For all its newness, Le Corbusier's soon-to-becompleted church at Firminy (see pages 27-39) is showing signs of age. Its claim to being 'modern' is rendered a little shaky by the fact that it is reaching completion 40 years later than planned.
The liturgical and cultural preferences it sought to reflect have long since moved on; the priest's living accommodation in its undercroft is no longer required. The structural expression speaks more about the technological possibilities of a bygone age than of a brave new world.
What remains, however, is the ability of the most successful Modernist buildings to play the role of devil's advocate. Modernism has been at its most potent and effective when it has been on the sidelines of architectural discourse, and at its most lacklustre or destructive when it has become the norm. Such changes in fortune are routinely ascribed to the degree of quality and care associated with its execution. As the preserve of a pioneering minority, it enjoyed the careful ministrations of a committed and skilled elite.
As the default position of second-rate architects, planners and politicians, it fell into hands that were under-resourced, uncaring and inept. But there is a second issue. The underlying ethos behind Modernism was the reaction against conservatism; the reappraisal of society and the redefinition of built form. Those who advocated the universal application of its stylistic and formal qualities undermined the spirit of experiment and enquiry from which it gained its strength.
Paradoxically, Modernism's fall from grace has reinstated its status as a stroppy outsider, sniping against the twin ills of conservatism and complacency. Where the orthogonal rigour of Le Corbusier's early work made a mockery of the idiosyncrasies of traditional architecture, the thoughtfulness and gravitas of his more expressive later work can be read as a built reproach to a culture which prizes the meaningless iconic gesture as an end in itself.