of the Most Influential Modern Architects

It's easy to take the buildings around us for granted or get caught up in admiring only the natural beauty we encounter on our travels. But without these five architects and the legacies they left behind — not to mention the many awe-inspiring buildings they designed — our urban landscapes would be significantly less interesting. From the beginnings of modernism to the most recent avant-garde styles, look out for the works of these influential modern architects on your next trip.


Walter Gropius

Bauhaus Dessau with the famous BAUHAUS logo on a sunny day.
Credit: senorcampesino/ iStock

Walter Gropius was a German architect working in the first half of the 20th century. He founded the Bauhaus School, a movement that spanned art, architecture, and design. In his architecture, Gropius focused on function and employed simple geometric shapes, flat roofs, and glass to create buildings that merged indoor and outdoor space in a single form. Thanks to the widespread Bauhaus legacy, Gropius is considered one of the founding fathers of modernism.

One of the earliest examples of such modernism in the United States is the Gropius House on the outskirts of Boston. Gropius designed the building himself before living there with his family while teaching architecture at Harvard University. The building was revolutionary for combining Bauhaus principles of aesthetics and utilitarianism with existing New England materials and traditions, such as the clean white of colonial houses and classic clapboard that you'll see everywhere across the region.

To see another classic Gropius work, head to the city of Dessau in Germany, southwest of Berlin. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Bauhaus Building opened there in 1926 and still stands today as one of the most famous examples of the modernism movement.


I. M. Pei

Glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
Credit: Marina Vieira Branquinho/ Shutterstock

Born in China in 1917, I. M. Pei was one of the most well-known architects in the world until his death in 2019. After studying and beginning his career in the United States, he designed buildings and urban complexes around the world. Appropriately, Pei worked predominantly in the International Style, a modern movement noted for its use of steel, glass, and concrete that was heavily influenced by Gropius' Bauhaus principles.

Pei's most famous work is the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, which opened in 1989. The Louvre isn't the only museum to benefit from his architectural genius, however. Pei was also responsible for the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar; the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China; and the Miho Museum in Koka, Japan, among others.

Pei also designed a number of urban complexes, including the City Hall Plaza in downtown Boston, Denver's 16th Street Mall, and Raffles City in Singapore. With a broad and diverse list of works — including a few air traffic control towers — Pei left a legacy that spanned continents and influenced architects everywhere.


Frank Gehry

Exterior of Guggenheim Museum in Spain, designed by Frank Gehry.
Credit: Construction Photography/Avalon/ Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Postmodernism moved away from the simple, geometric lines of modern pioneers such as Gropius and I. M. Pei. One of the most prominent figures of the postmodern movement was Frank Gehry. Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1929, but working out of Los Angeles for the majority of his life, Gehry is responsible for some of the world's most striking buildings of the last 50 years.

Gehry's first major international work — and the first example of the intersecting curves that would become his unmistakable style — was the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, which opened in 1989. From there, his style became more pronounced and refined, eventually leading to the design of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, opened in 1997.

You don't have to travel to Europe to see one of Gehry's creations, though. Perhaps his most famous work is the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. It exemplifies his designs' use of sloping lines and unconventional materials, especially metals.


Zaha Hadid

Guangzhou Opera House against the water at sunset.
Credit: GuoZhongHua/ Shutterstock

The first woman to win architecture's prestigious Pritzker Prize, Zaha Hadid shared Gehry's elegant use of curves. She also brought in plenty of avant-garde ideas of her own to influence the field's direction in future years. Born in Iraq in 1950, she studied in London and eventually opened her own firm there in the 1980s.

After designing a number of smaller buildings in Europe — and several larger, more ambitious ones that were never built — she made history in 1997 as the first woman to design an art museum in the United States. The Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, combines a "jigsaw puzzle" of differently sized galleries to house the center's various collections. It is instantly recognizable for its enormous, zigzagging staircases that run the entire length of the museum's rear wall.

In the midst of continued success around the world, Hadid designed other renowned buildings including the Guangzhou Opera House, a stunning structure that was designed to look like two shimmery pebbles alongside the Pearl River. She also created the London Aquatics Center for the 2012 Summer Olympics, by which point she was already a household name for her numerous designs around the world.


Frank Lloyd Wright

Falling water above a 30-foot waterfall outside of the exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright's design.
Credit: Supercel7/ iStock

Frank Lloyd Wright is widely considered the most significant American architect of the 20th century. Although his personal legacy is complicated and marred by controversy, bad behavior, and harmful ideology, Wright's architectural influence was tremendous and far-reaching. He pioneered a variety of styles during his 70 years as an architect and introduced elements and ideas that would shape everything from suburban family homes to urban masterpieces.

Wright spent much of his childhood in the Midwest, an upbringing that influenced his "Prairie style" in works such as the Winslow House in Illinois. Beginning at the end of the 19th century, this style was revolutionary in residential design. It reflected the wide-open frontier spaces in which Wright lived and worked. The low, flat ceilings and simple lines of this style can also be seen in other residences Wright designed, including the famous Robie House in Chicago.

In one of his most famous works, Wright moved away from the simplicity of the prairie but kept his commitment to merging art and nature. Designed in 1935, the famed Fallingwater sits above a waterfall in Pennsylvania. Wright basically built the waterfall into the house, mirroring the pattern of the surrounding rock ledges with a series of structures that stacked above the falls. Though it was originally a private home, it is open today to the public as a museum.

Wright didn't only build domestic spaces, however. Perhaps his most well-known design is that of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, where he merged the simplicity of his earlier designs with a series of spiraling, concrete coils that can be seen as a precursor to later architects like Gehry and Hadid.


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