It is a mystery, hiding behind a cloak of nubbly brown brick. As you approach Massey College at the University of Toronto, the building huddles back from the sidewalk; a few chinks in the surface reveal filigrees of metalwork, nibs of copper, squiggly vines reaching down from above. But it’s through the doorway that the building begins to reveal itself: an orderly courtyard with ranks of sculpted concrete and ochre brick, velvety stone underfoot, and fountains burbling and hissing even in the winter snow. You are, suddenly, a world away from the humming buses and chattering students on the street.
And that’s even before you step indoors and put your hands on the intricately formed concrete railings, the custom-made oak tables, the ceramics hand-moulded to fit into this specific environment. The power of this place is tremendous, and there are plaques on the wall that give credit to its maker: “Remember Ron Thom.”
The B.C.-born architect shaped this space, as he did the campus of Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., with a sure eye and a decisive hand. Before alcohol and illness eroded his career, too early, he produced some of the most beautiful and fully realized architecture ever made in Canada.
Now, 50 years after the completion of his masterpieces, he is getting some attention for the full range of his work, with the impressive exhibition Ron Thom and the Allied Arts, opening this week at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum. Organized by B.C. curator Adele Weder, the show explores the connections between Thom’s buildings, the landscapes around them, and all the things they contained. Expanded for the Gardiner from a Vancouver run, Weder’s show reveals the range and richness of a devoted artist’s career. “He saw architecture as part of a continuum,” Weder says. “He thought it was all one total work of art: The building is part of it, the furniture is part of it, the ceramics are part of it. There is no discontinuity.”
The exhibition comprises period photographs of Thom’s 1960s buildings, and original drawings and sketches that demonstrate his mind and hand at work. But it also features furniture of Thom’s design; lamps and silverware he commissioned for Massey College; even a door he designed for a private home in West Vancouver, which bears a grid of hexagons and triangles, à la Frank Lloyd Wright, that echo the plan of its building.
Such touches place Thom (1923-1986) far out of today’s mainstream architectural culture, where drawing is almost obsolete and architects rarely have the inclination – or the power – to finesse the details of their buildings. His work makes an argument to bring handicraft, which now stands in an artisanal ghetto of its own, back in touch with the making of architecture. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Thom used his professional position to emphasize the handcrafted and deeply specific. And he had standards; a letter in the exhibition shows him complaining about some particular young silversmiths, “dull Canadians who could not be excited by silver if they were boiling in it.”
The most fully realized of Thom’s buildings is Massey College, built as a “haven” for a small group of academics and graduate students. Commissioned by the Massey Foundation, it reflected Thom’s vision, from the towers to the bread knives, and showed a respect for both architectural history and inventive approaches to such ancient materials as brass and iron. This place “should be capable,” Thom wrote, “of being seen in many ways and of unfolding itself by degrees – probably never completely.” It was seen by many architects in the sixties as a bit retrograde. Now, most of that era’s steel and glass, which seemed fresh then, look poorly detailed and banal. Thom’s buildings are humane, quirky and timeless.
Weder credits Thom’s fusion of art and architecture partly to the fertile arts scene of 1950s Vancouver. The Penticton son of a metalworker and a lawyer, Thom attended the Vancouver School of Art, and practised briefly as a painter. He benefited from his immersion in the city’s tiny but rich avant-garde scene, which included his teacher, modernist painter B.C. Binning; and the precocious Arthur Erickson. “Vancouver circa 1950 was a small town attracting some very creative people,” Weder says, “visual artists and writers as well as architects. And they all fed off each other.” Among them was Christine Millard, a potter and multidisciplinary artist who became Thom’s first wife.
Thom moved into architecture seamlessly, quickly working his way up from apprentice to chief designer at the establishment firm of Thompson Berwick Pratt. His lack of formal education would always eat at him, but his talent prevailed: Working on large projects during the day, and designing houses at night, he honed a design language. Weder, in the show’s catalogue, draws connections between his painting and the “thick, dark, strongly oblique organizing lines” of his painting and his houses.
After he established his office in Toronto in 1964, this approach followed Thom from the intense landscapes of the Lower Mainland into Toronto and Ontario: He changed his language but not his philosophy, as he went on to design Trent, the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo, and the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Each reflects a painter’s eye for texture in its varied surfaces of concrete, stone, brick and wood. At Trent’s Champlain College, students touch concrete walls studded with stones, and walk panels of stone set into grass; in the dining hall, heroic concrete arches harmonize with planes of honey-hued wood.
Thom produced his best work in the early sixties (he won the competition for Massey College in 1960), and in the process he escaped the orthodoxy of his generation: the dogma of the International Style, which demanded the most innovative technology; “machine-age” materials, such as plate glass and steel; revealing the structural “truth” of a building; and avoiding ornament.
Thom never agreed to this agenda. In the catalogue for the exhibition, Brigitte Shim of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects – whose firm has drawn direct inspiration from Thom’s work – pays tribute to him for his steady values. Thom, she writes, focused on the Massey Foundation’s goals for the college – dignity, grace, beauty and warmth – and “made them part of the function.” You can see this in the conversation pit in Massey College’s common room, a line of intimate alcoves that place gorgeous wood and leather furniture next to views of the private gardens. This is a room where you want to sit and exchange ideas.
“One of the first things people note about his work is its ability to dig into a site and make a project entirely about his setting,” says his son Adam Thom. “It seems as though the buildings should always have been there.”
Adam, the son of Thom and his second wife, Molly, is a talented architect himself. After his father’s premature death, he eventually found his way into his dad’s profession; he now runs a distinguished practice with his wife and partner, Katja Aga Sachse Thom, whose work shows a common interest in natural materials and handicraft. Adam Thom admits struggling with his father’s legacy – but while the personal history is fraught, he sees clear lessons from his father’s career.
“With him, there was a black-and-white response to things,” he recalls. “He carried that attitude everywhere, but very successfully so into design. There really was just a good way to design, and it was a very visceral response as opposed to a learned, academic way of doing things.”