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The Bauhaus in Peterborough Add to ...

To men like Eberhard Zeidler, there is no such thing as "modern" architecture - just architecture. When he emigrated from Karlsruhe, Germany, to Peterborough in 1951, it's not like his new employers - architects Walter Blackwell and Jim Craig - told him to design crazy-cool modern buildings.

Just to design what made sense.

"People want a building," says the 82-year-old architect while sitting at his Toronto dining room table 57 years later, "and they don't think of any style. And so, you [explained]to them how the building would work best and how it would be the most economic way to put together, and then they said, 'Okay,' and then it was finished and it was modern."

It was, he adds, architecture that "worked better." It worked well enough that Mr. Zeidler became Blackwell & Craig's chief designer early on and a partner by 1954, the same year that his Grace United Church on Howden Street was completed - which caused a "great uproar" because of its strikingly modernist form. It also was around the time he was wrapping his head around a residential project on Walkerfield Avenue. Its "funny site" seemed to suggest that the house have a garage where the front door ought to go.

This innovative design won Mr. Zeidler his first Massey Medal for Architecture, and he'd create many more private houses, as well as churches, banks, schools and government buildings as a result.

To the good denizens of 1950s Peterborough, it must have seemed as if their old 19th-century town was being completely blown away by this newcomer and his strange new architecture. Softening the blow, however, was the mighty pen of Robertson Davies: As editor of the Peterborough Examiner from 1940 to 1955, he was the first to embrace Mr. Zeidler's work in print, which helped a great deal to "melt the arguments," he says.

Good thing, too, or he may have packed up and headed for Peru. In 1949, while working for Emanuel Lindner in Germany, he'd contacted an architecturally well-connected aunt in South America for a job, since, as he puts it, he "wanted to explore and do things."

Fortunately for Southern Ontarians, the paperwork took so long to process that by the time Peru was ready for him, he was already a partner in Peterborough and had met his future life partner, Jane Abbott.

These architectural memories and a few unrelated others - including a fascinating tale about an illegal border crossing in 1948 - come flowing from Mr. Zeidler's lips as he flips through Peterborough Modern, a 47-page volume released this past October by the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation's Susan Algie and Docomomo Ontario's James Ashby.

Featuring almost 30 buildings, the guide is an excellent companion for a walking or driving tour, and, hopefully, it will convince cottagers blasting past Peterborough that a detour is in order to they can spend a day ogling this incredible bevy of Bauhaus beauties.

Little has been written about the incredibly influential German multidisciplinary school after the infamous Nazi shutdown in 1933. That it was started up again in 1946 by faculty that hadn't escaped to the West (notable escapees were Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) is more than a historical footnote.

Although the Russians would shut the school down forever three years later, in that short time, Mr. Zeidler and others received instruction by Mies disciples Gustav Hassenpflug, Hermann Henselmann and the aforementioned Emanuel Lindner. Another of his teachers, Egon Eiermann, was his "greatest influence," Mr. Zeidler says.

How many other Ontario towns can boast of being a direct branch on the Bauhaus family tree?

Since Blackwell Craig & Zeidler had virtually no competition, it's a safe bet that any good, mid-century-modern Peterborough buildings not found in the guidebook and not part of Ron Thom's Trent University can be attributed to the office. (In fact, there is a Bank of Montreal building on page 36 listed as "architect unknown" that Mr. Zeidler says is definitely his.) This is much like Joseph W. Storey's modernist practice dominating Chatham-Kent from 1947 until his untimely death in 1975.

Unfortunately, since there are few private houses listed in Peterborough Modern, it's difficult to know exactly which are Mr. Zeidler's (he did so many that even he can't remember) and which are builder's copies or Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. off-the-shelfers. No matter, a drive around Roper Drive and Merino Road is worthwhile, if only to see why small, thoughtfully sited homes beat plopped-down "McMansions" every time.

Although Mr. Zeidler moved the firm to Toronto in 1963, the Peterborough buildings are a bricks-and-mortar record tracing an incredible journey that would ultimately produce Ontario Place, the Toronto Eaton Centre and other mega-projects around the world.

Yet, as the authors point out in their introduction, "The architecture of the modern era in Peterborough has yet to be documented and evaluated." If this is indeed the case, it raises the question: What can Peterborough do to remedy this? Can a collection of scattered buildings become a singular resource for tourism, academia or both?

"Well, they should think of it in this way," Mr. Zeidler answers softly, then, with a shrug: "I don't know really how it can work."

In addition to the countless awards given to Mr. Zeidler over the years, the Ontario Association of Architects bestowed the 2008 Landmark Award on the Toronto Eaton Centre. The Peterborough guide can be ordered at Amazon.com, or from the authors by e-mailing

 

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