Let us now praise Ron Thom

“Ron Thom (1923–1986) first made his name in British Columbia as an architect of dramatic, award-winning houses, and then in Ontario as the architect of Massey College and Trent University. Thom embraced a comprehensive design philosophy, wherein ‘architecture’ comprises not only the plans and construction but also the furniture, fittings, textiles, art and ceramics. This approach informed a career that spanned almost four decades, during which time Thom and his associates designed landmark projects across the country.”

So writes Vancouver-based architectural writer and critic Adele Weder, curator of the travelling exhibition “Ron Thom and the Allied Arts,” which opened in Vancouver last summer and continues at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum until Apr. 27. Organized by the West Vancouver Museum in conjunction with Trent University and Massey College, it explores Thom’s architecture in the context of his total aesthetic. Says Weder, “One of Canada’s greatest architects, he believed in creating not just a building, but a gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art.” The exhibition’s dramatic plywood-based design was created by Vancouver-based Public, the multi-disciplinary design firm formerly known as Public: Architecture + Communication. 

Originally slated to become a concert pianist, Thom changed his mind in his late teens and attended the Vancouver School of Art from 1942 to 1947, where he was persuaded to change career paths again from art to architecture. Without formal architectural training, he apprenticed at one of Vancouver’s leading firms, Thompson, Berwick and Pratt, where he emerged as a rising star and the company’s top draftsman. Thom subsequently became famous for the many West Coast homes he designed, several of which were completed as “midnight specials”: small modernist houses that he and his cohorts completed long after their regular workday ended. His international renown was established when he was commissioned to design Massey College in Toronto and Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. “It’s now a half-century after they were built,” says Weder, “and these structures continue to shelter their inhabitants and delight the eye – a testament to the enduring art of architecture.”

Rather than a retrospective of his entire career, the exhibition focuses on Thom’s most creatively fertile period, 1947 to 1972. It features landmark projects – the Copp, Carmichael, Dodek, Forrest and Case houses of the Vancouver region, and Ontario’s Massey College and Trent University – that all show how the architect embraced the comprehensive design philosophy. Every element, right down to the lamp bases, bowls and ashtrays, was an important component of his architectural masterpieces. Says Weder, “His architecture embodied his love of organic building enriched by art, craft, and landscape – rather than what he saw as the machine-inspired rationalism championed elsewhere.”

The show explores the architectural evolution of Thom through original paintings, prototypes for furniture and fittings, architectural drawings and sketches, archival and architectural photography, the original hand-rendered 1960 Massey College presentation boards, and the ceramics he commissioned. The show is divided into three stages: his formative years as an artist and house architect in Vancouver; the competition and completion of Massey College; and the master plan and four key colleges of Trent University. Drawing on the private holdings of family members, colleagues, and institutional archives, the exhibition contextualizes the role of ceramics and other allied arts through an exploration of Massey College, Trent University and the five West Coast houses.

“Through Massey College and Trent University, Ron Thom was gaining international recognition by the early 1970s as one of North America’s great architects,” says Weder. “But his brilliance and accomplishments have been underreported since his early death at age 63 in 1986. Partly because we lost him too soon, and also because he was never particularly focused on courting the media or cultural establishment, his work has not yet received the recognition it so richly deserves.”

Thanks to the efforts of Weder and company, Ron Thom is getting his due.

Traveling to Trent University and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery later this year, “Ron Thom and the Allied Arts” runs at the Gardiner Museum to Apr. 27.