Since the 19th century and until today, architecture continues to evolve. New currents and new styles have resulted in a relative evolution and immense development in construction techniques, which themselves have been achieved by the development of new materials.

The Industrial Revolution

These material innovations begin with the Industrial Revolution towards the end of the 19th century. Indeed, the latter marks a shift from traditional academic and classical to a new system and way of life. With the appearance of new constructions related to work, new means of transport, and new tools, new materials appear, including metal which includes cast iron, iron and steel, glass, and reinforced concrete. Thus, it is true to say that the industrial revolution is considered to be the basis of an earth-shattering architectural development. 

Metal, the most frequently used material in emerging constructions, is, in fact, reliable due to its qualities of resistance, elasticity, and incombustibility. It gives architects and engineers the ability to go up high, free up the ground floors, and light up the interior more since the walls are no longer load-bearing, and the facade is now defined as a curtain wall that supports large openings. 

Metal was used in particular in functional types such as in bridges (Iron Bridge, England – Abraham Darby), stations (Vienna station – Austria – 1870), greenhouses (Greenhouse in the garden of plants – Paris – 1934), and department stores (Galerie Lafayette – Paris). 

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Iron Bridge, England – Abraham Darby_©

However, some architects like Henri Labrouste offer hybrid solutions that involve the use of new materials with traditional materials as in his project La Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève in Paris where he mixes stone and iron, inviting users to question this duality, and which will lead to the notion of the use of structure in aesthetics also known under the name of Structural Rationalism and which will be introduced by Eugene Viollet-Le-Duc.

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Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève, Paris – Henri Labrouste_©

The Chicago School

In America, the tragedy of the fire that ravaged the city of Chicago led to the rise of the Chicago School (1870-1910), which took advantage of new materials to rebuild itself. Skyscrapers are the most noticeable structures that emerge with William LeBaron Jenney. These skyscrapers like Marshall Field Warehouse have in fact the metallic structure that makes their height possible, with the apparent use of glass for the showrooms and stone pillars that accentuate their verticality. 

In parallel with the skyscrapers, the house meadows are developed for the more affluent classes. It is convenient to take as an example The Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright which by its materials is clad in wood but whose structure is in metal and allows to achieve a free plan and a clear space.

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Marshall Field Warehouse – William LeBaron Jenney_©
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Robie House – Frank Lloyd Wright_©

Art Nouveau

In the course of Art Nouveau (1890-1914) modern materials began to be used in private architecture with Victor Horta in La Maison Autrique in Belgium which presented a composite wall structure mixing steel and stone and La Casa Mila by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona whose structure is in steel and the facade in stone. Hector Guimard in Le Metro Parisien uses multiple materials such as cast iron, glass, and mesh. This duality thus shows a certain mixture of archaism (old, past) and modernism (new, modern).

In the Arts and Craft movement (1860-1910) new materials are used but with creativity and individualism as in The Red House by Philip Webb where the latter emphasizes the frame in accordance with the idea of structural rationalism.

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La Casa Mila – Antoni Gaudi_©

The Vienna Secession

In Austria, and with the Viennese Secession, architects resorted to overloaded materials. Otto Wagner, architect and founder of the secession, however, presents a style of his own in relation to materials: he resorts to the plating of one material on another, a style notably apparent in La Caisse d’Epargne de la Poste de Vienne or he builds the wall in stone, a light and rapid material in construction, and ultimately hides it with slabs of marble, a noble material with a rich appearance, and highlights them with nails. He also adopts this method in his treatment of furniture (steel chair on wood).

The architect Adolf Loos places great importance on materials using them as a means of treating interior and exterior, considering that he stubbornly opposes ornamentation. His treatment can be seen in several of his projects such as Karntner Bar and La Maison Moller.

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Karntner Bar – Adolf Loos_©Robin Roger Peller

The Architecture of Reinforced Concrete

From 1899, with Auguste Perret and the evolution of classical rationalism, reinforced concrete became one of the most used materials and considered ideal in architecture. Indeed, the reliability of this non-noble material is such thanks to its solidity, its incombustibility, its ease in its work, in addition to its qualities of prefabrication and standardization. It thus made it possible to build the Small Theater of the Decorative Arts Exhibition, a large space requiring size. 

On the other hand, at the very beginning of its development, reinforced concrete was used in construction and then covered with other materials or patterns, such as in the 25 Bis Rue Franklin Paris building, which residents described as unattractive. However, as time goes by, reinforced concrete ends up being used as it is in noble structures such as churches as in Notre Dame du Raincy considered as a reference building for reinforced concrete. Thus, with this unloved material, Perret renewed the architectural language and it was the first time that this so-called shameful material has been used for the noblest of architectures. 

The concrete thus allows in this project to have curtain walls and very open space providing a clear view of the altar and the surroundings. In addition, it allowed the creation of a singular aesthetic: with only 5 molds Perret forms spans patterns in the balustrade which allow the insertion of light into the church and provide dynamism making the architect, not an industrialist but an artist. 

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Notre Dame du Raincy – Auguste Perret_©

In addition to this, reinforced concrete was also used by Perret in the reconstruction of the city of Le Havre, saving him time and allowing him to create a very varied architecture at a low cost. This model will be taken up in other European cities such as the city of Chandigarh in India by Le Corbusier.

The idea of reinforced concrete and domino structure obtained through this material was introduced by Tony Garnier in his industrial city in 1917. That said, he imagines very modern means of construction in reinforced concrete, with the slab and the pillar. However, these ideas, which were not feasible in the 18th century and even in the 20th century, were taken up and implemented by other architects including Le Corbusier.

Thus, as already mentioned, reinforced concrete appears as a very important material in the design of Le Corbusier. It gives life to the domino structure which helps in obtaining a free and unobstructed space, a light construction, free plans and arrangements, and multifunctional spaces. This system is present in Villa Schwob and on a larger scale in the Citée Fruges developed for the industrialist Henri Fruges and comprising 130 houses for workers and La Cite Radieuse which also merges its 5 pillars of modern architecture.

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Cité Frugès – Le Corbusier_©

The Architecture of Glass

Apart from reinforced concrete, glass is an equally important material that has made it possible in a considerable way to develop the means of construction and the vision of various architects. It was with the Bauhaus, a school founded by Walter Gropius that the idea of glass and window began to emerge, with the aim of communication, transparency, and the marketing of products. This is apparent in Bauhaus Dessau. 

Mies Van Der Rohe is one of the directors of the Bauhaus will be enormously influenced by the way of thinking about glass, which will lead him to be part of the group of Expressionisms, which praise glass and of which the theoretician Paul Scheebart in even managed to write a book “Glass architecture” in which he highlights its various advantages. Mies Van Der Rohe, as well as all these architects, are then qualified as utopian, wishing to eliminate as much as possible the other materials and cover the surface of the earth with glass, which they consider to be an ideal material (for them glass has an effect on the psyche and grant serenity). 

Several glass architectures were proposed to highlight this material, including the ephemeral pavilion by architect Bruno Taut, which includes quotes on the glass inside, citing that glass makes it possible to make man better… Moreover, we can cite the unfinished glass skyscraper by Mies Van Der Rohe in Berlin which underlines the important play of reflections making the facade dynamic, in movement and integrated into its site and allowing light to enter it. 

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Ephemeral Pavilion – Bruno Taut_©

MVR uses in its architecture a metal frame, a glass envelope, and the structural system of dominoes established by Garnier and applied by Le Corbusier. These features are apparent in his Farnsworth House project. One of his skyscrapers, however, that has been realized is the Seagram Building where he adds metal beams over the entire facade to reinforce the idea of the building’s skeleton, although they have no structural role in this case.

Finally, Frank Lloyd Wright attaches importance in his architecture to reinforced concrete and glass simultaneously. With reinforced concrete, he puts forward the cantilever system which is directly related to the theory of growing plants envisaged by Sullivan, and which allows him to create overhangs, terraces, and balconies. On the other hand, his use of glass gives him transparency and allows him to establish a direct relationship with the nature that surrounds his project. These principles are visible in his Falling Water project, whose construction materials were especially taken from the site.

Falling Water – Frank Llyod Wright_©

In conclusion, the development of materials, considered as the basis of architecture since the 19th century and up to the present day, has simultaneously allowed the development and upheaval of construction methodologies, but above all facilitated the task of architects in creating spaces. both open and pleasant as well as rigid and secure.


Angela Hanna is a senior architecture student at the university of USEK, Lebanon. Having always been passionate about reading, she states that words have a wicked and powerful way to change our perception and therefore our reality. She believes that through the creation of spaces, we create emotions and enhance mindsets, thus which will work in favor of building a better world.

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