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Design History: Modernism

‘Design History’ is our blog series sharing research staff at EWD have undertaken to inform our own projects and for the enjoyment of the world around us. We feel passionately that only by understanding our design heritage, can we successfully design for today. We have condensed our internal reports here and hope you find them enjoyable and informative.


Modernism is considered the most important new style or philosophy of architecture and design of the 20th century, which primarily rejected ornament and embraced minimalism. The style had an analytical approach the function of buildings, a strictly rational use of (often new) materials, structural innovation and the elimination of ornament.

Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier were the pioneers of the movement, with the latter having a profound impact on the design of many public housing schemes in Britain. In Britain, the term Modern Movement has been used to describe the rigorous modernist designs of the 1930s to the early 1960s.

Modern styles and concepts, by contrast, took root more quickly in commercial, industrial and residential architecture.

There are many early sources for modernism's ideology. Revolution in materials came first, with the use of cast iron, plate glass and reinforced concrete, to build structures that were stronger, lighter and taller. The cast plate glass process was invented in 1848, allowing the manufacture of very large windows.

The Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton at the Great Exhibition of 1851 was an early example of iron and plate glass construction, followed in 1864 by the first glass and metal curtain wall.

The first house built of reinforced concrete, designed by Francois Coignet (1853) in Saint-Denis near Paris.

Another early source was the American architect Louis Sullivan, most famous for the phrase ‘Form follows function'. In principle, this meant that buildings should be designed so that the essential structure dictated the form, i.e. from the inside outwards.

The Viennese architect Adolf Loos believed that the decoration of functional objects was inefficient and wasteful. His manifesto, 'Ornament and Crime', became a key modernist text in which he argued that avoiding ornament was 'a sign of spiritual strength'.

Two European architects emerged who, above all others, would be most widely associated with the new modernist style. One of these was Walter Gropius, the leader of the Bauhaus in Germany. Gropius taught architects to reject historical orthodoxies and adopt the innovation new ideologies of modern industry.

The other was Le Corbusier, who took inspiration for his buildings and urban designs from modern engineering developments such as passenger jest and cruise liners. In his most famous book, 'Towards a New Architecture', he argued that a 'house is a machine for living in'.

Bauhaus building, Dessau, Walter Gropius

Modernist architecture continued in various guises around the world, eventually being replaced as the dominant style by Postmodernism in the 1970s and 1980s.


What to look for in a Modernist building:

  • Asymmetrical and geometric forms, rectangular or cubist shapes

  • Components positioned at 90-degrees to each other and an emphasis on horizontal and vertical lines.

  • Visual expression of the structure rather than hiding structural elements

  • Minimal or an absence of ornamentation

  • Steel frames and/or reinforced concrete

  • Flat roofs

  • Large Windows

  • Open plan

"LESS IS MORE": Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s observation that “less is more” has come to define the Modernist doctrine in architecture, whereby buildings and their components are reduced to simple forms expressed by geometry, largely devoid of ornamentation.

Buildings have clean and crisp lines with minimal or no ornamentation. This included an absence of mouldings and a tendency towards white or a neutral palette.

"FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION": The notion that ‘Form follows function’, a dictum originally expressed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s. Designs are based purely on the building's purpose. It is common to find asymmetrical compositions and the use of geometric forms, often with flat roofs, linear elements and projecting cantilevers.


Villa Savoye near Paris, France, Le Corbusier, 1929

Open plan layouts are a key feature of Modernist design. Large windows contribute to a feeling of spaciousness in the open-plan interiors which are frequently intended as flexible spaces.

In America, Frank Lloyd Wright developed an approach to the design of houses pre-World War I, known as the 'Prairie Style', which lay the groundwork for the influx of European modernism during the 1920s and 30s, most notably in the Art Deco. The 'International Style', as it was referred to, flourished in the US post-World War II, and was most famously by the design of the high-rise corporate office buildings by the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Seagram Building, New York, USA

Modernism developed further in the 1960s, as architects such as Louis Kah and Eeero Saarinen began to react against the International Style, disenchanted by the sterile aestheticism of much post-war urban design. Kahn introduced principles from the Beaux Arts style, while Robert Venturi encourage the study of the vernacular and commercial landscapes. Gradually, these developments gave rise to Postmodernism as the most dominant style in the United States by the early 1980s, with many countries around the world following their lead.

Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1935

In Britain, classicism remained a strong influence well into the early-20th century, with an emphasis on Tudor revivalism and the Arts and Crafts movement. Modern materials such as steel and concrete were adopted by architects.

In the 1920s, Art Deco began to emerge across Britain, most commonly in the design of the new cinemas that were increasingly popular. Peter Behrens’ New Ways in Northampton (picture below) was one of the first modernist buildings in 1925, but this and others like it were seen as ‘exercises in modernity’ rather than being a genuine template for a new kind of urban design.

New Ways, Northampton, Peter Behrens

By the mid-1950s, modernism had evolved, inspired by the work of Le Corbusier, into what was termed the New Brutalism, with its emphasis on rigid lines and harsh concrete forms. A landmark building of the time was Denys Lasdun's Royal National Theatre on London's Southbank, while Brutalism became the style of choice for functional urban design of shopping centres, social housing, office buildings, multi-storey car parks and so on.

National Theatre, Southbank, London

Cripps Building, St John's College, Cambridge

Research by Katarzyna Mazurek, Architectural Designer.



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