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Hamilton Central Library, 1980. Mr. Shaw says his company's work designing schools and auditoriums led them to designing libraries in the same districts.CS&P Architects

Despite the cold snap, a dozen people wait for the doors of Mimico Centennial Library to open. When the smiling librarian appears to grant access, a group of adolescents race up the open tread staircase to the mezzanine and set up a study group around a laptop, while an older man, laughing at their piss-and-vinegar, unfolds his newspaper and parks in front of an enormous floor-to-ceiling window. A mother and her young daughter wander over to the much quieter children’s area.

While it takes talent to design a house for a discerning client, it takes an altogether different skill set to design a building for, well, everybody. But this building, by Banz Brook Carruthers Grierson Shaw Architects, works as well today as it did when it opened in November, 1966. A Massey Medal winner for 1967, the Toronto Star wrote at the time that the building “incorporates an air of relaxation into an atmosphere of learning” and could “easily double as a community centre.”

Although one of the men responsible, Philip R. Brook (1919-1995), is no longer around, John Shaw is seated and relaxed in the boardroom of CS&P Architects on Yonge Street north of Eglinton Avenue (‘C’ for Carruthers, ‘S’ for Shaw, ‘P’ for partners). Retired for almost two decades, Mr. Shaw’s 92-year-old grey matter Rolodex is still a well-oiled machine that snaps to dates and names with ease. He talks about how the firm’s early work designing schools, which often had auditoriums, led to library work in the same districts – the Mimico library has a 250-seat auditorium in the basement – which led to theatres.

“You can draw a pretty straight line,” says the 1997 Order of da Vinci winner. “We did the Markham Theatre [in the 1980s], which is a good little theatre.”

When CS&P celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2002, the firm published a limited edition, in-house book. Thumbing through it 22 years later, one is still dumbstruck by the quality, variety and human scale of the work. In addition to dozens of schools and libraries, there is a post office, a pavilion for Expo 67, a service station prototype for Imperial Oil (complete with an eye-catching, enormous red pylon on the roof), a YMCA, and attractive multiunit housing. Even into the megaproject era of the 1990s and 2000s the firm’s buildings, compared with those by their contemporaries, are friendly, restrained and usually clad in warm red brick. They’re a pleasure to look at, and, more importantly, for people to interact with – a result, perhaps, of the inclusive culture created by the partners from the get-go.

“I’m proudest of all in the way we treated people,” says Mr. Shaw. “We had a record of people leaving for better offers and coming back.”

“I had come from a firm where I didn’t think that was going to be a very good place for a woman to get ahead,” says principal Maureen O’Shaughnessy, who joined in 1994. “And John really, truly made a point of bringing me under his wing … that I wasn’t just a draftsperson in the background.”

  • Earl Haig Secondary School, 1997.CS&P Architects

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And speaking of background, John Northey Shaw and his twin brother, Gerald, came bouncing into the world at Toronto General Hospital on Aug. 15, 1931, and were bundled up and taken home to 178 Glenview Ave. in the Lawrence Park South neighbourhood. His father’s side of the family, he says, was “mechanically and artistically” inclined and his Montreal-born grandfather tuned and repaired organs in a shop he’d built in his backyard. By his last year of elementary school, young John knew his professional life would be spent doing either engineering or architecture; while at University of Toronto Schools (a secondary school affiliated with the university), he decided on architecture.

Graduating with the class of 1955 at the University of Toronto – his classmates included Bill Carruthers, Uno Prii and Keith Spratley – he was offered a job by James A. Murray immediately (one of his professors and the co-creator of Canadian Architect magazine) but hopped onto the Empress of France for England “and the continent” with five classmates instead. While he didn’t have a “bucket list,” he visited Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, France’s “big five” churches, and was “impressed with Denmark.”

After that, he called on a young firm in London, JM Austin-Smith & Partner. While they didn’t have a job at that time, they did when he returned from cycling to Scotland. He worked there for nine months then returned to Toronto in the fall of 1956 to take up employment at Page and Steele, where a young hotshot from England named Peter Dickinson was making a name for himself: “He was a very fast, talented guy,” says Mr. Shaw, who worked with Dickinson directly on the Trans-Canada Pipeline building (150 Eglinton Ave. E., still standing).

In 1962, the firm that would become CS&P began as The Architect’s Partnership, but the Ontario Association of Architects changed the rules and asked for a rebrand with surnames “so we listed ourselves alphabetically,” Mr. Shaw remembers. And although Mr. Shaw admits he was the “youngest” and “least known” of the names (Philip Brook and George Banz had already won Massey Medals), the avalanche of work in those baby booming years meant he would become very well known, and very quickly, by people such as Ontario education minister Bill Davis.

“John’s strength was client relations,” confirms Peter Ortved, who joined CS&P in 1972. “And he was very good at dealing with contractors and getting things built, and very knowledgeable on the construction site; by the time the project was ending, John had this relationship that would continue … could you send this guy to a meeting and would you worry about what he would say? No.”

Mr. Shaw laughs at this – a big, hearty laugh that office veterans no doubt recall ricocheting off the walls on a regular basis – as he scans the photographs on the boardroom table. When considering the Toronto French School (1971), he gives credit to Bill Grierson (1923-2001); when he talks about landing the Sheridan College campus in Brampton, he says that “the two Bills” – Grierson and Carruthers – were responsible because they “carried the interview.”

Humility, yes, but those in the know, they know better: a beautiful building needs a strong foundation, and John Shaw is as solid and impressive as the Canadian Shield.

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