The International Style

26 Nov
The Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, Germany (1927) The Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, Germany (1930)
The Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, Germany (1927) The Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, Germany (1930) Glaspaleis (1933), Heerlen (by Frits Peutz), a celebration of transparency, in Heerlen, The Netherlands (1935)
Villa Savoye (1929), Poissy-sur-Seine, France, by Le Corbusier Royal Corinthian Yacht Club (1931), by Joseph Emberton. Södra Ängby (1933-1939), Stockholm, Sweden
Labworth Café (1932-33), by Ove Arup. Carl Mackley Houses (1933-1934), Philadelphia, by Oscar Stonorov and Alfred Kastner E-1027 (1929), Cap Martin, France, by Eileen Gray
Toronto-Dominion Centre (1967), Toronto, by Mies van der Rohe The Philadelphia Saving Fund Society Building Thermometer house, White City of Tel Aviv
     

The International style was a major architectural style of the 1920s and 1930s. The term usually refers to the buildings and architects of the formative decades of Modernism, before World War II. The term had its origin from the name of a book by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson written to record the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1932 which identified, categorised and expanded upon characteristics common to Modernism across the world. As a result, the focus was more on the stylistic aspects of Modernism. Hitchcock’s and Johnson’s aims were to define a style of the time, which would encapsulate this modern architecture. They identified three different principles: the expression of volume rather than mass, balance rather than preconceived symmetry and the expulsion of applied ornament. All the works which were displayed as part of the exhibition were carefully selected, as only works which strictly followed the set of rules were displayed. Previous uses of the term in the same context can be attributed to Walter Gropius in Internationale Architektur, and Ludwig Hilberseimer in Internationale neue Baukunst.

Europe
Around 1900 a number of architects around the world began developing new architectural solutions to integrate traditional precedents with new social demands and technological possibilities. The work of Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde in Brussels, Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, Otto Wagner in Vienna and Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, among many others, can be seen as a common struggle between old and new.

The international style as such blossomed in 1920s Western Europe. Researchers find significant contemporary common ground among the Dutch de Stijl movement, the work of visionary French/Swiss architect Le Corbusier, and various German efforts to industrialize craft traditions, which resulted in the formation of the Deutscher Werkbund, large civic worker-housing projects in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, and, most famously, the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was one of a number of European schools and associations concerned with reconciling craft tradition and industrial technology.

By the 1920s the most important figures in modern architecture had established their reputations. The big three are commonly recognized as Le Corbusier in France, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany.

The common characteristics are easy to identify: a radical simplification of form, a rejection of ornament, adoption of glass, steel and concrete as preferred materials, the transparency of buildings and, thus, the construction (called the honest expression of structure), acceptance of industrialized mass-production techniques and the machine aesthetic, acceptance of the automobile, design decisions that logically support the function of the building, and a vague but exciting sense of the future.

The ideals of the style are commonly summed up in four slogans: ornament is a crime, truth to materials, form follows function, and Le Corbusier’s description of houses as “machines for living”.

In 1927, one of the first and most defining manifestations of the International Style was the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, built as a component of the exhibition “Die Wohnung,” organized by the Deutscher Werkbund, and overseen by Mies van der Rohe. The fifteen contributing architects included Mies, and other names most associated with the movement: Peter Behrens, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, J.J.P. Oud, Mart Stam, and Bruno Taut. The exhibition was enormously popular, with thousands of daily visitors trooping through the houses.

The town of Portolago (now Lakki) in the Greek Dodecanese island of Leros represents some of the most interesting urban planning from the fascist regime in the Dodecanese; an extraordinary example of city takeover in the International style known as Italian rationalist. The symbolism of the shapes is reflected with exemplary effectiveness in the buildings of Lakki: the administration building, the metaphysical tower of the market, the cinema-theatre, the Hotel Roma (now Hotel Leros), the church of San Francesco and the hospital are fine examples of the style.

Many of its ideas and ideals were formalized by the 1928 Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne.

Helsinki University of Technology auditorium, built from red brick, by Alvar Aalto
Helsinki University of Technology auditorium, built from red brick, by Alvar Aalto

United States

Rudolf Schindler's Lovell Beach House in Los Angeles, California (1926)
Rudolf Schindler’s Lovell Beach House in Los Angeles, California (1926)

The same striving towards simplification, honesty and clarity are identifiable in US architects of the same period, notably in the work of Louis Sullivan in Chicago, and the west-coast residences of Irving Gill. Frank Lloyd Wright’s career in the 1900s and 1910s parallels and influences the work of the European modernists, particularly via the Wasmuth Portfolio, but he refused to be categorized with them.

In 1922, the competition for the Tribune Tower and its famous second-place entry by Eliel Saarinen gave a clear indication of what was to come.

The term International Style came from the 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by Philip Johnson, and from the title of the exhibition catalog for that exhibit, written by Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock. It addressed building from 1922 through 1932. Johnson named, codified, promoted and subtly re-defined the whole movement by his inclusion of certain architects, and his description of their motives and values. Perhaps the masterstroke was the name, and the positioning of this style as one that transcended any national or regional or continental identity.

Johnson also defined the modern movement as an aesthetic style, rather than a matter of political statement. This was a departure from the functionalist principles of some of the original Weissenhof architects, particularly the Dutch, and especially J.J.P. Oud, with whom Johnson maintained a prickly correspondence on the topic.

The gradual rise of the National Socialist regime in Weimar Germany in the 1930s, and the Nazi’s rejection of modern architecture, meant that an entire generation of architects were forced out of Europe. When Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer fled Germany, they both arrived at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, in an excellent position to extend their influence and promote the Bauhaus as the primary source of architectural modernism. When Mies fled in 1936, he came to Chicago, and solidified his reputation as the prototypical modern architect.

Hickory Cluster townhouses, Reston, Virginia, designed by Charles M. Goodman, circa 1964
Hickory Cluster townhouses, Reston, Virginia, designed by Charles M. Goodman, circa 1964

After World War II, the International Style matured into modernism, HOK and SOM perfected the corporate practice, and it became the dominant approach for decades. Perhaps its most famous/notorious manifestations include the United Nations headquarters and the Seagram Building in New York.

The typical International Style high-rise usually consists of the following:

Square or rectangular footprint 
Simple cubic “extruded rectangle” form 
Windows running in broken horizontal rows forming a grid 
All facade angles are 90 degrees. 

Israel, Tel Aviv- white city

Tel Aviv has the largest concentration in the world of buildings built in the “International Style”. This style was brought to Tel Aviv in the beginning of the 1930s by European graduates of European architecture schools. Their source of inspiration was the modern architecture movement dominant in Europe in the 1920s.The main principles of the modern movement are – architecture is an expression of volume and not mass, asymmetrical composition and regular repetition instead of classic symmetry, avoidance of all decorations that do not have a useful purpose. The modern style, functional, simple and free of decorations, was seen as the most fitting for a young, rapidly growing city. The European International Style went through local changes in Israel thanks to continuous open discussions among architects. This created a building style which was a combination of modern movement principles and an integration of cultures and influences of daily reality such as: Climate problems, stringent building laws, technological knowledge and production methods that existed at the time. International Style buildings are usually 2 – 4 floors, built as a single building on a plot of land and covered with light colored plaster. The buildings were used in most cases as residential structures and often built for public uses. A large percentage of the buildings built in this style in the city can be found in the area planned by Patrick Geddes, north of the city’s main historical commercial center.The combination of modern architecture and advanced city planning created in this part of the city a built area of unique quality known as the “White City (Tel Aviv)”, . As a result of an unexpected large wave of immigration from Germany in the 1930s, the city went through a period of intensive development in a short period of time leading to the creation of a critical mass of buildings in the International Style. Two thousand seven hundred buildings were constructed in this style between the years 1931 – 1937. Today Tel Aviv has within its borders more than 4,000 buildings in the International Style built between the years 1931 – 1956. The majority of these buildings are located between Allenby Street in the south, Begin Road and Ibn Gvirol Street in the east, the Yarkon River in the north and the sea in the west. Approximately 1,100 of these buildings are intended for preservation in various city plans.

Elsewhere
One of the strengths of the International Style was that the design solutions were indifferent to location, site, and climate. This was one of the reasons it was called ‘international’; the style made no reference to local history or national vernacular. They were the same buildings around the world. (Later this was identified as one of the style’s primary weaknesses.)

American anti-Communist politics after the war, and Philip Johnson’s influential rejection of functionalism, have tended to mask the fact that many of the important contributors to the original Weissenhof project fled to the east. This group also tended to be far more concerned with functionalism. Bruno Taut, Mart Stam, the second Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer, Ernst May and other important figures of the International Style went to the Soviet Union in 1930 to undertake huge, ambitious, idealistic urban planning projects, building entire cities from scratch. This Soviet effort was doomed to failure, and these architects became stateless persons in 1936 when Stalin ordered them out of the country and Hitler wouldn’t allow them back into Germany.

In the late 1930s this group, and their students, were dispersed to Turkey, France, Mexico, Kenya and India, adding up to a truly international influence.

In July, 2003, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, proclaimed The White City of Tel Aviv as a World Cultural Heritage site, describing the City as “a synthesis of outstanding significance of the various trends of the Modern Movement in architecture and town planning in the early part of the 20th century.”

Criticism of International style

The stark, unornamented appearance of the International style met with contemporaneous criticism and continues to be criticized today by many. Especially in larger and more public buildings, the style is commonly subject to disparagement as ugly, inhuman, sterile, and elitist. Such criticism gained momentum in the latter half of the 20th Century, from academics such as Hugo Kükelhaus to best-selling American author Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House, and contributed to the rise of such counter-movements as postmodernism. The negative reaction to internationalist modernism has been linked to public antipathy to development overall.

International style today

Although it was conceived as a movement that transcended style, the International Style was largely superseded in the era of Postmodern architecture that started in the 1960s. In 2006, Hugh Pearlman, the architectural critic of The Times, observed that those using the style today are simply “another species of revivalist,” noting the irony.

Architects
The former office of the Oranje Nassau Mijnen, Dirk Roosenburg, 1928, one of the earlist buildings in International style in Heerlen
The former office of the Oranje Nassau Mijnen, Dirk Roosenburg, 1928, one of the earlist buildings in International style in Heerlen

The former Hema in Heerlen, Dirk Brouwer, 1939, one of the last buildings in International style in Heerlen
The former Hema in Heerlen, Dirk Brouwer, 1939, one of the last buildings in International style in Heerlen

Walter Gropius 
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe 
Alvar Aalto 
Le Corbusier 
Philip Johnson 
Rudolf Schindler 
Richard Neutra 
Welton Becket 
Louis Kahn 
Oscar Niemeyer 
Charles M. Goodman 
Frits Peutz 
Dirk Roosenburg 
Dirk Brouwer 

Important buildings in the 1932 MOMA exhibition

Alvar Aalto: Turun Sanomat building, Turku, Finland 1930
Le Corbusier & Pierre Jeanneret: Stein house, Garches, Near St. Cloud 1928
Le Corbusier & Pierre Jeanneret: Villa Savoye, Poissy-Sur-Seine 1930
Le Corbusier & Pierre Jeanneret: De Beistegui Pent House, Champs-Élysées, Paris 1931
Otto Eisler: Double House, Brno, Czechoslovakia 1926
Walter Gropius: Bauhaus School, Dessau, Germany 1926
Walter Gropius: City Employment Office, Dessau, Germany 1928
Erich Mendelsohn: Schocken Department Store, Chemnitz, Germany 1928-1930
Mies Van Der Rohe: Apartment House, Weissenhof Siedlung, Stuttgart 1927
Mies Van Der Rohe: German pavilion at the Barcelona Exposition, Spain 1929
Mies Van Der Rohe: Tugendhat House, Brno, Czechoslovakia 1930
Jacobus Oud: Workers Houses,(Seidlung, Kiefhoek), Hook of Holland 1924-1927
Karl Schneider: Kunstverein, Humburg, Germany 1930

Examples of International Style architecture

One Wilshire, Los Angeles 
Villa Savoye (1929), Poissy-sur-Seine, France (by Le Corbusier) 
Hickory Cluster townhouses, Reston, Virginia 
Glaspaleis (1933), Heerlen (by Frits Peutz) 
Monseigneur Laurentius Schrijnen Retratiehuis (1932), Heerlen (by Frits Peutz) 
Former office Oranje Nassaumijnen (1928), Heerlen (by Dirk Roosenburg)

References

^ Henry Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson. The International Style. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. ISBN 0393315185
^ Panayotis Tournikiotis. The Historiography of Modern Architecture. MIT Press, 1999. ISBN 0262700859
^ a b Gabion: Modernism – or should that be Modernwasm?
^ UNESCO. White City of Tel-Aviv — the Modern Movement. Accessed 3 November 2007.
^ Philip S. Gutis, It’s Ugly, And So Is The Fight To Save It, New York Times, February 7, 1987, accessed 02-17-2008
^ E.g., C. Thau & K. Vindum, Jacobsen, 2002, ISBN 87-7407-230-8, at 65 (referring to reaction to internationalism as “A Horror of the Traceless, Inhuman Industrial Look”)
^ A History of Architecture, New Internationalist issue 202 – December 1989
^ T. Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House, Farrar Straus Giroux (1981) ISBN-13: 9780374158927 ISBN 0374158924
^ Herbert Muschamp, Fear, Hope and the Changing of the Guard, New York Times, November 14, 1993, accessed 02-17-2008 (“the preservation movement . . . was a tool directed against real estate development, but inevitably it was turned against architecture. Its particular target was modern architecture”)
^ R. Jobst, Charm is not an antiquated notion, FFWD Weekly: March 31, 2005 (“At the root of the public’s apprehension about new development is that we’ve been getting screwed for 60 years by brutal, soulless and downright crappy architecture that arrogantly dismisses the human requirement for beauty”)

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