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International Style Architecture

The style that gave the world the ubiquitous corporate glass box

« All Arche-tecture | Last Updated 2022

If you’ve ever stood in the narrow canyons of a major city’s downtown, surrounded on all sides by seemingly identical turrets of sleek metal and glass, and you get the sneaking suspicion that nameless corporations are watching over you, then you are probably already familiar with the International Style. The design became popular with corporate architects in U.S. and Europe during the mid-twentieth century because the workforce was expanding rapidly, and advancements in construction meant that boxy buildings made of easy- and cheap-to-produce components like glass and steel could go up quickly to meet the need, even if it sacrificed some aesthetic beauty. As a result, the International Style and its “glass box” are now emblematic of that Mad Men era when downtowns boomed.

Beyond necessity, though, the style was also a progression of architectural taste that increasingly disdained superfluous ornamentation, unnecessary adornment, and classical reference. Art Deco started the process, but still maintained a foot in the past. Streamline Moderne took the next step of streamlining building forms, but stopped short of an obsession. It wasn’t until the International Style that architects plunged completely into the philosophy of function over form, arguing that it was only ethical to do so, or else the building was wasteful at a time when it couldn’t afford to be.

Later architects, appalled by what “modern” styles had culminated in, rallied in the ’70s and ’80s to create a “post” modern revolution that unraveled the core notions of the International Style and its spiritual sibling, Brutalism. The rebellion didn’t happen before the “glass box” became ubiquitous, however, and the style made an indelible mark on architectural history and the downtowns of most major cities the world over.

Elements

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Absence of ornamentation

The name of the game is utility, so any superfluous or unrelated building elements are tossed out – perhaps the defining feature of the style

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Boxy shapes

An emphasis on minimalism means most buildings have a basic, rectangular shape (hence the “box” part of the “glass box” phrase)

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Streamlined surfaces

Glass, especially when used in large sheets for a curtain wall, lends a smooth, streamlined surface (the “glass” part of the phrase)

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Repetitve modular forms

Small patterns created by steel, concrete and glass are repeated with regularity, making buildings look as if they were constructed in modular sections

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Prominent vertical mullions

Though facades in general are streamlined, it isn’t uncommon to see prominent vertical mullions of steel or concrete slightly protruding out

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Thick horizontal spandrel panels

While vertical mullions emphasize height, they are balanced out by the horizontal nature of thick spandrel panels, usually of bronze or steel

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Strong straight lines

Bold horizontal and vertical lines create sharp 90-degree angles and compliment the general boxy shape of the building

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Flat roofs

In keeping with the streamlined surfaces and unadorned forms, building roofs are almost always flat

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Ribbon windows

Large panes of glass, usually floor-to-ceiling, are arranged into horizontal bands to emphasize space and light as well as to maintain uniformity

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Minimalist plazas

Many buildings are complemented by minimalist plazas surrounding their bases, which frequently feature an abstract sculpture

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Monotonous uniformity

Because uniformity of features is of utmost concern, monotonous scenes can be created when buildings are grouped together

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Soulless corporate-ness

Prominently used in corporate architecture for decades, the style is thus often used to depict a certain soullessness and routineness of corporate America

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Showcased raw materials

Proud to showcase new construction techniques and raw materials of glass, steel, and concrete, buildings even use the exoskeleton in the design

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Cantilevered bases

Although more common in residental modern architeture, cantilevers were used in commercial architecture as well, particularly around the base

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Uniformity, but not symmetry

Facades must be regular and uniform, but the overall shape of the building does not need to be symmetrical from front to sides, and often isn’t

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Midcentury legacy

Again because the style was so prominent in the mid-20th century, images of those decades are tied very closely to this architecture, especially for offices

Experience It

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Visit Chicago

Even more so than New York, Chicago houses some of the most legendary buildings of the style, including.  the Lake Shore Drive apartments, 330 N Wabash, and more. There’s nothing quite like seeing them in person.

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Visit New York

Midtown Manhattan, while iconic for multiple different architectural styles, is the poster child in places for the International Style. Spend any time in these glass caverns and you’ll immediately see why.

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Watch "Mad Men"

This series takes you inside and outside of 1271 Avenue of the Americas, the stand-in for the Sterling Cooper & Partners headquarters,  and really gives you a good feel of an iconic NYC building in its native era.

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Watch "A Cure for Wellness"

Well really just the beginning part. Though the film takes the depiction of corporate soul-sucking to the extreme, the scenes in the city sum up the hollow corporate feel that this style of buildings can often evoke.

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Watch "American Psycho"

Not for the faint of heart, but this movie serves up its fair share of mid-century modern imagery, internally and externally. In this case it is used negatively, to portray Wall Street as soulless and soul-sucking.

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Brutalist Architecture

Brutalism

The harsher, more austere cousin of the International Style, with the same philosophy