Oberto Oberti, Architect AIBC


Oberto Oberti is President of the Pheidias group of project and development management companies and of Oberto Oberti Architecture & Urban Design Inc., a company of planners, architects and interior designers founded in 1976.

Oberto was born on Lake Como, near Milan, Italy, from a family of engineers and artists. He practiced many sports, was trained for ski racing in summer on the glaciers above Passo Stelvio in Italy and participated in ski racing as a member of Ski Club Pirovano and Ski Club Courmayeur. He received an education in the humanities, fine arts and engineering in Italy before visiting the

U.S. and Canada as an exchange student. After his return he applied to come back to Canada and came to Vancouver, B.C. with an immigrant visa and an airline ticket paid for by the Canadian government who was recruiting people in technical fields. In 1969 he received a Bachelor of Architecture from the graduate school established at the University of British Columbia by Dr. Henry Elder on the model of the Harvard School of Design. Arthur Erickson and Dr. Abraham Rogatnick were among his mentors in the design studio. In subsequent graduate studies in planning and architecture he had Dr. Peter Oberlander, Dr. Walter Hardwick and Dr. Michael Goldberg among his teachers.

His first employment was in 1968 at HA Simons Ltd., the largest engineering company in Vancouver, drafting a large pulp mill project for which HA Simons were the designers and the project managers. He then moved to the architectural office of Asbjorn Gathe, a gifted Norwegian architect who was a friend of Franz Wlihelmsen, the founder of Whistler, and who was very active in the first stages of planning and designing projects at Whistler. Asbjorn Gathe, was also the architect of the Benedictine Monastery and the beautiful church at Westminster Abbey, near Mission, B.C. When the opportunity come Oberto joined the firm of Anderegg and Wills and built a medical dental building, on 16th Avenue, in North Vancouver, B.C., as the field architect and construction manager. Following the completion of that project he was hired to design the new International Arrivals Terminal of the Vancouver International Airport by Phillips Barratt, Architects and Engineers, now called PBK.

During those years Oberto went through the internship program of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia, becoming registered as an Architect in 1974. At the same time Oberto had been taking graduate courses in both architecture and planning, with the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC, and writing a thesis on North American urban design (“Romantic Motivation and North American Urban Design”), completed in 1974, earning him a Master’s degree. He then joined the Dunhill Development Corporation, the largest developer in Vancouver at that time, as the head professional in charge of planning and architecture.

Dunhill built many of its own projects with sub-trades, utilizing a similar project management system to that which Oberto had seen at work at H.A. Symons for the construction of the pulp mill and that he had used on a smaller scale for the construction of the medical dental building in North Vancouver. He also had the opportunity to lead the design and planning team through the approval process of many projects, including a new plan for the redevelopment of the Songhees Peninsula in Victoria, which was the first new plan for the peninsula approved by the Capital Regional District (CRD), and to design the new town plan for Colwood, also approved by the CRD.

Most of the work at Dunhill involved the design, development and construction of affordable housing, making use of the Assisted Rental Program (ARP) and of the Assisted Home Ownership Program (AHOP). Social housing was the most important program at Dunhill.

Oberto had a fortunate encounter with an investor group that acquired a prestigious site on the waterfront in West Vancouver, a site that Dunhill had decided not to develop. In this project, Seawalk Place, Oberto completed the land consolidation, the approval process, the design, the construction and the sales management as project manager for the investor group. It was a design and development management process similar to what Dunhill used to do, and it was the beginning of the new architectural practice in Oberto Oberti’s own name and of the related project management company, which was called Pheidias – named after the Greek architect and sculptor, renowned for his contribution to the Parthenon in Athens.

The Seawalk Place project was an industry leader for many reasons, including higher quality design and construction, nine-foot ceilings, and larger suites than the industry had offered before. It still maintains some of the highest real estate values in Greater Vancouver. The project was an opportunity to introduce a European style of urban living that drew affluent people from suburban homes to comfortable apartment suites in a walking environment in the Ambleside area of West Vancouver.

More importantly, the project was an opportunity to prove some of the points made in Oberto Oberti’s thesis on urban living, and it started a new planning trend in West Vancouver, offering the construction of the initial stretch of the now famous West Vancouver Seawalk, which was started and paid for with this project.

The new design and project management group was commissioned many other projects, ranging from residential to industrial developments. Perhaps most notable of the early period is the Tristar Industries project, the largest industrial plant and office development in the new Tilbury Island Industrial Park, for which the company was not only the designer but also the builder, again as project managers for the owners. Another interesting project was the Ferranti Packard Transformers plant development, in which Oberto Oberti represented the end user in the review of the construction. The industrial vein of the company was active again in recent years with the design and construction of the MP Lighting offices and factory in Vancouver, a project that introduced the largest tilt up panels (six story high) ever raised in Greater Vancouver, allowing the construction of the structure of the first phase of the project in one day.

Soon after the Tristar project Oberto Oberti was invited by the Conference International du Batiment (CIB) to present his paper on project management at its 1984 convention at the University of Waterloo.

Other interesting projects were the redevelopment of warehouse buildings in the Yaletown area of Vancouver, creating offices, retail spaces and restaurants. It was during this time that Oberto was told not to bother to allow space for espresso machines as nobody drinks espresso coffee in North America. With the hindsight of the subsequent Starbucks success story, it was an episode that taught him to tell clients not to disregard aspects of lifestyles and design opportunities that may be new for North America. In more recent years his office designed the CARA restaurant in the current international departure section of the Vancouver International Airport.

There were many residential projects, especially high-rise and townhouse projects, continuing over time and generating many gold and silver Georgie Awards. Some, like 1230 Haro Street and 1415 West Georgia Street, were built by Pheidias Project Management, and others were done by general contractors. Where possible unique landscaping was created, as near False Creek at 456 Moberly Road with landscaping and ponds linking the building to the water, or creating a pond in an interior yard, as at 1230 Haro Street. This was a unique project also because it achieved in low rise form a density equivalent to that of a small high-rise building, following a European U shaped urban massing concept. It contains a small lake, a pond in an inner private yard. It is an early example of eco-density and sustainable urban development.

Palais Georgia at 1415 West Georgia Street in Vancouver was especially notable as a trend-setter. It was the first wholly residential high-rise project to win a rezoning in the Downtown District of the City of Vancouver, in 1987. It was the project that changed Vancouver to what it is today, opening the way to attract residents back into the downtown core of the city, and making Vancouver the admired livable city that it is today. “Vancouverism” had started.

Palais Georgia was the most successful real estate project of its time (reaching $600 per sq.ft. in 1990), generating the confidence of the principal client in the group, Nikken Canada Holdings Ltd. a subsidiary of a company from Japan.

Nikken then asked Oberto to put to use his knowledge of planning, engineering, architecture and tourism to find the location and to plan the best mountain resort project in North America.

Previous experience in projects by the private sector in cooperation with the public sector and in resort development made the Nikken request appear natural. After an extensive research covering the entire continent, the project’s site selection was at the foot of Jumbo Mountain, opening the door to the most ambitious mountain resort project in North America for location, climate and elevations, and to the most extensive approval process, which gained great notoriety in the media. The project obtained a land use approval by the East Kootenay Table of the Commission on Resources and the Environment (CORE), an Interim Agreement with the Province of B.C., an Environmental Assessment Act (EA) Certificate, and repeated votes of support by the local government, the Regional District of East Kootenay. It achieved an Impact Management and Benefit Agreement with the Shuswap Indian Band, a Master Plan approval, a Master Development Agreement and the provincial creation of the Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality with a mandate to create the project. However, despite a unique and unanimous favourable sentence by the Supreme Court of Canada that the aboriginal opposition of the Ktunaxa First Nation did not grant it a veto power and that the Master Development Agreement was confirmed, the developer just when construction was started accepted to sell back all the approvals and permits to the Nature Conservancy of Canada and to the government for the sake of peace and to move on to other projects. Indeed, there were many other resort and non-resort projects for the Pheidias Group.

At Whistler, following the planning of Twin Lakes and the design of the townhomes at Nordic Estates, Oberto’s office had opened the way to the creation of Whistler Village North with its first project, Twin Peaks Resort, soon followed by the Pinnacle Hotel. These projects introduced the first examples of adherence to the design guidelines with a “Canadian National Parks” heritage inspired style of architecture.

Another mountain resort project was the expansion of Whitetooth, a small regional district-owned ski hill near Golden, B.C. This project was facilitated by a referendum, which Oberto’s team won with the support of local volunteers with 92.8% “yes” votes (a national record), and with 33% greater voter participation than at provincial elections. This project won the Silver Georgie Award for cooperation with local governments and gained all the approvals and was brought to a construction start in three years. The opening phase was constructed in six months under the direction of Pheidias and the design of the Oberti planning and architecture group. It opened for skiers with its now-renowned gondola lift to the mountaintop restaurant in time for Christmas, 2000.

This project, called Kicking Horse Mountain Resort (KHMR), offered the vision of a new concept of mountain planning in North America, showing the way to combine sightseeing and skiing and opening a huge skiable terrain with a single lift to the mountain top. KHMR was also the first and only resort in North America to win the right to be self governing from the start, adopting the master plan and its guidelines as the governing zoning and development control document and allowing construction to start as soon as architects and engineers completed and certified the design of each component. The project was a breakthrough for the ski resort industry, hungry for new projects, and the picture of the signature restaurant at the mountaintop was featured in travel magazines and in the major daily papers, including the New York Times, for years. The Selkirk Homes townhouses at the resort, designed by Oberto’s studio, were awarded the gold Georgie Award.

Recreation and resort design included many other large and small projects, from a yacht club marina near Granville Street Bridge in Vancouver and the travel centre and shopping area at the North freeway exit near Merritt, B.C., to the 850 units of the Whiskey Jack Golf Resort at Sparwood, designed in cooperation with professional golfer Fred Couples, from the revitalization of the Village of Valemount to the Dreamcatcher project of 104 timber frame vacation chalets at Kimberley, B.C. The design and the master plan for KHMR were expanded with a new master plan, bringing the base to 20,000 beds and including a new golf course plan with the assistance of renowned golf professional Tom McBroom,. The new master plan’s approval was announced by the Premier on January 21, 2000, when the Olympic Torch was brought to KHMR.

Oberto’s office continued to diversify with the creation of the integrated shopping centre of the Delbrook Plaza and the office building at 2030 Marine Drive in North Vancouver, and designing residential high rise buildings in New Westminster on Columbia and on Tenth Street, in Burnaby on Patterson Street and in Vancouver on Harwood Street, on Bidwell Street and twice on Georgia Street.

The project at 1728 Bidwell Street was designed and built when Oberto Oberti was one of the first Certified Professionals of the City of Vancouver, a remarkable program of unique cooperation between design professionals and the Building Department of the City of Vancouver. The building permit for this project was processed in a record time of forty-eight hours, and perhaps this was the high point of the Certified Professional Program, later used extensively by the University of British Columbia Real Estate Corporation development group, for which Oberto Oberti served as a Development Committee member.

Townhouses and low-rise residential buildings were designed in Surrey, Coquitlam, Burnaby, Richmond and Vancouver. Pheidias Project Management presented to the municipality of West Vancouver the winning bid for the twin towers later built at Park Royal by the Viam development group on the Eastern portion of the shopping centre. Some projects extended as far as Quebec, where the Oberti group planned a major residential expansion of the suburban area of Bellefeuille and designed the first prototype units, now repeated many times. Major planning jobs included urban concepts such as the redevelopment of the Continental Can site in Burnaby to resort plans, such as the Whiskey Jack Resort project near Sparwood, BC.

School and church designs contributed to an increasingly diversified portfolio: Oberto’s team designed the church and rectory for the Parish of Christ the Redeemer in West Vancouver (which was subsequently chosen by the CBC as a broadcast location for Easter Mass). Churches and halls in Aldegrove and Sechelt followed. The church in Aldergrove, named after Sts. Joachim & Ann, was the first church in B.C. that was constructed utilizing tilt-up concrete technology to raise its structure, accomplished in one day by crane. The design was attentive to aesthetic details and the panel structure is not readily apparent. The concrete walls were used to build a gymnasium that acts as a podium for the church, accessed from the higher ground of the site. The eye of the visitor is attracted by the powerful and exposed timber structure of the roof, which contains the church.

There were also designs of a school and gymnasium for St Joseph the Worker in Richmond, an addition to St. Patrick’s High School in Vancouver, a music hall for Notre Dame High School in Vancouver, and numerous other school additions and modifications.

Several distinctive private homes have been designed. A spectacular home on West Vancouver’s waterfront on Bellevue Avenue won a Gold Georgie Award and was featured on Home and Garden Television in the United States as an example of the best of contemporary west coast design A unique log mansion overlooking a lake was designed for a ranch near Williams Lake in the Cariboo region of B.C. for the Chairman of Hunter Dickinson, a major mining group.

Oberto participated to Expo ’86 with the professional certification of the Korean Pavilion, and then in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino with the design of the BC/Canada House, a log building and presentation centre pre-fabricated in Canada utilizing pine beetle deceased logs and erected in the centre of an historical piazza in Torino for the 2006 Winter Olympics to exemplify a Canadian resort home.

This Olympic venue became the most successful one of the Torino Olympics, with over 150,000 visitors in two weeks. The building was moved later into the Alps, where it has become a tourism destination. Later, in 2010 in Vancouver, the award winning project done at 698 West Hastings Street (the former CIBC building), was transformed into the successful venue for receptions for the Winter Olympics, with the most important dignitaries and the Canadian medal winners sponsored by Birks Jewelers.

When Oberto Oberti was active as a Certified Professional for the City of Vancouver, he had been asked by Jonathan Birks, President of Henry Birks and Sons Ltd., to facilitate the solution of a problem regarding the access to its flagship store in Vancouver at Georgia and Granville Streets. This led to a study by Pheidias Project Management for the ideal location and lease arrangements for a flagship jewelry store, and instead of renovating the existing location it became apparent that the corner opposite to the Escada store at West Hastings and Granville was a better choice, both as a location and for its leasing conditions. It was an historical Bank of Commerce building at 698 West Hastings Street that had been poorly renovated in the 1950s, with an interior that was an enormous rectangular box of marble. The location and the price were right, but the building was a challenge. Despite that the Oberti group designed and built a spectacular freestanding flagship jewelry store that became a landmark in the City of Vancouver and won the Heritage Award of the City of Vancouver, evidenced by a bronze plaque at the entry doors.

The Pheidias and Oberti design groups soon became the exclusive designers for all Birks stores across North America, a legacy that continues today, and was expanded with many other commercial designs including all the new Mayors jewelry stores in the South Eastern United States in the last nine years. Retail store design and renovation activity expanded across North America, including a group of Life Lab laboratories, Cartier boutiques, Rolex stores and many others.

The panorama of the company projects would not be complete without mentioning the contribution to First Nations projects, from the design of an interpretive centre at the St. Eugene Mission Hotel project near Cranbrook, B.C., to the Nitinat Lake Resort project for the Ditidhat First Nation on Vancouver Island. First Nations involvement in resort projects created friendships that started many years ago and are enduring.

The Oberti group continues to be involved in leading edge projects across North America that will see development in the next few years. Most notable are designs for significant blocks waiting for development in Greater Vancouver and new mountain resort projects. Among them stands out the project commissioned by a leading Chinese philanthropist, Niu Gensheng for an alternative mixed use design for the art gallery site at Cambie and Georgia Street, comprising a U shaped high rise complex that won much praise, even if the gallery directors may still prefer the single use project that they have envisioned for many years. The Village of Valemount called Oberto Oberti to repeat the design success of the much admired first glacier access project and of the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort development. At their request and with the Simpcw First Nation’s encouragement the Pheidias team created the Master Plan for the Valemount Glacier Destinations project near Robson Provincial Park and Jasper National Park, unanimously approved with an Impact Management and Benefits Agreement with the aboriginal people and a Master Development Agreement with the Province of British Columbia for the development and acquisition of Crown land. The project is not only sanctioned by all the First Nations of the region, but it obtained unanimous approval by the local government, with Official Community Plan approval and zoning concurrent with the provincial approvals. It is a truly unique community driven project of North American scope that is defined as shovel ready” and “shovel worthy”.

The Pheidias Group managed the pandemic and it logistics with most of the team working mainly from home through electronic communication, and it has regrouped with part of the staff resuming work from the office and assisting in due diligence and the resumption of construction preparations of its major projects. Commercial stores, a design of a new church at Whistler and new projects to respond to the housing crisis in Vancouver have continued the diversified activities of the design and project management office.

Oberto Oberti’s design studio operates with the classical philosophical belief that the key of business and of design success consists in working with nature, not against nature. In design terms and in the development industry this means to enhance opportunities with ideas that build on what is naturally given, and avoiding the loss of energy that often occurs when we try to force nature, or people, to do what is not given in harmony or warranted by circumstances. Great obstacles can be overcome working with nature, the greatest available lever, and great projects are brought to life in this manner. This is part of the real background for the successful projects that have been created.

Part of the design philosophy of the studio is that of enhancing the message of the client as well as the enjoyment of a quality lifestyle, provided by carefully conceived and executed design. Projects of all sizes, from the design of interiors to large-scale plans, are accomplished in a team environment with the other consultants and the contractors, with a commitment to create innovative and economically successful projects. The design aims at a timeless artistic quality together with design innovation and market acceptance, providing real solutions to real problems. The design and project management studio’s ability to work on a large variety of design projects allows to cross reference, to look outside the box, and to achieve greater innovation than if there was concentration in any single field of design activity.

The aim of perfection is achieved by approaching each design project as a unique project, rather than through adaptation and repetition. Perfection through repetition may be successful as the aim of trades, but should not be the aim of designers, because repetition makes the design less and less fit rather than more perfect. The perfection of the tailor is more suited as an example of perfection of design.

In addition to excellence in design, Oberto Oberti has been at the forefront of innovative construction techniques and of municipal and provincial approval processes.

He delivered many speeches and published lectures, notably at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, for the Conference Internationale du Batiment ’84, and at the Politecnico University of Milan, Italy. His presentation on project management was published again by the international conference on “Contract Management in the Construction Industry” held in Singapore in November 1999. Many other unpublished presentations were given at Universities, Colleges, Associations and Service Clubs. He also taught the Building Code of the City of Vancouver for the Certified Professional Program at the University of British Columbia for ten years.

Numerous articles on Mr. Oberti, his companies and his work have been published in newspapers and magazines, in Canada and overseas. His design studio became also the learning centre for many students and technicians who became accomplished architects, as well as for some planners and even for two prominent lawyers.

He and his office have cooperated with a large network of consultants, nationally and internationally, especially in the planning stages of major projects. In the United States, he has been associated with EQE Engineering of San Francisco, with William L. Pereira Associates and with the McMahon Partnership in Los Angeles. In Japan has been associated with the office of Raymond Tanabe Design of Tokyo, and in France with Diener Guirard Architecture of Paris. In British Columbia, during the 1990’s the design studio included Dr. Alan Artibise, past Dean of the School of Community and Regional Planning of the University of British Columbia and past Provost at the University of Texas at Brownville and Michael Vaughan, Architect AIBC, MCIP, (who also practiced as a senior lawyer at Owen Bird in Vancouver) as planning associates.

In addition to being a member of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, and of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC,) Oberto Oberti chaired the Housing Committee and the Urban Design Panel Committee of the AIBC, served two terms as a Council member of the AIBC, has been a member of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards of the United States, of the Development Committee of UBC Realty Inc. (the former University of British Columbia Real Estate Corporation), a member of the Civic Affairs Committee of the Vancouver Board of Trade, the West Vancouver Rotary Club, the Whistler Mountain Ski Club, the Terminal City Club, the North Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, and has been a Director of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Canada -West and is a Director of the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty and a member or Lambda Alpha International, an honorary land economics society.