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The International Style in Architecture

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 3860 words Published: 1st May 2018

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From the 1920s until 1930s, the international style has gained its popularity globally, and it is expressed in all kinds of expressions, including the expression of volume rather than mass, where the spaces have more priority than the solidity of the building. There is also a stress on balance rather than symmetry, where the function of different parts of the building is arranged in balance, and the shape and form of the building is unlikely to be in symmetry.

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The international style also presents itself by regular and basic geometric forms, open interiors and the choice of materials such as glass, steel, and reinforced concretes. It is read as the style that broke free from the conventional style of architecture, where the buildings are of simplicity and without decorations and ornaments without specific function. The style is most adopted in the design of skyscrapers, where the façade is made up of structural steel and glass as the envelope. The floor plans are always logical, functional and balanced in the sense that the whole building has the same usage rate all over. Few of the most pioneering architects in international style are Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe himself.

One thing that relates closely to the international style is the modern architecture, or known as the modern movement. Modern architecture uses materials similar to the international style, which is mostly of steel, glass and concrete. It is also a style that explores more abstract forms of a building, and always played with space and light to enhance the quality of space. Buildings of this kind of architecture also favor the use of only grey, black, white and off-white in their facades. “Form follows function” is one of the famous maxims that follow the modern movement, which stressed the utility of the building rather than just on the exterior aesthetic. It was said that, the aesthetic from the simplicity in design is more significant than those with unnecessary ornamentations.


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s biography

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was born the youngest of five children in Aachen, Germany on March 27, 1886. He did an apprenticeship as a bricklayer and worked in his father’s stone-cutting shop, gaining valuable experience that later on helped him much in doing architecture. Before leaving his family and hometown, Mies worked for several local design firms and gained some experience.

At the age of nineteen (1905), he moved to Berlin and worked under Bruno Paul’s interior design office. It was then he was exposed to and worked on furniture designs. Mies’s architectural career started at the age of 22 when he enroll himself as Peter Behrens’ apprentice (1908-1912), learning together with Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. An architect specialized in designing factories and houses, Peter Behrens taught Mies through exploring modern design theories and exploiting his own talent in doing architecture. It was during this time Mies received his first commission, a private residence for a professor at the university in Berlin.

After his apprenticeship was finished, Mies worked for the German Embassy in Saint Petersburg, Russia as one of the construction manager. Soon, his talent was recognized and steadily embarked on his own professional career in architecture. To celebrate his rapid transformation from a craftsman to an established architect, he adopted his mother’s surname “van der Rohe” which is what people known of him now. 1912-1914, Mies worked as an independent architect until he was called to serve the army.

Mies was enrolled into the military service during the World War One (1915), only to participate in construction companies and exempted from all the battles. The war changed how Mies perceive architecture, and how he conveys it in his designs. Previously designing more towards neoclassical approach, Mies then has the intention to express his ideas of the modern era and revolution through architecture. Still designing conventional residential units in Germany, Mies started to explore futuristic and modern design approach, producing several proposals that made him recognized as one of the most potential progressive architect, although the proposals were not built at all. Examples of the proposal are the competition proposal for the Friedrichstraβe skyscraper in 1921 and the Glass Skyscraper in 1922, both with ornaments totally ripped off from the façade. Soon, he also adds in futuristic furniture into his designed spaces to create a modern environment as a whole.

In August 1930 Mies became the director of Bauhaus in Dessau upon the request from Walter Gropius. The Nazis then forced him to end the government-financed institute. Felt restricted from furthering his intention in architecture, Mies moved to United States in 1937. Living in Chicago, Mies was offered and served as the head of department for the Illinois Institute of Technology. There, he had the chance to further develop his own steel and glass structure style by designing the new buildings and master plan for the department building.

Mies became an official American citizen at 1944. His architectural ideas and projects soon gave impact to the locals and with the20th century new style of expressing architecture, Mies’s idea eventually merged into the local American’s culture, and soon the global culture. His style was imitated extravagantly but none of it is compatible with his original creation.

Some of Mies’s crowing works during his lifetime are the Barcelona Pavilion the Tugendhat House, the Crown Hall (home of the architecture department, IIT), the Farnsworth House, 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, the Seagram Building, the New National Gallery, the Toronto-Dominion Centre and etc.

Mies’s pioneering intention and project works were also been recognized officially by several awards, namely the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1959, the AIA Gold Medal in 1960, and the J. Lloyd Kimbrough Medal in 196. The American Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 was awarded to Mies, and he was the first architect to receive that award in history. Mies lead some other awards too, they are the prizes from the city of Munich and the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and from the Bund Deutscher Architekten in 1966. Mies was the first recipient of the prizes.

Mies passed away at the age of 83 in Chicago, on August 17, 1969. After cremation, his ashes were buried in the Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s philosophy

“I felt that it must be possible to harmonize the old and the new in our civilization. Each of my buildings was a statement of this idea and a further step in my search for clarity.”

– Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

For over the first half of the 20th century, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was famous for his philosophy “less is more”, and his “skin and bone” style of building design. Mies favors the use of simple rectilinear and planar form in his building designs. He is not interested in inventing new forms, rather, preferred to present buildings as clear and simple structures in terms of construction and the current technology. He expressed these ideas in these words:

“It is absurd to invent arbitrary forms, historical and modernistic forms, which are not determined by construction, the true guardian of the spirit of the times.”

– Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

To him, attention should be put on the construction of structure itself, and that structure is composed of elements that relates to each other, or a form constructed with all details perfectly planned. Mies is very concern about the properties of building materials, and favors the use of luxurious and expensive materials in expressing his simplicity and elegancy in building design and despised ornamentation that are functionless and deceiving. These intentions can be further traced from his words:

“The unswerving determination to dispense with all accessories and to make only what is essential the object of the creative work, the determination to confine oneself to clear structure alone is not a limitation but a great help.”

– Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Ludwid Mies van der Rohe’s lifelong effort had developed a new era in architecture world. Along with le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, the international style became an identity of the times. Besides that, Mies also experiments with new materials and their potentials. He favors the use of materials which can be industrially manufactured, light weight, weatherproof, soundproof and insulating. Mies also opt to produce all parts of building material in factory so that he can save construction cost. Less manpower is needed on site as compared to the traditional construction method because only the assembly of precast parts takes place on site.

As one of the pioneer in developing and introducing the Modern Movement, or so called the International Style, Mies did not discover this piece of theory or principle over night. Through experience and his own perception or point of view towards the conventional design styles, along with some inspiration from other architects’ ideas and opinions about the traditional architecture, Mies soon developed his own style in expressing his favorite quote, “less is more”.

Several expressive art and design thinking that broke out at the time also influenced how Mies sees and conveys his own style in architecture. One of the most prominent is Adolf Loos, who declared that “ornament is a crime”, similar to what Mies had in mind. Adolf Loos too, despised the unnecessary and meaningless ornaments that hide the true beauty of a building. Adolf Loos also has the idea that, out of the most simple and humble forms of modern building, we can find the elegancy and nobility that are most outstanding of all. This particular piece of idea was what Mies admired and impressed of.

Some other conceptual influence such as the Russian Constructivism and the Dutch De Stijl group with their principle in using industrialized modern materials in constructing a structure and using simple rectilinear, straight forward combination of planes and openings, and simple use of pure colour in design too, impressed and affected how Mies do in architecture.

The Seagram Building

The Seagram Building

“Less is more.”

It is Mies van der Rohe’s functional architecture philosophy, potrayed in the Seagram Building. Many people, including Mies himself, assume the Seagram Building as one of his crowning masterpiece.

The Seagram Building is a more complete and refined piece of work as compare to the in Chicago finished in 1951. Mies van der Rohe adopted most of the latter’s design element and reassemble them, creating a better planned and more detailed building out of the Seagram Building. Both buildings have glass enclosed lobby, raised tower, slab marquee, and continuous pavement, only that they are more refined in the Seagram Building. The Seagram Building was designed in collaboration with Phillip Johnson, a well known American architect. Phillip took care of most of the interior designs in the building and even their material choice. The Severud Associated was the structural engineering consultants while Kahn & Jacobs were the associate architects, in charged of the technical drawings. The building is designed for office use, with the design concept of minimalism, simplicity and honesty based on the technology of the time.

Being the most expensive building at the time, the Seagram Building cost a total of 4.1 million pound plus a 5 million for the building parcel. The fact that Mies dislikes unnecessary ornaments to the building, he put a lot of attention material wise, which cost a 3.2 million pound. Upon completion, the building used up some 1500 tons of bronze and other expensive materials of high quality such as marble and travertine. The interior was extravagantly decorated too, designed to have glass and bronze finishing and decoration scheme to express the building as a unified whole.

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Located at 375 Park Avenue, New York City, the 516-foot (517m) tall, 38-storey Seagram Building was design as the new headquarter for the Seagrams Company Ltd, replacing the old one at Montreal, Canada. Samuel Bronfman, the owner of the building, was persuaded by his daughter, the architect Phyllis Lambert to commission Mies for the project. Phyllis said, “Mies draws you in. You have to go deeper. You might think this is austere strength, this ugly beauty, is terribly severe. It is, and yet all the more beauty in it.”


And true enough, the Seagram Building, upon its completion of construction in 1958, immediately gained its fame globally, for the outstanding international style, and how Mies express his idea of modern architecture so detailed and sophisticatedly.

Built out of the International Style, the characteristic of the building is to express the structure of the building externally. This style then influenced the American architecture style greatly, leading to mass production of similar skyscrapers in the area. The strength of the style is that the functional utility of the building’s structure elements, when made visible as the facade, are able to express greater aesthetic value than any additional building embellishments.

A building’s structural elements should be visible, Mies thought.

The Seagram Building was built put of steel frame structure and non-structural glass walls hung in between. Mies preferred the stee l frame to be visible, but the American building codes required all structural steel to be covered in fireproof materials, usually concrete, because improperly protected steel columns or beams may soften and fail in confined fires. To add in the concrete part totally opposes Mies’s design intention, thus he came out with the idea of using non-structural bronze-toned I-beams to create a sense of structure from the facade. Thus, the facade shows the mullion-like beams running vertically surrounding the large glass windows. People from the street will see the unreal tinted-bronze structure, which covers the real one. Since then, the method of construction using an interior reinforced concrete shell to support a larger non-structural covering has been widely used in other buildings.

Corner detail of the Seagram building

Mies wanted the facade to look organized and to have a uniform appearance, thus the interesting window blinds he installed. He designed the window blinds in a way that they can only be adjusted into three positions, that are either fully closed or opened, and half way opened. This design overcame the problem of the irregularity seen from outside the building, which Mies dislikes.

The Seagram Building combines a steel moment frame and a steel and reinforced concrete core for lateral stiffness. The concrete core shear walls extended up to the 17th floor, and diagonal core bracing extending up to the 29th floor.

According to Severud Associates, the structural engineering consultants, the Seagram Building is the first tall building using high strength bolted connections, the first to combine a braced frame with a moment frame, one of the pioneers to use a vertical truss bracing system and the first skyscraper adopting a composite steel and concrete lateral frame.

The Seagram Building is set back from the street by ninety feet and thirty on the side, the setting back of the building from the street creates a granite forecourt which eventually became an urban open space in town, achieving Mies’s initial intention of doing so.

The forecourt is decorated by reflecting pools and low boundary in green marbles, which are designs taken from Mies’s previous Pavilion of Barcelona (1929). The low polished granite north and south walls made of dark green marbles that slopes gently towards Lexington Avenue are one of the favorite seating place in that area. The two rectangular reflecting pools are located at the north and south ends of the plaza. Previously, a huge Henry Moore sculpture was placed off-center, and then replaced by several sculptures one after another.

View to the west from the lobby of the seagram building, showing the Racquet and Tennis Club across Park Avenue

The Seagram Building’s plaza is believed to prompt the enacting of the 1916 Zoning Resolution of New York City. Seeing the success of the plaza as a popular gathering place for the public, the government encourages the installation of “privately owned public spaces” by offering incentives to the developers involved. However, the resolution did not show much success.

William H. Whyte, an American sociologist, took the Seagram Building’s plaza as his site for a landmark planning study. Produced in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society of New York, the film Social Life of Small New York plots the daily routine of the public socializing and using the plaza area. The objective is to compare how the public use the space and the intention of the architect that designs the space.

Designed by Philip Johnson, the Four Seasons Restaurant was one of the most elegant design and one of the city’s most expensive restaurants, competent enough to locate itself in the Seagram Building. All of its retail frontage was designed to face the avenue and suggests discretion. Thus, the building appears more personalized yet institutional, disagreeing speculations and commercialism.

The restaurant has a large entrance. Upon entering, a staircase then leads to a dining room at the south, and a bar in the south base wing of the building. A corridor stretches the restaurant to the north base wing. There, a huge work of Pablo Picasso is hung, namely “The Three-Cornered Hat”. The walls and floor are made up of travertine. The upper part of the wall of the dining room is decorated with expensive French walnut panels with high quality. A Richard Lippold brass sculpture found in the room appears floating in the space. A dining balcony and a private dining room can be found in the east end of the restaurant.


The north dining room has a different approach as compared to the south dining room. It has more landscaping elements and a large square pool at the centre. Similarity is that both rooms have large windows, along with long chain curtains that highlights the glistening of the water pool and the Lippold sculpture. However, the south dining room is comparatively more popular among visitors than the north dining room, which is relatively more nicely decorated. Some said that it is simply because; visitors have to pass through the south wing to reach the north dining room. Thus most people prefer the south dining room so that they can see everyone entering the restaurant, provided they stayed long enough.

The restaurant has gained its fame as the city’s most expensive and high class dining place. It is also its highlight that the restaurant changes its menu seasonally. An Abstract Expressionist painter, Mark Rothko was initially commissioned to draw murals for the restaurant, but he decided to give up on the project because he felt that his art is not suitable for the space.

Another restaurant is found in the basement, namely the Brasserie Restaurant. The entrance is on the 53rd street. This restaurant claimed its name that it is opened for 24 hours a day. This restaurant is relatively more affordable than the Four Seasons Restaurant, and it offers a nice experience at its entrance. Going down a flight of stairs, the visitors can enjoy the whole brightly lit space with many Picasso art pieces.

Seagram Building Commentary

“The inescapable drama of the Seagram Building in a city already dramatic with crowded skyscrapers lies in its unbroken height of bronze and dark glass juxtaposed to a granite-paved plaza below. The siting of the building on Park Avenue, an indulgence in open space unprecedented in midtown Manhattan real estate, has given that building an aura of special domain. The commercial office building in this instance has been endowed with a monumentality without equal in the civic and religious architecture of our time….The use of extruded bronze mullions and bronze spandrels together with a dark amber-tinted glass has unified the surface with color….The positioning of the Seagram Building on the site and its additive forms at the rear, which visually tie the building to adjacent structures, make for a frontal-oriented composition. The tower is no longer an isolated form. It addresses itself to the context of the city.”

-A. James Speyer. Mies van der Rohe. p30.

The Creator’s Words

“Skyscrapers reveal their bold structural pattern during construction. Only then does the gigantic steel web seem impressive. When the outer walls are put in place, the structural system, which is the basis of all artistic design, is hidden by a chaos of meaningless and trivial forms…Instead of trying to solve old problems with these old forms we should develop new forms from the very nature of the new problems. We can see the new structural principles most clearly when we use glass in place of the outer walls, which is feasible today since in a skeleton building these outer walls do not carry weight. The use of glass imposes new solutions.”

-Mies van der Rohe. from Martin Pawley, introduction and notes. Library of Contemporary Architects: Mies van der Rohe. p12.


It is no doubt that the Seagram Building is one of the most iconic indications of the success of the international style and its architect, Mies van der Rohe. Thoughtout his life, Mies explored and introduced his construction method in skyscrapers and successfully gained the fame for his courage and innovation. Following this is the imitation of his “skin and bone” construction all over America, and then globally and the construction of “glass and steel” structures. Yet, none of the latter creations are compatible with his work in terms of detailing and functional planning of the space. This can be traced form one of his famous quotes, “God is in the details”. To him, design simplicity and structural detail is the perfect combination to convey his style in architecture. Mies also favor the use of expensive and top grade materials such as bronze, travertine, marble, plate glass, steel and etc. Thus his buildings are all elegant and classy although the design might be as simple.


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