Construction Technology Research Paper Topics

This list of construction technology research paper topics provides the list of 18 potential topics for research papers and an overview article on the history of construction technology.

1. Building Acoustics

An important element in a properly functioning building is correct building acoustics. Achieving a low level of background noise in a classroom, for example, will ensure that the teacher’s voice is audible; the sounds of an orchestra will be optimal in a concert hall with proper acoustics. The systematic study of room acoustics began at the end of the nineteenth century, and consequently a scientific understanding of building acoustic design is almost entirely a twentieth century phenomenon.

The means to achieve low noise levels in buildings were developed during the twentieth century. One of the greatest differences between old and new auditoriums is the low noise levels achieved in those built from the mid-twentieth century onward. Noise from external sources can enter a room through vibration paths (structure-borne transmission) or can pass directly into the building through adjacent walls (airborne transmission). Where very low noise or vibration levels are needed in auditoriums, recording studios, and operating theaters, vibration isolation (springs and resilient materials) are used, as are physical breaks in vibration paths. Airborne noise is reduced by the use of constructions such as double partitions separated by air gaps containing absorbent materials. The failure to achieve the desired background noise levels is often due simply to poor workmanship.

The biggest influence that electronics has had on building acoustics has been the computer. Sophisticated computer-based instrumentation has allowed accurate measurement of building acoustics. Computer-based prediction models have enabled the improved understanding and design of acoustic technologies, from building elements to the whole rooms. Much of the mathematics used by acoustic engineers was developed in the nineteenth century, but this has only been exploitable at the end of the twentieth century using computers. There was also increased interest in virtual acoustic prototypes, which would allow building acoustics to be listened to in virtual environments, allowing nonacoustic experts to more readily understand the principles of good acoustic design.

2. Building Designs for Energy Conservation

In most countries in the twentieth century, the energy consumed in buildings represented a substantial proportion of nationwide energy consumption. In higher latitude regions, the majority of this energy demand has historically been energy for homes to provide space heating, followed by energy for hot water, for powering appliances, and for lighting. In nondomestic buildings in these regions the demand has historically been dominated by electricity for lighting, appliances, and ventilation and cooling. While space and water heating can be the largest proportion of household energy consumption, electricity consumption can be as important in terms of upstream CO2 emissions if it is generated in a fossil fuel electricity generating station. Architects, builders, and engineers have struggled to balance the demand for energy, particularly in the industrialized countries that are heavily energy dependent, with environmental and cost concerns. The oil crisis of 1973, following an embargo of oil directed primarily against the U.S. by Middle Eastern oil-producing companies, and the OPEC oil crisis of 1979 was the end of the era of cheap energy. Energy conservation emerged as a concern for both designers and consumers, particularly in countries solely dependent on imported oil. The government in Korea, for example, asked people to ‘‘think poor,’’ reduced the number and size of electric light bulbs in government and corporate buildings, and discouraged the use of elevators, air conditioning, and street lighting. Later policies supported use and development of energy conservation technologies. In the U.S. and also in Japan, large-scale research and development funding resulted in building guidelines and technologies for energy conservation.

3. Concrete Bridges

A complex interplay between societal change, the development of the internal combustion engine, and the impact of World War I, led to an explosion in the number of road vehicles in the immediate postwar years—and a totally inadequate nineteenth century legacy of roads to accommodate them. Following the first International Road Congress in 1923, vast and expensive road-building programs were undertaken in the U.S. and Europe, particularly in Germany, during the 1930s. After World War II highway construction continued to grow in an attempt to keep pace with the popularity of the car for private transport. Concrete—strong in compression but weak in tension—is not particularly satisfactory as a running surface. It can easily crack, unlike tarmac, though in the 1960s its use as a surface did become widespread. Otherwise, however, concrete became omnipresent in twentieth century road construction, and in the myriad of bridges, large and small, associated with highway networks.

4. Concrete Shells

Of all the developments in the structural engineering of buildings in the last century, the concrete shell was surely the most spectacular. It provided the means of covering vast areas with a shell of reinforced concrete just a few centimeters thick. Like most developments in building engineering, the origins of shell structures have many strands. Roman engineers constructed domes and barrel vault roofs made of brick or concrete spanning of up to 40 meters, but these were relatively thick— over a meter at their thinnest part. In Gothic cathedrals, at up to 20 meters, spans were more modest but they were often much thinner—as little as 200 millimeters. There were also vernacular precedents, most prominently the thin tile vaults widely used in Catalonia from the seventeenth century which, made using quick-setting gypsum mortar, had the advantage that they could be built without the need for a supporting structure during construction. The idea was exported to the U.S. and patented in the late nineteenth century by Guastavino who used them in many hundreds of buildings, including a spectacular roof at the Pennsylvania Railway station.

5. Construction Equipment

Although the focus of much twentieth century construction work was on road building, there was foundation work for buildings of all sizes, as well as civil engineering projects such as dams. The horse-drawn graders and scrapers used for leveling work on these undertakings during the first decades of the century had changed little from their nineteenth century origins. The first entirely new machine to appear was a tractor, which moved on crawler tracks and was used for towing earthmovers. It evolved from a wheeled, gasoline-powered agricultural tractor designed by Benjamin Holt in 1908 for use on the soft farmland of California.

The hydraulically operated excavator—a descendant of the steam shovel and the succeeding power shovel—was introduced in Germany in 1954. Up to that time, the control functions of power shovels were through cables. The industry’s embrace of the excavator with components roughly analogous to the human arm and hand and a fluidity of movement to match was so thorough that power shovels were no longer used as a construction tool.

Of the many versatile machines developed during the early 1950s, the wheeled loader—also known as a front-end loader, bucket loader, or tractor shovel—was an immediate and widespread success. The nimble and highly maneuverable rubber-tired tractor with front-mounted hydraulically controlled bucket could be used to dig, lift, and quickly fill waiting dump trucks. The versatility and value of these machines increased tremendously in the mid-1950s when JCB in Britain and Case in the U.S. marketed factory-made units in which tractor loaders were joined with the boom, dipperstick, and bucket of the backhoe. The loader or backhoe became the most widely used tool on small-scale building projects.

6. Dams

For thousands of years, dam and water storage technologies have allowed civilizations to flourish in parts of the world where dry climates would otherwise limit human settlement. As early as 3000 BC, civilizations along the Tigris, Euphrates, Ganges, and Nile Rivers constructed earth and stone dams across these large rivers. These structures allowed them to store water for agriculture and create complex societies on that basis.

A dam consists of a mass of earth, timber, rock, concrete, or any combination of these materials that obstructs the flow of water. A dam can either divert water or store it in a reservoir, the artificial body of water that a dam creates. Diversion dams (weirs) raise the elevation of a river and divert water into a canal for transport to a mill, power plant, or irrigated field. Storage dams impound water in a reservoir.

There are three major types of dams—gravity, arch, and buttress. Gravity dams rely for stability on their weight to resist the hydrostatic, or water, pressure exerted by the reservoir. Arch dams, built along arcs that curve upstream into reservoirs, are most commonly found in narrow canyons with hard rock foundations. The arch dam transmits the horizontal water thrust to the abutments. Multiple arch dams consist of a number of single arches supported by buttresses. Like gravity dams, buttress dams rely on gravity for stability, but require less material than standard gravity structures. They resist hydrostatic loads by using the same engineering principles of the flying buttresses that braced the high walls of Gothic cathedrals.

7. Experimental Stress Analysis

This branch of technology deals with the means of measuring strains in materials under load and, from these strains, inferring the stresses actually endured by the material. The fundamental idea underlying the design of all components of structures and machines that must carry loads is that the stress in the material should be less than, or equal to, a certain prescribed level.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to measure stress directly. Stress values inside a material must be calculated using mathematical models of both the structure and properties of the material of which it is made. When fundamental material properties such as strength and stiffness (Young’s modulus) are experimentally tested, the structure is kept very simple—a wire for tests in tension or a supported beam for tests in bending. Measurements of load and the extension or deflection of these structures are then used to calculate internal stresses for simple tension or compression and for simple bending theory in the case of beams. Modern high-speed computers have enabled more complex mathematical models and have rendered complicated structures amenable to theory.

8. Fire Engineering

The term ‘‘fire engineering’’ has gained growing acceptance in the construction industry only since the 1980s. However, the need for buildings that protected both the occupants and the structures themselves in case of fire has existed for 2000 years. Various modeling techniques, together with a full risk analysis of a fire situation, are now collectively called ‘‘fire engineering’’ and represent what has been, perhaps, a quiet revolution in building design. Yet without it, we would not have the dramatic, exposed-steel structures that are now a relatively common sight. The Pompidou Center in Paris, conceived in the early 1970s, was one of the first such buildings (Figure 6). The ability to model the fire load and the structural response to this load allowed the design engineers to adopt the unusual idea of achieving fire resistance by filling the main columns with water which, in a fire, would be pumped around to remove heat from the steel to prevent it heating up too quickly. More common nowadays are the many buildings in which exposed steel can be used in a rather understated way, and the fire engineering approach to design can mean that the need for applied fire protection can be avoided altogether.

9. Long Span and Suspension Bridges

From the beginning of the twentieth century, bridge spans in excess of 300 meters became increasingly common. Depending on considerations of location, use, and loading—not to mention aesthetic and engineering aspiration—these could be suspension, arch, or cantilever structures. When spans of 1000 meters or more began to be contemplated from around 1930 however, a suspension bridge was the only answer. The breakthrough structure was New York’s George Washington Bridge; its clear span of 1067 meters almost doubled that of the previous record-holder, the 564-meter Ambassador Bridge in Detroit completed only two years earlier. Nonetheless, within a few years the leading edge of enterprise had passed to the West Coast, with the simultaneous construction of the San Francisco Bay Bridge complex (twin 704-meter suspension spans plus a tunnel and a cantilever), and the 1280-meterspan Golden Gate Bridge, opened in 1937.

10. Oil Rigs

Although historical accounts exist that describe oil and natural gas drilling techniques in ancient Mesopotamia and China, modern oil rig drilling has its roots primarily in salt-boring technology. By AD 350, China was constructing salt drilling wells that ran as deep as 900 meters into the ground. In the nineteenth century, Europe and the U.S. began importing this salt drilling technology from China. George Bissell, an American entrepreneur, realized that salt-boring techniques could be applied to the drilling for oil. Bissell and other investors hired Edwin Drake to construct and oversee rigs designed for oil drilling. Their venture proved successful when on 27 August 1859, Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

11. Power Tools and Hand-Held Tools

While the basic hand tools—hammers, saws, planes, and wrenches—used in construction during the twentieth century changed little from those available for generations, there was a revolution in power tools. Developments in power technology led to the mechanization of tools of all types. Coupled with efforts to use new materials that made tools both lighter and more manageable, construction work became more efficient and cost effective.

How tools were used and their impact on the user, led to changes in the design of many handles, grips, and triggers. Concern for the overall weight of tools led to a greater use of plastics and alloys. The distribution of weight within tools led to some overall redesigns in which centers of gravity were repositioned for better balance. The 1990s was a period during which the ergonomics of hand and power tools were scrutinized.

12. Prefabricated Buildings

Prefabricated buildings are assembled from components manufactured in factories. They differ in several ways from ‘‘stick-built’’ structures which are fabricated entirely on site. Typically, prefabricated components are mass produced out of the weather on indoor assembly lines. This method insures that parts can be replicated countless times with little or no variation. Economies of volume reduce costs, and precision measuring and cutting by stationary machine tools lessens waste. As work takes place on assembly lines, it is subject to constant inspection and quality control. Component assemblies made in immovable fixtures and forms further ensure that the finished work is precise and true. Thus, the quality of buildings made from parts fabricated on assembly lines has far greater chance of being accurate and uniform than those made in the field.

13. Reinforced Concrete

Reinforced concrete was in its infancy at the opening of the twentieth century, but it was very quickly adopted worldwide as an economic and versatile construction material. Employing fairly basic materials—sand, crushed stone or gravel, cement, and steel—it found use in all the existing aspects of construction, including buildings, roads, bridges, dams, reservoirs, and docks. It also served the century’s new applications, such as air raid shelters and the pressure vessels of nuclear reactors. By the end of the twentieth century, concrete in its various forms—plain, reinforced, and prestressed— was probably the most widely used construction material in the world.

14. Skyscrapers

Skyscrapers are the world’s tallest buildings. One-hundred-eighty- and 200-meter-high buildings that were considered to be exceptionally tall in 1910 were overshadowed by skyscrapers of more than 300 meters in a matter of 20 years. Advances in construction techniques enabled engineers to build ever-taller structures throughout the twentieth century. However, the principle reasons for erecting exceptionally tall buildings changed little over time. Densely populated cities with escalating land values called for maximum utilization of available space, and tall buildings are one of the most economical means of assembling large numbers of workers in one place. While the majority of skyscrapers were built for the profits they could generate, other reasons included self-aggrandizement, prestige, image, and recognition.

15. Steel Bridges

Though techniques for smelting steel had been known in principle since antiquity, only from the mid-nineteenth century did its large-scale production as a practical structural material become a reality. Stronger than wrought iron and more ductile than cast iron, its superior qualities were exploited in three great steel bridges, each in a different structural system, built between 1870 and 1890. The triple-arch St. Louis Bridge in Missouri, with its two levels for road and rail, the suspension Brooklyn Bridge in New York, and the double-cantilever Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland neatly prefigured the resourcefulness with which twentieth century bridge engineers would continue to exploit the material in long-span structures. With growing understanding of the structural potential of steel, and improvements in its tensile strength and other properties, bridges continued to progressively increase in span.

16. Timber Engineering

Timber engineering is the technology of creating wood products not found in nature. Manufactured lumber has characteristics superior to those found in its individual components. Glued layers of hardwoods or veneers were used for decoration by the ancient Egyptians. The first plywood made from layers of softwood was developed in the early twentieth century. In 1905, the directors of Portland, Oregon’s Lewis & Clark Exposition asked the Portland Manufacturing Company to devise for display some new and unusual wood product. To bring attention to the region’s rich timber resources, the company manufactured the first Douglas fir plywood.

Appeal for the product was immediate and worldwide in scope. Mills everywhere produced thin rectangular sheets of the lightweight wood product. Assembled so that the grain of each ply alternated direction by 90 degrees, it was strong, warp resistant, dimensionally stable, and did not split. It was useful in such applications as door panels, drawer bottoms, crates, trunks, and partitions. If the material had one shortcoming, it was the tendency to delaminate when exposed to dampness. Adhesives were not waterproof and early plywood was limited to interior or protected exterior use.

17. Tunnels and Tunneling

The history of tunnel construction goes back to the ancient civilizations of the Incas, Babylonians, Persians, and Egyptians, and therefore considerable experience in the construction of tunnels had already been gained worldwide by the beginning of the twentieth century. Tunnels were constructed to allow transportation through barriers (mountains, underground or underwater). In a country such as Switzerland or Canada, of which substantial parts are mountainous, tunnels were crucial for the development of a transportation infrastructure, and by the end of the nineteenth century the number of railway tunnels had greatly increased.

The optional methods for constructing tunnels increased in the twentieth century. The development of new methods and the improvement of existing ones were stimulated by the rapid increase of car traffic and the need for roads, for which new tunnels were needed. The choice for a particular way in a certain situation depends on the sort of material through which the tunnel is to be constructed. The most important difference is between hard rock and soft material. Besides that, the length and diameter of the tunnel has an influence on this choice. For allowing a sophisticated choice, geologic investigations into the behavior of the ground mass and the ground water are needed in an early stage of the tunnel project.

18. Vertical Transportation

Despite the popular concept that the elevator was born at the Crystal Palace Exposition, it actually originated in New York City in 1853 when inventor Elisha Graves Otis first successfully demonstrated his revolutionary new concept—the elevator safety gear or break—which was to allow passengers to travel with safety. The true modern passenger elevator was conceived due to a catastrophic event in 1871 known as the Great Chicago Fire, when a three-day fire razed the city to a desolated wilderness on the plains of Illinois. This fateful day on the 8 October 1871 pinpoints exactly the beginning of the modern elevator.

Construction Technology and Constructed World

Construction TechnologyThe term ‘‘constructed world’’ has shallow and deep significations. In the shallow sense, it refers to a contingent assemblage of those artifacts that have in fact been fabricated by human beings. In the deep sense, the term suggests that the world itself as a unity may be taken to be a human construction. That the proportion of human experience engaged with artifacts has, especially since the Industrial Revolution, been dramatically increasing, itself tends to promote a shift from the shallow to the deep meaning. Related terms include ‘‘built,’’ ‘‘engineered,’’ and ‘‘technological world’’ or ‘‘environment.’’

That what might be constructed is not just products, processes, or systems, but a whole world, is an idea of unique twentieth century provenance. Although its most prominent manifestations are undoubtedly in relation to technology, during the 1900s the concept of construction increasingly became the basis for interpretations of art, architecture, psychology, education, economics, politics, ethics, knowledge, and even mathematics. From the vantage point of such a comprehensive if eclectic constructivism, all of human history is prefatory to an ethos of world fabrication that has been influenced by and in turn influences contemporary technology.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the overwhelming prominence of human construction in the twentieth century—from consumer goods through buildings to cities, from macroscale projects such as the U.S. Interstate Highway system and the European Channel Tunnel to genetic engineering and nanoscale mechanics, also including the unintended anthropogenic impacts on global biodiversity and climate—there exists no systematic overview of the world as an artifact. Instead, the (intentional and unintentional) complexity of the constructed world has thus far been conceived only piecemeal through a plurality of analytic and reflective approaches, among them history, architecture, urban planning, product design, and a diversity of related issues.


The history of such humanoid constructions courses over a million-year trajectory in which artifice remained subordinate initially to direct relations with nature (in hunting and gathering cultures) and then to social organization (in the rise of those axial civilizations characterized by farming and literacy in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India). This broad distinction between artifice subordinate into natural and social milieux remains defensible even when qualified by the evidence for large-scale human terraforming, perhaps unintentional, prior to the development of literacy.

Mythological assessments of human construction include the stories of Abel and Cain (Genesis 4), the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), Prometheus, Icarus, and more. Philosophical efforts to assess the relationship began with Plato’s critique of techne practiced independently of wisdom (Gorgias) and Aristotle’s implicit distinction between cultivation and construction. For Aristotle, the primary technai are those that cultivate nature, thereby helping her bring forth more fruitfully that which she is in principle able to bring forth on her own: the arts of agriculture, medicine, and education. Of real but subordinate interest are the constructive arts that produce artifacts such as structures, roads, and ships. Indeed, one way to frame the trajectory of human history over the last 5000 years is from cultivation to construction.

Certainly modernity arose in the fifteenth century in part as a conscious attempt to privilege constructive invention over cultivation. Francis Bacon, among others, called not just for the cultivation of nature but its systematic transformation, and cited as paradigmatic inventions to be imitated the printing press, gunpowder, and the compass. Galileo Galilei and others likewise proposed an augmentation of the human senses by means of the telescope, microscope, and related scientific instruments. It is the new commitment to inventive reconstruction in both the laboratory and the world that formed the basis for an historical emergence two centuries later of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the twentieth century in particular has witnessed the instrumentalization of the human sensorium that began in the laboratory and went public to alter the means of communication in commerce, politics, and entertainment (telephone, motion pictures, radio, television, and the Internet).

This historically unprecedented degree of technical mediation by means of tools, machines, and information technologies undermines all efforts to apply to the twentieth century the characterization of previous epochs by reference to the distinctive material substrates (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc.). Although proposals have been made to describe the 1900s as the age of electricity, the atomic age, or the computer age, in truth it is more accurate to define the century not in terms of some specific technology but simply as the technological age—with diverse and ever-diversifying technologies serving as multiple means of world construction.

Even more reflective of the distinctive twentieth century consciousness of the world as construction is the effort to complement retrospect with prospect to forecast what will happen next: technological change, if not progress. Futurology, with roots in prophetic sociology and science fiction, has nevertheless proved largely ineffectual. Relying more on trend analysis and imagination, it fails to engage the constructors themselves or to bring under effective economic or political directives the operative means operative for shaping the future.


Efforts to go beyond futurology to develop a systematic analysis of the constructive elements in human affairs that might engage political and economic power grew out of the tradition of reflective building that finds classic expression in De Architectura by Vitruvius (circa 90–20 BC). Originally architecture designated the art of the master builder of the primary structures of the city (temples, palaces, monuments) and the layout of urban spaces in a manner that would reflect cultural ideals about the cosmic place and relations of humans. According to architectural historian Vincent Scully (1991) human builders have two basic options: to imitate natural forms or to oppose them. Compare, for instance, the architecture of indigenous peoples of the southwestern U.S., whose horizontal and earth-toned pueblos blend into a landscape defined by geological sedimentation and erosion, with the vertical thrust of those archetypical twentieth century buildings known as skyscrapers that dominate the cityscapes of Chicago or New York. On the ground, likewise, the modern city is laid out not to conform with a typology and the variegated paths of animal ambulance but as a block grid that extends into an instrumentally surveyed countryside, imposing simplification and legibility over the complex and intimate contours of rivers and mountains. Indeed, as Mumford (1961) states, as the constructed world became more and more extensive, the ‘‘city that was, symbolically, a world’’ was superceded by ‘‘a world that has become, in many practical aspects, a city.’’

Twentieth century transformations in the architecture of the constructed world have been driven by changes in materials, energy, transport and communication, and the commodities of peace and war. The first three achieved during the mid-1900s the apotheosis of developments with roots in the Industrial Revolution. Traditional construction materials such as wood and brick first became standardized and mass produced (e.g., dimensioned lumber), and then superceded as structural elements by iron, steel, and reinforced concrete; coal as an industrial energy source was complemented by oil, gas, and then nuclear power, with energy distribution and end-use itself accumulating from the mechanical and chemical to the electrical and electronic; alongside pre-twentieth century boats and railroads there moved with increasing speed and numbers the inventions of automobiles and airplanes, while communication networks competed with those of transportation to make human world construction a dynamic planet-covering web. The 1960s images of the earth from space, with lighted continents and pollution plumes, visually defined the paradox of multiple-scale human dominance and its responsibilities—even, some argued, its limits.

Focusing first on the static aspects of this dominance, structural engineer David Billington (1983) has analyzed the influence of the new materials of steel and reinforced concrete on structures. For Billington, twentieth century structures are defined by the intersection of three factors: efficiency, (i.e., the scientifically guided pursuit of minimal materials use); economy, the market-monitored effort to reduce monetary cost; and the understated achievement of elegance through maximum symbolic expression (given the least amount of materials and cost). In structures of spare democratic utility such as bridges, tall buildings, and free-spanning roofs over industrial workplaces and warehouses, aircraft hangers, and sports complexes, architectural engineers came into their own.

Structural designers give form to objects that are of relatively large scale and of single use, and . . . see forms as the means of controlling the forces of nature to be resisted. Architectural designers . . . give form to objects that are of relatively small scale and of complex human use, and . . . see forms as the means of controlling the spaces to be used by people [D. Billington, 1983, p. 14].

Bridges can be designed by engineers without architects; houses by architects without engineers. The engineered integration of efficiency and economy is realized in an esthetic of structural simplicity and thinness, as illustrated by the prestressed concrete bridges of Robert Maillart in Switzerland, the exposed steel tube x-bracing of Fazlur Kahn’s John Hancock Center in Chicago, and the ribbed-concrete dome of the Palazzetto dello Sport by Pier Luigi Nervi in Rome.

Unlike structural engineering, early twentieth century architecture was less able to achieve an esthetic integration of science and democratic commerce, in part because it had to contend with well-established traditions of symbolic expression of the built world: the political iconography of Greek and Roman columns, the religious expression of the church spire, the solid facade of the bank, the decoration of Victorian domesticity. As the world-city emerged, architecture found itself caught in a cross-fire between scientific rationalism, industrial commercialism, and poetic romanticism— unclear which way to turn. The fundamental choice appeared to be between acceptance of technology or opposition to it. The winning synthesis was to take the scientifically rationalized artifact, that is, the machine, as an ideal for commercial exploitation and esthetic adaptation. In the architectural profession—itself now internally split into engineer, architect, and construction worker—this synthesis became a search for ways to design buildings that organized space in such a way as to parse human interactions into appropriate routines and to reduce resistance to their rapid interactions while minimizing the labor of construction of buildings for assembly lines, business offices, and large urban populations. The uniquely twentieth century architecture of these ubiquitous constructions, so named by a 1932 exhibition at the New York City Museum of Modern Art, was an ‘‘International Style’’ whose principles were an emphasis on ‘‘volume rather than mass,’’ ‘‘regularity rather than axial symmetry,’’ and the proscription of all ‘‘arbitrary applied decoration.’’ This style, also known as modernism, was the first truly original building form since the rise of twelfth century Gothic.

The international style rejects the building patterns of premodern cultures (Greek, Roman, Gothic) in favor of shapes grounded in the efficient use of new materials and energies. Although steel and concrete were used initially to imitate Roman columns and Gothic arches, just as electric lights were first made to look like candles or gas lamps, in short order both became a flexible means for the design of indeterminate space and openness instead of determinate mass and enclosure. Geometric simplicity stripped of all ornamentation and standardized in modular forms at all levels, from structural members to external facade and finishing elements, contributed both to ease of construction and functional utilization.

Two leaders of this international modernism were Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Gropius, as the director of the Bauhaus in Germany, an engineering and product design school of great influence, eagerly embraced the machine esthetic in both buildings and their furnishings. Le Corbusier likewise condemned traditional building, redefined the house as ‘‘a machine for living in,’’ and promoted the construction of whole cities of high-rise concrete apartment houses in repeating blocks connected by open roadways. The high-rise building made possible by the steel frame and electric elevator became a progressively simplified form, as illustrated by the now destroyed World Trade Center towers in New York and the Sears Tower in Chicago, emblematic of that modernist international architecture that dominated the first half of the twentieth century.

Without wholly rejecting the international style, the second half of the century nevertheless witnessed a rising attraction of more complex and interesting architectural spaces—an attraction most visually manifest in a postmodern ironic complexity that playfully revived traditional forms layered over the retained modernist structural elements. The popularity of postmodernism had, however, a counterpoint in the discovery and defense of vernacular architecture.

Urban Planning

As indicated, the constructed world consists not just of structures designed by architects but of cities, including urban and suburban systems, linked with transportation and communication networks across landscapes constructed for farming, recreation, and preservation. Although architecture classically included issues of city design, urban planning has in the twentieth century become an independent profession, due to the manner of engineering and construction work.

At the beginning of the century, urban planner Ebenezer Howard proposed a vision of the garden city at odds with what would emerge as the international style. For Howard the problem of increased urban population was not to be solved simply by efficient modular housing inspired by the standardization and interchangeability of parts and machine construction, but by recognizing what he called the ‘‘twin magnets’’ of the town and the country. The benefits of towns are high wages, sociability, and culture, yet at the cost of high prices and congestion. The countryside is the source of natural beauty and quiet, at the risk of boredom and lack of aspirations.

But neither the Town magnet nor the Country magnet represents the full plan and purpose of nature . . . . Town and country must be married, and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, and new civilization [E. Howard 1965 [1902], p. 48].

This utopian vision became a major basis for criticism of the rationalist esthetic of high modernist architecture. Whole new small, mixed-use towns exhibiting an interweave of superblocks with narrower loop streets and cul-de-sacs instead of the repeating box grid were actually constructed in, for instance, Letchworth and Welwyn, England, and Radburn, New Jersey. Such experiments failed to live up to their promises of creating truly selfsustaining communities, as they became enclosed by larger suburban sprawl. Other influences of the garden city ideal can nevertheless be found in landscape architecture and the design of major urban parks, not to mention the construction of state and national parks and forests in both the U.S. and Europe, and eventually throughout the world.

The most practical innovation of early twentieth century urban planning was, however, the establishment of zoning laws that allowed for the political regulation of building practices. By the middle of the century architects and city planners were increasingly working together, with efforts also being made to enhance democratic participation in urban planning. The more grandiose schemes of Le Corbusier (who proposed a rebuilding of Paris) or Robert Moses (the New York state and city official who controlled its park and transportation development for more than 30 years), were moderated by local interests. Between them, social critics such as Jane Jacobs (1961) and urban planners such as Constantive Doxiadis (1963) brought realism and a more inclusive or interdisciplinary holism to thinking about the constructed world on the larger scale. The last half of the century also witnessed a new awakening of efforts among planners to take the natural environment into account in urban planning. Here the work of Ian McHarg (1969) exercised formative influence.

Product Design

Parallel to the architectural development of a machine esthetic at the level of structures, in tension with the organic ideals of urban planners, the commodities of peace and war were undergoing their own constructive transformations. Tools (dependent on human energy and guidance) were increasingly complemented if not replaced by machines (driven by nonhuman energy but still directed by human agents) and eventually semiautonomous machines (requiring only indirect human guidance via feedback systems or programs), with the tools to machines transition continuing from the nineteenth century and dominating during the first half of the twentieth, and the rise of automation highlighting the second half. Distinctive of the century as a whole was the construction of a new type of household commodity— the electrical appliance—and then the electronic tool-machine represented most popularly by radios, televisions, and computers.

Prior to the rise of modern technology, the design of artifacts serving daily life was embedded in the craft of making—a virtually universal activity. Almost everyone was an artisan in the home, workshop, or field, and thus at one and the same time a person who conceived, fabricated, and used the indigenous basics of material culture. People ‘‘designed’’ things in the course of constructing them, so that making seldom involved any substantial moment of thinking through or planning beforehand, but proceeded as intuitive cut-and-try fabrication, guided by indigenous materials, traditions, and community. What has come to be called consumer product testing took place right in the making and immediate using by the maker, with the result that the commodities from regimes of craft production typically exhibit a certain practical artistic quality and honesty.

The Industrial Revolution’s replacement of human power with coal- and steam-driven prime movers, its gearing of power into repetitive motion, and the required divisions of labor in manufacture, brought forth two needs: (1) the need for the designer as standard pattern maker so that artifacts could be mass produced; and (2) a need for the designer as style giver so that they could be mass marketed. Such a separation of design from construction and use could not help but open the door to a qualitative decline in the commodities produced, in reaction to which there emerged diverse efforts to reintroduce ‘‘art’’ into the new regime of industrial production; that is, to reunite what had been separated.

In the early stages, various arts and crafts movements sought to revive aspects of preindustrial modes of production, but at the beginning of the twentieth century the industrial design movement took a different approach, applying to quotidian commodities the principles being pursued in modernist architecture. Indeed, Gropius at the Bauhaus promoted modernist, technological simplification both in buildings and in streamlined furniture (see the famous Marcel Breuer chair). As one leading historian of product design has summarized the movement:

By the end of the Second World War, the practice of styling mechanical and electrical goods to make them appear clean, crisp, geometrical and, above all, modern, had become commonplace. Cars, electric razors, radios, food-mixers, typewriters, cameras, washing-machines, and so on, were all given body-shells reflecting the machine esthetic of efficiency and functionalism [P. Sparke 1986, pp. 49–50].

In the last half of the century, however, in product design as in architecture, questions arose about notions of rational objectivity and universality, especially in a market dependent on advertising. The psychological requirements of the mass consumer were granted increasing legitimacy, so that expendability and playful symbolism began to replace stricter rationalisms. In counterpoint to a culture of waste and simulacra however, designers such as Victor Papanek called first for a new applied realism (1971) and then respect for the ecological imperative (1995) in product design. The question of sustainability emerged in relation to both human markets and the natural environment.

In summary, the constructed world is a historical phenomenon that has during the twentieth century emerged on three levels: the intermediate level of buildings or structures (architecture), the largescale level of cities and landscapes (urban planning), and the small-scale level of consumer goods (product design). There are nevertheless other levels of and perspectives on construction that have been passed over here: the microlevel construction in biotechnology and genetic engineering and nanoscale engineering design, politics and warfare (construction through destruction), the economics of globalization, information technology and the construction of the networked world, and the multiple media-based transformation of life and leisure. There also remains the need for a broadly based, general understanding of construction that would unite such levels and approaches.


  1. Billington, D.P. The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering. Basic Books, New York, 1983.
  2. Howard, E. Garden Cities of To-Morrow. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1965. First published 1902.
  3. Sparke, P. An Introduction to Design and Culture in the Twentieth Century. Allen & Unwin, London, 1986.

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