Contemporary Architecture Characteristics

Contemporary architecture is a broad term that many people take to mean any architecture of the present day. Contemporary architecture is distinct from other architectural movements such as Fascist architecture, Modern architecture, Classical architecture or Federalist architecture. Contemporary architecture has a number of distinct characteristics that can help viewers identify it.

Modern Lake House
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Contemporary Architecture Characteristics

What is Contemporary Architecture as a Concept?

Generally speaking, contemporary architecture can be considered to be the architecture of the present day. When speaking about architecture, it's typical to classify different sorts of architecture into different architectural "movements." Classical architecture, brutalist architecture, Federalist architecture and Gothic architecture are all examples of particular architectural movements. These movements are almost all linked to a particular historical period.

Contemporary architecture, on the other hand, isn't an architectural movement. It's an overarching ideology concerned with architecture that reflects the opinions and values of the present and aims to break away from the past. This means that contemporary architects have, as their guiding principle, the desire to create architecture that breaks with past traditions, styles and standards. Rather than any one value, contemporary architecture is about innovation.

Because contemporary architecture isn't a movement that reflects a particular historical moment, it's free to be the catchall term for anything that reflects the contemporary moment. In hindsight, certain architecture that was at the time considered to be contemporary may, upon reflection, be seen as an example of a particular movement or style trend. In this way, it's difficult to pinpoint a kind of style until enough time has passed to be able to identify trends in thinking and design.

What Are the Characteristics of Contemporary Architecture?

Unlike Baroque or Gothic architecture, which have design elements or flourishes that are easily recognizable and distinguishable, contemporary architecture has no one "style." That being said, however, there are certain principles, design values and even materials that are the province of contemporary architecture and that can be used to help identify and describe the work.

The soul of contemporary architecture is innovation, newness and novelty. This doesn't mean novelty as in pure whimsy, although there's certainly room for whimsy in contemporary architecture. Novel in this case means a willingness to experiment with the new, to try things that haven't been tried before in terms of materials, light, space and shape. Contemporary architecture typically features the use of unconventional building materials or the use of industrial materials in a domestic space.

Sustainability is also a concern of the contemporary architect. Rather than ornate dwellings that use resources that are expensive to produce and damage the environment, contemporary architects favor the use of materials like concrete, metal, sustainable wood and often reclaimed existing material for building. Hard surfaces like glass, metal and steel are popular materials for contemporary architects.

What is Distinct About Contemporary Architecture?

Aside from materials, the actual form of contemporary architecture has made itself distinct. The use of curved lines, rounded spaces and a divergence from the dominance of the straight line characterize contemporary architecture. Clean lines and minimalism are watchwords of contemporary architecture. While the stark elements of minimalism are most often associated with modern architecture, contemporary architecture also has echoes of the minimalist movement.

Large windows and lots of them are characteristic of contemporary architecture. As classic architecture mostly positioned windows in the center of walls and used them to look outside, the contemporary architect uses large panels of glass to create opportunities for natural light, passive solar heating and the feel of openness even in the cold months. Clerestory windows, skylights and large windows higher than the head offer light and a feeling of openness to the outside world, which increases a connection with nature.

Shapes that evoke the natural world and that aren't exclusively functional are characteristics of contemporary architecture. Clean lines, open spaces and a lack of fuss and ornament are the hallmarks of contemporary architecture. Open floor plans and a loft-like setup to large spaces, both commercial and domestic, are other examples of the style.

How Does Contemporary Architecture Approach Nature?

Another popular and distinct feature of contemporary architecture is the structure's relationship to the natural world. Historically, when a building was built it was meant to conquer the environment or to assert the home dweller or building owner's domination over the landscape. This is particularly true of architecture during the colonial period that would be placed at the top of a hill or in some other conspicuous place.

Contemporary architecture is concerned with situating buildings in the natural world in a way that makes them part of the environment or takes the environment into account when planning the structure.

Eco-housing is only one component of e**nvironment-focused contemporary architecture.** The idea of using natural materials and building in a way that won't negatively impact the living environment is important in contemporary architecture. Equally important is a design that will complement and look harmonious with the natural environment, creating a seamless sensibility that makes it seem as though the building belongs there.

Many contemporary architects try to use the natural environment as an element in architecture. Views may dictate the placement of windows or walls. The direction of the sunrise and sunset may influence the placement of bedrooms, where solar panels are and how external space is utilized for recreation.

What Are Some Contemporary Architecture Materials?

Contemporary architecture does rely to some extent on the traditional materials like wood, brick, masonry and concrete, but in a different way. Exposed materials like brick or concrete, previously thought of as "industrial," make an appearance in homes and offices and offer a shock of minimalism that also creates warmth. Extraneous design flourishes like elaborate carvings, plaster moldings and other fussy elements are done away with in favor of simplicity.

In terms of commercial contemporary architecture, many commercial structures boast what could be called "animated" architecture. These are elements that aren't static, that interact with passersby, users of the space and the natural world. These features can be as simple as dramatic exterior illumination patterns and as complex as elaborate water features and projections that move and react to the goings on outside.

Glass, metal and concrete are three of the most popular materials in contemporary architecture. Rather than utilizing wood as the basis for a building or a structure, contemporary architecture relies most heavily on these flat, hard surfaces with wood used as an accent more than as a primary building material.

What Are Some Characteristics of Contemporary Homes?

Contemporary homes and contemporary public and commercial spaces share some characteristics. But unlike public spaces, homes are designed for privacy, intimacy and versatility of use. Aside from the use of nontraditional materials, attention to geometry and lots of natural light, there are a number of other contemporary house style characteristics.

Minimizing interior walls is a hallmark of contemporary home design. Rooms that seem to flow into one another are common, and barriers that include sliding doors rather than heavy walls are typical. This creates a sense of unity between the various spaces in the house and also offers the opportunity to stay connected with family members who may be in different rooms.

Another common contemporary house style characteristic is a flat roof. Historically, most houses are built with a pitched roof, which creates the pointed triangular shape at the top that's most associated with American homes. Contemporary architecture favors a flat roof. This is seen very often in midcentury modern architecture but extends into contemporary architecture. In addition to providing a clean aesthetic, flat rooves generally feature an overhang that acts as an awning, making outdoor space usable.


Ashley Friedman

Ashley Friedman

Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience working in the home, design and interiors space.