What Makes a Building Modern? A Few Words on Architectural Language

Architects often talk about architecture in what amounts to a unique language. This language is used to describe everything from historical styles (Art Deco, Beaux-Arts), to individual buildings and abstract concepts (contextual, tectonic). We tend to assume that non-architects – clients, consultants, relatives – not only understand us, but also speak the same language.

This is not always the case. Take the terms modern, Modernism, and Modernist for example. These terms are commonly misused by architects and non-architects alike. Often used interchangeably, the first two in particular are different in important ways. The goal of this post is to define and explore these terms using plain English.

The Bellevue Neighborhood Library, Washington, D.C. A modern Modernist building.

The Bellevue Neighborhood Library, Washington, D.C. A modern Modernist building.

Here’s a thought experiment. Close your eyes for a moment and picture a “modern” building. What did you see? Did you imagine a building made of concrete, steel, or glass? Was it curvy, angled, lumpy, or boxy? Perhaps all of the above? The mental picture most of us have of “modern” buildings is largely thanks to Modernism, the historical movement associated with, among other things, a rejection of history and absence of ornament.

Modernism originated as an architectural movement in the early 20th century in response to dramatic changes in technology and society. The Industrial Revolution drastically changed the way people lived, worked, and traveled. Modernist architects looked for ways to express those changes in built form. Inspired by such famous dictums as “Form follows function” (Louis Sullivan), and “Less is more” (Mies van der Rohe), they experimented with new construction technologies and designed buildings that looked and functioned like machines.

Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye in Poissy, France is an early Modernist building.

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Poissy, France is an early Modernist building.

Now over a hundred years old, Modernism has become an historical style in the same way that the Baroque, Neoclassical, and Gothic are all historical styles. Despite its rejection of architectural history, Modernism has now become a part of it.

If Modernism was a movement, its proponents are Modernists. Early Modernists such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius have influenced later generations of architects who have followed in their footsteps; stylistically if not always philosophically. Modernist can also be used with a lowercase “m” to describe buildings that exhibit the principles of Modernism. As in, “That building is so modernist. I love its pilotis and horizontal windows.”

Modernists. From left to right: Walter Gropius, Ludwig va der Rohe, and Le Corbusier

Modernists. From left to right: Walter Gropius, Ludwig va der Rohe, and Le Corbusier

So what about the term “modern?” Commonly confused with Modernism (even Wikipedia has it wrong), “modern” simply means of our time. Derived from the Latin word modo, meaning “just now,” modern is a word that can (and should) be used to describe contemporary buildings of all stripes.

Regardless of what they look like, all modern buildings are designed to meet the latest code and accessibility standards and are built using current construction technology. More importantly, modern buildings of any era should reflect the goals and aspirations of their clients in particular and of society in general.

Completed in 2006, Schermerhorn Symphony Center is an example of a timeless design on a modern building.

Completed in 2006, Schermerhorn Symphony Center is an example of a timeless design on a modern building.

A quick glance at current events and at our current political climate indicates that there is little common agreement as to what those goals and aspirations are. As a result, modern buildings can (and do) take many forms. The heated debate over the proposed Eisenhower Memorial here in Washington, with its proposal and counter-proposals, is a prime example.

Why does it matter which terms we use? Is the distinction between modern and Modernism academic? Hardly. In a world where modern has multiple meanings, it is important to remember that modern buildings can be more than just Modernist. They can be timeless too.

The preceding was authored by DMSAS Architect Chris Teigen. Chris graduated Cum Laude from the University of Notre Dame where he received his Bachelor of Architecture. He has been with the firm since 2008.

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  1. […] Architect Chris Teigen noted that “in a city of great Classical buildings, it is a rare Modernist […]



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