Architecture is one of humanity’s most visible and long-lasting forms of expression, spanning the entire length of humanity. Most historic civilizations are even identified by their surviving architectural relics: the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, the Golden Pavilion in Japan, or the Taj Mahal in India. Here, our list focuses on a few of the icons of modern architecture (the last 150 years), the true masters of their craft. If you ever wanted a crash course in the icons of modern architecture here it is.
Daniel Libeskind was born in 1946 in Poland. In 1959 Libeskind and his family moved to New York City, where Libeskind attended Bronx High School of Science and later Cooper Union for architecture. In 1972 Libeskind briefly worked for another architect on our list, Richard Meier. He and his wife Nina Lewis founded Studio Daniel Libeskind in 1989. The Jewish Museum in Berlin was Libeskind’s first major international success. Some other notable works include the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin and the Imperial War Museum North in England.
A graduate of Cornell University, Richard Meier worked with a number of notable architects, like SOM and Marcel Breuer (whose name you might recognize from our 25 Furniture Designers You Need to Know). In 1963, Meier established his own practice. Among his most well-known projects are the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, and The Hague City Hall and Central Library in the Netherlands. He has won the Pritzker Prize, the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, and the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Sir Norman Foster
Manchester, England-born Sir Norman Foster was both a graduate of Manchester University School of Architecture and Yale University’s Masters in Architecture program. He founded Foster + Partners in 1967, and in 1999, he became a Pritzker Prize winner. Foster + Partners has received over 470 awards and citations for excellence in their 45 years in business, including Gold Medals from the RIBA and the AIA. Some of Foster’s most notable works are the 30 St Mary Axe in London, Willis Faber and Dumas Headquarters in Ipswich, and Wembley Stadium in London.
Born in Genoa, Italy in 1937, Renzo Piano was destined to be an architect—or at least a contractor. His father, four uncles, and brother were all contractors, so it seems natural that Piano would go into another adjacent field of construction. After graduating from Politecnico di Milano School of Architecture, Piano worked in the offices of Louis Khan in Philadelphia. Some of his most famous building are the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, The New York Times building in New York City, and the Shard London Bridge. Piano won the Pritzker Prize in 1998 and the AIA Gold Medal in 2008.
Spanish architect, artist, and engineer Santiago Calatrava was born in 1957 near Valencia, Spain. After completing high school, Calatrava moved to Paris with the intention of studying at École des Beaux-Arts, but realized after arriving that his plan was unworkable. Calatrava moved back to Valencia and enrolled in Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura. Still unsatisfied with his education, he set his sights on the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) to study civil engineering. After graduation, Calatrava took a position assisting the ETH and began taking on small engineering commissions, like roofs and balconies. His big break came when he won a competition proposal in 1984 to design and build the Bach De Roda Bridge in Barcelona. This competition led to international recognition. Calatrava was not only know for building bridges, but for his large-scale public works as well, such as the Athens Olympic Sports Complex, Auditorio de Tenerife, and the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències. He has won the AIA Gold Medal and the Prince of Asturias Award.
Popular architectural figure Rem Koolhaas has a large following due to his unconventional and sometimes provocative buildings. In 1975, Koolhaas, his wife Madelon Vriesendorp, and Elia and Zoe Zenghelis opened OMA, a collective “hothouse research lab,” as described by Icon. In addition to architecture, Koolhaas is also an author (S, M, L, XL and Content), a theorist, an urban planner, a cultural researcher, and a professor at Harvard. Among his numerous projects, he has designed the Seattle Central Library, the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin, and the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing (his largest work to date).
A student of Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid is seen as a singular, unwavering force in the world of architecture. She has struggled through her career with both clients and collaborators because of her drive, tenacity, and her being a female in a male-dominated field. But despite these setbacks, she has become the most well-known woman architect in the world. In 2004, Hadid was the first (and, at the moment, the only individual) woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize award. Hadid’s big break came from an unexpected place, when she was commissioned to design Cincinnati’s Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art. The New York Times describes the building as “the most important new building in America since the Cold War.” Once her talent was realized, commissions started coming in to design a variety of projects in public transportation, libraries, archives, and opera houses, including Abu Dhabi Performing Art Center and Bee’ah Headquarters, both in the UAE.
Argentine architect Cesar Pelli was born in 1926. He studied architecture at the University of Tucmán, before a scholarship led him to the University of Illinois School of Architecture. After school, Pelli worked at the firm of Eero Saarinen and Associates. Pelli was with the firm for 10 years, later citing Saarinen and Corbusier as major influences in his work. In this position, he worked as project designer for the famous TWA terminal at JFK Airport. In 1977, Pelli and his wife opened Cesar Pelli and Associates with Fred W. Clarke. In 1995, he won the AIA Gold Medal for his architectural work. Some of Pelli’s most notable work includes the World Financial Center in NYC, Circa Center in Philadelphia, and the Petronas Twin Towers (with Mahathir Mohamad).
Walter Gropius is best known as the first director of the prestigious design school Bauhaus. Gropius actually designed the school’s second location in Dessau, Germany. After leaving the Bauhaus in 1927, Gropius moved to England. In 1937, he was invited to teach at Harvard. While at the Ivy League school, Gropius and former Bauhaus teacher Marcel Breuer founded a joint architectural firm together. Together they designed many notable works including the Pennsylvania Pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair and Gropius’ private residence in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He has been awarded gold medals from The Royal Institute of British Architects and The American Institute of Architects.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Wisconsin in 1867, just two years after the end of the Civil War. His rural upbringing set the stage for his lifelong love and appreciation of nature. Wright is arguably the most famous architect in the U.S. In his lifetime, he designed 141 works—including houses, offices, churches, schools, libraries, and museums, and he received awards from The Royal Institute of British Architects and the American Institute of Architects. His buildings have been considered among the most significant architectural works to be designed in the last 100 years; 409 of his completed works are still standing today. Wright also helped create the open floor plan—designing rooms that flow and open out into each other. His appreciation of nature is apparent in his work and its arguable that no other architect took greater advantage of setting and environment than Wright. An example of this careful consideration can be seen in “Fallingwater,” one of his most famous designs, as well as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City and his personal homes, Taliesin and Taliesin West.
Eero Saarinen was born in Finland in 1910 to an already established architect father, Eliel Saarinen. The family moved to the U.S. in 1929. Saarinen studied at Yale, and in 1936, he began working at his father’s architecture practice and also taught at Cranbrook, where his father had been president since it was founded in 1932. At Cranbrook, he met Charles Eames and the two collaborated on new furniture forms (specifically molded plywood). In the 1940s, Saarinen and Eames took part in the “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” at MoMA. Unlike Eames, Saarinen decided to focus mainly on architecture more so than furniture, designing the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the TWA terminal at JFK Airport, and Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. He was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal in 1962.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
German-born Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is considered to be a father of modern architecture. One of Mies’ most famous works was his Barcelona Pavilion at the International Exposition in Barcelona (where he also designed the Barcelona chair). Mies came to America in 1937, after the Bauhaus school (where he was the director) was shut down due to pressure from the Nazi government. In 1944, he became a U.S. citizen and began one of the most successful periods in his career. During this time, he designed and built The Farnsworth House (a minimalist house with only one interior room that was completely enclosed in glass—similar to his friend Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Conn.). In 1954, he completed the Seagram Building in NYC (with Philip Johnson), and in 1957 he completed the twin towers in Chicago—two of his most famous works. He was awarded the AIA Gold Medal and the Royal Gold Medal for his architectural work.
Michael Graves is one of the few post-modernists on our list. Born in Indianapolis, Ind., he had a long-standing interest in drawing and painting, which influenced his architecture later in life. Graves worked with Carl Strauss, Ray Rousen, and George Nelson. Some of his most notable works are the Portland Building in Oregon, the Steigenberger Hotel in Egypt, and the Walt Disney World Swan at Walt Disney World. He won the AIA Gold Medal in 2001.
A pioneer of modern architecture, Le Corbusier’s career spanned five decades and numerous continents. Corbusier theorized five points that supported his modernist style of architecture: pilotis, free façade, open floor plan, unencumbered views, and roof garden. Many of Corbusier’s designs were airy and open, connecting the visitor to nature and creating a bridge between the structure and the outside world. A few that embody his style are the Esprit Nouveau Pavilion in Paris, chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, and Villa Savoye near Paris. He was honored as an AIA Gold Medalist in 1961.
SOM, founded by Louis Skidmore, Nathaniel Owings, and John O. Merill, opened their NYC office in 1937. SOM is one of the largest architectural firms in the world, offering services in architecture, engineering, graphic design, interior design, and urban design, among others. The company’s primary expertise is in high-end commercial high-rises. The firm has designed some of the most famous (and tallest) buildings in the world, such as 7 World Trade Center, the Sears Tower, and Lever House. Skidmore and Owings both won the AIA Gold Medal for their architectural achievements.
Alvar Aalto was a Finnish architect and designer working in furniture, textiles, and glassware. Unlike most architects, his style was very transitional, from Nordic Classicism to pure modernism to organic modernism. His move to modernism may have been influenced by close relationships with individuals like Lazlo Maholy-Nagy and Le Corbusier. Aalto liked to take control of all aspects of a design project, not only designing the building, but the furniture, textiles, and furnishings as well. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that Aalto received world recognition. In the U.S., his reputation grew following the positive reception of his Finnish pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair, which another architect on our list, Frank Lloyd Wright, called “a work of genius.” Throughout his career, Aalto designed a wide range of work from civic planning to painting—designing over 500 buildings (including Finlandia Hall and the Paimio Sanatorium, both in Finland) spanning five countries, and won the AIA Gold Medal for architecture.
Louis Sullivan is considered to be the creator of the modern skyscraper and the father of modernism. He was the mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright and an influential figure to the Chicago group of architects that came to be known as the Prairie School. Born in Boston in 1856, Sullivan studied architecture for a year at MIT before leaving for the École des Beaux-Arts. Sullivan’s most famous works were the National Farmers Bank of Owatonna, Merchants National Bank, and Peoples Federal Savings and Loan. In 1944, he won the AIA Gold Medal.
Charles & Ray Eames
Next to Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames may be the most well-known and well-documented architects on our list, though not specifically for their architecture. In collaboration with his wife Ray, Eames created a creative collective, working on furniture, industrial design, manufacturing, photography, and film in addition to architecture. Their most famous architectural work is their home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., created as part of the Case Study House program, sponsored by Art & Architecture magazine. Eames also designed the Entenza house in the Pacific Palisades and Max and Esther de Pree house in Michigan.
Ieoh Ming Pei
Ieoh Ming (or IM) Pei is often called the master of modern architecture. He was born in China in 1917 and raised in Hong Kong and Shanghai. In 1935, Pei moved to the U.S. to go to school at Pennsylvania University School of Architecture, ended up transferring to MIT. After graduating, he began studying at Harvard School of Design, where he became friends with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Pei’s notable projects include Jacob Javits Center, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Bank of China Tower, among others. Pei won the Pritzker Prize in 1983 and the AIA Gold Medal in 1979.
Born in Cleveland in 1906, Philip Johnson was one of the most notable and influence, modernist architects of his era, designing some of America’s greatest modern landmarks. In 1943, he graduated Harvard Graduate School of Design, after which he worked with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Before becoming an architect, Philip Johnson was the founding director of MoMA’s department of architecture, where he produced his landmark exhibition, “The International Style,” in 1932. In 1978, Johnson won the AIA Gold Medal for his architectural work. In addition to his most notable work, his private residence in New Canaan, Conn., The Glass House, Johnson also designed the Lipstick Building and the Seagram Suilding, both in New York City.
Oscar Niemeyer is a Brazilian architect specializing in modern architecture. He was instrumental in reshaping Brazil’s identity in popular culture and in the field of architecture. In addition to making important contributions to his country, he was also a pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete used solely for aesthetic impact. Some of Niemeyer’s most famous works include the Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janerio, Natal City Park, and the Ravello Auditorium.
Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown
Best known for his contributions to post-modern architecture, Robert Venturi, in collaboration with his wife Denise Scott Brown, has worked on a number of notable projects, including the Seattle Museum of Art and the Sainsbury addition to the National Gallery in London. Born in Philadelphia in 1925, Venturi attended Princeton University, graduating Summa Cum Laude in 1950. He studied under Eero Saarinen (another architect on our list). In addition to his architectural work, Venturi is also known for his theoretical work, including his 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, and has won the Pritzker Prize.
Buckminster Fuller (or “Bucky”) was a theorist, architect, engineer, inventor, and futurist. Fuller taught at Black Mountain Collage in North Carolina, where he reinvented his most notable contribution to architecture, the Geodesic Dome. This lattice shell structure has been used as parts of military radar stations, civic buildings, environmental protest camps, and exhibition attractions. Fuller also designed the Dymaxion House, an energy efficient and inexpensive house that was never produced. In 1970, Fuller won the AIA Gold Medal for architecture.
French architect Jean Nouvel attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. At 25, Novel started a firm with François Seigneur. In addition to his physical contributions to architecture, Nouvel also contributed to the intellectual advancement of the discipline, he co-founded Mars 1976 and the Syndicat de l’Architecture. He also organized the competition to rejuvenate the Les Halles district and founded the first Paris architecture biennale in 1980. In 2008, he received the Pritzker Prize for his work on over 200 projects, including Doha Office Tower in Qatar and the new 53 East 53rd in New York City.
Pritzker Prize and AIA Gold Medal-winning Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry is one of the most famous contemporary architects practicing today. The Simpson’s fans might recognize his name from various episodes—the creators seem to be big fans of his architect, and not without merit. Gehry is one of the few architects to be dubbed a “Starchitect.” Gehry opened his architectural firm in L.A. in 1962. The firm now employs 120 architects, including nine partners in addition to Gehry. Some of the architect’s most notable works include the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Louis Vuitton Foundation, and Biomuseo Panama.