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What is the International Style?


In early 1920s Europe a new language of architecture began to crystallize, whose principles counteracted the antecedent eclectic historical architectural design. The "new language" took shape during the 1930s, and since its principles and properties were adopted throughout the world, it was dubbed the "International Style", also known as the "Modern Movement", "International Modern", and "Bauhaus" style. As opposed to previously-prevalent styles whereby architects sought to represent national, cultural, and historical uniqueness, the International Style embodied the spirit of the modern epoch and aspired to introduce architectural solutions which transcend national and cultural boundaries.

Two major events drew public and professional attention to the new architecture: In 1927 the Weissenhofsiedlung exhibition was held in Stuttgart, Germany, organized by Mi?s van der Rohe, one of the "forebearers" of the International Style. Similar stylistic features were discernible in the work of architects from Germany, France, Holland, and Belgium showcased within the framework of the show. In 1932 the Museum of Modern Art in New York featured an exhibition introducing the language of this new architecture. In a book published by the show's curators, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, the term "International Style" was first coined. Hitchcock and Johnson defined three essential characteristics underlying the International Style:

1. Perception of architecture as volume rather than mass
2. Regularity instead of symmetry
3. Avoidance of extraneous ornamentation

The International Style relied on the use of state-of-the-art construction technologies. The new architectural forms resulted from engineering developments which allowed reinforced concrete frame and a freer use of glass. Le Corbusier, one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, defined five points typifying the "new style":

1. Pilotis: Pillars or stilts that support a building, allowing its elevation above the ground and utilizing the ground floor for various functions, such as garden, parking, etc. Free-standing concrete or steel pillars sustaining ceiling loads.

2. Free plan: Since the frame consists of pillars and beams and no longer relies on load-bearing walls, a freer organization of the interior is made possible. Thus the division of spaces by means of internal walls no longer has to be identical on all floors, and the walls function now amounts to interior partitioning. Instead of a set of symmetrically-arranged closed "box-like rooms" which in the plan appear like a composition of rectangles, the plan of a "new" style building may appear like a free composition of lines and dots. The lines represent partitions, and the dots - pillars. The 'free plan' principle allows for organization of the various building functions in open spaces, allowing free and flowing movement therewithin.

3. Ribbon (or strip) windows: In stone and brick construction technologies, building facades had to withstand building loads, thus the size and shape of windows were restricted by engineering considerations. (For example, openings in stone walls had to have long and narrow arches in keeping with the maximum possible length of a stone beam). The solution of a structure supported on pilotis freed building facades, allowing them to serve as a mere 'skin' or casing, thus enabling distribution of openings and determining their size and shape according to requirements of light, ventilation, insulation, and the interior's function. Le Corbusier preferred the horizontal ribbon window, which illuminates the space in a uniform manner. Consequently, the facades of International Style buildings are usually predominated by horizontal lines.

4. Free facade: As an extension of the former principle, frame and partition construction methods rendered a new interaction between "interior" and "exterior"; parts could now be "emptied" or "added" to the structure. Unlike buildings in earlier styles, which were ultimately closed, delineated boxes, International Style buildings maintained more intricate interrelations between "interior" and "exterior".

5. Roof gardens: Once again, thanks to modern construction technology and newly-found solutions for rain water drainage and hot and cold insulation, there was no longer a need for inclined roofs. Instead, flat roofs could be built, which Le Corbusier suggested to designate as gardens for tenants. The typical plaster - light or whitewashed - wall finish enhanced the sharp transitions between light and shadow, and is a quintessential feature of Mediterranean construction (mainly in Greece and Spain).