A Modernist Glossary

Alphabetical Index


From the Greek ἀνά, ana meaning "against" and χρόνος, khronos meaning "time". Time is a very, very important tenet of Modernism. Much more so than place or culture.

Built in 2006, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center would be considered in denial or fighting time, thrice wise in fact. It revives Renaissance forms, which in turn revived Roman forms, which in turn revived Greek forms. I suppose it is considered a kind of zombie architecture.  

Oh yeah, its a thing.
Selfridges' Birmingham department store is unique in that the building is able to 'consume' the consumers via the car park entry feeder tube. I’m not sure but I really think the building is still growing.

Just one more item of passing related interest, the architect claimed his design was meant to ‘evoke the female silhouette’.


The triumph of raw concrete, the celebration of ugliness. Brutalism reigned supreme in the 60’s and 70’s as the harsh standard of civic architecture among government buildings, institutions of higher learning and medical facilities such as this Scottish Mental Hospital where I’m certain customer retention is high.


The specific use of this otherwise common word seems to have been appropriated from the field of fluid dynamics where unbroken lines and untextured planes are critical engineering concepts to minimize turbulence.

Ironically, much of the architecture designed according to these precepts is challenging to keep clean in the conventional sense.  


An early Soviet architectural movement which focused on a hard geometric aspect by means of factory, industrialized production utilizing the properties of modern materials, particularly glass and steel.

The Narkomfin housing project was one of the first to feature the now all pervasive layer cake effect of the long horizontal emphasis with continuous windows. This beauty is number one on UNESCO's list of modernist buildings to save worldwide. 


'Juxta' from the Latin root meaning to 'approach, join together', in the sense of violent conflict, "jousting" or rape, "jostle". So the prevailing theory goes that by placing aggressive contrasts together of Modern and traditional architecture it helps the traditional to 'pop' visually so we can appreciate it more. 


The early 20th century art movement analyzed, disassembled then reassembled objects is an abstracted form in an effort to provide multiple simultaneous viewpoints. Supposedly, Le Corbusier's Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp attempts to do this as a Cubist representation of the Parthenon and Acropolis, the church as a Cubist ruin. Oddly, his interpretation results, in the opinion of many, to an unmistakably vaginal form. 


The basic definition is a thin, non-structural exterior wall that acts as a rain screen. Most curtain walls are proprietary, high embodied energy extruded aluminum systems with glass panel infill. They have a working R-value of around 3 and let a ton of solar gain into the building. Windows are typically inoperable resulting in a hermetically sealed building wholly dependent on mechanical systems and caulk which must be replaced every 10 years. 

Fragmentation, chaos, dislocation, disorder...the physical manifestation of the impossibility of intrinsic meaning. The highest expressions are over-sized and placed in the midst of traditional town planning settings for greatest disruptive impact that extends far beyond the building itself.  


Its the buzzword of sustainability in urban planning circles. Funny, it doesn't look very sustainable. I suppose the idea is to make the automobile traffic so damn congested that people just give up and walk instead?

"My density has brought me to you. What I meant to say was...I'm your density. I mean, your destiny." - George McFly


As a follow up on the previous post of architectural voyeurism, the new "Standard" in swank, swinger, modernist hotels is a curtain wall of ultra-transparent, low glare glass.

The question has to be asked though: Should neighbors and their children be forced to watch maids make up the beds as at lower left, all in the name of progress? 


Although generally characterized by distortion, fragmentation and violent emotion, as the name implies these ideals are subservient to personal expression. For example, the National Museum of the American Indian is all about the singular, individual statement of the architect, Douglas Cardinal.


Modernism's return to the Classical...sort of. The theory goes that the underlying forms of the Classical had been lost in all the enrichment and decoration, essentially making the work transparent. Stripping the structure bare, the architectonic essence would be freed and we could relish in the opacity of pure geometry. 

The credo "form must ever follow function" quoted from Louis Sullivan was taken as divine inspiration for a movement that held up function as the leading principle of design; initially as an exploration of its meaning. It quickly focused on the elimination of ornament, ostensibly to remove any distraction from the practical purpose of the building, leading the movement into function as an aesthetic ideal. 

Essentially, bald is beautiful.



Rising to prominence in the years following World War I, the futurist aesthetic was all about dynamism as expressed through long, unbroken lines conveying motion and speed as well as the glorification of technology. 



No folks, this is no Carcassonne. More like a contemporary self imposed golden ghetto, the illusion of a protected compound that only serves to severe oneself from the greater community.



After you have constructed the building as huge as legally possible upon exhausting every variance, filling the entire city block, you can play architectural pretend by introducing 'hyphens', setbacks that fool everyone into thinking that its really a bunch of separate buildings.

Yippie, make-believe, so convincing...



Modernism goes mainstream when an "International Style" was unveiled in 1932 at the Museum for Modern Art in Manhattan, NY. What made the this style "international"? It certainly did not embrace the millennia of accumulated traditions of many nations and peoples from across the globe. In stark contrast, the International Style enforced the complete extinguishment of any lingering artifacts of human culture. The new doctrine dictated that "Form" was to follow only practical "Functions". It might have been more appropriately called the Extranational Style, as it reflected an aesthetic beyond the influence of any nation or culture. 



The sensuous lie.
A succubus to art and craft, a visually stimulating form associated with quality of detail and permanence, that manifests neither.

The old Modernists answer to avoid kitsch was to toss beauty in the rubbish bin. Contemporary Modernists have dragged beauty back out, yet only to desecrate her, propagating sham works devoid of meaning.



A mid-century Japanese movement in architecture that although drawing inspiration from biological processes, employed them in an admittedly artificial, unnatural manner. Concepts included a "sustainable" architecture of factory produced concrete, glass and steel cells or capsules for human containment that could serve as a catalyst for an every expanding megastructure. 



Austerity and rays of light in space. The 'Less is More' maxim leads architecture to its logical conclusion, its purest from, namely the elimination of anything that may appeal to the senses: ornament, color, texture, nature, human beings.  



Commonly held amongst our various architectural traditions, man had always been held as the subject of architectural design, the building was to be the objective reality, an outward expression reflecting his inner, spiritual nature. In stark contrast, Modern architecture enforces the complete extinguishment of any lingering artifacts of human culture, employing a complete reversal of the traditional thought process of design. The new doctrine dictates that "Form" was to follow only practical "Functions". The building and the attendant practical efficiencies of construction usurp the position of subject, placing people as just one amongst many objects such as chairs, toilets, stairs etc. populating the structure.



As we commence our march through the "isms", I thought you all might benefit from an explanation. The etymological root of 'modern' comes from a Latin root meaning 'just now' whereas '-ism' comes directly from Greek and originally was only used as a suffix for words of Greek origin. In the 20th century the use of -ism expanded to form names of ideologies expressing belief in the superiority of their class or pattern of behavior by said group members.

Modernism at its essence is the cult of the 'just now', ever changing fashion as an ideological system of belief that condescends anything that comes before.


Just when you thought you've exhausted every Modernist architectural "-ism", ideology, another one pops up. This one is better known as DE STIJL, Dutch for "The Style". It promoted a "pure" architecture reduced to the bare minima.

Colours: the primaries of red, blue, yellow as well as monochrome black, white and greys. Form: lines and rectilinear planes that orient only horizontally or vertically. No diagonals, no curves. 



The suburban and urban infill 2.0: mixed-use, hikable, bikable, occasionally even likable.

However, admittedly agnostic to style, atheistic to craft the "New" Urbanism is a 20th century theoretical ideology of imposing an highly engineered, eutopic master plan from a centralized authority. The rapid developments of New Urbanism bear scant resemblance to traditional town planning developed generationally by members of a local community.  


The obliteration of Puritanical stereotypes of division of public and private space. Former delineated enclosures such as the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom are released as interchangeable forms to fulfill bodily functions. Key party anyone?



From the Latin 'pasticium', something made of paste such as pasta, pastry, pâté etc. In modern
architecture it is a philosophy of attributed plagiarism. If a design is not completely unique, unrelated to anything that came before it is at risk of receiving the negative label of pastiche.

For example, Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA resembles his previous design at the Guggenheim Bilbao leading fellow starchitect Zaha Hadid to accuse him of plagiarizing himself. How pastiche!



With the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe project in 1972 Modernism was pronounced dead. The citizenry had risen up and rejected it for sure; however, if they thought any of their local architectural traditions would be revived they were in for a nasty surprise. The next generation of architects would replace Modernism with a caricature of culture. Irony, Parody and the Bold Statement were the buzzwords and the public became the butt of the joke.

Like that Chippendale piece? We’ll make a skyscraper out of it. Ha, ha, ha!

So you dig Classical architecture? We’ll distort every element and make it out of anodized aluminum…in mauve!
Oh God…I can’t breathe…you dumb bastards…Ha, ha, ha!


A fixed window, door or portal penetrating the building skin and surrounded by cladding. Maintenance free (or unmaintainable), the thermal multiple-paned units are replaced as the seals begin to fail, a 15 to 20 year life cycle for the higher end commercial models.
Modernize the man by modernizing his environment. The pure "machine for living" would be set free by employing the Five Points of Modern Architecture:

PILOTIS - Supporting walls replaced by a grid of reinforced concrete posts

Free Plan - No supporting walls allow for the open floor plan

Free Façade - With no structural role the façade likewise is set free

Horizontal Window - Cut across the entire length of the elevations, equality of light for all of the interior

Roof Garden - The fulcrum of balance between mechanization and nature

I have a layman's familiarity with structuralism as a tool of literary analysis and linguistic interpretation. However, I am totally lost in the explanations I've read relating to architecture (although I have a good sense of what type of buildings are produced). I'll let you divine some sort of meaning for yourself:..

Here in America we all know 'what' they are. Lewis Mumford captured eloquently 'why' they are:

"The suburb served as an asylum for the preservation of illusion. Here domesticity could prosper, oblivious of the pervasive regimentation beyond. This was not merely a child-centered environment; it was based on a childish view of the world, in which reality was sacrificed to the pleasure principle."  

Heck ya'll, its a 150,000 ft2 city block mega-structure of residence and retail wrapped around a big ass parking garage. Hell, I think its uglier than a mud fence but them Nurbanites planning West Village Dallas, TX seemed to like it mighty fine being pet friendly and all.

Order up for a city near you: a baker's dozen of them Texas Doughnuts, with amenity sprinkles on top. Much obliged! 

The maturation of Frank Lloyd Wright's earlier work as part of the Prairie Style movement; middle class homes situated in a natural landscape characterized by flat, cantilevered roofs, 90 degree angles and clerestory windows.

Many Usonian homes retained a significant amount of craft, utilized local materials while significant design effort was made to utilize natural cooling and light as well as passive solar gain combined with radiant floors for heating. This almost makes up for the fact that they all leak like a sieve.  

From NY to LA to Miami Beach. Armed with concrete, steel and lots and lots of glass modernist architects are sucking at the golden teats of the nouveau riche who are on the scene. Nothing like their stuffy predecessors with their "privacy issues"; they've got it, they're flaunting it, they're letting us all know how the young emperors live it up. 

From the Geman 'zeit', time and 'geist', ghost. Translated the 'spirit of the times', a prevailing theory that architecture can not possibly be a leading factor of human culture rather it should only strive to reflect the times. Anxiety, aggression and collision anyone?  
Contributed by Patrick Webb


  1. Thank you Patrick. It is always good to have definitions so that we can share a language. However, there are a couple of words that you have included that I think may be more a matter of attitude than the clarity of a definition.

    Contrast and Juxtaposition. Are you sure you want to give these terms to a Modernist Glossary? These are terms that are very important to traditional architecture. The contrast in surface texture is primary to the character of palazzos in Firenza.

    Density. This is not a modernist term. I think I understand you criticism of out of scale and overly large buildings, but this is not a factor of density. One of the big lies of modernism was the demolition of blocks of four story "tenements" to be replaced by the towers in the park. The four story buildings had a lot more units and a higher density. Density is the friend to building compact and vibrant places.

    Gated Community. If we are going to make progress in this effort, we will need to avoid the easy retorts. Gated communities can be created in any architectural style and are not intrinsic to modernism.

    Hyphen. This is a tool that I would think we would want to keep in the traditional lexicon as a tool to be used as a way to tie buildings together. The emphasis on the use of a hyphen to tie a building together as being a way of "fooling" people is rhetoric. When it is done well, it can be good. When it is done badly, it is not.

    Kitsch. This is another word that applies across the board, as easily applicable to traditional as modern. Kitsch knows know style.

    New Urbanism. This is a word that does not belong in a Modernist Glossary, but I think you already know that. The fact that there is no specific style mandated by the Charter does not make it modern by default. The Charter makes it clear that the goals of New Urbanism transcend any predisposition of style, except for the obligation to fit with the place. In many ways, that is a condition the precludes much of what is interpreted as modernist architecture in this day and age.

    Suburb. Giving this to modernism seems a bit strange. There are quite a few really great traditional suburbs. Maybe the word you want to attribute to a Modernist Glossary is "sprawl".

    Texas Doughnut. This is a form that organizes a support function in relationship to the primary buildings, which with the parking located away from the street frontage can create better urbanism. The problem with this form is more a matter of financing than architecture. It is difficult to create the parking component and then let the rest of the building be created incrementally. But I think much of your concern would be addressed if we could find a way to finesse the financing to make that possible.

    Please let me know if you have any questions about what I have written.


    Paddy Steinschneider

    1. I take your point Padriac. This summer I'm living in the wing (hyphenated) of a Schloss, within a walled medieval Borg (gated), overlooking a hikable, bikable, high density medieval Dorf.

      After Classicism was introduced in the 18th century there was a return to the medieval (or local?) aesthetic on the late 19th, early 20th century, spurred on by the German Arts & Crafts movement. Kitsch by most folks definition I'm sure.

      However, I would contend that there is nothing Modernist here in Hundisburg. That there is a partially shared vocabulary between Modernism and the traditional is not surprising. Nevertheless, shared words between different languages often carry different meanings. The images accompanying the definitions are important in helping to define the meaning.

      As for New Urbanism, is it capable of producing traditional forms? Perhaps, I just focused on the zeitgeist exemplified by the award winners...what it is held up to the world as the very best the movement has to offer.

  2. Patrick, I feel that the organic structure of the National American Indian Museum is very effective in conjuring up the sense of the Southwest cliff dwelling peoples and their caves and the color pallet and rocky texture of the project are evocative of that region too. The only issue I can see is that it could be perceived as geocentric by other American Indians.