Some terms are used so frequently – and diversely – that their very meanings can become confusing and clouded. The ‘modern’ in Modern Architecture is a case in point.

A great many forms of design are grouped together as ‘modern architecture’, particularly these days, with the vanguardist movement in full swing once more, yet as we will all be referring to it for some time to come, we thought we should attempt to clarify this word ‘modern’. For instance, what exactly can be considered to be a modern style, and how is it related to such schools of architecture as Modernism or Futurism?

Modern Has Been Around for a While

The problem with anything ‘modern’ or even avant-garde is that it is by definition of a fleeting nature. What is modern today becomes contemporary and ultimately even ‘old’, or worse still, ‘old fashioned’. A truly outstanding example of any style can be considered to stand the test of time and become a classic, but what do you call something new once it has ceased to be new? It may still be magnificent and inspiring, but it is no longer new. You see the problem…

The fact is that though we tend to think of anything modern as the latest thing, or ideally forward-looking and futuristic, the whole concept of modern design has a rich history to look back upon. It’s hard to say exactly when people began to describe their latest styles in this way, but architectural theory traces the movement to its early origins at the beginning of the 20th century and the inspiration behind it to the enlightened worldview of the late 18th century. The latter’s quest for rationality and knowledge certainly spurred great advances in science, social thought and, ultimately, in design too, producing observations of the world around us out of which new movements – political as well as stylistic – were born.

In fact, the two are seldom divisible, even when you consider schools as far removed as Neo Romanticism or the Arts and Crafts Movement on the one hand and Machinism or Brutalism on the other. Diametrically opposed in their world vision, they alternately attempted to give shape to their utopian visions or harsh realism through the structures they designed and the societies they would have created through the planning of towns and cities. Where proto-modern movements such as Art Nouveau and Neo Romanticism rejected modernity and desired to return to an idealised vision of a gentler world, others embraced the advance of modern technology as both inevitable and desirable.

The Birthplace Of The Future

Adherents included the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, who made use of modern materials and building techniques to produce villas that were radically different from anything seen before. As an unapologetic advocate of modern industrial landscapes, Le Corbusier produced both enduring classics and the town planning concepts upon which our estates, projects and city suburbs are based. Ironically, they have become ghettos – exactly what they were meant to replace.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built upon these concepts and the Bauhaus tradition of his native Germany to advance the clean, right-angled modernity of what had already become known as the International Style. The fact that the wave of designs created between the 1920s and the 1970s also featured varying interpretations of rounded styles is a recurring theme within modern architecture, for it could not have survived and developed for so long if it relied on rulers alone.

All good things must come to an end, and by the late seventies it seemed the world was ready to take a break from sleek, (often) whitewashed styles for a decade or two. Postmodernism was never a favourite of the critics, but it did allow vanguardism to enjoy a hiatus that marked its return all the more powerfully. We can safely say that modern architecture – as we tend to define the sleek, linear structures of our era – is very much back in vogue, though today more than ever featuring an interplay of glass, steel, whitewashed tones and all the new materials and construction techniques that modern technology makes possible.

The result has been a revolution in design complexity brought about by 3D computerised design tools. Even the greatest lover of simplicity uses such means to add drama through detail, and people like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid positively allowed buildings to ‘melt’ into the street amid a profusion of irregular patterns and architectural detail that eschews symmetry in favour of artistic expression and the making of a statement. This is where today’s modern architecture differs from that which shook the world almost a century ago. Technology is the distinguishing factor for new structures that were called modern then and are described so again today.

The latest wave of technology and architectural styling has also taken Marbella by storm, following upon the construction hiatus of the post-financial crisis era with a fresh new look and renewed sense of purpose. Sleek white designs symbolise the return of modern, and since ‘modern’ is a relative concept, the style continues to be in full evolution, adopting new material, tones and textures as well as evolving technologies and their accompanying luxuries and features. These are the impulses that feed creativity and innovation, spurring on new, ‘modern’ architectural design trends much like a train speeding forward on the tracks.

Modern architecture is therefore a temporal description, and might better be called contemporary – as in, of the moment – but while today’s novelty is soon replaced by tomorrow’s, we can all agree that the current style belongs to the overall genre characterised by avant-garde experimentation, clean, often linear lines, minimalist open-plan interiors and a lack of ‘unnecessary’ ornamentation.

The solution in the seeming confusion of a modern building from 1930 and one from 2019, therefore clearly lies in the design philosophy and pioneering quest that shaped them both. This, and not any particular visual style, is ultimately what modern architecture is all about – so make sure yours is an enduring classic and not a future pastiche.