International Style 1938-1960

This revolutionary movement sought to eliminate historical and cultural references in architecture by rejecting traditional decoration and ornament and embracing function, technology, modern materials, and pure forms. By transcending any national, regional, or continental identity, it became “international.”

Walter Gropius, a founder of the International movement at the Bauhaus school in Germany in the 1920s, emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1930s after fleeing the Nazis. He joined the faculty of the Department of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1937, and beginning the following year served as Chair of the department into the 1950s. Gropius’ presence and influence here may have helped assure the local adoption of the International Style over competing “organic” and “prairie” styles being advanced by Frank Lloyd Wright and others in the U.S. Midwest and West at roughly the same time.

Characteristics of International Style buildings include: rectilinear forms; light, planar surfaces without ornamentation or decoration; open interior spaces; and a visually weightless quality engendered by cantilevered construction and simple round columns, or "pilotis." Glass, steel, and reinforced concrete are the primary materials. These shared features were first highlighted at a 1932 MoMA exhibition entitled “The International Style,” giving the movement its name.

Gropius' Harkness Commons at Harvard Law School represents Boston's purest expression of the International Style.

Image: Harkness Commons, Harvard, ©Steve Rosenthal