Practical Visions

A master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this–the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us.

–Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, n. 6

Eric Ross Arthur (1898-1982) left a complex and multi-faceted legacy. As an extension of his career as an architect and educator at the University of Toronto, Arthur wrote about historic architecture, was involved in campaigns for the preservation of important landmarks and was an activist for the promotion of contemporary architecture. The importance of Arthur’s contribution doesn’t lie exclusively in any one of these particular activities, but in his attempt to interrelate them in a larger cultural project the scope of which went far beyond the confines of conventional architectural practice.

Awareness of Arthur’s publications, his activism and his preservation work is greater than that of his buildings. This, however, tends to compete unfairly with Arthur’s identity as an architect. Arthur wrote as a practicing architect, not as a trained historian, although he believed that he could teach architectural design and history equally well, and did so at the University of Toronto from the mid-1920s until his retirement in 1966.

Compared to the masterworks of 20th century architecture and city planning, Arthur’s design work appears modest. Arguably, this was not simply circumstantial; it seems that Arthur, raised in an austere Presbyterian family, endorsed the Aristotelian ethic of the “intermediate” that saw in the lack of “excess and defect” the quintessence of mastery in art. This self-imposed understatement has been detrimental to the historical understanding of his work, especially now, a moment when the interest in architectural authorship has escalated to the degree of cult status.

Arthur left his native New Zealand to study in England, where the artistic and architectural climate immediately after the First World War had yet to be reshaped by radical continental modernism; English architecture was still the domain of Victorian eclecticism and Edwardian classicism. The mainstream appreciation for the “calculated restraint” and the “educated architecture” of the Renaissance advocated by Geoffrey Scott (The Architecture of Humanism, 1914) and by John Betjeman (Ghastly Good Taste, 1933) respectively played a significant formative role for Arthur. Even when he later abandoned the Beaux-Arts classicism learned at Liverpool under the mentorship of Charles Reilly, he retained an interest in the virtue of restraint, which the English acknowledged as part of the Renaissance legacy.

Arthur obtained a Bachelor of Architecture with first class honours from Liverpool University in July 1922, followed by a Certificate in Civic Design in 1923. Immediately thereafter he was invited by C.H.C. Wright to assume a teaching position in what was then the Department of Architecture at the University of Toronto, where he lectured for one year. In 1924, he was awarded a University of Liverpool Master of Architecture degree in absentia and was appointed Assistant Professor at U of T.

Arthur’s first major commission after moving to Toronto was the James Stanley McLean Estate (1929-1934). The plan and composition of this project reflect the formal discipline of the Beaux-Arts design method, while the choice of fieldstone owes much to the interest in domestic vernacular Arthur learned from Sir Edwin Lutyens, in whose office he briefly worked before leaving Britain.

The design for the McLean Estate also reflects Arthur’s growing interest in the 18th and 19th century colonial buildings of Ontario. In the years immediately following his arrival in Canada, he took his students on field trips to important historic buildings in Ontario to execute measured drawings. Characteristically, Arthur was fascinated by buildings in which it was possible to see the classical and vernacular interacting. Many of the buildings that intrigued him in the 1920s and 30s were not designed by architects, but by builders that had “no definite name and no definite personality.” (See Arthur’s The Early Buildings of Ontario, 1938.) In his design of the McLean Estate he merged “high” classical motifs and “low” vernacular construction techniques such as fieldstone walls, demonstrating, as did other early projects, Arthur’s interest in the high/low dialectic.

This emerging interest in the previously neglected 18th and 19th centuries in Ontario led to the establishment of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario in 1933. In numerous pamphlets published with the University of Toronto before the Second World War, Arthur included his measured drawings and those by colleagues and students, as well as new photographs taken during the field trips. Arthur’s research, along with similar work in Quebec by Ramsay Traquair, paralleled the regional preoccupation already expressed in the arts by the Group of Seven in Ontario and Emily Carr on the West Coast.

The interaction of the classical and the local vernacular that the McLean Estate reflects is Arthur’s first attempt to find a middle way between the characteristics of local architecture and a Canadian architectural identity. For Arthur, the 18th and 19th century buildings of Southern Ontario were simple but not simplistic, and appealed to his sense of modernist purity despite their traditional craftsmanship and building materials. These buildings aspired to the calculated understatement of the English country gentleman; although Arthur was educated in the “Home Country,” as an outsider from New Zealand he was likely better equipped to see the potential for a distinctly Canadian architecture. He had the necessary distance to recognize the need to address the difficult issue, especially for a young nation like Canada, of the reception of foreign models and was prepared to promote a gradual awareness of a national identity in architecture that could go beyond neo-colonial emulation. After the Second World War Arthur was asked to write the Special Report on Architecture for the Massey Commission (1949-1951), which sought to promote a much-needed debate on the state of Canadian identity in the Arts and Sciences.

While Arthur continued to draw on the classical/vernacular formula for his domestic work, including his own Toronto residence (1954), he found different expressions of understatement for other building types. Canada Packers Ltd. plants in Edmonton (1935-36) and Vancouver (1935-37)–owned by J. S. McLean, client for the earlier estate design–that Arthur designed with Anthony Adamson explored the possibilities of an educated modernism that was open to innovation but did not radically undermine tradition with formal inventions or machine age aesthetics. Although Arthur and Adamson used new materials, these were not exalted for their aesthetic value. The reinforced concrete structure of the Edmonton plant was left exposed on the side and rear elevations, but clad over with brick on the principal faade. The result is closer to the Amsterdam school of Willem Dudok than to such leading examples of the machine aesthetic as the Van Nelle Tobacco Factory in Rotterdam (1927-29) by Johannes Brinkmann & Cornelius van der Vlugt or the pre-eminent British example, the Boots’ Factory in Beeston (1931-32) by Sir Owen Williams.

Although Arthur was aware of current developments in European modernism, he chose not to embrace its more radical currents. In a 1936 CBC radio talk, Arthur acknowledged the onset of the machine age, but did not exalt the machine aesthetic. Unlike Gropius or Le Corbusier, he did not celebrate the engineering culture that gave rise to the new monumentality of the Canadian grain elevator. In fact, during the 1920s as a young Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Toronto Department of Architecture (originally part of the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering), Arthur the humanist must have felt somewhat out of place in an engineering- oriented environment. The Department was renamed the School of Architecture in 1931 and in 1948 became an independent academic divis
ion of the University.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s the School of Architecture acquired greater autonomy and status, and Arthur pursued his ambitious cultural project with greater freedom. In the 1950s, with his associates Barclay and Fleury, Arthur designed two projects for the University: Wymilwood Women’s Union (1951) for Victoria University and the Women’s Athletic Building (1959) on the west side of U of T’s St. George Campus. Wymilwood is a mixture of Northern European models and local building culture: the use of wood cladding, a generous balcony and sunken landscaped courtyard are all elements that interact with the street with an openness and informality atypical of Toronto. Particularly interesting is the fact that Wymilwood is attached to a historic building. The Arthur project does not ignore its Jacobean neighbour, using the same dark brick and ensuring that the scale of the new building does not overwhelm the existing one, but neither does it defer to it.

Despite Arthur’s growing authority within the U of T School of Architecture and his well-known aspirations to become dean, he was never appointed to that position. One reason may be the controversy over the Toronto City Hall competition. Arthur’s criticism of a 1954 scheme by Mathers & Haldenby led to the now-famous design competition of 1958. As professional advisor, Arthur organized an open international competition with a renowned jury that included Ned Pratt, Eero Saarinen, Ernesto Rogers, Sir William Holford and Gordon Stephenson. The winning scheme by Finnish architect Viljo Revell met with Arthur’s desire for a modern architecture that was aware of context and aspired to public engagement. Shortly after the announcement of the winner in Toronto, Arthur was asked to be professional advisor for the Hamilton City Hall and later for the Fathers of Confederation Memorial Centre in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

Following the Toronto City Hall competition Arthur used his growing influence to promote important preservation campaigns for St. Lawrence Hall (restored in 1967) and for University College (restored 1964-1982). Arthur’s activism helped save important architecture that faced demolition during the 1960s, a period that saw Toronto aggressively expanding and anxious to cancel its past in favour of a new and progressive image of the international city.

As a preservationist, Arthur was not interested in saving everything. He made strategic choices, selectively directing his attentions.When he did become involved in preservation projects he chose to bring landmarks, as much as possible, back to their original state. Arthur most certainly would not have endorsed the contemporary phenomenon of “saving face” in which historic buildings are virtually destroyed with only the original faades reintegrated into the new building.

In addition to his passion for historic buildings, during the last part of his career he was as involved in activism for new architecture. During the construction of Revell’s City Hall, Arthur was completing his research for Toronto, No Mean City (1964), which became a benchmark in the city’s architectural history. Arthur had become a public figure and opinion-maker who reached out to a large audience.

Throughout his entire academic career Arthur promoted his students both within and outside the school. During his position from 1937 until 1955 as editor of what at the time was the country’s leading architecture magazine, the Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, he promoted the work of his former students across the country. As well, Arthur was involved in the national Massey Medals award program (which would later become the Governor General’s Awards). In his involvement from 1961 to 1982 as architectural consultant for the Stelco Steel Trend series, he called upon teaching colleagues like John Andrews and Eberhard Zeidler and former students such as George Baird, Jerome Markson, Raymond Moriyama, and Ted Teshima to create design proposals for hypothetical building projects.

Arthur’s quest was for architecture that could combine astute realism with ambitious idealism. To remember him is to celebrate the promise that Canadian architectural culture today can respond to contemporary needs with the same courage, generosity and determination that characterized Arthur’s contribution.

Michelangelo Sabatino was trained as an architect and architectural historian in Venice, Italy. He is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Fine Art, University of Toronto. A longer version of this essay appeared in the Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, Vol. 26, Nos. 1, 2.

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