Art History essay

Essay writing: History and theory of art, design and architecture

Students in Monash Art Design and Architecture (MADA) write essays about artworks, design objects and the built environment. Essay writing in MADA is distinctive from other faculties in its emphasis on these visual materials and the creative practices of making them. Essay assignments commonly involve responding to a question, and comparing and contrasting two or three visual examples.

In preparing an essay, you will consider the essay question, select visual material and apply and interpret visual and written ideas. This process will enable you to present a position on the topic. Your position is your answer to the assessment question. You support your position with evidence from your selection of visual examples and the scholarly text sources you apply.

This resource focuses on the process of preparing an essay and not the structure. For information about structure see Writing an essay.

Getting started: Understanding and refining the question

Unit Moodle resources outline instructions and may offer a choice of essay questions. These essay questions reflect the topics covered in the unit.


Essay Question

Click highlighted terms to understand what the essay question asks you to do.

To successfully complete this essay, you will need to define the key terms. In this example, defining “modernist architecture” is important to recognising its legacy and influence on contemporary architecture. Modernism is a style. That means it refers to a set of characteristics that group examples – buildings – together. Characteristics can be based on materials, production methods, appearances, or particular times and places. Undertake research to understand these characteristics. A good place to start is the unit’s weekly readings as they include scholarly text sources that explain why modernist architecture is distinctive. You will apply this research to the visual examples you select.

The examples you select and the texts you read will determine how you engage with the characteristics of modernist architecture. Your process of finding and selecting examples and scholarly text sources will focus your research, and in many cases, narrow the research question in your own way. Consider your choice of example buildings as you focus your research.

Essay questions like this one about modernist architecture may seem open ended. However, you can refine the question to suit your interests.

Open-ended essay questions give you creative flexibility. You could answer this question by writing about diverse topics: pioneering women architects like Eileen Gray, progressive ideas at the Bauhaus, glass and steel construction, and so on. Open-ended essay questions also encourage you to explore your own original ideas.

Where to find visual material

Online museum collections with browsable images are a good resource to explore when selecting visual examples for your essay. These organisations have collections that are suitable for study and allow you to view good quality online images. Search as you begin exploring – even if you are not sure what you are looking for.

Click the name of the museum to find out more.

If you know the name of an artist, designer or architect, and you would like to find out more, the Monash Library’s art, design and architecture databases provides useful resources. To explore an artists’ oeuvre – their body of work – visually, the ARTstor database has images, artwork details, and provenance information. When you are logged in through the Library, you can download images to illustrate your essay. Use the provided details for your captions.

Selecting and combining visual examples

As you look for suitable visual examples, consider how you will justify your selection. Adding an explanation of why you have selected particular material enhances your argument. You may make aesthetic decisions without thinking about them, but endeavour to note your choices. If you like something, ask yourself why? To focus on justifying your selection, consider the following line of questioning:

  • Does it have characteristics or techniques that fit a particular style or movement?
  • Does it have unusual characteristics?
  • Did it influence other practitioners?
  • Is it significant in other ways? If so, why?
  • How is your selection a good example of the idea you are discussing?

How you select and combine visual examples impacts your answer to the essay question, and how well you complete the assignment.

Below are some examples of image combinations and essay text that relates to the images. These images and text examples are in response to the essay question: Can the legacies of modernist architecture be seen in today’s built environment? Consider these examples and apply similar criteria when you make your selections.

Group one: Le Corbusier, Eileen Gray, Philip Johnson

A view of Le Corbusier’s white modernist Villa Savoye with a flat green lawn in the foreground.Figure 1. Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, 1929 – 1931, Poissy, France.
A view of Eileen Gray’s modernist villa named E-1027 nestled on a sunlit hillside amongst shrubs and long grass.Figure 2. Eileen Gray, E-1027, 1926 – 1929, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.
A view of Philip Johnson’s pavilion-like Glass House, amid autumn trees with a green lawn and path in the foreground. Figure 3. Philip Johnson, Glass House, 1948 – 1949, Connecticut, USA.

Instructions: Click on the icons next to the paragraph to show the teacher’s comments. Click again to hide the comment.

Group one, comment:

Show/hide Teacher's comment 1 Three modern villas that share characteristics of geometry and simplicity. They prompt interesting comparisons about use of glass and their relationships to the site. Villa Savoye (fig. 1), an archetype of modernist domestic architecture, flaunts its lack of ornament and the ribbon windows are a prominent feature. It does not look like the design takes the site into account – it could be anywhere. Eileen Gray’s villa (fig. 2) shares similar characteristics to Villa Savoye, but nestled on a hillside amongst shrubs, it looks more like it belongs on the site. Johnson’s use of glass, the entire pavilion-like facade (fig. 3), expands the type of view ribbon windows afford. Windows reflect and refract, and thus visually integrate the site.
Teacher's comment 1:
These three examples are good to compare because they are all domestic buildings, i.e. roughly the same size and function, but they have distinctive relationships to their site.
Show/hide Teacher's comment 2
Teacher's comment 2:
The student needed to include an example of a similar villa built recently to use as evidence supporting their argument that the influence of modernist architecture can be seen today.

Show/hide Teacher's comment 3
Teacher's comment 3:
The main argument, which answers the essay question, could be that the influence of modernist architecture can be seen today. However, unlike Le Corbusier’s archetype, and more like Grey and Johnson, architects now give consideration to the site.

Group two: Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and Jeanne Gang

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's Lever House, a prominent commercial building type for urban areas in the decades after WWIIFigure 4. Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill), Lever House, 1950 – 1952, New York, USA.
A view of Jeanne Gang, Aqua tower. Its ripple-shape balconies create an appearance of biomorphic pools of reflected skylight across its facade.Figure 5. Jeanne Gang, Aqua, 2007 – 2009, Chicago, USA.

Instructions: Click on the icons next to the paragraph to show the teacher’s comments. Click again to hide the comment.

Group two, comment:

Show/hide Teacher's comment 4

A post-war International Style office building and a contemporary skyscraper, both share the vertical reproduction of space, a key modern technical development. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Lever House (fig. 4) represents a prominent commercial building type for urban areas in the decades after WWII. Its key characteristics are verticality, simplicity, glass and steel. Its appearance is masculine in fitting with the dominant corporate culture. Jeanne Gang’s Aqua (fig. 5) is a skyscraper in Chicago. It uses glass and steel, and thus, it is similar to Lever House. However, the appearance is more gender balanced. Ripple-shape balconies create an effect of pools from reflected skylight across its facade. This style is prominent today. For example, ARM Architects’ William Barak building in Melbourne uses the same balcony device to generate a portrait of the Wurundjeri elder.
Teacher's comment 4:
These two examples are easy to compare because both are skyscrapers and they both represent the style prominent in their period. They show the changing style of architecture and there is ample evidence – other similar buildings – to support the argument.
Show/hide Teacher's comment 5
Teacher's comment 5:
The main argument, which answers the essay question, could be that the approach modern architects pioneered still has relevance today. However, as a result of more women working in the industry, today architects are overcoming some of inherent biases the modernist legacy entails.

Curate your research

Carefully consider your selection and combination of visual material. You can use visual material to exemplify particular periods, movements, themes and styles of art, design and architecture. Comparing and contrasting characteristics of visual examples enables you to elaborate on styles and their historical significance. The example question prompts you to compare buildings from two periods. You may want to select an example modernist building and an example recent building that has similar characteristics, but perhaps with an important difference. In other words, your examples need to have some similarities to make their differences meaningful. By selecting and combining visual examples, you are curating your research.

Selecting suitable material, and being able to justify your selection, is a strong foundation for your essay. Good examples make it easier to research and write a sophisticated response to the question. Relevant, engaging and significant visual material gives you plenty of ideas to write about. Examples that are not suitable can leave you with nothing much to say. Consider if examples are relevant, engaging and significant.

  • Relevant: select visual examples that make a connection to your topic by depicting it, alluding to it, framing it, or being indicative of it.
  • Engaging (to you): it will be a better experience writing your essay if you choose examples that inspire you.
  • Significant (meaning well-known and respected): selecting significant visual examples helps ensure you have enough resources to develop and support your argument. Significance isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for choosing examples, but it makes finding resources easier.

How do you know if visual material has these qualities? If you feel as though the combination of formal elements is coherent, or the meaning makes sense, then you are on the right track. Think critically as you consider images you might select, but use your intuition too.

Applying ideas in scholarly text sources to the visual examples

The instructions for this essay ask students to critically explore the topic by engaging with scholarly text sources in order to make an argument supported by evidence. The topic is modernist architecture and its influence on contemporary architecture. The ideas you encounter in scholarly text sources will explain the characteristics of Modernism. You will apply these ideas to the visual examples you select, and show how your particular examples reflect the style.

To interpret visual material is to consider the ideas that examples express, how and why they express them, and the ways they represent their time and place. Interpreting visual material is explaining its meaning and significance. Meaning is directly about the example, whereas significance is why it is important in context. Interpret examples differently depending on whether they are art, design or architecture. Broadly speaking:

  • In art, interpretation is an explanation of form, narrative and emotion.
  • In design, interpretation is an explanation of function and communication.
  • In architecture, interpretation is an explanation of appearance, construction, function, and feeling.

Nevertheless, all visual material provides evidence about the character of cultures, societies, and the ways people live. That is why interpreting art, design and architecture is interesting.

Nicolas Henderson, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 6. Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, Prada Marfa, 2005 Marfa, USA.

Commentators such as critics and historians communicate the meaning and significance of visual material. They attempt to see the work in a broader context than the artist, designer or architect does. Critics and historians recognise similarities between multiple artists’ work, they group visual material into tendencies, styles, movements and eras. They explain the collective significance of examples. That is not to say that artists themselves do not recognise tendencies and align their work with or against them. Critics and historians also attempt to evaluate the merit of the work more objectively than the artist can, though they will generally acknowledge that their interpretations can be subjective too.

Critics and historians apply ideas from other disciplines, like philosophy, as a lens through which to interpret examples, i.e. Marxist, Feminist or Postcolonial theories can provide a focus for interpreting visual materials. Different theories focus on particular aspects of the visual material. For example: Marxism examines the production of examples within economic, political and technological contexts; Feminism examines gender, and its power and representation. Postcolonialism examines ways indigenous cultures overcome the agendas of colonial powers. There are many other theories about aspects of our lives that can be adapted to interpreting visual material. That is because art, design and architecture is evidence of how we live, and how we feel about life.


The purpose of this resource is helping you write an essay about art, design and architecture – an essay that emphasises visual examples. It has given advice about unpacking the essay question, selecting visual examples and applying ideas in scholarly text sources. It has been about the process of developing an essay, not the structure of an essay.

For information about structure see Writing an essay.

For information about citing and referencing see the Citing and referencing Library Guide.