During the 1950s, the “International Style” came to Canada. This style of architecture, also referred to as “international modernism” rejected the ornamentation of the decade's prior dominance of art-deco and lasted from about 1917-1965.
You can think of architects outside the US like Mies Van Der Rohe, or Le Corbusier, for reference. Landmarks of US modernism like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, and the Eames House. Architectural Modernism in the US developed in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as shafts of steel began sprouting throughout the US. Think of the Flatiron Building in New York City, for example. Massive steel frame skyscrapers were revolutionary in terms of their sheer height for the time.
What are the landmarks of Canadian Modernist Architecture though? The first that comes to mind for many, especially internationally, might be Mosh Safdie and his striking superstructure Habitat. A series of modern-urban, stacked, housing units situated on Saint Lawrence River, in Montreal, Quebec; Habitat was Montreal’s response to the arrival of the Megastructure in Canada.
It really is something to see. I've had the opportunity to tour the building, and although it’s not necessarily the most environmentally friendly building with that many unnecessarily exposed external walls on every unit, it is gorgeous, foreboding, and it has a sense of scale you can only really appreciate in person.
Habitat was built for the 1967 Universal and International Exhibition, or Expo 67, in Montreal. Expo 67 was fertile grounds for some of Canada’s leading architectural talent and most avant-garde architectural visions. Expo 67 and Habitat, drew the eyes of the international community to Canadian modern architecture. But it was Ron Thom’s Massey College that some argue was the real impetus for Canadian modern architecture-quo-Canadian modern architecture. Included amongst this prestigious talent at Expo 67 was one Ron Thom, with the Polymer and Air Canada Pavilion.
Massey College was a prestigious build in Canada, awarded to Ron Thom by Vincent Massey. It was the most significant moment of Thom’s career and was finished in 1963. The aim of the project was to build a college for graduate students at the University of Toronto.
“The purpose of the institution would not be to simply house a group of graduate students, but to select the best men available and to form a distinguished collegiate community,” Massey stated in a letter to the chairman of the Board of Governors and the President of U of T, Claude Bissell, in 1959.
Massey eventually wrote a detailed description of how he interpreted the furture build. He was insistent that the building be quadrangular, to “reflect the life that goes on inside it” Massey explained in the letter to invitation, which is one of the first stages in procuring architectural work in Canada through the project-bidding system.
When Ron Thom was eventually awarded with the project, he literally designed the quadrangle building envisioned by Massey. The largest spaces were built into the middle of this central building. After rounds of revision, Thom developed his second submission, which drove home even further Massey’s vision of a building “larger” than the sum of its parts.
Due to Thom’s new connection and prestige associated with Massey College, it put him in contact with a plethora of Canadian academics and important people. While entertaining in Thom’s apartment, he eventually made some connections with the important people of the soon-to-be Trent University.
In 1961, one Tom Symons was approached by a committee of citizens, a planning committee in Peterborough to build a junior college, asking the professor to build what would become Trent University.
Professor Symons had been educated at the University of Toronto and would return to the university as a tutor in history at Trinity College and Devonshire House.
It was at the construction site of Massey College that a short conversation between Symons and Thom would eventually lead to the realization of Symons' vision for a unique Canadian campus. Professor Symons found his architect, Trent University is being built in Peterborough, Ontario.
As Trent University's Master Planning Architect, Thom would realize a holistic interpretation of Symon’s vision for a collegiate university inspired by schools in England. Collegiate communities would be formed around Trent University, where students could collaborate dynamically between colleges, again, forming something greater than the sum of its parts.
Thom's architectural projects at Trent University include the Faryon Bridge, Lady Eaton College, Champlain College, Bata Library, Wallis Hall at Traill college, the Science Complex, and part of Sadleir House.
While Thom lent his immense architectural talent and interpretation of Symon’s vision to building Trent University, it could have never happened without Professor Symons. Symons worked very closely with his architect in building what we now know as Trent University.
Ron Thom was certainly a visionary in his own right, and there’s a reason both Vincent Massey and Tom Symons, both well-known and respected figures in Canadian society at the time, sought out Thom for realizing their projects.
Few architects have contributed as greatly to the Canadian architectural canon as Ron Thom. Likened to Frank Lloyd Wright, not just due to his architectural style being likened to his modernist contemporaries, but like Frank Lloyd Wright, chose to view the architectural design with a greater scope of responsibility for buildings and the people who inhabit them; from landscaping, to furnishing.
Thom was originally trained as a painter, and like Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies Van Der Rohe, came to develop a keen interest in and work in the Architectural industry through alternative means. He was trained in painting at the Vancouver School of Art, and some of these early-Thom paintings were exhibited some-years back at the exhibition Ron Thom and Allied Arts. He became a registered architect in 1957, after working for the architectual firm Thompson, Berwick, Pratt & Partners in Vancouver and would eventually become partner of the firm.
However, it was Thom’s time as a painter that would ultimately set the course for his contribution to Canadian modernist architecture. Studying under two-mechas of European modernism during his time at the Vancouver School of Art, B.C Binning, and Jack Shadbolt. Shadbolt was massively inspired by a young Emily Carr, a hallmark in Canadian painting who emerged as one of the first Artists of national importance in Canada, whom he met in Vancouver in 1930 after emigrating from England to Victoria in 1914. Shadbolt would also come to be recognized as Canada’s most important artists drawing his inspiration from various modern art movements, like cubism and surrealism.
This is to say that even a young Thom had modernism on his mind some-decades prior to the arrival of what I referred to as Canadian modern architecture-quo-Canadian modern architecture, and by 1963, Thom was a celebrated Canadian architect known for one the most significant early-contributions to Canadian modern architecture.
Trent University held its first classes in 1964. The downtown buildings were built first, mostly through renovating old houses and making use of existing buildings, and clusters of small buildings around them which, while the downtown colleges were intended to be temporary, are still in-use today, at Traill College.
Next, they designated how the Trent University lands would be used, which if you’ve ever been to Trent, it may already be obvious to you the kinds of hurdles they initially faced. The Otonabee River is right there, for example.
The site's ecology and micro-climate were studied intensively, and even a pre-existing dam and electrical power station on the river became university property (yes, Trent owns things!) via a gift from Canadian General Electric, with the plan of providing the university with its own power, an all-electric campus.
Trent is also built atop two drumlins, two grass hills, on both sides of the Otonabee. The Architectual team led by Thom, drew diagrams of how-to layout the colleges, library, science buildings, and gathering areas, it all came together.
Following Trent’s completion came much praise from architectural press in Canada, the UK, and the United States. It was both idealistic and ruthlessly practical in how its form follows its function. Thom’s ability to merge the architectural vision with Symons academic ideals created one of Canada’s most unique campuses, and a landmark of Canadian modern architecture.
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