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Modernism Style Guide

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s observation that “less is more” has come to define the Modernist doctrine in architecture, whereby buildings and their components are reduced to simple forms expressed by geometry, largely devoid of ornamentation.

What to look for in a Modernist building:

  • Asymmetrical and geometric forms, rectangular or cubist shapes
  • Minimal or an absence of ornamentation
  • Steel frames and/or reinforced concrete
  • Flat roofs
  • Large windows
  • Open plan

Explore these galleries from the RIBA Collections illustrating the main features of Modernism.


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Commercial Union Tower (Aviva Tower), I Undershaft, City of London, seen from Leadenhall Street

Gollins Melvin Ward & Partners
NOTES: This tower was originally built as a pair with the P & O Building at 122 Leadenhall Street which was demolished in 2008.

Boots head office (the D90 West building), Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Skidmore Owings & Merrill
NOTES: This steel-framed building was designed on two floors around a central courtyard according to American out-of-town planning principles by the Chicago firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) in association with the London firm of Yorke Rosenberg Mardall. This extremely influential building with its use of high-class welded steel and the open-plan design led the way for the subsequent development of 'high-tech' steel office buildings for which Britain became internationally renowned. It was Grade II listed in 1996.

Schocken department store, Chemnitz

Mendelsohn, Eric (1887-1953)

National Congress buildings, Eixo Monumental, Brasilia: the Chamber of Deputies and the Towers of Congress

Niemeyer, Oscar (1907-2012)
NOTES: The city of Brasilia was planned and developed in 1956 with Lucio Costa as chief urban planner and Oscar Niemeyer as principal architect. It formally became the capital of Brazil in 1960 and is the seat of all three branches of the Brazilian government. The National Congress buildings completed in 1958, comprise the Federal Senate, the Chamber of Deputies and the administrative twin Towers of Congress.

Penthouse, Highpoint Two, North Hill, Highgate, London: the living room with home-made furniture seen from the entrance door

Lubetkin & Tecton
NOTES: On completion the penthouse was occupied by Berthold and Margaret Lubetkin who furnished it with pieces made by themselves.

Isokon Flats, Lawn Road, Hampstead, London, seen from Lawn Road

Coates, Wells Wintemute (1895-1958)

Penguin Pool, London Zoo, Regent's Park, London: ramps under construction

Lubetkin Drake & Tecton
NOTES: This was Tecton's second commission for the Royal Zoological Society, the site consisting of a series of derelict ponds and a paddock. A dramatic design was needed to show off the antics of the penguins and this was achieved by two cantilevered ramps spiralling around one another without any intermediate support. The surrounding trees were kept and a cover provided around part of the elliptical structure to protect the penguins from the sun. The flat paths were coated with plastic rubber, the steps were of slate and the concrete ramps were kept wet by a revolving fountain. The structure was allowed under a clause in the London Building Act which exempted from the regulations buildings under a certain size which were not destined for human habitation and which were more than 30 ft from any other building. The pool had been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair after the Royal Zoological Society encountered strong opposition to its plans for major alterations in 1951. The pool was listed in 1970 and restored in 1988. The executive architects were Lubetkin and Drake.

Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois

Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig (1886-1969)

Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London: level 2 foyer

London County Council. Architects Department

Town Hall, Hilversum

Dudok, Willem Marinus (1884-1974)

Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig (1886-1969)

Central Shopping Precinct, Coventry: the lower precinct by night

Coventry City Architects Department