International Style (architecture)

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Three of the Toronto-Dominion Centre's five towers (left to right): the Ernst & Young Tower, the Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower, and the Royal Trust Tower.
Berlin TV Tower, built in 1969 at a height of 368m.

The International Style is a major architectural style that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, the formative decades of Modern architecture.

The term originated from the name of a book by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style, that identified, categorized and expanded upon characteristics common to Modernism across the world and its stylistic aspects. The authors identified three principles: the expression of volume rather than mass, the emphasis on balance rather than preconceived symmetry, and the expulsion of applied ornament. The aim of Hitchcock and Johnson was to define a style that would encapsulate this modern architecture, doing this by the inclusion of specific architects.

The book was written to record the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1932. All the works in the exhibition were carefully selected, only displaying those that strictly followed these rules.[1] Previous uses of the term in the same context can be attributed to Walter Gropius in Internationale Architektur, and Ludwig Hilberseimer in Internationale neue Baukunst.[2]



Around 1900 a number of architects around the world began developing new architectural solutions to integrate traditional precedents with new social demands and technological possibilities. The work of Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde in Brussels, Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Otto Wagner in Vienna and Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, among many others, can be seen as a common struggle between old and new.

The International Style as such blossomed in 1920s Western Europe. Researchers find significant contemporary common ground among the Dutch de Stijl movement, the work of visionary French/Swiss architect Le Corbusier and various German efforts to industrialize craft traditions, which resulted in the formation of the Deutscher Werkbund, large civic worker-housing projects in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, and, most famously, the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was one of a number of European schools and associations concerned with reconciling craft tradition and industrial technology.

Villa Savoye, by Le Corbusier

By the 1920s the most important figures in modern architecture had established their reputations. The big three are commonly recognized as Le Corbusier in France, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany. The common characteristics of the International Style include: a radical simplification of form, a rejection of ornament, and adoption of glass, steel and concrete as preferred materials. Further, the transparency of buildings, construction (called the honest expression of structure), and acceptance of industrialized mass-production techniques contributed to the international style's design philosophy. Finally, the machine aesthetic, and logical design decisions leading to support building function were used by the International architect to create buildings reaching beyond historicism.

The ideals of the style are commonly summed up in three slogans: ornament is a crime, truth to materials, form follows function; and Le Corbusier's description of houses as "machines for living".

In 1927, one of the first and most defining manifestations of the International Style was the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, built as a component of the exhibition "Die Wohnung", organized by the Deutscher Werkbund, and overseen by Mies van der Rohe. The fifteen contributing architects included Mies, and other names most associated with the movement: Peter Behrens, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, J.J.P. Oud, Mart Stam, Bruno Taut and the less known young architect, Franz Krause. The exhibition was enormously popular, with thousands of daily visitors.

The Glass Palace, a celebration of transparency, in Heerlen, Netherlands (1935)

The town of Portolago (now Lakki) in the Greek Dodecanese island of Leros represents some of the most interesting urban planning from the fascist regime in the Dodecanese; an extraordinary example of city takeover in the International Style known as Italian Rationalist. The symbolism of the shapes is reflected with exemplary effectiveness in the buildings of Lakki: the administration building, the metaphysical tower of the market, the cinema-theatre, the Hotel Roma (now Hotel Leros), the church of San Francisco and the hospital are fine examples of the style. Many of its ideas and ideals were formalized by the 1928 Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne.

The residential area of Södra Ängby in western Stockholm, Sweden, blended an international or functionalist style with garden city ideals. Encompassing more than 500 buildings, it remains the largest coherent functionalistic villa area in Sweden and possibly the world, still well-preserved more than a half-century after its construction 1933–40 and protected as a national cultural heritage.[3]

North America[edit]

Prior to use of the term 'International Style', the same striving towards simplification, honesty and clarity are identifiable in US architects, notably in the work of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, as well as the west-coast residences of Irving Gill. Frank Lloyd Wright's Wasmuth Portfolio influenced the work of European modernists, and his travels there probably influenced his own work, although he refused to be categorized with them. In 1922, the competition for the Tribune Tower and its famous second-place entry by Eliel Saarinen gave a clear indication of what was to come.

The term International Style came from the 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by Philip Johnson, and from the title of the exhibition catalog for that exhibit, written by Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock. It addressed building from 1922 through 1932. Johnson named, codified, promoted and subtly re-defined the whole movement by his inclusion of certain architects, and his description of their motives and values. Many Modernists disliked the term, believing that they had arrived at an approach to architecture that transcended "style", along with any national or regional or continental identity. The British architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner commented, "To me what had been achieved in 1914 was the style of the century. It never occurred to me to look beyond. Here was the one and only style which fitted all those aspects which mattered, aspects of economics and sociology, of materials and function. It seems folly to think that anybody would wish to abandon it."[4]

Johnson also defined the modern movement as an aesthetic style, rather than a matter of political statement. This was a departure from the functionalist principles of some of the original Weissenhof architects, particularly the Dutch, and especially J.J.P. Oud, with whom Johnson maintained a prickly correspondence on the topic. The same year that Johnson coined the term International Style, saw the completion of the world's first International Style skyscraper, Philadelphia's PSFS Building. Designed by the truly "international" team of architects, George Howe and William Lescaze, the PSFS Building has become an integral element of the Philadelphia skyline.

Frank Lloyd Wright's work was considered a formative influence on the international style, but he was considered not to have kept up with more recent developments. His work was included in the exhibition, but not the catalog. This provoked Wright to quip in response to Hitchcock and Johnson "...having a good start, not only do I fully intend to be the greatest architect who has yet lived, but fully intend to be the greatest architect who will ever live". His buildings of the 1920s and 1930s clearly changed his style as an architect, but in a different direction than the International Style.

The gradual rise of the Nazi regime in Weimar Germany in the 1930s, and the Nazis' rejection of modern architecture, meant that an entire generation of architects were forced out of Europe. When Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer fled Germany, they both arrived at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, in an excellent position to extend their influence and promote the Bauhaus as the primary source of architectural modernism. When Mies fled in 1938, he came to Chicago, founded the Second School of Chicago at IIT and solidified his reputation as the prototypical modern architect.

Tower C of Place de Ville, the tallest building in Ottawa.

After World War II, the International Style matured, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (later renamed HOK) and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) perfected the corporate practice, and it became the dominant approach for decades. Beginning with the initial technical and formal inventions of 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago its most famous examples include the United Nations headquarters, the Lever House, the Seagram Building in New York, and the campus of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as well as the Toronto-Dominion Centre in Toronto. Further examples can be found in mid-century institutional buildings throughout North America and spread from there especially to Europe.

In Canada, this period coincided with a major building boom and few restrictions on massive building projects. International Style skyscrapers came to dominate many of Canada's major cities, especially Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton, and Toronto. While these glass boxes were at first unique and interesting, the idea was soon repeated to the point of ubiquity. Architects attempted to put new twists into such towers, such as the Toronto City Hall. By the 1970s a backlash was under way against modernism, and Canada was one of its centres — prominent anti-modernists such as Jane Jacobs and George Baird were based in Toronto.

The typical International Style high-rise usually consists of the following:

  1. Square or rectangular footprint
  2. Simple cubic "extruded rectangle" form
  3. Windows running in broken horizontal rows forming a grid
  4. All facade angles are 90 degrees.

Tel Aviv[edit]

In July 1994, UNESCO proclaimed the White City of Tel Aviv a World Heritage Site, describing the city as "a synthesis of outstanding significance of the various trends of the Modern Movement in architecture and town planning in the early part of the 20th century".[5]

Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 by European Jewish settlers, who erected the first buildings on sand dunes outside the inhabited ancient Arab town of Jaffa.[6] A large proportion of the buildings built in the International Style can be found in the area planned by Patrick Geddes, north of Tel Aviv's main historical commercial center. Geddes laid out the streets and decided on block size and utilization. His plan was to create a garden city.[7] He did not prescribe an architectural style for the buildings in the new city. The impetus for large-scale construction in the new style came from the rapid influx of European Jewish immigrants (who grew in numbers from about 2,000 in 1914 to about 150,000 in 1937).[8] In the 1930s, new architects and architectural ideas were to converge on Tel Aviv to satisfy a burgeoning, relatively prosperous population with European tastes.

Esther Theater, now the Cinema Hotel, by architect Jehuda Magidovitch[9]

By 1933 many Jewish architects of the German Bauhaus school, which was closed down on the orders of the Nazi Party, fled to the British Mandate of Palestine.[10] The residential and public buildings were designed by these architects, who took advantage of the absence of established architectural conventions to put the principles of modern architecture into practice. The Bauhaus principles, with their emphasis on functionality and inexpensive building materials, were perceived as ideal in Tel Aviv. The architects fleeing Europe combined their Bauhaus ideas with the architectural ideals of Le Corbusier. Among notable architects were Erich Mendelsohn, who belonged to the Expressionist school and who was active in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the 1930s, Carl Rubin, an architect originally from Mendelsohn's office.,[11] and Arieh Sharon, who made important contributions in the International style.[12]

In 1984, in celebration of Tel Aviv's 75th year,[13] an exhibition was held at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art entitled White City, International Style Architecture in Israel, Portrait of an Era. In 1994, a conference took place at the UNESCO headquarters, entitled World Conference on the International Style in Architecture. In 1996, Tel Aviv's White City was listed as a World Monuments Fund endangered site.[14] In 2003, UNESCO named Tel Aviv a World Heritage Site for its treasure of modern architecture.[5]

Other countries[edit]

One of the strengths of the International Style was that the design solutions were indifferent to location, site, and climate. This was one of the reasons it was called 'international'; the style made no reference to local history or national vernacular. (Later this was identified as one of the style's primary weaknesses.)

American anti-Communist politics after the war and Philip Johnson's influential rejection of functionalism have tended to mask the fact that many of the important contributors to the original Weissenhof project fled to the east. This group also tended to be far more concerned with functionalism. Bruno Taut, Mart Stam, the second Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer, Ernst May and other important figures of the International Style went to the Soviet Union in 1930 to undertake huge, ambitious, idealistic urban planning projects, building entire cities from scratch. This Soviet effort was doomed to failure, and these architects became stateless persons in 1936 when Stalin ordered them out of the country and Hitler would not allow them back into Germany.

In the late 1930s this group and their students were dispersed to Turkey, France, Mexico, Venezuela, Kenya and India, adding up to a truly international influence. In India, Geocentric Construction and Architect, an ISO firm, has played a vital role in different types of architectural work.

In 2000 UNESCO proclaimed Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas in Caracas, Venezuela, as a World Heritage Site, describing it as "a masterpiece of modern city planning, architecture and art, created by the Venezuelan architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva and a group of distinguished avant-garde artists".[citation needed] In June 2007 UNESCO proclaimed Ciudad Universitaria of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), in Mexico City, a World Heritage Site due to its relevance and contribution in terms of international style movement (as well as cultural - alma mater of 3 Nobel Prize winners and most Mexican presidents).[citation needed] It was designed in the late 1940s and built in the mid-1950s based upon a masterplan created by architect Enrique del Moral. His original idea was enriched by other students, teachers, and diverse professionals of several disciplines. The university houses murals by Diego Rivera, Juan O'Gorman and others. The university also features Olympic Stadium (1968). In his first years of practice, Pritzker Prize winner and Mexican architect Luis Barragán designed buildings in international style; later he evolved to a more traditional local architecture. Other notable Mexican architects of the international or modern period are Carlos Obregón Santacilia, Augusto H. Alvarez, Mario Pani, Federico Mariscal, Vladimir Kaspé, Enrique del Moral, Juan Sordo Madaleno, Max Cetto, among many others.

In Brazil Oscar Niemeyer proposed a more organic and sensual[15] International Style. He designed the political landmarks (headquarters of the three state powers) of the new, planned capital Brasilia. The masterplan for the city was proposed by Lucio Costa.

Criticism of International style[edit]

The stark, unornamented appearance of the International style met with contemporaneous criticism and is still criticized today by many. Especially in larger and more public buildings, the style is commonly subject to disparagement as ugly,[16] inhuman,[17] sterile,[18] and elitist.[19] Such criticism gained momentum in the latter half of the 20th Century, from academics such as Hugo Kükelhaus to best-selling American author Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House, and contributed to the rise of such counter-movements as postmodernism. The negative reaction to internationalist modernism has been linked to public antipathy to overall development.[20][21]

International style today[edit]

Although it was conceived as a movement that transcended style, the International Style was largely superseded in the era of Postmodern architecture that started in the 1960s. In 2006, Hugh Pearlman, the architectural critic of The Times, observed that those using the style today are simply "another species of revivalist", noting the irony.[4]


The 1932 MOMA exhibition[edit]

Buildings included by Hitchcock and Johnson in the 1932 International Exhibition of Modern Architecture hosted by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

Jacobus OudWorkers Houses (house blocks Kiefhoek)Netherlands Rotterdam1924–1927
Otto EislerDouble HouseCzech Republic Brno, Czechoslovakia1926
Walter GropiusBauhaus SchoolGermany Dessau, Germany1926
City Employment OfficeGermany Dessau, Germany1928
Ludwig Mies van der RoheApartment HouseGermany Weissenhof Estate, Stuttgart, Germany1927
German pavilion at the Barcelona ExpositionSpain Spain1929
Tugendhat HouseCzech Republic Brno, Czechoslovakia1930
Le Corbusier (Pierre Jeanneret)Villa SteinFrance Garches, France1927
Villa SavoyeFrance Poissy-Sur-Seine, France1930
Carlos de Beistegui PenthouseFrance Champs-Élysées, Paris, France1931
Erich MendelsohnSchocken Department StoreGermany Chemnitz, Germany1928–1930
Frederick John KieslerFilm Guild CinemaUnited States New York City, USA1929
Richard NeutraLovell HouseUnited States Los Angeles, California, USA1929
Alvar AaltoTurun Sanomat buildingFinland Turku, Finland1930
Karl SchneiderKunstvereinGermany Hamburg, Germany1930

Other examples[edit]

Eileen GrayE-1027France Cap Martin, France1929
Leendert van der VlugtVan Nelle FactoryNetherlands Rotterdam1926–1930
Joseph EmbertonRoyal Corinthian Yacht ClubUnited Kingdom Essex1931
Ove ArupLabworth CaféUnited Kingdom Essex1932–1933
Leendert van der VlugtSonneveld HouseNetherlands Rotterdam1932–1933
Frits PeutzGlaspaleisNetherlands Heerlen1933
Oscar Stonorov and Alfred KastnerCarl Mackley HousesUnited States Philadelphia1933–1934
Södra ÄngbySweden Stockholm, Sweden1933–1939
Neil & HurdRavelston GardenUnited Kingdom Edinburgh, Scotland1936
Ludwig Mies van der RoheFarnsworth HouseUnited States Illinois1945–1951
Illinois Institute of Technology campus (including S. R. Crown Hall)United States Chicago1945–1960
Michael ScottBusarasRepublic of Ireland Dublin, Ireland1945–1953
Ron Phillips and Alan FitchCity Hall, Hong KongHong Kong Victoria City, Hong Kong1956
John BlandOld City HallCanada Ottawa1958
Emery Roth & Sons10 Lafayette SquareUnited States Buffalo, New York,1958-1959
Kelly & GruzenHigh School of Graphic Communication ArtsUnited States Manhattan, New York City1959
John LautnerChemosphereUnited States Los Angeles1960
I. M. PeiPlace Ville-MarieCanada Montreal1962
Ludwig Mies van der RoheToronto-Dominion CentreCanada Toronto1967
Westmount SquareCanada Montreal1967
Hermann Henselmann et al.Berlin TV TowerGermany Berlin1969
Campeau CorporationPlace de VilleCanada Ottawa1967–1972
Crang & BoakeHudson's Bay CentreCanada Toronto1974
Stanley RoscoeHamilton City HallCanada Hamilton1960


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Henry Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson. The International Style. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. ISBN 0-393-31518-5
  2. ^ Panayotis Tournikiotis. The Historiography of Modern Architecture. MIT Press, 1999. ISBN 0-262-70085-9
  3. ^ Detailed references listed in the article on Södra Ängby.
  4. ^ a b Gabion: Modernism - or should that be Modernwasm?
  5. ^ a b White City of Tel-Aviv – the Modern Movement, World Heritage Centre, Unesco, retrieved 2009-09-14 
  6. ^ Jewish Virtual Library. The Founding of Tel Aviv. Accessed 25 February 2010.
  7. ^ The New York Times. A City Reinvents Itself Beyond Conflict. Accessed 25 February 2010.
  8. ^ Jewish Virtual Library. From Spring Hill to Independence. Accessed 25 February 2010.
  9. ^ Cinema Treasures, Esther Cinema, Tel Aviv Israel, Accessed 1 March 2010
  10. ^ Ina Rottscheidt, Kate Bowen, Jewish refugees put their own twist on Bauhaus homes in Israel, Deutsche Welle, 1 April 2009
  11. ^ UNESCO, Advisory Body Evaluation: Tel Aviv (Israel) No 1096, p. 57, retrieved 14 September 2009
  12. ^ Sharon Architects, Three Generations of Sharon Architects – A Historical Summary accessed 29 March 2009
  13. ^ Goel Pinto, Taking to the streets – all night long, Haaretz, 29 June 2007
  14. ^ World Monuments Fund, World Monuments Watch 1996–2006, retrieved 16 September 2009
  15. ^ Botey, Josep (1996). Oscar Niemeyer. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili. ISBN 8425215765. 
  16. ^ Philip S. Gutis, It's Ugly, And So Is The Fight To Save It, New York Times, February 7, 1987, accessed 02-17-2008
  17. ^ E.g., C. Thau & K. Vindum, Jacobsen, 2002, ISBN 87-7407-230-8, at 65 (referring to reaction to internationalism as "A Horror of the Traceless, Inhuman Industrial Look")
  18. ^ A History of Architecture, New Internationalist issue 202 - December 1989
  19. ^ T. Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House, Farrar Straus Giroux (1981), ISBN 978-0-374-15892-7 ISBN 0-374-15892-4
  20. ^ Herbert Muschamp, Fear, Hope and the Changing of the Guard, New York Times, November 14, 1993, accessed 02-17-2008 ("the preservation movement . . . was a tool directed against real estate development, but inevitably it was turned against architecture. Its particular target was modern architecture")
  21. ^ R. Jobst, Charm is not an antiquated notion, FFWD Weekly: March 31, 2005 ("At the root of the public's apprehension about new development is that we've been getting screwed for 60 years by brutal, soulless and downright crappy architecture that arrogantly dismisses the human requirement for beauty")

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