Modern Architecture Explained

By Sean Canning

Modern architecture is a widely misunderstood style. The basis of modern architecture is incredibly simple + once it’s explained you’ll understand why you’re already a huge fan.

1. Modernism is Not Minimalism.

You know those photos of modern homes that look cold + uninviting? I mean, there’s barely any furniture in those rooms.. right? 

This is the first myth I need to dispel; don’t confuse modernism with/ minimalism.

Minimalist architecture is based on achieving an extreme level of simplicity by stripping down everything non-essential. This is actually a sub-style of modern architecture in a similar way heavy metal is a subgenre of rock + roll.

‍In short - Minimalist architecture takes reductionism to its pinnacle, aiming to present everything in its most distilled form. It's the architectural embodiment of the saying, "less is more." Modernism, on the other hand, doesn't always subscribe to this extreme simplicity.

Minimalist architecture definition

2. Form Follows Function.

At the heart of modern architecture is a profound respect for functionality. It argues that a design should arise from its purpose. This doesn't mean that aesthetics are tossed out the window. Instead, the beauty of a modernist structure emanates from its utility.

I think we can all agree that our homes should be functional, easier to use, + in turn, make our lives easier. 

Guess what? If you agree w/ that statement you have modernist tendencies.

Modern architecture puts function before aesthetics. The flat roofs, the floor-to-ceiling windows, the sweeping horizontal facades are all a result of function (or the function of ease of construction). 

A pitched roof in a cold climate region could be considered a modern design component when the function is to shed rain/snow. 

The iconic Russian ‘onion’ domes are a direct reflection of form following the function of shedding precipitation + could be considered a modern solution.

Modern architecture definition

3. Rejection of Ornament.

The next component of modern architecture is the rejection of unnecessary ornament. This just reiterates the form-follows-function principle.

In modern architecture, everything has a reason, and if an element doesn’t serve a purpose, it's discarded.

A great way to explain this it to consider a typical base moulding. That piece of moulding is functional b/c it protects the wall from damage from shoes or vacuum cleaning. A modernist would argue that base moulding should be simple, w/o a decorative style to it. The beauty comes from the function not the aesthetic.

Diagram comparing bases of a traditional base, modern base, and minimalist base

4. Modernism is Not New.. Not Even Close

Contemporary is a good word to describe something that is current. Modernism is a century old so they aren’t interchangeable terms.

Modernist theory in architecture can be traced to the German Bauhaus school of the 1920s. It was at this architecture + design school where the principals of modern architecture were originally developed. Read this blog post to learn about our favorite examples of modern american architecture.

While "contemporary" might denote the present day, "modernism" is a century-old legacy that has influenced every subsequent design movement.

5. The Building as the Ornament.

Just as new music genres + sub-genres pop-up over the decades, so do styles + theories in architecture. Since the origin of modern architecture, sub-sets have developed such as minimalism, post-modernism (I’ll reserve my opinion on post-modernism for a future post), + supermodernism.

While modernism is about the rejection of ornament, the idea of designing the building as the ornament has captivated the inner-artist of contemporary architects (click here to read our favorite quotes from histories best modern architects). The idea is intriguing; still encapsulating function while giving us the design freedom to make beautifully artistic structures.

definition of supermodern architecture

6. Embracing Technological Advances

Modern architecture is as much about vision as it is about the tools at its disposal. And among the most significant tools have been technological advancements. 

The early 20th century saw a boom in new materials and construction techniques, forever altering the architectural landscape. 

Reinforced concrete, for instance, has been a game-changer. Its strength and malleability allow architects to design intricate, winding staircases or cantilevered platforms that seem to defy gravity. 

Steel, another fundamental component, enabled the rise of skyscrapers and the creation of expansive, open spaces unencumbered by numerous support pillars. 

Finally, the evolution of industrial glass ushered in an era of buildings drenched in natural light, breaking barriers between interior and exterior. 

The dance between technology and creativity has led to not just functional structures but also ones that are aesthetically striking.

7. Sustainability + Modern Architecture

Sustainability is not just a buzzword in the architectural world; it's a commitment. 

Modern architecture often walks hand in hand with sustainable design principles. Large windows, which are a signature of the modernist style, serve a dual purpose. Beyond aesthetics, they tap into solar gains, illuminating interiors with abundant daylight, thus reducing dependence on electricity. 

a Modern and sustainable custom home in San Diego designed by Ten Seventy Architecture

Open floor plans, another staple, ensure optimal air circulation, making spaces warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, resulting in energy efficiency. 

Moreover, many modern architects are integrating renewable energy sources, rainwater harvesting, and green roofs into their designs, ensuring that buildings of today don't compromise the needs of tomorrow.

8. Integration with Nature

Early modern architects like Frank Lloyd Wright were pioneers in designing structures that didn't just sit on the land but were a part of it. This ideology resonates strongly even today. 

Modern designs often emphasize horizontal lines, mimicking the natural landscapes and horizon. 

The use of local materials, another modernist tenet, ensures that buildings resonate with their surroundings. For instance, a modern home in a forested region might use timber extensively, allowing it to nestle comfortably amid the trees. 

Furthermore, large windows and open terraces not only bring nature inside but also subtly blend the boundaries between the built and the natural environment. 

Such designs not only have minimal environmental footprints but also offer therapeutic spaces for inhabitants.

Example of modern home integrated with nature

9. Versatility + Adaptability

Modern homes and spaces are no longer rigid constructs; they are evolving entities that adapt to the inhabitants' changing needs. 

Open floor plans, a cornerstone of modern design, can be reconfigured for different purposes. What's a spacious living room today could easily transform into two smaller rooms tomorrow. Modern architecture's inherent simplicity also allows for extensions and modifications with relative ease. 

The lack of ornate detailing means that new additions can merge seamlessly with existing structures, ensuring longevity and relevance in design.

Example of open floor plan design

10. The Global Influence of Modernism

Modernism, while rooted in the Western world, has become a global phenomenon. It's a testament to the style's universal appeal and adaptability. 

The sleek skyscrapers that grace New York's skyline share design principles with the minimalist villas in Bali or the futuristic residential complexes in Tokyo. 

This universal language of design means that no matter where you are in the world, modernist principles resonate. They cater to a global audience's shared aspirations of functionality, simplicity, and beauty. 

Moreover, as cities across continents face similar challenges - from urban densification to sustainability - modernism offers solutions that are both effective and aesthetically pleasing.


Modern architecture, in its essence, is about balance. Balance between form and function, between design and utility, between history and innovation. 

The beauty lies not in extravagance, but in purposeful design. It's about crafting spaces that resonate with the human experience, making everyday life a tad bit more harmonious.

So, the next time you're admiring a modern structure, remember the layers of thought, history, and design philosophy that went into its creation.

As you can tell, we love talking about design + architecture. You can read additional blogs we've written on design + modern architecture here.

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