Modernism just won’t die. Having first shown its face at the turn of the 20th century, it’s no longer modern at all – even its most popular strand, mid-century modern, is positively geriatric. The satisfying simplicity of modern design has an appeal of its own, but in the age of dating apps and cryptocurrencies, nostalgia can come on thick and fast, bringing with it a yearning for all things lo-fi and uncluttered. With the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) having recently announced the 2021 winners of their National Award, we turn our attention to four destinations that could all take home trophies for their modern architecture. And it’s not all mid-century, either: whether you’re partial to monolithic brutalism or sculpture-like futurism, these destinations have it all.
Established in 1909 on the sand dunes just outside of Jaffa, Tel Aviv was fated to become a Modernist’s playground. As the ideas behind the Bauhaus were being hatched in post-World War I Germany, the fledgling Middle-eastern city was spreading her wings, creating demand for buildings that could be put up in a hurry. Then the 1930s arrived, the Nazis took power and the Bauhaus was forced to close. Jewish Germans began emigrating, among them many disciples of the new design movement. Shunned by their government at home, the modernists that arrived in Tel Aviv found they were in hot demand. Bauhaus-style buildings shot up in all directions, with the ‘White City’ quickly becoming a jewel in the movement’s crown. Today, the Unesco-protected site is home to around 4,000 Bauhaus buildings – more than any other city in the world.
Where to stay The Norman is spread across two lovingly-restored 1920s Bauhaus buildings in the White City. Inside, things are no less pleasing for beady-eyed design devotees, as every stick of furniture – whether it’s Jazz Age, mid-century modern or something else entirely – has been picked with the utmost care. Throw in a fragrant citrus garden, a 1940s-style bar and a rooftop infinity pool, and you’ve got a hotel fit for the most demanding aesthete.
In May 1945, Berlin was the ghostly husk of a city – in some areas, you’d have been hard pushed to find a building that still had four walls. When the rubble was cleared away, the city was full of open spaces, presenting an opportunity for new kinds of building. The reconstruction project was so immense that it lasted into the 1980s, cycling through architectural styles as they emerged onto the scene. The result is a city of contrasts, in which traces of the old, decadent capital face off with bold and futuristic designs. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Breitscheidplatz, where the scarred remains of the 19th-century Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church – nicknamed ‘the hollow tooth’ – stand next to their successor, a Brutalist twin built in the 1960s. All over the city, buildings play out this drama of demarcation, drawing lines between Berlin (and Germany) old and new. Some of the more outlandish creations include the Star Wars-esque Bierpinsel, the lean church of St. Agnes and East Berlin’s iconic Fernsehturm.
Where to stay SO Berlin Das Stue is a hotel with two faces. Half the building is neoclassical, built in the 1930s to house the Royal Danish Embassy; the other part is much more modern, completed by Potsdam-based architects Axthelm & Rolvien in 2011. The interiors, by Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola, feature plenty of modernist-inspired furnishings, including many of her own designs. Most rooms have windows overlooking the zoo or surrounding Tiergarten park, which inspired many of the animal-themed artworks on display.
Many champions of mid-century modernism will tell you that the style is best served on the rocks of the Coachella Valley. Yes, we’re talking about the cocktail-swilling community of Palm Springs, California, often referred to as a ‘modernist paradise’. Northwest of LA, the resort city is home to some of the most celebrated mid-century modern buildings in the world, many of them commissioned by individuals with lives that shimmered with money and glamour – Hollywood moguls, film stars and industry tycoons. Stylistically, the houses are often low-slung, crouched amid rocky scrub and desert palms. The genius of many of them is that they manage to be so distinct – with jutting angles like nothing in nature – yet fit quite naturally with the starkly beautiful landscape.
Where to stay Built in 1952 for actor Don Castle, Sparrows Lodge ticks two important boxes – it’s got genuine mid-century heritage and a Hollywood connection, both of which carry a lot weight around here. Exposed beams, wood panelling and stone fireplaces gives the hotel a lodge-like feel, and there’s a fire pit to make the most of the starry nights (the s’mores are on the house). It’s in the centre of Palm Springs but manages to maintain a blissfully laid-back atmosphere – it’s adults-only and there are no phones or TVs in the rooms.
Antoni Gaudí’s shadow falls thick and far across Barcelona – and what a shapely shadow it is, too. But for all their brilliance, Gaudi’s buildings are really only part of what makes the city so enticing for fans of modernism. Take Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s so-called Barcelona Pavilion, Germany’s entry for the 1929 International Exposition. The pioneering structure of polished onyx, squarely-cut marble and floor-to-ceiling glass looks modern even by today’s standards, so you can imagine the reaction when it was unveiled 88 years ago. Since then, Barcelona has played host to a growing list of avant garde creations: highlights include Jean Nouvel’s catkin-like Torre Agbar, the Design Museum of Barcelona and Frank Gehry’s fish-shaped folly.
Where to stay Crowned by a rooftop bar overlooking Gaudí’s Casa Milà, Sir Victor is an ode to the creativity of the Catalan capital. This is evident before you even get inside: the front of the building has an ingenious design with sections that peel back like pages in a book, allowing light to stream into the rooms without exposing them to passers-by. Architecture studio Baranowitz + Kronenberg and Sir Hotel’s own design team collaborated on the interiors, which nod towards Barcelona’s natural surroundings. Furniture upholstered in oceanic blue references the nearby sea, while slate greys, pale oak and broody walnut hint at the landscapes of Mount Sant Llorenç Natural Park.
Admire more architectural wonders in our full collection of city stays…