Rectilinear forms stripped of any ornament; light, taut plane surfaces with open interior spaces; glass and steel for apparently weightless structures; these are the hallmarks of the “International Style” that spread in Europe throughout the XX century.
The road to the International Style
In the late 19th century, architects were growing dissatisfied with the eclectic, chaotic blend of styles, ornaments, and techniques that characterized contemporary buildings; the modern, industrial societies meant that there was a need for large volumes of office, residential and commercial buildings; and finally, the development of new building technologies making large use of iron, steel, reinforced concrete and glass (more effective and cheaper than traditional masonry materials) meant an ever-growing shift in construction (and aesthetic) priorities. These three phenomena would form the foundations of the International Style, proposing the vision of harmony between appearance, technology, and functionality; a state where modern buildings’ form and appearance would naturally grow out of and express the potentialities of their materials and structural engineering.
International Style Characteristics
The typical features of the International Style and its buildings include linear shapes, plane surfaces completely without ornaments, and open, even fluid, inner spaces. This translated into a form of minimalism with a singular “modern look”, improved by its use of advanced materials, such as glass for the facade, steel for exterior supports, and concrete (often carefully hidden to not upset the visual balance) for interior supports and floors.
In 1932, the “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, showcasing the novelties and modern advancements in design and architecture. Curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the exhibit presented a new style of architecture to the world, already featuring the simple, hyper-modern geometries that would go on to define the International Style.
International Style Architects
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, was an architect belonging to the first generation of the International school. Among his most famous works of International style was Villa Savoye: a building designed to address the emblematic “Five Points” of Le Corbusier, the basic tenets in the new architectural aesthetic:
- Support of ground-level pilotis, to elevate the structure;
- Functional roof, to stay in contact with nature;
- Free floor plan;
- Long horizontal windows;
- Freely-designed facades;
Richard Neutra, defined as one of the most important architects of his time, was born in Vienna in 1892, studying at the Technische Hochschule from 1911 to 1917. Of note is his project for the Lovell (Health) House, with balconies sustained by steel cables from the roof structure, forming an open-web skeleton (that had to be taken to the steep hillside by truck). Neutra’s way of bringing designs to life was geometric and simple, always aware of the site he was working on and its potential.
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lovell_House
Philip Johnson was a polyhedral figure, even when compared to his peers: a proponent of minimalism, a voice to push Modernism forward, and even a defining figure in the Post Modernist movement, he is regarded as a key figure for his roles as both architect and critic. His residence and most famous creation, the Glass House, was an odyssey of experimental proportions in forms, function, materials, and landscape “sculpting”, proved to be a pioneer project that not only proved iconic thanks to its innovative use of materials and integration with the surroundings but also ushered the International Style into residential American architecture. To this day, it is considered an emblem of Modernism, as an idea and as a style.