Modern architecture can be looked at in two ways. First, as the architecture of today, defining how we lead our everyday lives in modern times. Secondly, as the visions and ideals that the architects of yesterday envisioned for modern society. Either way, it is arguably more relevant today than it ever was.
This article will take a deep dive into the topic of modern architecture, defining what it is, its origins and history, and its characteristics. It shall also take a look at the principles of modern architecture, a breakdown of its movements, and focus on the difference between modern and contemporary architecture. Finally, it shall look at iconic modern buildings and iconic modern architects.
What is modern architecture?
Modern architecture, or modernistic architecture, is architecture defined by the use of innovative and new construction technologies, especially the use of steel, reinforced concrete, and glass. The central idea in modern architecture is that form should follow function and embrace minimalism. There is also a clear rejection of ornament in modernistic architecture.
Modern architecture became dominant after the 2nd World War when it was taken as the main style for corporate and institutional buildings.
Origins of modern architecture
The modern architecture movement started at the end of the 19th century. During this period, there was a revolution of technology, building materials, and engineering. The building construction industry moved away from traditional architectural styles to invent something functional and new. Modern architecture then first embraced the use of plate glass, cast iron and reinforced concrete in building stronger taller and lighter structures.
The first skyscraper appeared in the US as a quick response to land shortages and the exorbitant cost of construction in the fast-growing American cities, and new technology like the use of fireproof steel frames and safety elevators invented by Elisha Otis. The ten-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago was the steel-framed skyscraper designed by William Le Baron Jenney in 1883.
Louis Sullivan constructed other monumental structure at the heart of Chicago between 1904-06. This early building however borrowed decoration styles from Neo-Gothic, Neo-renaissance and Beaux-Arts architecture.
Later, The Woolworth Building, designed by Cass Gilbert and completed in 1912, became the world’s tallest building until The Chrysler Building was built in 1929.
Two factors led to the rapid rise of modern architecture during this period. First, the industrial demands during World War II resulted in the shortage of building materials like steel, which lead to the adoption of new materials like aluminum. Second, there was unparalleled destruction during the war, and buildings needed to be reconstructed.
The use of prefabricated buildings was largely expanded during the war and postwar period for government and military buildings. Radical experimental houses like the Lustron house and Dymaxion House were also witnessed between 1947-1950.
The government financed enormous construction projects during the postwar period to cover for the housing shortages. These projects were carried out in cities and suburbs where land was available. For example, the Le Havre city center was one of the biggest reconstruction projects carried out after being destroyed by the Germans. A pioneer in the use of prefabricated materials and reinforced concrete, Architect Auguste Perret, built an entirely new center in the city. In 2005 UNESCO declared Auguste’s rebuilt a site for World Heritage.
In the US, most of the German Bauhaus Movement leaders created new homes after relocating there. Their newly created homes played a huge role in American Modern architecture development.
Modern architecture characteristics
Here are the main characteristics of modern architecture:
- Lack of ornament: Elaborate trim and decorative moldings are eliminated, leaving buildings clean and simple. Instead of ornamentation, the material use is executed in interesting ways, such as meeting in unique joints.
- The prominence of vertical and horizontal lines and rectangular forms: House shapes are linked boxes or boxed based. A dramatic effect is created by the use of materials in vertical forms and definite planes placed side by side against horizontal elements.
- Horizontal massing, low, flat roofs, prominence on broad roof protrude and horizontal planes: This is the reason why many modern houses have twisting one-story plans.
- Modern systems and materials use: There is the intentional use of exposed material application, such as columns made of steel, use of concrete block as finished material, exposed and stained concrete floors, open column-free spaces permitted by steel trusses, and enhanced human comfort by heating systems.
- Traditional materials used in revolutionized ways: Modern aesthetic is achieved by the use of brick, wood, and stone in simple ways. Simple vertical boards replace the traditional siding clapboard. Smooth, large planes of cladding are also used. Stonework and brick are unornamented and simple, used in rectilinear planes and masses.
- Emphasis on the honesty of materials: For example, in order to express its natural look, wood is stained instead of being painted.
- Relationship of interior sites and spaces: The building’s site is brought into effect by use of massive glass expanses, to take advantage of natural landscaping and dramatic views.
- Prominence to flowing and open interior spaces: Dining, kitchen, and living spaces tend to flow together as part of one continuous interior space.
- Magnanimous natural light and glass use: Instead of using windows as potholes to the outside, it gives preference to use of large glass walls introducing the natural light to the inside.
- Enhanced human comfort by use of shading and sun: They take advantage of natural forces like solar energy and cool openings to enhance comfort in different seasons.
Principles of modern architecture
There are two far-reaching principles of modernism namely: Form follows function and Truth to materials.
Form follows function
This principle states that the purpose of the building should form the starting point for the design rather than beauty. It is also referred to as functionalism. It was first coined by Louis Sullivan, an American architect.
Truth to materials
This principle states that materials should be used in places where they are best suited without concealing the material’s character and look. For instance, exposed concrete to be left unpainted and timber unpolished for its natural grain to be seen. The theory was championed by the Bauhaus Movement which took it as a core principle and maintained that materials to be used in their ‘honest’ form.
Modern architecture examples
The following are some of the most famous modern architecture examples:
- The Guggenheim Museum, New York
- Neue National Galerie in Berlin
- The Barcelona Pavilion, Spain
- The Cube House in Rotterdam, Netherlands
- Villa Savoye in Poissy, France
- The Fallingwater Residence in Mill Run, Pennsylvania
- Villa Dirickz in Brussels, Belgium
- The Chicago Marina Apartments, Illinois
- The Isokon Building, London
- Devon House, located in Ada, Michigan
Breakdown of Modern Movements
Art Deco is a style that first appeared in France before the 1st World War. It derives its name from Arts Décoratifs, in the Exposition Internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts) that was held 1925 in Paris. The style combines modern styles rich materials and fine craftsmanship representing glamour, luxury, exuberance, and faith in technological progress.
Brutalist style, or Brutalism, became popular in the 1970s. It originated from the modernist architectural movement. It is defined by unique block-like structures and mostly features building materials that are bare. Exposed concrete is favored in construction. However, some buildings were primarily made by bricks. It began in Europe but can now be found all over the world. The style has been used mainly in institutional buildings constructions.
The constructivist architecture movement was largely used in the Soviet Union between 1920s-1930s. It combined engineering with advanced technology with the social purpose of the Communist. It fell out of favor in 1932.
Deconstructivism started around the 1980s. It gives a fragmented impression of the building constructed. It is defined by the absence of continuity, symmetry, and harmony. The idea came from the name ‘deconstruction’, coined by Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher. The visual appearance of the finished building is defined by controlled chaos and unpredictability.
De Stijl, or Neoplasticism, is a movement that was founded in Leiden in 1917. It consisted of architects and artists who advocated for universality and pure abstraction by reduction of essentials of color and form. Visual compositions were simplified to horizontal and vertical, using only primary colors, black and white.
Expressionism is a movement of architecture in Europe born in the 20th century. In Western and Northern Germany, a movement called Brick Expressionism is a variant of the Expressionist movement. The style forms a part of the three modern architecture dominant styles.
Futurist architecture started in Italy. It's defined by dynamic long lines, strong chromatic-ism, suggesting motion, speed, lyricism, and urgency. Poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti founded an artistic movement called Futurism in 1990, which the Futurist movement is part of. The movement attracted architects like Antonio Sant’Elia who translated its vision into an urban form.
Garden city movement:
The garden city method and movement was initiated by Sir Ebenezer Howard in 1898 in the UK. Communities which were self-contained were surrounded with greenbelts where residence, agriculture, and industry were proportionate.
High-tech architecture (as shown below), or Structural Expressionism, started in 1970s incorporating technology and the high tech industry in building designs. It serves as a bridge between postmodernism and modernism.
The International Style was developed between 1920s-1930s. Its first proponents were Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, who were curators at Modern Art Museum in 1932. It is defined by lightweight use, emphasizes on volume over mass, industrial materials, all ornament and color rejection, modular forms repetition and flat surface use, alternating typically with glass areas.
Metabolism gained its first recognition internationally at the CIAM 1959 meeting. Students from Kenzo Tange’s MIT Studio were the first to test the idea.
Mid-century modern (MCM) was first affirmed by Cara Greenberg in her book titled, Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s. It celebrated the style that is recognized by museums worldwide and scholars as an important design movement.
Finally, modern architecture emerged and became dominant after the 2nd World War until the 1980s before being replaced by Postmodern Architecture. It put emphasis on the use of steel, glass, reinforced concrete, and that form should follow function.
What is contemporary architecture?
Contemporary architecture is the architecture of today and now. Contemporary architects can work with different styles, from high-tech and postmodernism architecture to expressive and greatly conceptual styles, on an enormous or tiny scale.
Contemporary designs are meant to astonish and be noticed. For instance, some skyscrapers break shimmer and change color during different times of day.
The difference between modern and contemporary architecture
While contemporary architecture is of the current time period, modern architecture inspired by everything that had helped create it, constantly strives to better itself by for example:
- Using new technologies
- Adopting and experimenting with new building techniques
- Testing new building materials
- Adapting and improving current and old materials and techniques
- Pushing structural boundaries
- Testing plan arrangements
This movement was introduced by Robert Venturi, an architectural theorist, and Denise Scott Brown an urban planner in 1960s. Their aim was to react against the formality, lack of variety and austerity of modern architecture, especially the international style which was advocated by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. It became very popular between 1980s-1990s especially in the work of Philip Johnson, Scott Brown & Venturi, Charles Moore, and Michael Graves.
Soon after, however, it was divided into many new smaller styles, such as modern classicism, deconstructivism and high-tech architecture.
10 iconic modern buildings
The Fallingwater House by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mill Run, 1935)
This house’s design was influenced by Japanese architecture which is famous for using cantilevers. The house is located in Pennsylvania in the United States. It was owned by the Kaufmann family which used it as a weekend getaway. The house, however, started deteriorating soon after construction. In 2002, after extensive repairs, it was made into a museum.
Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut, USA
This house was constructed in 1949 by Phillip Johnson. He constructed it as his own home. It was minimal in design and used the reflective features of glass. Johnson experimented on geometric shapes of various dimensions which made it iconic in modern architecture. The landmarks in the area also contributed to making the house a sensational piece of modern architecture.
It was a weekend home that was mainly made of steel and glass. Like Fallingwater, this house also suffered defects like leaking roofs. Johnson described it jokingly as a ‘four-bucket house.’
Villa Savoye (1931), Paris, France
This house was constructed for the Savoyes, a family house for a retreat. It was located in the outskirts of Paris. It had distinct features that manifested the ‘five points’ endorsed by Le Corbusier. The house included an open plan, reinforced concrete column grids, a roof garden, an independent facade, and horizontal windows.
David S. Ingalls Skating Rink located in New Haven, Connecticut, USA
This building was known as Yale Whale, a name influenced by Yale University which Eero Saarinen graduated from. Compared to other buildings of that time, this one had a distinct architectural characteristic signature by Saarinen; the use of catenary arches. The hockey arena had a cantilever roof which was supported by a reinforced concrete arch that was 90m in height.
Isokon Building, Wells Coates, London, United Kingdom, 1934
This is a residential building which is in use up-to-date. It has 32 apartments; 24 of them are studio apartments while 8 are one bedroom apartments. The Isokon building also has staff quarters and a huge garage.
The building was refurbished by Avanti Architects in 2003. After refurbishment, the building got a communal gallery in the garage which was used to sell the history of this building. This block was listed as a ‘Grade I-building’ and is among the major architectural landmarks in Britain.
Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright, situated in New York, USA- 1959
In the design of this building, Frank Lloyd marketed the idea of ‘organic architecture’, a concept which envisioned humanity being intimately related to the environment.
This museum was spirally designed and holds many key galleries and art collections. It is designed to take you on a never-ending journey dissolving all obstacles between its spaces. The geometric shapes that dominated modern architecture were described by Frank as geometric forms that suggested human ideas, sentiments, and moods. The circle showed infinity, triangle-unity, square-integrity, and spiral- organic progress. He saw this building as a ‘temple of the spirit.’
The Cité Radieuse by Le Corbusier located in Marseille, France- 1952
This project was minimal in design and it was among the most important works of Le Corbusier. He was inspired by the Bauhaus movement which made him use yellow, red and blue as his pallet of colors. The housing project had 337 flats (of 27 different types), a pool and a playground.
This building was made of rough-cast concrete, Le Corbusier intended to include steel frames, but unfortunately, World war II made this material hard to find.
Since 2016, the large structure has been used as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Barcelona Pavilion by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe- Barcelona, Spain, 1929)
This building was originally known as the German Pavilion. It was constructed in 1929 to be used for hosting German exhibitions. The building’s design was influenced by the Bauhaus movement and it featured cantilever roofs and transparent walls.
Villa Dirickz by Marcel Leborgne located in Brussels, Belgium- 1933
This building features attractive blocky features, white concrete and glass works surrounded by greenery. The villa also features lavish interiors and facilities like wine cellars and a cinema. Dirickz had a huge interest in art and he tailored this building artistically. However, the building was neglected for quite a while until Alexander Cambron purchased and renovated it in 2007.
Neue National Galerie by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, situated in Berlin, Germany- 1968
This museum is dedicated to modern art and it dates back to the early 20th century. It also includes a great amount of glass, flat exteriors, and a cantilever roof. The landscape around it is well sculptured and it was inspired by Mies Van der Rohe. It was closed in 2015 for renovations.
10 iconic modern architects
Gehry was born on 28th February 1929. He set the precedence in contemporary architecture through his style of deconstructive forms. He manipulated surfaces and forms making notable feats that made unique use of materials that nearly defy logic in how they fit together. He was labeled as “the most important architect of our age” by Vanity Fair. His famous projects include The Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao among others.
Frank Lloyd Wright:
Frank Lloyd Wright was born on 8th June 1867 in America. He learned under Louis Sullivan, an architectural legend. Frank is remembered for his organic influence and building style of the prairie. His natural and organic forms became one with nature. Even after over 150 years, his style is still considered the best design and building concept. The Guggenheim Museum in New York City and Arizona State University are among his famous projects.
Leoh Ming Pei:
He was born on 26th April 1917 in China but studied architecture in the US. He became famous worldwide for his unique architecture that incorporated Chinese influence with geometric forms in his work. Some of his famous projects include The National Gallery of Art in Washington and John F. Kennedy Presidential Library among others.
Zaha Hadid :
Zaha was born in Iraq on 31st October 1950. She created forms defined by the unconventional, futuristic, artistic and daring. She became the first female architect to win the Pritzker Architecture and later also won the iconic Nobel peace prize of architecture. Her famous projects include Opera House in Guangzhou and MAXXI-The National Museum of the 21st Century Arts the Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza among others.
Philip was born on 8th July 1906 in America. He was the founder of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Modern Art Museum of New York City. His minimalist style of amazing use of steel, glass and later crystal became renowned worldwide. His famous projects include The Seagram Building in New York City and The Crystal Cathedral in California among others.
Tom was born on 18th September 1957 in Britain. He is recognized worldwide for being the architect behind the Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe:
Ludwig was born on 27th March 1886 in Germany. He became famous for his “less is more” and minimalist architectural approach. He was also noted for using structural steel and plate glass for the division of interior spaces. His famous projects include New National Gallery in Berlin and Barcelona Pavilion in Barcelona among others.
Renzo was born in Italy on 14th September 1937. He worked with Louis Kahn, a renowned architect, in his younger years. He became famous for his outstanding applications of details and materials which shaped modern architecture. In 2008 Renzo was named one of top 100 most influential people by Time magazine. His famous projects include Shard in London, England and The New York Times building in New York among others.
Jean was born in France on 12th August 1945. He has won many prestigious honors and awards including The 2008 Pritzker Prize. His famous projects include the Arab World Institute in Paris and Dentsu Building in Tokyo among others.
Safdie was born on 14th July 1938. He is also a Louis Khan apprentice. He became famous for his Expo 67, The 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Canada. For the Universal Exposition in Canada, he was awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. His famous projects include Habitat 67 in Montreal and The National Gallery of Canada among others.