Skip to main content

The deep philosophical differences between architectural traditionalists and modernists rarely get a public airing in this part of the world. One reason is that our designers, by and large, are practical men and women, not theorists given to busying themselves with public controversies.

The more important reason, however, is the tacit agreement among most Ontario architects not to trash each other's work. It's a bad rule, in my view, because it blocks the open discussion of strongly held opinions about the nature and direction of contemporary architecture.

In Britain, things are not so genteel.

A couple of years ago, open war broke out in there between the well-known traditionalist Quinlan Terry and the devoted anti-traditionalist Richard Rogers. At issue was Mr. Terry's design for a London infirmary on a site next to a 17th-century building by the eminent architect Christopher Wren.

Lord Rogers damned Mr. Terry's neo-classical scheme (which included a Tuscan pediment, cornices and other historical whatnots) as "architectural plagiarism." Mr. Terry, in reply, condemned as so much garbage the ambition of Lord Rogers and others in his camp to make buildings that flaunt their advanced technology.

"There's not a single contemporary architect who will admit to liking anything that I do," Mr. Terry told a reporter. "They are all so indoctrinated by the modernist aesthetic. ... Beautiful buildings do not inevitably result from the application of technology. The results are usually startlingly ugly - perhaps inevitably so, since the architects are not interested in the basic rules of proportion." (Mr. Terry's infirmary for pensioners is now near completion.)

The fight between Britain's trads and mods flared up again late last month when the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) announced its picks for the best new buildings in the United Kingdom. There is a magnificent train station (London's St. Pancras) on the list, a gleaming new glass box to house BBC Scotland, a curious beach café that looks like a washed-up jellyfish - and not a traditional project in the lot.

Infuriated British traditionalists instantly went on the attack. Robert Adam, a designer of country houses in the classical manner, denounced the awards as a "con" and the people who give them out as "style fascists."

"This is a battle between building architecture that a professional clique thinks is right and producing buildings the public likes," Mr. Adam said.

The word "clique" is off the mark - the list of RIBA favourites suggests the great variety of modernist design approaches - but Mr. Adam's picture of the landscape in which architects everywhere find themselves has the ring of truth.

In Toronto's residential market, for example, there are architects who create homes that are descended, in one way or another, from the modern movement of the early 20th century. These houses may or may not feature expanses of glass and frames of steel. But they usually embody the distinctive design ideas of the first-generation moderns, including unadorned surfaces, spare geometry, mindful urbanism and the celebration of innovative technologies ranging from new construction techniques to digital imaging.

And here, as in Britain, there are other architects who make houses of the kind "the public [presumably]likes": grandiose French châteaux and Georgian mansions for the very wealthy, and, for clients not so well-heeled, smaller dwellings cast in the Tudor or neoclassical or some other ye-olde revival style. These buildings harken back to the premodern past, vanished ages of "elegance," a storybook time of aristocrats going about the town and countryside in carriages.

The nostalgic architecture you see in deluxe Toronto neighbourhoods is occasionally convincing, though it usually isn't. But my argument with traditionalist architects is not about taste. It's about the future of imagination and creativity.

At least in the form we have it today, architectural traditionalism is a dead end for the mind and soul. Even the best of such design is a matter of pedantic copying of columns, entablature and so on from old treatises and surviving buildings, while the worst of it (which is much of it) is desolate pastiche and feeble imitation.

During its 80-odd-year career, residential modernism has produced some atrocities; I would never say otherwise. What's more remarkable, however, is the delightful and expansive beauty of so many modern houses, both famous and obscure.

Yet this beauty is not the most wonderful thing about the modern movement. Rather, it's the inexhaustible fertility, the ever-new relevance, of modernism's often untidy culture of dispute and contention.

The likes of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier took deadly aim at the whole bag of historical tricks inherited from architecture's past. But by the 1960s, when the most famous moves of Mies and "Corb" began to seem "historical," a newer crop of moderns rose up to challenge that legacy. And so modernism's story has gone ever since, in countless contests and through numerous changes of artistic strategies.

Contrary to the opinions of Mr. Terry and other traffickers in caricature, there is no single "modernist style." Modernism is permanent revolution, and in that fact lies the movement's endless attraction for the most imaginative architects in the present hour.