The Vision of a Master Architect


"I am more than ever certain that we cannot initiate a dated style. Ron, for one thing, would never do this; but even if he would, the buildings would be failures. We must see with him Ontario fieldstone farmhouses, and the court house, etc., we must note their materials as beautiful and characteristic, and then we must leave Ron to try to catch intimations of them in his buildings: not imitations..." Denis Smith, 30 September [1963]


Design In Modernism

Cultural artifacts of the twentieth century can be read within a design idiom since technology and advanced, industrial, consumer, urban society have driven aesthetics, art and leisure. Whether exploiting the potential of new materials and processes, or reacting against them, design – the purposeful re/creation of objects – has been a defining element of the Modern.

The architecture of Ron Thom is a marker on a continuum running from the Bauhaus of Walter Gropius dating from 1919, through the International Style most evident in the 1930s, to the visual residue of fractured narratives expressed in postmodern architectural pastiche at the end of the century. The four Thom buildings at the heart of the Trent University campus represent the very best and most successful examples of a commitment to the connection of material to building; of building to landscape. Thom adapted the best features of the International Style (more Le Corbusier than Mies van der Rohe), melding and softening Brutalism with Prairie influences reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Thom definition of spaces for living and working allowed functionalism, but not at the expense of austere anti-humanism; it allowed simplicity, but not at the expense of texture and nuance.

Champlain College, Bata Library, Lady Eaton College and the Faryon Bridge are amongst Canada’s foremost architectural masterpieces. They have won international recognition and innumerable prizes but their importance to those who live, work or visit here is more personal and more immediate: we have the privilege of experiencing design which looked beyond the merely utilitarian to a visionary interpretation of Modernity.



Photo credit: Andy Turnbull

Ron Thom's architectural designs for Trent University included the use of concrete as the primary structural material. Prior to the commencement of construction, Thom visited eight universities in England, and was most impressed with Saarinen's use of rubble aggregate at Yale University. At Thom's request, structural engineer Morden Yolles developed a composite using local stone and concrete which gave the walls a sculpted texture, as shown in the above photograph of Champlain College.



Further to Thom's design detail was the idea of walls as vertical "bastions" with windows fitting between them, rather than within them. Lady Eaton College is one such example.
Thom's intentions for Trent's residential colleges were that "their exterior walls, three to four storeys high facing each other, would form pedestrian streets that would lead to the focal space in each..." (Shadbolt, p.93). Champlain College is a good example of Thom's vision in this regard. Also portrayed here is Thom's usage of local brick clays to build the walkways and outdoor corridors.


Other university campuses designed and built in Canada in the boom years of the 1960s have been frequently dismissed as soulless. James Ackland writing in The Canadian Architect (vol. 14 no. 11 Nov. 1969) believed that Trent's startling and beautiful architecture, exhibiting "idyllic grace" was the result of the "happy personal accident that two essentially humane and humble men - architect and university president - let the site and the people speak to them."

Thom's determination to preserve a viable relationship between building and landscape resulted in sites which allow views of drumlin, river or meadow from every vantage point. No building was allowed to obliterate or dominate the terrain; parking lots were discretely located, purposefully unobtrusive.

Architectural elements were carefully orchestrated - colleges and library juxtaposed to preserve the connections between shield, water and building, with views from each to each.