philip johnson's glass house international style
Philip Johnson’s Glass House was built in 1949 and uses expansive amounts of glass to bring the outside in. It’s the perfect example of International style. Courtesy of Architectural Digest.

International style is an architectural style that is characterized by rectangular structures and forms, simple exteriors with large glass panes and open interiors. It was especially popular in the early to mid 20th century, where it was appropriately called the “architecture of the machine age.” International style uses materials like steel, concrete and glass to create its designs, and aims to create buildings that are effective, efficient and easily constructed.

united gas building in mississippi in international style
This former United Gas Building in Mississippi uses long lines to create a uniform and streamlined structure. Courtesy of MissPreservation.

At its peak, International style was popular worldwide. It was used in Europe for affordable housing, in America for its cost-effective commercial buildings and in Latin America and Asia as a way to show off their industrialization and economic competitiveness to the rest of the world.

The History of International Style

International style started to develop in Europe in the early 1920s, as the world was still reeling from the first World War. The war had left many people displaced and without homes, and an effective and economical architectural solution was desperately needed. International style became the answer to this crisis. It used cheap, new materials like concrete, steel, iron and glass to create structures that could be erected quickly and uniformly. It was also a useful and cost-effective way to house new businesses that were forming in a rapidly industrializing society.

glaspaleis in the netherlands in international style
The Glaspaleis in the Netherlands was built in 1935 and is a great example of how early International style mimicked factory buildings. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

This industrial revolution inspired International style too. The vast, minimally adorned factory buildings that were characteristic of industrialism were all across Western Europe. These warehouse-like structures contained large windows for ventilation and lighting, a simple exterior for easy construction and an open interior for maximum spacial flexibility. Architects such as Le Corbusier saw these buildings and admired the industrial feel and pared-down look of them.

le corbusier apartments in stuttgart in international style
These apartments were built by Le Corbusier for the Weissenhofsiedlung exposition. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

International style became more well-known after the Weissenhofseidlung— an architectural exposition held outside Stuttgart, Germany in 1927 that showed off International houses and apartments. This event drew huge crowds and helped promote International style on the world stage.

International Style’s Controversies

mid century romanian hotel in international style
This Romanian hotel was built in the mid century and uses the blocky, repetitive structure of International style. Courtesy of Radio Free Europe.

One of the original core tenets of 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 relative low cost meant it was an easy way to house people, regardless of their class or status. International style’s desire to be an architecture for all meant that it was often adopted by leftist political groups.

italian pavilion at paris world fair in international style
The Italian Pavilion uses a simple exterior and harsh lines to show off its International style inspirations. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

This was especially true in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 30s, where architects flocked to help create new buildings and structures for the growing Communist bloc. International style went even further on the other side of the political spectrum, in fascist Italy. In fact, it was almost the official architectural style of the country. The perfect example of this is seen in the Italian Pavilion at the 1937 World Fair in Paris. The building’s rigid lines and use of concrete and windows show off Internationalism’s heavy handed approach to design.

International Style in America

International style’s political connotations were one of the reasons the style took so long to take hold in America. People were not only wary of the design itself, but of its usage in enemy regimes elsewhere. So when International style initially came to America, it had a slow start. The sheer faces of glass and concrete that were so characteristic to International style seemed ugly and off-putting to most Americans.

twin towers in international style
The World Trade Center Twin Towers were built in 1973 by Minoru Yamasaki, who was inspired by the architecture of Le Corbusier. Courtesy of Thought Co.

However, after World War II, the style took off—especially when it came to commercial and urban architecture. The post-war economic boom meant businesses were growing, and they needed a place to go. Commercial buildings, like offices, fast-food restaurants and gas stations in International style were soon everywhere, thanks to their cheap and easy construction.

Related Reading: John Lautner:An Architect’s Commitment To Uniqueness

International Style’s Architects and Buildings

Though International style stretched for decades and encompasses thousands of buildings and hundreds of architects, there are a few prominent buildings and architects that exemplified the style particularly well. Let’s take a look at some of them.

corbusiers's villa savoye in international style
One of the most well-known International style buildings is Villa Savoye. The Parisian home was built in the late 1920s by Le Corbusier. Corbusier is one of the most well known International style architects, and is credited with helping create the style in Europe. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
united nations building in nyc in international style
Built in 1952 by Oscar Neimeyer, the United Nations Headquarters (far left) embodies International style perfectly. The sleek rectangular style and window-covered facade demonstrate this. Courtesy of Interesting Engineering.
farnsworth house in international style
Another picturesque example of International style is the Farnwsorth House in Illinois. Built in 1951 by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, the home uses its long shape and glassy facade to create a sleek architectural masterpiece. Courtesy of Farnsworth House. Courtesy of Farnsworth House.
lake shore drive apartments in international style
Another set of famous Mies buildings are the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago. These buildings implement his ‘less is more’ strategy as they use minimal exterior ornamentation. Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Center.

The Influence Of International Style

However, once the late 60s and 70s came along, International style’s favor waned. It was seen as drab and boring architecture that all looked the same— its associations with grungy and dingy low-income housing didn’t help either. International style was criticized for taking away a distinct neighborhood feel from the areas where it was present. Even architects who were once champions of the style, like Phillip Johnson, began to turn against it.

modern home in international style
Homes today can use International style elements like rectangular forms and large glass windows to create an open and functional space. Courtesy of Charles & Co Design.

But this wasn’t the end of International style. Even though architects were starting to design more innovative and freer structures, the influence of International style remained. Clean lines and a focus on sturdy and functional materials were still present in designs after International style’s hay-day. In fact, they’re still present today— especially when it comes to residential designs. Boxy, ‘modern’ homes have become a homebuilder favorite, as their efficient footprint and sleek look seems to be timeless.

International style may not be the architectural darling it once was. But its effects can be seen everywhere—from the boxy skyscraper downtown to the modern home down the road.

Learn more about a similar architecture style, Brutalism, here. And of course, don’t forget to follow us on InstagramFacebook and Pinterest for more Atomic Ranch articles and ideas!