Contemporary Architecture You Must Know in 2021

Since we're about to break down contemporary architecture,
you’ve surely seen the crazy, fluid architecture of Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry and wondered: what do we call these types of non-conventional architecture? 

Are they considered contemporary or modern?

What do these terms even mean?

Contemporary Architecture Illustration
Contemporary Architecture - Frank Ghery

Photo Credit: Kimberly Reinhart

This guide will break down the basics for you. You’ll learn:

  • Definitions of contemporary architecture
  • Key traits of contemporary architecture today, adapted from preceding architectural concepts
  • Key examples of contemporary architects and architecture

What exactly does ‘Contemporary Architecture’ mean?

Contrary to popular belief, the term ‘contemporary architecture’ is not an architectural movement nor any particular school of thought.


The word ‘contemporaneous’ refers to something existing at or occurring in the same period of time

Thus this definition is context-dependent: you would have to factor in the cultural psyche, historical baggage, and technological developments or breakthroughs of the current times (often presumably the 21 st century).


With that being said about the multitude of things that may mean ‘contemporary architecture’, how do we then define contemporary architecture of today?

Despite the variety of architecture that we observe today, some common characteristics can still be distilled and understood as occurring contemporaneously, or being a result of the current time and context.


In a way, these forms of architecture reflect a certain ‘zeitgeist’, or spirit of the times, of the contemporary society they were born into.


Let’s dive deeper into the characteristics and trends of contemporary architecture.


What Came Before Contemporary Architecture

To understand architecture of our times, we have to examine our historical baggage: the architecture movements that preceded the 21 st century.


Contemporary Architecture

Photo Credit: GrandmasterE / CC BY-SA 3.0

Modernist architecture became dominant after World War II until the 1980s, with its core tenet of being completely truthful in adopting contemporary materials from the technological innovation of that time period, with a mantra that carries itself to today: ‘Form follows function’.


This mantra echoes a commitment to minimalism (‘less is more’) and the rejection of ornamentation became the predominant aesthetic value of the
Modernist architecture movement up to the 1960s.

Contemporary Architecture - Ghery

Photo Credit: Lucy Li / CC BY-SA 3.0

Postmodern architecture emerged in the 1960s as a reaction against the dreary functionalism of Modernist architecture, emphasising architecture’s ability to provoke imagination and capture the spirit of a building as
its value, rather than using materials soullessly to serve utilitarian needs.


Postmodern architecture is often credited with having a playful, light-hearted or even ironic attitude in deep contrast to its formal and rigid-
looking Modernist precedents.


A lot of what we see as contemporary architecture today evolved from these precepts of Modernist and Postmodernist architecture of the 20th century – with characteristics such as:

Steel, Glass, Concrete

Contemporary Architecture - Steel, Glass, Concrete

The initial post-war 20th century skyscraper boom was born out of new technologies of lightweight steel-frame tubular construction systems as well as the mass-production of materials during the industrialized age. 


The widespread use of structural steel gave way to the use of glass as the exterior façade in modern skyscrapers.


Today, the scramble to produce the tallest and sleekest skyscrapers remain an obsession, also as an economic  rationale to resolve human population density in today’s rapidly urbanizing world.

As globalization in the past decades has opened many countries up to the exchange of ideas, rapid industrialization and urbanization, skyscrapers have become an international symbol for signalling wealth, societal progress and technological advancement of a nation in the 21 st century.


Even the portrayal of utopian and futuristic cities in popular culture and media often include the depiction of impossibly sleek, curvy and tall skyscrapers – the allure of skyscraper technology catapulting humankind to greater heights has been embedded in in cultural and popular imagination.

Technological innovation and holistic integration of building systems has allowed sculptural and expressive forms of contemporary skyscrapers to become closer to these depictions of futuristic utopias.


Contemporary  skyscraper design stem from the past decade’s growing consciousness about practices, use of materials, embodied energy; with an apparent shift from Modernist rational precepts and towards performance-based design rationalised through advanced computational tools.

Shanghai Tower - Contemporary Architecture

Photo Credit: Ermell / CC0 1.0

Case in point: the Shanghai Tower is known for its elegant twisting profile that is not just for aesthetics but a building feature that helps in resisting wind loads better. 


The 632 m tall skyscraper, currently the second-tallest building in the world, utilizes advanced technology such as a double-glass façade that reduces carbon footprint while providing insulation.

Al Bahar Towers in Dubai have responsive façade to reduce the solar gain during hotter periods of the day, giving a fascinating dynamic feel to it, something that is only achievable through the computational power of
software that is harnessed in architecture today.


Photo Credit: Chensiyuan / CC BY-SA 4.0

The variety of skyscrapers shaping the future of our skylines will no doubt be in constant flux in the years to come as contemporary architects find new technological ways to maximise the functional comfort of occupants yet reproduce a playful Postmodernist ideal of giving a soul to mundane buildings.


Starchitects Empowered by Tourist Economy and CAD

Photo Credit: Erika Ede 

It is impossible to mention contemporary architecture without looking at the likes of ‘starchitects’ and the outstanding and ostentatious architecture that have catapulted cities to fame.


The Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry has been touted as a key example of using the celebrity status of an architect in boosting urban regenerative efforts; producing a landmark of significance for the city of Bilbao.


The amount of financial growth through tourism and cultural prestige experienced by the once-rundown city of Bilbao was so profound that it became known as the Bilbao effect.

Contemporary Architecture - Zaha Hadid

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The form of architecture characteristic of most ‘starchitecture’ is deconstructivism – when architecture is made to give the impression of fragmentation, unpredictability and even confusion; meant to break the
established visual rules of architecture.


These prestige commissions are usually large-scale concert halls, museums, airports, Olympic stadiums, such as Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center – buildings that are highly publicised, tourist-targeted, hence giving contemporary architects free reign to apply avant-garde and non-conventional design.

Photo Credit: Peter23  / CC BY-SA 3.0

Whilst deconstructivist and celebrity-centred ‘starchitecture’ has had its fair share of criticism about its lack of contextual awareness and extravagance, it pushes the boundaries of computational architecture in its own way


Beijing’s famous ‘bird nest’ National Stadium was only created through powerful computer software that could automatically test thousands of custom parameters such as environmental constraints and construction limitations that would otherwise be virtually impossible to manually calculate.


Hate it or love it, you can’t deny that the advancement of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) deserve credit for producing these jaw-dropping pieces of architecture – attesting to the powers of a profit-driven architectural economy.

Architecture for Humanity

Photo Credit: Yannick Wegner

No doubt a stark contrast to the high-capital design as seen from the examples above, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and architects have been using architecture to respond to global inequalities.


While the concept of NGOs dated back to the turn of the 20th century, the term has only been in broader use since post-war 1945. The creation of such organisations have allowed designers and architects to respond directly to emergency situations such as earthquakes or refugee crises, offering relief and dignity to the underprivileged and displaced communities worldwide.

As globalization accelerated, so did the public’s consciousness about refugee and disaster crises that plunged many underprivileged communities into further poverty and homelessness. 


Many of contemporary humanitarian architecture experimented with principles of being low-cost, zero carbon and zero waste.


Photo Credit: Brett Boardman

Common themes of contemporary humanitarian architecture have been about the rethinking of old ways of humanitarian aid: training the local population to be more disaster-prepared, up-cycling local low-cost
materials, facilitating the communities’ self-sufficiency in the long-run.


Humanitarian aid has become less about importing standard models of designs but more about studying local context and systems to ensure a
genuinely productive solution for the targeted community.


Contemporary Architecture - Shigeru Ban

Photo Credit: Stephen Goodenough

Shigeru Ban is a notable contemporary architect who has designed for multiple humanitarian and post-disaster architecture, such as low-cost emergency shelters constructed from paper, cardboard tubes and beer crates after the Kobe earthquake in 1995.

The design was meant to be easily constructed, dismantled and recycled.


This model was re-adapted for use in many post-disaster events subsequently in India, Turkey, Ecuador, Philippines. Since then, multiple architects have stepped up, such as Pakistani female architect Yasmeen Lari, who famously coined the term ‘barefoot architecture’ – alluding to the number of people who walk the earth without shoes.

Photo Credit: Hive Earth

Designing for global humanitarian aid has brought architecture back to its roots – as contemporary architects increasingly advocate for the use of natural raw materials including rammed earth, chalk, lime or gravel. 

The colors and textures of these materials are becoming more aestheticized in contemporary architecture because of the feelings of nature that they evoke – and they may be cheaper and more easily found in certain contexts.

Are We Greener Now?

Photo Credit: Alberto Cosi

Speaking of natural, raw materials brings us to the next point: eco-friendly architecture.


It’s no secret that the building and construction sector is a huge contributor to global carbon emissions, with some estimates citing up to 40% of global annual carbon dioxide.

But we can’t just stop building globally – hence contemporary architects are forced to be creative with energy use, producing a plethora of architecture that aims to be fundamentally net zero energy – whether in
consumption on-site or off-site.


It would be impossible to talk about contemporary architecture without looking at net-zero green buildings, self-sufficient housing and eco-villages.

Photo Credit: Wai Kay Photography

Within this category of contemporary architecture, we have the architects that fully utilize integrated building systems as well as the minimalist-type intervention that pays attention to local climate and natural conditions,
or as Pritzker Prize winner Glenn Murcutt puts it: ‘touching the earth lightly’.

Photo Credits: Sergio Razia

Concerns about the environment gained traction during the 1960s in the U.S., and today green practices have cemented itself within architectural discourse.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)

Green Building Rating System was developed in 1993 which sought to standardize the measurement of green buildings, and many other codes and policies seeking to incentivize environmental consciousness followed suit across the globe.

The establishment of such standard measurements of energy use in buildings also led to the innovation of building methods and designs – from operable green facades that can convert solar energy to usable energy, to creating biodegradable paint made from milk protein, lime and mineral pigments.

Architecture is also becoming more fused with interior systems such as smart appliances to ensure maximum energy efficiency.

Contemporary green architecture focuses on life cycle assessment of a building – integrating aspects of theurban environment such as rainwater harvesting and wastewater management systems into the building
design.

Building methods focus on harnessing solar energy or integrating local plant species as cooling strategies. Some are more context-driven and look at the use of recycled materials, such as re-using shipping
containers as part of the building façade as seen in Zurich’s flagship Freitag store.

Regardless, the possibilities of green architecture are still limitless for architects in our contemporary times and we can look forward to some pioneering green buildings in the years ahead.

Key Points

Contemporary architecture of the 21 st century come in various forms:

  • Skyscrapers that defy the limits through advancement in engineering and responding to the increase of population in dense, urban areas as well as serving as a symbol of 21 st century wealth and progress
  • Use of ‘starchitects’ as a high capital, tourist-targeted, urban regenerative strategy in cities that results in many forms of deconstructivist, eye-catching ‘algorithmic’ architecture
  • Growth of humble humanitarian types of architecture for refugees, displaced or underprivileged communities worldwide that focuses on using architecture to combat social inequalities and provide
    dignity
  • Eco-conscious architecture that comes in two types: high-tech integrated solutions using innovative contemporary materials or paying attention to local materials and the natural context

If you're wondering what are the latest architecture trends, make sure to check out our guide for 2021 as well.

About the Author

Dušan Cvetković is a professional architect from Serbia with international experience in the industry. Collaborated with numerous clients all around the world in the field of architecture design, 3D modeling and software education. He's been teaching Rhinoceros3D to thousands of architects through How to Rhino community and various social media channels.