Contemporary 2000-present

The most notable buildings of the last two decades present a wide range of architectural approaches that defy a ready stylistic label. Modernism seems to have triumphed, its abstraction malleable enough to accommodate virtually all design proclivities except the explicitly historicist. “Contemporary” evokes a common thread of characteristics that connects these sensibilities, but it describes the reality of today’s diverse practice more than a coherent aesthetic school of thought.

Though today’s buildings may not share visual design elements that can easily be described as a “style,” some common themes communicate priorities and aspirations of the early 21st Century:

  • Focus on sustainability. Design for efficiency to reduce energy use and slow climate change: in space, energy consumption, building envelope, materials specifications. Design for resilience in face of sea level change: elevated ground floor, systems at roof level.
  • Design for flexibility. Interiors and workspaces designed to adapt to a fast-changing, uncertain future and to encourage collaboration in a cross-disciplinary world.
  • Attention to user comfort, health and productivity. Designs accentuate natural light, fresh air circulation, safe materials.
  • Appetite for innovative technology. Design & construction software allows freeform shapes and innovative massing in large structures. New materials and techniques: glass, composites, and modules. Integration of on-site energy generation: solar, wind, geothermal.
  • Sensitivity to urban context. Focus on enhancing the streetscape, beyond the property lines. Attention to integrating historical structures and building elements in new designs to preserve neighborhood character.

In this context, puzzling over the “style” of a contemporary buildings is no longer fruitful. Today’s buildings demand different questions. How did the architect design the forms and spaces to relate to their context, express how they are used, or reveal the structure that holds them up? How do those design choices evoke an emotional response? (How) did budget constraints, community participation, energy conservation efforts or regulatory requirements help give the building its form and meaning? The answers to these questions may prove an even richer perspective about the state of contemporary culture and society than what was expressed through earlier architectural styles and movements.

Cover image: MIT Simmons Hall, ©Peter Vanderwarker. All rights reserved.