Planning and Architecture at the end of our Century

by Harry Seidler
Based on the 1984 lecture at the RIBA in London and the 1987 Habitat Lecture at the Centre for Human Settlements, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Disenchantment must surely be the appropriate word to describe what most people in cities of the western world feel about the newly built developments taking place around them. Not only are the physical problems obvious – the overbuilding with excessive bulk, the consequent pollution, traffic and pedestrian congestion – but the visual impact is undistinguished at best, oppressive at worst. Due to increasing urbanisation it is an environment that is being added to constantly and which will, almost certainly, worsen in time. Indexes of how much is allowed to be built are based on political decisions taken by elected city governments after lobbying by pressure groups of landholders and developers. The latter see their role as purely one of responding to the growing market demand for floor space. What flows from this are long-term profits and capital growth for investment in a time of inflationary devaluation of liquid assets.

Given immense thrust through the media, the emerging new laws and images make us believe that the direction of development in the last 80 years or so has been totally ill-oriented – that it has created nothing but environmental and visual chaos. It is put to us forcefully that the time has come for a complete turnabout; we should abandon all past notions of city planning, discard theories of architecture developed in our time and change direction. This anti-intellectual stance is an irrational turning back of the clock away from the gradual advancement, the logical and consequential development that has taken place. To understand how deeply this reaction has permeated current attitudes towards the built environment, let us examine two areas of concern – firstly, what is allowed to be built in our cities and secondly, what architects choose to build.

The Urban Dilemma

In the realm of urban planning, it seems that all the proposed utopian schemes for guiding three-dimensional physical planning after World War II have not been pursued. The enlightenment needed to grasp the benefits and consequent rewards to the community was too much to expect, given a system of decision-making by Local Government Bureaucrats. Landholders fought against constraints on building bulk for fear of depreciated property values without compensation. Politicians found the necessary actions of resumption and re-subdivision “untenable”. So, laissez-faire attitudes prevailed and development has lurched forward on the assumption that market forces alone are best left to guide it.

The physical results of rejecting far-sighted policy has led, inevitably, to a negative public reaction. This, in turn, has been given widespread momentum by the media which purvey and encourage “heritage” conservation modes. The outcome is that any proposal to build something new is immediately put on the defensive. The call is either for abandonment of entire projects or the preservation of existing buildings and their re-use. Where this policy is applied to worthy structures of the past it is obviously desirable and to be encouraged. But the form it has taken is the adoption of an historicist attitude which asserts that keeping old facades and hiding any new building behind them is better than anything totally new. The results are pitiful and border on the absurd. Old and new become caricatures, embodying the worst of both. “Facadism” represents a shallow, provincial view of history; it robs the old of any character and prevents the new from being itself – let alone great.

The present mood against new development has also inspired the most amazing and arbitrary “rules”. For example, One can cite the objections of authorities in Melbourne, Australia to a large city building. They quote, verbatim, a recently proposed San Francisco plan and insist that this reactionary set of new rules, imported from halfway around the world, be adopted. This plan calls for the prohibition of buildings with flat roofs, of blank walls and for a “generous use of decorative embellishments”. To demonstrate what benefits are offered to builders in return for compliance, these decorations are even allowed to protrude outside the zoning envelope! The San Francisco plan further requires buildings to be “shaped to appear delicate and of complex visual imagery”. Worst of all, there is a dictate to “retain the street wall”; tall buildings are to have distinctive tops and shafts and there must be “street-fronting bases” for all tall buildings.

Prevalent rules discourage limits to site coverage and, in fact, outlaw any towers which leave large portions of the ground level unbuilt. The irrationality of insisting that urban development be built to a ratio between floor space to site area of 14 to 1, while at the same time having 100 percent site coverage, is obvious. To allow an increase in the population on a city block to that extent and then to strangulate pedestrian circulation by restricting it to three metre wide footpaths, is inhuman and unworkable. It is socially irresponsible to build to high indexes of 12 or 14 unless there is a limit on site cover of no more than 25 to 35 percent. This should be so, not only for the sake of health and clarity of the inevitably huge structure that results, but also to generate some breathing space for the additional thousands of people that work in such buildings. In our increasingly crowded cities the aim should be to create as much genuinely useful open space (open to the sky or glass covered) on private land as possible, places of repose and recreation. Such urban pedestrian spaces have been the delight of European cites for centuries.

The fashion of solid street fronting bases for towers is also highly questionable. One must reject it for practical and aesthetic reasons because if forces architects to design huge, deep windowless, commercially-unviable podium spaces which are structurally and constructionally undesirable.

What lies behind all of this is a misguided form of romanticism – an attempt to recreate 18th and 19th Century urban patterns which evolved when population densities were much lower than today and when buildings were rarely more than three or four storeys high. By all means let there be enlightened, that is flexible, three-dimensional control strategies that protect the community from excesses: controls which make the intent understood and which can be amended with time. The design professions must, however, as a matter of principle, fight against governments being given the right to codify and thereby dictate design in detail. To allow such rules is absurd and contrary to fundamental freedom of action, freedom for the advancement and development of architecture. To stifle creativeness by law is intolerable. We should want no part of a system in which bureaucrats become powerful arbiters of taste, imposing a dictatorship over the language of form.

Simplistic restrictive rules govern the rampant urban sprawl, the creation of seemingly endless dormitory suburbs which extend the infrastructure of our big cities to stretching point. Following minimal standards of allotment size and road widths, agricultural land is usurped without any organically functional plan of self contained communities. Such plans were proposed decades ago showing circumferential traffic carrying roads surrounding neighbourhood units of 5000 inhabitants. In these proposals, a variety of housing densities are provided with single family houses on cul-de-sac streets so that every child can go to primary schools, located in the centre, without crossing any streets. Community halls, shopping and medium density group housing completes the core of each neighbourhood which in groups create a regional satellite urban centre. This in turn supports strategically placed high schools, hospitals and high density housing placed in spacious open surroundings. Architects must lead the community in the planning of such hierarchially organised neighbourhoods. These would stimulate a greater sense of belonging and of community spirit than exists in the haphazard endless isolated dormitory suburbs being built without integral community planning.

Opposition to Modern Architecture

On the subject of architectural theory, taste and the issue of what architects choose to build, we find the reaction has been equally thoughtless and devastating as in planning. There is no stronger evidence of cultural insecurity, nothing more pitiful than re-heated, fake history, and yet much wordy journalism tells us that it is time to revert to the past and suggests that we go back to the 1930’s and other fragmentary earlier sources in history for inspiration. Lumping together and labelling everything built in our time under the much maligned term “International Style”, the media distort historical facts with great abandon.

The term “International Style” is a misnomer. It was anathema to the methodology expounded by the pioneers of the modern movement in architecture. Walter Gropius himself expressed contempt for its use. To him the only structures which could truly be labelled international in style were “those classic colonnades, borrowed from the Greeks, placed in front of important buildings anywhere from Chicago to Moscow to Tokyo”.(1)

Modern architecture, as conceived by its pioneers, was not a fixed set of forms but rather a way of thinking. It is an approach which “allows one to tackle a problem according to its peculiar conditions, not by ready-made dogma nor stylistic formula, but by an attitude towards the problems of our generation which is unbiased, original and elastic”.(2) Modern architecture could never be a style per sé. It must remain in constant flux, responding not only to regional differences and social demands but also reflecting the changing visual language of art and the ever-expanding wealth of technological means. As the form-determining factors change, so too must the architectural expression.

This methodology is simply a framework on which to hang very different and potentially changing images – the opposite to frozen stylistic moulds. It is an attitude towards design which can grow and mutate with the cultural essentials of time and place.

The clarity of this concept and the consequent changing aesthetic, built upon the study of visual fundamentals (3), never became the guiding principle for designing buildings in our time. Instead, what had originally started as a fight against traditional “style” was utterly misunderstood and was imitated insensitively until it became so banal that it could itself be termed a style. Since the last war, unskilled, superficial images with hideous clichés have covered western cities. The understandable public distaste for these ubiquitous results finds its voice in the present media war on the so-called “International Style”. The attack is misdirected. Journalists and opportunistic writers deliberately misrepresent facts, re-write history and cowardly discredit the dead pioneering initiators. They blame those whose work originated a long-overdue movement away from the superficial “art for art’s sake” architecture of the fin de siècle era.

Ironically, by Gropius’ definition, those who today perpetrate and practise the “International Style” are none other than the “rats, posts and other pests” that Aldo van Eyck aptly referred to in his 1981 RIBA Annual Discourse. Who else but those he so lucidly describes would proceed from doing parodies of Le Corbusier to blending Speers’s Reichskanzlei with Mussolini’s visions and dish them up in Portland, Oregon – or suggest variations of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassos be put on top of Breuer’s Whitney Museum in New York?

What is now proposed, seemingly unchallenged, is the very antithesis of the visual and technical concerns of our time. We are shown ponderous, earthbound, pyramidal compositions standing flatfootedly, exposing their childish broken pediment “metaphors” in order to make us feel closer to “history”! Ignoring and defying all constructional, let alone structural logic, they are the tantrums of a rich spoilt child delighting in being contrary and shocking us with corny stylistic idioms, not to say ludicrous bad taste.

The labels abound, supported by inept and obtuse verbiage: Adhocism, Pluralism, Contectualism, Post-Modernism, Inclusivism, Late-Modern, Post-Modern Classicism, Deconstructivism, etc.. The current schizophrenia oscillates in adulation between Post-Modernism and “Modernistic” Stylism (that painful fad of the 1930’s) to the exhibitionistic display of technological acrobatics for its own sake. Rather than serving any constructional needs, the latter which exposes the vulnerable arteries of a building to the elements ensuring anything but permanent life for the structure.

These, as any fashion, cloy the appetite. They are transient and self-extinguishing, grating and annoying the senses in the end. They are regressive, anti-intellectual modes – defying reason, art and technics. They are not a worthy product of our time whose creed should be one of restraint and disdain for wilful waste or physical or visual extravagance.

The degeneration has indeed gone full circle. One need only remember the western architectural world’s outrage at the “cultural inferiority” of then communist East Berlin’s Stalinallee, erected after the war at the same time Le Corbusier was building his first “Unite” in Marseille. And now, in a complete reversal of roles, Eastern Germany has rebuilt the Bauhaus structures better than new and Czechoslovakia has restored the Tugendhat House. They declared them national shrines while, in the west, Bofill builds a public housing scheme which boasts new classical orders made of glass or precast concrete and gigantic fluted Roman columns for fire stairs! It is the kind of architecture that totalitarian regimes of both left and right have always favoured.

It could all be ignored if there were not the danger, due to all the wordy journalism surrounding and justifying it, of being taken literally by the young and uninitiated; of being blown up and catapulted into the significance of a new design philosophy.

A remark Marcel Breuer made to me in the 1950’s puts these things in perspective. In discussing his reaction to the then fashionable classicism – that sugar-coated, misunderstood Miesian mode prevalent in America at that time – he said in German “Nur abwarten” (just wait patiently). And who remembers or takes that fad seriously now? Or who remembers the Brutalists in England with their pathetic imitations of Le Corbusier’s rough concrete of the 1940’s? With that record what lasting validity can be ascribed to the “metaphors” so verbosely elaborated to describe the present reversions to licentious decorative caprice?

Looking Forward

There is a discernible visual direction in our time. It permeates the work of many painters and sculptors and is manifested in our immediate history. The essence of it is best defined by the painter, Josef Albers: “Where the discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect is maximised, there lies the threshold of art” and “One plus one is three – in art”.(4) This credo of getting the most aesthetically and physically for the least in effort and material is directly applicable to architecture. Not only is it valid for economic reasons, but it will heighten the value of that which, by a shortcut of the mind and with penetrating insight, finds “Gordian Knot” simultaneous solutions to aesthetic, planning and constructional problems.

The simplistic way in which this essential element has been misinterpreted is the cause for much of the harm that has been done in the name of modern architecture. To do the minimal only leads to dullness, stagnation and rejection, but to do little in such a way that riches result, both visually and tangibly, – that is where our direction lies!

From its earliest days the modern movement has emphasised the study of visual fundamentals of just how our eyes respond in predictable ways to visual phenomena. A study of these principles will make us realise how we see changes as other areas of our existence change. What was valid in 1930 can no longer be actively so today because our senses will respond differently due to the altered social conditions and to advances in art and technology. Thus our notions of appropriate construction, of the way space should be ordered, of visual expression and the forms that derive out of these concerns must, of necessity, be different from those of the past or of other cultural milieus.

For example, however much we may admire Le Corbusier’s buildings, their six metre grid structures (which was all they could do economically then) are superseded today just as is their planning, plumbing and everything else about them. We may still find his spatial flow poetic, enticing and valid, though even if achieving it meant the use of excessive hand labour or constructional devices no longer realistically plausible.

We live in a world of vastly varying social and economic climates. I have built on four different continents. What is possible and in fact desirable in one country with ample, willing and undemanding labour but poor technology is unthinkable in a location with advanced industrial potential and high labour costs. Such considerations will inevitably produce regional differences in buildings even if the common aim is to create a subtle orchestration of spatial intricacies.

It is also evident that 20th Century man’s concept of space and how it should be organised has changed in a way which only our advancing technology can muster. Instead of the assemblies of connected finite volumes of the past, we now seek a sense of the infinite and yet simultaneously the intimate – a sense of the beyond in the immediacy of the present.

Likewise in the search for appropriate form our horizons have broadened considerably with time. The initial puritanical rigidity has been allowed to widen into an all-encompassing search which today is yielding a wealth of new expression. We have learned to borrow from the art forms of our time just as we have learned not to exclude history. By ‘history’, of course, I do not mean the puerile adaption of decorative paraphernalia but rather a study of the essential forces behind the images of the past. For instance the subtly brilliant geometric systems that came into being in the 17th and 18th Centuries can inform our approach to developing system-oriented methods of construction. But the visual language must be new. I believe that visual tension, not the phlegmatic earthbound images of the past, speaks to our time; the channelling of space and surfaces in opposition, curve against countercurve, sun and shadow, the juxtaposition of compression to the surprise of release.

Even if the expression is exuberant or flamboyant, an economy of visual means will heighten the value of the result. Instead of creating an arbitrary assemblage of unrelated geometries, single form elements should be evolved and transformed, finding their echo throughout the work at every scale – a set of variations on limited visual themes.

Free reign must be given to the expression of the laws of nature – not what is “imagined” to be so by many structurally naive architects, but the unassailable physical truth of statics. Being born of the immutable and irrevocable truth of nature, the richness of expression which can result from such a search will have the irreplaceable quality of longevity, of remaining authentic as times change.

In our approach to constructional systems architects generally have been far too simplistic, accepting any dull repetitiveness to be economically valid. Just as the revivalist architecture at the end of the last century was out of tune with the emerging industrial means, so I believe the design profession today is not responding adequately to either current technological and manpower conditions or new construction methodologies. That is why we are losing the grip on vital decision-making and are being replaced by hustling technicians. To design a tall building today, which simply takes too long to build, is a self-arresting process, a hollow victory realised only on paper.

It is our task to maximise systems of mechanisation appropriate to and“in tune” with the particular task. Even though these must vary in different socio-economic and industrial climates, one must not stop at the consideration of structure and covering only, as is so often the limit of prevalent thought. Rather, one must encompass simultaneously integral solutions to the problems posed by all the services required in a project thereby avoiding the usual nightmarish afterthought complications of most modern buildings. Flexibly planned, fireproof structures can be built to last indefinitely. Even if the “arteries” of services wear out, they should be designed for inevitable replacement in time.

True modern architecture is not dead as some will have us believe. We have hardly started to explore the potential of its methodology. The high principles and clear moral consequentiality of the pioneers needs to be constantly interpreted anew. They demanded basic integrity and an intrinsic honesty of approach. Only by making these part of our work will the frontiers of development be pushed forward.


In dealing with the problems of our environment today it is not possible to ignore the much publicised, embarrassing notions expressed by, let us say, a less than erudite member of the English Royal Family. Nor can one ignore certain self-appointed critics, even from the realm of academia, who speak and write in his defence. Nothing demonstrates more clearly the provincial and insensitive view of the visual arts in our time, than the insistent proposal to return to 18th and 19th Century imagery – coupled with the claim that such a fossilised view of our culture is shared by the “masses”.

No-one would wish to condone the massive misdeeds perpetrated in much of the Anglo-Saxon world since World War II. With very few exceptions, England has consistently rejected and been generally immune to expressions of the visual language of our time. America achieved much for some decades (during the working presence of European pioneers) but finally only played at imitating superficial phenomena – ultimately showing its true cultural colours – reactionary provincialism. Unfortunately Australia is falling victim to the anti-modernist hysteria supported by the American architectural media.

Significantly this debased reversion in Western culture is not shared in Scandinavian and other European countries that have a history of early developments in modernism.

Near the end of our century it may be well for us to take heed of the almost 100 year old inscription above the entrance to the Sezession Building in Vienna:

_(To each time its art…
to art its freedom)_

One would think that this simple wisdom should not need to be stated again.

Harry Seidler

  1. “Design” Magazine (USA), April 1946 vol. 47, No. 8
  2. Walter Gropius “Apollo in the Democracy” McGraw Hill, 1968
  3. (As taught at the Bauhaus by Itten, Albers and Klee in the 1920’s and later by Albers at Black Mountain College, N.C. USA 1934-1950).
  4. Despite Straight Lines by Josef Albers, Yale University Press, 1961