What is modern design? Learn all about Modern Architecture on the Frank Franco blog.

My name is Francesco Di Sarra, Principal architect at FrankFranco Architects. I often introduce our firm as a progressive architecture design firm. I would rather say that we specialize in Modern Architecture, but often the statement is misinterpreted.

In discussing our goals with the FrankFranco Architecture team, I thought that it would be a valuable exercise to first define what I believe Modern Architecture is, and allow that to inform our vision as a design studio. How do our surroundings influence everyday life? How do we utilize materials? How do we take advantage of the technologies available to us? How do we want to contribute to the current architectural discourse?

I believe the confusion is related specifically to the term “Modern.” What is Modern design? Often, the response is: “houses with flat roofs.” Although many modern buildings do have flat roofs – certainly the easiest trait to identify – the defining qualities of Modern Architecture go far beyond what is seen at first glance. Modern architecture embodies the spirit of a generation and their disposition on the future.

Modern architecture emerged in the late 19th century and began to reach maturity and acceptance in the early 20th century – but what was it that defined “modern” as a typology? Modernism started by challenging the conventional building design of the time, with forward thinking designers experimenting through various approaches. While many of the buildings that came from this era are departures from what was common and accepted, the iconic designs that we, as architects, identify as “modern” today were years ahead of their time.

Let’s look at an example of modern architecture, specifically through the lens of residential design.

The year is 1949.

Your car looks like this:

1949 Ford Tudor Television History – The First 75 Years

You dress like this:



1940's Fashion Edelweiss Patterns
1940’s Fashion Edelweiss Patterns


Your house looks like this:

Levittown House New York Times Time Life Pictures/Bernard Hoffman
Levittown House – New York Times – Time Life Pictures/Bernard Hoffman


Unless you are Philip Johnson, in which case, your house looks like this:

Glass House Philip Johnson Architectural Digest
Glass House – Philip Johnson – Architectural Digest

Modern architecture emerged in the late 19th century and began to reach maturity and acceptance in the early 20th century

Architects who embraced “modern” challenged the status quo, as visible in this example. Phillip Johnson’s Glass House breaks many common conventions of the time; clothes were concealing, the home was revealing; cars were decorative, this house was absent of ornamentation. The common house was simple and functional, satisfying the basic needs for shelter, while the glass house was simple and functional, yet experimental in materiality, refined in its detailing, and immersed in a poetic dialog with nature.

The Glass house represents new ideologies about construction and inhabitation that were influenced by social and cultural change on a wider scale. The decade between 1940 and 1950 was among to most significant eras to date; a generation that was born in to a great depression, fought in WW1 and WW2, and returned home to build much of the infrastructure and industry still in use today is undeniably considered to be the most productive generation. (Next time you enter a factory, cross a bridge, enter a significant building in the city, take a look at the year it was built – it’s likely to originate in this decade.) Innovation in infrastructure and construction, a necessary step towards improving conditions of the time, was a result of experimentation, creativity, and forward thinking. Change was a symptom of the times; conceiving a new way of living was an inevitably to follow, and forward thinking architects took the lead on manifesting this era in built form.

Johnson’s Glass House is a simple representation in this shift. It challenged the notion of exterior and interior, both physically and experientially. Windows, rather than apertures for peeking out of, were frames to integrate the surrounding landscape with the architecture.  Materials typically reserved for exterior application – steel, stone – were revealed inside the home.  Rather than concealing structural elements, steel columns were detailed in a manner that allowed them to become exposed, even aesthetic. Beyond the physical manifestation of “modern”, the design also catered to the experiential; a clean, simple space stripped of ornamentation, allowing one to immerse themselves in to their surroundings, free to think without excess noise.

Philip Johnson, along with progressive architects of the time, challenged the status quo in ways that are seldom seen in modern residential design today. “Modern Architecture”, as defined in this era, became about utilizing common materials in innovative and unconventional ways, and embracing the newly available technologies to experiment with construction methods. The effect was a typology that challenged society’s understanding of how to design and build a habitable environment.  “Modern” is the embodiment of that spirit.

Today, that spirit often goes missing in “modern” architecture. Despite currency in technology, materials, and construction methods, there is less value placed on experimentation, innovation, and creativity. Though we understand how to build efficiently, via an established kit of parts ready to plug in to a design, lost is the spirit of investing time in to crafting architecture that challenges or reinvents residential design.

Today, cars look (and function) like this:

2016 Tesla Model X Green Car Reports
2016 Tesla Model X – Green Car Reports

People dress like this:

Lady Gaga IBI Times
Lady Gaga
IBI Times

Yet, we’re designing and building new homes that look like this:

Bridle Path Home
Bridle Path Home

While as an architect I respect numerous architectural styles, it is baffling to see new homes pop up all across our city in a style that, rather than embody the progress of the times, reproduces an antiquated past. Paying homage to the opulence and bourgeois lifestyle of the past contradicts the current progressive, inclusive society, whose affinity for technology has created endless creative opportunities.

Over the next year, my team and I look forward to creating work that embodies the spirit of “modern”, learning lessons from a valuable, defining era of design, and pushing the limits in our best effort to embrace the possibilities of our time.

Woodland House FrankFranco Architects Anthony Manieri
Woodland House
FrankFranco Architects
Anthony Manieri

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