International Style (architecture)

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Buildings featured in the 1932 MOMA exhibition[edit]

Villa Savoye, Paris, Le Corbusier

Bauhaus, Dessau, Walter Gropius

Fagus Factory, Alfeld, Walter Gropius

Barcelona Pavilion, Barcelona, Mies van der Rohe

Villa Tugendhat, Brno, Mies van der Rohe

Kiefhoek housing, Rotterdam, J.J.P. Oud

Rothenberg Siedlung, Kassel, Otto Haesler

The former Schocken department store, in Chemnitz, Erich Mendelsohn

Lovell House, Los Angeles, Richard Neutra

Mcgraw-Hill building, New York, Raymond Hood

PSFS Building, Philadelphia, George Howe and William Lescaze

Turun Sanomat, Turku, Alvar Aalto



Aerial view of the Weissenhof Estate, Stuttgart, Germany (1927)

Around 1900 a number of architects around the world began developing new architectural solutions to integrate traditional precedents with new social demands and technological possibilities. The work of Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde in Brussels, Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Otto Wagner in Vienna and Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, among many others, can be seen as a common struggle between old and new. Hitchcock and Johnson do not see these architects, however, as part of the International Style because they are seen as retaining traces of an "individualistic manner"; that is, not so much the creators of a new style as the last representatives of Romanticism.[5]

The Glass Palace, Heerlen, Netherlands, Frits Peutz (1935).

The "International Style", as defined by Hitchcock and Johnson, as such blossomed in 1920s Western Europe. Significant contemporary common ground is found among the activities of the Dutch De Stijl movement, works of the French/Swiss architect Le Corbusier, and various German efforts to industrialize craft traditions, which resulted in the formation of the Deutscher Werkbund, large civic worker-housing projects in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, and, most famously, the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was one of a number of European schools and associations concerned with reconciling craft tradition and industrial technology for the purpose of bringing about change in society.

Villa in Södra Ängby in western Stockholm, Sweden, Edvin Engström (1938).

Le Corbusier had hoped that politically minded industrialists in France would lead the way with their efficient Taylorist and Fordist strategies adopted from American industrial models in order to reorganize society. In this new industrial spirit, Le Corbusier contributed to a new journal called L'Esprit Nouveau that advocated the use of modern industrial techniques and strategies to transform society into a more efficient environment with a higher standard of living on all socio-economic levels. He forcefully argued that this transformation was necessary to avoid the spectre of revolution that would otherwise shake society. His dictum "Architecture or Revolution", developed in his articles in this journal, became his rallying cry for the book Vers une architecture (Toward an Architecture), which comprised selected articles he contributed to L'Esprit Nouveau between 1920 and 1923.[10] Despite all the debate about increasing living standards, in favouring architecture over revolution, he laid the principle for the autonomy of architecture; that is, that architecture could be discussed in purely formal or aesthetic terms. Modern architecture, a truly international style, would serve any political position.

Thus, in terms of form, common characteristics of the International Style include: a radical simplification of form, a rejection of ornament, and adoption of glass, steel and concrete as preferred materials. Further, the transparency of buildings, construction (called the honest expression of structure), and acceptance of industrialized mass-production techniques contributed to the international style's design philosophy. Finally, the machine aesthetic, and logical design decisions leading to support building function were used by the International architect to create buildings reaching beyond historicism. The ideals of the style are commonly summed up in three slogans: ornament is a crime, truth to materials, form follows function; and Le Corbusier's description of houses as "machines for living".

In 1927, one of the first and most defining manifestations of the International Style was the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, built as a component of the exhibition "Die Wohnung", organized by the Deutscher Werkbund, and overseen by Mies van der Rohe. The fifteen contributing architects included Mies, and other names most associated with the movement: Peter Behrens, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, J.J.P. Oud, Mart Stam, Bruno Taut and the less known young architect, Franz Krause. The exhibition was enormously popular, with thousands of daily visitors. However, there was also some critique: the Stuttgart “League for Heimat Protection” [Bund für Heimatschutz] referred to it as the “Arab village” (Araberdorf) - and a picture was made showing it looking like one - and called for it be torn down.

The gradual rise of the Nazi regime in Weimar Germany in the 1930s, and the Nazis' rejection of modern architecture, meant that an entire generation of avant-gardist architects, many of them Jews, were forced out of continental Europe. Some, such as Mendelsohn, found shelter in England, while a considerable number of the Jewish architects made their way to Palestine, and others to the USA. However, American anti-Communist politics after the war and Philip Johnson's influential rejection of functionalism have tended to mask the fact that many of the important architects, including contributors to the original Weissenhof project, fled to the Soviet Union. This group also tended to be far more concerned with functionalism and its social agenda. Bruno Taut, Mart Stam, the second Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer, Ernst May and other important figures of the International Style went to the Soviet Union in 1930 to undertake huge, ambitious, idealistic urban planning projects, building entire cities from scratch. In 1936, when Stalin ordered them out of the country, many of these architects became stateless and sought refuge elsewhere; for example, Ernst May moved to Kenya.[11]

  • The town of Portolago (now Lakki) on the Greek Dodecanese island of Leros represents some of the most interesting urban planning from the fascist regime in the Dodecanese, a strand of modernist architecture often referred to Italian Rationalism. The symbolism of the shapes is reflected with exemplary effectiveness in the buildings of Lakki: the administration building, the metaphysical tower of the market, the cinema-theatre, the Hotel Roma (now Hotel Leros), the church of San Francisco and the hospital are fine examples of the style.

  • The residential area of Södra Ängby in western Stockholm, Sweden, blended an international or functionalist style with garden city ideals. Encompassing more than 500 buildings, most of them designed by Edvin Engström, it remains the largest coherent functionalist or "International Style" villa area in Sweden and possibly the world, still well-preserved more than a half-century after its construction in 1933–40 and protected as a national cultural heritage.[12]

North America[edit]

Seagram building, New York, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1958)

Prior to use of the term 'International Style', the same striving towards simplification, honesty and clarity are identifiable in US architects, notably in the work of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, as well as the west-coast residences of Irving Gill. Frank Lloyd Wright's Wasmuth Portfolio had been exhibited in Europe and influenced the work of European modernists, and his travels there probably influenced his own work, although he refused to be categorized with them. In 1922, the competition for the Tribune Tower and its famous second-place entry by Eliel Saarinen gave some indication of what was to come, though these works would not have been accepted by Hitchcock and Johnson as representing the "International Style". Similarly, Johnson, writing about Joseph Urban's recently completed New School for Social Research in New York, stated: "In the New School we have an anomaly of a building supposed to be in a style of architecture based on the development of the plan from function and facade from plan but which is a formally and pretentiously conceived as a Renaissance palace. Urban's admiration for the New Style is more complete than his understanding."[4]

The same year that Hitchcock and Johnson coined the term International Style saw the completion of the world's first International Style skyscraper, Philadelphia's PSFS Building, and the building was indeed featured in the MoMA exhibition. Designed by the truly "international" team of architects, George Howe and William Lescaze, the PSFS Building has become an integral element of the Philadelphia skyline.

Frank Lloyd Wright's work was considered a formative influence on the international style, but he was considered not to have kept up with more recent developments. His work was included in the exhibition, but not the catalogue or book. This provoked Wright to quip in response to Hitchcock and Johnson "...having a good start, not only do I fully intend to be the greatest architect who has yet lived, but fully intend to be the greatest architect who will ever live". His buildings of the 1920s and 1930s clearly showed a change in the style of the architect, but in a different direction than the International Style.

With the rise of Nazism, a number of key European modern architects fled to the USA. When Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer fled Germany they both arrived at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, in an excellent position to extend their influence and promote the Bauhaus as the primary source of architectural modernism. When Mies fled in 1938, he first fled to England, but on emigrating to the USA he went to Chicago, founded the Second School of Chicago at IIT and solidified his reputation as a prototypical modern architect.

Tower C of Place de Ville, the tallest building in Ottawa

After World War II, the International Style matured, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (later renamed HOK) and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) perfected the corporate practice, and it became the dominant approach for decades in the US and Canada. Beginning with the initial technical and formal inventions of 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago its most famous examples include the United Nations headquarters, the Lever House, the Seagram Building in New York, and the campus of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as well as the Toronto-Dominion Centre in Toronto. Further examples can be found in mid-century institutional buildings throughout North America and the "corporate architecture" spread from there, especially to Europe.

In Canada, this period coincided with a major building boom and few restrictions on massive building projects. International Style skyscrapers came to dominate many of Canada's major cities, especially Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton, and Toronto. While these glass boxes were at first unique and interesting, the idea was soon repeated to the point of ubiquity. A typical example is the development of so-called Place de Ville, a conglomeration of three glass skyscrapers in downtown Ottawa, where the plans of the property developer Robert Campeau in the mid 1960s and early 1970s - in the words of historian Robert W. Collier, "forceful and abrasive, he was not well-loved at City Hall" - had no regard for existing city plans, "built with contempt for the existing city and for city responsibilities in the key areas of transportation and land use".[2] Architects attempted to put new twists into such towers, such as the Toronto City Hall by Finnish architect Viljo Revell. By the late 1970s a backlash was under way against modernism — prominent anti-modernists such as Jane Jacobs and George Baird were partly based in Toronto.

The typical International Style or "corporate architecture" high-rise usually consists of the following:

  1. Square or rectangular footprint

  2. Simple cubic "extruded rectangle" form

  3. Windows running in broken horizontal rows forming a grid

  4. All facade angles are 90 degrees.


"White Tel Aviv", Dizengoff Circle, by Genia Averbouch, 1934

In July 1994, UNESCO proclaimed the White City of Tel Aviv a World Heritage Site, describing the city as "a synthesis of outstanding significance of the various trends of the Modern Movement in architecture and town planning in the early part of the 20th century".[13] Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 by European Jewish settlers, who erected the first buildings on sand dunes outside the inhabited ancient Arab town of Jaffa.[14] A large proportion of the buildings built in the International Style can be found in the area planned by Patrick Geddes, north of Tel Aviv's main historical commercial center. Geddes laid out the streets and decided on block size and utilization. His plan was to create a garden city, but in a more compact form than in England.[15] He did not prescribe an architectural style for the buildings in the new city, though he himself favoured architectural eclecticism. The impetus for large-scale construction in the new style came from the rapid influx of European Jewish immigrants (who grew in numbers from about 2,000 in 1914 to about 150,000 in 1937).[16] In the 1930s, new architects and architectural ideas were to converge on Tel Aviv to satisfy a burgeoning, relatively prosperous population with European tastes.

Esther Theater, now the Cinema Hotel, by architect Jehuda Magidovitch[17]

By 1933 many Jewish architects who had studied at the German Bauhaus school, which was closed down on the orders of the Nazi Party, fled to the British Mandate of Palestine.[18] But there were also other architects arriving from the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Poland, but had studied in avant-gardist schools in Moscow, France and Italy. The residential and public buildings were designed by these architects, who took advantage of the absence of established architectural conventions to put the principles of modern architecture into practice. The Bauhaus principles, with their emphasis on functionality and inexpensive building materials, were perceived as ideal in Tel Aviv. The architects fleeing Europe combined their Bauhaus or Functionalist ideas with the architectural ideals of Le Corbusier. Among notable architects were Erich Mendelsohn, who belonged to the Expressionist school and who was active in Jerusalem in the 1930s, Carl Rubin, who had worked in Mendelsohn's office,[19] Oskar Kaufmann, Jehuda Magidovitch, Dov Karmi, Zeev Rechter, Richard Kaufmann and Arieh Sharon.[20]

In 1984, in celebration of Tel Aviv's 75th year,[21] an exhibition was held at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art entitled White City, International Style Architecture in Israel, Portrait of an Era, which continued to travel the world afterwards. In 1994, a conference took place at the UNESCO headquarters, entitled World Conference on the International Style in Architecture. In 1996, Tel Aviv's White City was listed as a World Monuments Fund endangered site.[22] In 2003, UNESCO named Tel Aviv a World Heritage Site for its treasure of modern architecture.[13]

Other countries[edit]

One of the strengths of the International Style has been said to be that the design solutions were indifferent to location, site, and climate; the solutions were supposed to be universally applicable; the style made no reference to local history or national vernacular. This was soon identified as one of the style's primary weaknesses. Indeed, already at the same time as key "International Style" works were being built, some architects were already adapting it to local conditions. A key example is that of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, the influential critic Sigfried Giedion saying that "Finland is with Aalto wherever he goes".[23]

In the preface to the 2007 fourth edition of his book Modern Architecture - A Critical History, Kenneth Frampton argues that there has been a "disturbing Eurocentric bias" in received histories of modern architecture. This "Eurocentrism" includes the USA.[24] So while, on the one hand, a number of key European avant-gardist architects would with the rise of Nazism, fleeing to England, Sweden, Palestine, Soviet Union and USA, there would also be "indigenous" modernist groups in Mexico, the Middle East, India, Central America, South America and Africa.

  • In 2000 UNESCO proclaimed Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas in Caracas, Venezuela, as a World Heritage Site, describing it as "a masterpiece of modern city planning, architecture and art, created by the Venezuelan architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva and a group of distinguished avant-garde artists".[citation needed]

  • In June 2007 UNESCO proclaimed Ciudad Universitaria of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), in Mexico City, a World Heritage Site due to its relevance and contribution in terms of international style movement (as well as cultural - alma mater of 3 Nobel Prize winners and most Mexican presidents).[citation needed] It was designed in the late 1940s and built in the mid-1950s based upon a masterplan created by architect Enrique del Moral. His original idea was enriched by other students, teachers, and diverse professionals of several disciplines. The university houses murals by Diego Rivera, Juan O'Gorman and others. The university also features Olympic Stadium (1968). In his first years of practice, Pritzker Prize winner and Mexican architect Luis Barragán designed buildings in the International Style. But later he evolved to a more traditional local architecture. Other notable Mexican architects of the International Style or modern period are Carlos Obregón Santacilia, Augusto H. Alvarez, Mario Pani, Federico Mariscal, Vladimir Kaspé, Enrique del Moral, Juan Sordo Madaleno, Max Cetto, among many others.

  • In Brazil Oscar Niemeyer proposed a more organic and sensual[25] International Style. He designed the political landmarks (headquarters of the three state powers) of the new, planned capital Brasilia. The masterplan for the city was proposed by Lucio Costa.
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