12 Important Modernist Styles Explained: A Journey Through Architectural History

Dessau Bauhaus / Walter Gropius. Image © Thomas Lewandovski Modernism, with its notions of utopia, innovation, and the reimagination of human living, remains one of the most optimistic styles in architectural history. While the world...

Dessau Bauhaus / Walter Gropius. Image © Thomas Lewandovski Dessau Bauhaus / Walter Gropius. Image © Thomas Lewandovski

Modernism, with its notions of utopia, innovation, and the reimagination of human living, remains one of the most optimistic styles in architectural history. While the world that gave birth to Modernism has drastically changed, the philosophy still dominates architectural discourse today. As we bid farewell to 2019, the centenary year of the Bauhaus, it is a perfect time to explore the key architectural styles that defined Modernism.

Early-Century Styles

Bauhaus

Dessau Bauhaus / Walter Gropius. Image © Thomas Lewandovski Dessau Bauhaus / Walter Gropius. Image © Thomas Lewandovski

Derived from the German for "Construction House," the Bauhaus was a revolutionary German school for architecture and the arts founded by Walter Gropius in 1919. It became a template for many architectural schools and gave birth to a distinctive style characterized by function, minimal ornamentation, and a fusion of balanced forms and abstract shapes.

De Stijl

Café L’Aubette/ Theo van Doesburg. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia user Claude Truong-Ngoc Café L’Aubette/ Theo van Doesburg. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia user Claude Truong-Ngoc

Originating in the Netherlands in 1917, De Stijl (Dutch for "The Style") reached its peak between 1917 and 1931. This style reduced design to essential forms and colors, with simple horizontal and vertical elements. Black, white, and primary colors were dominant. The De Stijl journal, championed by Dutch designer Theo van Doesburg, was closely associated with this style.

Constructivism

© Denis Esakov. Image © Denis Esakov. Image

While the Bauhaus and De Stijl developed in Western Europe during the 1920s, Constructivism emerged in the Soviet Union. It combined technological innovation with Russian Futurist influence, resulting in abstract geometric masses. Famous Russian constructivist architects include El Lissitzky and Vladimir Tatlin.

Expressionism

Grundtvig’s Church / Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint. Image Courtesy of Flickr user Flemming Ibsen Grundtvig’s Church / Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint. Image Courtesy of Flickr user Flemming Ibsen

The Expressionist style, coexisting with Bauhaus architecture between 1910 and 1930, stood in contrast with its clean lines and emotional, organic forms. This style explored new technical possibilities that emerged from the mass production of steel, brick, and glass. It evoked unusual massings and utopian visions.

Mid-Century Styles

Functionalism

Renovation of a Functionalist Villa “Indian Ship” / Idhea. Image © BoysPlayNice Renovation of a Functionalist Villa “Indian Ship” / Idhea. Image © BoysPlayNice

Functionalism, emerging after World War I, reflected the idea that a building should reflect its purpose and function. This style, associated with socialism and modern humanism, aimed to create a better life for citizens. Notable countries where Functionalism thrived include Germany, Poland, the USSR, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia.

Minimalism

Barcelona Pavilion / Mies van der Rohe. Image © Gili Merin Barcelona Pavilion / Mies van der Rohe. Image © Gili Merin

Evolved from the De Stijl and Bauhaus movements of the 1920s, Minimalism focused on simplicity and the absence of ornamentation. Architects like Mies van der Rohe believed that by stripping a design to its essentials, its true essence is revealed. Key features of this style include geometric forms, plain materials, repetition, and clean lines.

International Style

Villa Savoye / Le Corbusier Villa Savoye / Le Corbusier

Coined in 1932, the International Style spread European Modernism worldwide. This style, known for its simplicity and lack of ornamentation, gained popularity in the United States. It was characterized by monolithic skyscrapers with curtain walling, flat roofs, and extensive use of glass. Architects associated with this style include Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Wallace K. Harrison.

Metabolism

Nagakin Capsule Tower / Kisho Kurokawa. Image © Arcspace Nagakin Capsule Tower / Kisho Kurokawa. Image © Arcspace

Metabolism, a post-war Japanese movement, combined megastructures with organic biological growth. Young designers such as Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa, and Fumihiko Maki published the Metabolism manifesto in 1960. Key characteristics include modularity, prefabrication, adaptability, and strong core infrastructures.

Brutalism

The Barbican Estate / Chamerlin, Powell and Bon Architects. Image © Joas Souza The Barbican Estate / Chamerlin, Powell and Bon Architects. Image © Joas Souza

Brutalism, a style coined by Alison and Peter Smithson in the 1950s, is characterized by raw concrete, monolithic forms, and unusual shapes. Often found in government projects, educational buildings, or high-rise apartments, Brutalist architecture is known for its rough, unfinished appearance.

Late-Century Styles

Postmodernism

The Portland Building / Michael Graves. Image Steve Morgan via Wikimedia Commons The Portland Building / Michael Graves. Image Steve Morgan via Wikimedia Commons

As the twentieth century progressed, a philosophical shift occurred in architecture. Postmodernism aimed to replace core modernist values by reviving historical and traditional ideas and adopting a more contextual approach. It challenged the clean lines of the International Style and functionalism by reintroducing ornamentation and historical references.

High-Tech

Centre Georges Pompidou / Renzo Piano Building Workshop + Richard Rogers. Image © conservapedia.com Centre Georges Pompidou / Renzo Piano Building Workshop + Richard Rogers. Image © conservapedia.com

High-Tech architecture, also known as Structural Expressionism, merged technology and design. This late modern style emphasized transparency, showcasing the structure and function of the building through exposed elements. Overhanging floors, lack of internal structural walls, exposed services, and adaptable spaces are common features.

Deconstructivism

Vitra Design Museum / Gehry Partners. Image © Liao Yusheng Vitra Design Museum / Gehry Partners. Image © Liao Yusheng

Deconstructivism, derived from postmodernism, challenges traditional architectural norms by using non-rectilinear shapes and disjointed elements. It evokes notions of unpredictability and controlled chaos. This style gained prominence in the 1980s and is often associated with architects like Frank Gehry and Bernard Tschumi.

As we explore these 12 important modernist styles, we witness a journey through time and the evolution of architecture. From the optimism of early-century styles to the experimental and boundary-pushing nature of late-century styles, modernist architecture continues to shape the world we live in today.

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