The Life and times of Peter Dickinson

TEXT Ian Chodikoff

In the 1950s, the stars aligned for a young architect by the name of Peter Dickinson, and he eagerly seized the opportunity to engage in one of the most ambitious periods of city-building in Canada, designing countless projects that profoundly changed the direction of architecture in this country. From the time the 25-year-old Dickinson left Britain in 1950 to when he died of cancer in 1961, he had designed over 150 buildings and left an indelible architectural legacy, receiving five Massey Medals as a testament to his creative genius. A young man with a compelling personality and an appetite for the good life, Dickinson and his prodigious output have been thoroughly researched, studied and documented in the aptly titled Peter Dickinson, a recently published book by John Martins-Manteiga, founder of Dominion Modern and perhaps one of the most dedicated fans of Modernism in Canada today.

“Dickinson was everywhere and was a big part of the whole picture in Canada at that time,” notes Martins-Manteiga, who spent eight years preparing a superbly approachable book that is both a biography and a catalogue of work. Complete with interviews, along with a quasi-archaeological approach to uncovering the life of such an iconic figure, the book paints a detailed picture of a charismatic and aspiring young architect flourishing in a society that offered him an unprecedented opportunity unheard of by today’s standards. Having enjoyed an illustrious career that spanned the 1950s and the early ’60s, Dickinson easily fits into the highly stylized aesthetic world of Mad Men, an award-winning television series based on a Madison Avenue advertising agency set in the 1960s. Had his life not been cut short at the age of 35, Peter Dickinson Associates could very well have become the largest architectural practice in Canada, according to Martins-Manteiga.

Born in Suffolk, England, Dickinson graduated from the Architectural Association in London and quickly entered private practice there. After marrying Vera Klausner, the young couple left Britain on a steamship bound for Canada two months later. Four days after landing in Halifax, Dickinson began working for Page & Steele Architects in Toronto where he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a senior partner in 1953. At Page & Steele, Dickinson designed such buildings as Great West Life (1952), Toronto Teacher’s College (1954), Benvenuto Place Apartments (1955), Regent Park South Apartments (1956) and the Park Plaza Hotel (1957). Shortly after the birth of his two sons–Trevor and Gregory –Dickinson left Page & Steele to form Peter Dickinson Associates in 1958. His associates–Colin Vaughan, Dick Williams, Rod Robbie, and Fred Ashworth–quit two years later when Dickinson reneged on his offer of partnership. According to Robbie in an interview with Martins-Manteiga, “So what he did [was take] the next layer, which [consisted of] these guys known as Webb, Zerafa, Menkes, Housden, Korbee and Tirion. Made a deal with them, made them sign agreements…” These newly minted associates eventually went on to form the Webb, Zerafa, Menkes, Housden Partnership (currently known as WZMH Architects). Such was the high-intensity world of Peter Dickinson in 1950s Toronto that compelled and motivated Martins-Manteiga to produce this book, one that is capable of reigniting the energy of the period–even for the most casual reader.

Despite the drama, tension and ego swirling around those who worked in Dickinson’s office from 1958 until his death in 1961, the firm produced a dizzying array of prominent buildings, including the Inn on the Park, the Workmen’s Compensation Rehabilitation Hospital, the Four Seasons Motor Hotel, the KLM Royal Dutch Airline Ticket Office and the Windsor Plaza–which, at 43 storeys, was the tallest building in the Commonwealth when it was completed in 1962.

During the 1950s, there were a number of architects born and raised in the UK who left at varying stages of their careers to seek their fortunes in Canada. Architects such as Peter Caspari, Welles Coates, John C. Parkin, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel and Rod Robbie were among them, along with other British expatriates who helped develop Canada’s architectural culture at that time through their efforts in private practice, academia and public service. Dickinson may not have been the smartest of the British invasion, but few were as charmingly persuasive and focused as he had been.

As described in Martins-Manteiga’s book, one of Dickinson’s legacies was his ability to link his design vision with the aspirations of the development industry in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. He successfully and convincingly imported Modernism to Canada through his associations with progressive developers like Leon Yolles and Harry Rotenberg. He would continue to promote design excellence along with the efforts of their sons who were his contemporaries–engineer Morden Yolles and developer Ken Rotenberg. Dickinson “had the ability with clients to give them what they thought that they wanted. When he would speak, he would draw the client in. They were mesmerized by what he concocted. Clients like Leon Yolles–who considered Dickinson to be like a son–and the Rotenbergs certainly carried on with Dickinson’s vision. They understood his legacy,” states Martins-Manteiga. Another developer, Isadore Sharp, became a good friend of Dickinson, and had him design the recently destroyed Inn on the Park while Dickinson was literally on his deathbed in 1961. It was one of the architect’s most famous designs and the second Four Seasons for Sharp’s fledgling hotel chain. “Certainly, the winds of change were coming in from the US and Europe. There was an atmosphere. Dickinson picked up on these currents. He was just so incredibly charming, and you believed in him. And he could produce on budget as well,” notes Martins-Manteiga.

With no formal education in architecture, and a desire to impress upon the general public a greater awareness of architecture, Martins-Manteiga continues to be a tireless promoter of architecture, largely through Dominion Modern, an institution that he founded in 2003. He has difficulty understanding why the general public continues to remain relatively ignorant of architecture, and he is even more dismayed by the fact that “significant architectural discourse is always kept in a locked safe by academia.”

Dominion Modern is a non-profit charitable museum and organization whose mandate it is to “collect, catalogue, preserve and disseminate” 20th-century Canadian architecture and design. As such, it has amassed over 200 recorded interviews with architects, engineers and designers, and has produced several publications and exhibitions. Peter Dickinson is Martins-Manteiga’s fourth book to be produced through Dominion Modern, and according to the author, “If we had waited for academia to publish this book, I don’t know if it would have [ever been done]. People have been talking about publishing a book on Dickinson for 20 years.” A fifth publication on the history of the Montreal Metro is nearing completion.

One of Martins-Manteiga’s regrets was that he wanted the book to come out before Dickinson’s wife passed away. He adds, “The book came out three months after she died. Vera was the driver behind Peter. Many people have told me that Peter would have been perfectly happy to draw in his corner at Page & Steele, but she drove him to succeed. I see them as one person. Vera was certainly able to push people out of the way. Boris Zerafa was terrified by her.”

“I think that given time, Dickinson would have become more of an architect-developer. I think that he would have become more of a John Portman. He would have operated both here and in the UK, and his firm would have become the largest architectural firm in Canada,” says Martins-Manteiga, adding, “I think that we’ve regressed. I think we’ve lost our confidence and the ability to think big when it comes to imagining ambitious projects in Can

Martins-Manteiga continues his struggle to keep Dominion Modern alive, and desperately needs a greater financial contribution from the architectural profession–a profession that is surprisingly unsupportive of an institution whose leadership is devoted to disseminating the value of architecture to as wide a public as possible. It is unfortunate that Martins-Manteiga’s efforts are neither understood nor appreciated by more architects, particularly those belonging to the firms whose history and reputation were borne during the exciting cocktail-laden and anything-is-possible era of Peter Dickinson. CA

Donations are critical to support projects and programming at Dominion Modern. To make a donation or to purchase a copy of Peter Dickinson, please visit John Martins-Manteiga’s book on Dickinson is also available at SWIPE in Toronto and at the CCA in Montreal.