12 Important Modernist Styles Explained

12 Important Modernist Styles Explained

Modernism could be described as one of the most optimistic styles in architectural history, drawing from notions of utopia, innovation, and the reimagination of how humans would live, work, and interact. As we reflected in our AD Essentials Guide to Modernism, the philosophy of Modernism still dominates much of architectural discourse today, even if the world that gave rise to Modernism has changed utterly.

As we say goodbye to 2019, a year that saw the centenary of the Bauhaus, we have collated a list of key architectural styles that defined Modernism in architecture. This tool for understanding the development of 20th-century design is complete with examples of each style, showcasing the practice of Modernism that lay behind the theory.

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Early-Century Styles


Dessau Bauhaus / Walter Gropius. Image © Thomas Lewandovski

Derived from the German for “Construction House,” The Bauhaus originated as a German school for architecture and the arts founded by Walter Gropius in 1919. As well as being a template for many architectural schools that followed, the institution gave its name to a distinctive style characterized by an emphasis on function, little ornamentation, and a fusion of balanced forms and abstract shapes.

De Stijl

Café L’Aubette/ Theo van Doesburg. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia user Claude Truong-Ngoc

Founded in 1917, De Stijl (Dutch for “The Style”) originated in the Netherlands, and is considered to have peaked between 1917 and 1931. Characteristics of the style include the reduction of design to essential forms and colors, with simple horizontal and vertical elements, and the use of black, white, and primary colors. The style is also synonymous with the De Stijl journal published by Dutch designer Theo van Doesburg at the time, which championed the style.


© Denis Esakov. Image

While the Bauhaus and De Stijl styles developed in 1920s Western Europe, Constructivism emerged in the Soviet Union. Constructivism combined technological innovation with a Russian Futurist influence, resulting in stylistically abstract geometric masses. The style fell out of favor in the early 1930s. Well-known Russian constructivist architects include El Lissitzky and Vladimir Tatlin, though both are most recognized by their proposals and unbuilt work.


Grundtvig’s Church / Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint. Image Courtesy of Flickr user Flemming Ibsen

The biomorphic, organic, emotional forms which defined the Expressionist style stood in contrast to the clean, linear definitions of Bauhaus architecture, despite their coexistence between 1910 and 1930. Derived from German Dutch, Austrian, Czech, and Danish Avante Garde, Expressionism explored new technical possibilities which emerged from the mass production of steel, brick, and glass, while also evoking unusual massings and utopian visions.

Mid-Century Styles


Renovation of a Functionalist Villa “Indian Ship” / Idhea. Image © BoysPlayNice

Functionalism is based on the principle that the design of a building should reflect its purpose and function. Emerging from the aftermath of the First World War, the style is associated with ideas of socialism and modern humanism. As the style developed through the 1930s, notably Germany, Poland, USSR, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia, the central idea of “form follows function” was infused with the idea of using architecture as a means to physically create a better life for citizens.  


Barcelona Pavilion / Mies van der Rohe. Image © Gili Merin

Minimalism evolved from the De Stijl and Bauhaus movements of the 1920s, and emphasized the use of simple design elements without ornamentation or decoration. Popularized by architects such as Mies van der Rohe, the style proposed that deriving a design to its base essentials reveals its true essence. Features of the style include pure geometric forms, plain materials, repetition, and clean lines.

International Style

Villa Savoye / Le Corbusier

The International Style was coined in 1932 by curators Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock at the Modern Architecture International Exhibition. An evolution of early Modernist principles in Europe, the International Style describes the era where European Modernism spread throughout the world, notably the United States. Characterized by simple geometry and a lack of ornamentation, the style was appropriated in the United States characterized by monolithic skyscrapers with curtain walling, flat roofs, and ubiquitous glazing.


Nagakin Capsule Tower / Kisho Kurokawa. Image © Arcspace

Metabolism was a post-war Japanese movement that infused megastructures with organic biological growth. Influenced by Marxist theories and biological processes, a group of young designers including Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa and Fumihiko Maki published their Metabolism manifesto in 1960, giving the style significant public attention. Characteristics include modularity, prefabrication, adaptability, and strong core infrastructures.


The Barbican Estate / Chamerlin, Powell and Bon Architects. Image © Joas Souza

Brutalism emerged in the 1950s, coined by British architects Alison and Peter Smithson. derived from the ‘Béton brut’ (raw concrete) first associated with Le Corbusier, the style is characterized by monolithic forms, rigid geometric styles, and unusual shapes. Brutalist buildings, often government projects, educational buildings, or high-rise apartments, are typically clad in rough unfinished concrete.

Late-Century Styles


The Portland Building / Michael Graves. Image Steve Morgan via Wikimedia Commons

By the midpoint of the twentieth century, the clean lines of the International Style and the stripped utilitarianism of functionalism were becoming increasingly common in American and European cities. Created out of a wholesale rethink of core modernist values, Postmodern architecture came as part of a philosophical shift that was just as all-encompassing as the Modernism it sought to replace; aiming to revive historical or traditional ideas and bring a more contextual approach to design.


Centre Georges Pompidou / Renzo Piano Building Workshop + Richard Rogers. Image © conservapedia.com

High-tech architecture, also referred to as Structural Expressionism, was a late modern style merging technology and building design. Using advances in material and technology, the style emphasized transparency in design and construction, communicating the structure and function of the building through exposed elements. Characteristics include overhanging floors, a lack of internal structural walls, exposed servicing, and adaptable spaces.


Vitra Design Museum / Gehry Partners. Image © Liao Yusheng

Derived from postmodernism, Deconstructivism is characterized by an absence of harmony, continuity, or symmetry in buildings. Deconstructivism often manipulates the surface skin of a structure, creating non-rectilinear shapes that distort and dislocate elements, hence evoking notions of unpredictability and controlled chaos. The style came to prominence in the 1980s.

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Cite: Niall Patrick Walsh. "12 Important Modernist Styles Explained" 18 Mar 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/931129/12-important-modernist-styles-explained> ISSN 0719-8884

Dessau Bauhaus / Walter Gropius. Image © Thomas Lewandovski


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