Architecture 101: The difference between Contemporary and Modern homes

From Colonial to Craftsman, you’ll discover probably dozens of architectural styles in any given region. While some of those styles are familiar even to those who don’t follow home design — think Mediterranean or Colonial, which are two of the most well-known and popular — there are others that are harder to place. Some styles are similar enough that it takes a trained eye to tell the differences. That’s definitely the case with Contemporary vs. Modern design — two styles that are often mislabeled or misunderstood.

Contemporary vs. Modern Architecture

These styles share many similar features, making it sometimes tough to distinguish between the two. Here, we explain each of the styles and illuminate what to look for to identify homes built in each one.

Contemporary architecture

Contemporary architecture is a term used to refer to cutting-edge design and building. It sometimes blends different styles — including Modern — to create something that is totally new and of the moment. Sometimes, it is a new style all its own. Clean lines are a hallmark of Contemporary design, which can be seen in various elements such as flat roofs, glass walls and oversized windows. Like Modern design, Contemporary design puts an emphasis on minimalism, with a sleek and streamlined aesthetic rather than ornamentation.

Modern architecture

Modern architecture, on the other hand, refers to sleek homes that were built beginning shortly after the turn of the 20th century — in Europe, especially, then around the world — and through the 1970s. Defined by straight lines, minimal embellishment, open floor plans and industrial materials, Modern homes were designed to express the pure functions of the home. They often have large plate-glass windows, concrete and steel design details and an emphasis on rectangular shapes. They were also typically built horizontally as opposed to vertically, which resulted in them being low to the ground, anchoring them to their sites and keying into the surrounding nature.

A zenith in America for Modern architecture happened from roughly the 1940s through the 1970s, with homes that were warmer and more organic than their European counterparts. (The American homes employed more wood, where the European homes employed more concrete and steel.) That period — especially the 1950s and ’60s designs — is popularly called Midcentury Modern architecture. When inside any Modern home, the boundaries between manmade and nature are blurred, thanks to walls of glass and the use of identical materials inside and out (slate for both flooring and decking, for example). Modern homes became more popular as technology began to thrive — especially in the form of insulation and energy efficiency — and they were a way for architects and homebuilders to create a connection with the natural world that was in stark juxtaposition to the homes that had come before.

contemporary vs modern homes

The big design similarities 

Because Contemporary architecture often blends influences from several sources, there are often strong Modern influences in Contemporary homes. As a result, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference. Both styles incorporate a mix of industrial and natural materials, including wood, concrete and stone, with industrial-style touches such as steel-framed windows and doors. Clean lines and minimal detailing are also defining features of both styles. In stark contrast to the arched windows of Mediterranean and Georgian homes, for example, or the different kinds of columns and chimneys that define Colonial and Craftsman homes, both Contemporary and Modern homes prioritize bold geometric shapes. Both also use glass as a key element: With large windows, sliding glass doors and walls of sheer glazing, Modern and Contemporary homes feature as little of a barrier as possible between indoors and outdoors — making for a much more natural living experience.

The big design differences

One of the biggest differences between Contemporary and Modern architecture is that one is bound by a specific timeframe while the other is not. Modern architecture refers to homes built during a certain period, predominantly from the early to mid-1900s. Contemporary architecture, on the other hand, refers to architecture that is of the current moment. As a result, what defines Contemporary architecture evolves over time. Another key difference is height. While most Modern homes were built low to the ground, Contemporary homes are often multiple levels and are built taller than their earlier counterparts. Though the two styles have a similar focus on geometric shapes and open floor plans, Contemporary homes are much more diverse in their shapes and structures than the more typically single-story Modern homes. Contemporary homes are also often very tech-forward. Because this style is inherently on the forefront, it’s typical to see advances such as smart home technology, industry-leading appliances, eco-friendly systems such as solar panels and other high-tech features that weren’t originally possible in a Modern home. Contemporary homes are also often built with sustainability in mind in a way that older homes weren’t, prioritizing repurposed or recycled materials.

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