What Is Modernism in Architecture?


Modernism is a form of architecture often associated with Frank Lloyd Wright. Though he preceded modernism by some 20 years, Wright introduced the linearity and simplicity of external form that would come to define modern style. Starting around the 1920s, designers began looking to the future and incorporating their idea of the future --- particularly industrialism and urbanism --- into their designs. Their buildings used geometric forms, glass panels and other designs unlike what people were accustomed to seeing at the time.

Time Frame

  • Modern architecture is generally ascribed to the period from 1920 to 1950. During this era, several styles appeared that influenced modern architecture. Art Deco buildings featured new construction materials, including aluminum, steel and concrete. The style incorporated elaborate curving forms and lighter colors that gave the buildings a smooth, sculptural look. The International style influenced modernism by bringing in long, flat roofs and clean, geometric shapes.

Streamline Moderne

  • Streamline Moderne introduced the concept of modernism to the American public. The idea resulted from America's fascination with the modernization of planes. The buildings mimicked the look of airplanes by using many of the same shapes and materials. Buildings featured polished exterior walls, chrome accents and nickel hardware inside.

Modern Homes

  • The period following World War II was marked by a style known as postwar modern. Suburbs and planned communities were built to accommodate returning GIs and their families. Ranch houses became common during this period. The ranch featured wide, open floor plans in a rectangle, U or L shape. Its low, overhanging roofs and large picture windows were inspired by Wright's residential designs. The A-frame and split-level house are also examples of postwar modern homes.


  • Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier are the three names often associated with modernism. These European designers focused on the idea that the simple lines and shapes of the building should hold the viewer's focus. Modern architecture featured little exterior ornamentation or accessories --- Mies van der Rohe coined the expression "Less is more." Designers also emphasized the materials used in the building's construction and allowed those materials to shine. Some designs featured unusual shapes or rounded sides, but these designs are traditionally attributed to Googie architecture --- typified by kitschy 1950s Los Angeles commercial style --- or the International Style. Residential furnishings and accessories were designed and chosen to complement the exterior of the house. Modern architects designed and championed homes and buildings that focused on the overall design and not any one specific feature of the building.

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