Small glass building with some color-block windows, all covered by a canopy structure

Pavillon Le Corbusier, Zurich, Switzerland. Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, was one of Modernism’s most influential architects. This building is now a museum dedicated to Le Corbusier’s work, and was the last building Le Corbusier designed before his death in 1965. Photo by Roland Zh. Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The development of Modern architecture revolutionized our cities and workplaces, and its design principles not only reflected progress in science, health, and social equality but were also intended to help these ideals thrive. Today, Modern design principles help connect society and are seen in the construction of schools, homes, and even bridges and highways.

What is Modern architecture?

The term “Modern architecture” describes architecture designed and built within the social, artistic, and cultural attitude known as Modernism. It put an emphasis on experimentation, the rejection of predetermined “rules,” and freedom of expression in art, literature, architecture, and music. The Modern Movement in architecture was born in the 20th century and really took off after World War I. Advancements in engineering, building materials, social equality, health, and industry converged, while past historical styles were rejected. This created a perfect storm that allowed architecture to enter a new era of design.

Modern architecture also attempted to help solve a practical problem: a boom in the urban population. Immigration and new industries like steelmaking were attracting people from rural areas to cities, and there was a need for new offices, factories, and housing to keep up with growth. New mass production techniques meant buildings (and furniture) could be produced quickly and relatively cheaply.

Over the years, Modern architecture spread around the world and expanded to include regional adaptations, which met local needs and design sensibilities. Modern architects also explored how materials could influence design.

5 pillars of ideology and design

Blocky cement building with block wood accents

Architect Louis I. Kahn worked with Dr. Jonas Salk to design the Salk Institute, a center for scientific research built in 1963 in San Diego, California. Kahn used simple materials like concrete, teak, glass, and steel to create a bold, modern design. Photo © Elizabeth Daniels.

1. New Building Materials: Before the turn of the 20th century, building materials were restricted to simple items like brick, stone, and wood. But scientific innovations led to the creation of brand-new materials such as mass-produced glass, steel, reinforced concrete, and cast iron. An exciting world opened up for architects—suddenly, they could experiment with materials that simply weren’t available before.

Brick building with wavy walls and roof

The Church of Christo Obrero in Uruguay, designed by Eladio Dieste and completed in 1960, applies modern engineering techniques to a traditional material like brick, to achieve expressive curved walls and an undulating, vaulted roof. Photo © Leonardo Finotti

2. Engineering Advancements: Engineering techniques developed to the point where structures could employ those new building materials, giving architects the freedom to design buildings that were no longer dependent on thick, load-bearing walls to stand up. This allowed them to grow taller (i.e. skyscrapers). Buildings could become thinner, lighter and could incorporate large glass surfaces. They could have larger floor plans with bigger interior spaces, since fewer walls were needed, and outer walls could be designed in expressive ways that traditional brick and mortar structures couldn’t support. Especially in the early days of Modern architecture, architects and designers used new building materials and construction techniques experimentally, without a clear understanding of how they would perform and age over time. As a result, some Modern buildings now show signs of deterioration and aging. (Conservation efforts like the Getty Foundation’s Keeping It Modern grant initiative and the Getty Conservation Institute’s Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative were created to provide resources and help people who take care of these buildings with their conservation and maintenance).

Four story gray building with BAUHAUS displayed vertically on the side in large white letters

The Bauhaus was a German school of design, architecture, and arts that focused on producing functional items for mass production. It existed from 1919-1933. Photo: Bauhaus Dessau, completed 1925. Designed by Walter Gropius. Photo by Gail Ostergren, 2003. Copyright J. Paul Getty Trust

3. Form Follows Function: Before Modernism, architects were accustomed to referencing historical styles and forms in their designs. In the 19th century, popular styles included Beaux-Arts, Gothic Revival, and Neoclassicism. In these styles, the building’s purpose didn’t necessarily have a strong influence on its design. But Modernism introduced the idea that the building needs to function properly, and that its appearance could be derived from its function, said Chandler McCoy, senior project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute. As a result, Modern architecture tends towards minimalism: clean lines, carefully balanced composition, exposed building materials, and a lack of adornment or reference to historical architecture styles. “It needs to serve [its purpose] if it’s a bus station or if it’s a school or if it’s a library. It shouldn’t look like an Italian palazzo,” said McCoy. “So its functionality is key.”

For example, in 1932 Alvar Aalto designed Finland’s Paimio Sanatorium, which was built to house tuberculosis patients. He utilized easy-to-clean materials, no sharp edges or ornaments that could gather dirt, plenty of windows to assist with the “light therapy” believed to help treat tuberculosis, and placed different departments in separate wings to allow for maximum light and air. His design complemented and enhanced the building’s ability to meet its purpose.

As Modernism moved into the 1980s, some architects began to question the minimalism that had long characterized the style. The idea that architecture needed to promote social progress, especially when the 20th century had seen so many advancements already, felt less necessary, and some were critical of Modernism’s somewhat stark appearance. Plus, many of the design principles of Modern architecture were now a given—no one would design a factory or office in the Gothic Revival style, for example. So architects began experimenting with ornamentation again, rejecting the “form follows function” convention in favor of more “frivolous” features and a return to more traditional building forms.

“You get design elements on architecture that kind of show off that the designer could put them in place without really having a clear function,” said Antoine Wilmering, senior program officer at the Getty Foundation.

Postmodernism is characterized by a mix of design styles, historical pop culture references and parody, and excess. Contemporary architecture, a term often used to describe the architecture of the 21st century, does not have one characteristic style. It may include elements of Modernism, sustainability, and new technological and engineering advancements. However, tastes vary between architects (and their clients), and you can have a bit of adornment on a building and still consider it Modern due to the overall principles that guide its design. So you could say that Modern architecture continues to thrive today.

Glass building raised up on poles, surrounded by trees

Architect Lina Bo Bardi’s Casa de Vidro (Glass House), completed in 1951 Sao Paulo, Brazil, epitomizes Modern principles of design: glass walls, an interconnectedness with nature, and open rooms. Photo by Lucas Medeiros. Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license (CC BY-SA 4.0)

4. Comfort and Health: The idea that a home or even a commercial building should be designed to be comfortable is, believe it or not, a new idea, introduced by Modernism. We have Modernism to thank for elements like a connection to the outdoors, spacious rooms, and lots of light. As 20th-century scientists learned more about disease, hygiene, nutrition, and other fundamentals of health, architects adopted design elements that complemented these findings. Contrast that with pre-Modern buildings, which tended to have small windows, lots of rooms and walls, and an emphasis on keeping weather and nature out.

8-story building with large arched entry, with a parking lot in the foreground

Mozambique’s Beira Railway Station, designed by Paulo de Melo Sampaio, João A. Garizo do Carmo, and Francisco José de Castro and completed in 1965, demonstrates how 19th century structures like train stations were reimagined in the Modern era to represent progress and innovation. Photo by Andrew Moore from Johannesburg, South Africa. Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

5. Social Progress: Movements like women’s rights and workers’ rights blossomed in the 20th century. An increased awareness of social inequality and the idea that everyone should have access to quality housing, workplaces, and public spaces began to take hold. Wilmering said these developments, combined with new mass-production techniques, ushered in an era where the Modern aesthetic was adopted for housing, offices, schools, sports arenas, transportation, libraries, and more. These buildings were designed to be functional for everyone. “Modernism fueled a belief that quality architecture should be accessible to everyone,” said Wilmering. “While one can certainly debate the degree to which the Modern Movement succeeded in delivering this promise, it was an ideal that many strived for.”