The architect for two of Canada’s most famous buildings – the SkyDome in Toronto and the Canadian Government Pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal – has died at 83 in Toronto.
Roderick “Rod” G. Robbie died Wednesday morning in St. Michael’s Hospital where he’d been admitted Christmas Day for treatment to alleviate the restriction of blood flow to his small intestine. Until shortly before this hospitalization, Mr. Robbie visited the offices of Robbie Young + Wright/IBI Group Architects daily.
Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan, a long-time family friend, described the architect, an Officer of the Order of Canada since 2003, as “one of the most extraordinary craftspeople that’s ever graced the industry in this country . . . When my dad [Colin, now deceased, a former Toronto councillor and architecture partner with Mr. Robbie] talked about Rod Robbie, he talked about the best person he’d ever practised architecture with, bar none . . . The guy was just brilliant, as close to a genius as anyone, I think, in Toronto, the way he could transform ideas onto paper and from paper into reality.”
A native of England where he obtained degrees in architecture and town planning, Mr. Robbie immigrated to Canada in 1956, eventually becoming an associate at the highly influential modernist firm of Peter Dickinson Associates, Ottawa. In 1966, he moved to Toronto as partner in Ashworth, Robbie, Vaughan & Williams Architects and Town Planners.
It was this firm that secured the commission, in 1966, to design the now-legendary inverted pyramid, called Katimavik (Inuit for “meeting place”), that served as the Canadian pavilion for the Universal and International Exhibition in Montreal. The largest pavilion at Expo ’67, the structure was a huge hit and became a symbol of sorts for the maturity, poise and confidence that the fair represented for Canadians as they marked the country’s centennial.
In 1980, Mr. Robbie established the first of what would be several architecture firms for which he served as president. In the mid-80s, he and Ottawa structural engineer Michael Allen were chosen as head designers of the SkyDome (since renamed the Rogers Centre) upon its opening in June 1989. The controversial structure, famed for its revolutionary retractable roof, likely stands as Mr. Robbie’s signature edifice. However, his daughter Caroline (an interior designer and one of three daughters, plus one son, born to Mr. Robbie and his wife, Enid, who predeceased him in 2001), said Wednesday the strain of preparing it “almost killed him” while driving his company, Robbie Architects Inc., to the edge of bankruptcy. (SkyDome, originally budgeted at $125-million, eventually cost more than $650-million. Mr. Robbie’s small firm submitted a claim for $36-million upon the completion of the stadium and hotel, but in 1992 agreed to accept around $24-million.)
“It was hard for him to go in there at times afterward,” Ms. Robbie recalled. “I won’t say it made him bitter but it should have been something that capped off his career. It should have been something he could dine out on for the rest of his life but it became this sort of symbol of ‘little guy getting screwed.’”
If anything, he’d probably “prefer to be remembered for his contributions to the education sector, architecturally,” she added. “He built over 500 schools, from child-care facilities to very complex university facilities,” including a collaboration with British architect Will Alsop on the construction of the Sharp Centre for Design in Toronto, home of the Ontario College of Art and Design University.
Both Ms. Robbie and her brother, Angus, lauded their father for his “inexhaustible optimism” – that and what Mr. Robbie affectionately called “a healthy dose of megalomania…He always had very ambitious ideas in either business or in architecture and various other things, whether they worked or not.”
This was evident right until the end: shortly after being admitted to St. Michael’s he heard that the hospital was thinking of building an addition and “immediately he thought, ‘What can we do towards getting that job?’ That was one of the reasons why he was able to do SkyDome: that particular project was the direct result of him refusing to say no and just pushing, pushing and pushing.”