The Story of Modernism


The Story of Modernism

By Angela Cabotaje

We’ve talked about modern homes and the history of modern design in the Pacific Northwest, but what is modernism exactly?

With loose parameters, the answer may depend on who you ask, but here’s the simplified version: Modernism is a broad term used to describe a style—an aesthetic, an approach, or even an attitude—of architecture and design. The focus is on function, simplification of form, and a shift away from excessive ornamentation.

After World War I, Europe embraced the progressive modernist philosophy, influencing architects like Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius. The Museum of Modern Art highlighted this shift in 1932 with its “International Exhibition of Modern Architecture,” and from there, American modernism rose to prominence. Roughly spanning the 1930s–1970s, modernism eventually gave way to postmodernism and the blending of historic elements with newer construction methods. Today, modernism is being embraced once again, with a heavier focus on green innovation and a celebration of bold contrasts in regard to color, line, and material.

With such a broad history, it’s natural that modernism has several sub-styles, including:

Brutalism: Drawn from the French phrase béton brut, meaning “raw concrete,” Brutalist structures began as a low-cost building solution and are blocky, stark, and severe.

International Style: A “solution” to Art Deco, International Style structures boast a sleek look and are usually made of steel, glass, and concrete. Curtain walls, flat roofs, and sparse ornamentation are common features.

Shed: Characterized by a boxy, one- to two-story structure topped with a steep, single-slant roof, these homes are well suited to harness passive-solar energy.

Slick Skin: With smooth, glass-clad exteriors, these buildings take advantage of advanced construction methods to create a seamless look. Usually seen in corporate high-rises, these structures often feature little to no differentiation between floors.

To read more about these and other modern sub-styles in the Pacific Northwest, visit Docomomo WEWA (Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement in Western Washington), a local nonprofit devoted to preserving modernism in the region.

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