International Style

In architecture, the term “International Style” describes a type of design that developed mainly in Germany, Holland and France, during the 1920s, before spreading to America in the 1930s, where it became the dominant tendency in American architecture during the middle decades of the 20th century. Although it never became fashionable for single-family residential buildings in the United States – despite the efforts of William Lescaze (1896-1969), Edward Durrell Stone (1902-78), Richard Neutra (1892-1970) – the International Style was especially suited to skyscraper architecture, where its sleek “modern” look, absence of decoration and use of steel and glass, became synonymous with corporate modernism during the period 1955-70. It also became the dominant style of 20th century architecture for institutional and commercial buildings, and even superceded the traditional historical styles for schools and churches.

Origins and Development

The International Style emerged largely as a result of four factors that confronted architects at the beginning of the 20th century: (1) Increasing dissatisfaction with building designs that incorporated a mixture of decorative features from different architectural periods, especially where the resulting design bore little or no relation to the function of the building; (2) The need to build large numbers of commercial and civic buildings that served a rapidly industrializing society; (3) The successful development of new construction techniques involving the use of steel, reinforced concrete, and glass; and (4) A strong desire to create a “modern” style of architecture for “modern man”. This underlined the need for a neutral, functional style, without any of the decorative features of (say) Romanesque, Gothic, or Renaissance architecture, all of which were old-fashioned, if not obsolete.

These three factors led architects to seek an honest, economical, and utilitarian style of architecture that could make use of the new building methods and materials being developed, while still satisfying aesthetic taste. Technology was a critical factor here; the new availability of cheap iron and steel, together with the discovery in the late 1880s and 1890s of the steel skeleton structure, made the traditional brick and stone building techniques obsolete. In addition, architects began using steel-reinforced concrete for floors and other secondary support elements, and fenestrating the exteriors of buildings with glass. The resulting austere and disciplined architecture was thus formed according to the principle that modern buildings should reflect a clear harmony between appearance, function, and technology.


The typical characteristics of International Style buildings include rectilinear forms; plane surfaces that are completely devoid of applied ornamentation; and open, even fluid, interior spaces. This early form of minimalism had a distinctively “modern look”, reinforced by its use of modern materials, including glass for the facade, steel for exterior support, and concrete for interior supports and floors.

The phrase “International Style” was first coined in 1932 by curators Henry-Russell Hitchcock (1903-1987) and Philip Johnson (1906-2005), in literature for their show “International Exhibition of Modern Architecture” (1932), held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The aim of the show was to explain and promote what they considered to be an exemplary “modern” style of architecture. As it was, all but two of the buildings showcased were European. The only American structures on display were Lovell House, LA (1929), by Richard Neutra; and the Film Guild Cinema, NYC (1929), designed by Frederick John Kiesler (1890-1965).

Leading International Style Architects

Pioneer practitioners of the International Style included a group of brilliant and original architects in the 1920s who went on to achieve enormous influence in their field. These figures included Walter Gropius (1883-1969) in Germany, J.J.P. Oud (1890-1963) in Holland, Le Corbusier (1887-1965) in France, and Richard Neutra (1892-1970), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), and Philip Johnson (1906-2005) in the United States.

Walter Gropius

Walter Gropius was the founder of the renowned Bauhaus design school in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin. He emigrated to America in 1937, where he became Head of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, and set up a partnership known as The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC). Important examples of his International Style architecture were: the Fagus Factory (1911-25) in Alfeld on the Leine; the model factory for the Deutscher WerkbundExhibition at Cologne in 1914; the Bauhaus School building (1925) at Dessau; the Graduate Center (1950) at Harvard University; and the Pan Am Building (1963) in New York, all of which reflect his preference for uncluttered interior spaces.

J.J.P Oud

Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud, co-founder of the De Stijl movement with Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), helped to bring more rounded and flowing geometric shapes to the movement. As the housing architect in Rotterdam, he designed numerous apartment blocks with a sober but functional austerity. Later examples of his elegant and geometrical International Style included the Bio-Children’s Convalescent Home (1960) near Arnhem.

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier (Charles Edouard Jeanneret), one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, simplified architecture down to its main functional features: window, ramp, stair and column. He was also especially concerned to maximize the entry of light into a building by replacing load-bearing walls in its facade. His somewhat utopian designs, often characterized by the heavy use of reinforced pre-cast concrete, paved the way for Brutalism, a super-functional style of urban and campus architecture which has not aged well. Among his best-known works in the International Style is the Villa Savoye (1929-30) Poissy-sur-Seine, France; the Semi-Detached House (1927) Weissenhofsiedlung, Stuttgart; and Unite d’Habitation (1958) Interbau Fair, Berlin.

Richard Neutra

The life of no other 20th-century architect so epitomized the term International Style as that of Richard Neutra (1892-1970), who gained worldwide recognition as an advocate of modern design. In the United States, he had a strong influence on architecture, particularly in California. In 1922 he came to America, where he worked briefly for Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) at Taliesin and for Holabird and Roche in Chicago, an experience that formed the subject of his first book, Wie Baut Amerikal, published in Stuttgart in 1927. His design for the Lovell (Health) House (1929), Los Angeles, with balconies suspended by steel cables from the roof frame, was, in retrospect, one of the most important works of his career. The open-web skeleton was transported to the steep hillside by truck. When the house was featured in Neutra’s second book, Amerika, published in Vienna in 1930, he was hailed as a technological wizard. He returned to Europe in 1930 and was asked to lecture at the Bauhaus and in Japan. Neutra’s architecture was usually rectangular and straight-lined, unmistakably man-made, yet always sensitive to the site. The years before World War II saw the completion of the Beard House (1934), Altadena, and the country house for Joseph von Sternberg (1935), San Fernando Valley: both made from the latest prefabricated steel sandwich panels. His later public buildings never gained the recognition of his earlier domestic designs.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Mies van der Rohe, the third and final head of the Bauhaus school, emigrated to Chicago in 1938, where he became director of architecture at the Armour Institute in Chicago (now the Illinois Institute of Technology, IIT). He also started his own thriving practice as an architect. Such was his energy and innovation, that by the late 1940s he had become a highly influential mentor to a generation of students as well as professional designers within large firms such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, C.F.Murphy & Associates, and others. He and his followers, collectively known as the Second Chicago School of architecture (c.1940-75) are most clearly identified with glass-and-steel skyscrapers such as the Lake Shore Drive Apartments (1948-51) Chicago; the lavish Seagram Building (1958) New York, designed in collaboration with the interior design of Philip Johnson; the IBM Building (1971) (now 330 North Wabash) New York. Followers of Mies included former IIT students, such as Jacques Brownson (1923-2011), who designed the Richard J. Daley Civic Center (Daley Plaza) (1965) in Chicago, as well as George Schipporeit and John Heinrich who designed Lake Point Tower (1968), Chicago.

International Style in America: Second Chicago School

In the 1930s, with the emigration of intellectual leaders like Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, along with other Bauhaus modernists like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy(1895-1946), the International Style spread from Germany and France to North America, Scandinavia and Britain. In America, thanks largely to Mies and the Second Chicago School, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and brilliant structural engineers like Fazlur Khan (1929-82), the clean, streamlined, geometric attributes of the International Style came to dominate the skyscraper architecture during the 1950s and 1960s, in an era when corporate modernism and cost-benefit analysis were high fashion. Thus the International Style provided the aesthetic rationale for the inexpensively surfaced tower buildings that became the status symbols of American corporate power during this period.

Philip Johnson

Johnson has had a profound impact on American architects for more than six decades. In the 1930s as an architectural historian, he helped introduce modern architecture – the glass box – to America with a book and exhibit on the International Style at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he was director of the architecture department. In the 1940s Johnson the historian became Johnson the architect, and built what is perhaps the country’s most famous modern house, the Glass House (1949), his own residence in New Canaan, Connecticut. In the 1950s he collaborated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the design of the landmark Seagram Building (1954—58) in New York. However, just as the International Style was reaching its zenith, Johnson began to speak out against its purist aesthetic. “You cannot not know history,” he told students at Yale University, who had been taught by their devout modernist instructors to ignore the past. In the 1960s he began to invest his modern buildings with historical references, as with the Ottoman Empire-inspired Museum for Pre-Columbian Art (1963) at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC. In the 1970s and 1980s the man who introduced the glass box became the one to break it, with his IDS Tower (1972) Minneapolis, noted for its distinctive stepbacks, or “zogs”; and his AT&T Building in Manhattan (1984) (now the Sony Building), famous for its neo-Georgian pediment (Chippendale top), which contradicted every precept of the International Style. Johnson’s move away from the International Style brought professional respectability to Postmodernism.


By the 1970s, the International Style was so dominant that innovation was dead. Mies continued to design beautiful buildings, but was copied everywhere. As the saying went: “You got off an airplane in the 1970s, and you didn’t know where you were.” As a result, many architects felt dissatisfied with the limitations and formulaic methodology of the International Style. They wanted to design buildings with more individual character and with more decoration. Modernist International Style architecture had removed all traces of historical designs: now architects wanted them back. All this led to a revolt against modernism and a renewed exploration of how to create more innovative design and ornamentation. As Postmodernism took hold, building designers began creating more imaginative structures that employed modern building materials and decorative features to produce a range of novel effects. By the late 1970s, modernism and the International Style were finished.

Famous International Style Buildings

Among the most iconic examples of the International Style of architecture are the following:

– The Fagus Factory (1911-25) Alfeld on the Leine (Gropius)
– The Bauhaus School Building (1925) at Dessau (Gropius)
– Lovell House (1929) Los Angeles (Neutra)
– Villa Savoye (1929-30) Poissy-sur-Seine (Le Corbusier)
– Lake Shore Drive Apartments (1948-51) Chicago (Mies van der Rohe)
– The Graduate Center (1950) Harvard University (Gropius)
– Seagram Building (1954-58) New York (Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson)
– Inland Steel Building (1957) Chicago (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)
– Bio-Children’s Convalescent Home (1960) Arnhem (Oud)
– Toronto-Dominion Bank Tower (1967-91) Toronto (Mies van der Rohe)
– Lake Point Tower (1968), Chicago (George Schipporeit and John Heinrich)
– John Hancock Center (1969) Chicago (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)
– IBM Building (1971) (now 330 North Wabash) New York (Mies van der Rohe)
– Sears/Willis Tower (1974) Chicago (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)

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