We love working with Architecture students and listening to their perspective on design. Recently when selecting an intern to assist in research and article writing, we asked several candidates what their take is on the often asked question – What’s the difference between Modern and Contemporary? We received several wildly different short essays with their opinion. Being quite entertained by some of the submissions, this one stuck out as being written by a real “thinker” on the topic… almost an OVER thinker! Needless to say, we hired this intern and you’ll hopefully see more from her soon! Enjoy!
Q: How can you tell if a house is modern or contemporary?
When we use terms like ‘Modern’ or ‘Contemporary’, we often try to locate ourselves in a timeline, so we can distinguish a modern architecture project from a contemporary one. We can tell when a project is modern because it was built in the decades of 1920 or 1930, and its appearance sets a clear statement: an alignment with the ideals of the Industrial Revolution, the “machine age”. As Le Corbusier used to say:
A modern house has to be a machine made to live in it.
Each one is the expression of its time
How do we explain this differently? Machines have no ornaments, no decorations. They are built only to serve a purpose, and they don’t have to look aesthetically attractive to fullfill it. So, if a modern house is a machine that serves the purpose of giving shelter to the domestic life of people, then it doesn’t need to show any decorations on its columns, or paintings in the walls, or colourful materials in its facade. Every element in a modern house is like a piece of a machine, that contributes to fullfill the needs of its owner: great glass panels in the outer walls, so there’s no need to step outside to enjoy the landscape; concrete or steel structures that make part of the space, open floor plans so the owner can enter his home without getting out of his car (a machine designed to go from one place to another), different volumes that articulate spaces instead of a single symmetric volumen that tries to cover every single activity, and so on.
On the other hand, contemporary architecture doesn’t focus in trying to deny the past (that ultimately, is the cause of our present). It just adapts to the present needs. This is the architecture that’s being built right now. A contemporary house is not a machine to live in because humans are not machines. Humans need protection from the elements (something that modern architects tended to forget), they find different interests as time passes, so they need spaces that can adapt to the changes. Contemporary architects comprehend that there’s no need to hide a brick facade under a whitewash finish (a layer of stucco over brick), because a brick facade can do as much as a white facade in terms of visual impact, if it’s nicely built.
The relationship between the building and its context
Another important difference is that, just as modern houses separate themselves from the ground and leave an open ground floor plan, contemporary houses embrace the terrain and the landscape that surrounds them. This principle works the same with every project of modern or contemporary architecture. The location can be a great city, a place in the suburbs, an open space full of greenery or a desolated desert. Modern architecture aims to distinguish itself from its context, while contemporary architecture seeks to merge itself with it.
There are also contemporary buildings that stand out from their context, but this gesture doesn’t come only from the architect’s desire. In many cases, contemporary buildings are designed to bring new life to the place in which they’re being built. It can be a city, a block, a neighborhood or even a house that needs to be renewed. If a contemporary building stands out, then certainly a benefit will come from it in a scale that goes beyond the architect’s need of recognition.
And what of interior design?
You can tell the difference between modern architecture and contemporay architecture if you look at the interior space instead of the interior design as we know it (furniture, illumination, decoration, etc.). This one is a little more difficult, because sometimes both styles can overlap in the same building. For example, you can find houses with a contemporary living room and a modern kitchen, or a house with only white walls, but its structure shows a combination of steel and concrete (and they’re completely independent).
The design of spaces that host several activities is also a contemporary trait, since there’s no such things as ‘hybrid programm’ in modern architecture. Any modern building will be designed so the kitchen and the living room are clearly separated. In contemporary architecture, you can see how the kitchen and the living area are almost overlapped, giving the host a chance to socialize with his guests, even if he’s still preparing dinner, for example.
Angular ceilings and sculptural elements are things that you will never find in modern houses. Instead, you might find a minimalistic use of materials and a codependence between all the elements, as well as a clear distinction between inner space and outer space. The line that defines solid versus void is quite thick and noticeable in modern design, while in contemporary architecture you might find yourself struggling to define where one begins and the other one ends.
Could we say which one is better?
Despite what can be said by some (or many), these differences don’t make one design style better than the other. Each one of them shows a perspective that can be appropriate or not according to the needs of each project and the needs of each client. This point is better proven when you find houses that overlap both styles. Why would the architect choose only one style, if he can design a better project by using both of them?
Each design style is the expression of its time. Back in the 1920’s and 1930’s the whole world revolved around the results of the Industrial Revolution: new materials, new limits, the opportunity to finally stop depending on the past and focus on the new discoveries that were being made. Now, architects are taking all these elements (both from the past and the present) and making them work together to create spaces that might be even better than what could be achieved using each one of them separately. Do they hit the target every time? Probably not, and modern architects didn’t do it either. But it’s certainly an expression of our time, a time when we are slowly but constantly learning that it’s easier to find common ground to work if we want to be rewarded in the long run.