What Is Actually Considered Modern Architecture?

Let’s clear up the confusion about this prevalent 20th-century design style.

By Savannah Sher | Published Mar 30, 2022 10:26 AM

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There’s understandably some confusion about what constitutes modern architecture. While some may identify any contemporary-style building as “modern,” not every modern-looking building actually qualifies as modern architecture. In fact, the term is used to refer to a specific style that became popular around the turn of the 20th century in response to industrialization and modernization.

Modern architecture was part of the greater Modernism movement and involved breaking all of the existing rules about how to construct residential and public buildings. Whereas architecture prior to this point had been about creating something beautiful, modern architecture was more focused on making something functional.

Let’s explore the definition of modern architecture, outline the history of the style, and look at some of the most prominent examples from the 20th century.

The History of Modern Architecture

While it’s difficult to identify exactly when the modern architecture movement began, it’s generally considered to have become prevalent following World War I. The rise of modern architecture was a response to the ornate and sometimes over-the-top styles of the Victorian Era, which featured lots of decorative ornamentation that didn’t necessarily serve a function. The term “modern” actually means “post-traditional,” and refers to this new style in opposition to the styles that had been in vogue for decades beforehand.

Modern architecture partially came to be as a result of changing demographics. With a large influx of people suddenly moving to urban areas, new infrastructure was needed to accommodate the deluge. It also reflects an innovative approach to construction. Prior to the 20th century, most buildings were made with stone, bricks, or wood. Modern architects, however, began experimenting with new materials like steel, concrete, and glass. Modern design went on to define 20th-century architecture.

What’s the difference between modern architecture and contemporary architecture?

The terms “modern” and “contemporary” tend to be used interchangeably when it comes to architecture. The two terms, however, don’t actually have the same meaning—not all modern-looking houses are examples of modern architecture. The term modern architecture refers to a specific era in design that took place between the 1920s and 1950s. Contemporary architecture, on the other hand, refers to buildings in design and construction now. Contemporary architecture is always evolving and looks different from year to year, often following popular styles.

In practice, the two styles have some similarities—in fact, contemporary architects have taken many design principles from modern architecture—but contemporary architecture is more experimental. It’s a dynamic style that changes constantly in response to the new materials and techniques that become available. It also emphasizes responding to current environmental concerns.

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The Pioneers of Modern Architecture

Here are some of the prominent figures who shaped modernist architecture:

  • Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959): One of the most well-known architects in the world, his buildings feature a mix of clean lines and organic forms. Wright’s designs focused on the interaction between nature and human creations.
  • Le Corbusier (1887–1965): The architect, city planner, and painter born in 1887 is one of the most influential architects of the 20th century. He created many buildings that changed the way we view modern architecture today. He founded the “International Style” in architecture with his purist approach to design and the use of modern materials such as steel and concrete.
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969): A German architect, he believed in “less is more.” This is evident in his designs with minimal ornamentation and open floor plans. He developed the “skin and bones” style that characterized modern architecture, using glass walls to create an airy feeling in his buildings.
  • Frank Gehry (1929–): Many followed in the footsteps of the original figures of modern architecture, including Frank Gehry, who has designed some of the most well-known public spaces in America and around the world.

Key Characteristics of Modern Architecture

There are several modern architecture styles, but it can almost always be identified by the following features:

  • Form over function: The most prominent feature of modernist architecture is the idea that form should follow function—that is, the design of a building should be determined by its intended purpose. For example, a schoolhouse should look different than a bank or office building.
  • Clean lines: Simplicity is a key tenet of modern style homes and buildings. This is easily identifiable by the style’s crisp, clean lines.
  • Open floor plans: Fewer supporting walls became needed due to innovations in engineering technology, so architects could create open floor plans.
  • Large windows: In the early 20th century, the ability to work with large panels of glass was still relatively novel. Architects used this new technology to create large windows, which provided an open and airy feel in their modern home designs.
  • Minimal ornamentation: Since functionality is the chief concern of modern architecture, superfluous ornamentation is omitted from most designs.
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5 Classic Examples of Modern Architecture

Architecture books often feature photos of modern style homes and commercial spaces to inspire and inform. The following examples of modern architecture have served as inspiration for architects and designers since they were created.

  1. The Fallingwater House was completed in 1935 after being designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. This modern style home is crafted to exist in perfect harmony with its natural surroundings.
  2. Glass House was designed by Philip Johnson and was built for the architect himself. Its exterior walls are made almost entirely from glass. Though it may look like many contemporary homes, it was completely novel when Johnson finished it in 2949.
  3. The Seagram Building, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson and completed in 1958, has 38 stories and stands 515 feet tall, making it one of the most prominent examples of a modernist skyscraper.
  4. The Guggenheim Museum is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. Its unique curved lines were conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright and serve as a striking example of modern architecture.
  5. Eames House was constructed in Los Angeles in 1949 and designed by Charles and Ray Eames. This modern building was influenced by Japanese architecture and today serves as a museum devoted to its creators.