International Style, International Clients

“International Style” architecture emerged in Europe during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The roots are traced to the Bauhaus School in Germany, where designers explored rational, functional, and sometimes standardized building types. In contrast to the prevalent styles of the day, simple forms, clean lines, no ornamentation, and the use of concrete, steel and glass as primary building materials defined the look. Although the principles were first adopted by architects and planners in Northern Europe, the term itself, International Style, was coined by Americans Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in 1932 when they curated MoMA’s first architectural show. The exhibition attracted much attention to the display of mostly foreign building models and drawings.

“The International Style is probably the first fundamentally original and widely distributed style since the Gothic,”Johnson argued. “Today the style has passed beyond the experimental stage. In almost every civilized country in the world it is reaching its full stride.”

The Bauhaus School was closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi regime, the school was seen as a center or communist intellectualism. The staff emigrated all over the world, many to the U.S., bringing their ideals with them. The modernist style was readily adapted to any climate zone, and since it is not beholden to historical and vernacular tradition, architects around the globe were able to implement this style in their home countries.

When I started architecture school, these International Style architects (Le Corbusier, Mies Van de Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Richard Neutra, and others) were the role models we learned from. It was just before Post Modernism swept the architectural world- my interest continued to be with the modernists. So, after many years of continuing to design in a modern style myself, it is both notable and gratifying to see how many of my clients are in fact themselves immigrants from around the world. Perhaps the interest in modern design is stronger among these adventurous emigres than for native born Americans.

Working with such a variety of foreign born clients has presented interesting opportunities and challenges. For a Chinese client, I was asked to incorporate Feng Shui principals into the design. The client had their own Feng Shui consultant who reviewed our plans and suggested some tweaks to the design. For an Indian family, we worked with Vastu principles (the traditional Hindu approach to harmony in home and architecture) to achieve a customized, unique home. Vastu principles of design were important in determining locations and layouts of the house; we collaborated closely with the client- they had a family member in India who is a Vaastu expert, who also reviewed our proposed design solutions. Working with these ancient principals provided a spiritual underpinning to the design that made itself felt throughout the process.

It’s been fascinating to work with people from so many diverse backgrounds, all who have come here to participate in the promise of America. The map here shows countries of origins of some of the clients I’ve worked with, living their American dreams and International values.

I sometimes refer to split levels and ranches as “The Other Mid Century style”. They may not quite call to mind the classic mid century modern houses that have become so desirable, but with a little imagination, they do offer a great opportunity to create a modern home for this century.

I grew up in a 1958 split level house in suburban Philadelphia, and I remember even as a child recognizing the distinctively different feel from my friends’ traditional colonial houses. The more open plan, cathedral ceiling in the living room, and the 50’s decor seemed so cool by comparison. And the half flight up to the bedrooms and half flight down to the playroom seemed so easy compared to the conventional three level configuration.

Split levels and ranches became popular during the post WWII suburban expansion and reflected a desire for a more modern style home. The splits worked well on sloped or smaller sites, offering an open layout, yet more compact than a spread out ranch. In some homes, the arrangement allowed for cathedral ceilings in the living room since there was not a second floor above.

Somewhere along the way, split levels became something of a pariah. These houses generally lack both the design sophistication of a classic mid-century modern house from the same period or the character and charm of a traditional Colonial or Tudor. When found in neighborhoods with high land values, they often become tear downs that make way for more conventional Colonial style mansions. But from my experience and what I hear from local realtors, there is a growing demand for more modern homes, and these splits and ranches may be the best bet short of building a new house from scratch.

The split level modernization projects I’ve done have mostly included additions and exterior “curb appeal” makeovers. A common addition is adding a level above the one story portion, usually for a master suite and other related spaces. Addition on the back can create a larger kitchen or family room space. One project completely re-conceived the idea of a split level, and resulted in a dramatic home with the different levels intertwining in unexpected ways.




Englewood Cliffs, NJ

This client had hired an architect who completed the plans for a second floor addition. However, the client wasn’t happy with how the outside was looking, and asked us to re-design the exterior without making any big changes to the plans. The biggest design change we made was to change the gabled roofs to hip roofs, which immediately created a better resolution between the two wings of the house, and established consistent horizontal lines to the wall surfaces. The entry was given a cantilevered canopy, the bay window squared off, and the break up of materials further accented the horizontal connection between the volumes.

Tenafly, NJ

In this project, the client wanted to add a larger kitchen and family room to the back of the house, along with a new deck. This freed up space for a powder room and large pantry area at the living level. At the upper level, the space was reconfigured to provide a more generous master suite, eliminating one bedroom. A new bedroom and bathroom was added to the lower level in the area that had good window exposure. The existing entry sequence from driveway to front door was unwelcoming and included an un-needed circular driveway that was too close to the front door. Our design included a re-working of the front landscape.

This house already had hipped roofs, and our window and material choices helped to further modernize the overall look of the house.

These elevations show a different approach to material choices that I had presented, but the client opted for the black and white approach. 

Summit, NJ

The owners of this house had outgrown the space and embarked on an ambitious plan to enlarge the home and create a more modern expression. The neighborhood was full of these same style homes, but one by one, they were being torn down and replaced by the traditional style homes that developers were putting up around the state. For this project, we kept the original foundation and basic premise of the split level, and proceeded to create a modern home more in keeping with the mid-century spirit of the original. We had to submit for a variance to move the garage entry to the front of the house, and among the comments from various township departments was this very gratifying observation.

“The Historic Preservation Commission commends the owner and Architect for their proposed transformative design of one of the tract mid-century split-level homes- typical of the neighborhood- into a modern home in keeping with it’s mid-century influence. As an expression of its own time, the diagnosis is properly scaled to the neighborhood, and successfully addresses the site conditions, and utilizes material appropriate to their proposed use. We also like that the proposed design resists the common ersatz new-traditional inclinations that are becoming common in this neighborhood. No objections.”

The stair down was reconfigured to make a better flow from the new mudroom off the garage as well as new basement space under the rear addition. Setting the master suite second floor addition back from the front allowed a high ceiling area in the living room.

Scotch Plains, NJ

These owners lived in the neighborhood and were looking for an opportunity to create a modern, larger home nearby. This property met their need in terms of the location and the property size and character, and included a forlorn split level house that could easily have been a candidate for a tear down. Instead, we decided to retain some of the basic structure and proceeded to make additions and reconfigure space to create a home that took advantage of the various levels in ways that added to the interest of the architecture- resulting in a design that couldn’t have been achieved if a new two level house had been built instead of retaining the split level structure.

The two patios at the back also reflect the split-level nature of the house. The connecting stair follow the interior stair form the kitchen to the lower level dining/ living/ guest room spaces.

The lower level now has two stairs down, one from the entry foyer, one directly from the kitchen. The balcony space above acts as a private congregating space for the family, with a piano tucked in.

See this full project here.