The fundamentals of modern architecture are clean and simple. Its ever-present philosophy abides to the ideal that form follows function. Therefore, modern architects express themselves through simplicity, clear views of structural elements and by eschewing unnecessary design details.
It’s easy to confuse modern architecture with contemporary architecture. In casual usage, the two words mean the same thing. To be very literal, contemporary means now, while modern architecture refers to design inspired by the historical art movement of modernism. Although many examples of modern architecture are at least 50 years old, the forward-thinking philosophy and design hold up today, and remain inspirations for architects and homeowners today.
History of Modern Architecture
Beginning in the 1920s with Walter Gropius, the head of the Bauhaus in Germany, Modernists pioneered the idea of combining design with new technology. (Marcel Breuer was among the famed artists and architects on Gropius’s staff.) Later, Le Corbusier took this obsession with technology further, famously calling the house “a machine for living in.”
Many European Modernists, including Gropius and Breuer, as well as the Austrian-born Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, later moved to America. They brought Corb’s machine-age dictum with them. As in Breuer’s Snower house, they favored inexpensive industrial building materials. They tossed aside the tradition of separating the outside from the inside in favor of the Modernist penchant for open social space and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The bright, airy, strictly cube-like form of the Modernist house became an easy and often glorious space within which to live, work, and breathe. And ideally, such spaces, be they offices or homes, would also be cheap enough to mass produce.
Modernism was a rebellion against classic architecture traditions. Because it was a broad movement spanning almost 60 years, it encompasses several familiar architectural styles.
Many modern architects feel that building new projects using the precise, now historic language of modernism is hard—some say impossible. Clients might want an Eames chair, but less often are they comfortable with the smaller, more precise spaces traditional modernist architects built. The Snower house is barely 2,000 square feet, while newly designed homes are typically much larger.
“On a simplistic but highly symbolic level, clients today want much more closet space,” said Mark Lee of Los Angeles firm Johnston Marklee. And architects are designing in an age of mass home construction on a scale early modernists could only dream of. Materials such as steel framing, as well as the building techniques favored by modernists, are out-of-date, and to reproduce them is expensive. Achieving the elegance of pure modernism comes at a price.
Characteristics of Modern Architecture
Legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright
Although the Case Study House Program is considered by many to be the official start of modern home architecture, there is one home in particular built an entire decade before that combined traditional building materials with lines that exemplify modern design. That is the Fallingwater house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Open Plans With Lots of Glass
Prominent features of modern architecture include open interior floor plans with fewer walls and exterior building materials of glass and steel. Lines of modern architecture are straight and angled rather than curved, gabled and carved.
The Spare Effect
Connection to Outdoors
Modern architecture almost always incorporates the topography of the land it is built on within the home’s design. An excellent example of this is Fallingwater. Other designs seamlessly connect the interior with the exterior through glass walls.
Major influences of modern architecture in the mid-20th century include aviation and space travel, which are seen in aerodynamic lines and bold use of steel.
Prefab construction gained traction in the 1970s when builders and architects recognized they could save on build time and labor costs by moving the majority of the building process into a factory. Initially, modular homes were fairly basic and boxy, but over time architects, builders and factory owners have improved their methods, and nearly anything that can be built on a homesite can now be assembled first in a factory.
While prefab houses can cost less than a traditionally built home, the financial savings are not always the most compelling reason for people to choose this construction method. The real saving is in time. It typically takes 50 percent less construction time to complete a prefab house.
Architects, builders and homeowners today have an enhanced regard for new materials as well as an acknowledgment of the fragility of our planet.
Green architecture, or green design, is an approach to building that minimizes harmful effects on human health and the environment. The “green” architect or designer attempts to safeguard air, water, and earth by choosing eco-friendly building materials and construction practices.
Common Characteristics of a “Green” Building
The highest goal of green architecture is to be fully sustainable. Simply put, people do “green” things in order to achieve sustainability. Some architecture, like Glenn Murcutt’s 1984 Magney House, has been an experiment in green design for years. While most green buildings do not have all of the following features, green architecture and design may include:
- Ventilation systems designed for efficient heating and cooling
- Energy-efficient lighting and appliances (e.g., ENERGY STAR® products)
- Water-saving plumbing fixtures
- Landscaping with native vegetation and planned to maximize passive solar energy
- Minimal harm to the natural habitat
- Alternative renewable energy power sources such as solar power or wind power
- Non-synthetic, non-toxic materials used inside and out
- Locally-obtained woods and stone, eliminating long-haul transportation
- Responsibly-harvested woods
- Adaptive reuse of older buildings
- Use of recycled architectural salvage
- Efficient use of space
- Optimal location on the land, maximizing sunlight, winds, and natural sheltering
- Rainwater harvesting and greywater reuse
How do you tie a modern home into a suburban neighborhood?
Much of the classic modern architecture was actually built in (and for) the suburbs. In the midcentury era, scores of developers and designers began building out suburban homes for the booming postwar population. After years of sacrifice and shortage, and buoyed by the purchasing power of newly returned GIs, America was in a buying mood. This spirit of optimism, and the desire for modern design to complement a contemporary lifestyle, set the stage for the growth of midcentury modern suburbs and developments.