Ron Thom and the Allied Arts

PHOTOS Josh Nychuk unless otherwise noted

The exhibition Ron Thom and the Allied Arts presents the architect’s broad range of artistic activity–from music and painting to decorative arts and, of course, architecture–as reflecting a distinct yet ineffable postwar West Coast sensibility.

As a young man in the late 1940s, Thom abandoned a career as a painter and apprenticed as an architect in Vancouver. Though he changed professions, he didn’t change milieus. The city’s cultural scene accepted influences from both Europe and Asia. It contended with the wilderness and topography. It was free to ignore the goings-on of the major centres along the eastern seaboard. And from it arose Thom’s synthetic aesthetic in which Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Japanese ceramics could come together in a single architectural project. At least, that is the case the show’s curator Adele Weder makes. Her fine selection of drawings and artifacts, with exhibition design by Public: Architecture + Communication, illuminate Thom as a sensitive, hands-on creator who is a transcendently modern, cross-disciplinary figure. Yet one can’t help walking away without thinking of the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright and Thom’s rivalry with Arthur Erickson.

Though they never met, Wright’s shadow fell across Thom’s career. Born in British Columbia in 1923, Thom came to the profession when Wright had found his place in the firmament as a larger-than-life starchitect.

Wright was outlandish, arrogant and sometimes callous. His life was struck by misfortunes such as bankruptcy, family mental illness, arson and murder. It was also, for all the unseemly melodrama, filled with brilliant triumphs and comebacks.

Thom’s life was nearly as dramatic. He mastered piano, then painting, then architecture. He drank too much, “did not suffer fools” (according to colleague, friend and biographer Douglas Shadbolt), and, in the infamous aftermath of losing control of the firm he started, was found dead in his Toronto office in 1986. Then, five years after his passing, he was accused of what amounts to architectural plagiarism by none other than Arthur Erickson.

Putting the vagaries of biography aside, Thom’s real link to Wright is one between master and mentor. Consider the front door of Thom’s 1957 Carmichael House, which is included in the compact display at the West Vancouver Museum (the exhibition will expand when it travels in 2014 to the Gardiner Museum in Toronto and to Trent University in Peterborough). The wooden door sports battens and panels designed around a diamond and hexagonal grid, the same geometry used to generate the Carmichael floorplan. Wright used similar grids in the 1937 Hanna-Honeycomb House and a number of his Usonian residences. Thom’s emulation of Wright did not end there. He absorbed a whole palette of techniques including structure-defining roofs, pinwheeling room layouts and built-in furniture.

Then there is Thom’s masterpiece commission for Massey College at the University of Toronto, completed in 1963. The project–well represented by artifacts, photographs and drawings–provided an opportunity to fulfill another Wrightian goal: to create a gesamtkunstwerk. Weder describes, in the accompanying catalogue, the competition as a search for “a total work of art into which the architect would design, commission or otherwise oversee each component of the building from the outside in, from the gardens to the ashtrays.”

For his first-round entry, Thom turned to Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo for inspiration. Both have bedroom wings defining courtyards with water features. Both make use of Beaux-Arts axial planning. However, in the second round, Thom freed the plan of the common rooms in the main building from rigid symmetry and skewed the residential wings. According to Shadbolt, Erickson alleged that Thom lifted those fundamental changes from Erickson’s own first-round Massey submission. Indeed, Thom may have used Erickson’s ideas as a beacon to navigate himself away from Wright’s influence. But Thom never shook off Wright nor comparisons to Erickson, who won the competition to design Simon Fraser University the same year Massey College opened. From then on, Erickson’s career overshadowed Thom’s.

Which brings us to the crux of Ron Thom’s legacy and this exhibition. How did he transcend his influences? What of Thom is sui generis?

In the built design for Massey College, Thom slips and interlocks volumes. He subtly scales and delineates main spaces from subsidiary ones without disrupting flow. And, as catalogue contributor Tony Robins notes, Thom incorporates in his projects “surreally large-scale fireplaces, probably inspired straight from Wright. But unlike his mentor, Thom contrasted the massive hearth with a generally ethereal lightness throughout the rest of the building.”

In other words, Thom did not have a heavy hand. He could give weight in a project when needed and then release it with clerestory windows and cascading daylight. Whereas no architectural strategy can be said to be the sole property of Wright, Erickson, or even a particular West Coast school, Thom’s touch came from the body. Architect Ned Pratt put it best when he compared Erickson and Thom this way: “neck up, neck down.”

Thom designed with a sense of closeness to the body and the landscape, and his architecture was often described as intimate. Real intimacy, however, can only develop over time. And while many works of architecture fail to improve with long occupation and use, not so with Thom’s oeuvre. The Carmichael, Case, Copp, Dodek and Forrest Houses–which are featured in the West Vancouver edition of the exhibition–still stand, weathered by time and well-loved by their occupants. Massey College has become the centre of an academic and cultural community and continues to age beautifully.

To make the point, Weder adds a surprise treat. In a back corner of the exhibition, there is a leather armchair and a matching ottoman from the Copp House by Thom and Joseph Plis. Visitors are welcome to sit in it. Beside the chair is a table with a small, one-off book reproducing Thom’s rough sketches–some near doodles–of Massey College. Through them, Thom searches for form and proportion in a questing hand. He seeks to bring together the Master’s residence, the common room and the courtyard. He works out how to have the lower common-room spaces communicate with the upper dining hall.

Weder discovered these sketches buried in a box at the Canadian Architectural Archives, accompanied by a letter from the Massey Foundation inviting Thom to participate in the competition for the College. In that letter, Thom circled over and over again, with a line weight that shifts from fortissimo to pianissimo, four words: dignity, grace, beauty and warmth. Against the megawattage of Wright and Erickson, Thom held up a candle of his own delicate line and sensitive touch. CA

JJ Lee is a memoirist, fashion writer, and holds a Master of Architecture from the University of British Columbia. His debut book, The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit, is published by McClelland and Stewart.

Ron Thom and the Allied Arts travels to the Gardiner Museum in Toronto from February 13–April 27, 2014, and Trent University Alumni House from August 7–October 22, 2014. The exhibition catalogue is available by contacting [email protected]