mass housing projects when the island nations that constitute South East Asia became independent of their colonizers. In countries like Singapore, government authorities began to adopt modernist materials and construction techniques as an efficient way to develop the city cores and mitigate the housing shortage. In the 1900s and 2000s, modernism gave way to private international architects with an eclectic mix of styles. The accelerated development and commercialization drew famous architects such as Norman Foster, Moshe Safdie, Kenzo Tange, etc to design large mixed-use complexes and waterfront development projects. The cities contain masterpieces by renowned architects and showcase them as a reflection of their progress.
‘Modern Architecture of Asia’ is a large umbrella under which many different styles have made a mark. Modernism as a style in Asia is very much prevalent as the go-to means of construction when it comes to smaller, domestic projects. The nature of large-scale, public, and infrastructure buildings is changing in many parts of Asia. It is a constantly evolving spectrum of work as the climate changes and political powers shift.