Light, air, and hygiene were not just aesthetic preoccupations of the early Modernists: They were the best treatment for tuberculosis at the time.

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, U.K. Completed in 1935, the dramatic pavilion of concrete, steel, and glass was a "sanatorium by the sea" for ordinary people to enjoy a few hours of rest and relaxation.
De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, U.K. Completed in 1935, the dramatic pavilion of concrete, steel, and glass was a "sanatorium by the sea" for ordinary people to enjoy a few hours of rest and relaxation. © Peter Thompson/Heritage Images/Getty Images - Its architects were Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff.

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Reuben Rainey, a professor emeritus of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, points to Le Corbusier. “Sure, he had a flat roof [on many buildings]—but he also had a view of the pastoral landscapes,” Rainey said. “The landscape as a healing element is very, very important to the Modernists themselves, the whole idea of bringing the outdoors indoors.”

Fifty-two years after Paimio opened, some of the first empirical research was conducted on the effects of nature on physical healing. The environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich looked at hospital patients who had a room with a view of a leafy green landscape. Published in Science in 1984, his study found that when all other aspects of their care were equal, the patients with a window that looked out onto trees had fewer surgical complications, healed faster, and required significantly less pain medication than those whose window faced a brick wall. Visit many newer hospitals today and you’ll see instances of integrating nature into the healing process, whether it’s an atrium full of natural light or patient rooms overlooking a green space.

The overlap between Modernism and sanatorium design is one reason for the movement’s association with sterility—the Modernist obsession with hygiene was real. But this overlap also complicates the notion that Modernism was coldly indifferent to human concerns. Modernists like Alto and the Eameses appealed to the senses and paid close attention to the dimensions and comfort of the human body. Those qualities inspire architects working today.

“One of the very common criticisms of modern architecture ... is that it’s usually presented and understood as being derived from a very mechanistic approach. As opposed to an architecture that’s much more derived [from human] anatomy itself and all of the interrelated systems that we have,” MacKeith said. “I think that over time, there has been a rather gradual transformation away from the strictly mechanical approach ... to one that is human-centered and much more organic, perhaps.”