Modernism 101

General History / Overview

Modernism is a broad term that is given to a range of design approaches in architecture. Generally, Modern architecture in the Pacific Northwest is defined by buildings constructed from about 1930 to 1970. Most historians can agree that Modern architecture was conceived as a reaction to the perceived chaos and eclecticism of the earlier 19th Century revival of historical forms. The Modern Movement began in Europe in the 1920s as an optimistic belief that science and the new technologies of industrialization would produce a genuine “modern age” architecture of universal principles. Much of this revolutionary philosophy emanated from a core group of young designers and artists in Europe such as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier.

The evolution of Modern architecture began with the “International Style,” a term coined in 1932 by an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The influential exhibition highlighted aspects of European architecture of the 1920s which represented a new direction and attitude towards architectural form. The first principle, “Architecture as Volume,” dealt with the creation of space by floors of a columnar structure, which allowed for flexibility in plan. The second principle, concerning regularity rather than axiality, stemmed from the structural ordering of the building. The third principle mandated the avoidance of applied decoration which was seen as an attempt to eliminate superficiality.

Despite the exhibition and recognition by the architectural community in the United States, these new design principles were limited by lingering provincial tastes and the debilitating impacts of the Depression. However, in the years following World War II, Modern architecture in the United States became a widespread ideological approach. Unprecedented economic prosperity, combined with a renewed availability of materials, new construction methods, and technical innovations, sparked a building boom across America, and Modern design reigned surpreme. True to the origins of the Modern Movement, many mid-century architectural achievements were often experimental in their goal, using design to change the environment of everyday life.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon’s Pietro Belluschi and Paul Thiry in Seattle (known as the “father of modernism” in Washington), had already gained national recognition for designing significant Modern buildings before World War II. With the war over, the post-war economy and the population boomed in Washington State (jumping from 1.7million in 1940 to 2.3 million in 1950, to 3.1 million by 1970).

Capitalizing on the large demand for architectural designs during this time were a plethora of newly arrived young and eager architects who brought with them the latest architectural fashions and modes of thinking. In Washington, the group included architects such as Paul Hayden Kirk, Paul Thiry, Roland Terry, Robert B. Price, Alan Liddle, and Omer Mithun.

Today, large and small communities across Washington have a little piece of modern America. Modern buildings are still struggling to gain widespread public acceptance. However, Docomomo WEWA hopes to change this public perception, via education and outreach.

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University Unitarian Church
Image Property of MSCUA, U.W. Libraries. Photo Col 251

Waldron Dietz Chinook Jr. High School
Image Property of MSCUA, U.W. Libraries. Photo Col 251

University Unitarian Church
Image Property of MSCUA, U.W. Libraries. Photo Col 251