Symmetry, Column, Back to Rome – Written by Nadia Hassan

Symmetry. Column. Entablature. Dome.

Triangular pediment. Architrave. Rome.

Such was the foundation of an early 20th century America.

Paving the way for a style yet to come.

The early 20th century American art and architecture was marked by the pre-existing styles of Europe, mainly neoclassical. By mid-century, however, such practices would be replaced with the introduction of Mies van der Rohe and his two extensions of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – the Cullinan Hall and Brown Pavilion. To better understand this shift to modernism, we must look into the visions and consequences of the century’s futuristic artists. Research through websites, journals, and books suggests that change encouraged innovation and questioning conformity, while sculpting a new era for the nation’s creative thinkers.

The neoclassical, or “new classical”, style of the early 1900s was an emulation of the original practices of the Greeks and Romans used over 1,500 years ago. During the Age of Enlightenment, a time in 18th century Europe when great importance was placed on rationalism and order, many Renaissance architects called for the revival of classicism. Characterized by symmetry and proportion, it encouraged appreciation for simple geometric forms and precise mathematical principles. It would become a guide for builders throughout Europe; and soon spread to the American colonies, where it would play a dominant role in the plans of a new nation.

For colonists during the American Revolution, the ideals of classical order symbolized strong feelings of justice and democracy. The style proved so inspirational to the new republic, that it adopted a revivalist culture of its own called the Federal Style. Under the direct influence of classicism, government buildings in the United States stood tall with heavy columns and stringent precision, casting long shadows of class and intellect. New ideas of solid shapes and prominent boundaries would become increasingly popular; and, as architecture in America would professionalize in the years to come, it would pour a new sense of liberation over almost all areas of construction – particularly that of the South.

Speaking of the South, have you seen the Museum of Fine Arts Houston? According to expert Shea Serrano, it holds over 300,000 square feet of exhibition space in a total of seven different facilities – that makes it the fifth largest museum in the nation! (“Museum of Fine Arts Houston”, n.d.). Originally built in 1924, it was the first art museum in the state and only the third in the South. For this reason, it served as an important icon for architecture at the time.

The MFAH was designed by American architect William Watkin, to stand as a temple for art. Expressing the time’s popular neoclassical style, the building’s exterior immediately resembled that of the ancient Greek Parthenon, built in Athens between 447-432 BCE (“The Parthenon”, n.d.). As shown in figures 1 and 2, the two shared the idea of a façade with 8 tall columns, characteristic to the Doric order. The capitals, however, are more ornamented on the more recent structure. This relates more to the Ionic order, shown in figure 3 and also characteristic to classical Greece. Overall, however, the three follow a similar concept of symmetry and orthogonal form.

Figure 1: Original MFAH designed by Watkin
Figure 2: Parthenon in Greece
Figure 2: Parthenon in Greece
Figure 3: Building near Parthenon, exemplifying Ionic order
Figure 3: Building near Parthenon, exemplifying Ionic order

                        In the years following the establishment of the MFAH, the city met competition from another major city in Texas, Dallas. The Museum of Fine Arts Dallas was also gaining popularity. While Houston was still a hot spot for large state exhibitions, the Museum wanted to advance further in its hunt for national, as well as international, recognition.

At the same time, the Eclectic Period emerged. Bored artists and architects were tired of looking at the past for inspiration. Enough of revivalism, it has no place in modern society. They believed in progress, and looked to the future for new ideas. Creeping in was a new wave of curiosity towards a boundless world for designers.

In the early 1950s, Nina Cullinan made an extraordinary donation for an extension of the Museum, in memory of her parents. A member of the Museum’s Board of Trustees and an active patron of the arts, she was passionate about the city’s advancement. She insisted the extension be commissioned to an international architect, one of “outstanding reputation and wide experience” (“The MFAH: An Architectural History”, n.d.). In 1953, Mies van der Rohe was requested to create a master plan for the institution.

Mies was a German architect, and former director of the German Bauhaus. While at a time he, too, was a fan of classicism, he shifted to new ideas inspired by progressive thinkers. He leaned towards their call for a completely new process, guided by rational problem-solving and an expression of modern materials, and eradication of the “superficial classical facades” (1886-1969). He reflected on the idea of “efficient” construction from Russian Constructivism,

and took similar concepts of simple form and decoration from Le Corbusier and Adolph Loos.

A particular interest of Mies’ was the concept of “Universal Space”, the extension of space around and beyond interior walls, creating functional sub-spaces within an overall enclosure. This is the interest that would be most evident in the two extensions of the Museum.

Arriving Houston in the spring of 1954, Mies was presented the plan of a standard museum in neoclassical America, with an open courtyard and walkways. Deciding the hot weather would not cooperate, he immediately created a new design – one with a curved glass wall around the façade to not only accommodate the weather, but maintain the same feeling of openness planned. There were no columns, nor ornaments. Mies had taken a large step towards a new approach to design, while tossing out the accepted norm. The finished construction is shown in figure 4, comprising both additions to the MFAH.

Figure 4: Mies’ work at the MFAH
Figure 4: Mies’ work at the MFAH

Mies symbolized a new concept of Modernism and International Style, which dominated the arts for the rest of the century. Painters accepted abstract shapes, and architects preferred quiet simple forms over monumental facades of the past. Space was treated differently, and designers across the nation became more daring. Mies had created a new vision, a new architecture.



Work Cited

Paradis, T. (2011, October 17). Classical Greek. Retrieved February 24, 2015, from

American Architecture: Neoclassicism. (2012). In The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia (6th ed.). Columbia University Pres.

Craven, J. (n.d.). Neoclassicism in Architecture – New Approaches to Classical Architecture. Retrieved February 24, 2015, from

AD Classics: The Museum of Fine Arts Houston / Mies Van der Rohe. (2011, August 17). Retrieved February 24, 2015, from

Serrano, S. (n.d.). Houston Museums – 10 Museums in Houston You Have to Visit – Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Retrieved February 24, 2015, from

Edwards, K. (2014). Houston and the Foundations of Early Texas Modernism. In <i>Midcentury Modern Art in Texas</i> (1st ed., pp. 61-62). China: University of Texas Press.



Review of piece by Jodutt:

When Nadia contacted me about publishing this piece, I had no questions or pre-requisites in saying yes. Architecture, its history, and its future are a reflection of human nature – I appreciate architecture for this characteristic. This piece comes to show how art via architecture displays human creativity and how artists/architectures become ecstatic or displeased for reviving styles and creating new styles alike.  There was the time when prominent architects wanted to revive classicism, followed by times when classicism was deemed incompatible with contemporary creativity.

A day for me is incomplete or unworthy if I don’t learn something new within a day’s time-frame.  I learned from Nadia Hassan’s piece about Mies van der Rohe, who was a fan of classicism yet presented modernism in his work.  Rohe is the architect of the fifth largest museum in the United States – the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.  

Nadia did an excellent job writing this.  I was able to write this review without having to read twice over the writing, since its structure was coherent (classicism & ancient Greek/Roman architecture to aspects of modernism to its application).

I hope readers receive similar viewpoints to mine regarding this piece.  A recommended read.

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