After the wrath of World War I, cities and structures was in spoils. In the wake of World War II, a group of prominent architects gathered together to form Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) or International Congresses of Modern Architecture. 

Before the inception of CIAM

In the early 20th century, the existence of modernist buildings was negligible. But as time passed by, the style slowly began gathering momentum. Infrastructure had been damaged heavily due to the war, leading to thousands of homeless people. Multiple architecture styles like expressionism and art deco co-existed. The term and the study of Urban Design were yet to be studied in a scholarly manner, lacking written theoretical foundations.

Architectural Theory: Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne - Sheet1
1928 la Sarraz commemorative CIAM meet © Hannes Meyer

The Coalition called CIAM

After continuous requests from prominent architecture figures of Europe to Madame Hélène de Mandrot, the first meeting of CIAM was held in her castle Chateau de la Sarraz, Switzerland. Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne had many modernists including Le Corbusier, Karl Moser (the first President), Siegfried Gordon (first secretary-general) who posed the idea of rationalization and utilization of modernism to improve low-cost dwelling in cities. 

CIAM II (Existenzminimum) and III (Rational Lot Development) are about improvement in urban dwelling and, going along the lines of introducing open plans, free facades, usage of reinforced steel and concrete to construct large scale buildings. 

CIAM IV (The Athens Charter) was a turnkey conference for the federation, laying down guidelines for Urban Planning which formed modern Urban Design while being properly documenting literature for the design of cities, considering the socio-economical and human needs of the city dwellers. The whole conference was a voyage from Marseilles to Athens with all members aboard. They worked on compiling the urban study data collected by CIAM members in the 1930s, discussing in groups when needed while working the way through the travel. 

The Athens Charter stated radical ideologies like grouping the residential, commercial, and industrial parts of the city together, which in turn reduces the class divide between the dwellers. It pointed out the existing clusterization of rich and poor households as luxurious neighborhoods and slums. The charter also mentioned planning a city and legislation together for better governance and that the cities are a zone of constant chaos. The urban sprawl should be able to adapt to the alterations in socio-economic conditions. The city should be on the human scale while prioritizing the needs of the individual over the community. More architects collaborated, aligning to CIAM’s ideals, notably Alvar Aalto, Minette Silva, and Walter Gropius. 

Le Corbusier with Jean Bossu © gta Archiv ETH Zurich(CIAMArchiv)

During this timeline, many other branches of Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne sprang up in all of Europe namely GATEPAC, GATCPAC, and ADLAN in various cities of Spain. The US government embraced traditional styles while modernism was rising, led by architects like Louis Sullivan and others.

In the next CIAM meeting at Bridgwater, England, multiple colonies like India had gained independence. The postwar division of CIAM was established in the USA in 1945 which included Jose Luis Sert, Richard Neutra, Eero Saarinen, Mies among others with Harwell Hamilton Harris as the secretary. 

CIAM’s principles also led to the construction of multiple modernist wonders and its members Oscar Niemeyer went on to design Brasilia following CIAM’s and garden city principles while Le Corbusier designed Chandigarh, a successful conversion of the congress’ theory into practice. The American Wing of CIAM spearheaded by Sert had a lot of publications criticizing the city building process employed by the government.   

Modernism spread worldwide in the 1940s and 1950s, making it the key architectural style(also known as international style). Emerging economies like Singapore, Hong Kong and India introduced large scale housing projects which used the ideas from CIAM and Le Corbusier’s five rules. CIAM meetings were documented, mainly the Athens charter by Giedion. 

Architectural Theory: Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne - Sheet3
Le Corbusier’s Villa Radieuse © Le corbusiers contemporary city

Modernism as a movement had matured in the 1950s, in Europe and both the Americas. Starchitects like Le Corbusier around the world, Mies van der Rohe in the USA, Luis Barragan in Mexico, Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil, Louis I Kahn’s work in America and Asia and others spread the ideals of CIAM and more importantly, modernism.

CIAM went on to conduct a couple more meetings, a schism called Team 10 was formed among the committee in 1953 challenging CIAM’s approach to urbanism. As many housing projects are constructed around the world the younger members of the association demanded a more emotional approach to design which resembled culturalist style to some extent. In 1959, CIAM was disbanded in the last 43-member meeting held at Otterlo, Netherlands, demanding a more intimate design with urban cultural centers amid high rise blocks which followed CIAM’s principles. In 1960, the first formal Team 10 meeting was held in Bagnols-sur-ceze. However, Team 10 also dissolved slowly into two movements New Brutalism led by Peter and Alison Smithson of New England and Structuralism in the Netherlands. While the group lacked the popularity of CIAM, they were well known in the academic world for their published works and their take on functionalism considering feelings of the user. The last formal Team 10 meeting held in Lisbon in the year 1981 had four attendees.  

Otterlo (the last) CIAM meeting © Netherland Architecture Institute

The everlasting change brought in by CIAM

CIAM had revolutionized Urban Planning, at a stage invoking a special stream of study first founded in Harvard by the US branch. The thoughts and ideologies on framing the cities are used in whole or part to design cities and buildings. The functionalist and socialist approach discarded all barriers, providing a large-scale utopia of cities along with roadmaps on how to move away from the historical city centers. Townships, campuses and cities were the most influenced design typologies inspired by published works, theorization as well as built structures which reminiscent of the modernist era. 

The history of Architecture has rarely seen such a forward-minded, enthusiastic group of people who came together despite the odds to frame and discuss how architecture is, and idealized it, leading to a movement leading to the change in how people and professionals view buildings forever.  



CIAM and its outcomes, Eric Mumford- ISSN: 2183–7635 Journal of Urban Planning

CIAM Discourse on Urbanism 1928-1956, Eric Mumford  

History of CIAM and Team 10 Baykan Gunay

Re-reading the visions of modernists of CIAM- M. Moors and B. Plevoets 

On the CIAM 7 grid: from an ideological to a critical tool, Pierre Alain Croset, Andrea Cancini

Le Corbusier, the Athens Charter, translated by Anthony Eardley–GSA%20Buildings%20of%20the%201950s%2C%2060s%20and%2070s.pdf


Vignesh Esakkinathan is a final year architecture student from chennai. He blogs about climate change and productivity with the hopes to become an architectural journalist. When he's not playing cricket, you can see him philosophising life at his rooftop.

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