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Great mind, sad life

Ron Thom’s houses on Vancouver’s north shore remain avant-garde and comfortable 60 years on.

January 27th, 2023

Ron Thom went to the Vancouver School of Art in the 1930s and 40s where he was inspired by a cadre of equally brilliant people such as B.C. Binning, and Jack and Doug Shadbolt.

A new biography of Ron Thom is an insightful and enlightening examination of a brilliant Canadian architect who returned from the Second World War a damaged young man.

by Alexander Varty

The general consensus among architectural historians—and Vancouver author Adele Weder does not deviate from this orthodoxy—is that Ron Thom’s signature building is Massey College, on the grounds of the University of Toronto. This graduate facility, with its Oxbridge-inflected exterior and a softly organic interior of pearly limestone, glowing softwoods, and warm brick, perfectly encapsulates one side of Thom’s design aesthetic: the need to find sanctuary amid the ever-increasing pace of the industrialized outside world. His other prime directive—to bring those more calming aspects of the wider world, landscape and seascape, indoors—doesn’t find much expression here, but that has no doubt to do with the college’s busy urban site.

Other clues to Thom’s personality and aesthetic are literally written into the shape and texture of Massey College’s central space, a modernist reinvention of a medieval feasting hall. Circling the room, in calligraphy designed by Thom’s associate Allan Fleming, are 72 words from philosopher George Santayana that echo and amplify the college’s motto, Sapere aude, or “dare to be wise.”

“To be happy, you must be wise,” the inscription concludes.

“Of course, easier said than done,” is Weder’s response.

Her biography, Ron Thom Architect: The Life of a Creative Modernist (Greystone Books, $37.95 h.c.) is an insightful, enlightening, and gratifyingly fast-paced examination of one of Canadian architecture’s greatest minds and saddest lives. There is no doubt that Thom was inspired, and one of the chief joys here is learning how Thom was shaped and bolstered by a cadre of equally brilliant men and women, many of them instructors at or alumni of the Vancouver School of Art in the 1930s and ’40s. B.C. Binning, Jack and Doug Shadbolt, Molly Bobak and others helped guide Thom in his transition from promising painter to master planner, and one of Ron Thom Architect’s greatest contributions to our shared store of knowledge lies in its clear-eyed yet affectionate portrait of a nascent Vancouver, beginning to stretch out from under the shadow of its colonial past and develop its own cultural identity, informed by its forests, mountains, and First Nations heritage. Even those whose interest in local architecture doesn’t extend much beyond passing wonder at Thom and Ned Pratt’s enduringly glorious B.C. Electric Building (now called The Electra), with its B.C. Binning mural, will find this revelatory.

Richard Neutra (hand extended) in conversation after a lecture at the Vancouver Art Gallery, with Arthur Erickson (centre) and Ron Thom (centre right), 1949. Photographer unknown. Collection of the Thom family.

Thom’s BC years occupy almost half of Ron Thom Architect, and the story grows much darker once the action shifts to Toronto, the location of its hero’s greatest triumphs and gravest failures. There are foreshadowings of the latter, certainly. Thom’s virtual abandonment of his first wife, Chris, although typical of this Mad Men era, was unthinking if not actively cruel. And his conflicts with colleagues over aesthetic factors and, perhaps more tellingly, over budgets hint at a greater unwillingness to compromise: a worthy trait in a designer, but one less useful in the realm of making.

And then there was the drinking.

Although Thom did not see battle during the Second World War, something happened to him during that conflict, whether it was while he was on active duty in the Aleutians or learning aircraft navigation on the Prairies. As Chris Thom recalled, he left for Royal Canadian Air Force service sober, and returned “soused.” Two- and three-martini lunches elided into the bottle hidden in the desk and the suitcase full of clinking glass; a kind and considerate man in the morning turned, by most accounts, into a raging tyrant by mid-afternoon. Thom’s work didn’t suffer but his ability to see things through did, and by the end of his career he was more tolerated in the office he had established than truly welcome.

He died, alone and at work, on October 29, 1986. He was only 63. The coroner’s verdict? Acute alcoholism, coupled with cardiac arrest.

Weder speculates that the Peter Principle was at play in Thom’s disintegration and ultimate demise: upward pressure forced him into a managerial role that did not suit his intuitive and collaborative approach to design and life. There’s little doubt that despite the success of his Massey College building, and his visionary but only partially realized plans for Peterborough, Ontario’s Trent College, his true métier was home design. Sixty and 70 years on, the modernist houses he designed in West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Point Grey, and elsewhere remain both avant-garde and astonishingly comfortable. But there’s another factor that must have weighed heavily on Thom’s psyche: the conflict between his idealism and a client list that increasingly depended on institutions, large businesses and the wealthy.

Ron Thom’s parents and sisters: clockwise from left, Heather, Ron, Mavis, Elena, and James Thom. Courtesy of The Thom Family Archive

Thom’s childhood revolved around his mother, a demanding taskmaster and the fourth woman admitted to the Saskatchewan bar, but also a Christian socialist of the Tommy Douglas school. He often recounted how she would feed the indigent during the Depression years, and one reason why he died at his desk was that he had loaned his nearby apartment to a homeless couple, met by chance on the street. Building shopping centres rather than elegant low-income housing surely rubbed his conscience raw.

What could Thom have accomplished had Canadian society not turned away from the collective to the corporate? Why do we not fund beauty for all? Ron Thom Architect is a moving elegy for a singular and sometimes difficult man, but it also mourns the calcification of what used to be a kinder, gentler nation, and it should be read by more than Thom’s many admirers in the design community. 9781771643221

Massey College’s central space, a modernist reinvention of a medieval feasting hall.

One Response to “Great mind, sad life”

  1. Therese Hartwig says:

    I enjoyed this review, thank you, Alexander. It makes me want to read the book, and know more of this interesting man.

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