Design Theory in Architecture


Architecture is a thoughtful art that involves knowledge of space and form. While creating a functional space to live is quite simple, it is the theoretical framework supporting the design that is complex. This theoretical framework is based on the ideology of the architect, often differing from one architect to another. Design theory continually changes as ideas evolve and respond to previous architectural movements and the rest of the world. The most recent forms of architectural styles, such as modernism, post-modernism and contemporary, must be acknowledged when discussing design in architecture.

Modernist Design Theory

  • Modernism in architecture was established in the early 20th century. Le Corbusier's iconic Unite d'Habitation in Marseilles, France, exhibit the principles and qualities of modernist architecture. Reacting against prior ornate architectural designs, modernist architects were interested in creating space and structure that simply provided the space and structure as needed. The idea of a simple building that framed the natural world outside is integral to the architecture of the modernist time period. Often, modernist buildings were referred to as machine versus nature, rather than integrating the building into nature surrounding it. The phrase "less is more" coined by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is implicit in the ideology integral to the clean, simple lines in modernist design theory in architecture.


  • A direct reaction to modernism that began in the early 1970s, post-modernism integrates more ornamental and decorative elements into buildings. The architecture itself initially had roots in its modern counterparts, but with more decoration and inadvertent angles. As time has passed, the buildings have become more sculptural and less rigid. The sculptural forms show an apparent reaction to the simple modernist lines, creating a new look and movement. As time has progressed, post-modernist architecture has evolved into more sculptural and playful forms, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Frank Gehry, and the Centre Georges Pompidou museum in Paris, France, designed by Richard Rogers.

Contemporary Architecture

  • Generally describing architecture created in the past 20 to 30 years, contemporary architecture has greatly changed with the times. The advancement of computers, heightened conceptual thinking and insight into recent architectural styles have created a unique style that has not been created with architecture before in this contemporary era. Rooted in post-modernist principles and arguably sometimes existing as post-modernist architecture, contemporary architecture continues to push the envelope, aiming to create something new. While these periods continue to influence and overlap with one another, the modernist, post-modernist and contemporary theories continue to influence each other, evolving from and building off one another.

How Design Theory Is Applied

  • The ideas behind the theories of architecture are applied through the aesthetic and practical aspects of the design. For instance, the simple forms, created with the straight lines and minimal decoration, of modernist architecture are apparent in the exterior of the building -- inside, the open space and floor plan also reflects this theory of modern design.

How Design Theory Evolves

  • As each building is created, a network of experts, theorists, and architects continually discuss the effectiveness of the design, which is often the subjective opinion of an architect reacting to a previous building. The design theories change based on a reaction to a new design and as part of an evolution. While the idea of identifying specific theoretical ideologies is difficult due to the overlapping and organic nature of each movement, historians apply these meanings and time periods in order to talk about architecture. To say a building is contemporary and not post-modern is not necessarily true; rather, it takes time to create clarity of definitions through hindsight and understanding of what has happened. There are not clear delineations between movements.

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