Modern architecture is often thought to be nearly identical from building to building. However, what is traditionally considered to be modern architecture is only a fraction of what is actually included within the modernist tradition. Modern architecture is in reality much more than black or gray steel and glass boxes with flat roofs. Even buildings that look nearly identical at first glance often have subtle and even radical differences from one another.
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Modernism in Architecture Defined
Modernism is defined by buildings that range in date from the mid- 1950s to the mid-1970s, although many contemporary buildings are constructed in the modernist style as well. The most famous architect of the modernist era was Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, a refugee from Nazi Germany who settled in Chicago until his death in 1969. Modernism is also known as International style, because the buildings could be placed in nearly any urban landscape worldwide. Modernism is defined by three major elements, which are described below.
Volume vs. Mass
The first major element of mdernism is the idea of volume versus mass. Modernist buildings typically have a ground level lobby that is both recessed from the street and transparent. This gives many modernist buildings a sense of being lifted from the ground. With their typical wide panes of glass, modernist buildings could be viewed as providing an envelope for the space they occupy. Traditionally constructed buildings are viewed more as containing the space they occupy with a heavy, closed structure.
Minimal Applied Exterior Ornamentation
Most traditional buildings constructed before the Modernist period were adorned with classically influenced ornamentation such as columns and friezes. These ornamental elements disappeared with modernism, which emphasized a machine-made look. However, modernist buildings are not always devoid of exterior ornamentation -- a famous exception includes the Inland Steel building in Chicago, which is clad with ornamental stainless steel to reflect the name of the developer.
Regularity vs. Symmetry
Traditionally constructed buildings before the modernist period emphasized symmetry, or a balance of elements on either side of a building. For instance, a doorway was typically situated in the middle of a wall, with windows and other structures spaced equally on either side of the doorway. With modernism, symmetry gives way to regularity, which can be seen in the regular lines of windows. However, entrances are not always located in the middle of a wall.
Variations on Modernism
Some modernist-influenced architects diverged from the strict modernist style of rectangular buildings with steel and glass facades and flat roofs. Many famous examples of modernist buildings that vary from the strict Mies-ian style include Chase Tower, which curves inward from a wide base to a narrow top and has granite cladding, and the Metropolitan Correctional Center, which is triangular in shape and constructed of reinforced concrete. Both buildings are located in Chicago, which is the home of many architecturally distinctive buildings.