Your Comprehensive Guide to Modern Architecture & Design
— 20 April 2023
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— 20 April 2023
Modern architecture, known for taking on a functional and contemporary approach to architectural design, is a popular style that can be found in buildings all around the world. Read on to learn more about the origins of modern architecture, as well as its key characteristics and real world examples.
Rejecting ornament and embracing minimalism, modernism became the single most important new style or philosophy of architecture and design of the 20th century. The term “modern architecture” describes architecture designed and built within the social, artistic, and cultural attitude known as modernism. It focuses on experimentation, the rejection of predetermined rules and freedom of expression in art, literature, architecture, and music. The Modern Movement in architecture was born in the 20th century, predominantly taking off after World War I. Advancements in engineering, building materials, social equality, health, and industry skyrocketed, while past historical styles were rejected. This created a setting that allowed architecture to enter a new era of design.
Modernist architecture has come a long way since its early origins. There are many early sources for modernism’s ideology. The English artist and writer William Morris, who has often been cited as inspiring the Arts and Crafts movement, advocated that utility was as important as aesthetics, and that well-made handcrafted products were preferable to production line, machine-made ones. We can see this sentiment reflected in the field of modernism. These are the most notable aspects of its fascinating history:
At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, American architect Louis Sullivan unveiled the first skyscrapers. These imposing buildings were constructed with a steel frame that supported many large glass windows, paving the way for modern office buildings and high-rises. Sullivan described his design philosophy as "form follows function," a phrase that would become the unofficial motto of the modern movement. A young Frank Lloyd Wright attended the fair and discovered many styles that would inspire his own career, including Japanese architecture.
In 1919, Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus School in Weimar, Germany, which was the first of its kind to teach modern design theories and principles. Gropius, who studied under the leading German architect at the time, Peter Behrens, designed the entire campus in the modernist style. The school's leaders included architects Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who were also proponents of the modernist style.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, a new modern style was born called Streamline Moderne. With buildings modelled after the shape of ocean liners and inspired by aerodynamic principles, this style featured curved corners, steel railings, and nautical elements.
Modern Architecture: International Exhibition took place in 1932 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the exhibition solidified modernist architecture as a distinct movement and reinforced International Modernism and the International Style as direct complements.
By the end of World War II, young architects had begun to criticise the stark nature of minimalism, and by the 1960s, minimalist sensibilities began to give way to a rebirth of ornamentation. Still, modernism’s legacy continues to live on in iconic buildings and as an inspiration for contemporary architecture.
While modern architecture can vary in styles and design, there are some characteristics that you are likely to encounter frequently:
Modern building materials such as steel, iron, concrete block, and glass make contemporary designs possible. While before the turn of the 20th century building materials were restricted to simple items like brick, stone, and wood, scientific innovations led to the creation of brand-new materials that meant architects could experiment in a different way.
Functionality is a central component of modern architecture. First used by Louis Sullivan in one of his articles known as “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”, this term suggests that the functionality of the building should be a deriving factor throughout the design and creation process.
The idea that a home or even a commercial building should be designed to be comfortable was largely introduced by Modernism. We have Modernism to thank for elements like a connection to the outdoors, spacious rooms, and lots of light. As 20th-century scientists learned more about disease, hygiene, nutrition, and other fundamentals of health, architects adopted design elements that complemented these findings. Contrast that with pre-Modern buildings, which tended to have small windows, lots of rooms and walls, and an emphasis on keeping weather and nature out.
Modern design is characterised by clean lines with minimal orientation and sleek, consistent surfaces.
Floor-to-ceiling windows are designed to flood modernist buildings with natural light. So-called "curtain walls" are a common feature of modernist buildings as well. These non-structural, exterior walls allow the entire facade of a building to be made of glass.
Low, horizontal roofs and broad overhangs are a prominent feature of many mid-century modern homes.
Modernist buildings rarely include structures that aren't deemed essential to the functionality of the building. Since modern architecture focuses on form over function, architects sought to include large, spacious floor plans with dining and living spaces that flowed into one another. The results are large, open living spaces.
Modern architects played around with large, smooth shapes and asymmetrical compositions that were cleanly planed and lacked any additional decoration.
Modern homes were revolutionary in the sense that they embraced the concept of free-flowing space. The ideology also rejected clutter and excess belongings. However, as the design period went on, many architects and consumers challenged this strict notion of space and lack of stuff as cold and impersonal. This evolution brought on more contemporary designs that worked to incorporate ornamentation and colour. In contemporary homes, you can have an open concept floor plan but also have an element of privacy.
Modern architecture can be found all over the world. Here’s just a few of the most notable examples:
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939, this impressive home in Pennsylvania is made from concrete slabs hovering above a natural waterfall.
Built by architect Philip Johnson in Garden Grove, California, this skyscraper was considered the largest glass building in the world when construction was completed in 1981.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe completed the Seagram Building, a 38-story skyscraper, in 1958. It remains a famous fixture of the New York City skyline.
Finnish architect Eero Saarinen immigrated to the United States in 1923 and built one of the most iconic modernist structures on American soil—the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, Missouri. The 630-foot stainless steel monument was completed in 1965 and remains the world’s tallest arch to this day.
Designed by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, this villa built on the outskirts of Paris, France, features reinforced concrete and an entirely white exterior. Built between 1928 and 1931, it remains a modernist icon.
Built by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the Sydney Opera House is one of the most distinctive buildings of the modernist movement. Completed in 1973, the opera house features a modern expressionist design and sail-shaped roof.
Here at Spatial Design Architects, we’re a Multi-Award-Winning RIBA chartered practice based in Essex in the east of England. Specialising in bespoke, contemporary designs for residential family homes, apartments, mix use projects and commercial developments for 20 years. Underlining our core values is a pride in professionalism, experience, and a detail-driven design process - be it through environmentally conscious, sustainable, and innovative contemporary architecture. We have the tools to make your visions come to life, so don’t hesitate to contact us today and find out how we can help you.