A recent biography of architect Ron Thom, who was born 100 years ago in the spring, seems like a legendary character. He rose from middle-class obscurity, attended art school in Lumber District Vancouver, and ventured into a local architecture firm to deliver a stunning watercolor painting of a house they were working on.It’s 1949.
In ten years, Tom is designing the tallest new building in the city. By the 1960s, he would establish himself as one of the greatest architects Canada has produced.
In short, Mr. Tom was a genius, someone who found the right conditions to express himself. Ron Tom, Architect: The Life of a Creative Modernist.
The book gives Tom a sense of responsibility as a designer and poses difficult questions about the current state of architecture. Where are today’s great artists? And is our society interested in architecture enough to challenge it?
Having died a quarter of a century ago, Mr. Tom is ripe for a resurrection. Mr. Vader’s book skillfully describes his “instinctive” approach to composition. But she also reveals a man who was talented, charismatic, ambitious, and ultimately depressed by addiction: “What Canada’s architecture lacks is what made this work It’s the story of the people,” Weder said in a recent interview.
Weder, a British Columbia journalist who specializes in architecture (and a friend of mine), also curated the traveling exhibition. Ron Tom and Allied Arts 2014-2015. Long conversations with many of Tom’s surviving friends and family have given me a sense of Tom and his relationship. and collaborators.
She also sets the stage for an ambitious, open-minded and fast-growing Canada in the mid-20th century. This setting is just as important as any other character.
Young Tom entered the Vancouver School of Art in 1941, encouraged by his mother, herself a frustrated artist. While the school was small, Mr. Tom studied with his two highly influential painters, BC Binning and Jack Shadbolt. These men brought European modernism to isolated Vancouver and shared their idealism with students.
“Tom was trained as an artist, not as an architect,” Wedder said. “He was always concerned with what moves us when we step into a space. Entering and living in it should be full of joy and beauty. “
Mr. Tom incorporated the idea into his work. He also continued to devote himself to the sensory experience of crafts and buildings. Glass, textiles, pottery, and elaborate woodwork were key elements for him.
Thom started his career at the Vancouver studio Thompson Berwick Pratt. There he led young architects, including Arthur Erickson and Jeff Massey, to design dozens of modernist single-family homes, mostly on the North Shore. They honed their skills and tested new ideas for desired clients. Mr. Tom’s star rose rapidly. In 1957, the company completed his BC Electric headquarters on Ballard Street, where he served as chief designer. British magazine Architectural Review hailed it as “the most graceful and handsome office building ever built”.
Thom moved to Toronto in the 1960s and gradually split up TBP to form his own company. Within five years, he designed his two best buildings in the country. Massey College, University of Toronto and Champlain College, University of Trent, Peterborough. , he also did a master plan for the campus.
Each was unique. A small boarding college organized around a square, Massey puts Frank Lloyd’s Wright’s Japanese works into the context of Canadian universities. In Trent, Champlain mixes ideas from his Eero Saarinen concrete college at Yale with medieval English influences. Wedder wrote of Trent:
This intellectual brew was rare and unfashionable at the time. And Tom didn’t bother to describe himself in the manifesto. But when visiting these buildings, words don’t matter. From cozy courtyards to monolithic concrete staircases to tall, sunny dining rooms lined with brick and glimmering stone, Massey’s main set of spaces is as good as the architecture gets.
For Tom personally, things have generally gone downhill since the mid-1960s. He was an alcoholic for a long time, and in the 1970s his addiction destroyed his second marriage and also ruined his job. Wedder tells the story with compassion and honesty.
But ultimately, the bigger story is what happened to architecture.
In the 1950s and 1960s, economic growth and the expansion of the welfare state provided unprecedented opportunities for young designers. Ericsson, Raymond Moriyama, Eberhard Seidler and even the corporate machines of John B. Perkin Associates brought waves of ambitious buildings. Like Thom, they benefited from a freewheeling approach to planning and governance. When Mr. Thom got the design job for his Trent, he had one real client of his: Tom Symons, the university founder in his early 30s.
Then, in the 1970s, things changed. As Weder writes, “Public and corporate architectural assistance across the country has moved to a more business model, with all design decisions subject to scrutiny by boards.”
Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. A handful of construction firms dominate the public buildings of this country, working mostly for free and often for little money. The results are usually unexciting. At worst they are miserable. Even Tom’s alma mater, which developed into the Emily Carr College of Art, Recently, it has become a stark and unartistic building in itself.
So what happened to the concept of beauty? “We are skeptical now, especially in public buildings,” Weder told me. “Right now, we’re focused on accessibility and functionality, and that’s a given. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other. We leave out anything that makes the experience of being in a building beautiful.”
Wedder thinks it’s ridiculous. So does Tom.
And they are right. It’s time to learn from past triumphs and revisit architecture as a field of creativity, possibility and beauty.