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Ron Thom: An influential Canadian Architect

As I was born in Vancouver, I have an affinity for west coast architecture and I wanted to highlight Ron Thom, a world-renowned Canadian architect who, interestingly, did not have an education in architecture but rather evolved into his trade.  When we searched for an architect to create our Muskoka cottage 30 years ago we chose Peter Burton, Principal at +VG who won us over based on the fact he was mentored by Ron Thom (in addition to the fact we like his work.) We were not disappointed–our cottage has that west coast flair and you can see Ron Thom’s influences blended with Peter Burton’s own unique architectural details. There are a few Ron Thom-designed residential properties in Toronto, including a Ron Thom original home (4 Old George Place, Fraser Residence ) in Rosedale that is artfully built into the ravine in an understated manner that blends nature with a modest streetscape. The home has been recently renovated by Altius to maintain the integrity of the original architecture.  There is another Ron Thom home in the Bayview York Mills area that was owned by art collector Murray Frum. I had the pleasure of touring this home, also on a ravine. It too features a subtle streetscape and nestles into the ravine to be one with nature.  The York Mills property has an addition done by Shim + Sutcliffe that complements the Ron Thom original architecture. 

Paul Johnston Unique Modern Homes happens to have a Ron Thom designed townhome up for sale that was actually his mother’s own home.

If you would like to learn more, Emily Milana has written a blog piece for me on Ron Thom and his work which you can read below.

Canadian architecture has largely been defined by the work of a few key domestic and international minds. Ronald Thom was one of the most influential Canadian architects of the twentieth century and he became most well known for his grand institutional works – Massey College at the University of Toronto and the master plan of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario (Rybczynski, 2019). Thom was known for his masterfully comprehensive designs, in which he was responsible for the design of everything from the overall structure to small ancillary items such as cutlery and ashtrays (Lee, 2013). Although Thom’s work was fundamentally influenced by global trends and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and his other contemporaries, Thom’s designs were very unique and many have become cultural icons in Canada (Trent University, 2020). 

Thom was born in Penticton, British Columbia in 1923 and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II before studying painting at the Vancouver School of Art (The Cultural Landscape Foundation, 2020). After graduating from art school (not architecture school) Thom began his architectural career as an intern at the Vancouver firm of Thompson, Berwick & Pratt (TBP). After designing many award-winning residential projects and passing his architectural licensing exams, Thom was promoted to firm Partner in 1958 (The Cultural Landscape Foundation, 2020). However after few years of success, Thom decided to take his ambitions to Toronto in the early 1960s and founded his own firm called R.J. Thom & Associates (Lee, 2013). 

Shortly thereafter, Thom’s firm won the design competition for Massey College which was completed in 1963 (Lee, 2013). Thom’s design for Massey College was largely influenced by the traditional architecture of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Adele Weder, curator of the West Vancouver Museum’s exhibition on Thom, described Thom’s Massey College design as “something of a gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art)” insofar Thom designed, commissioned and “otherwise (oversaw) each component of the building from the outside in, from the gardens to the ashtrays” (Lee, 2013). Consequently, Thom exercised a unique amount of control over the project from the beginning. So much so that Thom even commissioned the cutlery and table settings which would be used by patrons whilst seated at the large custom built communal oak tables in the dining hall (Osborne, 2014). However, I believe that the most important aspect of the overall Massey College design was that Thom was able to appropriately incorporate Massey College into the existing architectural fabric of the University of Toronto community. This aspect, among many others, was key to the overall success of the project and Massey College continues to win prestigious design awards from institutions such as the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (The Cultural Landscape Foundation, 2020). 

After demonstrating his architectural abilities at Massey College, Thom was commissioned by Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario to design a masterplan for the University in the late 1960s. At Trent, Thom designed the Thomas J. Bata Library, Champlain College, Lady Eaton College and the Chemistry building (Trent University, 2020). According to Trent University, Thom was also responsible for designing the “overall campus plan, roadways, main college buildings, pedestrian paths, landscaping, floor coverings, lighting, desks, cabinets, chairs, tables, stools, dinnerware, artwork and ashtrays (Trent University, 2020).” Thom was ultimately able to seamlessly weave together the surrounding landscape of the Otonabee River with University’s buildings – creating something of a “haven” for students and faculty (Trent University). 

Many years after his death in 1986 – a travelling exhibition titled “Ron Thom and the Allied Arts” was developed in 2014 by the Vancouver Museum of Art. The exhibition thoughtfully demonstrated his architectural and artistic abilities through a display of artifacts and items from his many projects (Gardiner Museum, 2020). When asked about the project, Curator Adele Weder remarked that, “few architects have helped shape Canadian architecture as poetically as Ron Thom… (he) devoted himself to a profoundly holistic approach, wherein the fields of architecture, ceramics, visual arts, furniture and landscape formed a continuum” (Gardiner Museum, 2020). Thom was undoubtedly a true visionary and if you were not fortunate enough to see the exhibition when it came to Toronto’s Gardiner Museum in 2014 – it is definitely worth taking a drive to view the idyllic Trent University campus or walking by Massey College in Toronto to experience the scale Thom’s architecture first hand. 

References

(2020, July 25). Ronald Thom. The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

 (2020, July 28). Ron Thom & the Allied Arts. The Gardiner Museum.

(2020, July 25). Ron Thom (1923-1986). Trent University.

Lee, JJ. (2013, Oct. 1). Ron Thom and the Allied Arts. Canadian Architect.

Osborne, Catherine. (2014, Mar. 14). 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Ron Thom. Azure Magazine. 

Rybczynski, Witold. (2019, Dec. 19). A Brief History of Recent Canadian Architecture. Architect Magazine