Modern Architecture: Quick History, Variations, and Characteristics


Modern architecture, or modernist architecture, otherwise known as modernism, is a style dating back to the 1900s. It was a reaction to the large-scale advancement of construction technology. The main idea is to emphasize function and forego ornament and decoration with rational use of materials, particularly glass, steel, and reinforced concrete. A style that embraces minimalism, modern architecture has left a significant mark in the architectural scene.

A Respond to Preceding Styles

Around the end of the 19th century, few architects began to challenge the more traditional styles of Beaux-Art and Neo-classicism that were dominating Europe and the USA. One of those was the legendary American architect, namely Frank Lloyd Wright. He resolutely refused to be associated with any specific architectural movement, so he invented his own unique style.

Having no formal academic background in architecture, he started working in the Chicago office of his mentor Louis Sullivan, who was considered “father of modernism” and “father of skyscrapers” as he was the first to popularize the “form follows function” tenet in 1896 as well as the first to construct steel frame high-rise buildings in Chicago. Both, along with Henry Hobson Richardson—prominently known for his revival style, “Richardsonian Romanesque”—were later deemed as “the recognized trinity of American architecture”.

Sullivan Center (then Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building) by Louis Sullivan (1904-1906) | Source:

Wright, who was previously famous for his Prairie houses, set out to break free from all traditional precepts including his earlier signature style, so he worked on houses adorned with textured blocks of cement, which later named “Mayan style” after the ancient civilization’s pyramids architecture. For this reason, he was recognized as the prominent figure of modern architecture, because even though steel-framed skyscrapers had begun to appear in the USA since the end of 19th century, these building façades were still highly decorated in Neo-Gothic, Neo-Renaissance, and Beaux-Art architecture style. For some time until 1922, he experimented with mass-produced modular housing. He then identified this architecture as “Usonian”, which is an amalgamation of “USA”, “utopian”, and “organic social order”.

Halt in the USA

In 1929, the Great Depression era started to occur, gravely affecting Wright’s business. Fewer wealthy clients wanted to experiment with his Usonian style. From 1928 until 1935, he built just two buildings: a hotel near Chandler, Arizona, and perhaps his best all-time work, Fallingwater, a weekend home in Pennsylvania that he designed for couple Liliane and Edgar J. Kaufman. It is an awe-inspiring structure incorporating concrete slabs suspended over a scenic waterfall; a picturesque fusion between nature and architecture.

Wright's Fallingwater (1928-34) | Source:

While Fallingwater is one of the most notable modern architecture by American architect, the first modern style house in the USA would be the Schindler house of Austrian architect Rudolph Schindler, which he built in 1922. He also contributed to American modernism with his work, Lovell Beach House, in Newport Beach. Another Austrian architect Richard Neutra, who moved to the USA in 1923, designed Lovell Health House in LA for the same client, becoming a significant force in American modernist architecture.

Schindler house | Source:

Modernism in Europe

In Europe, modern architecture was pioneered by the early modernist architects, led by Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Germany, Le Corbusier and Robert Mallet-Stevens in France, and Konstantin Melnikov in the Soviet Union. They aim to emphasize forms and eliminate any kind of decoration. In the 1890s, Victor Horta and Hector Guimard started the Art Nouveau movement in Belgium and France respectively, introducing new styles of decoration that was based on vegetal and floral form. The style flourished for a while until it was replaced with Art Deco began to rise after World War I, where stylized decoration and modernist forms complement each other.

Just like Wright, European architects experimented on materials and techniques that would give them the flexibility to create new forms. Auguste Perret and Henry Sauvage were the firsts to use reinforced concrete for apartment buildings back in 1903-1904. Previously used only for industrial structures, reinforced concrete offers the adaptability to create large spaces sans the need of supporting columns, becoming an efficient replacement for bricks and stones as the primary material for modern architecture.

In the following year, Perret alone designed the first concrete garage on 51 Rue de Ponthieu, Paris, where the concrete was left bare, embracing honest use of materials. He also was the man behind the masterpiece of reinforced concrete construction that is Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (1911-13). With the use of concrete, no pillar blocked the view to the stage, maximizing the spectators’ experience inside.

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées interior | Source:

Modernist Architecture Characteristics

It’s quite easy to tell modern architecture apart from traditional architectural styles. Simple and straightforward, modern architecture features clean lines without any ornament; embracing less is more value deeply. It emphasizes on horizontal massing with broad roof overhangs and aclinic planes. Glasses are used generously to let in as much natural light to the open-plan interiors.

Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer's Fagus Factory in Alfeld | Source:

For the materials, modern architecture incorporates modern systems such as steel frames, exposed concrete blocks, curtain walls, ribbon windows, and column-free interiors. That being said, natural materials are no stranger to modernist architecture. Wood, stone, and brick are sometimes featured, albeit in simplified ways.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Chicago | Source:

Modern architecture didn’t take structural innovation lightly. Asymmetrical compositions and geometric forms are equivalent to the style, defining the functional design of the architecture. This is especially due to the form follows function principle of modernism.

Wright's Solomon Guggenheim Museum (1946-59) | Source:

Evolution of Modern Architecture

Since its birth, modernist architecture evolved into different variations across the globe. In Germany, modernism was synonymous with the Bauhaus, founded by Walter Gropius in 1919. Nearing World War II, many notable Bauhaus architects migrated to the USA, introducing the style, which later rebranded as the International style. It developed further in the country until it was replaced by Postmodernism, led by Louis Kahn and Eero Saarinen.

In Britain, subtle hints of modernism emerged in the early 20th century against the strong influence of classicism. One of the first modern buildings in Britain was that of Peter Behren, finished in 1925, in the years where Art Deco was on its way to becoming popular. After World War II, modernism in Britain further evolved into what was known as New Brutalism, inspired by Le Corbusier’s works.

Royal National Theatre by Denys Lasdun | Source:

Dutch architects embraced modernism in the form of De Stijl (The Style), featuring strong geometric lines and the articulations of functional elements. In Italy, the early 20th century was the time where the fascist dominated the government, constraining Italian architects’ quest for modern language and identity. Nevertheless, the Futurist style was finally conceived, using streamlined forms with visions of dynamism, speed, and urgency.

Pirelli Tower (1958-60) by Gio Ponti and Pier Luigi Nervi | Source:

Slow emergence of modernism also occurred in Nordic countries. From the mainstream Nordic Classicism, it evolved into Functionalism. Interestingly, modernism in Nordic went beyond aesthetics. It influenced town planning, building regulations, public building programmes, and social movements.

Auditorium of the University of Technology, Helsinki by Alvar Aalto (1964) | Source:
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