The Modern Movement had many sources, and these have been debated, confirmed and denied many times over the last quarter of the century. At this distance what still seems to hold true is that, like the Arts and Crafts movement, Modernism was a moral force and a philosophical investigation as much as it was revolution in aesthetic sensibilities. Of course looks mattered - although you will find some real brutes here - yet one of the principal ideas deriving Modern architecture was that buildings should be first and foremost functional machines for performing various programmes: and if this makes them sound like washing machines - well, some of them are. Le Corbusier, the greatest of the Modernists, tired quickly of the word “functional”. He wished to create a form of architecture that was truly of the century, a celebration of the machine age and yet poetic. And here lay a struggle or contradiction within Modernism. On the one hand there were puritanical architects who revelled in the idea of a crisp, clinical, machine-like aesthetic that brooked no decoration and suffered no poetry. On the other, there were those who saw in Modern design a new form of lyrical expression. Among these were architects like Le Corbusier or Oscar Niemeyer who may has spouted all the right words about the creation of new forms of decent architecture for the masses and yet ended up designing one-off monuments as it they were the successors of Michelangelo and Borromini, rather than the social scientists architects were meant to be in the mid-twentieth century.
As the century progressed this contradiction and division in the ranks became increasingly clear. Even as the certainties of the Modem experiment were crumbling at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, there were those architects who thought systems, prefabrication and no concessions to appearances was the one true path and those who plunged deeper into the unfathomable wathers of formalism. If this makes Modernism sound like a religion that had begun to split into factions, then perhaps this is how it was. What began as a recognizable creed with a clear message of health, light, openness and honesty after the blood and mud of World War One became a diaspora of contradictory and even warring ideas after half a century of relentless experimentation. The difference between the concerns of Ludwig Mies van del Rohe and a local authority architect tolling on the design of a housing estate in London could hardly have been more different even though both would mouth many of the same formulas and Modernist mantras.
Yet, in whatever shape or form Modern architecture arrived, two things are clear. The first that Modernism was not simply a style: but more of an attitude, a determination to break with the past and free the architect the stifling rules of convention and etiquette. The second is that at the very same time architects were celebrating the Modern building’s machine-like qualities, so they began to lose out to armies of engineers and contractors; for if form must play second fiddle to function, who needs an architect? The wisest Modernists - Mies perhaps above all - knew that the architect could create and shape an aesthetic of minimal form aiming for a state of perfection that no one but an artist would be likely to find. Less in Mies van der Rohe's case was indeed more, yet for many architects, the Modern building meant less is less.