Modern vs. Contemporary Houses (Style Spotlight)

modern or contemporary architecture

By John Hill

What's the difference between modern and contemporary architecture? Why the distinction? At its most literal, "contemporary" is the architecture being produced now, the architecture of the moment. "Modern" architecture breaks with the past -- specifically the traditional styles pre-dating the Industrial Revolution.

So in this sense "contemporary" is not limited to a single stylistic thread. And "modern" recalls the early- and mid-20th-century architecture embodying the ideals of the machine age: an absence of ornament, structures of steel or concrete, large expanses of glass, a whitewash (usually stucco-over-brick) or another minimal exterior expression, and open floor plans.

While this starts to define the difference, there is an evident use of the term "contemporary" that refers to a particular strain of design today, such that new postmodern, neo-Classical or other neo-traditional buildings are not included. The term's use is clearly narrower than the literal definition, yet it's still rooted in the now; contemporary architecture is of its time, therefore innovative and forward-looking. In this sense it's rooted in the modern, even if it does not resemble it stylistically.

The gallery below responds to the question, "Modern or contemporary?" Hopefully, it explains their similarities and differences, and helps in the appreciation of both styles.

Modern or Contemporary?
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Modern vs. Contemporary Houses (Style Spotlight)

In the case of this photo, the question is a trick one, because we are looking at a house from 1939. It features expansive glass in a semi-circle, a cantilevered upper floor, corner windows, and a whitewash finish. This residence in Austin, Texas, was the inspiration for the four-condo project in the distance by Hugh Jefferson Randolph.

The neighboring four-condo project by Hugh Jefferson Randolph is clearly rooted in the modern architecture of its nearby predecessor: whitewash surfaces predominate and corner windows are evident, along with cantilevers and overhangs. Another aspect of the modern style that they both share is an intentional asymmetry, a departure from the Classical bilateral symmetry that was prevalent before the 20th century.

The MuSh Residence is an obvious departure from the previous project. Instead of white, the solid walls are covered in zinc with randomly spaced reveals. A cantilever is found, but its relationship to the main volume is more complex (not just an extension of it, like the home in the first photo), and it is offset by a notch on the other side. The house may be boxy and flat-roofed like most modern architecture, but its idiosyncrasies make it contemporary through and through.

The MuSh Residence (the name and spelling make it quite contemporary too) is actually two cubes: a three-story house (shown in the previous photo) and a two-story with a garage on the street; between them is a courtyard. The shorter one has the same skin and literal expression of circulation via glass. The composition is much more free-form than that of modern buildings.

A couple of projects by Amitzi Architects of Israel embrace the tenets of modern architecture, or what's also referred to as the "International Style," named after the 1932 MoMA exhibition curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock. That exhibition established ideals of modernism, uniting buildings and architects across the globe through the articulation of volumes, walls and windows. House L does it so well that it looks like it could have been made 70 years ago.


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