Architecture in the 20th century: a closer look at different epochs

ew architectural styles are often related to the social, economic, and political developments of their time. This certainly holds true for the 20th century:

industrial and technological advancement changed the ways in which buildings were designed. The resulting concepts and characteristics continue to inform present-day projects.

Famous 20th-century buildings

In terms of architecture, the 20th century spans three phases which all fall under the category of “modernism”:

  • Fathers of modernism: ca. 1900 to 1920
  • Modernism (also New Building or classical modernism): ca. 1920 to 1968
  • Postmodernism: ca. 1968 to date

Each of these phases include different architectural movements that closely succeeded one another and frequently overlapped.

1. Art nouveau: geometrical shapes and floral elements

After the opulence and extravagance of the 19th century, the “fathers of modernism” took a completely different route: their avant-garde styles stood in stark contrast to historicism and its pompous aesthetics.

Combining craftsmanship with creative expression, art nouveau became a precursor of modernist architecture in the 20th century. Thanks to the works of Antoni Gaudi, Otto Wagner, or Josef Hoffmann, this movement peaked between 1890 bis 1910.

Main features of art nouveau

  • Idea: merging aesthetics and functionality into a holistic concept that includes a building’s structure as much as its interior design
  • Construction: predominantly geometrical forms and surfaces
  • Symbolism: depictions of wildlife and fables, floral ornaments, fluid lines
  • Materials: facades made of sandstone
  • Character: playful and original
Casa Batlló in Barcelona

2. Expressionism: pointed, round, and jagged

Between 1910 and 1925, architects in Central and Northern Europe sought to visualize their emotions through a new style of building. Expressionism turned away from the objective and rational approach of functionalism, which was gaining popularity at the time. Famous representatives of expressionist architecture in the early 20th-century were Erich Mendelsohn, Fritz Höger, Hans Poelzig, and Bruno Taut.

Main features of expressionism

  • Idea: translating emotions into artistic buildings
  • Construction: abstract and monumental sculptures; at times overemphasised shapes with sharp angles, spikes, or curves
  • Design: facades with ornaments, reliefs, and statues
  • Materials: brick and clinker
IG-Farben House in Frankfurt

3. Functionalism: simple and matter-of-fact

The term “functionalism“ refers to a novel approach that provided the basis for several architectural epochs of the 20th century. Designer and architects were focusing on the purpose and usefulness of buildings: pioneers such as Le Corbusier followed a concept informed by reason and logic. During the construction period after World War II, functionalism gained importance for urban developments.

Apartment blocks made from reinforced concrete thus became the precursors of prefabricated high-rises.

Main features of functionalism

  • Idea: focus on technical, practical aspects
  • Construction: straight-lined, neutral shapes
  • Materials: prestressed concrete, glass, or steel
  • Character: minimalist appearance; modern objectivity
building with characteristic features of functionalism

4. Bauhaus: less is more

The so-called Bauhaus brought functionalism to the forefront at an international scale. What began as an experiment evolved into Germany’s most influential building style. Even though the Bauhaus school only existed between 1919 and 1933, it shaped 20th-century architecture like no other. The most well-known representatives are former lecturers including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, along with founding father Walter Gropius. Today, Bauhaus architecture is more popular than ever among builders. Based on the motto "form follows function", it inspires modern interpretations such as a sustainable ecohome complete with smart technology in Bavaria, Germany.

Main features of Bauhaus

  • Idea: combining industry, science, and craftsmanship
  • Theory: “form follows function” and “less is more”
  • Construction: geometrical and cubic shapes, clear structure and linear surfaces
  • Materials: steel, glass, and concrete
  • Colours: complementary and basic
  • Character: “cultivated coldness”, sleek and simple
Bauhaus building in Dessau
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Gira E2

Minimalist design for any interior style: Gira E2 switches stand out with their simple, yet sophisticated aesthetics.

Simple yet elegant switches from the Gira E2 design line complement minimalistic building styles. Source: Gira

5. International style: steel, glass, and unplastered concrete

Beginning in the 1920ies, functionalism and Bauhaus merged into the so-called “international style”. This movement manifested the concept of objective, purposeful architecture though various 20th-century constructions across the globe. International-style skyscrapers and office complexes can still be found in many metropolitan areas in Europa and North America.

Main features of international style

  • Idea: functionality and usefulness within limited spaces
  • Construction: fluctuating between symmetrical and asymmetrical surfaces, cubic elements, flat roofs
  • Design: no representative and decorative details, large-size glass panels to create light-flooded interiors
  • Materials: steel, glass, and concrete; white plaster; wooden-clad facades
  • Peculiarities: visible building elements such as unplastered concrete walls, open steel girders, supply cables, and pipes
Seagram Building in New York City

6. Organic architecture: curves inspired by nature

Placing humans centre-stage, organic architecture is also known as “anthroposophic architecture”. This style aims to design buildings that authentically blend into their surrounding scenery. Following Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, 20th-century architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Antonio Gaudí, and Hugo Häring drew inspiration from nature between 1920 and 1970. A typical example for organic building is the Goethaneum, which hosts the General Anthroposphic Association and the Free University of Humanities (“Freie Hochschule für Geisteswissenschaft“) near Basel, Switzerland.

Die Merkmale der Organischen Architektur:

  • Idea: humans at the centre, nature as a model
  • Construktion: cave-like structures with sculptural shapes and curves; fluent, dynamic forms and spirals; irregularities without mathematical logic
  • Symbolism: natural motifs, e. g. snail shells, trees, and leaves
  • Materials: clay, stone, and solid wood; ecologically sourced finishes such as lime
  • Colours: muted shades, earthy and pastel hues
Goetheanum in Switzerland

7. Deconstructivism: surreal and askew

As the rigid rulebook of functionalism sparked more and more criticism, a new trend arose in the 1980s. Modern technology opened up new possibilities, setting the stage for experimental styles such as brutalism and deconstructivism.

In the context of 20th-century architecture, deconstructivism not only refers to the literal “deconstruction” of buildings. Rather, this style sought to break with postmodern architectural conventions. Its founding father, Frank Gehry, designed his private residence based on deconstructivist principles in 1988. Later, famous 20th-century architects including Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, and Daniel Libeskind created masterpieces with the same characteristics.

Their works continue to stand out with their collage-like structures.

Main features of deconstructivism

  • Idea: disrupting harmony and moving away from straight lines, geometry, and symmetry; breaking with postmodern building styles
  • Construction: no clear order; seemingly skewed, distorted, or tilting walls and instable surfaces
  • Materials: concrete, steel, and glass
  • Character: surreal and abstract; buidlings appear like artistic sculptures

In addition to the seven presented examples, 20th-century architecture was influenced by various other trends – from constructivism in the 1920s to mid-century modern in the 1950s.

Functionalist and Bauhaus-style constructions have a classic and timeless appeal to this day – no wonder that these epochs still influence the projects of contemporary designers and builders.

What’s your favourite architectural style or building of the 20th century? We look forward to reading your comments.

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