Find modernist architecture chill and clinical? Your response is historically appropriate.

Talk to any dogmatic modernist architect – there are still plenty to be found – and you will quickly find the inner functionalist. Questions of style, of beauty, are brushed aside as irrelevant or tangential. Everything has to answer to a remorseless logic, carried through in every detail. We are led to believe that the end product – the finished building – is the best possible, indeed the only possible, outcome of a rigorously thorough design procedure.

This is arrant nonsense, of course, as evidenced by today’s multi-millionaire breed of random shape-generating “icon” architects. Function and form have less and less to do with each other. The clothes a building wears, and the posture it adopts, need have nothing to do with what happens inside. But clean-limbed, ornament-free modernism remains, after a century of development, as the dominant ideology in architecture. Why should this be?

Paul Overy’s excellent new book examines the roots of the movement and comes to some interesting conclusions as to why Modernism remains so very sure of itself. It is often taken as axiomatic, for instance, that somehow the brutal shock of the Great War with its industrial-scale killing capability stimulated the rise of what was still a fledgling movement in Europe. This is true to the extent that wars always accelerate the advance of technology – particularly the planes and ships beloved of such architects as Le Corbusier. It is also true that the example of new factory buildings, with their need for large, uninterrupted spaces, had much to do with influencing change in architecture. But Overy suggests that it has as much to do with late 19th century notions of healthcare. In particular, he believes, the cult of the sanatorium led directly to the new architecture.

In a Europe ravaged by industrial pollution and tuberculosis, with antibiotics yet to be discovered, the Victorian obsession with fresh air was taken to new heights. Sanatoria with large windows and open balconies were built in mountain resorts and forest retreats. Old ways of building did not lend themselves to this kind of healthcare. Doctors insisted on light and air, the dissolving of the barrier between indoor and outdoor. These new super-clinics could not be allowed to harbour germs and dust: they had to be efficient wipe-clean places. As early as 1907, the astonishingly modern-looking Queen Alexandra Sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, contained all the key ingredients: flat roofed, big-windowed, concrete-framed, balconied, white-painted, minimalist. Architects were Otto Pfleghard and Max Haefeli. Structural engineer was Robert Maillart, deploying the Hennebique reinforced-concrete system. Nor was this the first of its kind – a prototype, also in Davos, had existed as early as 1902, developed by Dr. Karl Turban and architect Jacques Gros. The key was the openable all-glass, south-facing wall. It quickly became apparent that conventional bricklayers and carpenters could not produce such a building. New techniques were duly borrowed from industrial and transport buildings.

Those architects itching for change saw their chance, and the language of modernism henceforth became the language of health. Previous styles were, by implication, unhealthy, primitive. A new healthy, transformative society could be generated by its buildings. The architect thus became society’s physician, and because much of the work that needed to be done concerned improving the living conditions of the working classes, modernist architecture took on a left-wing, social-engineering tinge as well.

Meanwhile the wealthy lived on – at least until the stock market crash of 1929 – in their princely sanatoria and spa hotels, which with their decks and terraces and strips of windows increasingly came to resemble the ocean liners that formed an integral part of their lifestyle. Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain is about just such an affluent, health-conscious society. Although Overy does not state it in these terms, this rich/poor dichotomy has followed Modernism ever since. The poor get given Modernism like medicine: the rich indulge in it as a lifestyle choice.

Overy is assiduous in tracing his health-related thread through Modernism’s golden age of the 1920s and 1930s. The number of one-off houses designed with rooftop gyms and open sleeping platforms is astonishing, international, and derives directly from those early sanatoria. Richard Döcker’s house at the 1927 “Weissenhofsiedlung” modernist model housing estate in Stuttgart had a roof terrace with gym complete with wallbars, for instance. Equally the famous “Lovell Health House” of 1927-1929 in Los Angeles by Richard Neutra was effectively a one-family san for a fashionable medic, and led to a string of other commissions. People really did buy into this design quackery.

Even the most evangelical of modernists today might be hard put to it to claim direct health benefits for the style – since style it rapidly became. Today, its appeal is one of aesthetic rather than actual cleanliness. But the language persists. A frequent criticism of the minimalist look, for instance, is that it is “clinical” or “antiseptic”, or affordable only by the wealthy. How very true. And suddenly, a century has rolled back, it is 1907 and we are in Davos on a rest-cure. Such an unlikely beginning for a revolution in design. It is a fascinating story, economically and elegantly told. Overy has produced an important alternative history of our towns and cities.

Text © Hugh Pearman. Review of “Light, Air and Openness: Modern Architecture between the Wars”, by Paul Overy, published by Thames & Hudson, hb, 256pp, £24.95/$50.00. Uncut version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, March 9 2007, as “Pure and Simple”.