It is nearly a century since Le Corbusier published Vers une architecture, a battle cry for modernism that would variously inspire and enrage readers for years to come. And it is more than five decades since the collapse of the east London tower block Ronan Point that was widely believed to mark the end of the modern movement in Britain.
Modern architecture isn’t all that modern any more. At least two generations of architectural historians have grown up who didn’t experience the heady excitement of seeing these edifices of concrete and steel when they were new – or even nearly new. Yet if modern architecture now seems a little like ancient history, we are still far from clear what it was when it was a going concern. What was it that united the stripped-down, plate-glass purity of Mies van der Rohe and the monolithic concrete monumentalism of Louis Kahn? What, if anything, could be the meeting point between the mass-produced Soviet housing of the 1960s and the bespoke luxury of all those white-painted, tinted-glass homes in Beverly Hills?
Trying to make sense of this protean phenomenon, modernism’s staunchest supporters and its fiercest opponents alike have taken to words – lots of words. It’s telling that the pioneers of the modern movement wrote so much. In an influential article, the architectural historian Sarah Williams Goldhagen once argued that modernism