Early Modern Architecture in the Early 20th Century

early modern architecture

The phrase that is often referred to as quintessential to understanding modern, or “modernist,” architecture is “form follows function.” Coined by Louis Sullivan, this explains the early 20th century approach to building design and architectural preferences. In an attempt to streamline construction and eliminate ornamentation, modern architecture also incorporated new ideas of the definition and purpose of art. Three of the most well-known styles of the Early Modern period are Expressionist, Art Deco, and the International style.

In the late 19th century, metal-frame building construction allowed engineers to begin experimenting with lighter-weight buildings with large windows. In the first half of the 20th century, high-rise buildings and the first “skyscrapers” blended a use of metal framing and concrete to create a sculpted look for walls full of windows. Repeated geometric patterns and use of natural elements are also distinguishing features of modernist architecture.

Over time, skyscrapers continued to grow taller, shedding the concrete as part of the construction as steel-frame construction was perfected. The International style in particular is known for buildings that have walls of glass on the exterior, maintaining virtually all of the building’s weight through concrete and steel framework down the building’s interior walls.

While symmetry and clean lines were praised, buildings also became taller, more complex, and innovative in terms of their conscious use of space. Modernist architects were concerned with expressing the social conditions of their time and place; therefore, much modern architecture is designed for large cities. One of the most famous modernist architects, the American Frank Lloyd Wright, made it an artistic point to also design single-family homes in a distinctly modern style. His “prairie homes” are repeated templates that construct and divide a family’s living space, and they have served as the pattern for many contemporary home designers.


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  • “Function” came to be seen as encompassing all criteria of the use, perception, and enjoyment of a building, not only the practical aspects but also aesthetic, psychological, and cultural.
  • Modern architecture is generally characterized by simplification of form and by the creation of ornament from the structure and theme of the building.
  • In the early stages of Modern architecture, “decoration is a crime” was a popular motto.
  • Louis Sullivan: (1856–1924) An American architect who has been called the “father of skyscrapers” and “father of modernism.” He is considered by many to be the creator of the modern skyscraper, was an influential architect, critic of the Chicago School, and a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • Bauhaus School: A school in Germany that combined crafts and the fine arts, and was famous for the approach to design that it publicized and taught. It operated from 1919 to 1933.
  • Deutscher Werkbund: A German association of artists, architects, designers, and industrialists. The Werkbund was to become an important event in the development of modern architecture and industrial design, particularly in the later creation of the Bauhaus School of design.
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These are the basic factors to keep in mind about the early modern architecture.

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