ABOVE: Homes in the contemporary style are usually strongly geometric, bold and tend to work best on spectacular, large sites. Windows are distinctly non-standard, with large expanses of glass essential to the look.
What are the key characteristics?
Contemporary homes are defined by their largely geometric form — cubes play a big part in the design philosophy. As a result, rooflines are non-existent, with flat roofs the norm. Windows are frameless (or of minimal frame), usually large and positioned seemingly at random in the elevation. One of the key characteristics is transparency — hence the importance of large glass walls. There is little attempt at symmetry.
Cladding is usually either white render, cedar (horizontal, not the more Scandinavian vertical, and abutting rather than featheredged) or occasionally brick (laid geometrically).
Internally, it’s all about open plan, minimalism and functionality, with nothing such as curtains or fabrics to take away from the clean, simple lines.
Why is it so popular?
Design styles are so often a reaction against the dominant trend that went before, and contemporary architecture is no exception. The simple forms, the large windows, the ‘structure on show’, the more manufactured look — all a reaction against the handcrafted feel of Arts & Crafts and late Victorian homes. There is also a strong reaction against the mass-manufacture of the 1930s housebuilding boom, and a desire to be bold, striking and inventive in architectural form. There is, in general, little attempt to fit in with nature, yet, conversely, an attempt to get the house to in some way welcome in the outside. The contemporary homes we see today certainly have a more international flavour – they really could be built anywhere in the world – which reflects the globalisation of styles and business that occurred in the second half of the 20th century and continues today. Many of the contemporary homes in Britain, for example, mix European, Californian and Modernist themes.
Contemporary design has enjoyed a huge rise in popularity in recent years because, for a start, it enables self-builders and renovators to make a statement of individuality — this being an era that puts greater value on design than its predecessors. It’s also hugely popular because its key characteristics echo the dream homes we see around the world, and portray a lifestyle — of outdoor living, luxury bedroom and bathroom suites, informal entertaining and the more abstract ideas of light, simplicity and openness.
ABOVE: This extraordinary new eco home juxtaposes soft curves with sharp angles to dramatic effect.
How to get it right
Be prepared to invest in glass: Contemporary design is not the sort of thing that can be approached in a halfhearted way and frameless glazing is critical to its overall success. One way around the issue of potential overheating in the summer, owing to the large expanses of glass, is to introduce a bris soleil – a sun shade – which have in their own right become motifs of contemporary homes in recent years.
Get the details right: The design of a contemporary home is much more complicated than it looks — not least because it flies so much in the face of assumptions about how houses should be designed. Take guttering and drainpipes, for example. They need to be hidden in the final design, not on show. Think carefully, too, about the front entrance — one of the unheralded motifs of contemporary style is the lack of a showy entrance, instead almost hiding it in the overall elevation.
Interiors are critical: A statement staircase – perhaps with glass balustrading or even glass treads – is a good start. The key to being able to live successfully with open plan design is lots of storage, so plan this into your floorplan from the start. Good lighting is also critical.
‘Contemporary’ style is the term we give to homes that look to the future. The irony is that as a style, it has its feet quite firmly in the past — in the Modernist movement that came to prominence in the period 1920-1950. Contemporary is a style that is constantly evolving and without a historical perspective; it’s impossible to say with any certainty whether we are still in some way in the Modernist era or are forming a bold new architectural future.