How Architecture Lost its Way in the Modern World

Oberto Oberti
May 24, 2020
Architecture and its cumulative result – our built environment – affects every aspect of our daily lives. Yet most of us rarely talk about it. And despite ultimately paying for it all, the ordinary person has almost no input into the process or the outcome. Some believe the discipline veered horribly off-track in the last century. Informed by over 50 years of professional experience, Vancouver-based architect Oberto Oberti weaves professional insights, aesthetic judgment, philosophy and memory into an impassioned plea for the restoration of timeless aesthetic values and the individual’s needs to the centre of 21st century architecture.

How Architecture Lost its Way in the Modern World

Oberto Oberti
May 24, 2020
Architecture and its cumulative result – our built environment – affects every aspect of our daily lives. Yet most of us rarely talk about it. And despite ultimately paying for it all, the ordinary person has almost no input into the process or the outcome. Some believe the discipline veered horribly off-track in the last century. Informed by over 50 years of professional experience, Vancouver-based architect Oberto Oberti weaves professional insights, aesthetic judgment, philosophy and memory into an impassioned plea for the restoration of timeless aesthetic values and the individual’s needs to the centre of 21st century architecture.
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Driving around my beloved Vancouver, stopping at various vantage points to take in the cityscape, I see a mix of architectural styles. There’s the new Telus Garden Centre, a “techtropolis” featuring oddly proportioned protrusions attached to an over-massive block, an unbalanced form perhaps forgiven by its better street-level public spaces. Not far away is the B.C. Hydro building, topped by bulky V-shaped coloured portions, aesthetic disconnects. There’s also the slender, Modernist B.C. Electric Building on Burrard Street, built in 1957, or the Daon Building at the corner of Burrard and West Hastings, built in 1986, both showing a proportionate elegance. There is the lovely old Canadian Pacific Station, at the end of Granville Street. And of course, the iconic Lion’s Gate Bridge, proudly conveying its simple message of structural competence and balance through its delivery of a credible and visible function.

Picture of dull reality that is Vancouver's modern architecture
Enjoying the view: Vancouver’s multiplicity of styles and inspirations. (l-r) Telus Garden Centre, B.C. Hydro building and modernist B.C. Electric Building.

From a distance, the impression is that one is beholding among the world’s loveliest cities. But how much of this is thanks to the buildings themselves? How much is due to the spectacular natural setting? Part of the professional architect in me – a big part – worries that Vancouver’s scenic splendour is standing in for a mediocre or even disturbing 21st century architectural jumble. I wonder if I’m being too harsh towards our built environment, but then I see ample evidence, in Vancouver and in cities across Canada and around the world, that I’m not. A balanced view suggests we live in a world that has achieved structures of stunning beauty, greater successes and wider prosperity than any previous civilization, but that we also have problems and dangers.

These reflections were prompted in part by the controversy over the Trump Administration’s surprise announcement that it may soon mandate that a traditional “classical architectural style” be used for new U.S. federal buildings rather than the currently popular “Brutalist” or “Deconstructivist” styles. The proposed Executive Order was quickly subsumed in the Covid-19 pandemic. But it briefly highlighted a debate that has never died since the Industrial and political revolutions of the 1800s ended the Romantic period of Western art, architecture and design. The Romantics cultivated dreams of an ideal past and a desire to recreate physical environments of past periods and cultures. That impulse appeared to have been placed in the cultural graveyard by the Modernists, including the Bauhaus school, Le Corbusier and many others. But the nostalgia for an ideal past never dies completely.

Picture of Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.
Picture ofthe Brutalist Hubert H. Humphrey Building, located in Washington, D.C.
The Trump administration has proposed replacing the current Brutalist style for federal buildings with a more enduring classical style. (Above, the classically-inspired Lincoln Memorial; below, the Brutalist Hubert H. Humphrey Building. Both located in Washington, D.C.)

In North America, the Revival period starting in the 1800s was particularly successful as it coincided with the ideals of nation-building and the inspiration of the Roman Republic, Greek democracy and Classical architecture. The Neoclassical trend was a strong element of Revivalism and defined edifices across the continent, from the U.S. Capitol to thousands of courthouses, schools, government buildings and legislatures in both countries, and upscale commercial buildings like banks. Stylistic elements such as Graeco-Roman columns on front porches graced homes of prosperous families even in larger towns. In Canada, the British tradition was another major influence, favouring a neo-Gothic style, and one of the finest Canadian examples of Revival architecture is in Ottawa: the Parliament Buildings.

A timeless revival: The West Block is one of three neo-Gothic revivalist buildings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa which together form the Parliament Buildings.

The struggle between the nostalgia of an idealized past and contemporary events is very human. Even as a child when I grew up in post-Second-World-War Milan, I could feel the wonder of buildings like the Gothic Duomo or the stunning Galleria of the mid-1800s, and at the same time the marvel of modern buildings such as the Pirelli Building. Modernism and its offshoots, like Brutalism, carried the field and dominate today. Virtually all major Canadian architecture of the past half-century has been in this vein, with the latest variant delivering condominium high-rises with drunkenly waved exterior walls and jumbled window placement, childish polygons of bright colours accentuating the anti-intellectual message and feeling of chaos. Vancouver is no exception. 

One can sympathize with the reaction to ugly Brutalism and the uncomfortable banality of many contemporary buildings, including some American federal buildings. The yearning for a new Revivalism is understandable, but few Revivalist attempts are successful today. The cultural context is missing. Revivalism fell prey to capricious expressions of wealth, nowhere more so than in the newer palatial single-family homes. Many of these mixed design elements with abandon and ended up looking in bad taste and even grotesque. The failures of Revivalism supported the case for elegant contemporary buildings, in particular the office high-rises that came into vogue in the first half of the 1900s in Chicago and New York, and that appeared also in my hometown of Milan and in all the major Canadian cities after the 1950s.

Look on in wonder: Milan’s stunning Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is both a functional shopping mall and a major work of art.

Yet “modern” architecture too is often the result of little study and poor imitations. Urban environments are growing full of depressing, illogical, incoherent or grotesque modern buildings. An early Canadian example was the Mississauga Civic Centre that resulted from a major competition entered by more than 200 architects (including me). The winning design is an example of postmodernism that along with numerous plaudits has received some scathing public reviews. It is becoming apparent that there is a degeneration of taste and that the features that had made earlier modern buildings elegant in their simplicity are being defaced on purpose, as if harmony, proportions and form didn’t matter to the public.

It is difficult but necessary to consider what is “good design”. Good design must be true to real function and message, but it is rare because it derives not only from the culture of the designers but also from that of the clients. Integrity in design is frequently lacking and this is instinctively perceived by the public, regardless of fashion. Hockey icon Don Cherry may have been blunt and unsophisticated in his declaration that Mississauga’s Civic Centre reminded him of his hometown of Kingston, Ontario, because it looks more like a penitentiary than a city hall, but he likely reflected the public’s widespread if usually unstated intuition.

Picture of Don Cherry who expressed his opinion against the modern architecture of the Mississauga Civic Centre
Picture of modern architecture inspired Mississauga Civic Centre
A Rock’em Sock’em architectural critique: Hockey’s Don Cherry (above) expressed popular opinion when he declared that the Mississauga Civic Centre (below) looked more like a penitentiary than a hockey rink.

Initially the message of modern architecture was the break with the past, with an objective of pure function based on technical innovation. There was also a dream of purity of form that counterbalanced the lack of ornament. Many modern buildings, however, showed a greater preoccupation with a revolutionary image or message than with function and form, and seemed to forget the human factor. By “revolutionary” I don’t just mean unusual, innovative or culturally “cool”, but a deliberate rejection of tradition and everything that has come before in the service of transforming society. It is something like a denial of ancestry, of the fundamental harmony that comes from natural historical progress, a throwing of dishes around the kitchen of humankind.  

The central objective of such architecture becomes political rather than architectural, aesthetic or even functional. Sadly, architecture too can be suborned to political ends. How else can one describe forcing thousands of poorer people from their familiar if imperfect neighbourhoods into giant, uniform concrete boxes, thereby erasing their individuality, as was done in the now-notorious “projects” in the U.S. or the banlieus in Paris? And these dehumanizing examples are on a small scale relative to the thousands of such projects that totalitarian systems delivered, from Moscow to Prague and to all the newly risen Chinese metropolises.

People need an environment that talks to them and inspires them. Modern architecture has become deliberately ugly because it often falls for what is contrived and absurd, intended to shock and to work against nature rather than with nature. Buildings that appear to defy the very rules of statics – physical laws rather than mere issues of taste – making them appear uncomfortable and structurally unsound, are common today. Part of the fashion is that of creating harsh impressions, visual discomfort and the feeling of static imbalance. They are applauded by some critics for these very characteristics. 

A particular example of the absurd in architecture is the Marina Bay Sands casino and hotel in Singapore, by renowned architect Moshe Safdie. A huge cantilevered platform reminiscent of a ship connects the tops of three 55-storey towers, their design inspired by a deck of cards according to the architect. The “ship” may pay symbolic tribute to Singapore’s maritime history, but one may think also of something like Noah’s Ark landing atop the metropolis after an Industrial Age deluge.

Picture of banlieues of Paris, an unfortunate casualty of modern architecture
Picture of the Marina Bay Sands Casino and Hotel. A so-called marvel of modern architecture.
From depressing to absurd: Examples of modernism range from political statements such as the dehumanizing banlieues of Paris (above) to the contrived flight of fancies found atop Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands casino and hotel.

Inevitably after the Modernist architectural revolution, the current discussion regarding architecture is revolving around the message rather than style and about what is a “good” message. Conceptually, this is not a bad thing because great art is really a matter of message rather than of artistic school or style.

I am still influenced by my mixed feelings and reactions to architecture and to the urban environment that I had as a child. I loved the Medieval buildings, the Revivalist buildings and the Modernist buildings, like the Torre Velasca, for what they were telling me. In the modern buildings I liked the use of materials, especially polished marble and glass, and the elegant simplicity, while in the older buildings I liked the artistic workmanship and especially the inspiring interiors, and the sense that many people had worked on them and been inspired by them. I was influenced by the older generation’s consensus that the old architecture showed superior art and workmanship but had become impossibly costly to produce.

Picture of architect, sketch of the Duomo, and the modern world's Velasca
A portrait of the architect as a young man; In his youth, the author (left) was influenced by Italy’s many wonders of fine architecture, including the Gothic Duomo (centre) and the modern Torre Velasca (right, in background.)

Modernism initially seemed to have a valid purpose even if it had a crude aesthetic message. There was a universal appeal to the simple tallness and slender elegance. The Royal Bank and other towers in Toronto became soaring symbols of prestige. Their clean lines formed monuments for their cities, performing a symbolic function not unlike that of the Tour Eiffel for Paris. In Vancouver, the MacMillan Bloedel building showed that whether in concrete or glass you could achieve a degree of grace. 

When I grew serious about architecture as my future profession, I was determined to hold onto what I saw as eternal values and truths, including those of mathematics and geometry. I studied first in Milan and in Turin, completing my degrees at UBC in Vancouver with a Bachelor of Architecture in 1969, and a Master of Architecture and Urban Design in 1974. I became a registered architect the same year, and when I started to become responsible for design soon after, I pondered the future in light of what I had learned both at school and from the past. 

I thought for a long time about what is a “good” message and tried to convey it, in a very challenging world of clients, of planners, of competitors, of colleagues and of approving authorities. I discovered that a good design does not involve just a building but the context of the building in the urban fabric, and that the urban fabric too is an important part of the message. The way a building and its functions interact with the street (as opposed to a country road or a highway) and with other functions and buildings is critical for the fabric of the city and its people, as well as for aesthetics.

The slender elegance and clean lines of early modern architecture draws attention to the symbolism of function; (l-r) Paris’ Eiffel Tower and Toronto’s Royal Bank building.

In Vancouver, as in most North American cities, not only Modernist architecture but the modern pattern of urban development dominates. Especially in the western half of our continent, nearly anything built before the 1950s is considered “old” and falling into the “heritage” category. We are grateful for heritage preservation not just because of the romance of older buildings, but because the modern pattern is the most problematic aspect of contemporary architecture and the urban environment. I would say it goes so far as to affect the modern person’s psyche.

In Europe’s older cities, by contrast, we find Medieval, Renaissance, Romantic and modern patterns of urban development coexisting. The Medieval pattern evolved from the fortified walled city with an irregular but usually oblong shape encompassing a densely built-up area of narrow streets, with the cathedral initially and later the government building in the middle. The city’s most important buildings had a yard, sometimes even a landscaped court, accessed through an archway. When Medieval cities expanded beyond their walls, especially in the Romantic period, streets became wider but most buildings maintained the earlier form. Over time, nearly all city walls were torn down.

Later still, the Romantic period saw construction of innumerable Revivalist, often Neoclassical buildings. They were primarily facades of residential buildings, but everything from universities and institutes to museums and libraries and even military barracks lined up along the streets and the tree-lined boulevards. Streets were never pure roads or highways; even the boulevards were designed to combine street life on the sides with vehicular traffic in the middle.

Picture of the clash of architectural styles in Paris' modern world
Aerial shot of Paris streets showing the mix of architectural styles in the modern world.
Like many European cities, Paris offers a mix of many different architectural styles, but retains a central focus on street life and human needs.

In North America, the urban fabric is much more recent and initially developed with isolated buildings and a separation of uses, in a largely spontaneous and often uncontrolled way. Planned cities such as Washington, D.C., or the federal government section of Ottawa were exceptions. Strong cultural influences included the dream of William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, for single homes on individual plots of land to help build and sustain a culture of yeoman farmer-citizens. Though the roles of the human users evolved, the design concept proved virtually indestructible.

The North American urban fabric, including in Canada, thus was largely based on separate buildings normally near the middle of their plot of land, set back from a road. Later came “districting” and zoning, and the development of “suburbia”. The “garden city” concept and the “city beautiful” movement of the 1890s further developed the American model of isolated buildings surrounded by greenery. This pattern is now criticized and beginning to change for many reasons, including the dream of the European-style street with sidewalk cafés and boutiques. 

As cities continued to spread outward, so-called “densification” became a fixation for many urban planners. In Canada it is pursued mainly through forests of repetitive high-rise buildings with landscaped surroundings and connections at street level, generating challenges in terms of separation for views, privacy, common areas and street life. Some high rises offer a few townhouses opening on the street, with doors and blinds shut, and vehicular access recessed for the tower. Their true functionality and fit into the urban fabric is questionable. 

In my opinion, the dominant contemporary approach has failed. Modern architecture in the major part reflects little study and poor imitation, clumsily planted on any site, in extreme cases looking like objects dropped by unknown civilizations. This is becoming a social as well as an aesthetic danger to many growing metropolises, with degenerating taste and an inhuman urban form deprived of proportion, scale, coherence and warm feelings.

A study several years ago comparing the development of Melbourne with that of Paris by Alan Davies, an Australian researcher, concluded that creating density with typical high-rise developments achieves neither the livable city success that is sought nor the density of the streets of downtown Paris without high rises. We are left with the worst of both worlds. And Melbourne’s example is replicated dozens if not hundreds of times around the globe. We have lost “the street”, the bloodline of urban civilization and the human scale of the urban landscape.  

The drive for “modern” high rises bereft of urban context is best shown in Turin. This is a very old Italian city with a mainly Baroque urban form that rose to international fame in the 2006 Winter Olympics. Two modern towers burst out of the urban landscape of tiled terracotta roofs like randomly planted missiles. In a city with a plethora of elegant, ready-to-use, vacant buildings owned by landlords beset by an economic downturn, the new towers flooded the city with very expensive space with high maintenance costs, affordable only by governments and the biggest companies.

To Turin’s people, they represented an aesthetic punch in the eye followed by an economic kick in the belly. They also show the greater risk of vertical development versus progressive horizontal density growth, which can be started or stopped according to economic signals. Towers, by contrast, must be built all at once, and Canadian cities have seen towers started during boom times that upon completion in a downturn flooded their market.

Innovation at all cost, resulting in isolated and out-of-context buildings, is shown also in Vancouver by twisted high-rise buildings, protrusions and attachments that look like afterthoughts, upside-down pyramids, and various pieces attached in novel ways. In my mind, the message is just the love of the absurd, while the primary purpose seems attracting attention, for without the disturbances it is difficult for a design to stand out in a mediocre urban landscape of high-rise towers. Some people like it, but many others feel bewildered or unsettled. And the outside oddities are often matched inside.

A deliberate feeling of chaos: The twisting condo tower of Vancouver House is the latest example of architectural modernism that, while it may appeal to some, leaves many others unsettled and bewildered.

This modern North American model has expanded worldwide, especially in Asia and the Middle East, but even in Europe. The urban home is no longer the classic “flat” with a balcony in sight of passers-by on the proverbial Parisian boulevard. It is a minuscule private area reached by elevator, primarily a transitory place for the night, between activities and trips, similar to an air-conditioned and closed hotel room or office suite. It reflects, among other trends, our globalized elite’s ideal of a citizen-of-the-world who is ever on the move and belongs nowhere in particular. Children and families have a hard time fitting into the new metropolis and for them the holiday escape is a must.

I worry even more about Asia and in particular the Chinese metropolises. These have achieved spectacular growth but have adopted the worst American urban form without critical thinking or room for transformation toward a more human scale. Perhaps this is because of the speed of their growth, and perhaps it is because China is dominated by an elite with a totalitarian mindset and contempt for the individual, plus probably a lack of understanding of the alternative and better solutions.

Architecture must seek to integrate human values with function and beauty − it should delight and inspire rather than shock and bewilder; the old city of Prague.

One of the tragedies of the current state of urban planning, design and architecture is that there are alternatives. An example of achieving permitted densification while keeping the open space inside the property, with the building mass distributed on the perimeter along the street, was our project at Bute and Haro Street in Vancouver. The four-storey building was designed and built for Five Springs Investments of Sergio Kumar in 1991. It features a small artificial lake in its landscaped courtyard and was very successful in terms of sales, but was never followed by planners, architects or developers. 

I believe I saw more clearly the dream of architecture when I was a child. Modern architecture is necessary because the world and culture have changed since the Romantic period. But the message of the urban fabric and of its buildings must not be that the individual is irrelevant and interchangeable and that eternal human values be erased and ignored. We must cultivate human values with true function and beauty, which lie not in brutalism and shock. They lie in harmony, light, proportion, pleasure with function and all the aesthetic values of all times. But, I must admit, in our postmodern world of relativism and the nullification of objective truth, even to speak of beauty is controversial. The struggle to restore a sense of harmony, with sensible balance and urban rhythm, will be long and difficult.

Architect and author Oberto Oberti.

Still, I am an optimist about Canada and Vancouver in particular. There is so much still to do and the very desire to innovate will in due course deliver at least some of the right results and needed transformations. I have already seen overwhelming results since Canada gave me my ticket to Vancouver in 1965. My colleagues and I see many opportunities. Street scenes can be redeveloped with interesting stores at the street level, leading people inside to experience great interiors. City blocks can be redeveloped with buildings inspiring from the outside and from the inside. Recreation and tourism villages can be built or redeveloped in a way that integrates with nature while also serving as micro-models for the city of the future.

Architecture and design are both vision and problem-solving. To be truly successful our discipline must address humanity rather than ego and ideology. I can see great design opportunities, both as solutions to problems and sources of inspiration. Although my own career might be gradually winding down, I’m very gratified that the team in my firm is participating everywhere we can with projects that have ranged from factories to churches, from schools and stores to housing and recreation.

Oberto Oberti is founder and President of Oberto Oberti Architecture and Urban Design Inc. in Vancouver, and holds Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Architecture and Urban Design degrees from the University of British Columbia.

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