Legacy Lecture

TEXT Sean Irwin
DRAWING Jonathan Tyrrell

Every year since 1979, University of Waterloo School of Architecture director Rick Haldenby has personally introduced the Italy-stationed fourth-year class to Rome with the marathon Forum Lecture. What made the Forum Lecture so significant in the life of the school? There is no building in the Republican Forum as beautiful as the Pantheon, and the architectural achievements of Hadrian’s Villa make the Forum seem conventional and repetitious. And yet it is the Forum Lecture that is most central to Waterloo Architecture’s understanding of itself.

The on-site lecture starts with a verbal history of Rome from the geological processes that formed the seven hills to the ham-fisted insertion of the Via dei Fori Imperiali by Mussolini, covering thousands of years in one morning. Once Haldenby starts talking he doesn’t stop until he’s finished. No breaks for water and no hesitations; it just pours out of him.

The afternoon is a slow tour beginning at the Basilica Julia and ending at the Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius. Haldenby knows the name, history and significance of every podium, column and pediment in the Forum. Standing in front of the Curia, he told us what we would see if the paving stones weren’t there. That they were there seemed to annoy him.

There isn’t a lot left intact in the Forum: the arch of Septimius Severus, three columns from the Castor and Pollux Temple, the portico of the Temple of Saturn (minus the pediment), the column of Phocus, parts of Antoninus and Faustina, and a reconstruction of the Curia. That’s about it. Haldenby has to conjure most of the monuments from the ground up, taking whatever is there–a portion of an inscription lying in the grass, a low brick wall with some of the marble facing intact, a row of partial columns–and recreate the scene as it was 2,000 years ago.

It is hard to write about what architects do. Much of the process is obscure, even to designers. Arthur Erickson acknowledged the essential mystery of creation in a speech at McGill University. “The artist,” he said, “likes to seem totally responsible for his work. Often he begins to explain it, to make it appear as if it were a reasonable process.” This much can be said: architecture begins with an inclination (if you believe Lucretius) or passion (if you prefer Ovid) that allows a person to transcend the factness of what is and imagine what isn’t. Whether it isn’t yet or isn’t still makes little difference. In this light, Haldenby’s Forum Lecture was the single greatest display of architectural imagination I have ever witnessed.

It was also one of the most tremendous displays of endurance. September in Rome is hot. Just listening to the Forum Lecture is exhausting; I can’t imagine what delivering it requires. And there is another lecture the next day. And the day after that. Maybe that’s why the Forum Lecture has earned a place of honour in Waterloo Architecture’s foundation myth–it is the most visible manifestation of Haldenby’s passion for his subject and dedication to his students. 

I chose to write my thesis on the Tabularium because of a throwaway line, which I remember verbatim: “That’s the so-called Tabularium. I say ‘so-called’ because it wasn’t a Tabularium but no one knows what it was actually for.” I spent two years researching one building so that I might insert myself into the Forum Lecture, even as a footnote. CA

Sean Irwin is a designer and writer based in Toronto.

This essay is excerpted and adapted from In Memory of Foundation, a compilation celebrating Rick Haldenby’s 25 years as Director of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, forthcoming from Riverside Architectural Press. A celebration will be held in Cambridge on November 30, 2013 to mark his contributions.