Modern architecture has become synonymous with sleek lines, metal structures, extensive glazing, flat roofs, black and white finishes, asymmetry and the complete abandonment of ornamentation: characteristics that are sure to tickle the fancy of any aesthetic purist. In the famous and oft-repeated words of one of the movement’s masters, Mies van der Rohe, “form follows function.” This utilitarian approach hardly renders the buildings unattractive, though – in fact, quite the opposite.
Modern architecture as an umbrella term encompasses a number of architectural movements, particularly International Style and Bauhaus. The movement emerged early in the 20th century and many of the key names associated with it came to prominence in the 1920s. However, it wasn’t until after World War II that the movement gained mass popularity worldwide.
As a movement, it was unapologetically anti-historical and inherently political; centered around the belief that a new, improved form of architecture could give rise to a better world. This well-meaning agenda is often criticized for its misguided belief in the agency of architecture and architecture alone to affect change.
Modern architecture’s strong top-down approach coupled with an anti-contextual stance – that is, staying true to aesthetic and functional principles when placing a building in any context – didn’t always produce results matching that intent. A case in point is the large number of Modern social housing projects later demolished in the 1970s.
However, the movement was far from a failure. Modern architecture forged an entirely new “machine aesthetic” that reflected a burgeoning industrialized, mass-produced society and, again, the movement produced no shortage of beautiful buildings.
To demonstrate the tell-tale qualities of Modern architecture, we’ve rounded up 10 key examples. The next time you find yourself in a conversation about Mies, Corb or Khan, you’ll hopefully have the following buildings stored away in your mind’s eye:
The Farnsworth House, Illinois, USA, 1945
If there is a poster child for the modern architecture movement, Mies van der Rohe is surely in the running, and The Farnsworth House is one of his most iconic works.
The house is an example of the International Style, which was first defined in America. It focused on the aesthetic and functional aspects of a building rather than the social or political aspects more closely associated with the European Modern architecture movement.
Streamlined and dramatically juxtaposed against the organic landscape, the home appears almost weightless. It’s also entirely transparent. While the house’s livability and functionality have been called into question, rarely has its sexiness received any criticism. Who needs privacy when you have a handsome glass box constructed from “almost nothing” anyway?!
The Glass House, Connecticut, USA, 1949
Once again, we have an open-plan, glass, and steel structure in The Glass House. Designed by Philip Johnson, this building is The Farnsworth House’s younger brother. The open-floor plan is a key trait of modern architecture, and here it’s enclosed by floor-to-ceiling sheets of glass, fixed between black steel structural members.
Where on earth do you put a bathroom in a completely transparent box, though? Well, that’s where the brick cylindrical volume comes in. Modern architecture is often thought of as being all about the rectilinear, but the movement had a penchant for the perfect circle, too.
The Stahl House, Los Angeles, USA, 1959
The even younger Stahl House’s notoriety is largely thanks to this iconic photo by Julius Shulman. No famous residents, a little-known architect – but a very famous photo.
Perched atop the Hollywood Hills, the Pierre Koenig-designed home dramatically cantilevers past the cliff edge, and the enormous panes of glass offer spectacular views. In fact, it was the largest pane of glass commercially available at the time. The Modern architecture movement helped to foster technological advances like these in order to improve people’s lives.
Eames House, Los Angeles, USA, 1949
The Eames House, designed by the husband and wife duo Charles and Ray Eames, is – to use an iconic phrase of Mies – “skin and bones.” If differs from the homes mentioned above in that its “skin” is not comprised exclusively of glass. Instead, a Mondrian-like composition of various materials and colors allows for shifting light conditions.
From the shell to the now-famous furniture, the architects applied their design genius to every component of the house (to use another Mies phrase, “God is in the detail.”) It’s hard to believe that this home was designed 70-odd years ago – no wonder the furniture is still so highly sought-after.
The Seagram Building, New York, USA, 1958
Back to Mies. The movement wasn’t all about houses – there are skyscrapers, too. While this was Mies’ first attempt at a high-rise office building, it set the standard for Modern skyscrapers to come. As far as overtly-phallic structures go, this 38-story building in the New York skyline is surprisingly tasteful and elegant.
Challenging the economic conventions of New York City skyscraper developments, Mies set the building back 100 feet from the site’s boundary to create an active public space out front. Granite plaza below and ascending levels of bronze and grey topaz glass above, it epitomizes the movement’s use of Modern materials.
Bauhaus Dessau, Dessau, Germany, 1926
Before Mies arrived in America, he was an influential member of the Bauhaus school in Germany, serving as its last director. The Bauhaus movement sanctioned a shift from neoclassical designs toward an experiment with the avant-garde, pioneering a modern style that united traditional craft with industrial technology.
The Bauhaus Dessau building above was designed by a peer of Mies, Walter Gropius; the first director of the Bauhaus. The interior is furnished with pieces from the Bauhaus designers: here we see the famous and oft-reproduced Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer.
Villa Savoye, Poissy, France, 1929
Around the same time as the Bauhaus school was gaining influence in Germany, one of the Modern architecture movement’s most famous architects was born just outside of Paris: Le Corbusier, or simply Corb.
Le Corbusier’s statement that “the house is a machine for living” demonstrates his affinity for the technological advancements of the industrial era, and this is evident in the unconventional raising of the home above the ground to give priority to the car. In fact, the curved glass shape at the home’s base is designed to correspond to the turning radius of automobiles.
Le Corbusier established the “five points” of architecture deemed critical to any design: slender pillars, flat roof terrace, open plan, ribbon windows and a free facade; all of which can be seen in Villa Savoye.
Villa E-1027, The French Riviera, France 1926
Eileen Gray is a female Modern architect whose crowning work – her villa on the French Riviera – is unfortunately shrouded by the infamous behavior of a man – and not just any man: Corb himself.
Gray began her career as a furniture designer and the Vila E-1027 – commissioned by her lover, architect Jean Badovici – was her first foray into the architecture profession; an incursion which many have said riled Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier was a friend of Bardovci and often visited the home after Bardovci and Gray split. During one such visit, he painted a mural on one of the white walls whilst naked (apparently an all-too-common Corbian activity).
Architecture critic Rowan Moore described it as “an act of naked phallocracy,” in which he, “seemingly affronted that a woman could create such a fine work of Modernism, [asserted] his dominion like a urinating dog over the territory.”
While Corbusier was occupied with “machines for living,” Gray’s concern was creating “a dwelling as a living organism” which would serve the intimacy of inner life. She sought to counter what she viewed as the poverty of modern architecture with sensual spaces that responded to human movement.
Ronchamp Chapel, Ronchamp, France, 1954
Ahhhh, Ronchamp. All of his questionable behavior aside, Corb did create some delightful buildings. The chapel marks a crucial move away from the strictly rational and functional forms of Modern architecture, including those evident in many of Le Corbusier’s earlier works.
The curved masonry walls hold a dramatic, curved concrete roof in place, while a small gap allows a tiny slither of light to penetrate the interior. The weighty mass of the raw concrete contrasts with the light, glassy examples mentioned above, and this new face of Modern architecture would eventually give rise to Brutalism (which you can read more about below).
National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1982
Who better to finish with than Louis Khan, the architect whose buildings were transcendently monumental, even beyond the Modern architecture movement. Khan’s work contrasts with the light and transparent structures designed by many of his Modernist counterparts, and this building, like most of his structures, has a weightiness reminiscent of ancient monuments.
The use of solid and heavy materials – concrete, concrete, and usually more concrete – allowed him to manipulate light and shadow in magical ways. “In The Assembly, I have introduced a light-giving element to the interior of the plan,” Khan explained. “If you see a series of columns, you can say that the choice of columns is a choice in light.”
You could search far and wide for an architect who manipulates immaterial qualities as masterfully as Khan, but you’d likely come up short.
Now that you’re done with Modern architecture, here’s everything you need to know about Brutalism in 10 buildings.