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The International Style Collage

The International Style - History and Concepts

Started: 1914
Ended: 1970
The International Style Timeline

Beginnings of The International Style

The International Style arose from several strands of architectural and political thought in the 1910s. First, it often has been said to have grown out of a fascination with buildings for a modern industrialized age, especially factories and warehouses, which demanded utilitarian designs that included ample natural lighting and flexible interior space for machinery or storage for huge quantities of items, with minimal ornamentation of the structure. Such structures also spoke to the efficiency of construction and the solidity of materials. In Germany, such thought was visible in the steel-framed turbine factory in Berlin for Allgemeines Elektrisitäts Gesellschaft - the German General Electric - designed by company architect Peter Behrens between 1907 and 1910. At the time, Behrens simultaneously employed three seminal figures in the history of the International Style: Walter Gropius, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (later known as Le Corbusier), and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Soon afterwards, Gropius left Behrens' office and opened his own practice with Adolf Meyer; they immediately received a commission for the new Fagus Shoe Factory at Alfeld-an-der-Leine in 1911, whose large glass curtain walls would be equally as inspiring for progressive architects.

Le Corbusier also left Behrens' employ shortly afterwards for a trip of several months to the Eastern Mediterranean, where he became keenly attracted to the purity of geometric form in Greek architecture, and later, to the American examples of vast concrete industrial structures such as grain silos, and the purity of their naked industrial volumes, which reappeared in the forms of still-life objects of his Purist paintings in the 1920s. In 1914, Le Corbusier patented a set of prototypes called the "Dom-ino Houses" that used a point-support system of columns supporting large spans of floor space, all made of reinforced concrete, which allowed the architect complete freedom in the design of all facades. This design would prove central to his later work and would evolve into his famous Five Points of a New Architecture by 1923.

Le Corbusier was also fascinated by new forms of transportation such as the automobile, whose machinery he likened to the logical extension of the human body and whose continued refinement and improvement he saw as the relentless pursuit of a "standard" of typological perfection.

The Destruction of World War I and Rebuilding Efforts

The cataclysm and large-scale destruction of World War I confirmed the undeniable mechanized direction of Western society. While many sought a refuge from the horrors wrought by industrialization, others such as Le Corbusier embraced it, arguing that machines were the key to promoting hygiene and workplace efficiency. Arguably, the use of industrial materials that could be mass-produced and quickly erected, like iron, steel, and concrete, was a critical advantage in the vast reconstruction efforts in the war's aftermath, particularly with respect to housing displaced populations.

Many were also inspired by the example of the Russian Revolution of 1917, which initially promised the creation of a new, classless society based on an industrialized proletariat. Though Russian industry lagged far behind other countries throughout the 1910s and '20s, architects there such as Vladimir Tatlin developed an architecture called Constructivism that was one of the earliest examples of the International Style. Constructivist architects imagined geometric institutional structures and housing units made of steel frames and transparent glass walls, with the frank exterior exposure of mechanized services such as elevators. The most famous example was Tatlin's unbuilt Monument to the Third International (1917), intended to house the new Soviet government.

The Coalescence of the International Style to 1930

The early 1920s saw the simultaneous elucidation in both France and Germany of the tenets of architectural design that would define the International Style. Because the economic conditions in Europe remained difficult in the aftermath of the war, many of these ideas remained simply projects disseminated in architectural magazines. The magazine G, for example, became one of the leading German periodicals devoted to modern architecture, and it was here that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe published projects for Berlin skyscrapers in 1921-22. These consisted of steel-framed towers of irregular plans enclosed entirely by a curtain wall of glass, completely transparent amongst the blocky urban structures or green foliage.

In 1920 Le Corbusier and his partner Amédée Ozenfant began producing the journal L'Esprit Nouveau (The New Spirit), in which they described the principles of a new architecture, which Le Corbusier collated into book form in 1923 as Vers une architecture (Towards an Architecture). These coalesced into his Five Points of a New Architecture that largely underlined the design tenets shared amongst most adherents of the International Style as it disseminated throughout the continent during the decade. These are best illustrated by the many suburban villas that Le Corbusier built around Paris during the 1920s, especially the Villa Savoye (1929-31), as well as commissions for the Centrosoyuz, in Moscow, for the Soviet government (1929-33), and the Swiss Pavilion at the University of Paris (1931). To underscore the efficient relationship between industrialized construction and daily life, Le Corbusier used his now famous description that "a house is a machine for living." Due to the publication of Vers une architecture, Le Corbusier was the prime mover behind the founding members of a group called CIAM, the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (International Congresses of Modern Architecture), largely made up of the movement's numerous European adherents, which met periodically beginning in 1928 to discuss new directions in architecture.

A more integrative approach could be seen at the Bauhaus, the state school for applied arts founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919 by Walter Gropius, who gathered an impressive group of modernist faculty, including Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Anni and Josef Albers, Oskar Schlemmer, László Moholy-Nagy, Hannes Meyer, and Herbert Bayer; and visiting instructors included El Lissitzky and Theo van Doesburg. Gropius encouraged architecture as part of a larger project of the reform of the industrial arts and crafts and even performing arts such as theater (in fact, architecture as a specific discipline was not taught at the Bauhaus until 1927, Gropius' last year as director). The new building that Gropius designed for the school in Dessau, built in 1925-26, is a summation of the principles of International Style architecture as it developed in Germany during the decade.

A key event in the International Style's history was the exposition of housing staged in Stüttgart, Germany, in 1927 by the German Werkbund, a central European union of designers and industrialists. Now known as the Weissenhofseidlung for its location outside the city center and organized by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the exhibition, comprised of 21 buildings by 17 different architects from all over Europe, ostensibly as a demonstration of the International Style as prototypes for apartments and single-family workers' residences - during a decade when adequate housing was in especially short supply. Although all of the dwellings constructed ended up being far out of the budget of any working-class family, the huge crowds drawn by the exposition did much to promote the International Style. Conversely, much to stir the ire of those who opposed it; the dwellings were cited by the Nazis as examples of "degenerate" architecture once they came to power in the 1930s.

Early Dissemination to the United States

R.M. Schindler, Lovell Beach House, Newport Beach, California, 1926

Beginning in the late 1920s, the International Style found a receptive audience on the other side of the Atlantic. The Austrian architects Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler made their way to the United States in the 1910s, finding work first with Frank Lloyd Wright before settling in southern California. Keeping in touch with design trends in Europe, they soon each became pioneers of the International Style, as both were commissioned by the progressive doctor Philip Lovell, Schindler for Lovell's Beach House in Newport Beach in 1926 and Neutra for the Lovell Health House in Los Angeles, finished in 1929, a massive cliffside residence that was also one of the first buildings to use gunite (sprayed concrete). Likewise, in Philadelphia, the Swiss architect William Lescaze formed a brief partnership with George Howe, where the former designed the new office tower for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS Building), the first completed skyscraper to use the new architecture. But these examples were few and far between; the American attachment to classicism (and, by extension, Art Deco as its modern incarnation) meant that the International Style would not fully catch on in the USA until after World War II.

The International Style: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

Principles of Building Design

International Style architecture is often described as "minimalist" due to the tendency of its adherents to design buildings that were devoid of all ornament and reduced to their most basic structural elements. Such buildings often make use of large expanses of unbroken windows and use other elements like cantilevers to help eliminate the distinction between interior and exterior space as much as possible and to bring the inhabitants closer to nature, even when indoors. The use of mass-produced industrial materials - principally steel, concrete, and glass - was pivotal in permitting the kinds of construction that would support such a design program. Furthermore, the use of mass-produced (and sometimes prefabricated) materials had the potential to be more efficiently and cheaply manufactured than craft-based, traditional ones, thus practically and symbolically becoming proof of modern innovation and advancement.

Le Corbusier, Lucio Costa, and others, Brazilian Ministry of Education and Health Building (Gustavo Capanema Palace), Rio de Janeiro, 1935-43

Le Corbusier's rise to prominence among modern architects came in part because of his ability to elucidate and disseminate a set of principles for the movement, which he called "The Five Points of a New Architecture" and intended for use in buildings of any scale. The foundation of the Five Points was the use of pilotis, or a point-support structure of thin columns of steel or reinforced concrete. This enabled the second point, the free plan, by freeing up floor space for maximum flexibility; as well as the third point, a free facade, since the point supports meant that there was no need for load-bearing exterior walls. Le Corbusier preferred to blur the boundary between exterior and interior, so the fourth point of his system emphasized the use of ribbon windows (or a curtain wall), and to emphasize the building's link to nature, a roof terrace constituted the fifth point. This system is best illustrated in Le Corbusier's small single-family houses built in the 1920s. In addition, Le Corbusier attracted many other followers on both sides of the Atlantic with the dissemination of Vers une architecture, particularly in Latin America. In Brazil, for example, Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer became some of his closest collaborators, with Costa inviting Le Corbusier to Rio de Janeiro in 1935 to oversee the design of the new offices of the Ministry of Education and Health, a skyscraper that demonstrates the Five Points as clearly as any one of Le Corbusier's largest works built before 1945.

Transformative and Political Aspects of the International Style

From the beginning, the International Style was often associated with political movements, especially socialist and communist causes and regimes. Its revolutionary character in the years following World War I and the notion that architecture should be transformative in serving society and advancing the welfare of the working classes invited common ground between its advocates and the political left. The designs of Russian Constructivists provide some of the earliest examples, but others soon followed: the Bauhaus' initial manifesto featured a woodcut as its frontispiece by Lyonel Feininger called the Cathedral of Socialism (1919), and one model of the workshops at the school were the collective medieval craft guilds. Many of the Bauhaus' faculty were supported by the Social Democratic Party in Germany, and the school's various moves and eventual closure were prompted by political antagonism from the right. Many modern architects went to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s to assist in the construction of new Soviet institutions and industrial cities (and to flee the Nazis), until Joseph Stalin kicked the foreigners out of Russia in 1936 and began to promote the heavy classicism called Socialist Realism. By the end of the 1930s Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and a host of other leaders of the International Style moved to the United States in order to flee persecution.

Marcello Piacentini, Italian Pavilion, Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques, Paris (1937)

On the other hand, the attraction of the International Style caused many of the Italian Rationalists such as Giuseppe Terragni to seek Mussolini's blessing to adopt it as the official architecture of Italian Fascism, though this never came to pass. Terragni's Casa del Fascio in Como, Italy (1934) and Marcello Piacentini's Italian Pavilion for the 1937 Paris World's Fair (officially the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques) are some of the best examples of an attempt to equate Fascism with the International Style.

Le Corbusier himself remains difficult to pin down politically. Supported by French industrialists, such as the Voisin car company, and his faith in the Taylorist and Fordist systems of mass-production of consumer goods, Le Corbusier became particularly interested in the adoption of International Style architecture on a vast scale in the aftermath of World War I. He proposed the construction of entire cities using the building principles outlined in his Five Points in various schemes throughout the 1920s. In the first of these, the Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants (1922), Le Corbusier envisioned a metropolis anchored by a grid of cruciform-plan, curtain-walled skyscrapers, housing office space and residences, set within a park-like setting crisscrossed by a grid of broad avenues. Low-rise apartment blocks set at right angles to each other snaked around the perimeter of the high-rise core. In the very center, a massive multistory transportation hub served simultaneously as a highway interchange, train station, and airport runway. Le Corbusier would continue to refine these urban schemes, some purely theoretical and some designed for reconfiguring specific cities, most notably his Plan Voisin for Paris, presented at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, and five years later in his book The Radiant City (1930). In the late 1920s, Le Corbusier visited the Soviet Union and won the commission for the Centrosoyuz building in Moscow, flirting with Communism throughout the 1930s, especially after the stock market crash of 1929. When the Vichy regime came to power in France in 1940, Le Corbusier offered his services to Marshal Philippe Petain's pro-Nazi government, along with grand schemes for the redevelopment of Algiers, but was rebuffed. Amazingly, this attempt at collaboration did not seem to taint his standing amongst designers and critics in the postwar era, when he largely steered clear of politics.

Naming the New Architecture

A gallery of the <i>Modern Architecture - International Exhibition</i> at MoMA (1932)

As the 1920s developed, the International Style remained known amongst its founders in Europe under various monikers, including Functionalism, Neue Sachlichkeit (or New Objectivity), De Stijl (in the Netherlands, where architects were intimately connected with painters under the same movement), and Rationalism (as it was known in Italy due to its honest revelation of structure and space). In 1932, after extensive travels in Europe, the young art historians Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson curated an exhibition at the new Museum of Modern Art in New York called Modern Architecture - International Exhibition, subsequently releasing a book entitled The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 that described the new architecture as a distinct movement in modern design. It featured many of the movement's key figures in France, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Finland, and the United States. Hitchcock and Johnson described the International Style purely in formal terms: of volume rather than mass, the exclusion of applied ornament, and emphasizing balance rather than symmetry, saying little of the common use of industrial materials used or the social implications of this strand of modernism. Perhaps as a result, the International Style never encountered questions as to its potential leftist political content in postwar America. The exhibition went on a six-year tour after its six-week run at MoMA, the first traveling show of architecture in the USA, and the book gave the International Style its now-common name.

Later Developments - After The International Style

An "Unofficial" American Architecture

During World War II, many of the International Style's founders found new life attached to American institutions: Gropius and Breuer at Harvard and Mies at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where they trained a new generation of Americans in the principles of the International Style. Their own practices also soon expanded in a climate of unparalleled economic growth in the United States. Mies, for example, was occupied with not only the planning and building of IIT's campus until 1956, but received the important commissions for the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois (1945-51), the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago (1949-51), the Seagram Building in New York (1954-58), and the development of Lafayette Park in Detroit (1956-63). His towering reputation inspired many emulators, particularly in skyscraper design: Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, popularly known as SOM, followed his paradigm so closely that they were nicknamed in the profession as "Sons Of Mies."

Emptied, in postwar America, of its mostly leftist connotations, the International Style became the ideal architectural vocabulary for the new car-oriented consumer culture. Its large expanses of glass and reliance on industrial construction made it an ideal movement for the minimalist pavilions of roadside businesses, including gas stations and fast-food restaurants that soon populated the suburbs and new interstate highways. Its ability to be erected cheaply and quickly using mass-production methods made it a preferred mode of design for new institutional structures, such as those on the expanding American college campuses needing to accommodate growing student populations thanks to the GI Bill. By 1961, the pervasiveness of the International Style in the American landscape meant that the eminent architectural historian Vincent Scully could even title a scholarly assessment published that year called Modern Architecture - The Architecture of Democracy.

Global Expansion

View of the Brazilian Congress Complex in Brasilia, Brazil designed by Oscar Niemeyer

Even before World War II, the International Style had found sympathetic designers in Latin America. In 1935, Le Corbusier had been invited to supervise a team of Brazilian architects led by Lucio Costa on the design of the new Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro, which brought the new movement to Brazil. Costa and his student Oscar Niemeyer continued to experiment with the International Style throughout the following decades, eventually collaborating between 1956 and 1960 on the plans for Brasilia, the country's new capital built entirely from a blank slate using the massive urban scale of auto transport similar to the early schemes of Le Corbusier of the 1920s. After 1950, Le Corbusier largely steered clear of high-level politics, focusing instead on individual clients. He also turned towards a rough-hewn naked concrete aesthetic called beton brut, a forerunner of Brutalism, which he employed in structures such as his innovative housing block called the Unite d'Habitation in Marseilles (1947-52) and the famous chapel Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp, France (1950-55), but also brought to India in his work designing anew the provincial capital of Chandigarh (1951-61). During his time there Le Corbusier found many South Asian designers interested in his work, Balkrishna Doshi being one of most prominent. By the end of the 1950s, the International Style had become a truly global paradigm of modernism, the standard by which developing nations measured their architecture against the achievements of the traditional Western powers.

The Decline of the International Style

The widespread acceptance of the International Style was destined to provoke a reaction. Its emphasis on the glass-and-steel prismatic form, particularly in tall buildings, did not lend itself to variation. Instead it produced a vapid monotony that eventually proved soulless to designers and inhabitants alike, especially when used on a vast scale in low-income housing, as well as disorienting, as it eliminated the distinction of individual buildings to serve as geographic landmarks. In 1966, the architect Robert Venturi's influential Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture ridiculed the International Style, turning Mies' famous dictum "Less is more" around with the quip "Less is a bore." When employed on such a large scale, the International Style failed to actively improve the living conditions of its inhabitants, discrediting the claims of its founders that it might actively serve as a vehicle for social and economic transformation. Likewise, the abandonment of the human scale in favor of isolated structures set in parklike surroundings and accessible largely by automobile transportation also discouraged the building of communities and neighborhoods in favor of the isolation of entire sectors of urban populations within towers.

The heyday of the International Style in the 1950s also coincided with some of the biggest concerted endeavors worldwide towards urban planning, a process that in large part proved devastating to established communities by destroying the organically-evolving urban fabric. The confining, often drab character of much International Style architecture became a symbol of the blight produced by such efforts where arguably none had existed before. These effects were famously and meticulously chronicled in Jane Jacobs' critique The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which, along with grassroots activism, managed to stave off the modernist reshaping of lower Manhattan in the fashion of the International Style. Even its most ardent champions such as Philip Johnson eventually turned against it - witness, for example, his AT&T (now Sony) Building in New York (1978), with a roofline reminiscent of a Chippendale highboy.

New Directions for Architecture

Some architects, such as Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph, sought different directions in the 1950s and '60s. Kahn, raised and based in Philadelphia, became known for his designs that "brought back the wall" as opposed to the vast expanses of curtain-wall windows. Kahn's buildings, such as his Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (1966-72) and the National Parliament Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh (1961-82) modulate light, volume, and space in a highly sensitive manner, often with more traditional materials such as brick and wood - ubiquitous in both the official and vernacular architecture around Philadelphia. Rudolph, who became dean of the Yale School of Art & Architecture in 1958, was fascinated with the large-scale use of concrete and is sometimes looked to as one of the founders of Brutalism, whose rough-hewn surfaces became extremely popular in the late 1960s and '70s as one of the first recognizable aesthetics of postmodernism.


The International Style is usually regarded as the high point of modernist architecture, the end product of a search to find a mode of expression in building suited to the 20th century that jettisoned the forms and ornament of the past. By the 1950s its formal aspects had become nearly synonymous with the term "modern architecture." But it promoted a troubling universality when applied too frequently as a cure-all to social and economic problems, revealing the limitations of architecture as a genuine political and cultural force. In the generations after 1960, a more playful treatment of historical styles, monumentality, and traditional materials would come to define much of postmodern architecture. While the International Style still exerts a powerful influence on current architects, few would now take its ideas and aesthetic completely at face value.

Key Artists

  • Le Corbusier was a twentieth-century Swiss-French architect, urban planner, designer, writer and painter. Le Corbusier was a pioneer in modern architecture and his priciples were integral to the hugely popular International Style of architecture.
  • The German architect Walter Gropius founded the important Bauhaus School of art and design. Along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, he is regarded as one of the pioneers of modern architecture.
  • Mies van der Rohe was one of the founding fathers of architectural Modernism and The International Style. Utilizing modern materials and mass production strategies, his buildings rejected surface ornament in favor of a sleek and compact geometry.
  • Saarinen's developed a personal, often sculptural, visionary direction and an adventurous spirit as we see in The Saint Louis Arch, NY's TWA Terminal, and GM Headquarters.

Do Not Miss

  • Bauhaus is a style associated with the Bauhaus school, an extremely influential art and design school in Weimar Germany that emphasized functionality and efficiency of design. Its famous faculty - including Joseph Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - generally rejected distinctions between the fine and applied arts, and encouraged major advances in industrial design.
  • Brutalism was a movement in modern architecture responsible for some of the most striking building designs of the twentieth century.
  • Founded in the Netherlands in 1917, De Stijl was an avant-garde dedicated to isolating a single visual style that would be appropriate to all aspects of modern life, from art to design to architecture. Taking its name from a periodical, its most famous practitioners were Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, whose mature art employed geometric blocks of primary colors and vertical and horizontal lines.
  • Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.

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Content compiled and written by Peter Clericuzio

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"The International Style Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Peter Clericuzio
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 14 Apr 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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