International style architecture

Timeless Elegance: Exploring International Style Architecture

What is it about the sleek lines and functional beauty that define some of the world’s most iconic buildings? That’s International style architecture for you. Born in a time when form began to follow function like never before, this architectural movement reshaped skylines across the globe. 

Embarking on a journey from the innovative Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier to the iconic Seagram Building crafted by Mies van der Rohe, we’ll delve into the historical essence of international style architecture and enduring qualities that make these structures stand as testaments of time.

To learn more about the principles behind these architectural marvels and our approach to design, explore our expertise.

The Genesis of International Style Architecture

The International Style emerged in the 1920s and 1930s as a major architectural movement that embodied the ideals of modernism. In the wake of World War I, architects in Europe and America yearned to shed the weight of past conventions, propelling toward a novel, utilitarian beauty apt for the contemporary era.

The Impact of World War I on Architectural Trends

The cataclysm of World War I reshaped the architectural landscape, igniting a thirst for renewal and spurning the ornate customs tied to bygone eras. Architects sought to create buildings that were simple, functional, and reflective of the new machine age.

The Emergence and Coalescence of the International Style

The term “International Style” was coined by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in their 1932 essay titled “The International Style: Architecture Since 1922”. The essay identified the key principles of the style, which included the use of modern materials like steel and glass, the rejection of ornament, and an emphasis on volume over mass.

Defining Characteristics of International Style Architecture

The most common characteristics of International Style buildings are: 

  • Rectilinear forms
  • Light, taut plane surfaces that have been completely stripped of applied ornamentation and decoration.
  • Open interior spaces
  • A visually weightless quality engendered by the use of cantilever construction.
  • Glass and steel, in combination with usually less visible reinforced concrete.

Principles Guiding Building Design in International Style

The International Style was formed under the dictates that modern buildings’ form and appearance should naturally grow out of and express the potentialities of their materials and structural engineering. A harmony between artistic expression, function, and technology would thus be established in a disciplined new architecture.

Role of Industrial Materials and Reinforced Concrete

The development of new building technologies centering on the use of iron and steel, which made masonry (brick and stone) construction obsolete, was key to the emergence of the International Style. The new use of steel-reinforced concrete as secondary support elements (floors, etc.) and of glass as sheathing for the exteriors of buildings completed the technology needed for modern buildings.

Pioneers and Exemplars of The International Style

Key pioneers of the International Style included Le Corbusier in France, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany, and Philip Johnson in the United States. These architects designed iconic buildings that came to epitomize the style.

Le Corbusier’s Influence and Contributions

Le Corbusier was one of the most influential architects of the 20th century and a key proponent of the International Style. His Villa Savoye (1929-31) in Poissy, France is considered one of the first examples of the style, with its white cubic volumes, flat roof, and long strip windows.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Iconic Designs

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was another major figure in the International Style. His German Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition (1929) featured a flat roof supported by cruciform-shaped steel columns, with walls made entirely of glass. The Farnsworth House (1945-51) in Plano, Illinois is another of his most famous designs in the style.

Notable Buildings in The International Style

Other notable examples of International Style architecture include Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus School building (1925-26) in Dessau, Germany; the PSFS Building (1932) in Philadelphia by George Howe and William Lescaze; and the United Nations Secretariat Building (1947-50) in New York by Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier.

International Style Architecture Across Borders

In the 1930s and ’40s, the International Style spread from its base in Germany and France to North and South America, Scandinavia, Britain, and Japan. The clean, efficient, geometric qualities of the style came to form the basis of the architectural vocabulary of skyscrapers in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s.

Early Spread to North America

The International Style provided an aesthetic rationale for the stripped-down, clean-surfaced skyscrapers that became the status symbols of American corporate power and progressiveness in the mid-20th century. Architects like Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe helped popularize the style in the U.S.

Global Expansion and Influence of The International Style

By the 1950s and 1960s, the International Style had become a truly global architectural movement. Its emphasis on functionalism, new technologies and materials, and the machine aesthetic resonated in rapidly industrializing societies around the world seeking to project an image of modernity and progress.

Controversies and Criticisms of The International Style

The International Style wasn’t all sunshine and roses. It faced its fair share of controversies and criticism.

A few folks viewed it as a mechanism wielded to propel specific political motives forward. Others felt it became too formulaic and boring.

Political Implications of The International Style

The International Style was sometimes criticized for its supposed socialist and communist associations, due to the left-leaning politics of some of its major proponents like Gropius and Corbusier. Its emphasis on functionalism over individualism was seen by some as reflective of collectivist ideologies.

One of the original core tenets of the International style was its unifying sameness. Its designs often looked very similar to one another, removing socioeconomic or societal divisions that might stem from architectural adornments or details. 

And its relatively low cost meant it was an easy way to house people, regardless of their class or status. The international style’s desire to be an architecture for all meant that it was often adopted by leftist political groups.

Decline and Critique of The International Style

By the 1970s, some architects and critics had begun to chafe at the constraints and limitations inherent in the International Style. The bare and denuded quality of the steel-and-glass “boxes” that embodied the style by then appeared stultifying and formulaic.

As the 1970s unfolded, a rising discontent with the International Style sparked a backlash against modernist architecture, igniting an adventurous search for groundbreaking design and ornamentation. Architects broke free from traditional constraints, creatively using modern construction materials and decorative elements to design structures. 

This approach led to the creation of buildings with unique and previously unseen aesthetic qualities. This movement became prominent in the late 1970s and early ’80s and became known as postmodernism.

The Legacy and Evolution of International Style Architecture


Despite the critiques it faced, the International Style had a lasting impact and legacy on architecture in the 20th century and beyond. Its emphasis on functionalism, simplicity, and the honest expression of materials and structure continued to influence later modernist styles.

To explore how these elements have been incorporated into contemporary designs, check out our luxury architecture section

New Directions in Architecture Post-International Style

Even as postmodernism and other styles emerged as reactions against the International Style in the late 20th century, many architects continued to work in a modernist idiom that drew from the principles and aesthetics of the International Style. High-tech architecture, minimalism, and deconstructivism can all be seen as evolving from or responding to the International Style.

Influence on Modern Skyscraper Construction

The International Style had an especially significant impact on skyscraper design, as its emphasis on the glass curtain wall and the expression of the underlying steel skeleton proved well-suited to the engineering and functional needs of tall office buildings. Many of the most iconic skyscrapers of the mid-to-late 20th century, from Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building to the Sears Tower, show the influence of the International Style.

International Style Architecture: A Final Word

Exploring beyond mere structural components like steel frameworks and level tops, it’s the fusion of these parts that narrates tales of creativity, endurance, and visual coherence across the globe. Our exploration uncovers not just the tangible elements of architecture but also the brilliance of human creativity in shaping environments that resonate across cultures. 

Whether you’re gazing at skyscrapers or planning your next home project inspired by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe himself remember – good design transcends time. For more information or to work with luxury architects, contact Ralston Architects today.