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What Is Modern Architecture And Why Is It Popular?

Holly Shuffett7 minute read
August 19, 2022

Whether it be historic buildings or the way our home is laid out, architecture plays a valuable role documenting local history and cultural trends. Even furniture reflects the artistic philosophies of a given time period. 

But for non-experts, it can be hard to tell one architectural style from another. That’s why we’ll be exploring modern architecture, including its influences, offshoots and how you can incorporate this sleek style into your home. 

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Modern Architecture Defined

Modern architecture is a design style that focuses on functionality over aesthetics, or function over form. The modernist movement differs from its predecessors, like Victorian or Gothic designs, which valued ornamentation over function.

“A lot of modern architecture emphasizes using space efficiently,” says DesignGroup’s Adrian Koutras. “Even the materials associated with modernism are efficient. Steel, glass and concrete are relatively affordable and built to last.” 

Best known for sharp lines and clean geometric shapes, modern architecture is quite distinct from other popular types of home styles and is usually pretty eye-catching. Koutras pointed out how the materials and shape of modern structures are typically a stark visual contrast to the nature that surrounds them. 

It’s also important to note that while “contemporary” and “modern” are words frequently used interchangeably in our collective lexicon, when it comes to architecture, there are distinctions. 

Though they may have some overlap, contemporary architecture generally refers to design trends that are popular on the current market. Modern design is usually in reference to the popular style from the 1900s through the 1950s, which we’ll be exploring further. 

The History Of Modern Architecture

The Bauhaus School in Weimar Germany.

Image: Mewes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Modern architecture emerged in the late 1800 to mid-1900s, parallel to the Industrial Revolution, which allowed for the mass production of furniture and other construction materials. Large-scale technological advancements put new focus on functionality and the rational use of space and materials. 

The exact origins of the modern design movement are still debated, but several notable events influenced the style we know today: 

  • 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Also known as the 1893 Columbian Exposition, it was here that American architect Louis Sullivan showcased what we now know as skyscrapers. Sullivan’s use of steel frames and large glass windows paved the way for the high-rises we see today, and his “form follows function” philosophy has earned him the moniker “the father of modernism.”
  • 1919 Bauhaus School. Founded in Weimar, Germany, by Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus aimed to improve living conditions through the radical combination of different artistic mediums. Although the school faced numerous relocations and difficulties due to the political tensions of WWI and WWII, its influences and reputation as the School of Modernist Architecture left its mark on the architectural landscape. 
  • 1932 MoMA Exhibition. Curated by American architect Philip Johnson and architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock in 1932, the Museum of Modern Art’s Modern Architecture exhibit established what the stylistic movement was all about. The exhibit emphasized three key principles: volume over mass, regular and standardized elements, and the avoidance of ornamentation.  

Like the movements that came before it, modernism was met with both praise and criticism. It paved the way for Postmodern architecture in the 1970s, which was a response to minimalism. 

Popular Types Of Modern Architecture

Just like art, music or movies, architecture is greatly nuanced. Although modernism has its guiding philosophies, there are many different styles and approaches to its design. 

Expressionism And Neo-Expressionism 

Origin: 1920s – 1930s Germany 

Chilehaus in Hamburg Germany.

Image: SKopp Wikicommons

Expressionist architecture looks different from the style that we typically associate with modernism. Although Expressionism is an early form of modern architecture, their similarities are rooted primarily in building materials. Besides using lots of brick, steel and glass, the visual similarities between the two styles are striking. 

Expressionism emphasizes, well, expression – resulting in inventive structures and forms. The 10-story Chilehaus building in Hamburg, Germany, and the Einstein Tower located in Potsdam are some of the most famous examples of Expressionist architecture. 

Neo-Expressionism was a revival of the Expressionist attitude, placing emphasis on designs that explored feelings and individuality. Neo-Expressionism was most popular in the 1950s – 1960s and resulted in numerous eccentric structures. 

Constructivism 

Origin: 1920s – 1930s Russia

Shukov Tower in Moscow Russia.

Constructivist architecture ambitiously combined technology and utilitarianism. Many constructivist projects revolved around communal housing or serving the public, but the eccentric use of geometric forms or the plain lack of resources left many designs unrealized. 

“Constructivism is a complicated movement because it was artistic and unique, really pushing the arts and architecture,” says Koutras. “But a lot of the projects that got built from it were these gray apartment buildings. The really groundbreaking were mostly scrapped by the government in favor of a shift to postmodernism and eclectic historicism."

Steel cables and unique lines and shapes are hallmarks of constructivism. The Shukhov Radio Tower, the Monument to the Third International and the Cloud Iron skyscraper are just some of constructivism’s most prolific designs. 

Functionalism 

Origin: 1920s – 1930s United States

Villa Savoye modernist villa in Poissy on the outskirts of Paris.

Although the idea of practical buildings dates as far back as Ancient Greece, Louis Sullivan stating that “form follows function” is a good starting point for the Functionalist movement. Many Functionalist principles also come from Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who stated in his book Vers une architecture that “a house is a machine for living in.”

Sullivan’s Wainwright building and Le Corbusier’s Unitéd d’Habitation and Villa Savoye are other well-known structures that follow Functionalist principles. 

Midcentury  

Origin: 1930s – 1940s Germany and United States

Entrance to the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport.

Image: Utilizer Wikicommons

The origins of midcentury modern architecture can be traced back to the 1930s – 1940s, but this architectural style really hit its peak between the 1950s – 1960s. Like other modern styles, midcentury modern highlights clean lines and low-profile structures. What sets it apart, however, is its playfulness.

Midcentury modern still prioritizes function, especially when it comes to furniture, but the use of wood, metals and a bright color palette has aided in its timeless popularity. Burnt orange, pea green and blush pink are some of the classic colors associated with the midcentury modern style. 

Some well-known examples of midcentury modern architecture include Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Terminal. 

Minimalism 

Origin: Varies 

The Barcelona Pavilion - view from the pool in the evening.

Image: Ashley Pomeroy Wikicommons

Minimalism has been experiencing a recent revival with widespread appreciation for decluttering and simplicity. But minimalist home design has always been popular, with a varied origin that can be traced as far back as the Japanese Middle Ages. 

Minimalist ideology eliminates the need for excess and highlights pure geometric forms, plain materials and an overall neatness. This often looks like open spaces and pure geometric forms. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous Barcelona Pavilion perfectly captures the minimalist style. 

Desert Modern 

Origin: 1920s – 1930s Southwest United States

Modern white home with pool.

Desert Modernism emerged as a result of Westward Expansion and the post-WWII population boom. As people began migrating west and into warmer, drier climates, the demand for durable materials and outdoor spaces grew. 

Desert Modernism combines the sleek, open spaces of modernism, but incorporates more natural materials and textiles. The Coachella Valley is home to many desert modern style homes, notably Emerson Stewart Williams’ Sinatra House and Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House. 

Art Deco 

Origin: 1920s – 1930s Western Europe and United States

Top of the Empire State Building on a clear blue sky day.

Art Deco, also called style moderne, places an emphasis on craftsmanship and luxury. Like other modern styles, art deco relies on simple, clean shapes but may incorporate more opulent materials. Jade, chrome and silver are often associated with art deco, conveying wealth and sophistication. 

Influential art deco creators weren’t just limited to architects, either. While Saarinen is heralded as an art deco figurehead, other notable influences include jewelers, furniture designers, sculptors and those in fashion. 

The Chrysler Building by William Van Alen and the Empire State Building by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates are perhaps the most famous examples of Art Deco. 

Brutalist 

Origin: 1940s – 1970s United Kingdom

Boston City Hall.

As the name might indicate, Brutalism is an architectural movement that’s rough around the edges. Brutalist buildings are sparse, imposing and highly texturized with an undeniably industrial look. You may also find dramatic asymmetrical shapes and heavy materials. 

Brutalism was largely created out of necessity, as post-WWII led to material shortages, leaving many projects with crude, incomplete appearances. Due to its influence on many post-war structures or its generally garish appearance, Brutalism has become one of architecture’s most polarizing movements. 

But Brutalism saw popularity as recently as 2018, with Willo Perron’s design of Kanye West’s Yeezy Headquarters. Other notable Brutalist buildings include Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, and Michael McKinnell and Gerhard Kallmann’s Boston City Hall. 

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Common Characteristics Of Modern Architecture Homes

The distinct look of modern architecture comes from decades’ worth of history and influences. Here are some characteristics to look out for when identifying modern homes: 

  • Clean lines
  • Large windows
  • Ample natural light
  • Open floor plans
  • Overhanging roof
  • Asymmetrical layouts
  • Steel frames
  • Inorganic building materials (concrete, metal, glass) 

How To Incorporate Modern Home Architecture Into Your Living Spaces

Looking to modernize your home? Here are some low-effort ways you can incorporate modern architectural aspects into your everyday spaces: 

  • Minimize ornamental decor. Simplicity and neatness is key to the modernist lifestyle. Clear off your surfaces and try to reduce distracting clutter
  • Try knolling. Knolling is the practice of organizing your belongings in crisp, symmetrical lines or at 90-degree angles. This eye-catching system can help with a messy workspace or be framed for a unique focal point. 
  • Choose a neutral color scheme. Modern houses tend to use grayscale or earth-toned color palettes. For a modern look, keep this in mind when choosing paint colors for your interior and exterior walls. 
  • Play up contrasts. Contrasting colors, artwork or textiles is a great way to modernize your home. Try incorporating black and white elements or investing in metallic hardware. 
  • Use small pops of color. Modernism doesn’t ignore color – in fact, adding bold colors can add contrast or visual interest. 
  • Find more geometric elements. Shapes are everything in modern design, so play around with geometric backsplash, tile or window treatments. 
  • Bring in the outdoors. Connecting your indoor and outdoor spaces plays a significant role in modern home design. Invest in light, airy curtains for more natural light or use houseplants to bring some of the natural world to you. 

The Bottom Line

Behind the sleek lines and minimalism we associate with modern architecture is an emphasis on functionality. Modernism emerged to rebuff the elaborate designs of years’ past but is a popular style to this day. 

If functionality and openness are at the core of your design philosophy, search local listings to find a modern-style home near you.

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Holly Shuffett

Holly Shuffett is a staff writer who writes with a focus on homeownership and personal finance. She has a B.A. in public relations from Oakland University and enjoys creative writing and reading in her free time.