February 13 – April 27, 2014
Ron Thom was one of Canada's greatest architects, with enduring testaments to his genius, such as Massey College and Trent University, still among the country's most admired buildings. But Ron Thom, like Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects of his generation, believed in creating not just a building for a client, but a whole world - from the landscaping to the interiors and the furniture to the ceramics. This exhibition explores Ron Thom's brilliant architecture in the context of his total aesthetic. Ron Thom and the Allied Arts is a travelling exhibition organized by the West Vancouver Museum in collaboration with Trent University and Massey College.
“Few architects have helped shape Canadian architecture as poetically as Ron Thom. From his early days as a west coast artist to his crowning achievements designing Massey College and Trent University, Ron Thom devoted himself to a profoundly holistic approach, wherein the fields of architecture, ceramics, visual arts, furniture and landscape formed a continuum. He was a fan of the Mingei folk craft movement, wherein potters and other artisans opting out of the industrial age found a higher beauty in the hand-made. Of this architect’s long and illustrious career, Ron Thom and the Allied Arts celebrates the most creatively fertile period, 1947 – 1972, with a focus on five west coast houses, Massey College, Trent University, and the ceramic and other arts that inform them. On display will be a selection of Ron Thom’s original paintings, prototypes for furniture and fittings, architectural drawings and sketches, archival and architectural photography, the original hand-rendered 1960 Massey College presentation boards, and the ceramics he commissioned as an integral component of it all. ”
– Adele Weder, Curator
LUNCH + LEARN
ABOUT RON THOM
Ron Thom (1923–1986) first made his name in British Columbia as an architect of dramatic, award-winning houses; and then in Ontario as the architect of Massey College and Trent University. Thom embraced a comprehensive design philosophy, wherein “architecture” comprises not only the plans and construction but also the furniture, fittings, textiles, art and ceramics. This approach informed a career that spanned almost four decades, during which time Thom and his associates designed landmark projects across the country. The exhibition’s features projects—the Copp, Carmichael, Dodek, Forrest and Case houses of the Vancouver region, and Massey College and Trent University in Ontario—bespeak his formative years as a west coast artist. A half-century after their constructions, these structures continue to shelter their inhabitants and delight the eye: a testament to the enduring art of architecture. – Adele Weder, Curator
“First let me say: I am a potter. I make pottery by hand and do all the work myself… Presumably, If the architect had wanted factory-made pottery for Massey College, he would have ordered it from a factory.” — John Reeve
John Reeve’s stern proviso, in a 1963 letter to an Eaton’s Department Store sales manager presuming to act as a remunerated sales agent to the potter’s perceived role as the “manufacturer” of ceramics for Massey College, speaks to its architect’s special esteem for ceramic art. Like his hero, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ron Thom saw all the elements within a structure as part of the architecture: the landscape, structure, cladding, finishings, furniture, art, textiles and ceramics. That is why when the Vancouver-based architect won the historic and highly coveted commission to design Massey College, he would take great care to enlist a potter to create hundreds of original ceramic pieces for the College. The lamp-bases, bowls and ashtrays would not be decorative add-ons to his architectural masterpiece but an integral part of it, speaking to the project’s mandate to reflect, in the words of Vincent Massey, “dignity, grace, beauty and warmth.”
Ron Thom and the Allied Arts will explore the architectural evolution of Ron Thom (1923-1986) in three stages: his formative years as an artist and house architect in Vancouver; the competition and completion of Massey College; and the masterplan and four key colleges of Trent University. Drawing on the private holdings of family members, colleagues, and institutional archives, the exhibition will contextualize the role of ceramics and other allied arts through an exploration of Massey College, Trent University, and five exemplary west-coast houses.
The exhibition will include selections of ceramics commissioned by Thom for Massey College, as well as Thom’s prototype furniture, lighting and presentation boards for the historic 1960 commission. Also featured will be Hamada vases from the personal collections of Thom and his senior associate Dick Sai-Chew; Chris Thom’s ceramics for the homes of his west-coast clients; and Ed Drahanchuk ashtrays from Trent’s art collection. The core exhibition will be enriched with selections from the Gardiner Museum’s permanent collection of Thom’s favourite ceramic artists. The provenance and influences of Thom’s creative process will be unfurled, with many drawings, documents and other historic materials from the archival and personal collections of Massey College, the Gardiner Museum, the Canadian Architectural Archives, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Ron Thom’s former colleagues and family members, and Trent University to be exhibited publicly for the first time. The exhibition is guest curated by Adele Weder.
Emerging Artist, Emerging Architect
Ron Thom attended the Vancouver School of Art from 1942 to 1947, a time of transition and upheaval. Because of the ongoing war, the student body was small, with attendance interrupted by military service. But director Charles H. Scott enlisted several teachers of powerful talent and influence, including Jack Shadbolt, Fred Amess and B.C. Binning. Shadbolt eschewed the neoclassical painting that had previously dominated the curriculum, and endorsed a fiercely contemporary form of expression. Binning, who taught a course in architectural drawing, persuaded Thom to switch career paths from art to architecture. Thom then began his apprenticeship at Thompson, Berwick & Pratt. Working under Ned Pratt and Bob Berwick, Thom quickly became known as the firm’s top draftsman and a rising star. But it was artists—rather than architects—whom Thom would more often credit as mentors.
A Foundation in Music
Growing up, Ron Thom had a different career charted out for him: concert pianist. In his late teens, Thom dropped his musical ambitions, switched to the study of art, and essentially never played in public again. Yet his love of music was literally inscribed in his work: a surprising number of house plans boast a space conspicuously earmarked for a grand piano, even for clients who didn’t own or play the instrument. As he once wrote to his former art teacher, Jack Shadbolt: “One of the things that I enjoy thinking about are the periods in history, such as the age of J.S. Bach, when a man’s beliefs about his art were at one with his beliefs about the world at large.”
Ron Thom often veered away from the conventional square grid to explore different modes of configuring form and space. He occasionally laid out his plans on a diamond-shaped grid, which allowed him to create dramatically shaped structures with taut mathematical logic. The diamond grid is the form-generator of his designs for the Carmichael and Case houses in West Vancouver, the Round Room at Massey College, and the dining-hall ceiling at Trent University’s Champlain College. Most of the corners in these houses boast angles of 30, 60 or 120 degrees rather than the 90-degree standard. The resulting sightlines and spatial complexities imbue these projects with a striking dynamic.
A Total Work of Art
In 1960, the Massey Foundation invited Ron Thom and three other prominent architects to submit designs for an exceptional new graduate-student residence in Toronto to be known as Massey College. “It should, in its form, reflect the life that will go on inside it,” read the design memorandum, “and should possess certain qualities: dignity, grace, beauty and warmth.” The Massey College competition embodied Thom’s ideal of a gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art into which the architect would design, commission or otherwise oversee each component of the building from the outside in, from the gardens to the ashtrays. Thom won the coveted commission, and Massey College was completed in 1963. In 2013, the College received the Prix du XXe siècle award from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the Heritage Canada Foundation, for its enduring status as a nationally significant architecture landmark.
The House as Prototype
Like many architects, Ron Thom used his house commissions as a means of exploring concepts, materials and details that he would later employ in larger projects. The distinctive rooflines, hanging lanterns, and leather drawer pull-handles found in his domestic architecture are echoed throughout Massey College and Trent University. The connections are particularly striking between Massey and the 1951 Copp House in Vancouver. The Copp House offers an architectural précis of Ron Thom’s fundamental design approach: interlocking beams and planes of unpainted wood, which generate uncanny multi-leveled spaces and high clerestory windows; a lightwell seeps down into a dark space; a path through the darkness leads to a sheet of light at the back of the house. The chairs and tables brought to the Copp family home in 1964 after its addition are prototypes that Thom had first created for Massey College—fitting for the house that served as a template for much of his work.
Around 1960, a team of visionaries developed a concept for a new liberal arts university in the verdant countryside near Peterborough, Ontario. Tom Symons was enraptured by the emerging beauty of Massey College, then under construction at the University of Toronto, and championed Ron Thom as the master planner and chief architect for what would become Trent University. Given a generous budget and a picturesque acreage fronting the Otonabee River, Thom would spend much of the next decade designing or helping oversee everything: overall campus plan, roadways, main college buildings, pedestrian paths, landscaping, floor coverings, lighting, desks, cabinets, chairs, tables, stools, dinnerware, artwork, ashtrays. Ron Thom designed the university’s flagship building, Champlain College, and worked with or consigned his senior associates to design Lady Eaton College, the Bata Library, and the Reginald Faryon Bridge. In September 1964, the first students were officially admitted to Trent University: in Symons’ words, “a place of aesthetic as well as intellectual excitement.”