Rejecting ornament and embracing minimalism, Modernism became the dominant global movement in 20th-century architecture and design


Schocken department store, Chemnitz, 1930. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection2 Willow Road, Hampstead, London, 1939. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection66 Old Church Street, London, 1936. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs CollectionAlton West Estate, London, 1959. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs CollectionHallfield Estate, London, 1955. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs CollectionHighpoint One, Highgate, London, 1935. © RIBA Library Photographs CollectionRoyal College of Physicians, London, 1965. © Henk Snoek / RIBA Library Photographs CollectionIllinois Institute of Technology, 1986. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs CollectionRoyal Festival Hall, South Bank, London, 1950s. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Modernism is the single most important new style or philosophy of architecture and design of the 20th century, associated with an analytical approach to the function of buildings, a strictly rational use of (often new) materials, an openness to structural innovation and the elimination of ornament. It has also been called International Modern or International Style, after an exhibition of modernist architecture in America in 1932 by Philip Johnson. Modernism also encompasses Futurism, Constructivism, De Stijl and Bauhaus. The style is characterised by:

  • asymmetrical compositions
  • use of general cubic or cylindrical shapes
  • flat roofs
  • use of reinforced concrete 
  • metal and glass frameworks often resulting in large windows in horizontal bands
  • an absence of ornament or mouldings
  • a tendency for white or cream render, often emphasised by black and white photography

Plans would be loosely arranged, often with open-plan interiors. Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and Le Corbusier (1887-1965) were the leaders of the movement. The latter had a profound impact in Britain, particularly after World War Two, with many public housing schemes. In Britain the term Modern Movement was used to describe the rigorous Modernist designs of the 1930s to the early 1960s.


What to look for in a Modernist building:


  1. Rectangular or cubist shapes
  2. Minimal or no ornamentation
  3. Steel and or reinforced concrete
  4. Large windows
  5. Open plan


Article by Suzanne Waters 
British Architectural Library, RIBA


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