An Overview of International Style

The Willis Tower in Chicago. Photography courtesy of EQRoy/Shutterstock.com

In the midst of chaos in the early- to mid-20th century, International Style emerged as a response by architects to societal issues that were plaguing Western countries. While design before the 20th century often took inspiration from previous styles and centered around revivalist ideals, architects and designers saw a draw towards classical decor as problematically nationalistic–a concern that was amplified by World War I and World War II. Additionally, advancements in material science and technology gave architects the tools they needed to create new forms, such as streamlined skyscrapers that could reach new heights.

Origins and Overview

Developed in Europe and the United States during the 1920s and 30s, the term “International Style” was first coined by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in the 1932 essay The International Style: Architecture Since 1922. While architecture before the early 20th century took inspiration from historical styles, the eclectic patchwork of decoration and forms was largely discontenting to architects who saw potential in new building materials. In particular, iron, steel, reinforced concrete, and glass allowed for new forms that were larger, safer, faster to build, and more utilitarian in design. As these materials were used more often and material science advanced, mass-produced iron and steel gave designers a cost-effective solution to building.

Designers were also concerned about the nationalistic ideals behind using classical styles. Due to the rise of nationalism before and during the World Wars, and that nationalism’s role in the devastation caused by those wars, architects envisioned the future of design as a streamlined, universal style that relied on technological innovation. Rather than covering with unnecessary decorative elements, International Style embraced an austere aesthetic that celebrated the harmony between function, technology, and form.

Key Players

As it has been mentioned, the term International Style began in 1932 with the essay The International Style: Architecture Since 1922. Written by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, the essay was used as an accompanying catalog to an exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art.

Proponents of International Style included:

Le Corbusier
Frank Lloyd Wright
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Walter Gropius
Richard Meier
Philip Johnson
Juan O’Gorman
Marcel Breuer
Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud
Richard Joseph Neutra

Key Elements

The elements of International Style primarily focused on unique ways in which form arose from new material technology. In their essay, Hitchcock and Johnson stated three key design principles of International Style:

  1. The building’s form utilizes thin planes and/or surfaces,minimizes mass
  2. Regularity in the facade
  3. No applied ornament

Although these features were called out specifically, the key elements of how these principles were displayed include additional aspects:

Glass and Steel Reinforced Concrete: With the celebration around the material advancements of the early 20th century and because International Style stripped away unnecessary ornament, glass and steel-reinforced concrete were used as both building material and aesthetic.

Light, Taut Plane Surfaces: Likewise, the strength of the materials used allowed architects to create light-weight forms that could be built taller.

Open Interior Spaces: With rectangular forms being the most cost-effective and utilitarian, and because the materials used–iron, steel, glass, and concrete–are much more load-bearing (minimizing the need for additional interior load-bearing walls), the interiors of International Style buildings are more open.

Rectilinear Forms: By removing decorative and classical ornaments, using inflexible materials such as iron, steel, glass, and concrete, and delighting in the form of function, International Style architecture is often rectilinear.

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