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Life Architect and professor R. Douglas Gillmor was eternally curious - about everyone

Doug Gillmor

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R. Douglas Gillmor: Architect. Professor. Polymath. Family man. Born Sept 1, 1930, in Fort Frances, Ont.; died July 27, 2019, in Winnipeg, of pneumonia; aged 88.

In 1955, when my father was studying architecture at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., he attended a public lecture by Frank Lloyd Wright. The famous architect began his lecture by saying, “It’s good to be back in the graveyard of the east.” He was referring to the neoclassical and Romanesque Revival architecture of the eastern seaboard that had been borrowed from Europe. Wright believed architecture should reflect its context and culture. At the end of the lecture, he took questions from the audience. A student sitting near my father asked, “Mr. Wright, what do you think of contemporary sculpture?”

“Dear boy,” Wright answered, “Architecture is the mother of the arts, and if she is a whore, what hope is there for the rest of them.”

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This effectively ended the question period, and this anecdote stuck with my father, as did most of Wright’s design principles.

In 1970, when my father was offered the opportunity to start an architecture program in the University of Calgary’s newly created Faculty of Environmental Design (now called the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape), he jumped at the chance. In part, this was because there wasn’t an architecture school between Winnipeg and Vancouver, a 2,300-kilometre lacuna he felt needed to be filled. He was the architectural program’s founding director and remained there until his retirement in 1992.

In Calgary, he finally got to design his dream house. Located on an acreage west of the city, the house was built on three levels, cantilevered over a steep hill. It reflected many of Wright’s principles, with floor-to-ceiling windows that broke down the barrier between inside and outside, his trademark small bedrooms and glorious communal spaces.

My father was born in a pulp and paper town on the American border. His earliest memory was from the age of 4, when he contracted pneumonia. His mother, a former nurse, thought she would lose him. There was no hospital in Fort Frances and she phoned the town’s only taxi driver and asked him to take them to the hospital in Duluth, Minn., 260 kilometres away. It was winter, and the roads were rough back then. They found the hospital, which my Presbyterian grandmother thought was due to divine intervention, and he survived. He recalled his Aunt Gladys staring down at his fragile form lying on the bed. “He looks like a plucked chicken,” she said.

My father did his undergraduate study in Winnipeg, at the University of Manitoba, where he was the gold medalist. While a student, he married Donna Mainland, a love that was sustaining and unwavering over the next 66 years. When my mother broke her ankle at the age of 85 and had to stay in the hospital for a few days, my father told me tearfully, “We’ve never spent a night apart.”

This wasn’t actually true – he’d gone on business trips and fishing trips, and my mother travelled extensively when she worked in the publishing business. But it was true for him. In his last days, his face would still light up when he saw her, even if she’d only been gone a few hours.

After my father finished his Master’s degree at MIT, they moved back to Winnipeg, where he became a partner in a fledgling architectural firm - Blankstein Coop Gillmor Hanna. They merged with Waisman Ross to become Number Ten Architectural Group (for their original address on Donald Street).

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He distinguished himself as both architect and as a professor of architecture at the University of Manitoba. His commitment to architecture was all-encompassing, and included design, teaching, serving on juries for design competitions and advising.

He had the greatest store of natural curiosity of anyone I’ve ever met. It embraced architecture, music, travel and literature, and extended to the profession of everyone he encountered. At an Alberta rodeo, he once perched on the pen as a cowboy was tying himself to a Brahman bull, asking the man about his job. The bull crashed around the pen, leaving a large gash in my father’s arm.

Another time, the man who cleaned our septic tank was invited in for lunch.

On family trips, he routinely disappeared, caught up in conversation with a snake handler or gondolier or hotel keeper, asking about the arcana of their profession.

He lingered in museums for hours, whether it was the Louvre or a tiny local museum in an English village.

And he was probably the only person outside of Russia who thought the six-hour film And Quiet Flows the Don was too short.

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He held onto his bedrock architectural principles throughout his life. In his final year, when he was in the depths of dementia, my sister Alison told him she was going to the grocery store and asked if he needed anything.

“I need an architecture that reflects its time and place,” he replied.

Don Gillmor is Doug’s son.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to tgam.ca/livesguide

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