Symbiosis 2 – The Principles of Modernism

Ksenija Bulatović, Ksenija Bunjak, Saša Naumović

Terms such as sustainable architecture, ecological architecture, green architecture, bioclimatic architecture etc. marked last decades of 20th century and became the core of contemporary architecture discourse. Their main purpose is to point out the necessity for designing according to the nature and to analyze relations between built and natural environment. Official establishment of these terms dates back to the period of 1960s and 1970s. Still, their ideology, as well as the awareness about this kind of architectural approach appeared much earlier and followed the development of civilization. At one point, ecological design principles were proclaimed as something new that should contribute to the environmental protection. The basic idea was incorporation of those principles into the standard design procedures. Despite some averments that this approach can be considered as an innovative method, insights into the history of architecture showed that ecological design principles have followed the architecture development, but that were forgotten over a period of time and remained outside the official histories (Anker 2010).

It is known that the traditional architecture followed the environmental conditions and that was created according to them. From the view point of present discourses, accumulated experience and knowledge about natural processes, local conditions, techniques and materials make traditional architecture a base for contemporary environmental architectural design.

The Age of Enlightenment brought numerous scientific discoveries and restored the fate in ratio and in a man as an individual capable to perceive and understand the world and its phenomena. Late 19th and early 20th century, along with the discovery of steam engine marked the beginning of the First industrial revolution that brought major socio-economical and cultural changes and provoked further technological development. Some authors suggest that the 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau were the last stiles that publicly and openly glorified link between architecture and natural forms. Others discussed that the period from the beginning of 20th century until the 1980s considered traditional architecture as a primitive and insufficiently important for further research. Still, we need to ask our selves whether this kind of interpretation is true or not. It can not be claimed that the innovations in the fields of science and technology brought the break with the tradition and natural environment or that this break up was complete. We believe that the innovations provoked intensive social and economical changes and that the perspectives have changed during the first half of 20th century, but without total denial of tradition and its principles.

In this paper we will discuss development of the ecological thought during Modernism, as a response to the prevailing contextual changes. We will also address the Symbiosis from the same aspect and analyze the similarities and differences between those two stiles.


Pioneers of Modernism embraced the technological progress, utilitarian ideals and social reforms that were connected with the “new man” and new, industrial society. Along with the new man seemingly came the new needs, so the architecture turned to the form and functionalism. Still, many architects of Modernism like Le Corbusier or Wright have recognized the importance of tradition. They have researched it and adjusted the gained knowledge to the new, modern reality. Technological progress followed with the adoption of reinforced concrete and large glass panels in construction allowed Modernism to revolutionize understanding and interpretation of the space. Space in Modernism is reduced, simplified, with natural light and ventilation. Can we than consider it healthier space with the elements of ecological design? Did architects of Modernism followed ecological design principles that have derived from traditional approaches?

Anker described the stay of Walter Gropius and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in London during 1930s and pointed that they were the ones who continued the development and application of ecological principles in architecture and design through communication with biologists and ecologists of that time (Anker 2010). Among other things, architecture of Modernism was understood as a way of enhancing social and natural environment. Therefore, collaboration of various scientific disciplines with architecture was not uncommon. For example, great friendship and fruitful collaboration to between ecologist and biologists Julian Huxley and architect Walter Gropius has been recorded. Although it may not seem that way at first, architects of Modernism strived to the application of the design principles based upon nature principles, all in order to create an environment that will allow complete expression of a man as a biological individual (Bunjak et al. 2011). A new atmosphere of multidisciplinarity emerged and the architects along with professionals in other areas shaped the new world based upon the ideas regarding man as an individual and his spatial needs. Ecologists of that time supported these visions of built environment, stating that precisely principles of Modernism could save the cities from possible future ecological destruction (Anker 2010).

Interpreting Louis Sullivan’s famous motto that „form (ever) follows funcion“ (Sullivan 1896: 408), Moholy-Nagy states that originally it referred to the phenomena in nature where each shape has developed according to its specific function. In his book New Vision, he also suggests using the nature as a constructive model and searching for the prototypes of functionality (Anker 2010). He believed that future can bring harmony between man and his new surroundings only if architecture follows biological functions and principles (Margolin, Buchanan 1995). For Walter Gropius, new architecture of Modernism was free; it opened its walls and let natural light and air inside. He assured that „the utilization of flat roofs as ‘grounds’ offers us a means of re-acclimatizing nature amidst the stony deserts of our great towns […]. Seen from the skies, the leafy house-tops of the cities of the future will look like endless chains of hanging gardens“ (quote according to: Anker 2010: 12).

Discussing influences that different climates have on architecture, Le Corbusier pointed that especially in that moment regionalism plays an important role (Olgyay 2010). The question of regionalism and climate influence was also discussed by Theo van Doesburg, who noticed differences between French and German architecture, stating that moderate climate is the main reason for having lighter constructions in France than in Germany where seasonal changes have different requirements (Porteous 2002: 93).

After Le Corbusier established five points of the New architecture in 1926, it was noticeable that the third and the forth point through their definition of free plan and free façade created healthier space by providing maximum amount of natural light and ventilation. Fifth point, utilization of horizontal windows, deepened previous assumptions (Bunjak et al. 2011). Le Corbusier with his unique approach to control of microclimatic conditions erased the boundaries between interior and exterior space (Porteous 2002). One can easily notice passive principles of ecological design in his work. His search for healthier space can be seen in the way the openings are designed and applied – each room has a window, larger windows have southern orientation and smaller ones northern, windows have different shading devices etc. In his book Towards New Architecture (Vers une Architecture) form 1927, Le Corbusier insists that the children should be taught that “a house is only habitable when it is full of light and air, and when the floors and walls are clean” (quote according to: Porteous 2002: 51). On the other side, in a spirit of technological innovations and ideas of a house as a specific machine for living we can notice his aspirations for discovering new active ecological principles. His experiment from 1929 – neutralizing wall (mur neutralisant) was an early type of contemporary double-facades (Porteous 2002). It was designed as a wall from glass, stone or in the combination of these materials with double membrane and a few centimeters space between them. In the narrow space between the membranes “hot air is pushed (into the cavity) if in Moscow, cold air if at Dakar” (quate according to: Porteous 2002: 61). The inside membrane is, therefore, kept on the constant temperature of 18оC which allows individual control of indoor climate. The most important fact regarding Le Corbusier is that his ecological principles were in a harmony with his visual poetic and that usually derived from it.

Believing that the only real architecture of Modernism is the one that is in the same time organic and that architectural act should follow natural environment and context, Frank Lloyd Wright defined his specific organic architecture. His concept of organic architecture evolved from a group of architectural principles to the specific way of living, where architecture stands for the extension of the nature. In his essay In the Cause of Architecture he presents his early ideology. In 1914 he wrote: “By organic architecture I mean an architecture that develops form within outward in harmony with the conditions of its being, as distinguished from one that is applied from without” (Pfeiffer 2011 p. 19). For him organic architecture is an extension of nature and its principles (Bulatovic, Bunjak 2013). In the previous conference work for STRAND 2013, the authors have discussed this topic more precisely.

We can conclude that the ecological discourse has not only existed during Modernism, but has also been one of the initiators of architectural thought and creative process of that time. Modern movement was a major crossroad for the development of the term technology in its contemporary meaning.


It is well known that the architecture always reflected ongoing conditions of a society. Technological development and scientific discoveries opened the way for the new philosophy that evolved around a relationship between man and machine. On the other hand, it was also the time when traditional values, sense of community and collective identity started to fade. The First World War was the milestone, a period that urged for a change, for help. Social values declined and a home, a shelter, was no longer considered either safe or free. Surrounded with the new technological achievements, man was still trapped and in reality isolated from them. Modernism first emerged on these foundations in the early 20th century and was followed by new ideas and new approaches to the process of architectural design. It was a response to the need of new man and the age of machine. The idea was to create new, again safe homes and to provide both freedom and social integration for individuals. Development of the culture, art and architecture in period between 1920 and 1940 was generated by influences of these new postulates. In this period between the two world wars, socio-political conditions and key events in contemporary cultural discourse opened the way for the new modern art and avant-garde. This is the time when world and most of the cities started to change more rapidly. Population rapidly increased and reached 2.3 billion in the dawn of the Second World War. As a response to the growing economical and social issues, Modernism in its purest form appeared. Well known architects such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright etc. defined the basics and guidelines and set the frames for future development of the New architecture. Still, only after the Second World War application of Modernism principles and architecture became wider. Social and economical crises deepened after the war; previous architecture did not provided adequate solutions for these problems, so mainstream architecture turned to the ideas Modernism. At first only oriented to the intellectual minorities, Modernism started a mass “production” of architecture. But, original ideas and principles faded with time, and the Postmodernism take the lead.

Since than political, socio-economical and other contexts changed significantly. The rapid population growth followed by the intensive processes of urbanization continued. We live in a time of constant changes, on the edge of the largest crises so far. By 2050 world population will reach 9.3 billion people, and by 2030 7 billion people will live in cities. Political conflicts, social injustices, economical and financial crises, ecological catastrophes, climate changes etc. became our new realm. We can notice that, regardless to the different scales, the contexts of Modernism and present time are similar. We are constantly hitting the boundaries of contemporary norms, waiting for a drastic change – a response to the ongoing problems. On the other hand, contemporary society is also opened and accessible. It can provide people the possibility to perceive their own identities in social and contextual interactions. But, large number of information, different contexts, situations and environments prevent a man to completely comprehend this possibility and lead him to the conformism, to recognition of mass-identity instead of individuality (Bulatovic, Bunjak, 2013).

At the previous conference STRAND 2013, authors have presented the idea of Symbiotic architecture as a response to the current contextual crises. Symbiotic architecture stand for the co-life of elements: man, house and environment. Here home is born, home lives following all the needs of its symbiote man, breading the with the life of the household, and eventually home dies. When the man ends his existence in the home, house returns to its origins – nature. Symbiotic architecture restores and strengthens the relationship between man and home, man and nature, man and society. The core of symbiotic house is the protection, a transformable response to human needs, natural and social context (Bulatovic, Bunjak, 2013).

Symbiotic architecture draws its principles from the natural environment and bases its essence on that knowledge. It provides symbiosis between man and home, home and nature, and man and nature. Influenced by contextual changes, human needs also change. Symbiotic form is, therefore, adaptable in its function and transformable according to the users needs. Continuous quality of existence regardless to the environmental conditions is one of the basic principles of symbiotic architecture.

The question is can Symbiotic architecture become real and succeed there where Modernism failed – in keeping its own continuity?


Architect Nikola Dobrovic, one of representatives of Modernism in Serbia, stood against academic methods defining the Spiritual module despite the official geometric systems of modular coordination. It was not a dismissal of existing principles, but rather their simultaneous construction and deconstruction. For Dobrovic, intuition was an important creative element. Defining the Spiritual module as an abstract ratio, he explains it as a “tool for internal comprehension of quality phenomena on the creator’s spiritual screen” (Добровић, 1971: 106). It can be also understood through the question of flexibility. To what extent a system can be exposed to the changes without affecting its functionality? This is one of starting points of Symbiotic architecture. But, Symbiosis goes even further, declaring that the system needs to be opened allowing its transformation and preparing it for uncertainty of future.

Relations between man and nature, man and man, man and home etc. started to fade. Modern architecture was focused on family life and social strengthening, wishing to provide a possibility for every individual to meet his own needs. Today, as well as in the period of Modernism, society started to divide, distinguishing controlling and controlled ones and changing the basic idea of freedom. Freedom crises stand for the creativity crises and are influenced by separation of traditions and everyday life (Argan, 1982). Unlike Modernism, this process is not that evident today. Still, it shapes some aspects of life. Modern architecture strived towards restoration of all freedoms. New Modern architecture, both rational and organic, had a unique postulate – it represented societies and their attitudes, as well as the ideas that all people are equal and freed from different kinds of boundaries. Symbiotic architecture insists on the individuality, placing man and his needs symbiotically connected to the home and nature, into the centre of attention. Only by embracing individualities and enabling them to live and change along with the home and nature, we can achieve complete freedom. Emphasizing harmony, changeable form frees human body, mind and spirit.

Modernism aspired towards international style, opening the way to the contemporary process of globalization. The basic value of international style was not creating uniform architecture, but rather spreading the ideas and principles worldwide. Today, we live in a globalized world where flow of information is easy and fast. Postmodern period and present time erased the initial individual values and created unified ones, often regardless to the local conditions. Symbiotic architecture can become a global idea, but never a uniform one. It allows endless possibilities and changes.

Even though the contexts and basic principles of Modernism and Symbiosis can be considered as similar, there are still some fundamental changes. In the following table we presented famous five points of Modernism followed by the response of Symbiotic architecture.


Replacement of supporting walls with the reinforced concrete columns allowed the possibility for building of Modernism to “float” above the ground.

Symbiotic house can float. It can transmit, appear and disappear in time and space, according to the needs of its symbiote man or following the contextual requirements.


The use of flat roofs created the “fifth”, organic and green façade.

Symbiotic architecture is completely organic. It is changeable, fluid and transparent.

Plans of modernistic buildings are clear, without unnecessary walls. Columns and dividing walls allow easy change of the primary function.

Needs are changing, despite the senses that are constant. Needs vary following environmental and contextual changes. Symbiotic architecture responds to this kind of changes – form is adjustable to the function and can be transformed according to the user’s needs. Importance of Symbiotic architecture can be found in a constant quality of human existence in the environment he is placed.

Reinforced concrete allowed application of larger glass panels and windows.

Fundamental principle is based upon the symbiosis of all elements and on the idea that there is no specific and exclusive purpose of a single element. The traditional façade relation full-empty is not constant and is transformable according to the needs.

Façade concrete frame construction deprived the walls from their original role, and the façade became free – a membrane dividing exterior and interior.

Symbiotic membrane is free and transformable, without constant construction. It is organic and consisted of a fluid between pore walls. House-membrane becomes human’s second skin.

We saw that some similarities can be found between Modern and Symbiotic architecture and contexts within which they emerged – reasons for their occurrence, basic principles and values etc. Still, Symbiotic architecture is focusing more on ecological, environmental, social and economical aspects without creating a specific, constant and “frozen” objects, not able to respond to current changes. It continuity lies in endless possibilities of form and function.


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