Canadian Architect

Feature

Eric Arthur and Ron Thom

April 30, 2018
by Harold Kalman

There is always a fascination in discovering new connections between architects of different generations and from different places. A link has emerged between Eric R. Arthur (1898-1982), the highly esteemed Professor of Architecture at the University of Toronto, and Ronald J. Thom (1923-86). Arthur may be best known for his books, including Toronto: No Mean City; Thom was the talented designer from British Columbia who is particularly remembered for his buildings at Trent University and Massey College.

The liaison between the two was the little-known Robert Calvert, an architect who graduated from studies with Arthur at the University of Toronto in 1949. Calvert moved to Vancouver to work with Sharp and Thompson, Berwick, Pratt, where Ron Thom was working as a talented apprentice. Principals R.A.D. (Bob) Berwick and C.E. (Ned) Pratt, leaders in the development of West Coast Modernism, had also been Eric Arthur’s students at the University of Toronto, a decade before Calvert. In a joint interview with the present author in 1973, Berwick and Pratt expressed their immense admiration for Arthur as a teacher. Pratt added that Arthur “was a little … too much of a dilettante. He could have been a good architect, but I think he liked teaching too much.”

Eric Arthur, Ron Thom

A.K. Tateishi House, Islington, Ontario, interior. Fleury, Arthur and Barclay (Robert Calvert, principal designer), 1951. (Photo: Panda, 1953, courtesy of the Canadian Architectural Archives at the University of Calgary.

Bob Calvert returned to Toronto in 1951 and took a job with Eric Arthur, then a partner in the firm of Fleury, Arthur, and Barclay. In an interview with me in 2017, architect Ray Moriyama, who also worked in that office at the time, remembered Calvert as “a tall, somewhat flamboyant architect with … design talent.” Calvert apparently took a lead role in the innovative Tateishi house in Islington, now demolished. It was designed in that year for Art Tateishi, the founder of Seabreeze Products and the inventor of the electric fan. The multi-winged composition featured an open plan, with brick-and-glass walls, a butterfly roof, and a folded ceiling sporting exposed timber beams. The interior is dominated by a prominent brick fireplace.

These and other features of the Tateishi house bear a family resemblance to the D.H. Copp house in Vancouver, also built in 1951, and designed by the young Ron Thom. A common source of inspiration for both Calvert and Thom would have been the much-admired houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. A more immediate connection, however, was their time spent together in Berwick and Pratt’s office.

Eric Arthur, Ron Thom

D.H. Copp House, Vancouver, BC, interior. Sharp and Thompson, Berwick, Pratt (Ronald J. Thom, principal designer), 1951. (Morgan Zachs) Photo by John Flanders, courtesy of the Canadian Architectural Archives at the University of Calgary.

Calvert’s Tateishi house may have been as close as the Toronto area ever came to adopting West Coast Modernism. Modern architecture in Ontario was soon dominated by the colder and harder-edged International Style, which was associated most closely with John B. Parkin Associates and the designs of John C. Parkin. Thom’s work became more intricate, although it maintained its characteristic warmth. Calvert, for his part, moved to Montreal and turned mostly to restoration and landscape architecture.