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What is Contemporary Architecture?

By Lori Barrett
Updated May 23, 2024
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Contemporary architecture is definable broadly as the building style of the present day. Examples do not necessarily have similar or easily recognizable features, however, because the "style" is really quite varied and has a number of different influences. Even though a precise definition of the term is difficult to articulate, contemporary homes typically include an irregular or unusually shaped frame, an open floor plan, oversized windows, and the use of "green" and repurposed components. Such homes also often have an organic design, fitting into the surrounding space and meeting an immediate need in the area.

Prominent contemporary architects include Frank Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; John Andrews, who designed the CN Tower in Toronto; and Jean Nouvel, who designed the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.

Contemporary vs. Modern Architecture

Although people sometimes use the terms "contemporary" and "modern" architecture interchangeably, they technically are not synonymous. Modern architecture refers to the building style of the early to mid-20th century. It featured clean lines with an emphasis on function.

Some people viewed the elements that characterized modern architecture as too cold and impersonal. This belief lead to the creation of the contemporary style as is recognized today. Like the modern style, it connects indoor and outdoor spaces, but it adds some personal touches and warmth throughout the living space. The use of natural light also plays a big role, so large and expansive windows are a common and easily recognized feature of such homes.

Green Architecture

Green building is also a strong component of the contemporary style. Architects place more emphasis on energy efficiency and use sustainable, natural, and recycled materials to create eco-friendly houses. It's not unusual for builders to thoughtfully integrate these homes into their natural surroundings. People sometimes refer to this practice as organic architecture.

The connection extends from the outdoor landscape to the indoor environment. Outside, local plants may be used to decorate the surroundings, or the house may be designed around a prominent natural feature. Living roofs, in which plants are used as roofing materials to increase energy efficiency, are also becoming popular. Inside, natural materials like bamboo flooring and granite countertops are common.

Reusing Materials

Contemporary architecture often seeks to take old buildings and structures and reuse them in innovative and fresh ways. This might mean a simple redesigning of interior furnishings, or it might entail extensive renovations that dramatically change the look, layout, or function of the space. For this reason, the style often ties easily to work by previous architects and designers, especially since it often uses fairly traditional materials, such as steel and concrete.

Computer Aided Design

Architects and designers often rely heavily on computers as they create their finished product. This allows professionals to produce results that are incredibly precise, durable, artistic, and efficient. Computers also play a role in ensuring the designs are safe and preventing injuries during the construction process. Another major benefit is that they shorten the time it takes to create a structure.

Need as a Driving Force

Whereas desire for particular aesthetic elements typically drove previous styles, need is the primary driving element behind contemporary architecture. Increases in population, along with a reduction of funds and some resources, are forcing communities to explore different means of building and organizing space. One way of defining the style, therefore, is by identifying the structures or designs that meet some pressing need in the immediate surrounding area.

The size or use of a given structure by itself does not determine whether an architectural design accurately can fall under the contemporary classification. Skyscrapers in cities are known for leaning toward this style, for example, and may cover dozens of floors and a huge amount of space. Residential homes can also have a contemporary appearance and feel, however. The style appears in both rural and urban neighborhoods.

Contemporary Chic

A closely related concept is contemporary chic. Better known in relation to personal appearance, particularly hair, clothing and accessories, this idea relates to things that are fashionable yet still highly comfortable and functional. Architecture in this style is both useful and artistic enough to set trends.

Related Styles

Over time, contemporary architecture has developed several offshoots, each with its own characteristics, including postmodernism, neomodernism, and deconstructivism, among others. Postmodern and neomodern architecture returned to the use of ornaments on the facade of building. Deconstructivism developed from postmodernism and is characterized by ideas of fragmentation.

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Discussion Comments

By aplenty — On Nov 14, 2010

@GlassAxe- Buying plans for a custom home featuring contemporary architectural style will likely be costly and require you to contract a specific architect. You will be able to find a host of books on contemporary designed homes in your local library, which will give you the names of the architect or the firms that designed them.

Another option might be to look into a prefab contemporary home. These are not the cheap prefabs that seem to fall apart at the seams; rather they are well-designed modular homes that can be as big and luxurious or as small and efficient as you want. Some designers of nice prefab contemporary homes are: Marmol Radziner Prefab, Michelle Kaufman Designs, Rocio Romero Homes, and Resolution 4 Architecture. These designers manufacture beautiful prefabs that run the gamut on pricing, and can even qualify for LEED silver residential certification. I have seen prices as low as $120 per square foot all the way up to $400 per square foot.

By GlassAxe — On Nov 14, 2010

Does anyone know where I can buy contemporary architecture plans?

By Fiorite — On Nov 14, 2010

@Glasshouse - I am a big fan of contemporary green architecture myself. I am a student in Arizona, which has quite a few homes and commercial properties featuring contemporary and eco-friendly designs. This is the land of Frank Lloyd Wright.

I have been looking into graduate programs and I am leaning towards pursuing an MS in the Built Environment. The program is offered at Arizona State University, and focuses on energy performance of the built environment and climate responsive architecture. I think this would be an important concentration considering how important this will be to building design now and in the future.

By Glasshouse — On Nov 14, 2010

I am taking a course next semester on contemporary landscape architecture. I am not an architecture student (although sometimes I wish I were), rather I am a sustainability major, specializing in energy, technology and materials. I am also minoring in urban planning. This is not a required course, but I thought it would be really interesting.

I enjoy design where the built environment flows with the natural environment. I think that this course will give me a different perspective on urban planning. Cities of the future need to be concerned with energy and resource scarcity, and contemporary design often integrates energy and resource flow into the design process.

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