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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.