There’s an ongoing debate when it comes to architectural styles—what’s the difference between modern and contemporary homes? Perhaps the best explanation is that to some extent, it’s a moot point. For the average person browsing real estate listings, as well as those who write the descriptions, the two terms can be synonymous. After all, how many times have you seen them used together, to describe a home?
There are distinctions, however. First, let’s explore the term “modern” home. Modern can mean anything that is current, new or forward-thinking, to some people. In a design sense, however, it comes from the modernist movement which emerged in the early 20th century as a reaction to emerging technology. Modernism was a philosophical movement that touched art, design, literature and lifestyle, with different (and often conflicting) facets and interpretations.
When it comes to modern architecture, the first and most obvious design influence was the tendency to react against earlier, more lavish or complex elements, such as Victorian or Edwardian styles. In other words, modern architecture embraced simplicity and minimalism—from low, flat structures with sharp, straight lines, to curvilinear concepts that suggested motion. In some instances (especially with commercial structures), modern design also made use of the emerging availability of materials such as glass and metal.
There were many styles associated with modernism during this period, including futurism, expressionism and the Arts and Crafts movement which flourished in Europe between 1860 and 1910. It wouldn’t be long before modernism and Arts and Crafts were finding a commonality, fusing into the Prairie School design movement, a distinctly American style led by Frank Lloyd Wright. These homes often featured jutting shelf shapes and sharp angles, but also, at times, incorporated sweeping curves.
Contemporary means “occurring at the same time”, or something that is thought to be in the present. In an architectural sense, it is often associated with the post-World War II era. The melding of contemporary and modern definitions in home styles, has much to do with the fact that modernism never caught on in a mass-market way but instead, became one more element that could be integrated into others. The post war era brought a yearning for solid values and basic designs. In that way, it was similar to the earlier modernist movement that rejected lavish styles.
Contemporary architecture from the 1950’s to the early 1970’s is often associated with simple shapes, low rooflines, large glass windows and sometimes, jutting sections. In other words, an extension of the modernist movement that led to the Prairie School design. A perfect example of contemporary design in Washington Metro is the Hollin Hills neighborhood in Alexandria—a 32-acre housing development constructed over roughly two decades, beginning in 1949. The 450 homes in Hollin Hills are integrated into woodsy settings, and are typified by flat roofs, jutting angles and large window walls.
As for newer homes, the terms modern and contemporary are often combined—describing often pricy homes that embody an innate sense of cool and style, borrowing from the past and adding new, fresh twists. Among the noted names in new contemporary DC-area architecture, are Robert Gurney, David Jameson, Barnes Vanze and Mark McInturff.
To sum up—what is the difference between modern and contemporary architecture? Again, it’s a matter of interpretation but for the most part, they are two complimentary movements that have fused over time and are now, often used synonymously.