What Is International Style Architecture?

David Plick — 

Seagram Building (1958) by Mies van der Rohe & Philip Johnson

Thousands of people everyday walk past a marvel of architecture, one of the most influential buildings in existence, and they don’t even know it. That structure is the Seagram Building located on 375 Park Avenue between 52nd and 53rd street in Manhattan. It is designed by two of the most famous modernists, Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.

I was curious how little people knew about the Seagram Building, so I asked some questions. One day while in front I asked someone standing there in a business suit if they knew of any famous architectural works in the area.

“That church over there is super famous,” he said, referring to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“Any famous office buildings?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe that one?” He pointed to a fairly new, Art Deco building across the street.

“How about this one?” I asked him, pointing to the Seagram Building.

“That thing?” he said. “Why would anybody care about that?”

Unless you knew about the history of the architecture, the Seagram Building would feel irrelevant. It’s a black metal and glass box like the rest of the office buildings in Manhattan. What separates it, though, is that it was one of the first black metal and glass box buildings in existence. It set the standard for what is called the International Style.

What is International Style architecture?

It’s no surprise that this would be confusing because, like the style itself, the title is non-descript. International style is basically the design of most modern office buildings you’re accustomed to looking at in America. It’s a glass and steel rectangle (like the Seagram Building). It is made with reinforced concrete. The reason why this was revolutionary at the time was because it marked a dedication to efficiency. Imagine, it’s right after WWI, and architects, urban planners, and builders were trying to work with “less” materials (i.e., cheap) to make “more” (i.e., more space). It was all about getting the most out of the interior space, which was a radical diversion from neoclassical and Beaux-Arts, which sought physical beauty through decoration. International Style, on the other hand, was formal, practical, and eventually, corporate. These architects rejected design elements that weren’t related to the functionality of the building.

PSFS Building (1932) in Philadelphia by William Lescaze & George Howe

If I were to make an analogy, I’d compare it to pop music. When you listen to Sam Cooke or Otis Redding, or Buddy Holly, it’s so soulful, thoughtful and real, even though it’s simple and straight-forward. In its simplicity it’s an honest art form. But, this simple, honest pop music later influenced “artists” such as The Backstreet Boys and Justin Bieber, which was formulaic corporate drivel designed to make money. No soul, no heart, all marketing. That’s what happened with International Style. At first it was very human because it was meant to be used by people, rather than pad the ego of the architect. But then, like any other art form, it was copied and mass-produced, and that was when the formal “corporate” building took over American design.

By: David Plick

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