4.92: Modern Architecture

Modern Architecture

Modern architecture is a term applied to an overarching movement, with various definitions and scopes. In a broad sense, early modern architecture began at the turn of the 20th century with efforts to reconcile the principles underlying architectural design with rapid technological advancement and the modernization of society. It would take the form of numerous movements, schools of design, and architectural styles, some in tension with one another, and often equally defying such classification.

Chicago Modernism: Contrasts in modern architecture, as shown by adjacent high-rises in Chicago, Illinois. IBM Plaza (right), by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is a later example of the clean rectilinear lines and glass of the international style, whereas Marina City (left), by his student Bertrand Goldberg, reflects a more sculptural mid-century modern aesthetic.

The concept of modernism would be a central theme in these efforts. Gaining popularity after World War II, architectural modernism was adopted by many influential architects and architectural educators and continues as a dominant architectural style for institutional and corporate buildings into the 21st century. Modernism eventually generated reactions, most notably postmodernism, which sought to preserve premodern elements, while neomodernism emerged as a reaction to postmodernism.

Notable architects important to the history and development of the modernist movement include Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and Alvar Aalto.

Early Modernism

Drawing of the Crystal Palace with people on horses outside.

The Crystal Palace, 1851, was one of the first buildings to have vast amounts of glass supported by structural metal, foreshadowing trends in modernist architecture.

There are multiple lenses through which the evolution of modern architecture may be viewed. Some historians see it as a social matter, closely tied to the project of modernity and thus the Enlightenment. Modern architecture developed, in their opinion, as a result of social and political revolutions. Others see Modern architecture as primarily driven by technological and engineering developments. Still other historians regard Modernism as a matter of taste, a reaction against eclecticism and the lavish stylistic excesses of Victorian and Edwardian architecture.

Modern European Architecture

Expressionist architecture was an architectural movement that developed in Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century in parallel with the expressionist visual and performing arts. The term Expressionist architecture initially described the activity of the German, Dutch, Austrian, Czech, and Danish avant-garde from 1910 until 1930.

Subsequent redefinitions extended the term backwards to 1905 and also widened it to encompass the rest of Europe. Today the meaning has broadened even further to refer to architecture of any date or location that exhibits some of the qualities of the original movement such as: distortion, fragmentation, or the communication of violent or overstressed emotion.


The style was characterized by an early modernist adoption of novel materials, formal innovation, and very unusual massing—sometimes inspired by natural biomorphic forms and sometimes by the new technical possibilities offered by the mass production of brick, steel, and glass.

Many expressionist architects fought in World War I and their experiences, combined with the political turmoil and social upheaval that followed the German Revolution of 1919, resulted in a Utopian outlook and a romantic socialist agenda. Hence, ephemeral exhibition buildings were numerous and highly significant during this period.

Likewise, scenography for theater and films provided another outlet for the expressionist imagination, and provided supplemental incomes for designers attempting to challenge conventions in a harsh economic climate.

Features of Expressionist Architecture

Expressionist architecture was individualistic and in many ways eschewed aesthetic dogma. While the movement was very broad, some points can be found as recurring in works of Expressionist architecture, and are evident in some degree in each of its works.

  • A distortion of form for an emotional effect.
  • The subordination of realism to symbolic or stylistic expression of inner experience.
  • An underlying effort at achieving the new, original, and visionary.
  • A profusion of works on paper, and models, with discovery and representations of concepts being more important than pragmatic finished products.
  • Often hybrid solutions, irreducible to a single concept.
  • Themes of natural romantic phenomena, such as caves, mountains, lightning, crystal and rock formations.
  • Utilizes the creative potential of artisan craftsmanship.
  • A tendency towards the gothic than the classical.
  • Draws as much from Moorish, Islamic, Egyptian, and Indian art and architecture as from Roman or Greek.
  • Conceives architecture as a work of art.

Form also played a defining role in setting apart expressionist architecture from its immediate predecessor, art nouveau, or Jugendstil. While art nouveau had an organic freedom with ornament, expressionist architecture strove to free the form of the whole building instead of just its parts.

An example of a built expressionist project that is formally inventive is Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower. This sculpted building shows a relativistic and shifting view of geometry: devoid of applied ornament, form and space are shaped in fluid concrete to express concepts of the architect and the building’s namesake.

Image of the tower from outside. It is a white tower with an observatory at the top.

The Einstein Tower: In Mendelsohn’s design, form and space are shaped in fluid concrete and devoid of applied ornament.

Expressionist architecture utilized curved geometries and a recurring form in the movement is the dome. Another expressionist motif was the emphasis on either horizontality or verticality for dramatic effect, which was influenced by new technologies like cruise liners and skyscrapers.

A drawing of the steel and glass skyscraper.

Skyscraper Project: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper Project, Berlin-Mitte, Germany, 1921.

Modernist American Architecture

Wright’s Larkin Building (1904) in Buffalo, New York, Unity Temple (1905) in Oak Park, Illinois, and the Robie House (1910) in Chicago, Illinois were some of the first examples of modern architecture in the United States. Frank Lloyd Wright was a major influence on European architects, including both Walter Gropius (founder of the Bauhaus) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, as well as on the whole of organic architecture.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (March 27, 1886 – August 17, 1969) was a German-American architect. Along with Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Frank Lloyd Wright, he is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of modern architecture.

Chicago Federal Center, built 1964–1974

Mies, like many of his post-World War I contemporaries, sought to establish a new architectural style that could represent modern times just as classical and gothic did for their eras. He created an influential 20th-century architectural style with extreme clarity and simplicity. His mature buildings made use of modern materials such as industrial steel and plate glass to define interior spaces. He strove toward architecture with a minimal framework of structural order balanced against the implied freedom of unobstructed free-flowing open space. He called his buildings “skin and bones” architecture. He sought an objective approach that would guide the creative process of architectural design, but he was always concerned with expressing the spirit of the modern era. He is often associated with his quotation of the aphorisms “less is more” and “God is in the details”.

Frank Gehry

Frank Owen Gehry (born Frank Owen Goldberg; 28 February 1929) is a Canadian-born American architect residing in Los Angeles. Gehry’s best-known works are world-renowned and include the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles; Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, France; MIT Ray and Maria Stata Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts; The Vontz Center for Molecular Studies on the University of Cincinnati campus; Experience Music Project in Seattle; New World Center in Miami Beach; Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis; Dancing House in Prague; the Vitra Design Museum and the museum MARTa Herford in Germany; the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto; the Cinémathèque française in Paris; and 8 Spruce Street in New York City.

Frank Gehry, Bilbao Guggenheim, 1997: The Bilbao Guggenheim exemplifies Gehry’s interest in structural experimentation and grand spaces.

Much of Gehry’s work reflects a spirit of experimentation coupled with a respect for the demands of professional practice. With his earliest educational influences rooted in modernism, Gehry’s work has sought to escape modernist stylistic tropes while still remaining interested in some of its underlying transformative agendas. Continually working between given circumstances and unanticipated materializations, Gehry’s style works to disrupt expectations.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright (born Frank Lincoln Wright, June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959) was an American architect, interior designer, writer, and educator, who designed more than 1,000 structures, 532 of which were completed. Wright believed in designing structures that were in harmony with humanity and its environment, a philosophy he called organic architecture. This philosophy was best exemplified by Fallingwater (1935), which has been called “the best all-time work of American architecture”. Wright was a leader of the Prairie School movement of architecture and developed the concept of the Usonian home, his unique vision for urban planning in the United States. His creative period spanned more than 70 years.

Image of the exterior of Fallingwater, a simple building with several layers built into a thick forest. A waterfall runs underneath and into the foreground of the photo.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater, 1936-39: Fallingwater stands as one of Wright’s greatest masterpieces, both for its dynamism and for its integration with the striking natural surroundings. It serves as a perfect example of his “organic” philosophy, whereby structures were designed in harmony with humanity and its environment.

Wright’s work includes original and innovative examples of many building types, including offices, churches, schools, skyscrapers, hotels, and museums. Wright also designed many of the interior elements of his buildings, such as the furniture and stained glass. Wright wrote 20 books and many articles and was a popular lecturer in the United States and in Europe. His colorful personal life often made headlines, most notably for the 1914 fire and murders at his Taliesin studio. Already well known during his lifetime, Wright was recognized in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time”.

Two Modern Architectural Styles

Modern American architecture is usually divided into the two styles of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. Art Deco, which emerged in the 1920s and flourished in the 1930s to 1940s, is an eclectic style that combines traditional craft motifs with Machine Age imagery and materials.

Streamline Moderne, also known as Art Moderne, was a late type of the Art Deco design style that emerged during the 1930s. Its architectural style emphasized curving forms, long, horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements.

Art Deco

The Art Deco style is often characterized by its use of rich colors, symmetry, bold geometric shapes, simple composition, rectilinear rather than curvilinear shapes, and lavish ornamentation. Emerging during the Interwar period when rapid industrialization was transforming culture, one of the major attributes of Art Deco was its embrace of technology.

During its heyday, Art Deco represented luxury, glamor, exuberance, and faith in social and technological progress. The urban United States has many examples of Art Deco architecture, especially in New York, Chicago, and Detroit. The famous skyscrapers in these cities are the best known, but notable Art Deco buildings can be found in other neighborhoods.

This photo shows the Eastern Columbia Building entrance, in Los Angeles, built in 1930. The sunburst design executed in terra cotta exemplifies Art Deco's characteristic combination of craft, ornament, and geometrical motif.

Eastern Columbia Building entrance, Los Angeles, 1930: The sunburst design executed in terra cotta exemplifies Art Deco’s characteristic combination of craft, ornament, and geometrical motif.

The spire is composed of seven radiating terraced arches, mounted up one behind another. The cladding is ribbed and riveted in a radiating sunburst pattern with many triangular vaulted windows.

Spire of the Chrysler Building, New York: The opulent Art Deco spire of the Chrysler Building in New York City, designed by William Van Alen, was built 1928–1930 and reflects the earlier lavish ornamentation, yet simple and streamlined composition of the style.

Streamline Moderne

As the Great Depression decade of the 1930s progressed, Americans saw a new decorative element of the Art Deco style emerge in the marketplace: streamlining. Streamline Moderne was a concept first created by industrial designers, who stripped Art Deco design of its ornament in favor of the aerodynamic pure-line concept of motion and speed developed from scientific thinking.

This aesthetic was embodied through the use of cylindrical forms and long, horizontal windowing. An array of designers quickly ultra-modernized and streamlined the designs of everyday objects, such as toasters.

Streamline Moderne was both a reaction to Art Deco and a reflection of austere economic times. Gone was unnecessary ornament. Sharp angles were replaced with simple, aerodynamic curves. Exotic woods and stone were replaced with cement and glass.

Some common characteristics of Streamline Moderne include horizontal orientation, rounded edges, corner windows, glass blocks, porthole windows, chrome hardware, smooth exterior wall surfaces (usually stucco), horizontal wall grooves, and subdued colors.

This photo shows the Hecht Company Warehouse.

Hecht Company Warehouse: The Hecht Company Warehouse (Washington, D.C.) is a Streamline Moderne style building. The building uses glass block extensively, culminating in a twelve-pointed star-shaped cupola at the corner, which is illuminated at night. Black brick interspersed with glass block spells out The Hecht Co. at the fifth floor.

Photo shows the Palladium from outside. Its name is on a huge vertical sign in the center, and film showings are advertised.

Hollywood Palladium: The Hollywood Palladium (in Hollywood, CA) was a dance hall built in the 1940s in the Streamline Moderne style. This picture depicts the Palladium in 2005, prior to its 2008 renovation.

However, Art Deco and Streamline Moderne were not necessarily opposites. Streamline Moderne buildings with a few Deco elements were not uncommon, and sometimes there is so much crossover that it can be difficult to differentiate between the two styles.