Icon of International Style building

International Style Architecture

The style that gave the world the  corporate “glass box”

« All Arche-tecture | Last Updated 2022

If you’ve ever stood in the narrow canyons of a major city’s downtown, surrounded on all sides by seemingly identical turrets of sleek metal and glass, and you get the sneaking suspicion that nameless corporations are watching over you, then you are probably already familiar with the International Style. The design became popular with corporate architects in U.S. and Europe during the mid-twentieth century because the workforce was expanding rapidly, and advancements in construction meant that boxy buildings made of easy- and cheap-to-produce components like glass and steel could go up quickly to meet the need, even if it sacrificed some aesthetic beauty. As a result, the International Style and its “glass box” are now emblematic of that Mad Men era when downtowns boomed.

Beyond necessity, though, the style was also a progression of architectural taste that increasingly disdained superfluous ornamentation, unnecessary adornment, and classical reference. Art Deco started the process, but still maintained a foot in the past. Streamline Moderne took the next step of streamlining building forms, but stopped short of an obsession. It wasn’t until the International Style that architects plunged completely into the philosophy of function over form, arguing that it was only ethical to do so, or else the building was wasteful at a time when it couldn’t afford to be.

Later architects, appalled by what “modern” styles had culminated in, rallied in the ’70s and ’80s to create a “post” modern revolution that unraveled the core notions of the International Style and its spiritual sibling, Brutalism. The rebellion didn’t happen before the “glass box” became ubiquitous, however, and the style made an indelible mark on architectural history and the downtowns of most major cities the world over.

Elements

Experience It

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Visit Chicago

Even more so than New York, Chicago houses some of the most legendary buildings of the style, including.  the Lake Shore Drive apartments, 330 N Wabash, and more. There’s nothing quite like seeing them in person.

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Visit New York

Midtown Manhattan, while iconic for multiple different architectural styles, is the poster child in places for the International Style. Spend any time in these glass caverns and you’ll immediately see why.

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Watch "Mad Men"

This series takes you inside and outside of 1271 Avenue of the Americas, the stand-in for the Sterling Cooper & Partners headquarters,  and really gives you a good feel of an iconic NYC building in its native era.

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Watch "A Cure for Wellness"

Well really just the beginning part. Though the film takes the depiction of corporate soul-sucking to the extreme, the scenes in the city sum up the hollow corporate feel that this style of buildings can often evoke.

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Watch "American Psycho"

Not for the faint of heart, but this movie serves up its fair share of mid-century modern imagery, internally and externally. In this case it is used negatively, to portray Wall Street as soulless and soul-sucking.

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Brutalist Architecture

Brutalism

The harsher, more austere cousin of the International Style, with the same philosophy