Modern or Contemporary: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to architecture, Modern and Contemporary are terms that are often used interchangeably.  What is the difference between them? Why the distinction?

At their most literal, “contemporary” is the architecture being produced now, the architecture of the moment. “Modern” architecture breaks with the past — specifically the traditional styles of before the Industrial Revolution. And while it’s true that Modern is Contemporary, Contemporary isn’t always Modern. Modernism is an architectural movement of the early to mid-20th Century that broke with the traditional, classical architecture that preceded it. Sometimes called International Style, it emphasizes simplicity and form over the superfluous or fussy detail that was then the norm – think of the traditional Victorian or Edwardian homes still found in some of Calgary’s older neighborhoods. As most of Calgary’s growth took place post 1950, there are just a handful of original, truly Modernist buildings in Calgary. One prime, residential example is Elboya’s Trend House, by the firm Rule, Wynn & Rule, who also designed Calgary’s first skyscraper.

Given that definition, one might think that Modern Architecture describes any architecture whose style is rooted in Modernism. Not necessarily so! Though there are still purists who would argue, the term Modern Architecture now applies to any architectural style since Modernism. This includes Postmodern, a mish-mash of modernist and classical, as well as such recent additions as Slightly Askew – where rooms are placed at slightly different angles from each other – and Decoupage – which uses a variety of different building materials to delineate form and space.* *
Contemporary is simply architecture that is being built now. It is usually used to describe a Modern house, but even a newly built, suburban Tudor, or the community of Garrison Woods can be described as contemporary. But neither is really modern.

The photos and descriptions that follow are from a montage created by architect, writer, and Houzz contributor John Hill from a May 2013 Houzz Ideabook and respond to the question, “modern or contemporary?”  As he states: “I hope the answers will elucidate the similarities and differences between the styles, further aiding the appreciation of both styles of architecture.”

Categories: Architecture

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