Modern Architecture for Dummies

Contributor: Mahtot Gebresselassie

Modern is not necessarily contemporary when it comes to architecture – architectural style that is. Contemporary architecture refers to a style of architecture at a given moment, whether that moment is now or in the past. (It might require active thinking but the Middle Ages was contemporary for its time.) But Modern architecture doesn’t refer to an architectural style of the moment. It refers to the style that was predominant in the first half of the 20th century. Our interest in this post is to talk about that style.


Toronto City Hall

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But first here are a couple of questions for you: What is Modern architecture? What building comes to your mind as an example of Modern architecture? We asked the same question to some people that work on our floor at the Rostie Group. Here is what they told us.

Abigail: “Modern architecture is an innovative way of putting [a building] together from a contemporary idea. For example if something has not been done before, then it would be Modern architecture.” Two of the buildings she considers Modernist are the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth, England and the ROM in Toronto.

Brule: “Anything constructed now would be modern architecture in comparison to older buildings.” He also says that “deviance from the norm” would make a building modern. Modern for him also means more glass, outrageous colors, and angles and circles as opposed to rectangular shapes.

R: A building that looks modern or contemporary is Modern architecture for him. He pointed to the two buildings that he has a view of from his office and said, “That is modern. Those two stupid buildings look modern to me. I don’t know if they are trying to out-do each other in cleverness or ugliness.” As an example of Modernist buildings in the city, he cited the First Canadian Place and the Royal Bank Plaza.

Brice: Buildings that are made of glass and sustainable materials, buildings that are tall and not straight but different shapes are Modernist to him. He says old fashioned buildings such as such as the TD Centre are not modern. “The new ones are better shaped even though they are glass … [they are] energy efficient.”

Melisa: Says that modern architecture has a lot of clean lines whether they are angular or flowing like Frank Ghery’s AGO. Some of the buildings she considers Modern are the TD Tower that she has a view of from her desk, the AGO, the ROM (she admits it is too jarring. Can you blame her?), and the Telus Centre for the Performing Arts.

We told them that there was no wrong answer before we interviewed them. And so we won’t be commenting!


First Canadian Place (Toronto, ON)

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Modern architecture is not easy to define; there are variations of the style that evolved in different countries. Regardless of the variations though, the essence of Modern architecture could be described as a deliberate rejection of past architectural styles and a celebration of modernization of society. That may not help you much in identifying what buildings in the city are designed in the style of Modern architecture. We thought we would list some of the features of the style to help.

  • Simple, regular forms
  • No elaborate details or ornaments
  • Buildings covered with large glass surfaces
  • Horizontally or vertically exaggerated lines for example see the concrete roof in Fallingwater
  • Flat, concrete roofs
  • Expressive structural systems for example exposed columns and beams

Try to identify Modernist buildings with the help of the list above. In the meantime, here are some of the world famous names to know and drop at your holiday parties. FYI: These architects are considered as the fathers of Modern architecture. As you can see in the photos their style varies but still falls in the Modernist style. Feel free to say that “form follows function” and “less is more” are credited to architects of this style — they are.

Frank Lloyd Wright: An American architect who designed the Fallingwater, a house considered to be the most beautiful in the world. Next time you go to Niagara Falls, cross the border to Buffalo, New York and check out several of his buildings. By the way, have you read the Fountainhead? Well, they say that the main character Howard Roark was inspired by this architect. Below are two of his famous buildings.

Wrightfallingwater-1 Fallingwater, Pennsylvania

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Guggenheim Museum, New York City

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Mies van der Rohe: A German-born American architect who designed some of the buildings of the TD Center at King and Bay. He also designed other buildings that are similar to these towers. Some of them are in New York City and Chicago.


TD Centre (photo by Mahtot)

Le Crobusier: A French- Swiss architect who designed buildings in Europe and Chandigarh, India. Villa Savoye and Notre Dame de Haut are some of his famous buildings. He also designed furniture and monuments.

Open Hand Monumnet

 Open Hand Monument (Chandigarh, India)

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Villa Savoye (Paris, France)

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Modern architecture is said to have died in 1972 with the demolition of Pruitt–Igoe, a Modernist housing complex, in St. Louis, Missouri. The building was constructed as an urban renewal project like Reagent Park. It was considered a failure as it become riddled with crime and violence. Check out the demolition captured in video.

At Outlier Plan, we provide architectural design services. We have a soft spot for Modern architecture and we strongly believe in “Form Follows Function”… in “Less is More” as well.