Stop Calling Everything “Modern Architecture” [2020 Update]

by | Mar 11, 2020

Not every cool building in the city skyline is “modern.” Picking out modern architecture from other styles, or even differentiating between modern styles can be a challenge.

It no longer has to be that way!

Modern architecture is inspired by many previous architectural movements and it has influenced styles to come.

By the end of the article, you’ll be a pro, pointing out modern buildings to your friends and family.

Seems like we’re not the only one’s trying to answer this question

Table of Contents

Why does everyone refer to all buildings as Modern Architecture?

Corona Del Mar Home. A modern house with desert elements.
Corona Del Mar Home by Aaron Kirman

Examples of aesthetics that define modern architecture:

  • Clean lines
  • Low and horizontal planes
  • Broad roof overhangs
  • Steel frame
  • Use of modern materials
  • Use of traditional materials in new ways
  • Plenty of glass that allows for lots of natural light

Modern Architecture is a design language. It strips away all excess ornaments from a building’s design. It focuses on materials and the effective use of space.

Sleek and Minimalist

Modern Architecture aesthetics first appeared around the 1850s. Many people think that the word, “modern,” refers to the time period, but it is actually about the developments in technology, style, and building materials.

Modern buildings are simplistic and functional. Many people associate modern design with a “sleek and minimalist” look and they would be right

This mid-century modern design style brings an air of elegance and sophistication.

Flashy and downright loud often went hand-in-hand with ancient ornamentation. We used to be associate luxury with details and over-complexity.

A heightened sense of fashion comes from the pairing down of modernism and the attention to clean, simple detail.

urban beauty in singapoure
Modern architecture in Singapore

The History of modern architecture :

Chicago Worlds Fair: Modern Architecture is Introduced

Modern architecture was the first broadcast to the world at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Louis Sullivan became one of the key figures of the modern architecture movement. His motto was, “form follows function.”

After the exposure at the World’s Fair, the modern architecture movement exploded. and architects all over the world began to practice this new style.

Bauhaus was one of the first schools to teach modern techniques. The architect and professor Walter Gropius started school and would be one of the main figures in the modern movement. 

The school brought together architects, urban planners, artists, scientists, and designers to shape this new architecture craze.

Another step in the modern design ladder came in 1937 when Maxwell Fry’s applied modern design to social housing in London.

Modern Architecture was crucial in raising the living standards for the middle class. A good example of this is the Byker Housing project created by Ralph Eskrine in Newcastle.

Byker Housing project
Byker Housing project. Image by: Byker Community Trust

However, some of these low-income housing projects did not go to plan and this is where the modern architecture movement took a turn.

The projects were then seen by many as dangerous due to the poor construction and sloppy materials used. This was the downfall of the movement in the sixties and seventies.

The modern movement came to a halt and urban housing development slowed.

Across the pond, the modern movement came to flourish in the US in the early 1930s. It continued to influence design into the late 20th century.

Some of the offshoots of modern architecture were born in the US and the modern architecture movement evolved differently from coast to coast. 

There are many different styles that influence or were influenced by the modern architecture movement.

Related Article: 22 Radical Architecture Projects

The “Modern” Design:

The London Aquatics Center designed by Zaha Hadid.
The London Aquatics Center by View Picture/Getty Images

In modern architecture, the lines of the house will be long, simple and incorporate structural elements

In this style, the frame is wide and low. The roof detail incorporates broad overhangs. 

The use of rectangular and box shapes is very important. From a distance, a modern building may look like a Rubik’s cube based on this description, though there are many modern buildings that are rectangular, not all are. 

In general, modern architecture is characterized as flat and boxy. The textures of these buildings are smooth without any crazy flourishes.

The modern architecture uses industrial materials:

  • Metals like steel
  • Concrete
  • Glass

All of these materials were revolutionary for the time.

Buildings in this “modern” style use geometric shapes and patterns

Modern building with large windows, shaped like a box in a field
Sacromonte Landscape Hotel by Leonardo Finotti/MAPA Architects

Modern buildings often look very futuristic. The structural lines give modern buildings a timeless and luxurious look.

Many of the earliest futurists of the 20th century illustrated future urban landscapes ONLY in a modern style.

One of the most important elements of modern architecture is the use of large windows and the integration of natural light. Indoor spaces are made to be warm, livable and inviting. 

Many people who are attracted to modern architecture are drawn to the idea of open spaces with indulgent natural light features. It creates a feeling of seamlessly oozing from the natural world to the indoor space.

All of these guidelines for modern architecture seem so constrictive and concrete, but modern architecture takes these concrete ideas and bends them to its will.

Think of all these design guidelines as loose parameters that fence modern architecture in. But to every rule there are exceptions. Not every modern building will have the same rectangular design.

The rule book for modern design is very small and the interpretations of those rules vary greatly.

Modern Buildings

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Cleveland, United States
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Cleveland, United States

If modern architecture is still unclear, below are examples of buildings most people know.

Each of these buildings has a unique modern exterior and is specifically designed for a purpose.

Classic examples of modern architecture

examples of modern architecture
Sydney Opera house, Image by Construction Global. Falling water house, Image by: Around the World. Cube house, Image by Max shutter speed.

Buildings that follow modern design come in all different shapes, designs, and sizes.

Some of the key elements of modern architecture are not incorporated in every building, however, the ideals are there. 

Modern buildings incorporate the idea that the building should fit the lifestyle of those living and making use of it.

An interesting aspect of these famous modern buildings is the artistic exterior. 

Though modern buildings are all about function and simplicity they can still have a luxurious and artistic appearance.

Each of these buildings added something different to the modern movement. 

The Sydney Opera house

Many of us already have an image in mind when you see the name, Sydney Opera House, it is that famous.

It’s been described as an organic, modern building because of its smooth lines that seem to lift out of the urban and oceanic landscape.

When it was built it was considered an architectural marvel. The extravagant sails that protrude from the building’s base tie the structure in with the Sydney harbour.

The building is interesting from every angle you view it. The large structure seems to sit on the harbour like a boat or clouds.

Sydney opera house
Sydney opera house

This building added a sense of grandeur to the modern movement.

The Whitney Museum is Modern Architecture

The Whitney Museum plays with terraces and rectangular structures piled on top of one another.

It could nearly be mistaken for a functionalist design because of its industrial appearance.

The museum has gorgeous windows that allow for beams of natural light to stream in. The building towers over the Hudson River appearing like an old factory on the docks.

Whitney museum
Whitney Museum, Image by NIC LEHOUX

The Guggenheim Museum is Modern Architecture

The Guggenheim proved that modern architecture is synonymous with art. Seeing the Guggenheim as a modern building may be confusing because it is largely round.

Though it isn’t as boxy it still has modern principles like; the use of modern material, simple exterior without ornaments, and large windows.

The Guggenheim is a more artistic interpretation of modern architecture.

Guggenheim Museum
Guggenheim Museum. Imge by: The Guggenheim Museum

Fallingwater is Modern Architecture

This gorgeous building incorporates nature and architecture in a tranquil forest environment.

Fallingwater is a famous design in the modern movement because it plays with geometric shapes to camouflage it into the trees.

It is tucked in the forest outside of Pittsburgh. The gorgeous scenery seems to be part of the modern design.

It appears to be some sort of new-age cabin with brick accents and multiple balconies.

falling water house
Falling Water. Image by: Fran Loyd Right Foundation

Types of modern architecture:

There are also several “offshoots” of modern architecture. These design movements keep the ideals of modern architecture but express it in different ways.

It is also hard to define modern architecture as it has evolved in different shapes around the world. 

There are many architectural movements that can be linked to modernism either as an influence of modern architecture or a similar cousin to modern architecture. 

sharp lines found in modern architecture
Image by: Joel Filipe
airport ceiling with waterfall
Singapore Changi Airport ceiling waterfall, Image by: Chuttersnap

Modern architecture movements include:      

  • Expressionism
  • Neo-Expressionism
  • Constructivism
  • Functionalism
  • Minimalism
  • Desert or Mid-century modern

Modern Architecture: Expressionism

This architectural movement follows a very similar model to the modern movement.

Expressionism and Neo-expressionism were competing for styles that expressed the same ideas. Each expressionist design is very individualistic.

The movement started between 1910 and 1924. Expressionist buildings are characterized by unusual shapes and extremely round edges.

Each architect following this style wanted to create true inner emotion through architecture.

It is similar to modern architecture because of the simplicity and the modern building materials they used like, glass and steel.

The Lotus Temple. A petaled white building.
Lotus Temple by Goibibo

Modern Architecture: Neo-expressionist 

This style of architecture is closely related to Brutalist and often the two are mistaken for one another.

This movement was most popular in the 1950s and 60s. The idea behind Neo-expressionism was to evoke emotion from architecture as we saw in the expressionist movement.

It is also closely related to modern architecture because of the materials used to build.

You can see in the example below that neo-expressionism still plays on the use of geometric shapes, but adds a flair of drama in the construction.

TWA Flight hotel. A large white building shot at night.
TWA Flight Center Hotel JFK airport by David Mitchell

Modern Architecture: Constructivism 

Constructivism is a design style fueled by the socialist regime in Russia. Their focus was on construction.

In this movement industrial parts were used in some designs, which was a new unique feature that differs from other architectural styles.

One could draw a parallel between the focus on materials in modern architecture and the emphasis on construction in the Constructivist movement.

The materials and form of the constructivist movement inform and inspire the modern designs we see today.

Constructivism, Image by: Medium

Modern Architecture: Functionalism            

This architectural “look” came in the 1930s and stressed the way the building functioned rather than the ornamentation, as the name suggests.

This may sound familiar as this is an integral part of the Modern movement. Functionalism takes the building’s occupants into account and caters to what the building is used for.

Functionalist Building. The Norfolk Terrance Halls. It appears as a temple almost with it's step like structure.
Norfolk Terrace Halls of ResidenceNorwich © Historic England DP101923

Modern Architecture: Minimalism

The modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe introduced the idea of, “less is more.”

This idea is at the center of the Minimalist movement and the modern movement as a whole. The connection between both movements of architecture could therefore not be more obvious. 

The minimalist architecture movement took simplicity to another level.

The terms modern architecture and minimalist architecture can almost be used interchangeably. Both movements influence one another and are so closely related.

Photo of an minimalist white pool house with plants on the roof.
Wernerfield designed a pool house in Palmer, Texas.
Photos by Robert Yu

Modern Architecture: Desert Modern

This design aesthetic is a type of modernism that uses the landscape of the desert to inform it’s designed.

This style grew from the modern movement. The desert modern movement began as a reaction to the desert climate after world war II.

Architects saw that they would need to use sturdy materials to survive the formidable environment.

From the need for modern material and the demand for building in the desert; the desert modern style was created.

Desert designs look as though they belong in the arid, sandy dunes among cacti and reptiles. They utilize earth tons, flat shapes and materials that work in the desert weather.

A famous example of desert modernism is Frank Sinatra’s House in Palm Springs as seen in the photo below.

Photograph of Frank Sinatra's Twin Palms Home in Palm Springs.
Twin Palms by Jake Holt

The Most Influential Modern Architects:

To really understand modern architecture, you must learn about the people behind the buildings. Each modern architect brings something new, something more to the movement.

These architects are from all over the world and shaped the way we see modern architecture.

The Most Famous Modern Architects

famous modern architects
Famous Modern Architects

There are a brief description and photo example below of who they are and what they are best known for:

Modern Architect: Frank Gehry

Portrait of Frank Gehry in black and white. His hand is on his face and his is smiling.

Frank is a world-class architect who has constructed masterpieces around the world in France, Germany, Spain, England, the United States, Scotland, Australia, Panama and more.

He is best known for the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain which was said to be, “the greatest building of our time,” by Philip Johnson.

Frank was born in Canada in 1929. He studied at the University of Southern California and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

He is also well known for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall at night.
Walt Disney Concert Hall by Jorge Villalba

Modern Architect: Tom Wright

A portrait of Tom Wright in black and white.

Tom has created iconic modern buildings. He contributed to the modern movement in a big way.

Born in London in 1957, Tom went on to study at the Royal Russell School and then at the Kingston University School of Architecture

He built one of the largest modern buildings in the world, the Burj Al Arab.

This symbol of his work defined Dubai and what it stands for, that is the power of Tom’s designs.    

Photo of Burj Al Arab. It is a large sail structure that sits on the water front.
Burj Al Arab by Jumeirah

Modern Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright

A portrait of Frank Lloyd Weight in black and white. He is older and wearing a suit.

In case you’re wondering, Frank Lloyd Wright bears no relation to Tom Wright. He’s one of the most iconic modern architects on this list.

Frank was an American architect and designed mostly in the US.

He was best known for his design of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, which is a true marvel to behold inside and out.

Though the Guggenheim is world-renowned, Frank was known to many modern architects by one of his other projects, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.

Fallingwater is often held up as an ideal standard when incorporating nature in architecture.

Modern Architect: Ieoh Ming Pei

A black and white portrait of Ieoh Ming Pei sitting in front of one of his architecture models.

If you think you don’t know this next modern architect, think again. Ieoh Ming Pei was born in China and moved to America in the 1930s.

He studied architecture at Harvard and while there received his graduate degree.

The world has seen his work at the Louvre in Paris, he designed the iconic glass pyramid we associate with the Louvre today.     

Photo of the Louvre with the sunlight coming through the glass pyramid.
The Louvre by Noemie Trusty

Modern Architect: Zaha Hadid

A photo of Zaha Hadid sitting on a slick white surface. She is looking back at the camera over her shoulder.

The modern architect Zaha Hadid is a female powerhouse of architecture. Her modern buildings are out of this world, appearing like something out of a Star Wars film.

She was an Iraqi architect who studied mathematics at the American University of Beirut then moved on to the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London

She was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Prize and was crowned as the Queen of Curve.

Some of her works include the Glasgow Museum of Transport in Scotland, London Aquatics Center in Britain, the Ordrupgaard Museum in Denmark and the Guangzhou Opera House in China.

Photo of the Heydar Aliyev Center constructed by Zaha Hadid. It is a curvey white building with large windows. I seems to defy the laws of architecture the way is loops on curves.
Heydar Aliyev Center by Iwan Baan

Modern Architect: Walter Gropius

A classic portrait of Walter Gropius sitting smiling in a white dress shirt and slacks. Behind him are trees.

This list would be incomplete without one last architect Walter Gropius, a man who inspired a generation of modern architects.

Walter was a German architect known to many in the architecture world as a “founding father of modernism.”

He founded  Bauhaus a school for building in Germany. The school incorporated art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, industrial design, and typography. 

Modern architecture today was defined by Walter. The buildings he created had authority and very serious air about them.

Some buildings he created were the Bauhaus school, the Harvard Graduate Center and Glaswerk Amberg.

An example of his work is shown below.

Black and white photo of the first construction of the Bauhaus school.
Bauhaus School

Interesting article: The Most Amazing 88 Contemporary Architects And Their Work

Defining the architecture style that lives on forever as “modern”

Each of the architects on the list above has made modern architecture what it is today and inspired other architects to challenge the boundaries of the craft.

Without these architects, our world would be less creative, less interesting and less artistic. 

The buildings these architects created in their lifetimes are great monuments that pay tribute to the modern movement. Many of the principles of this movement directly translate to how architects work today.

Tom Wright’s sail catches the wind over Dubai and makes a loud statement in the architecture world.

Frank Lloyd Wright made architecture accessible to all with his designs and inspired artists of all fields who visit his Guggenheim Museum. 

Guggenheim museum
Guggenheim Museum, Image by: City Limits

The architect Ieoh Ming Pei brought China to modern architecture and dared to show how glass could be used in new ways. 

Zaha Hadid, the Queen of the Curve, showed us how cement and hard materials could be soft something only a truly brilliant female architect could bring to the movement. 

Our patriarch, Walter Gropius is quite possibly the reason why any of the architects on this list even exist. He pushed the movement forward with his teachings.

These are not all of the modern architects out there, but they are some of the cream of the crop.

If these stories inspire you, then maybe you should look closer at more modern architects that were not included like, Philip Johnson, Charlotte Perriand, Marcel Breuer, Minoru Yamasaki, Buckminster Fuller or Anne Tyng.

Danish Architect Spotlight – Influence on Modern Architecture

Jørn Utzon is an internationally recognized architect who is best known for creating the Sydney Opera House. Jørn was an influential Danish modern architect.

He was born on 9th April 1918 and died on 29th November 2008. Jørn grew up in Aalborg, his father was a naval architect. Jørn aspired to be like his architect father. 

In Jørn’s early life he was exposed to the architecture of Gunner Asplund at the 1930 Stockholm International Exhibition. This was his first introduction to modern architecture. He recalls both his mother and father being inspired by Asplund, going home and rearranging their furniture to mimic what they saw. 

Jørn imagined following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a naval architect. He found himself studying to be an architect at the Copenhagen Royal Academy of Arts.

Opera house in planning
Jørn Utzon, Sydney opera house. Image by: TV2 FYN

He briefly worked with the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto who is seen to be the “father” of Scandinavian modern architecture. Jørn combined Nordic classicism with modern architecture while working with Alvar, creating their Scandinavian modern style. 

Jørn then got a grant to travel to the US and Mexico and he gained lots of inspiration on his travels there.

The 1956 international competition for an opera house in Sydney was possibly the defining moment in Jørn’s architectural career. 

As history goes his design won the competition and today we have the gorgeous Sydney Opera House. During the process, Jørn resigned as the chief architect of the project and never actually returned to see his design completed.

After this, he went on to create such buildings as Can Lis in Majorca, the Paustian Future Store in Copenhagen and Can Feliz in Majorca. In 2003 Jørn was given the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, which is the most prestigious award you can receive in the field of architecture. 

In his later life Jørn, with his impressive honours and buildings all over the world, went back to Denmark and passed away in Copenhagen peacefully in his sleep.

Jørn Utzon was an exemplary modern architect who added to the modern movement and created possibly one of the most recognizable modern buildings.

Utzon Mallorca house. A summer home Jorn Utzon built.
Utzon Mallorca house by Anthony Coleman

Still, having trouble with modern architecture?

Here’s what you should take away:

Modern architecture may still seem a bit confusing because there is no ”one size fits all solution” for what a modern building looks like, but that is art. Architecture historians say:

“The more rigorously one searches for the origin of modernity… the further back it seems to lie.”
-British Architect and Historian Kenneth Frampton

Many people forget that architecture is an art form because it is so technical. Like most art forms there is more than one way to interpret it.

Modern architects take the inspiration of the modern mid-century movement and then interpret it in their own a specific way.

Modern design was based on a new way of using old building materials and an introduction of new building materials. It was the debut of large windows and lots of windows in design. Modern design outlines the importance to have lots of large open spaces.

Modern architecture is all about how nature and natural light can be integrated into the spaces we occupy daily. There are still many modern influences that go into different architectural designs. Even though the movement started in 1893, we still see the influences of modern ideals today!

The best way to think of modern architecture is as a language. Many people speak the same language but they sound different and take different meanings from each word. 

Modern architecture is spoken by many different architects but it means something different to each and it is executed with varying designs, materials and ideas. 

iceberg houses in Aarhus
Isbjerg Aarhus, Image by Kell B. Larsen

Architecture is not a math equation or a simple series of steps it is a creative process that yields an inhabitable space. 

The word modern is not describing the time period but the technological and engineering developments of the 20th Century. 

Remember that the modern architecture movement is the sum of the buildings created and the architects who defined it.

We hope this article gave useful information about Modern architecture. Read our publication in a shorter version published by E-Architect

Let us know your thoughts down below in the comment section!

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