What IS Modern Architecture, Really? / by S. Joshua Brincko

These clients love their modern home. They asked for a traditional house.

These clients love their modern home. They asked for a traditional house.

Modern, traditional, contemporary, shabby-chic, transitional, post-modern, craftsman, etc. These are all "styles" of architecture. At the start of most projects, the client asks for a certain style. To be honest this drives me a bit crazy because styles for a building are quite dishonest. With fashion, you can use a style to convey a message by your appearance today and a new style tomorrow (or even a new one tonight). With architecture, style is like committing to the same outfit for life. You can't just easily change the style of your building like your wardrobe. Like fashion styles, architecture styles originated from the context of their time and place. The materials and climate available in a certain region dictate the look of the building or the wardrobe. With the world getting smaller due to advances in communication, science, and technology, anyone in the world can pretty much get any material they want. This enables people to choose a style that may not necessarily be appropriate for their region.

Architectural style made a major shift after the last World War. Traditional architecture had many sub-categories like art nouveau, rococo, colonial, etc. The thing all these traditional forms of architecture have in common is ORNAMENTATION. Ornamentation is the decorative part that serve no purpose other than for aesthetics. We love seeing ornate renaissance architecture because the ornamentation is so impressive. The countless hours that went into carving stone and woodwork is amazing...and outrageous. In today's terms, it would almost be considered slavery to ask someone to spend their life carving squiggly patterns on a door for a rich family's guest house. In these earlier times, the separation between the upper class and lower classes was much more distinct than today. People just don't stand for "serving their master" anymore in our democratic society. As a result of this political change, the playing field has been leveled, and we are less likely to spend our hard-earned money on a craftsman to spend years of his life carving a family crest above our door. As economics changed during times of war, ornamentation became revered as an outrageous undertaking when there were families that couldn't even afford food. A design school called the Bauhaus in Germany noticed this trend, and they made the idea of functional, simple design popular for the masses. It celebrated the idea that "form follows function." This means, if the architecture solves the functional goals, the form (appearance) will look correct. Simple, boxy objects with straight lines tend to solve design problems the best, and this developed into an "International Style." It is a style that is appropriate anywhere in the world since it responds to actual design parameters instead of cultural preferences. Since that time, simple architecture designed to best fulfill the functions has become known as modern architecture. 

I find modern architecture to be inspiring. A building designed to make living easy does just that - it makes it easier for people to live and do the daily things they need to do. This enables building occupants to be inspired by their surroundings instead of living within decorated boundaries that may or may not pertain to their particular mood, style, activity, or event that day.

Modern architecture is designed to allow the building to respond properly to the daylight of the sun as it travels from east to west throughout the day. 

Modern architecture frames the views outside while providing privacy to the private spaces within the building.

Modern architecture provides obvious patterns of flow and logical arrangement of spaces.

Modern architecture resolves everything in the best way possible: where to charge your cell phone, where to put your keys, where to put the trash/recycling, where to store your shoes, charging your electric toothbrush without seeing the wire, controlling the amount of ventilation/insulation, uses materials appropriate for the purpose of a space, makes it easy to find the front door but not easy for anyone but you to get into the front door, etc. 

Modern architecture is easier to build and maintain.

Modern architecture is not a style - it simply responds to the goals of the building occupants and the building site without letting a style compromise the answers to design problems.