Two new books about influential Canadian architects could not be more different-just as, one suspects, their subjects could not have been more different.
Angela Carr, an assistant professor of art history at Carleton University, has produced a meticulously detailed book that ultimately tells the reader much more about Victorian architecture than it does about the individual architect Edmund Burke. Douglas Shadbolt, a retired architecture professor who had the advantage of having known his subject personally, has written a warm and involving portrait of both Ron Thom and his architecture.
Of the two men, Edmund Burke is the less known today, and Carr sets forth to revive his memory. It cannot have been easy. As she writes in her conclusion, he was a typically reserved Victorian gentleman who left behind few personal papers. A devout Baptist, he wrote in his will that he hoped to gain immortality "not through any merit of my own but led by the Holy Spirit."
Carr finds this humble thought revealing: "It is somehow characteristic of his devout and sober nature, the careful and prudent methodologies, the untiring devotion to his professional duties, and his desire to leave something of consequence behind him that such a text should have survived among fragmentary biographic details."
His reticence may have prompted Carr to focus more on his works and his times than on the man himself. The book provides excellent details on Burke's prolific output. Carr discusses each type of architecture, such as churches, schools, office buildings, and houses, in a separate chapter.
The book evolved from her doctoral dissertation, so the descriptions are technical; readers who don't know a pilaster from a pediment will spend a lot of time running to the dictionary.
Carr pays particular attention to Burke's great achievement, the Robert Simpson store in Toronto. She places all of his buildings firmly in context, describing historic precedents and contemporary examples from across Canada, the United States, and England. Copious illustrations, which unfortunately are erratically numbered, accompany her examples.
We find out little about Burke's family, where he lived, or even the circumstances of his death. The last paragraph before the conclusion describes the unification of two disputatious architects' associations in 1908, a feat Burke worked hard to achieve.
In contrast, Douglas Shadbolt's portrait of Ron Thom is a personal, warts-and-all picture, tempered by evident respect and affection. His last paragraph before his conclusion describes Thom's farewell visits to his family and a last drinking episode before he died in October 1986.
Thom's alcoholism and driven personality are never far from the surface of the text. Yet Shadbolt also does an excellent job of chronologically describing the high points in Thom's career: houses built in Vancouver during the 1950s, his widely acclaimed design for Massey College at the University of Toronto, and the first buildings at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.
When describing the period after the early 1970s, when Thom's problems with alcohol and unwillingness to adapt to new trends in architecture sent his Toronto practice into a downward spiral, Shadbolt's writing becomes almost rushed. Interesting projects completed by Thom's firm, such as the Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the pavilions at the Metro Toronto Zoo, get barely a few paragraphs.
Shadbolt's text is much less technical than Carr's (though he too is an academic). But he provides adequate details for knowledgeable readers. He includes many examples that show the emotional response that both Thom and his clients had to architecture. Thomas Symons, the first president of Trent, asked Thom to design a bridge for the school. "I told him I wanted a bridge that students could write songs about, sing songs about, and make love on for a thousand years," he told Shadbolt in 1991.
The many interviews Shadbolt conducted, with seemingly everyone who worked with or knew Thom, add colour and vibrancy to the book. The reader gets a vivid picture of Thom's forceful and stubborn personality, as well as his views on architecture.
In the end, both books are valuable additions to the store of literature on Canadian architecture. Carr's focuses a great deal on early Canadian architects' successful attempts to escape from the shadow of American and British ideas and to create their own style; Shadbolt's shows the brilliant trajectory of a later architect who built a unique and lasting body of work on those foundations.