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The Main Characteristics of Rationalism

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Considered a fundamental of Modernism, rationalism is a design fit for the concept that humans are naturally rational. Rationalist architecture has a very institutional feel in the use of plain facades, clean lines, balance, repetition, and the recurrent use of grey. Rationalism, meaning “thinking which is based on reason”, can be described as a style fit for the philosophy that humans are rational beings. This was proposed by Aristotle. This style was necessary for the development of design and architecture. Without this artistic period there may not have been the preceding periods that rebutted the idea of the building being a machine, considering ornamentation to be unnecessary. Rationalism has evolved over the centuries, popping up multiple times creating the “three main eras: the 17th century, the early 20th century, and the late 20th century”. This shows that this stylistic period holds significance due to its reoccurrence.

Looking at the Rationalism’s first appearance, The Enlightenment, it is clear to see the contrast from the classical architecture, full of ornate designs, to a more simplistic, stripped down approach. This stylistic period could be compared to a teenager going against their parents’ traditional ways. In this case, rather than the potential for poor life choices (in the teenager’s case) there came to be a new style that allowed architects and designers to explore what a building has to offer stylistically on its own, without the need for ornamentation. Cenotaph for Newton by Etienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799) was a concept created with the intention of becoming a memorial piece for Newton. This design was never built; however, the drawing was well known and now is an important piece from The Enlightenment (Rationalism); the “500 ft diameter sphere is embedded within a three-tiered cylindrical base, giving the impression of a buried volume. Boullée smartly completes the figure of the sphere with a flanking pair of curved ramps”.

Newton was considered to symbolize ideals from The Enlightenment regardless of the fact that he died 150 years prior, and therefore became an important figure of inspiration in this movement, especially to Boullée. Rationalism is one of the fundamental elements to modernism, postmodernism, and design history in a whole as this stylistic period brought to light the ideas of minimalist design, shown in the use of clean lines, flat planes/surfaces, the removal of ornamentation because it could not rationally be considered important to the building’s structure and use, to name a few. This period embodies the concept of the building being a machine, which is seen throughout the three eras of this movement in different forms.

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