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Modernism: an architectural style guide

Modernism

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

Schocken department store, Chemnitz, 1930 (Eric Mendelsohn) RIBA Collections

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

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

  • Rectangular or cubist shapes
  • Minimal or no ornamentation
  • Steel and or reinforced concrete
  • Large windows
  • Open plan

Article by Suzanne Waters
British Architectural Library, RIBA

66 Old Church Street, Chelsea, London, 1936 (Gropius and Fry) RIBA Collections


Highpoint One, North Hill, Highgate, London, 1935 (Lubetkin and Tecton) Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections
Royal College of Physicians, 11 St. Andrews Place, London, 1964 (Denys Lasdun and Partners) Henk Snoek / RIBA Collections

Find out more

Explore more images of Modernist architecture from the RIBA Collections.

View, download, purchase and licence these images on RIBApix

  1. Schocken department store, Chemnitz, 1930 (Eric Mendelsohn), RIBA Collections RIBA2092-16
  2. 66 Old Church Street, Chelsea, London, 1936 (Gropius & Fry), RIBA Collections RIBA2091-70
  3. Highpoint One, North Hill, Highgate, London 1935 (Lubetkin & Tecton), Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections RIBA8734
  4. Royal College of Physicians, 11 St. Andrews Place, London 1964 (Denys Lasdun & Partners), Henk Snoek / RIBA Collections RIBA10404

All these images are part of the RIBA Library and Collections. Admission is free, and everyone is welcome to visit.

Discover and purchase more images at RIBApix.

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