Modern, International, and Contemporary Architecture |Examples and Comparison

If you’re a part of the architecture and design community, the words "modern", "contemporary"  and "international" would be a frequent sight. But what do they mean? What were their contributions to the field? And how are they different from each other? 

modern, international and contemporary styles of architecture

Being part of a field that is strongly dependent on communication, it’s important we get the terms right so that we convey the right information at the right time.

By model definition, you might find that both the words modern and contemporary are quite similar. Both represent something of the present or a departure from the traditional styles. Modern style and International style do not differ much in terms of their concepts and goals. 

The broad differences between modern, international and contemporary:

Difference between modern, international and contemporary styles of architecture
Difference between modern, international and contemporary styles of architecture

1. The Modern Style

In architecture, modern style (or modernist style) refers to the major changes that happened in the field during the early twentieth century to the mid-twentieth century- a movement bent on changing the traditional ornamental design styles to one purely based on function. 

It is a broader movement comprising not only the International style but also functionalism, expressionism and several others that differ in their approach from the classical ones followed till then. 

Features of the modern movement

  • Introduction of new materials and techniques in both the art and scientific community.
  • Emergence of styles such as Bauhaus that stresses on the concept of minimalism.
  • Industrial revolution resulted in several pioneers including Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van Der Rohe to emphasize on functionality.
  • The use of the common objects like the monobloc chair that is so prevalent today replaced ornately designed teak ones.

The modern movement stays as inspiration to most of the architects simply because of how elegant and efficient the buildings have been. And the buildings designed today, that reflect the ideas of the modern period are considered to be ‘modern’.


The Bauhaus Building by Walter Gropius
The Bauhaus Building by Walter Gropius

The Bauhaus style quickly became one of the most influential aspects of modernism. The elements of architecture embraced by Walter Gropius in the Bauhaus building became precedent to the rest of the buildings that came up.

Architectural characteristics of the Bauhaus building:
  • Glass facade on the load bearing framework that hides the corners of the building creating transparency.
  • Asymmetrical and functional separation of complex wings.
  • Visible constructional elements on the building. 
  • Use of primary industrial materials such as steel, glass and concrete.

2. The International Style

International style is a movement slightly different from modernism but closely related to it. The style, which is actually a subset of modern style that Rejected the use of sophisticated ornamentation and bright colors.

The early skyscrapers which came up around the 1920s are a consequence of the International style.

Features of the international style

  • Emphasis on volume over mass.
  • Encouraged the use of lightweight materials.
  • Use of simple, clean and repetitive forms with flat surfaces.
  • Glass and steel became major building materials as a source of development.

The international style made architects rethink the idea of architecture and encouraged newer perspectives to designing a space. 


Elevation view of the Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe
The Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe

The Seagram building designed by Mies Van Der Rohe still stands as one of the most appreciated architectural masterpieces of New York, United States. This 39 floor tall high-rise was a symbol of design and expression in the international era.

Architectural characteristics of the Seagram building:

  • Built with the architect’s popular motto of ‘less is more’.
  • The building is a rectangular structure supported by piles.
  • The front glass facade is enhanced with steel beams and bronze columns.
  • Visual uniformity is maintained through the design of the blinds for the glass facade.

3. The Contemporary Style

Contemporary architecture refers to no particular era, rather whatever is the state-of-the-art trend. It mainly focuses on making completely new innovations rather than replicating older styles. 

It doesn't refer to any one particular style- it is a collection of various different styles unique to each architect which sometimes look nothing alike. These include buildings that are often considered as "unconventional" and "controversial".

Features of the contemporary style 

  • Use of minimalism and neutral colors.
  • Lightweight materials like glass and steel were prevalent.
  • Benefit from technological emergence to create magnificent and complex designs.
  • Sticking to current trends and designing to the preference of the users.

Simply put, if one day people wake up and decide they prefer living in houses that reflect the design of Middle Age Palaces, that would come under the category of contemporary architecture of that time.


The Gherkin by Foster+Partners
The Gherkin, London by Foster+Partners

30 St. Mary Axe, popularly known as the Gherkin in London, is an architectural marvel by the Foster + Partners architecture firm. This radial sustainable office tower adorns the London city skyline with its massive and visually impressive structure.

Architectural characteristics of the Gherkin:

  • The circular plan is designed to reduce wind deflections in the ground level.
  • Energy efficient as the structure's fully glazed design lets in natural light and also allows for a 360 degree view of the city.
  • Inspired by Buckminister Fuller, the triangulated skin converges the facade into the roof.
  • Recreational spaces, known as the ‘lungs’ are placed where the facade panels can be opened. That hence reduces the energy consumption by half. 

To sum it all up:

Modern architecture refers to the period in which the field broke away from the historic styles of being super extra. 

Similarly, International is a small part of the Modern style, with similar goals of minimalism and functionalism. 

Differently, Contemporary is the latest style as a result of several decades' worth of innovation and designs. 

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Modern, International, and Contemporary Architecture |Examples and Comparison