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Modern architecture began partly as a reaction to the carnage of the Western Front and to the Spanish 'flu epidemic that swept mercilessly through Europe in the wake of the First World War. Modern architecture offered a clean, white and brave new world. It was a radical covenant between architect and society in which hygiene, sanitoria, sunbathing and swimming played key roles, where windows were big to let in healthy daylight, living accommodation was raised off the sullied ground on stripped classical pillars that Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, 1887-1965), the greatest of all Moderns, called "piloti", and in which all forms of decorative excess recalling the decadent culture that had led to the slaughter of the Somme, were put away.

Modern architecture was, thus, a kind of tabula rasa, a cultural Year Zero, a second Renaissance with Corb its Palladio and Mies (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1886-1969) its mystic master: "Less is more" said the Bauhaus architect as he built some of the century's most severe and enigmatically beautiful buildings.

Zealous iconoclasts took up the Modernist battle cry, "form follows function", a misreading of the famous dictum of Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), the Chicago architect musing, in Aristotelian manner, on the way in which the natural world adopts myriad particular forms to express its manifold functions. To many Modernists, functionalism meant machine culture, an ultimately soulless creed.

Evelyn Waugh was quick to satirise this new breed of designer in the character of Otto Friedrich Silenus in Decline and Fall (1928), picking up on Le Corbusier's famous and widely misinterpreted dictum, "the house is a machine for living in" (Vers une Architecture, 1923). Professor Silenus attracts the attention of the incurably fashionable Margot Beste-Chetwynde, owner of King's Thursday, the finest Tudor house in England, with the rejected design for a chewing-gum factory published in a progressive Hungarian quarterly. The Tudor house is replaced by the factory. "The problem of architecture as I see it," explains Silenus, "is the problem of all art - the elimination of the human element from consideration of form."

Up to a point Waugh was spot-on. When humourless zeal was combined with iconoclastic posturing (Le Corbusier dreamt of demolishing Paris north of the Seine, replacing it with a grid of geometric skyscrapers), humans were sentenced to live in concrete and steel termites' nests. Modern architects were widely influenced by abstract art, atonal music and the aeroplane; yet, in trying to break away from architecture's earthbound restraints, they were expecting too much of the majority of people who, unlike them, took comfort in the past, in decoration, brick, stone and old street patterns. Modern architecture was a crusade striking out high-mindedly for a new Jerusalem, but most people just wanted to stay at home.

In Europe, Modernism was a faith; in the United States it was simply a style. American architects were not burdened with the philosophical principles and sociological concerns of Le Corbusier and Professor Silenus. For them, Modern architecture, or "International Style", was all about glamour, elegant, open-plan buildings, refined materials, making a buck and having a ball.

Modern architecture arrived late in Britain, becoming the norm only after the Festival of Britain (1951). At first it was wholesome, but not much fun. Then it was taken up by developers and government agencies who liked it because, stripped to structural basics, Modern buildings were quick to build. The British confused Modern with cheap, while the most avant- garde Fifties' architects (too self-important to be kidding) labelled themselves "Brutalists" and designed wilfully ugly buildings at great expense.

The reaction to Modernism began with conservationists (John Betjeman wrote an essay on "The Death of Modernism" in a 1929 number of the Architectural Review), but was given focus among architects by Robert Venturi's (b 1925) polemic Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), in which the American architect declared "Less is a Bore", the rallying cry of Post-Modernism. Post-Modernism (anything goes, especially overblown classical details and unfunny visual "jokes") encouraged a rash of new "isms" (Deconstructivism, Minimalism) and "wasms" (Neo-Classicism, second time round), but has played itself out, while Modernism has mutated and progressed into new forms of architecture ranging from the lustrous Hi- Tech of Sir Norman Foster and Sir Richard Rogers to the sophisticated concrete sculpture of Japan's Tadao Ando. The Modern Movement may have died the death of a thousand cuts, but Modern architecture waltzes intriguingly into an unknown and endlessly fascinating future.

Tomorrow: Tragedy