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Ron Thom and the Allied Arts: Trent’s Master Planning Architect

ron thom

Trent University, considered by most as one of Ron Thom’s ultimate masterpieces, currently features the “Ron Thom and the Allied Arts: Trent University’s Master Planning Architect” exhibition. It is part of the university’s 50th anniversary commemorations.

The exhibition at Trent University’s Peterborough campus opened on August 7 and it is to remain open until October 22, at Alumni House.

The exhibition first opened last summer at the West Vancouver Museum and will travel to the Beaverbrook Museum in Fredericton in November.

“The exhibition is to bring profile and recognition to the visionary, artistic and architectural genius of Ron Thom,” said Trent’s director of Alumni Affairs, Lee Hays, as
the main objective for hosting the event.

Further, bringing awareness to the community, including students, of the architectural spirit of Trent University will help preserve and protect the places in which they learn and work together.

Canadian architect Ron Thom, master architect of Trent, is no stranger to the University. His legacy stands tall and audacious, starting from the aesthetic buildings on Symons campus, to the Faryon Bridge, to the downtown campus.

It was pointed out that “The Link” at Sadleir House, Wallis Hall at Traill College, Champlain College, Bata Library, Lady Eaton College, Faryon Bridge, and The Science Complex are the proud designs of Ron Thom.

Starting as a young artist and architect, and inspired by Bert Binning and the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, he and his exceptional group of peers designed over 100 modular homes in the Vancouver region. Thom drew on the aesthetics of these modern homes as prototype in his designs throughout Canada, including two of his masterpieces, Massey College and the original buildings of Trent University.

He is also the master architect of Shaw Theatre and Fleming College, among many other buildings across Canada.

“As a student at Lady Eaton College in the early 1990’s, it was difficult for me to pinpoint what it was specifically that contributed to the intimate feeling of the college,” said Hays. She said that she had very little appreciation for how special and unique the learning environment at Trent was.

To be involved, 20 years later, in coordinating an exhibit to recognize the brilliant and strategic design of the university, was eye-opening for her.

Trent’s founding president, Thomas H. B. Symons, having observed the construction of Massey College, championed Ron Thom for the role of Trent’s Master Planning Architect.

“Thom brought with him respect for the setting: respect for nature and for the surrounding environment. At Trent this was combined with deep and thoughtful attention to the needs and concerns of the students and their professors,” said Hays.

Architectural writer and the curator of Ron Thom and the Allied Arts, Adele Weder called Thomas H. B. Symons the co-architecture of Trent. History has shown that he worked with Ron Thom, and without Tom Symons’ concepts, the architecture wouldn’t have happened.

She described Ron as an artisan in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright. He was a very gifted painter, almost cezanne-like in his early years during set school.

“I was inspired by the fact that I was working on a book about his life and work, and realized that many people were not aware of who he was and what he accomplished.

“Trent was very supportive of helping me create an exhibition to show everybody who he was,” says Adele on how and why the exhibition started in the first place.

The exhibit showcases Ron Thom’s origins and inspirations—his childhood as a piano prodigy, his early years as a visual artist, and the art teachers who influenced him deeply. It shows how these have played out in his designs for homes and university buildings.

There are sketches and plans he did for various buildings, watercolours he painted, and even a door that he designed that is currently on loan from a family in Vancouver (they’ve had to board up their front door and use the side one in the meantime).

The exhibit also includes works that he commissioned—things like lamps, furniture, and ashtrays—as well as many, many photos and some excellent video footage of the buildings he worked on.

Exhibit Coordinator Caileigh Morrison, said that an excellent aspect of having the exhibit at Alumni House is that the entire campus becomes a part of it; one can see the curated exhibit, but also look up and see the beautiful vaulted ceiling, huge windows, and the rubble aggregate walls, to be met with architecture which blends harmoniously with the landscape on stepping out.

“You are completely immersed in his work, instead of being at a distance from it, as you will be if you see the exhibit in a museum or gallery,” added Morrison.

“No matter how large his buildings got, they retained the feeling of small houses—warm and intimate,” is how Morrison described Thom’s work.

She said that his designs gave the feeling that they were at home and that though his designs are impressive, they aren’t showy—it’s all about bringing people together in a safe, comfortable environment.

Ron Thom was an interesting character. He was a gifted pianist, and it can be seen in his designs as he almost always designated a spot for a grand piano.

He had no schooling as an architect; he actually attended the Vancouver School of Art before apprenticing at an architectural firm.

He is also a somewhat tragic figure: he died fairly young, at 63, and suffered from alcoholism.

From what Morrison knows, he was described as a darkly funny and likeable guy. He had remained close friends with the university’s founders, and was also known to be sharp tongued–some of his letters are on display at the exhibit and some are hilariously mean.

Through this exhibit, they are hoping to raise awareness of Ron Thom as a gifted Canadian architect, and also cultivate an appreciation for his work, said Morrison.

This is especially important on the Trent campus, because many students, staff and faculty never realize just how important their living and learning spaces are in the greater picture of Canadian architecture.

Hopefully, this awareness will lead to the protection and restoration that his works deserve, she added.

To complement the exhibition being featured, a panel discussion was held on Thursday, September 11 in the Great Hall at Champlain College.

The panelists discussed Ron Thom’s work as the foundation of Trent’s distinctive modernist campus and buildings, and his architectural legacy.

The panelists were Denis Smith, founding vice-president of Trent University (1965-68) and first chair of the Politics Department (1966-71); Bill Lett Sr., principal emeritus of Lett Architects, who worked with Ron Thom on the design of Trent University; Larry Wayne Richards, professor emeritus at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto, and former architectural heritage advisor for Trent University, from 1992-1995; and Brigitte Shim, principal of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, and professor at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto.

Ron Thom and the Allied Arts is a partnership project of the West Vancouver Museum, Trent University and Massey College at the University of Toronto, with the support of the Canadian Architectural Archives in the University of Calgary, and the Gardiner Museum and Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

The Canada Council for the Arts and British Columbia Arts Council provided the foundation grants, which have been generously matched by many donors and supporters, including Peterborough’s LLF Lawyers, the lead sponsor of the Trent exhibit.


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