Mention the term “modernist architecture,” and visions of flat roofs, sterile, white boxes of glass, and steel stereotypically come to mind. Since its origins in the early 20th century, people have praised and panned modernism as polarizing and seductive. At times revered and maligned, modern architecture is enjoying a resurgence thanks to a new generation of homeowners discovering the joys of streamlined styles and lifestyles plus the rise of architectural tourism showcasing modernist architectural gems.
Legendary architect and product designer Michael Graves once said, “The future is rooted in the past because we are looking backward and forward.” At its core, modernism is this creative dance of using present-day technology and materials to build structures while looking to the past and the future.
We’re taking a deep dive into the modernist architecture movement from its history and different interpretations to its genre-defining “starchitects.”
What is modernist architecture?
Modernism is more a mindset than a set of firm rules, making it an ever-evolving design language that responds to our current cultural moment, the latest technology, material innovations, and geography.
“Many people confuse the term modernist with modern. Modern is anything that is done today. Modernist refers to a style and philosophy of architecture that originated in the 1920s, peaked in the ’50s and ’60s, went away for 30 years, and now is coming back in popularity,” says George Smart, founder and executive director of USModernist, an online archive, and catalog of modernist homes and architects.
Modernism is a general term describing a broad design movement with many regional and stylistic interpretations. It evolved from two schools of thought — the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the machine-like, industrial aesthetic of the Bauhaus School in Germany.
“These two philosophies of modern architecture produced both a style and a way of building in the modern world— either tied to the earth or informed by the manmade materials. There are a lot of nuances within the thought of those two schools,” says Carl Abbott, FAIA, and founding member of the Sarasota School of Architecture movement, a regional version of modernism.
A brief history of modernism
Modern architecture began in the U.S. in the late 19th century with the industrial revolution as railroads carved paths across the country and telegraphs, telephones, and movies opened communication and spread ideas.
“Modern architecture developed as a response to social issues that evolved from the industrial revolution and major changes in the world. It’s a revolutionary way of seeing the world,” Abbott says.
Engineers planted the early seeds of the movement with never-seen-before structures, including the Crystal Palace, housing the Great Exhibition in London 1851, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. These engineered buildings became a catalyst for modernism, showcasing the potential of new, mass-produced materials and building methods. Architects and the public began to take notice and turned away from reinterpreting historical styles to focus on something new, modern, fresh, and experimental.
“Modern architecture was going on in many places around the world, but its earliest and most fully formed ideas were rooted in America,” says Alan Hess, architect, author, and preservationist. Hess serves on the board of Palm Springs Modernism Week and the California State Resources Commission. “So much of modernist history we don’t know yet. We are only now redrawing the picture of what modern architecture is.”
The birth of modernism in the late 19th century
In the late 1890s, architect Frank Lloyd Wright arrived in Chicago in the offices of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, known as the father of the modern skyscraper and shaper of Chicago’s skyline. Sullivan pioneered the construction of tall buildings using a strong steel skeleton frame enclosed with a light curtain of stone, terra cotta, or glass, allowing for higher, more open structures maximizing light and ventilation. Meanwhile, Wright’s ideas about organic architecture reinvented the houses’ look, feel, and function. “Instead of the home being a collection of small boxes, it was an open plan with spaces that float into each other and outside,” Hess says.
Wright became a trailblazer of modernism, popularizing his signature Prairie style of low-lying, flat-roof, terraced houses that merged with the landscape. He built homes composed of local building materials and used innovations such as giant walls of glass to drink in the views.
In 1919, architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus School in Germany, an experimental school teaching radical design concepts based on utopian ideals that merged art and technology. Bauhaus means “School of Building” in German, and it attracted students, artisans, and craftspeople interested in new materials and technologies made possible by mass production. The Bauhaus School echoed Louis Sullivan’s foundational ethos that “form follows function.”
Bauhaus students took a mechanistic approach to architecture, expressing the machine in design with manufactured materials. They valued the honest expression of materials with little or no ornamentation. Architect Philip Johnson and historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock renamed the movement as International Style as curators of a 1932 Museum of Modern Art exhibit of modern architecture.
“The International Style produced buildings that looked futuristic, like factories with flat roofs and rectangular shapes. That style remains popular today, as one interpretation of modern architecture — a straightforward, abstract version with no ornamentation,” Hess says.
The Bauhaus school thrived as an incubator for ideas until the Nazis shut it down in 1933. Many influential European architects fled their war-torn countries and settled in the U.S. to teach and practice, including Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, joining Austrian architects Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, who had arrived two decades earlier.
Modernism’s peak and decline in the 20th century
After World War II, modernist architecture was at the height of its popularity in the U.S. By the early 1950s, the second wave of modernist architects emerged. Some had studied under Gropius at Harvard, including Paul Rudolph, I.M. Pei, and Phillip Johnson, who spread Bauhaus ideals that morphed into regional iterations of modernism adapted to the landscape, climate, and culture. Others, such as John Lautner and Alden Dow, had studied under Frank Lloyd Wright.
By the 1970s, modernist architecture fell out of favor for several reasons, including maintenance issues. “Even at its peak, modernism never caught on as a major trend or fad. One reason was that modernist design was ahead of material science. Many of the houses didn’t hold up well,” explains Smart. “Flat-roof houses had a reputation for being leaky because the roofing materials weren’t that great. By the time material science caught up, modernism had died down.” Modernism also challenged people to live with less square footage and less clutter.
Soon, modernism’s minimalist look was no longer a novelty, paving the way for postmodernism, a controversial architectural style revered and reviled. Postmodernism played with color and ornamentation, pulling in historical elements such as greek columns and cultural symbols in a whimsical way as a backlash to the formality of modernism.
Modernism’s comeback in the early 21st century
Modernism began to experience a revival in the early 2000s as people rediscovered the virtues of decluttering and the value of midcentury design. “Some stereotype modernism as cold, unfriendly, stark, and clinical, but those are not the architectural style’s defining characteristics. People shouldn’t get caught up with what they think are the traditional definitions or ideas that limit modernism to white boxes with concrete floors,” says James Leasure of Modern Architecture + Design Society (MA+DS). Leasure produces the MA+DS International Modern Home Tour Series, which holds more than 100 modernist home tours around the U.S.
What is a modernist house?
The basic definition of modernist architecture is an honest expression of materials and design rooted and oriented to its site. “Modernism should first be about crafting the appropriate response to the region,” says Alan Barley, architect and co-owner of Barley|Pfeiffer Architecture in Austin, Texas. Barley designs homes that respond to the extreme climate conditions of Central Texas. “Much like Wright’s organic style, our homes are rooted in the site with orientations that respond to hot temperatures, the sun, wind, and rain. The craft of designing contemporary houses is how to blend clean, minimalist designs and have them perform well and be comfortable to live in,” he says.
“Modernism is not bound by rigid rules and constantly evolves and responds to technology and innovations,” says Abbott.
Common elements of modernist architecture
Modernist homes come in many different stylistic interpretations yet share several common traits.
Open floor plans
Floor plans open up to create a series of sensations as you move around the home through the use of light, tactile, and visual elements. Modernist homes make strong indoor and outdoor connections with walls of glass.
Flat or low-pitched roof
Flat, low-pitched, or “butterfly” roofs are defining features that gained popularity in the mid-20th century, thanks to new post-and-beam construction techniques.
Modernist homes have abundant natural light entering multiple sources, including large windows, skylights, courtyards, and atriums.
To connect with the landscape and let in plenty of natural light, modernist homes have large glass windows or glass walls with mitered corners that appear seamless.
Modernist homes celebrate minimalist design, often with clean lines, little or no ornamentation, and volumes penetrating vertically and horizontally. Or, like Frank Lloyd Wright, they can have rich ornaments derived from nature’s forms and geometries.
Asymmetrical compositions and geometric forms punctuate horizontal lines in a modernist home. “A modernist home is not just a box. It has unusual geometry,” says Smart.
Visible structural elements
Because the clarity of construction and honesty in details define modernist architecture, homes make their structure elements visible. This includes beams, supports, reinforced concrete, steel frames, and other infrastructure elements and is similar to a loft-like look.
Connection to the landscape and climate
Modernist houses connect to the landscape, blurring the boundaries between inside and outside.
Modernism is a spectrum of styles
Modernism is both a style and a way of thinking. Here are five influential versions of the style:
International Style draws on Louis Sullivan’s idea that “form follows function.” International Style popularized the use of prefabricated, lightweight, mass-produced, and industrial materials. Architects experimented with new building materials, including precast concrete, wood laminate, plywood, aluminum, and glass. The emphasis was on volume over mass with rectilinear, simple geometry, and repetitive modular forms.
Brutalism gets its name from Le Corbusier’s term “béton brut,” meaning raw concrete. Brutalism makes heavy use of exposed concrete and peaked in popularity during the 1970s in commercial, institutional, and government buildings. The style looks utilitarian with massive, rough-surfaced, exposed concrete walls, repeating elements, and deeply recessed windows. Brutalism has a love-it or hate-it appeal with passionate critics and detractors on either side. Critics of Brutalism saw it as rootless and devoid of a sense of place.
High-tech gained popularity in the 1970s as the latest significant style movement of the 20th century in buildings that revealed their structure sheathed in a transparent or lightweight skin such as glass. High-tech architecture showcased a building’s bones, infrastructure, and inner workings, including air ducts and pipes. Architects Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Renzo Piano elevated the high-tech style of designing high-profile buildings worldwide, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, created by Rogers and Renzo Piano, and the headquarters of Lloyd’s of London by Rogers.
After Frank Lloyd Wright left his practice in Chicago, he founded a school of architecture called Taliesin in southwestern Wisconsin. There he taught his Prairie style of long, flat horizontal lines that traced the topography. Wright’s low ranch-style houses merged with the landscape and drew on elements from the Arts and Crafts movement.
Mid-century modern architecture emerged in the decades that followed WWII, with ranch homes drawing inspiration from Wright’s organic architecture. Think of the quintessential Brady Bunch home on 1970s TV. Midcentury modern styles also pulled from influences including the tiki-Polynesian, space-age, and minimalism.
Space-age modernism, also known as atomic ranch or Googie style, gained popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, reflecting the car culture and space exploration. Envision The Jetsons cartoon series for a caricature or exaggerated sense of this style and the possibilities of the built environment. Architect John Lautner helped popularize the Googie style in coffee shops, restaurants, and residential projects, including comedian Bob Hope’s spaceship-looking estate in Palm Springs.
Modernism takes on different styles and materials in response to its geographical location, climate, culture, and landscape. Regional modernist architectural styles include desert modernism, which thrived in the mid-20th century in California, especially the Palm Springs area. Desert modernists are midcentury architects including Albert Frey, and William F. Cody, Donald Wexler, E. Stewart Williams, John Lautner, and Richard Neutra.
They combined European modernism with Southern California construction methods, building houses that accommodated an arid climate and embraced the landscape with open spaces, glass expanses, wide eaves, and overhangs for shade and site orientations to maximize views and ventilation. Each year, several of these architectural gems are on view as part of Modernism Week, an 11-day event celebrating midcentury architecture, design, and culture in the greater Palm Springs area.
In Sarasota, Florida, a group of forward-thinking architects formed the Sarasota School of Architecture, a regional adaptation of Bauhaus modernism, along the Florida Gulf Coast to suit its subtropical climate. They were prolific from 1941 to 1966, embracing the original ideas of early modernism. “Sarasota in the 1950s was one of the most important places in the world for architectural creativity, where the greatest design movement of the day came together,” says Abbott, a living legend of the Sarasota School.
The Sarasota School of Architecture included Abbott and Paul Rudolph, Victor Lundy, Ralph Twitchell, and Gene Leedy. They built homes and buildings with local materials, including Ocala block, made with crushed limestone from the Ocala region. They also used laminated or engineered wood and prestressed concrete structural components in designs with vertical and horizontal planes incorporating deep overhangs and sunshades, operable window walls, and breeze block encouraging airflow.
“There were two places in the world where both the Gropius’ Bauhaus School and the Wright’s Organic School took root together. One was in Los Angeles, and the other was here in Sarasota,” says Abbott.
Other regional styles include mountain modernism, a fusion of industrial styles, and clean lines mixed with wood and stone materials. This style can be found in Colorado, Utah, the Carolinas, and other mountainous regions.
By the 1970s, modernism had run its course, and people were tired of the International Style’s cold, abstract and sterile aesthetic. Architect Graves advanced a new design language with a humanist approach focused on the way buildings made people feel. Graves’ designs were whimsical, playing with proportion, historical, cultural, and geometric motifs, including his signature keystone, a drawn decorative outline on the building with no structural function. The press called this new style postmodernism, anointing Graves as the founding father of the movement. He also brought good design and art objects to the masses through his product designs for large retailers, including Target.
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, several pioneering architects advanced the style, structures, and materials of modernist design. Forefathers included Gropius, Wright, and Sullivan, known as the first wave of modernist architects.
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, viewed the house as a “machine for the living.” He was a pioneer of modern architecture and a leader of International Style. Le Corbusier practiced in Paris, merging elements of classical Greek architecture with machine-like designs. Le Corbusier also designed furniture, including the iconic LC2 chair and the LC5 chaise lounge.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Mies was a former director of the Bauhaus School who immigrated to Chicago in 1938. During his 60-year career, he influenced a generation of architects as the director of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology and helped define the midcentury modern design language. Mies shaped Chicago’s architectural character with more Mies-designed buildings than any other city in the U.S. His works are often known for their glass-and-steel compositions, such as the iconic Farnsworth House and the Seagram Building, designed with Philip Johnson.
The Harvard Five
Five of the most notable, midcentury modern architects graduated together from Harvard School of Architecture and set up practices in and around New Canaan, Connecticut. They trained under Gropius and experimented with new materials, developing a regional design language that broke with the prevailing colonial-style architecture.
The Harvard Five includes Johnson, who served as the first curator of architecture and design at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Johnson gained notoriety for his 1949 Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer created Brutalist buildings, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and pioneered the concept of the binuclear house with bedrooms in one wing and main living spaces in the other separated by an entry hall. Breuer became a bold-face name for his iconic furniture designs, including the Wassily Chair among his collection of tubular metal furnishings. Other members include John Johansen, Landis Gores, and Eliot Noyes.
Paul Rudolph taught architecture at Yale and was an early leader of the Sarasota School of Architecture. As Dean of the Architecture School at Yale, Rudolph derived his teachings from the Bauhaus, given that he studied under Walter Gropius at Havard.
Louis Kahn is arguably one of the most influential modernist architects of the late 20th century and is known for his solid structures of mass and weight. He combined modernism with monumental forms based on ancient buildings. Khan’s designs had a strong presence in contrast to the prevailing steel-and-glass structures that appeared delicate and fragile. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture. “Some architectural critics say Kahn inspired postmodernism because he looked to the past to learn how mass and weight anchored the ancient buildings to the earth, but he didn’t copy historical details,” Abbott notes.
Modernist living legends
Members of the third wave of modernist architects are known as living legends for taking the style in new directions. Here are just a few:
Lord Norman Foster
Foster is a leading British architect, and pioneer of high-tech architecture. Foster studied at the Yale School of Architecture in Connecticut, where he met classmate Richard Rogers, another leading British architect of the high-tech movement. The two briefly worked together. Today, Foster runs his practice from six offices around the world. His many high-profile projects include a commission from The European Space Agency to design the first building of the moon.
Lord Richard Rogers
Rogers is a British architect who also popularized the high-tech architectural style, also known as Structural Expressionism. Rogers’ other high-profile projects include the headquarters for Lloyd’s Bank in London.
Abbott is one of the founding fathers of the Sarasota School of Architecture. He studied under Paul Rudolph at Yale alongside classmates Lord Richard Rogers and Lord Norman Foster. A common thread in his work is a celebration of light and space, unfolding views, angular forms, wave-like curves, and steeped planes.
Ingels founded BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group in 2005, based on the idea of information-driven design. He approaches architecture as “the art and science of making sure our cities and buildings fit with the way we want to live our lives.” A sought-after public speaker, Ingels has given several TED talks on architecture and design.
Pritzker Prize-winning architect Gehry is known for his structural spectacles that defy natural convention. Gehry’s buildings are aggressive statements of what people can create, including the iconic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, Neuer Zollhof complex in Dusseldorf, Germany, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Dutch architect Koolhaas is a prolific author and designs futuristic structures, including the Seattle Central Library and Beijing’s CCTV Building, which the press called a reinvention of the conventional skyscraper form. Koolhaas built a reputation for gravity-defying structures that make him one of today’s top architects worldwide.
Famous modernist homes
Architectural landmarks that define modernism reside throughout the U.S. California, Connecticut, Florida, and Illinois are home to some of the largest concentrations of iconic residences.
Perhaps the most recognizable of Wright’s work, Fallingwater was the weekend home for Edgar Kaufman, owner of a Pittsburg department store. The home cantilevers over a waterfall in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania and is emblematic of Wright’s organic architecture. Clad in earth-colored stucco and glass, the house has a central stone core for fireplaces and columns. Wright designed Fallingwater in 1935, and today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Elrod House
The Elrod House in Palm Springs, California, personifies desert modernism and is recognizable in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. John Lautner designed the home for interior designer Arthur Elrod to integrate with boulders and the earth. The house has a 60-foot-wide circular living space with a sunburst concrete canopy, skylights, and retractable glass-and-aluminum doors that slide open to provide a seamless connection with the semi-circular indoor-outdoor pool, terrace, and sweeping views of the mountains and Coachella Valley.
The Lovell House
Neutra’s career-defining residence, the Lovell House, remains emblematic of the International Style. Neutra constructed the home with a prefabricated steel cage frame coated with a type of spray-on concrete. The home’s suspended cables support balconies. Neutra built the stucco-and-metal house for physician and naturopath Philip Lovell in 1929. One of the largest residences Neutra designed, the home sits on the hills of the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, California, known as the Health House.
Stahl House (Case Study House #22)
This iconic house in the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles also goes by Case Study House #22. Pierre Koenig designed the L-shaped home out of prefabricated steel and glass in 1960. One of the most recognizable homes from the Case Study program promoted affordable-yet-progressive design to address the postwar housing shortage. The two-bedroom, 2,300-square-foot house with glass walls perched on a cliff defied building codes and revealed new possibilities in residential architecture.
Grace Miller Home
In the mid-1930s, Neutra designed a winter getaway in Palm Springs for socialite Grace Lewis Miller. The home has reinforced concrete walls trimmed with aluminum and large windows opening up to sweeping views.
The Glass House
Johnson built The Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, in the International Style as a glass box that drinks in the landscape. The home resides on a hill in the woods with no interior walls and is entirely transparent. Mies designed most of the home’s furnishings. Johnson lived in his iconic house from 1949 until he died in 2005.
Tips and considerations for buying a modernist home
If you are in the market for a modernist home, experts say you should consider how the home feels to live in and how much it costs to maintain. “Operational and maintenance costs over the lifetime of a house are significant costs beyond the purchase price that many buyers don’t think about,” says Barley.
Heating and cooling costs
Large expanses of glass, a characteristic of modernist architecture, can add to heating and cooling costs. Experts recommend asking the homeowner for utility bills for the past year. “Look for overhangs or shading devices over the windows to keep the home from overheating,” says Barley.
If you are buying an older modernist home, consider a roof inspection. Some modernist homes have flat roof designs, prone to water leaks roofs. “Flat roofs have more potential problems down the road,” says Barley, who designs his roofs to appear flat from the facade but have a slight slope for water drainage. “The craft is trying to make these houses look and feel like contemporary architecture yet respond to the climate. We use overhangs and awnings and covered spaces. We reduce the number of materials that can weather or deteriorate in the sun.”
As you walk through the rooms and spaces of a home, notice your comfort level. Pay attention to room temperature and airflow. Do the rooms feel hot or stuffy? Take a look at the way furniture fits in the house. Do you have big expanses of empty space that are difficult to furnish? Think about the home’s comfort, function, and how it can adapt to changes in life.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the orientation of the home. Does it take advantage of the breezes, sunlight, and views? “When I evaluate a house, the first thing I do is pull out my compass to see how the house responds to its orientation and site,” notes Barley.
Modernism makes a comeback
Today, modernist architecture, particularly midcentury modern style, is experiencing a renaissance with millennials and minimalist aesthetes drawn to designs with open spaces and spectacular views through enormous expanses of glass.
“Today, people are embracing modernism as a lifestyle rather than just a pure design aspect,” Leasure says.
Modernism’s new fandom also includes consumers wanting to streamline and simplify their lifestyles. They appreciate modernism’s clean, uncluttered style. Social media also has helped introduce a new generation of people to the style. Trends cycle in and out, and most styles have a shelf life; however, the basic tenets of modernism — clean, functional, and democratic — make it relevant for decades to come.
Header Image Source: (Sylvia Yang / Unsplash)