Modern architects also challenged established doctrine about the types of buildings suitable for architectural design. Important civic buildings, country houses, churches, and public institutions had long provided the principal work of architectural practices. But the Modernists felt that architects should plan all that was necessary for society - even the most basic buildings. They began to design low-cost housing, railway stations, factories, warehouses, and other commercial spaces. In the first half of the 20th century many Modernists produced housing as well as furniture, textiles, and wallpaper to create a totally designed domestic environment.
Le Corbusier stated that the requirements for a house should be to provide a shelter against heat, cold, rain, thieves and the inquisitive; a receptacle for light and sun and a certain number of cells appropriated to cooking, work, and personal life. He recommended that the houses of the future be ascetic and clean, disciplined and frugal. ‘What [modern man] wants is a monk’s cell, well lit and heated, with a corner from which he can look at the stars,’ Le Corbusier wrote.
Modernism tried to answer a question about beauty in architecture. To the Modernist the point of a house was not to be beautiful but to function well. Yet here lay a paradox. Few are likely to respect a building that does no more than provide shelter. As John Ruskin said “We want them to shelter us, and we want them to speak to us – to speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of”.
In reality, the architects of the Modernist movement, just like their predecessors, wanted their houses to speak. But the modernists wanted their houses to speak of the future not of the past.
We ask of almost any building not only that it fulfils a function, but also that it looks a certain way, lifts our spirits and that it contributes to our culture. It should excite and inspire.
If function to the Modernists was the ideal then technology gave voice to that ideal. Modern techniques and new synthetic materials – steel, reinforced concrete and glass – made the need for dense masonry redundant. The far-reaching effect was economies in bulk, space, weight and transport. The rigidity of these modern materials made it possible to construct wide-spanned structures that altered our age-old relationship with internal spaces. We learned to live with fewer load-bearing walls and we learned to love light let in, as glass assumed a greater structural importance. Modernism was an architectural revolution that still resounds with us today. Indeed, as materials continue to develop so does the Modernist ideal.