The term contemporary architecture is a general phrase that primarily refers to the architecture of today. While there is no clear definition of what constitutes contemporary architecture, it includes a range of current building styles that often appear drastically different from each other and sometimes from all that came before. Innovations in construction techniques and materials have made contemporary architecture possible in all of its endless versions.
Tadao Ando, Jean Nouvel, Santiago Calatrava, Frank Gehry and Shigeru Ban are the most notable and famous contemporary architects of the 21st century, and Zaha Hadid who died at age 65 in 2016 but whose work is still under construction by the business she left behind. These contemporary “starchitects” are known for their expressive buildings, although they all built ambitious large-scale buildings like Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or Jean Nouvel’s Philharmonie de Paris, many also built private residences such as the luxury condominiums designed by Hadid. at 520 West 28th Street overlooking the New York High Line.
Contemporary architecture is not limited to large-scale buildings designed by architects. It can also be expressed more modestly in the tiny, durable, spheroid-shaped eco-capsule house from Slovakia, designed for off-grid living anywhere in the world. It could also be a prefabricated residential family home in the American suburbs, a hotel in a “mirror” tree in a Swedish forest, or a cantilever apartment building overlooking a European canal.
Contemporary architecture is not 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 reproducing older styles.
It is generally believed that the age of contemporary architecture began after the modern period of the first half of the 20th century and the postmodern period, which reacted to it from the 1960s and until the late 1970s and 90s. Therefore, buildings from the late 20th century to the present day can be qualified as works of contemporary architecture.
Contemporary architects no longer limit themselves to linear forms as they now have an arsenal of innovative materials and construction methods. This includes the ability to use computers and more construction techniques to design and realize curves or use laser cutting technology and 3D printing to create more difficult, precise and unprecedented shapes. Computer renderings evoke glimpses of the future in hyper-realistic detail, but what might once have seemed incredibly futuristic and purely conceptual is now achievable as a new generation of buildings that appear to defy logic, gravity and often limits of what is considered conventional and good taste is popping up all over the world.
Sustainability is an important feature of contemporary architecture, with the use of recycled and natural materials and attention to water-friendly and temperature-controlled building systems that are increasingly integrated and considered. This is vital in light of the urgency of climate change, which is in part the result of environmental damage from buildings, which accounts for 39% of CO2 emissions.
Contemporary architecture is “free”, but here are some key things that might help you identify a contemporary building:
- Curved lines
- Rounded shapes
- Unconventional volumes
- 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
In 2017, the Royal Mail commissioned a collection of stamps featuring 10 of the best-known public buildings of the past 20 years, to celebrate the ‘renaissance of contemporary architecture in the UK. The stamps featured photos by Hufton + Crow architectural photographers of buildings such as the London Aquatics Center, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the Tate Modern in London.
One of the most confusing things about defining contemporary architecture is that it is often referred to as “modern”. This is probably due to the fact that modern is a word that is perfectly understandable as a synonym for the word contemporary. But modernism is an architectural style that is clean and understandable and has its own clear concepts and characteristics, and that’s what makes confusion between modernism and contemporary architecture.
New construction can be modern without being contemporary, and a contemporary building can be modern in the temporal sense of the term, and of course, a new building can be modern, contemporary, or just not if it’s a copy of an earlier period style.