History of modern architecture: key destinations

We talk a lot about impressive buildings, masters of their craft and architecture in general. In this article, we suggest taking a couple of steps back to the origins of modern architecture to understand what lies at its core.

We recollect the history and main features of the main trends of 20th century architecture: functionalism, constructivism, expressionism, brutalism, and metabolism.

Functionalism, 1910-1940


The form must correspond to the function – this was the motto of the direction of architecture, which originated in the early XX century in Europe. Functionalism is a worldview that identifies laconicity and awareness. As far back as the I century B.C. architect Vitruvius claimed that architecture is strength, usefulness and beauty. However, by the IX century, there was a bias towards style. Only by the end of the century, began to appear those who were against excessive decoration, including the founders of functionalism.

Functionalism buildings

One of the pioneers of functionalism was Frank Lloyd Wright’s teacher Lluis Sullivan, the father of American modernism, who created the first skyscraper and concept of organic architecture. In the 1880s he also proclaimed the motto of conformity of the form of function, and a little later, already in the XX century, Le Corbusier called the house “a machine for life”.

Officially, functionalism came into its own by the 1930s thanks to the appearance of the Bauhaus and in particular thanks to Walter Gropius. The school building in Dessau is still an icon of functionalism. Like Le Corbusier, the architect was an adherent of unified mass construction, who wanted to make up for the lack of housing in the post-war period.

Architectural principles

Breakthrough in building technologies, to be more exact – occurrence of ferro-concrete became a precondition for revolution in architecture. Thanks to it, architects moved away from massive brick walls and simplified the structural scheme to the frame. Columns replaced the supporting walls and allowed the introduction of ribbon glazing, thus lighting up a larger area of space. Rolled roofs have also undergone metamorphosis, giving way to flat roofs, increasing the operating area.

Without going deep into engineering, you can see that all the changes took place for a reason. Every detail has its justification, as well as its absence. The purpose and function of the components dictate a global transformation of the appearance of the building. And the beauty, in turn, is in honesty: if the concrete, it is not covered, the ramp becomes an accent in the interior, the windows completely change the appearance of the building. Each element is self-sufficient and open to the observer.


  • Simple geometrical forms
  • No Decoration: building structures, such as concrete slabs or wooden beams, often remain uncovered
  • Flat operated roof
  • Belt horizontal glazing
  • Ramps instead of stairs
  • Elevation of the building above the ground on the so-called “legs”.


  • Le Corbusier
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
  • Peter Berens
  • Walter Gropius
  • Jacobus Johannes Aud
  • Philip Johnson

Expressionism, 1910-1920

Expressionism buildings

The emergence of expressionism in architecture occurred along with literature, music, film and fine arts, but a little later, after World War I, in the 1919-1922-ies. Due to the economic and political situation in the postwar period, architecture had to elicit a positive emotional response. The center of origin was Germany, and the leading architect – Erich Mendelssohn.

A symbol of expressionism is the building of the astrophysical laboratory in Potsdam, “Einstein Tower”, designed by Mendelssohn. It is more like a sculpture and is a metaphor for Einstein’s theory of relativity. However, despite the extravagant appearance of the structure, its composition is very thoughtful: “The Tower” is used to place a solar telescope. Details are worked out in the smallest details up to the ducts, which turned into an integral part of the facade.

Due to difficult economic conditions, many projects, unfortunately, have remained on paper. Ideas were mainly embodied in exhibition halls and scenography of theater and cinema. One of the main examples was the Glass Pavilion by Bruno Taut. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis distinguished itself in the film industry, and the visual component of the pavilion was the responsibility of architect Hermann Finsterlin.

Architectural principles

Architecture became in some way a means of transformation of society, as a result of which there was a partially utopian image of the future. Bruno Taut’s series of drawings “Alpine Architecture” was an example of this. In it, the architect tried to return to its natural beginnings by means of sun-drenched glass buildings that rise like mountains.

Unlike functionalism, a style in which form was derived from function, in expressionism the form had to correspond to a certain mental state. The effect on the emotions of the viewer was achieved through distortion and fragmentation of traditional forms: flowing windows, bizarre angles, curves. There were no repulsive and frightening details.


  • Flowability and plasticity of forms
  • Curves
  • Material Unity


  • Erich Mendelssohn
  • Rudolf Steiner
  • Michel de Clerc

Brutalism, 1950-1970


Architectural style emerged in the middle of the twentieth century and, having existed for a short time, collapsed as a model of tastelessness. The starting point was the “residential unit” of Le Corbusier in Marseille, and the revolutionaries of brutalism were Alison and Peter Smithson. Their school in Hanstenton amazes with the openness of all building technologies up to the wiring on the walls.

Brutalism buildings

In the postwar period, honesty was important to people, and brutalism became a kind of anti-bourgeois protest. On top of that, this style had one more function: due to low construction costs and high speed of construction, it was possible to provide a large number of workers with housing.

Under the influence of socialist ideals, the main types of structures were residential buildings, libraries, sports complexes, educational institutions and government buildings. Covering the whole world, brutalism proved itself especially in Great Britain and communist countries of Eastern Europe.

Architectural principles

The name comes from the French name “b├ęton brut” – raw concrete, which shows respect for the adherents of brutalism to this material and its quality. The material was loved for its rough and unpretentious honesty and uncompromising. The constructions reflected the functions of the building, but unlike the international style that prevailed then, they were rather heavy and rough.

Buildings with double height ceilings, massive walls and monochrome palette did not leave much room for imagination. With their massiveness, they seemed to defend their right to be exactly that, because they were physically difficult to destroy or rebuild. These unfriendly and even frightening buildings make brutalism the most controversial among all architectural styles.


  • Functionality
  • Massiveness of forms
  • No decor and no cladding
  • The prevalence of concrete
  • Coarse surfaces


  • Allison and Pete Smithson
  • Luis Kahn

Metabolism, 1950-1960

The theory of metabolism is first of all an urban planning theory, whose goal was the global transformation of urban space. It originated in Japan in the 50’s, and its rapid development began in the 60’s due to the sharp economic growth in the country.

Metabolism buildings

Among the founders are architects such as Kisho Kurokawa, Kiyonori Kikutake, Fumihiko Maki and Kenzo Tange, who led the restoration of Hiroshima after the bombing. For Japan, metabolism was a breath of fresh air, the hope for a rebirth after World War II.

In 1960, Tokyo hosted the World Congress of Architects, where the manifesto “Metabolism: A Plan for New Urbanism” was presented. It described the cities of the future and contained several chapters written by each member of the group. According to the architects, the cities should have consisted of separate capsules and could swim in the ocean, fly in space. Of course, it is very difficult to reconstruct the existing city structure, so many projects remained on paper. But despite this, the ideas of metabolism left a significant trace in history and had a great impact on all subsequent generations of Japanese architects.

Architectural principles

The Japanese architects laid the foundation for the theory of metabolism with the concept of living organism development. Everything, like in living nature, is subject to the stages of birth, development, fading, death and rebirth. The building can have both permanent and organic elements that change over time. It is not at all surprising that Japan has become the birthplace of metabolism: this approach is inextricably linked to local culture and its worldview.

The peculiarity of the style is a certain understatement, incompleteness with the prospect of further development. Objects cannot be regarded as complete, but rather as a structure that suggests the possibility of adding, changing or removing something based on the requirements of our changing world.


  • Modularity
  • Cellularity
  • The effect of “incompleteness”


  • Kisho Kurokawa
  • Kiyonori Kikutake
  • Fumihiko Maki
  • Kenzo Tanghe
  • Arat Isozaki