A Progressive Traditionalist: John M. Lyle Architect

By Glenn McArthur. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2009.

John M. Lyle was one of the most influential Canadian architects of the first half of the 20th century. Born in Ireland in 1872, Lyle studied at the prestigious cole des Beaux Arts in Paris after having immigrated to Hamilton with his family. Following graduation, Lyle worked in several important New York offices before moving to Toronto in 1904 and quickly establishing himself as one of the most prominent architects, educators and activists in the city. His life and work is the subject of Glenn McArthur’s well-researched and graphically elegant new book entitled A Progressive Traditionalist: John M. Lyle, Architect.

It is often forgotten that Lyle was responsible for some of Toronto’s most important and iconic buildings including Union Station and the Royal Alexandra Theatre. As the title of the book suggests, his work constantly shifted between the modern and the traditional due in part to his Beaux-Arts training, his sensitivity to specific building programs, and his acceptance of new technical innovations. The Louis XVI-inspired Royal Alexandra Theatre, for instance, was Canada’s first fully air-conditioned building. As McArthur explains, Lyle’s work took cues from many different sources including the Neoclassical and the Georgian. Of Lyle’s Runnymede Branch Library in Toronto, McArthur describes a “tasteful synthesis of French, English and Native elements married into an invigorating and daring composition.” In fact, it was Lyle’s search for a distinctly Canadian form of architectural expression and his attempt to give a voice to his national identity which set him apart from many of his contemporaries.

Using both archival and original photographs together with many of Lyle’s own hand drawings and personal memoirs, McArthur takes the reader on a journey through numerous bank commissions, private residences, city plans and public monuments in an effort to expose the richness and diversity of Lyle’s architectural vision. McArthur’s new book will certainly prove to be an important contribution to the continuing discourse on the seminal figures in Canadian architecture.Reviewed by Gabriel Fain