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Modern or Contemporary Architecture: What Gives?

There has been an internal office debate over the past two years as to what exactly defines Modern Architecture vs. Contemporary Architecture. When describing our work to clients the term is often used interchangeably among those who are not Architects and specifically and intentionally by those with definite opinions or who have been practicing Architecture for years. After digging through definitions and doing some research it’s high time to look at these terms more in depth and figure out what’s what.


There is one project in particular that ignited the initial conversation and has sparked a healthy debate ever since. This house…designed by our firm nearly 8 years ago.

Modern 1

Contemporary 1


Is it Modern or Contemporary Architecture? To begin, let’s start by talking about each and we’ll come back to what this house is or isn’t.


Merrian Webster defines Contemporary as “happening or beginning now or in recent times existing or happening in the same time period” and “marked by characteristics of the present period.” Modern, on the other hand, is defined as “of or relating to the present time or the recent past: happening, existing, or developing at a time near the present time” and “based on or using the newest information, methods, or technology.” Ok, well that clarifies things…NOT.


What I have gathered through personal observation and information seeking is that Contemporary Architecture is not as much a ‘style’ per se as it is a reflection on what is current, happening today, and an expression of present-day ideas. Whereas Modern Architecture embodies purely functional needs through an expression of machine age materials (primarily steel, reinforced concrete, and glass), simple clean lines, symmetrical compositions, little to no ornamentation, and large open spaces.


Modern Architecture evolved starting at the beginning of the 20th century and became popular post World War 2, thanks to architects like Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rhoe. There is usually a clear visual expression of a structure with an emphasis on function, simplified form, and clean lines. Some of my favorite modern buildings include:


Farnsworth House

   Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rhoe

Notre Dame de Ronchamp

  Notre Dame de Ronchamp by Le Corbusier

Barcelona Pavillion

 Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe

Bauhaus School

 Bauhaus School of Design by Walter Gropius

Contemporary Architecture is happening now at present day and is often associated with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), Green building practices and techniques and BIM (Building Information Modeling). Contemporary Architecture is an expression of today’s and tomorrow’s expression of the current style. Characteristics of Contemporary Architecture varies greatly with no specific underlying features. Only time will tell how today’s current style of buildings will be classified and termed by theorists of the 22nd century. Some well known examples of Contemporary buildings include:

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry

Simmons Hall

Simmons Hall (at MIT) by Steven Holl

Royal Ontario Museum

Royal Ontario Museum by Daniel Libeskind

Seattle Public Library

Seattle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas

Hopefully the variances in style and expression now have recognizable differences to help distinguish between Modern or Contemporary Architecture.  And to answer the office debate…it’s unanimous: Contemporary Architecture is the best way to describe the Ripple Design project above.

A link to our Contemporary Mediterranean home can be found here: Contemporary Mediterranean Home