Sunlight streams through a seaside house's ample glass panels.

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By Paul Parcellin, Staff Writer

When it comes to modern architecture, few are neutral on the topic, and both supporters and detractors can be vocal in expressing their opinions. "Cold," "austere" and "impersonal" might be some of the adjectives detractors choose to describe it, while words such as "energizing," "light-filled" and "inspired" may roll off the tongues of modern architecture enthusiasts.

So what is it that incites such emotional responses, both pro and con, to something like a Bauhaus-style ultramodern dwelling? Perhaps it's that whenever we see a house, we can't help but mentally place ourselves inside and imagine what it's like to live there. Depending on your point of view, life in a Modernist mansion may be paradise or purgatory.

We tend to think of all things modern as that of the current day, with architecture being an exception. The "ultramodern" home is not necessarily contemporary – the Modernist architectural style, with its revolutionary use of steel-supported glass structures, severe angles, undulating curves and ubiquitous portals that take full advantage of natural light, was developed at the turn of the 20th century. But it was in the 1920s that "Modernism," as it became known, began to flourish. The big three Modernist architects of that period were Le Corbusier in France, and Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Germany. Each produced architectural masterpieces that to this day stand tall among their peers.

On Film

Modernist architecture often gets a bad rap in popular culture. In the movies, it's the scoundrel who lives in the ultra-modern mansion that sits atop a high mountain perch. James Mason as Phillip Vandamm has his Mount Rushmore lair in "North by Northwest," Pierce Patchett occupies a Hollywood Hills icy white palace in "L.A. Confidential" and many Bond villains inhabit Modernist cathedrals, often in remote and daunting locations.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water.

For the record, the Vandamm house is not a real house but a Frank Lloyd Wright look-alike built on a Culver City, Calif., movie lot. Pierce Patchett's mansion is actually the Lovell House, an International style modernist residence in Los Angeles designed and built by Richard Neutra between 1927 and 1929. One Bond villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld in "Diamonds are Forever," lived in a mansion with a massive concrete domed roof, which is actually the Elrod House in Palm Springs, Calif., designed by Lloyd Wright's apprentice, John Lautner. Some have noted that movie bad guys frequently luxuriate in Lautner designed homes. See Lautner homes that have appeared in movies, below.

John Lautner on Film from curbed los angeles on Vimeo.

The Croft House

Although Hollywood portrays the Modernist home as sterile headquarters for scheming wrongdoers, most Modernist homes are hardly that. In fact, the majority seem to be at one with the natural environment in which they are set. From a distance it looks like a cross between an extraterrestrial spacecraft and an elongated mushroom, but the Croft House is one of southern Australia's modern architectural highlights, with its organic shape and splendid views of the ocean. Sydney-based architect James Stockwell built the house, and heeded the owners' request that it have full view and shelter from the coastal vistas in all directions. the Croft House

The Croft was created to blend with the natural environment. In fact, Stockwell says he wondered what rain, sun and wind would generate if those elements could produce a building, and he designed the dwelling space by the sea with that idea in mind.

The home is partly sheltered by the land – it protects and insulates the building from the elements and moderates indoor temperatures. Also added was a layer of insulation with "compressed sand thermal mass walls" and a tree line to block the wind. Stockwell strived to convey a sense of local craftsmanship, and concentrated on using locally available materials, including Victorian ash timber and bluestone.


Set in Hollywood Hills, Open-house offers the ideal vantage point to look out at the lights of the city at night. Steel beams, cantilevers and varying elevations define the home's angular construction. Its indoor and outdoor living spaces allow residents of this elevated abode to connect with the natural landscape around then and enjoy breathtaking views of the city.

Completed in 2007, the 4,500-square-foot two-story minimalist home sits on severely angled hillside property that presented challenges to builders. The property's sharp slope and the home's open architecture, however, allowed designers to better integrate the building into its surroundings and to place gardens on two levels.

Retaining walls were installed to extend the first floor living space into the hillside, and terraced gardens were placed on each level. In all, the home's structure is more complex and detailed than you might guess at first glance. The open living space is punctuated by a grand fireplace and numerous minimalist details. Front, side and rear walls of the house slide open to erase all boundaries between indoors and out and connect the spaces to gardens and terraces.

Overall, glass is the prevailing material, and it allows extensive views of the city as well as garden flora and other natural attributes of the location. Glass in the form of fixed clear panels, mirror plate walls and sandblasted mirror panels lend lightness to the interior spaces.

A spacious living room looks out onto a tree-lined street.

The Runway House

You might be surprised to learn that the fashion industry's launching pad for its most glamorous creations, the fashion show runway, served as inspiration for modern home design. The Runway House by Ultraspace is a single-family dwelling that is at home in Los Angeles, the city that's linked with all things stylish. The property's most stunning feature is its long, narrow swimming pool that runs the length of the house and was inspired by fashion runways.

Platforms situated toward one end of the pool serve as a bench for swimmers to stop, rest and perhaps contemplate the view. The view consists of the natural beauty that's all around as well as the striking white and stone exterior of the house itself, which features a sliding roof that can extend over the length of the pool that protects swimmers from the sun's harsh rays.

A Private House

Asymmetry rules the day at A Private House, a residence in Psychiko, Greece, a suburb of Athens, built by Divercity Architects. But that's not to say that the stark white construction that contrasts flowing curves with sharp angular lines feels out of balance in any respect.

Divided into three major zones which are the stone core, the boomerang-shaped upper floor and the living area in between. It is said that the stone core was influenced by Acropolis rock. The building itself is largely white, with an interior that shows flourishes of stone and wood, and a copious number of windows let in generous amounts of natural light.

The marble garage is in fact a gallery for a vintage car collection as well as for contemporary art by such notable art world figure as Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy and Vanessa Beecroft.

Post Script

"Modernist" turns out to be a broad category when it comes to architecture. The swimming pool is not just a Runway House recreational zone, but an architectural feature around which the home is designed.

In typical Southern Californian style, Open-house seeks to erase lines between exterior and interior.

On the southern Australian coast, the Croft House has fewer hard lines than the Los Angeles homes, and seems at one with the ocean, as if it was a sand dollar washed ashore and burrowing up through the briny mud.

In Greece, A Private House's interior brings a feeling of tranquility and distance from bustling Athens, which is within gazing distance of the home. Its asymmetrical exterior, however, mirrors the nervous excitement of the city. It's a welcoming refuge that makes a bold visual statement – characteristics that all four share.