How To Distinguish Modern vs. Contemporary Architecture

By John Hill A while ago I took a crack at defining the differences between modern and contemporary architecture by looking at the exteriors of 10 homes. In my view modern architecture is rooted in the early- and mid-20th-century architecture that broke with traditional architecture by "embodying the ideals of the machine age: an absence of ornament, structures of steel or concrete, large expanses of glass, a whitewash (usually stucco over brick) or another minimal exterior expression, and open floor plans," as I wrote in that ideabook. To me contemporary architecture is what is being produced now, but that which does not follow a particular stylistic strain — even the strain of modernism. Therefore contemporary is pluralistic but generally forward-looking.

But how does that distinction hold with interiors? And how does one make a distinction between modern and contemporary when the stylistic cues of exterior form aren't present? This ideabook will tackle those questions in terms of interior architecture rather than interior design. This means I'll focus on the spaces, surfaces and assemblies that are integral to the interiors, instead of the furnishings, colors and other elements that are added by designers or homeowners. This take is based on my experience as an architect but also the fact that a house's interior design can work with or against the architecture, depending on the client's wishes, therefore complicating matters.

One thing you may notice is that my categorization of each space is sometimes at odds with the architect's. This points to the subjectivity of these definitions and the fact that some photos may reveal contemporary traits while the overall project is modern, and vice versa. Any mismatch between my definition and the architect's also makes it clear that some discussion on the topic is needed; at the very least, this ideabook is a start.

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