Architectural Styles in the 1900s: Upward Growth, Modernism, International Style, Neo-Gothic, Arts & Crafts, Neo-Romanticism, Art Deco, Neo-Classicism

Styles of Architecture in the 1900s

As the nation grows, architects begin to build upwards to accommodate increasing city populations. This trend is spurred by advances in iron and steel as well as the invention of passenger elevators.

Louis Sullivan’s pared-down style is an early example of this trend. His Guaranty Trust Building’s three-part facade divisions resemble classical columns.


In response to advances in materials and engineering, architects pushed skyward with ever taller buildings. The earliest high-rises were simply enlargements of traditional tower and palazzo forms, but as height increased street-level environments could quickly become sunless canyons.

Donald Friedman examines the first push for verticality, looking beyond a simple list of “firsts” to delve into how the designs served their purposes. The Chicago School of structural rationality and economy broke away from historical ornament or form, while speculative commercial construction encouraged buildings to be larger than any existing structure.


After the first world war, many architects grew weary of traditional styles. They were looking for something new and fresh. Modernism sprang from this utopian fervor, led by designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier.

Scientific advances gave rise to new building materials, such as steel. These allowed for longer spans and taller buildings. Modernism also spelled the end of slavish imitation of historical forms. The prevailing principle was that the form should follow function.

International Style

This architectural style was based on the idea of functionalism. This style believed that the structure should be designed around its use and that decorative surface elements should be discarded.

It also included the use of new materials, a modular system and an open plan. Architects who created buildings in this style used simple geometric shapes and concrete.

The international style was first developed in 1920s Western Europe by the De Stijl movement, Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. It was later adapted by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum in the US.


With its soaring cathedral spires, pointed windows, and detailed embellishments, Neo-Gothic architecture is best known in public buildings like churches, schools, and government structures. However, it can also be found in many residential structures.

With the development of steel framing, the architecturally restrictive Gothic Revival style became more flexible. Iron skeletons allowed Gothic tracery to be applied as ornament on top of a more modern structural system. Calvert Vaux, for example, used flexing forms that presaged Art Nouveau in his cast-iron Central Park bridge.

Arts & Crafts

A 19th-century movement fueled by anxieties about industrialization promoted a return to handcraftsmanship and precapitalist forms of culture. Arts and Crafts proponents emphasized reforms such as eliminating mechanized production, abolishing the division of labor and elevating the designer to craftsman status.

John Ruskin, heavily influenced by Thomas Carlyle, linked a nation’s social and moral health to its architecture. He believed factory-made products were dishonest and that handwork merged dignity with labor.

The Arts and Crafts movement spread to America, where it influenced the Craftsman and bungalow styles. Local variations included the refined West Coast homes of Charles and Henry Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie houses.


Neo-Romanticism cropped up a century after the Romantic movement and combines its styles with more modern techniques. It’s hard to pinpoint neo-romanticism as an identifiable group or movement, with no clear manifesto, and artists often embraced the style without labeling themselves as such.

The style tends to focus on nature and evoke emotions through its depiction. A fascination with archaeology also features. Neo-Romanticism grew particularly popular in smaller countries squeezed between powerful empires and became the visual vocabulary for their national dreams of emancipation.

Art Deco

While modernist styles strove to be utilitarian Art Deco was a more emotional and expressive style. It embraced new technology, such as reinforced concrete that allowed for larger buildings and streamlined shapes.

Streamlining influenced not only architecture but furniture, jewelry, and painting. The era’s most famous painter was Tamara de Lempicka.

Typically, buildings in this style have stylized geometric forms such as zigzags and chevrons, but also incorporate elements from ancient cultures. For instance, medical office buildings in San Francisco and Atlanta feature Mayan and Aztec elements.


MIT’s Great Dome is an instantly recognizable symbol of American Neoclassicism. The United States modeled itself after Rome and Greece, both architecturally and politically. Academics, clergy and statesmen studied Greco-Roman literature and philosophy.

In the decorative arts, neoclassical forms were employed by Empire furniture makers; in the Capitol dome of Washington DC; and in Josiah Wedgwood’s severe classical reliefs. Architects like James Gandon also used this style in his houses. In painting, Winckelmann protege Anton Raphael Mengs freely utilized classical themes such as Apollo surrounded by the Muses and Achilles Bewailing the Death of Patroclus.

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