What is Contemporary Architecture?
Contemporary Barndominium Home © Logan & Johnson

What is Contemporary Architecture?

If someone mentions to you that a home they are thinking of buying is an example of “contemporary architecture,” what do you picture?

If you find yourself more stumped than usual by this question, you should not be surprised. In truth, it is something of a stretch to even say that there is such a thing as a contemporary “style” of architecture.

In this post, you will learn exactly what we mean by that. We will also discuss the difference between contemporary and modern architecture and what some of the common elements are that go into contemporary home and public building designs.

Defining Contemporary Architecture

The phrase “contemporary architecture” generally just refers to architecture during the 21st century. It does not reference any individual style.

This is why you might sometimes compare two buildings side by side that are considered to be “contemporary,” and sometimes see few if any elements in common between them.

Nevertheless, there are some elements that are prevalent in 21st century architecture, and which we can point toward as shorthand for summarizing what contemporary architecture is.

Wait, Is This the Same as Modern Architecture?

It is very common for people to mix up the terms “contemporary architecture” and “modern architecture.” After all, the words “contemporary” and “modern” seem to be synonyms. Nevertheless, these are two different things when we are talking about architecture.

Indeed, we can separate modern and contemporary architecture both with respect to eras and styles.

Learn more about the differences between contemporary and modern architecture. If you can, resist the urge to say “modern” when you mean “contemporary” and vice versa. That way, you can help clarify the difference to others.

What is the Era for Contemporary Architecture?

Contemporary architecture is the architecture of the 21st century. You can contrast that with the modern architecture and postmodern architecture of the 20th century.

Even though we are referencing the 21st century when we talk about contemporary design, it is worth pointing out that many of the elements that characterize it started to crop up decades earlier.

What Style is Contemporary Architecture?

Calling contemporary architecture a “style” is a misnomer. It is a blend of styles that can vary according to the preferences of the individual who has commissioned a residence, office, or other structure.

In contemporary buildings, you might see elements of modernism, postmodernism, and traditional styles. Some structures also take on a futuristic, organic appearance.

By contrast, modernism is pretty easy to recognize with its minimalist philosophy and standard building materials of concrete, glass and steel.

The Contemporary House Style is Actually a Mix of Styles

For some perspective on the rise of contemporary architecture, we can turn to architect Anthony Alofsin, who writes in The Atlantic about how most contemporary suburban homes are not even designed by architects anymore, but rather by the production housing industry.

He also discusses how homes today are not designed in a single architectural style so often as they are a mix of styles.

Alofsin says, “Their critics see these homes as ugly. They are badly proportioned, composed of mash-ups of incongruous motifs, and made of flimsy materials.”

He emphasizes that some people do not like that these contemporary homes are not modern, and that this complaint is “compounded by a lack of stylistic purity.” He adds, “Over the last two decades, it’s become less common to describe homes for sale by their architectural style, like colonial, bungalow, or Cape Codder. Instead, descriptions by themes and generic categories, like Mediterranean or European, became popular … it contributed to the erosion of correct architectural vocabulary. Now a Mediterranean home might just be a ranch with a tile roof.”

Alofsin explains that stylistic purity simply is not a priority for many modern homebuyers. Instead, they value being able to mix and match options that they like for customization as well as the lower price tag associated with production houses.

What Building Materials are Used in Contemporary Architecture?

As we mentioned previously, concrete, glass and steel are common in modern architecture. But what building materials are typical for contemporary structures?

As you might guess, you will see a wide variety of materials. Some of these include concrete, metal and glass, but also bamboo, wood, stone, and composites.

Another popular trend is to work upcycled components into buildings as well as reclaimed materials.

With no stylistic restrictions on the use of materials in contemporary architecture, builders are free to choose materials for their pragmatic advantages as well as aesthetic considerations.

Who Are Some Famous Contemporary architects?

Despite the fact there has been a move away from formal architecture toward production housing in the residential sphere during the 21st century, that does not mean that our contemporary era is utterly devoid of architectural talent.

Here are the names of some particularly influential contemporary architects:

  • Frank Gehry
  • Jean Nouvel
  • Tadao Ando
  • Frank Gehry
  • Shigeru Ban
  • Peter Pennoyer
  • Santiago Calatrava
  • Rick Joy
  • Zaha Hadid

Looking up these architects’ work will give you a better appreciation for what contemporary architecture looks like. No doubt, you will be impressed by the sheer diversity of styles on display.

Are There Any Unifying Themes in Contemporary Architecture?

Even though contemporary architecture does not refer to any single formal style, there are some elements that tend to crop up with a high degree of regularity in contemporary structures.

Contemporary Architecture Cheat Sheet

Here are some elements that may help you distinguish contemporary architecture:

  • Straight or curved surfaces and lines
  • Unusual curves
  • Asymmetry
  • Free-form design
  • Big windows and natural light
  • Uniting of indoor and outdoor environments
  • Open floor plans
  • Solar panels and other eco-friendly features
  • Green roofs
  • 3D-printed elements
  • Smart technology
  • A mishmash of styles
  • Customization
  • A wide range of materials
  • Recycled components and materials
  • Flat roofs

Remember, there are no hard rules about what constitutes contemporary architecture! This is not a formal style. You might find most or all of the features listed above in a single building or some of them or none of them.

Let’s go into some more depth examining the common characteristics of contemporary architecture.

1. Free-Form Design

One theme that helps define contemporary architecture is unprecedented freedom with shapes and design.

Indeed, architects now can make use of technologies like computer-aided design and 3D printing that simply were not available in past eras.

That means that while you will continue to see plenty of straight lines and angles in contemporary buildings, you will also see many curved surfaces, often featuring asymmetry and unusual angles. The overall look and feel of a structure with those unusual surfaces may put you in mind of a living creature.

Structures like these often blur the line between what we would consider a building and a sculpture, doubling as both.

Keep in mind that does not mean you will see spectacular curved surfaces on every single contemporary building out there.

Quite a few contemporary structures do not feature curved lines in their designs at all. Those that feature a lot of flat planes and straight lines may have a more “modern” look to them.

2. Mixtures of Styles

While many contemporary buildings feature elements of modernism, postmodernism, and futuristic design, you will also encounter plenty that have elements of styles like Victorian, Baroque, Gothic, or Renaissance. Indeed, there is an entire movement of New Classical architecture within the umbrella of contemporary architecture.

Some contemporary buildings may conform relatively closely to an individual style of architecture, while others may contain a potpourri of styles and influences (like those houses that are popular among suburban homebuyers). Those that feature a mix of styles may sometimes be easy to misidentify at a glance as one particular style or another.

3. Sustainability

Perhaps one of the strongest unifying themes that is common across contemporary architectural designs is a push towards sustainability.

Like the other themes on this list, sustainability is not necessarily a universal feature, but it is widespread through necessity as global warming wreaks more and more havoc on our planet.

Blueprint for Better explains that around 40% of carbon emissions globally are generated by buildings.

While we have seen impressive strides forward with other technologies (i.e. computers) over the decades, building design has lagged far behind.

Now, architects and designers are trying to catch up and do their part to rein in these runaway emissions.

That means with contemporary buildings, we are seeing trends like:

  • Recycled and upcycled materials
  • Solar panels
  • Green roofs
  • Building designs and materials that help to keep the interior temperate with minimal need for heat and air conditioning
  • Etc.

As we move further into the 21st century and feel the effects of climate change more and more, we can expect this trend to continue to strengthen.

4. Tech Integration

Nowadays, a lot of people want smart technology incorporated into their home designs, whether they are working with an architect or not. For that reason, many contemporary designers allow pragmatic concerns to guide them in their design decisions. They may start by figuring out where a tech solution will fit in a home, and then choose stylistic elements that support that configuration.

5. Uniting Indoors and Outdoors

Perhaps in part because of an increased focus on sustainability, it is common in contemporary design to see layouts that seek to maximize the connection between the occupants indoors and the natural world around them.

That means a lot of contemporary residences are designed with huge windows, sometimes spanning from floor to ceiling in a manner that may be familiar to you from modern architecture.

The goal of these windows is not only to offer excellent views, but also to fill a contemporary home with natural light. Large decks and patios may allow for a seamless extension of the living space outside.

Related to this, contemporary architecture may also include layouts that blend into surrounding landscapes rather than distracting from them. Homes that feature green roofs or living walls may be particularly well-camouflaged.  

Some contemporary structures include courtyards and gardens, encouraging occupants to cross through outdoor spaces routinely during the course of a day, even if they are just passing from one room to another.

6. Flat Roofs

Flat roofs are really in style right now. They may be angled to help shed precipitation, or they may be completely level. Wide overhangs are especially popular. It is easy to see how this came about, since they can shelter the big patios and decks we mentioned previously.  

That being said, you may see contemporary buildings with any roof shape you can imagine—and a few you never pictured before.

Continue Exploring Contemporary Design

While contemporary architecture is a nebulous, broad category comprising a wide range of design, you now should have a better idea what this phrase does and does not encompass.

To keep learning more about contemporary architecture, take a look at our style guides as well as our guides to contemporary architecture by state and city.

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