Through all the “ism” in art and architecture, modernist design in architecture refers to the mid-century of the 20th century. So many buildings and residences set the stage for contemporary modern designs of today. Many of the iconic places so familiar to us have exerted incredible influences on current design to such a degree, that the postmodernist reaction has been to take its elements and add complexity and elaboration similar to the Baroque and Rococo changes from the Renaissance. In terms of modern style, modernist design suits small and tiny houses much more so than the flamboyance of the contemporary due to the emphasis on what I call direct design; that is, avoidance of unnecessary complications and details.
Of that stated above, not all is entirely true. Due to the fact that the modernist impulse leads to experimentation and groundbreaking designs, not all modernist fabrications strictly adhered to the International Style such as in the design of the Glass House or the Farnsworth House.
Significantly different to the Internationalists, Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs clearly differ to the more rectilinear edifices of the Internationalists such as Mies van der Rohe’s creations.
Since this is not a scholarly examination of all the types and elements of all modern architecture, for our purposes we will stick to some of the elements of the International Style.
One always hears or reads the phrase, “…clean lines…” I prefer unadorned or unbroken lines. Modernists seek to find elemental geometry in their vision of the residences they build. The cube, the circle, the triangle becomes their palette. The most important and well-known houses built by modernists possess a Zen-like quality when combined with their surrounding environment.
This brings us to the first modernist element. The house should create an atmosphere when combined with its surrounding landscape. This means that those inside feel the influence of the outside landscape through walls of glass, sliding glass doors, large windows, even walls that move to allow access to patios or verandas. Any room might be exposed in some way to views or have access to the outdoors.
Many times, where there are no windows or glass walls, modernist architects used clerestory windows and skylights to bring in natural light.
This brings us to another important element of modern residences. Often times the walls of glass and sliding glass doors were on the sides of the house not facing the street. When, indeed, the front facing the street had considerable glass, screens of sculpted cement block, wood or metal blocked a direct view.
Rather than walls, screens were also used for spatial arrangements in the interior as well.
Probably the most noticeable and prevalent feature of a modernist, post and lintel dwelling is the exposed skeletal structure. Large beams supporting the roof are left to be admired.
Proudly exposing the structure of a building was thought of as an asset, many times, and not to be bashful about. This notion carries over from commercial buildings and high-rises such as the Seagram Building in New York.
Of course, when dealing with the International Style modernists, they reveled in using steel for the framework of a residence. This didn’t always carry over from commercial to residential. Besides the more famous structures, most modern houses are framed in wood, especially those made in a modern American Style. At any rate, the readily visible frame claimed a poetic beauty among modern houses.
Not all modernist houses in the International Style sported flat roofs. Butterfly, saw-tooth, shed and other unique shapes, such as the hyperbolic-parabolic figure into modernist designs.
Decorative elements became frowned upon in the International Style. However, simple sculptural elements, especially those which supported or supplied a function found their way into their architectural palette. Included among these decorative elements, designers created walls of natural stone or wood that continued from the inside to the outside, repeated arches and columns and simple porticoes or decks that continued and accented the rectilinear quality of the form of the rest of the house.
Although the above example of repeated columns is not a family residence, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts provides an excellent illustration of how a simple element presents an appealing architectural feature.
Since we have examined basic elements of modernist design of residences, we can get an idea of what is needed in designing a house using these principles. What we require is a starting point in design, which requires a basic understanding of the process. However, this article was not created to provide a college course in design, but to cover basic elements in modernist architecture. A future article will explain some features necessary for any artistic endeavor, for ideally architectural design conforms to the same rules as any other art form, such as balance, proportion, rhythm, and harmony.
However, a second article will forward the basic ideas of design and, then, digitally build a modernist house inculcating many of the elements above. Possibly, sometime in the future, we will venture a try at modern organic houses utilizing the elements such as those used by Bruce Goff or Frank Lloyd Wright.