Cover of "The International Style" (1932) by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson
The International Style is the name of a major architectural style that is said to have emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, the formative decades of modern architecture, as first defined by Americans Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in 1932, with an emphasis more on architectural style, form and aesthetics than the social aspects of the modern movement as emphasised in Europe. The term "International Style" first came into use via a 1932 exhibition curated by Hitchcock and Johnson, Modern Architecture - International Exhibition, which declared and labelled the architecture of the early 20th century as the “International Style”. The most common characteristics of International Style buildings are said to be: i. rectilinear forms; ii. light, taut plane surfaces that have been completely stripped of applied ornamentation and decoration; iii. open interior spaces; iv. a visually weightless quality engendered by the use of cantilever construction. Glass and steel, in combination with usually less visible reinforced concrete, are the characteristic materials of the construction.
With the surge in the growth in cities in the first half of the twentieth century, particularly after World War II, the International Style provided an easily achievable style option for vast-scale urban development projects, "cities within cities", intended to maximise the amount of floor space for a given site, while attempting to convince local planners, politicians and the general public that the development would bring much-needed wealth to the city while, on the other hand, rejecting the proposal would lead to the development being taken to a different, competing city.
In Europe the modern movement in architecture had been called Functionalism
or Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)
, L'Esprit Nouveau
, or simply Modernism
and was very much concerned with the coming together of a new architectural form and social reform, creating a more open and transparent society.
The English term International Style originated from an exhibition in 1932 titled Modern Architecture - International Exhibition
, curated by American architectural historian and critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock
and recently graduated Harvard University
philosophy student (and later self-taught architect) Philip Johnson
Commissioned in 1931 by the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art
, Alfred H. Barr Jr, this was the first ever architectural exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art
in New York, USA. The original exhibition catalogue was then followed up immediately by the book titled The International Style
, which was reissued in 1966 with a new foreword by Hitchcock.
The aesthetics-based definition of The International Style identified, categorized and expanded upon characteristics said to be common to Modernism across the world and its stylistic aspects. Hitchcock and Johnson identified three principles: the expression of volume rather than mass, the emphasis on balance rather than preconceived symmetry, and the expulsion of applied ornament. The aim of Hitchcock and Johnson was to define a style that would encapsulate this modern architecture, doing this by the inclusion of specific architects. All the works in the 1932 Museum of Modern Art exhibition were carefully selected, only displaying those that strictly followed these rules. For example, the works of the most prominent "modern" architect in the USA, Frank Lloyd Wright, was included in the exhibition only to provide a contrast to the International Style examples, and his works were not featured at all in the book that followed.
Previous to the 1932 exhibition and book, Hitchcock had concerned himself with the themes of modern architecture in his 1929 book Modern Architecture: Romanticism and Reintegration, and the 1932 book can be seen as a supplement to the earlier book. Both books, however, are seen as "operative texts" - in the understanding defined by Italian critic Manfredo Tafuri - in that they were not merely a history but moreover a kind of manifesto proclaiming the birth of a new architecture.
Many Modernists disliked the term, believing that they had arrived at an approach to architecture that transcended "style", along with any national or regional or continental identity. The British architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner commented: "To me what had been achieved in 1914 was the style of the century. It never occurred to me to look beyond. Here was the one and only style which fitted all those aspects which mattered, aspects of economics and sociology, of materials and function. It seems folly to think that anybody would wish to abandon it."