What Is Contemporary Architecture?

White cube, modern home

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While there is no clear definition of what constitutes contemporary architecture, it comprises a range of present day building styles that often look radically different from one another and sometimes from anything that has come before. This is thanks to myriad innovations in building materials and techniques that have made contemporary architecture possible in all its infinite iterations. 

What Is Contemporary Architecture?

The term contemporary architecture is a blanket phrase that essentially refers to the architecture of now.

Some notable contemporary 21st century architects include Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban, Santiago Calatrava and the late Zaha Hadid, who died at 65 in 2016 but whose oeuvre is still being built by the company she left behind. These contemporary "starchitects" are known for show-stoppingly expressive buildings rendered in unconventional, sometimes gravity-defying shapes that alter the landscape in places around the world. While they have all built ambitious large-scale buildings like Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA or Nouvel’s Philharmonie de Paris, many have also built private residences such as the Hadid-designed luxury condominiums at 520 West 28th Street overlooking NYC’s High Line.

Contemporary prefab house by Turkel Design.
Turkel Design

But contemporary architecture isn’t limited to large-scale starchitect-designed buildings. It can also be more modestly expressed in the inventive spheroid-shaped sustainable Ecocapsule tiny house from Slovakia designed for off-grid living anywhere in the world. It could also be a prefab residential family house in suburban America, a mirrored cube treehouse hotel in a Swedish forest, or a cantilevered apartment building overlooking a European canal.

Contemporary apartment in Malmo, Sweden.
Jacek Kadaj / Getty Images

History of Contemporary Architecture

Contemporary architecture isn’t defined by a single style but is unified in its imperative to be unconventional, to break with the past using innovation and imagination rather than replicating older styles. 

The era of contemporary architecture is generally thought to have begun sometime after the modern period of the roughly first half of the 20th century and the postmodern period that was a reaction to it beginning in the 1960s and continuing through to the 90s. Therefore, buildings from the late 20th century to the present moment might be referred to as works of contemporary architecture.

Contemporary lake house.
asbe / E+ / Getty Images

Contemporary architects are no longer limited to linear forms as they now have at their disposal an arsenal of innovative materials and building methods. This includes the ability to design computer-generated curves, or employ laser-cutting technology and 3D printing to build more challenging, precise and unprecedented forms. Computer renderings conjure glimpses of the future in hyper-realistic detail, but what might once have seemed impossibly futuristic and purely conceptual is now achievable as a new generation of buildings that seem to defy logic, gravity, and often the boundaries of what is considered conventional good taste crop up around the world.

Sustainability is an important feature of contemporary architecture, with the use of recycled and natural materials and attention to eco-conscious water and temperature control building systems that are ever more seamlessly integrated and considered. This is vital in light of the climate change emergency that is in part a result of the environmental damage caused by buildings, which in the U.S account for 39 percent of CO2 emissions.

Contemporary villa in Berlin.
Vostok / Getty Images

Characteristics of Contemporary Architecture

Contemporary architecture is a free-for-all, but here are some key elements that might help you identify a contemporary building in the wild:

  • Curved lines
  • Rounded forms
  • Unconventional volumes
  • Asymmetry
  • Free-form shapes
  • Open floor plans
  • Large, abundant windows
  • Green roofs, living walls
  • Integration into the surrounding landscape
  • Integrated smart home technology 
  • Integrated customizable LED lighting
Contemporary apartment block
pamspix / Getty Images

Interesting Facts About Contemporary Architecture

In 2017, the Royal Mail commissioned a stamp collection featuring 10 of the most well known public buildings from the previous 20 years, to celebrate the UK’s “renaissance of contemporary architecture.” The stamps featured photos by architectural photographers Hufton + Crow of buildings such as the London Aquatics Centre, Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament, and the Tate Modern in London.

One of the most confusing things about trying to define contemporary architecture is the fact that it is often labelled as “modern.” This is likely due to the fact that modern is a two-syllable word that is perfectly understandable as a synonym for the five-syllable word contemporary. But the fact that modernism is a well-defined architectural style with its own distinct characteristics adds to the confusion. 

A new build can be modern without being contemporary and a contemporary building can be modern in the temporal sense of the word. And of course a new build can be modern, contemporary, or simply neither if it’s merely a copy of an earlier period style. The fact that real estate professionals, popular home renovation and house-hunting shows and many online sources misuse the words doesn’t help.

Dutch wooden tiny house.
HildaWeges / Getty Images