Architectural Basics: Modern Architecture

By Tema Flanagan
Photo by Bernard Hermant

The history of modern architecture

Modern architecture first emerged at the turn of the twentieth century as new building materials and technologies coalesced with a desire to create a wholly new architectural ethos driven by functionality and “pure forms” rather than traditional historical precedents. The modern architectural movement took many forms, including some styles—like craftsman, Art Deco, and ranch—that might not immediately seem to fit our contemporary understanding of “modern.” The reason? Modern architecture quickly evolved over the years to meet the rapidly changing needs and whims of a world in flux, from the Great Depression through the booming post–World War II era and beyond.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) is seen as the godfather of modern architecture in the United States. Early in his career, Wright landed on the concept of “organic architecture”—the notion that architecture should reflect its particular surroundings and given purpose rather than pulling thoughtlessly from traditional concepts and stylistic flourishes. This philosophy first culminated in the development of the prairie house—an entirely new style that emphasized simple form, a low-pitched roof, heavy square porch supports, and horizontal lines. As his career progressed, Wright went on to apply his organic philosophy of architecture to hundreds of homes and buildings, the most famous of which is the stunning Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania.

While Wright certainly wasn’t the only architect in the early 1900s to explore the themes of modernism, it was he who brought America’s burgeoning ideas about modern architecture to Europe. European architects, like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier, exported their own versions of modernism—one that further stripped homes and buildings of unnecessary ornamentation and paved the way for the mainstream understanding of modern architecture (including the International and Contemporary schools) that persists today.  

Modernist architecture is now often reserved for higher-end homes and commercial buildings, but in its time, modernism attempted to respond to the needs of the average American.

In particular, the Great Depression and the post-WWII era (when a large supply of affordable housing was needed to meet the demands of returning servicemen and the G.I. Bill) served as catalysts for architects and builders who sought to create houses that would meet the needs of average families at prices they could afford. At the same time, the Federal Housing Administration developed criteria for affordable homes (including specific size limitations) that spurred the development of more modest and traditional modern styles, such as minimal traditional, ranch, and split-level houses. (A Field Guide to American Houses, Virginia Savage McAlester.) Those same trends also impacted Wright, who, late in his career, focused on what he called Usonian houses: designs that brought modern conceptions (like a low roof line, open floor plan, and built-in furniture) to small, affordable homes.

Photo by Britt Reints

Fallingwater Frank Lloyd Wright

Iconic modern houses


Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright

Location: Mill Run, Pennsylvania

Built: 1935

It’s easy to see why Fallingwater was designated a National Historic Landmark: this iconic house, which is a feat of architectural and engineering prowess, seems to hover effortlessly and weightlessly over a gushing waterfall. At the same time, the horizontal slabs and sandstone used to build the house give it a grounded, earthy feeling, as if it grows right out of the stone on which it rests.

Photo via Wikimedia commons

Walter Gropius Gropius House

Gropius House

Architect: Walter Gropius

Location: Lincoln, Massachusetts

Built: 1937

Walter Gropius, the German architect who founded the influential Bauhaus school of design, built this home for his family after escaping the Nazi regime and joining the faculty at Harvard. As evidenced by this home, Gropius believed in designing floor plans for maximum efficiency and functionality, with a house’s exterior following suit (rather than attempting to create “artificial symmetry,” as he put it).

Photo by James Vaughan via Flickr

Philip Johnson Glass House

Glass House

Architect: Philip Johnson

Location: New Canaan, Connecticut

Built: 1949

Situated on a park-like expanse of grass and surrounded by stately trees, Philip Johnson’s aptly named Glass House is stark in form, playing with transparency, light, and the division between indoor and outdoor spaces.

Photo by John Zacherle via Flickr

Charles and Ray Eames Eames House (or, Case Study House No. 8)

Eames House (or, Case Study House No. 8)

Architect(s): Charles and Ray Eames

Location: Pacific Palisades, California

Built: 1949

Charles and Ray Eames, the famed mid-century modern husband-and-wife duo, built this iconic modernist masterpiece to be their personal home and studio. Nestled in a southern California hillside, Eames House is meant to interact meaningfully with its natural surroundings without overpowering them. The house’s grid-like exterior features playful pops of color that give it a more whimsical look than many modernist designs.

Photo by Benjamin Lipsman via Flickr

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Farnsworth House

Farnsworth House

Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Location: Plano, Illinois

Built: 1951

Hailing from Germany, Mies van der Rohe was one of the pioneers of the international school of modern architecture. The Farnsworth House, constructed almost entirely of steel and glass and consisting of three offset planes, seems to float just above the ground on which it was built.

Modern houses today

While modernist architectural styles aren’t the norm for your average suburban neighborhood today, many architects continue to draw inspiration from modern architecture, especially for high-end homes. Partly, this has to do with the cost of building in the modern style. Materials like steel and glass that were relied upon so heavily by modern architects during the first half of the twentieth century are much pricier today.

Regardless, the influence and impact of modern architecture can’t be overstated, and its principles, like open floor layouts and a focus on efficiency, continue to shape the American architectural landscape today.

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