January - February 2024


How to build on our identity and stop making sad, uninspired buildings

Buildings affect our emotions and perceptions whether we notice or not.

Sitting in a ServiceOntario or walk-in clinic with its bright lights, lack of windows, stiff chairs, and only one clock on the wall ticking by the seconds, minutes, and hours. Most people don’t enjoy going to these places, partly because the purpose is necessary and dull, but also because of how these buildings affect us.

There is a sense that something seems to be missing. These buildings have no heart, sense of purpose, or spirit. They were just built. Is it possible to come up with something better? Could architecture make going to ServiceOntario more pleasant?

In a recent interview for the deConstructed podcast, Laird Robertson, co-founder of NEO Architecture Inc., said that architecture “affects you in an intangible way, in the same way, a beautiful painting or sculpture can bring you to tears. You are moved by it, and you’re not sure why. You just are.”

This has been the goal Robertson has embodied in every project he and his company have worked on over the past many years, from single-family homes to schools to office buildings to community health centres to hospices.

Robertson explained that there are fundamentally two types of consumers: traditionalists and NEOs. The former focuses on volume and the bottom line. They tend to shop at Walmart. The latter focuses on quality, value, uniqueness, high design, and the extraordinary. They tend to desire Apple products as an example.

When it comes to the buildings lacking inspiration, it not only presents itself in places such as ServiceOntario or walk-in clinics. We see it in office buildings, apartments, and department stores. There’s nothing special about them. They are simply buildings. They lack a soul, a substance to elevate them beyond shelter and towards architecture.

Robertson said that what makes a building extraordinary is the relentless pursuit of excellence. This is not easy nor for the faint of heart. He compared it to a marathon or an odyssey.

“It’s three quarters of the way through and you need to find your second wind. It’s hard. You need to be push, and push and then finally you see the finish line and have renewed energy to go the distance. The last 10% is exhausting. Architecture is unique, with purpose. Everything has a reason for being,” he said.

It requires the perseverance of everyone involved, from the client to Roberson’s team to the trades and craft people executing the vision.

Excellence in architecture doesn’t mean that everything old has to go. Robertson said that when it comes to older buildings, you can still respect the heritage where the heritage is worthy of being saved. But just because it’s old doesn’t automatically make it worth saving.

“But anything that’s been added, if it is contemporary, then it’s a expression of its time, not an imitation of the past. When you observe the work, you understand what was original, and what has been added to the building,” said Robertson.

In this way, it’s possible to respect the beautiful aspects of past architecture and embrace the innovations in architecture today.

Robertson said he has noticed the compulsion of many clients who wish to copy past styles blatantly. There is comfort in the familiar, but nostalgia is not what true architecture aspires toward.

“Fashion cycles often reference periods from the past, but they’re always presented anew. The cycle of design has done that for centuries. But what we’re talking about here is not a reinterpretation of a historic style, we’re talking about a direct copy of a historic style. It’s simply not appropriate nor aspirational,” he said.

Robertson’s company embraces the ‘potential of architecture’ and is excited about the future. He is also enthusiastic about finding our own architectural identity as Canadians.

“Old doesn’t mean better. A nostalgic culture is a depressed state of culture. When we look back and say it was better in the past, it means we have lost hope for a better future. We have lost anticipation, expectation, joy, and optimism. When there is no vision of the future being better than the past, we are a culture that has lost its way,” said Robertson.

Robertson theorized that he likens the Canadian architectural landscape to a teenager, where Europe would be likened to an adult. He said we want to emulate and copy because we may be too insecure and have yet to find our identity.

It takes confidence to break the status quo. To do something different. To create buildings that are unique, daring and inspired. To be moved by architecture in the way great works of art move us. Robertson wants us to create a world where even though waiting in line at ServiceOntario to renew your health card is boring, the building it’s in makes you feel inspired.

To learn more about what better could look like, listen to the deConstructed podcast.


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