Modern: Love. Don’t hate.

The summer edition of Spacing is covering a topic dear to my heart. Why do people love to hate “Modern”? I think we often have blindspots when it comes to the value of different eras and the impression they leave on our built environment. There is often a clash between contemporary values and architectural styles of the past. It led to the loss of many heritage buildings in the past. Victorian homes couldn’t meet the demands of modern living and were demolished before the heritage movement sought to protect them for future generations. It’s hard to find anyone who’ll say Victorian homes aren’t worth preserving. It breaks my heart that preserving/restoring modern architecture is such a hard sell.

The post-war era is historically noteworthy and the architecture of the period is a beautiful embodiment of the optimism in technology and the future, the desire to start fresh and break from a past that was so connected to war and destruction.

As I pointed out in my UrbSanity article in June, we criticize the past for razing Lebreton Flats and other late-19th/early-20th century buildings. To us, it’s a loss of buildings that would now be 100 years old. To them, it was buildings a little over 50. Now we too seem to look at buildings in that 50 year age range with little respect, ready to tear it down with little thought.

Not all buildings are worth protecting but some are gems that just need to be reset and polished.

Below are two of my favourite Ottawa buildings. One is barely known by most people I talk to. The other is barely noticed. I love these buildings but seeing the old photographs makes me wonder if part of the problem is most people can’t see past the neglect and clumsy retrofits.

So please click on the photos below and take a look at the URBsite posts for each. Look at the photos and try to see the beauty and elegance. Even if you don’t fall in love with them, I hope you might at least stop hating them and see the value in keeping some of them around.

The Ottawa City Hall (Rother, Bland and Trudeau, 1955-58)

Ottawa Union Station (John. B. Parkin Architects, 1966)

Does anyone care to share their favourite Ottawa modernist building?

  1. I’m not an architect but here’s what I think:
    In general I prefer pre-modernism architecture especially because of the richness in detail, the ornaments. I like some modernist and contemporary buildings though. I was in Europe and saw some really cool ones. I guess modernism gets a bad name because of the many examples that leave to be desired. Cities have grown so much that we’ve had to build them fast. We wouldn’t be able to build those ancient and medieval places full of details and richness. We’ve had to be practical. Maybe it’s like with most things in our time, the focus is on cost and speed, so quality is compromised. Some modernist buildings are cool though. The experimental ones, sometimes work really well and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s a problem with the material, sometimes the scale. I have a beef against Brutalism; I have yet to find a brutalist building that I like.
    Then there’s the question of aging. Some modern buildings seek to be a novelty, unique and innovative. But the expiration date on being those things is usually short. Whereas other styles follow a more accepted view of beauty that is timeless. But like I said, some modern buildings are nice and work, but like all styles they need to be maintained so that they can age better.
    I have a section on my blog called eyesore:
    I’m afraid most of the buildings I add there will be modern. :)
    But I’m going to eventually have a section on the positive things.

    • Sarah Gelbard said:

      Thanks for the comment.

      Modernism definitely has its flaws and I think it’s fair, even desirable, to critique it. I’d hate for it to be reduced to just an argument of style and taste. The history and idea behind modernism are fascinating not that I necessarily agree with them all but I think they are worth preserving in the memory of the city.

      Artengine made a great comment about it on twitter:

      We seem willing to overlook the flaws of older eras. Functional flaws and conflicting ideals.

      On the detail argument, modernism does strip away a lot of the ornament but can be exceptionally rich in detail. You just have to look for it. I guess the best analogy I can think of is admiring the beauty of a lush forest landscape behind a lush flowering field vs the beauty of the structure of a single leaf. Modernism puts its detailing in how the structure fits together and when well done has a beautiful elegance of (seeming) simplicity.

  2. Good points and I like you analogy. I’m following this pinboard, it has some nice buildings
    I was thinking that a lot of great buildings in the ancient, medieval world, etc were built by emperors, dictators probably using slave labour, or cheap labour. I guess they could use the money the way they wanted and there wasn’t much regard to the public and its needs. I wondered if those buildings, at least the grand ones, would have been possible in a democracy. Something to think about.
    I guess architecture like anything else is influenced by the economic, political and social conditions of the time, as well as the technology and materials available.

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