The International Style
Summary of The International Style
Today when people speak of the "architecture of the modern movement," they are usually referring to the International Style - especially the gleaming steel, glass, and concrete forms of its most famous buildings. More of a movement than a mere aesthetic, the International Style emerged in Europe partly as a response to the cataclysm of World War I and related events. Its use in postwar housing gave it renown as a symbol of social and industrial progress, and not surprisingly, the International Style often resonated with leftist political groups. In the face of opposition from totalitarian regimes in the 1930s, many of the International Style's European proponents resettled in the United States, where economic expansion after World War II allowed it to flourish, particularly in skyscraper construction.
This, along with the growth of rapid postwar intercontinental communication, allowed it to become a truly global architecture. But the inability of the International Style's supporters to solve social problems as its founders had hoped, coupled with its rigid formal monotony, prompted many architects in the 1960s to seek new design directions that reflected an increasingly diverse, commercialized, and post-industrial society. While few architects today call themselves adherents of the International Style, an equally small number would say it has not in some way influenced their work.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- The International Style is often thought of as the "architecture of the machine age," which symbolized for many the crystallization of modernism in building design. This became particularly true after World War II, when the postwar economic building boom made the International Style a kind of "unofficial" American architecture.
- Often called "minimalist" architecture, International Style buildings are well-known for the way they seem to strip away all extraneous ornament from the structure, leading to an extreme blurring of interior and exterior space, the exposure of buildings' construction with unvarnished honesty, and the glorification of modern industrial materials: chiefly, steel, concrete, and glass.
- The International Style was one of the first architectural movements to receive renown and be adopted unequivocally on every inhabited continent. It became a global symbol of modernity both before and after World War II, especially in Latin America and Asia, where nations felt a keen desire to industrialize and compete politically and economically with traditional powers in Europe and North America.
- The term "International Style" was coined in 1932 by an eponymous exposition of European architects at the Museum of Modern Art in New York curated by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson to describe an ethos of construction purely in terms of materials and space, with virtually no reference to the sociopolitical dimension, as had been highly emphasized in Europe. This differentiated the International Style between its understanding in Europe versus in the USA.
Overview of The International Style
The International Style arose from several strands of architectural and political thought in the 1910s. First, it often has been said to have grown out of a fascination with buildings for a modern industrialized age, especially factories and warehouses, which demanded utilitarian designs that included ample natural lighting and flexible interior space for machinery or storage for huge quantities of items, with minimal ornamentation of the structure. Such structures also spoke to the efficiency of construction and the solidity of materials. In Germany, such thought was visible in the steel-framed turbine factory in Berlin for Allgemeines Elektrisitäts Gesellschaft - the German General Electric - designed by company architect Peter Behrens between 1907 and 1910. At the time, Behrens simultaneously employed three seminal figures in the history of the International Style: Walter Gropius, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (later known as Le Corbusier), and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Soon afterwards, Gropius left Behrens' office and opened his own practice with Adolf Meyer; they immediately received a commission for the new Fagus Shoe Factory at Alfeld-an-der-Leine in 1911, whose large glass curtain walls would be equally as inspiring for progressive architects.
Important Art and Artists of The International Style
Home to the state-supported school for the applied arts, the Bauhaus was founded in Weimar in 1919 by Walter Gropius, but moved to Dessau in 1925 when political conditions in the latter became more favorable to its left-leaning educational climate. Gropius designed the school's new permanent home along with the faculty residences nearby that same year.
The pinwheel-plan institutional building is composed of an asymmetrical set of prismatic structures of reinforced concrete. Each section - dormitories, studio spaces, offices, and refectory - uses a different design that delineates its respective function with remarkable clarity, particularly the use of massive glass curtain walls for the studio spaces to maximize the admittance of natural light. The wraparound corners of these windows, which emerge from the plane of the rest of the facade, enable one to see through two sides of the structure simultaneously, a feature that prompted architectural critic Reyner Banham to call it the first "Cubist" building. The complex only housed the Bauhaus for four years before the political climate became untenable and it moved to Berlin, closing for good under Nazi pressure in 1933.
The Villa Savoye is the last of Le Corbusier's houses that he designed during the 1920s, and fittingly is considered the summation of his "Five Points of a New Architecture" elucidated in his treatise Vers une architecture (1923). The pilotis, or thin point-support columns, are arranged in a near-perfect grid that provides the architect almost complete freedom in the designs of both the floor plan and the facades. The second floor, the main living space, is characterized by the ribbon windows that provide unencumbered views of the landscape - fostering the strong connection between nature and the machine - and it is crowned by a roof terrace.
Built entirely out of the industrial materials of steel, concrete, and glass, the Villa Savoye exhibits several links with the modern means of transportation that fascinated Le Corbusier. The terrace features a sculptural wall whose curved forms echo the smokestacks of ocean liners, a relationship which is underscored by the placement of the house within a large lawn, much like a ship sailing through a vast sea; and in the metal ship-deck railings of the ramps that connect the house's three levels. Meanwhile, the curve of the driveway as it snakes around the first level uses the exact turning radius of a 1929 model Voisin - the automobile manufacturer that had supported Le Corbusier's work throughout the decade. The villa thus represents the way Le Corbusier conceived of a dwelling as "a machine for living."
Mies and Lilly Reich together designed the German Pavilion for the 1929 World's Fair in Barcelona - a structure which now ranks among the most significant temporary structures ever built, particularly for an international exposition. Demolished after the fair, it was reconstructed in 1986 using the original plans, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It constitutes Mies' most succinct statement in the reduction of a building to the minimal requirements to define space: a handful of columns elevated on a platform juxtaposed with asymmetrically-arranged opaque and transparent wall planes, supporting a flat roof.
The Pavilion functioned during the fair as simply a reception space for dignitaries, as the Weimar government had other space for actual exhibits. Though there is an extreme emphasis on horizontality, the platform of travertine (a common stone used in ancient classical monuments) elevates it much like a Greek temple, with a structural clarity to match. But also here we see the fineness of materials: the cruciform-plan steel columns are chrome-plated, and the interior is ornamented solely with a red curtain, while the colored onyx walls are cut to expose the diamond pattern, all of which recalling an attention to refinement and craftsmanship that is balanced with the building's clear machine-made qualities. It therefore exemplifies the visual form of Mies' famous dictum, "Less is more."
Useful Resources on The International Style
- The International StyleOur PickBy Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson
- International Style (Taschen's World Architecture)Our PickBy Hasan-Uddin Kahn and Philip Jodido
- Le Corbusier and the Maisons JaoulBy Caroline Benton
- Le CorbusierBy Jean-Louis Cohen and Peter Gossel
- Mies Van Der RoheBy Claire Zimmerman and Peter Gossel
- BauhausBy Magdalena Droste and Peter Gossel
- WrightBy Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer and Peter Gossel
- A Movement in a Moment: The International StyleOur PickPhaidon
- Le Corbusier's Architecture and His Politics RevisitedBy Rachel Donadio / NYT / July 2015
- The Classical Ideals of Le CorbusierBy William JR Curtis / Architectural Review / September 2011
- Philip Johnson Architecture's Restless Intellect, Dies at 98By Paul Goldberger / NYT / January 2005
- How Chicago Sparked International Style of Architecture in AmericaBy Beau Peregoy / Architectural Digest / March 2017
- Bauhaus, History of Modern Architecture, International StyleDocumentary about the Bauhaus and Modern/International Architecture. 2 parts
- Clean Lines, Open Spaces - A View of Midcentury Modern ArchitectureMany buildings in the state of Arkansas constructed in International and Modern Style architecture discussed within the context of these global movements
- 7 Documentaries to Deepen Your Understanding of Le CorbusierOur PickA compilation of videos that detail the work and process of Le Corbusier
- American Architecture Now: Philip JohnsonVideo interview about Philip Johnson's life and work
- Luis Kahn: ArchitectVideo on the teachings and style of Luis Kahn
- van der Rohe Panel Discussion (2001)Panel discussion on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Architecture