How Art Shaped 20th Century Architecture

Architect and designer Arne Jacobsen said, “If a building becomes architecture, then it is art.” Whilst some buildings are designed with only functionality in mind, others are just as much about aesthetics and expression. Different art movements throughout the 20th Century helped shape the architecture of the time, from Bauhaus to Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism to Contemporary.

art and architecture
Frank Gehry - Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. Image Credit: Reza Rostampisheh on Unsplash


Bauhaus was perhaps the most significant art school of the 20th Century. Operating from 1919 to 1933, Bauhaus rose from the fear that the post-war world had lost its soul in the relentless pursuit of manufacturing. It sought to create a new perspective by focusing on the trifold relationship between art, technology, and society. Key artists included Paul Klee, Herbert Bayer, and Josef Albers.

Bauhaus- literally translated as ‘building house’- shook the status quo and gave the practical crafts the same importance as painting and sculpting. Artists and craftsmen were no longer separate but one.

The founder of Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, was an architect himself and he designed the building he taught in. Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe later served as architect-directors, both men hugely influential in their own right.

Bauhaus architecture focused on geometric forms, asymmetry, and modern materials such as steel, concrete, and glass. The impact from this movement reverberated throughout the 20th Century and is still felt today.

bauhaus architecture
Walter Gropius – Bauhaus Archive, Berlin

Abstract Expressionism

Just as Bauhaus rose in the wake of the First World War, Abstract Expressionism was one of several movements that followed the Second. Whilst some artists reacted to the war with rationality and efficiency, artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning responded with insight and emotion. They searched the rubble for meaning, reflecting on themselves and the world, contextualising a damaged society.

Abstract art used shapes and colours to vividly express emotions and ideas rather than accurately depict images. Within a decade, the abstract movement helped inspire Deconstructivism. Architects such as Frank Gehry designed buildings to look fragmented, made with unusual shapes and unrelated forms.

Whilst many designers were loosely inspired by Abstract Expressionist philosophy, some made their inspiration clear. Piet Mondrian’s simplistic form of bold lines, squares, and primary colours can be seen in Eames House by Charles and Ray Eames and City Hall of Hague by Richard Meier.

art deco architecture
Piet Mondrian Work

Minimalism Art

By the 1960s, Abstract Expressionism gave way to several contrasting movements, one of which was Minimalism. Art was no longer created to imitate or represent anything real but was instead created as its own independent entity. As painter Frank Stella remarked, “What you see is what you see.”

As the name suggests, Minimalism avoided extravagance and intracity, instead using basic geometric shapes, defined edges, and limited palettes. This art style soon influenced architecture with design reduced to the bare minimum. Buildings were smooth and neat with raw materials, flat roofs, open spaces, and simple colour schemes.

Donald Judd, both artist and architect, helped bridge the movement from the fine arts to the applied arts. van der Rohe, who had been part of the Bauhaus school, became one of the most popular Minimalist architects. He summarised their entire ideology in three words; “Less is more.”

Contemporary Art

Architecture today is still inspired and shaped by the art world, fashioned on the designs that came before and the fine art that continues to be created. Contemporary architects such as Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and Ole Scheeren strive for elegance, beauty, and inventiveness, pushing imagination and ingenuity to new limits.

Another way contemporary world architecture honours its artistic inspirations is by including sculptures, lighting fixtures, and murals in the design. Art is weaved into the buildings themselves.

Bauhaus, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism enthused designers at the time and their influence lingers on in the new century whilst contemporary art is still inspiring architects to design in creative ways.

art and architecture
Zaha Hadid- Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Seoul. Image Credit: Håkon Grimstad on Unsplash

“If a building becomes architecture, then it is art.” So then, as long as there is new art, there will be new architecture, aesthetic and expressive, not just built for functionality.

Article By: Jeremiah Ovenden

Jeremiah Ovenden
Contributing Writer

Jeremiah has a BA in Professional and Creative Writing and teaches English as a foreign language. He's been writing most of his life, from stories about animals and aliens as a young child, to poems, screenplays, and a blog as a young adult. As well as reading and writing, he enjoys all things art, music, and food. He loves to travel when there isn't a global pandemic.

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