The Modern City

Skyscrapers, public spaces, apartment houses—learn how Paris, London, and Berlin became modern through architecture, transport, new materials and engineering.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Smarthistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

City of Light, Paris

We often take the vibrant urban street, filled with shops and cafes, offices and homes, and theatres and museums, for granted.  But the streets and the architecture of Paris were transformed over the past two centuries by the industrial and post-industrial revolutions.  

The city is now a testament to how cities merge tradition and innovation and how they reflect the lives of the people who live and work so closely together.

The Rue de la Paix (Street of Peace) ironically leads to the Place Vendôme and its massive bronze column (just visible) originally commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate his victory over the Russian and Austrian armies in 1805 at Austerlitz.

Paris grew beyond its ancient and medieval walls until it was a dense tangle of narrow streets. The boulevards we see with their unobstructed views and street lights were carved out of the medieval city in the late 19th century.

Palais Garnier

The Palais Garnier (Paris Opera house) was a centerpiece of the new Paris reconstructed under Napoleon III. It sits at the intersection of numerous boulevards and expresses the wealth and leisure of Paris’ growing middle class in the 1870s.

Saint Pancras International, London

The locomotive was an important symbol of industry and progress in 19th century England.  Travel became less expensive and far more widespread, and ever faster speeds were reached. 

The train shed at St. Pancras Station was the largest undivided interior space in the world when it opened in 1868. A high shed was necessary since trains were then powered by coal-burning steam engines that spewed soot and large clouds of vapor.

Train platform, Saint Pancras

The Eurostar travels from London to Paris at up to 200 miles per hour. In 1829 the fastest train reached an astonishing 29 miles per hour. By the time this station opened, trains reached about 80 MPH.

Shed roof, Saint Pancras

The shed’s wrought iron trusses, manufactured by the Butterley Iron Company, span 246 feet (75 meters). The open design became a model for terminals around the world. Each of the main trusses weighs approximately 55 tons and took a week to put in place.

The gothic-revival style seen in the red and black brick and stone walls, pointed arches, circles, and cinquefoil (5-lobed) windows were popular decorative elements in the Victorian era and refer back to the architecture of medieval Venice.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is one the the most recognized and beloved structures in the world, but when it was new its exuberant modernism was quite controversial.

Architecture in the 19th century was infatuated with reviving past styles (Neoclassicism, Gothic revival, etc.) but here, amidst the apartments and boulevards of Paris, was an iron structure that soared above Notre Dame’s great stone bell towers, a triumph of modern industrial engineering.


The tower weighs more than 11,000 tons so it needed a strong foundation. Four footings made of stone and concrete hold the tower in place with bolts 4 inches thick and 25 feet long.


The designer, Gustave Eiffel, was an accomplished engineer who built bridges and had designed the structural support for the Statue of Liberty. The tower was assembled from more than 18,000 precisely wrought iron segments using 2.5 million rivets.

Stripped of pretense

Even today, Gustave Eiffel’s tower is an engineering marvel. The design is mostly utilitarian and does not try to mimic older structures. The exception being the arcs that join the legs—these are purely decorative.

Weissenhofseidlung, Stuttgart

The architect Mies van der Rohe had overall responsibility for the 21 buildings designed for this 1927 housing exhibition in Stuttgart. The designers included many of the most important modern architects of the era.

The buildings may look ordinary now, but their prefabricated steel designs, lack of ornament, and flat roof, offered a clean break from the way housing had been build up to this time. These were so successful that they have become commonplace and may no longer seem extraordinary.

Weissenhof Apartment Building

Mies rethought the architecture of the home. Gone are the peaked roofs and wooden ornaments of the 19th century. Here is an apartment building that uses and celebrates new technologies like a steel frame that allows for large windows and rooftop access.

Weissenhof Apartment Building, looking closer

Mies replaced the hand-constructed home with a mass-produced utilitarian structure. This made housing much less expensive—part of an effort to raise the standard of living of lower-paid workers at a time when affordable housing was scarce.

Five row houses by JJP Oud

JJP Oud designed 5 rowhouses that together create a stark sculptural form. The courtyard led onto a hall, washroom and kitchen. The living room looks onto a garden on the far side. Upstairs are bedrooms, a bathroom, and a utility area.

Site of Bruno Taut house

Bruno Taut designed the single family house that originally stood on this site. In contrast to the rest of the Weissenhofseidlung, Taut’s design was brightly painted in primary colors. It was destroyed by aerial bombing during World War Two.

Le Corbusier’s Unité d'habitation, Marseille

The architect, Le Corbusier, transformed the way we think about our buildings and our cities.  He believed that a house was a machine that could be designed to better support those that lived within it.

Unité d'habitation was based on the idea of a towering apartment building surrounded by parkland. It is made up of spacious apartments with communal areas on the roof (with views of the sea) and at ground level. Unité d'habitation has inspired imitations around the world.

Building upward

Unité d'habitation was designed to be a vertical garden city, a place to live, shop, and socialize surrounded by an idyllic landscape. Le Corbusier imagined multiple towers and called this the Radiant City—a response to urban disorder, and the need for green space and sunlight.


Le Corbusier raised the mass of the building up onto concrete piers that he called pilotis. This makes building feels lighter, expresses its internal support structure (what holds the building up), and opens a vista to the parkland beyond.

Vertical Living

Unité d'habitation was cleverly designed to maximize space. Each apartment spans the depth of the building with balconies on both sides and is two stories tall with a double height living room. Internal corridors are minimized and placed every three stories.

Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

The young architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers won the competition to design a huge new center for modern art, music, film, and research in the middle of Paris.

They based it on their radical vision to create a building that exposed its structural and mechanical systems for all to see while at the same time welcoming visitors to use its many public spaces.

The Piazza

The large court or “piazza” was designed as a forum, a place for social interaction, and it has been wildly successful. Crowds pack the sloped pavement for performances and are gently tugged downhill toward the building’s doors and the art within.

Huge trusses (supports) extend the full width of the building so that no internal supports are needed. This allows for uninterrupted spaces on each floor measuring 164 x 557 feet, all held in place by the external steel framework seen here.

Engineering Becomes the Decorative Program

Normally a building’s mechanical systems are hidden behind walls. Here, everything is exposed and color coded: white for structural supports, blue for air conditioning, yellow for electrical, green for water, and red for escalators and elevators.

30 St Mary Axe, London

30 St Mary Axe, London is better known as The Gherkin. It was designed by Norman Foster and has become one of London’s most recognizable landmarks.

Beyond its unique shape, the tower was designed to withstand wind, to maximize the area of the surrounding plaza as well as its internal floorspace, and to be one of the city’s most energy-efficient skyscrapers.

The Piazza

Norman Foster called the public plaza out of which the Gherkin seems to emerge a “piazza” —after the Italian word for a city square. This space was maximized since the building is narrower at the base.

The Church of St Andrew Undershaft, St Mary Axe, City of London (2012-07-11) by James O Davies, English HeritageHistoric England

Wind and light

Wind can make tall buildings sway and sunlight can cause too much heat. Here, the triangulated surface is strong enough to withstand wind and support the floors within. Vents spiral upward (see the darker bands) removing heat during warm weather and circulating it in winter.


Triangles of glass cover the entire building create a kaleidoscope of reflections as fragments of the surrounding buildings mingle with passing clouds and blue sky. The only curved glass is found at the very top, every other pane is flat.

DZ Bank and the Holocaust Monument, Berlin

This is one of two completely different facades of DZ Bank. Each responds to the environment it faces. Inside, a curving glassed-in courtyard is filled with a conference center reminiscent of a huge silvery abstract fish gliding through water. 

However, from this vantage point, opposite the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the bank designed by Frank Gehry seems to look outward, bearing witness to the Holocaust and postwar Germany’s acknowledgement of the scale of the barbarity it perpetrated so recently.

DZ Bank by Frank Gehry from Behrenstraße

The convex surfaces playfully contrast with the flat facades that flank the Gehry’s building. The windows seem to ride over swells as if afloat on the ocean, but the windows also look outward like eyes, taking in the somber memorial they face.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Stelae, rectangular blocks of dark gray stone, rise unevenly across a vast space. They are set in a dense grid but slightly askew creating a lack of resolution—a tension between order and disorder.

Aldo Rossi’s Quarter Schützenstraße, Berlin

Can new architecture successfully integrate into a city’s older architecture?  Aldo Rossi was asked to fill a city block left empty by the Second World War and the Berlin Wall in a historical part of the city.

His playful and brilliantly colored solution divides the block in small buildings drawn from history and from his own past work. He turns away from the monumental and instead creates a whole from the contrast of individual facades similar to neighboring blocks.

Quarter Schützenstraße seen from Schützenstraße

Here we can see multiple distinct facades that reference architecture of different historical periods despite the fact that they were designed as a whole. The green buildings have aluminum exteriors and reference the architect’s own earlier work.

A Roman Palace

Here Rossi added a segment of the interior courtyard facade of the Palazzo Farnese, one of the most significant Renaissance palaces in Rome. In this way, Rosso brings Renaissance Humanist architecture into the scarred city of Berlin.

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