Modern vs. Postmodern Architecture

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

I have worked in higher education since 2008 when I began teaching in remedial ed and teach classes in Humanities, Philosophy, and Sociology. I have a Bachelors Degree from the University of Colorado at Denver in Philosophy with a minor in Theater and a Masters Degree in Humanities.

The differences between modern and postmodern architecture focus on issues of utility, originality, and the struggle between local and cosmopolitan values. In this lesson we will examine both schools of thought and look at examples of each.

Imagine you and a friend drive through a city, and get into a debate about whether a newly constructed building is ugly or soulless. You may find the use of curves and edges interesting and significant, but your buddy doesn't see how they serve any practical use. You may not know it, but you are engaged in a debate over the merits of modern and postmodern architecture!

Modern architecture is recognizable by its adherence to Le Corbusier's dictum 'Form Follows Function', which means that structures are given their aesthetic merit based on their utility. The postmodern response rejects this philosophy without offering any specific replacement. As we will see, modern architecture is part of a cosmopolitan look that is uniform and purposeful, while postmodernism seeks a more unique look that emphasizes originality and local flavor.

Modernism in Architecure: Le Corbusier

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, or Le Corbusier (1887-1965), was the pioneer of modern commercial architecture. As the world was transitioning to urban living, Le Corbusier and the modernists sought to maximize the utility of limited spaces. While many commercial structures were made with an eye towards a given aesthetic (such as how they fit into the neighborhood, or paid homage to European fashion), Le Corbusier focused on how to make a structure whose design stemmed entirely from its use. This philosophy in architecture was summed up as 'form follows function'. If we look at one of Le Corbusier's designs, we can see this philosophy at work. Look at Gustavo Capanema Palace in Rio de Janeiro.

Gustavo Capanema Palace
Gustavo Capanema Palace

Does this remind you of apartments in your neighborhood? The design uses material efficiently to create uniform living spaces that are functional. There is no façade or extraneous material used to decorate the structure, rather its elegance stems from its symmetrical and functional design.

Postmodernism in Architecture: Michael Graves

Other architects, like Michael Graves (1934-2015), who was a former follower of Le Corbusier, found this look to be stifling and soulless. By the end of Le Cobusier's life, skyscrapers and apartment buildings like Gustavo Capanema Palace were everywhere and often stood out like eyesores against the local flavor of the cities that surrounded them. Graves rejected the idea of function's centrality in design and set about incorporating whimsy and style into his structures. He employed the use of façades, asymmetry, and decorative finishes in commercial architecture and made buildings that were unique and different from the 'soulless' look of modern architecture. His designs were not without controversy, as many found them jarring or ugly, but he sought to make structures that were unique and made reference to local culture, rather than universal and cosmopolitan.

Consider his Steigenberger Hotel in Egypt. This unusual building has modern amenities, but it pays homage to the architecture of the region with the shape of its windows, and its concrete façade gives the structure an asymmetrical and anti-modern feel.

Steigenberger Hotel in Egypt
Steigenberger Hotel

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account