Trent University: Architecture of scholarship and community


If you have set foot on the Trent University Peterborough campus, odds are that you have noticed its singular aesthetic. Whether you love it or hate it, or just can’t navigate all those damned stairs when trying to get home from the Ceilie, one has to admit that Trent looks nothing like any other university.

There are some very specific reasons for this. When Trent was founded in 1964, the mandate expressed peculiar requests for the firm that won the bid to build the university:
“The campus should be designed for pedestrians, and buildings should be on a human scale to complement and emphasize the University’s concern for the individual,” it was noted in the 1964 Instructions to the Architect.

The buildings that constitute the university were intended to be seamless in their design to the founding concepts of Trent. First and foremost in the plans was the central place of the colleges in the university’s operation.

Rooms were designed to create an intimacy for their patrons and stimulate academic discussion among colleagues. “The University should be a place of aesthetic as well of intellectual excitement.”

Ron Thom

The Master Architect was Ron Thom, who is widely lauded as one of Canada’s most important modern architects. He was invited to compete for the university’s contract and was chosen unanimously by the planning committee. He began the planning stages of work in 1963.

Thom was of the modern school of architecture, which features a harmony between nature, society and machine. In Thom’s vision of the university, the buildings would be a natural extension of the drumlin, the forest, and the Otonabee River. The concrete construction of Champlain, Lady Eaton, and the Science Complex would emulate the geological features of Precambrian Shield rocks.

The shifting vistas and linear construction of facades such as the Bata library was drawn from the functionality of machine aesthetics while softened by the proximity to nature.

Historical Timeline

Trent University admitted its first students in September 1964. In an effort to get the burgeoning school on its feet, the Planning Committee decided to purchase houses in downtown Peterborough where Peter Robinson and Catherine Parr Traill colleges would be. Thom and his associates renovated the interiors of these historical mansions to suit the uses of the university. Paint was still drying as students moved in.

Peter Robinson College was located along George St and Water St just north of Parkhill Rd. It was initially a series of houses owned by Trent, which students rented from. The main college house (now Sadleir House) was where students attended classes and partook in college meals.

In 1967, the first college on the Nassau Mills campus opened its doors. Champlain College incorporated a novel form of construction in rubble aggregate concrete. This form of construction was expensive and time consuming but revolutionary for the time.

The college had been planned to open in 1966, during that year President THB Symons appealed to the residents of Peterborough to house these students as lodgers, many did and had positive experiences. However, many students could not find homes and were forced to stay in a motel for the year.

Lady Eaton College was opened in autumn of 1968 as a women’s only college. Thom was inspired by Japanese style of architecture with a confluence of wood and smooth concrete interiors. Objections in the planning stages converted many rooms from large single occupancy residence to dual occupancy rooms, so that the college could house more students.

In 1968, the Chemistry building opened as the first building on the East bank of campus. Thom used a construction technique called board-marked concrete which gave the exterior of the buildings a smooth, monochromatic finish. While Thom designed the exterior and some furniture, the labs were outfitted by a university committee.


To connect the two colleges and the chemistry buildings, the Faryon bridge was constructed for 1968. Morden Yolles, a structural engineer in partnership with Thom, designed the bridge. Yolles incorporated the concrete construction that trademarked Thom’s style and complemented it with parabolic forms and a graceful arch.

Bata Library opened its doors in 1969 and quickly became the hub of campus life. The Podium was designed to resemble a town square and provide a meeting space for students and vendor space. The library itself embraced the rubble aggregate construction technique used in Champlain, this building, however, used significantly more glass in its construction. Thom hoped to create a continuity between buildings, and thus, many of the features in Champlain and Lady Eaton colleges are echoed in his other buildings.

In 1971, the university began construction on the Peter Robinson townhouses, which housed students of the college until it was sold in 2003, sparking large student protests. In 2004, students of Trent held a referendum and created the Peter Robinson College Student Association (PRCSA) which now operates Sadleir House as a student space. In 2009, the Peterborough Student Housing Co-operative was created as an independent organization and offers rental apartments to students.

Otonabee College was constructed at an odd juncture in the university’s continuity. Built by 1973, Thom had very little input in the execution of its construction, and architect Macy Dubois is credited with its accomplishment. The university was also running low on funding for this new college. They incorporated larger residential capacity and a more Spartan design to compensate. Several aspects of the college were skipped entirely.

In 1991, the Environmental Science Complex was built to house the burgeoning environmental studies programs. It was designed by Richard Henriquez to remind observers of the scientific as well as cultural issues facing the environment. Approaching the building, one might notice the mythical fire-breathing dragon.

The dragon was designed to remind observers how human’s quest for scientific knowledge should be complemented by cultural analysis. The building also features a green roof that is home to the Trent Vegetable Gardens, which provides the Seasoned Spoon Café with fresh vegetables.

Peter Gzowski College (Enweying) was opened in 2004 amid much controversy. Changes to the design plans spearheaded by President Bonnie Patterson led to contentious decisions.

The removal of many student spaces and the vast style shift from Thom’s modernist vision were key to the debate. Enweying has a capacity of 250 residents, the same as Lady Eaton College, with similar numbers of faculty offices and lecture halls. Yet, the design could not be more different. The yellow, red, black, and white colours incorporated into the design reflect the colours of the Anishinaabe medicine wheel.

gzowski construction

Moving into the future, the TCSA plans on building a new student centre, which in its first designs complements the principles of Ron Thom’s modern architecture. However, due to budget constraints and internal debates, it remains to be seen how the design of this building will fit with the overall aesthetic of Trent University.

There is no denying that the campus is a stunning piece of visual artwork. Yet, painfully little is being done to preserve this masterpiece. Trent University is arguably Ron Thom’s masterpiece, but the university fails this architectural art piece time and again. You cannot walk around campus without finding something that needs to be fixed or returned to its former glory.

About Ayesha Barmania 45 Articles
Ayesha Barmania is a 4th year student in International Development Studies and Anthropology. At Arthur she mainly writes about local issues and campus affairs, but will take most things she finds interesting. Outside of Arthur, she hosts a radio show called Something Like That on Trent Radio (Saturdays at 8PM), is sometimes on the Arthur Hour (Saturdays at 4 PM), and co-hosts the Devil’s Advocate (Mondays at 2:30PM). She has an irregularly updated Twitter (@AyeshaBarmania). Typically spotted with a coffee in hand and rushing around because she’s made far too many appointments for a 24 hour day.