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Confronting architecture’s ‘don’t look back’ maxim

Don't look back. That has been an imperative among architecture's intellectual leaders for the past 100 years: to focus relentlessly on innovation and to regard history warily, if at all.

That's changing, and a show called Besides, History that opened recently at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal addresses that division of past and present. It shows how architects of the past 50 years have engaged with the past and it suggests today's avant-garde are leaving behind their ideological baggage and learning from their predecessors.

The show is part of a continuing series at the CCA that places two architecture firms in conversation – not simply showcasing the ideas of one office, as is customary, but getting colleagues to engage with one another's work and with broader questions. "We're trying to pick two architects we think can have an interesting dialogue," the show's curator, CCA chief curator Giovanna Borasi, says , "because they have different views – or because they have something in common despite different geographic contexts."

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In this case, the players are the Japanese architect Go Hasegawa and the Belgian pair of Kersten Geers and David Van Severen. All are around the age of 40, young for architecture, and linked to the academy; the former teaches at Harvard's prestigious design school, while the latter teach in Europe and have visited at Harvard as well.

What they have in common, Borasi explains, is a sensibility that allows the ideas and aesthetics of modernism to blend with those of past periods. "There is in the new generation an interest in having dialogue with historic references," Borasi says. "Not in the sense of quoting a different piece of architecture, but looking at why something was done in a different way and seeing what is the intelligence behind that choice."

This sounds simple, but it's not. Over the past century, Western architecture has had a vexed relationship with the past. When the Viennese architect Adolf Loos argued in 1908 that "ornament is crime," he was pushing back against the passing fashions in objects and interiors favoured by middle-class urban Europeans. These were superficial and backward: "Modern men" have "conquerered ornament," he wrote. Such provocative puritanism aligned with a fervent faith in technology's ability to deliver a new, more rational city. And thus modern architecture was born, ready to rebuild the world.

Yet, this radicalism of the 1920s and 30s faded in the next generation; modernism dominated corporate North America, and got co-opted. By the 1960s, the steel-and-glass grids of modern office towers and the city-wrecking ambitions of urban renewal left some architects disillusioned; if this was the future, maybe the past wasn't so bad after all. One important response was postmodernism, which self-consciously took the symbolism of the past – the clock tower, the colonnade – and used them as decoration for new buildings.

If you remember the public buildings of the 1980s, you know that this movement wound up in a vacuous dead end. And yet it's only now, 30 years later, that architecture's avant-garde is managing to leave all that baggage behind.

Hasegawa, and Geers and Van Severen, each in their own way engage with the past – modernism and postmodernism as well as all that stuff that came before them.

In the exhibition, a sequence of drawings by Geers and Van Severen depict each other's projects (a Go house elevated on stilts and a house in Bahrain) in three different perspectives, moving from the distant, idealized view to what they feel like inside.

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The show ranges from life-size mockups of pieces of a building to different modes of representation including the plan and the section (the two basic types of architectural drawing, representing space in horizontal and vertical arrangements).

Images by the photographer Stefano Graziani depict the Belgians' work, paying attention to essential elements: the column, a basic ingredient of architecture, appears in their work in different forms.

At the same time, the architects dip into the CCA's formidable collection – one of the world's great architecture archives. Historic drawings from the archives draw connections between periods: a floor plan by the Renaissance Venetian architect Palladio against one from 1955 by the English radicals Alison and Peter Smithson. A drawing by Aldo Rossi of Venice is on show too – important, Borasi says, "not for what it shows but for how you see the [historic] city."

This game of references is deliberately ambiguous and arch, but it implies a broad point: How we see the world shapes how we will make the world. Our view of the past shapes our future.

"This generation is not saying 'no' to history," Borasi says, "nor looking at it with an ironic attitude; but saying there is a kind of richness there to study. Also, everything has been done and we don't have the ambition of doing something new – but it's still possible to do something contemporary."

Besides, History runs at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal through Oct. 15 (cca.qc.ca).

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About the Author
Architecture critic

Alex Bozikovic covers architecture and urbanism for The Globe and Mail. He is also a staff editor at The Globe. He has won a National Magazine Award for his writing about design. More

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