How Did the Modern Movement Pave the Way for New Architectural Styles?

The 20th century modern movement sparked many reactions in architecture. Architects started to explore what it meant to live and design in a non-modern way.

Aug 6, 2023By Nicola Van Der Merwe, BSc Architecture and Design

modern movement new architectural styles


The fascinating era of postmodernism that followed modernism became an incubator for various new styles in architecture. This allowed freedom from the constraints of the so-called modern design. Two of the styles that emerged during this time were Critical Regionalism and the more detailed Hi-Tech Neo Avant-Gardism. Read on  to learn more about how the modern movement affected the world of architecture.


What is the Modern Movement?

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The Pruitt-Igoe social housing development, built in 1954, demolished in 1972, via ArchDaily


Modernism first became dominant during the state of limbo experienced in Northern America after the end of World War II. Architects started fighting for change against eclecticism and embraced new ways of thinking. This was brought about by the transformation of the economy, industrialization, and rising political regimes. In architecture, the modern movement was marked by design that embraced minimalism to the point of a complete rejection of ornamentation. The famous philosophy of form follows function was born from the modern movement. This describes an architecture that was based solely on what the function of the building or space was supposed to be.


The modern style of architecture is known for strict lines, asymmetrical spaces, open-plan layouts, and large volumes. There was no room for excessive decoration or ornamentation. The idea of less is more emerged from the modern movement. It led to an aesthetic that tended toward neutral colors and geometry around the exterior of a building, often causing architecture of the modern movement to be in stark contrast to its surroundings, whether natural or urban.


Modern Movement Architects and Their Designs

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Courtyard of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, via ArchDaily


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Some of the most influential architects in the industry were leading the modern movement between the 1920s and 1960s. Perhaps the most famous are Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Both architects had their own ideologies and outlooks on modernism that helped evolve the style and its influence.


Le Corbusier was known not only for his architecture, but his paintings, urban planning, and writing. Through his influence, he helped shape the fabric of modernism as we know it today. His Villa Savoye is seen as one of the most famous modernist designs of all time, located in Poissy, France. Le Corbusier designed this villa in 1928 for Pierre and Eugénie Savoye. The clients gave him complete freedom, so Le Corbusier took advantage of this. He used what became known as his five points of a new architecture: piloti columns, roof gardens, long rectangular windows, free-flowing plans, and the free façade. Villa Savoye marked the start of a new direction in architecture and the development of the modern movement.


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The exterior of Farnsworth house in fall by Mies van der Rohe, via ArchDaily


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was another modern architect who substantially influenced postmodern architectural design. He started his career learning the essential skill of drawing in trade school and working as a draughtsman.  In 1907, he pivoted to architecture, when he started studying under architect Peter Behrens alongside Le Corbusier and other famous modern architects.


Mies van der Rohe’s architecture is marked by his use of steel and glass materials, minimalist columns, and planes of floor and roof slabs. He also used open plans and see-through vistas in his designs. All these stylistic characteristics are visible in one of his most famous designs called the Farnsworth House. The house was designed and built between 1945-1951 for Dr. Edith Farnsworth. It is situated in a very green location in Plano, Illinois. The architect used the surrounding trees for privacy, allowing him to employ his stylistic open, minimal, glass-and-steel design on the house. Extending the simplicity of the design, he employed the windows as structural elements. This crossover of elements set the stage for more technologically focused styles in the postmodern era to come.


The Modern Movement and Critical Regionalism

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The exterior of House Anderssen by Norman Eaton, in Pretoria, South Africa, via


Critical Regionalism is a stylistic response to the modern movement that considers the importance of place and context in architecture, as well as the means through which the design evolves. It re-imagines the traditions of the built form and reinterprets various ways of living. This architecture is controlled by tradition, technology, and resistance to the characteristics of the preceding modern movement.


In reaction to the utopianism and abstract ideals of the early modern movement, critical regionalism aims to distance itself from the philosophy of modernism. It embraces context and identity over the sterile, almost brutal architecture of the modern movement. It gives meaning to every aspect of a building, opposing the tasteless and tawdry characteristics of postmodern architecture.


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Outside view of the patio of House Anderssen by Norman Eaton, via


The design of a building is meant to establish and highlight certain spaces in the site instead of inserting separate tangible objects in the surrounding landscape and context without regard to the location. Along with this, focus is placed on the tectonic elements of the structure. This emphasizes the regional aspects of the design, highlighting the cultural significance of the design.


A truly critically regionalist design should emphasize the climate as well as the topography of the site and aim to create a separately placed lifestyle that is not closed to external aspects in any way, either through technology or form. The aim of this design choice is to promote inclusion in the overall design, instead of a surface-level exclusion of the user and society.


Often regarded as the pinnacle of a South African Regionalist design, House Anderssen by Norman Eaton illustrates a variety of characteristics owed to a critically regionalist design. Eaton’s houses show a response to the regional climate, landscape, textures, and color palette.


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Plan of House Anderssen by Norman Eaton, via Sabinet


When looking at the plan, there is a distinct lack of transitional spaces from the interior to the exterior. The design focuses more on the overall materiality and context of the surrounding landscape. The wood and stone finishes directly communicate the openness and natural atmosphere of the site. The design drawings indicate that the existing trees on site were kept and included in the design. This demonstrates a conscious effort to preserve the natural feeling of the place where the house is located. A grid based on the dimensions of the wooden framed windows ensures regulating lines across the plan and also identifies the origin of the composition of the spaces. The lack of persistent patterns in the openings does not bind the design to any previously existing style. This causes neutrality that also enhances the imagery associated with a regionalist approach.


The Modern Movement and the Hi-Tech Neo Avant-Gardism

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The exterior of Kimbell Art Museum, via ArchDaily


Neo-Avant-Gardism is a stylistic response to the modern movement, based on the pursuit of finding a theoretical and artistic architectural style like that of the European Avant-Garde before the war. In architecture, Hi-Tech Neo-Avant-Gardism became a sub-movement of the style, reacting to the modern movement in a different way. It imposes the importance of technology’s role as a means to solve the problems that society is facing. While a reaction to the modern movement, Hi-Tech Neo Avant-Gardism regards modernism as an ongoing, unfinished architectural experiment.


Hi-Tech Neo-Avant-Gardism specifically emphasizes the idea that technology is an integral part of the development of architecture. It aims to find a new function and integration of developing structures, materials, and services.


This foundation was a reaction against modern architecture that was seen as failed boxes of steel and glass. Instead of complying with modern architectural ideals of buildings with an aesthetic derived from the philosophy of form follows function, Hi-Tech Neo Avant-Gardism derives its aesthetic from the opposite. It celebrates the advancement and technological function of the building.


modern movement kimbell art museum hi tech roof
Roof detail of Kimbell Art Museum, via ArchDaily


In Hi-Tech Neo-Avant-Gardism, the design should feature an undecorated, open space that is flexible for various changes. Another characteristic that defines Hi-Tech Neo-Avant-Gardism is that the open, flexible space should house an adaptable and integrated network of services. These services should become one with the building and maintain its functionality of space. Through articulating the structure of the building along with the services, the expression of these is achieved through modern materials, reminiscent of industrial production.


The famous postmodern architect Renzo Piano created an additional pavilion in 2013 for the existing Kimbell Art Museum which was originally designed by Louis Kahn in 1972. The design shows the characteristics of a Hi-Tech Neo Avant-Gardist approach. The openness and transparency in the transitions between spaces are achieved using fully glazed facades and route-managing concrete walls. These elements create an undecorated, open, and flexible space. The most explicit tie to the stylistic approach of the pavilion design is the roof structure. It is made of stretched fabric and glass covering wooden beams, housing aluminum louvers and the technologically advanced use of photovoltaic cells.


Unifying the Modern Movement with Postmodern Styles

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Temporary Powell Library, University of California, Los Angeles, via


There is no single reaction to the modern movement that caused new styles to emerge, however, more than one ideology and reaction led to various new styles and architectures. Eaton’s Anderssen House employs certain stereotomic elements and the Kimbell Art Museum Pavilion is mainly made up of tectonic parts, showing the use of many modern materials. In the interior, Eaton’s design creates an ambiance that is tailored to the seasonal conditions of the site, with tall windows allowing light to further reach the house during winter when the sun is low. In contrast, Piano’s design of the interior uses a technological approach to mitigate changing weather through photovoltaic cells and a transitory roof that adapts to the environment.


The styles of Critical Regionalism and Hi-Tech Neo Avant-Gardism are the perfect illustrators of two ideologies that developed as reactions to the modern movement. While there are differences in design, technology, and execution, the core idea of the two styles remains the same. Postmodern design starts with the search for a style that is free from the constraints of the previous era.

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By Nicola Van Der MerweBSc Architecture and DesignNicola is an architecture student from a small university town in South Africa, currently studying at the University of Pretoria. Her passion for research and writing stems from years before her studies, recently pivoting to the field of architectural history. Her interests include Classical and Baroque architecture, as well as the Modern Movement. Apart from studying and writing, she holds a Grade 8 Piano qualification and is still an active musician and music teacher.