You’d think with the amount of time we architects spend in school, all the esoteric titles on our book-shelves, and the cryptic language we use amongst one another at dinner parties that the keys to understanding modernism would be complicated, scholarly and difficult to comprehend. You’d be led to believe that the fruits of modern design are only achieved after years of study and monastic-like internships; the culmination of having actually read all of those books on our shelves. It’s what many of us architects would like you to believe. These diversions do a good job of justifying why we write “manifestos” that nobody understands and they validate why we need to take out a second mortgage to afford all of those linen hardcover books.

But the fact of the matter is that good modern design can be boiled down to a handful of basic principles; principles that you don’t need a Ph.D. in architecture to understand. Today’s post is an explanation of five simple codes of modernism. Over the years, we’ve found that these 5 are present in almost every good example of modernism and they matter more than all of the obscure styles, trends and fashions put together. Granted, good modern design requires more than just these principles, but these 5 will get you most of the way there.

1. Line things up. Seriously, just line things up. As simple and obvious as this sounds, we’re constantly blown-away at the variety of architecture out there with features that should line up, but don’t. And as soon as you notice, you can’t stop noticing. One of our favorite examples of lining things up gets built into every home and commercial space that we do. We have a simple diagram on our cover sheet indicating that all door handles, light switches, shower controls and towel bars are to vertically align (basically anything that you reach out to touch or operate occurs in the same plane). You may not cognitively recognize what’s going on in a home where everything aligns, there’s just a visual harmony that works. But once you do notice, well…

2. Eighty-six the gratuitous. If it doesn’t need to be there, get rid of it. Good modern architecture is rarely about itself; it’s more often about the people and activities that go on inside and around the architecture. The breakfast nook below is everything it needs to be and nothing more. The space is about a family sharing meals together, kids doing their homework, dogs lying underneath waiting for table scraps and the daily celebration of life.

3. Use paint judiciously. Materials like wood, steel and stone have already worked hard to produce their inherent, beautiful qualities. Good modernism is true to itself, so don’t cover up all of nature’s labor with a thick coat of your favorite color. We have a tongue-in-cheek rule of thumb that the only thing you should paint is gypsum wall board and other paint.

4. Be authentic. Express the elements that need to be there and be deliberate about it. The drop beam designed into the simple shed below becomes one of the primary design features of the composition. Because it needs to be there structurally, there is an intuitive response that it belongs there visually.

5. Know when to stop. There’s a certain point at which simplifying is no longer sensible and it’s important to recognize–and yield to– this threshold. Good modernism is cost-effective. Minimalism, on the other hand, is complicated, expensive and (typically) inauthentic. Removing the column in the application below may lend to a cleaner, more minimal aesthetic. But the fact of the matter is that there are significant structural loads being resolved at that particular point in the house. Resolving these loads by some other means would be difficult and ridiculously costly – it would lack sensibility. An attenuated steel column is used here to deal with the increased point-load and the subsequent slenderness ratio. The column is differentiated from the other structural components of the house; in addition to being cost effective and sensible, it’s also a celebrated component of the interior.

Let us know what’s on your list of design principles.

Cheers, from TeamBUILD