‘Bring the outside in and the inside out’. ‘Make the garden an outside room’. How many times do we hear these concepts? They have become a near universal part of modern garden design. But where do they come from? And why do so many houses being built now, along with their interiors and even their gardens look the way they do?

In the last century after the triumph of Art Nouveau there was a vigorous backlash against any kind of ornamentation and a new style emerged – Modernism. This style was based largely upon theories developed by Walter Gropius in the Bauhaus school of art and design in Germany. A new aesthetic of function over form was developed. It found expression thanks to new developments in industry and engineering, and concrete, glass and steel are its skin and bones.

A look at one of the most iconic Modernist houses seems a good way to get a good understanding of this style that, nearly a hundred years later has come to dominate our current aesthetic. It’s a powerful and unified style with a great amount of flexibility leading to many different expressions, but it all shares some key common concepts that make it highly recognisable. So let’s take a look at one of the great buildings that helped define Modernism.


Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright. USA. 1935

Fallingwater is possibly the most famous and iconic Modernist house. It has all the key attributes, a crisp geometry of shapes, in this case simple rectangular masses, like cereal boxes piled up. Clean lines, lots of glass and lots of flat roofs. The whole house shares the same aesthetic, all interiors and furnishings following the geometric formula, with the outside beating at every window. Huge balconies let the resident be outside whilst still inside. This is the very paradigm of Modernist architecture.

A closer look will also reveal a less obvious influence that comes from a different source, one that is hugely influential upon a lot of Modernist architecture, and through that contemporary garden design – Zen. This ancient Japanese philosophy was hugely attractive to many Modernist architects. Its stripped back elegant simplicity and emphasis upon truth to its components had a strong resonance for Modernist’s obsession with industrialised factory aesthetics whilst allowing a far more refined beauty to be introduced.

The Zen influence is everywhere in Fallingwaters, for example in its use of local stone, but is especially apparent in the carefully chosen location. For Zen architecture didn’t end with the boundaries of the building, it had to relate to the landscape it sat in with great care and sensitivity. And no Zen landscape or garden was complete without water, ideally with a bridge over the water as well. For more on Zen gardens you can read our blog here

Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius was to make the house itself the bridge – with his outrageously daring cantilevered balconies extending far over the water of the falls.

Here in one building, that is now over 80 years old, we can see so many of the tropes of Modernist architecture that have come to dominate our contemporary design scene. It has been massively influential yet still can inspire many fresh ideas about how a building and its surrounds can achieve a harmonious, satisfying unity.

There are those who feel that Modernism has become so dominant that it is time for another aesthetic. But whist there is some merit to that view, and there are other trends starting to emerge that are very interesting, such as the huge surge of interest in African architecture and textiles, we think there are still plenty of exciting design ideas to be found within this great school of design that has done so much to shape our modern design world.

If you’d like to read more about Iconic Modernist houses try this excellent article by architect John Hill writing in Houzz magazine: https://www.houzz.com/ideabooks/5419543/list/iconic-architecture-10-must-know-modern-homes.