by Norbert Schoenauer

Nobbs: Student and Apprentice
Nobbs at McGill
The Practicing Architect
Domestic Architecture
Nobbs, A Versatile Man
Nobbs and Montreal's Architecture



In his opening lecture at McGill's Department of Architecture, Nobbs expounded on the importance and Influence of material and technical process on design, and averred that "the great quality of truthfulness can Only be obtained by having due regard for the natural limitations of materials themselves and the techniques to which they are subjected." He illustrated this point With a comparison between cast iron and wrought iron Works: "A clumsy, thickset heaviness is right and proper and beautiful in cast iron while a lacelike dimness is equally characteristic of the material and technic of wrought iron." Unfortunately, for economic reasons, wrought iron was continually being copied in cast iron which, in Nobbs' opinion, resulted not only in a fragile and unsafe railing, but also in a lifeless and ugly product from the artistic standpoint. He concluded his lecture with the advice "to treat materials with sympathy and technics with understanding; to ask what shall this be made of or how will that be wrought before the pencil is committed to the paper; and above all things the negative precept not to sham."8 Nobbs' views clearly reflected both John Ruskin's (1819-1900) plea for truthfulness in architecture as well as the Art Workers' Guild credo "to use materials aright." And, like most of his contemporary Arts and Crafts architects in Great Britain, Nobbs had little sympathy for the Art Nouveau movement, considering it a mere temporary aberration as well as an eccentric pretense of design in pursuit of originality.9

When Nobbs arrived at McGill, he found that the Department of Architecture consisted of Henry F. Armstrong (the only full-time appointed teacher at the School) and two students, Gordon H. Blackader and Harold E. Shorey. Both students had just completed the preparatory first year. A third student, Albert M. Pattison, had left the Department after finishing the second-year course. Blackader would later be seriously wounded at the Battle of Ypres in World War I, which led to his premature death in 1917. The Blackader Library of Architecture at McGill University was founded in his memory, with a very generous endowment by his parents.

Immediately after his arrival, Nobbs (Fig. 2) began to reorganize the four year architecture curriculum into two streams; one, as before, leading to the Bachelor of Science in Architectural Engineering (B.Sc.Arch.Eng.), and the other to a "new" Bachelor of Architecure (B.Arch.) degree. Students in the B. Sc. Arch. Eng. program retained much parallel instruction with civil engineering students, including the prerequisite of Applied Science Matriculation for admission. However, students pursuing the B.Arch. stream were liberated from some of the more demanding technical courses of the Faculty of Applied Science. These Nobbs replaced with courses from the Faculty of Arts; moreover, the less stringent Arts Matriculation (with French compulsory, and Freehand and Geometrical Drawing added) sufficed for admission to this new program. Thus, the preparatory first year of the B.Arch. program now became separate and distinct from that of the B.Sc.Arch.Eng. program. This change resulted in the Department becoming the School of Architecture.

As before, during Capper's tenure at McGill, architectural studies proper began in second year and the amount of time devoted to design studio work increased gradually in the upper years. Generally, lectures were divided in five groups: history, structure, theory of design, ornament and decoration, and professional matters. In the third and fourth years lecture hours were usually from 9 to 10 in the morning, to enable Partial Students, working as apprentices in architects' offices, "to avail themselves of the instruction." Such lectures were recommended "for those studying for the R.I.B.A. and the P.Q.A.A. (Province of Quebec Association of Architects) examinations."10

With increased enrollment it became necessary, in 1906, to add three new assistants to the School's staff. Cecil Burgess, who had travelled with Nobbs in northern Italy, was appointed to teach "History of Architecture (Egyptian and Byzantine)" and "Building Construction", E.E.S. Mattice taught "Structural Engineering", and Marcel C.T. Beullac, of the Dominion Bridge Works, was responsible for "Professional Practice". Nobbs taught "Design", "Theory and Evolution of Architectural Form", "Building Trades", "Ornament and Decoration", "Science of Planning", and two history courses, "Gothic Architecture" and "Renaissance Architecture".

The principal text book for the History courses was A History of Architecture (1896) by Banister Fletcher, and among reference books were listed From Schola to Cathedral (1886) by G. Baldwin Brown, Auguste Choisy's L'Art de Bâtir chez les Romains (1873), Violet-le-Duc's Lectures on Architecture (1881) and John Ruskin's Stones of Venice (1886). The text book for "Theory and Evolution of Architectural Forms" was G. Baldwin Brown's The Fine Arts (1891) and reference books were the same as in the History courses. Text and reference books of the "Ornament and Decoration" course included Lewis Foreman Day's Anatomy of Pattern (1892), George William Eve's Decorative Heraldry (1897), Grammar of Ornament (1868) by Owen Jones, Walter Crane's The Bases of Design (1897) and Aymer Valance's William Morris, his Art, his writings and his public life: a record (1897).11

In 1909, Philip J. Turner (1876-1943) joined the staff to teach "Building Construction", while Burgess took charge of the "History of Medieval and Renaissance Architecture", which he relinquished a year later to Thomas Ludlow, a newly appointed Assistant Professor. (Burgess left Montreal to supervise buildings designed by Nobbs for the University of Alberta in Edmonton.) A new instructor, Henri Hubert, a well-known sculptor, was appointed in 1910 to teach "Modelling".

The growth of the School in this period is reflected in the increased numbers of graduates from two, in 1906, to eight, in 1912. With the establishment of a second School of Architecture, the École Polytechnique on St. Denis Street (1907), and the founding of the École des Beaux-Arts on St. Urbain Street (1923) under the direction of a distinguished graduate of the École in Paris, Professor Jules Poivert, there was no pressure to grow rapidly. Far more restricting to growth were the consequences of World War I and the Great Depression of the late 1920s.

A talented and versatile architect eager to design and construct buildings, the somewhat temperamental Nobbs had little patience for administration. Moreover, Principal Peterson disapproved of the School's director seeking ever greater involvement in professional practice instead of devoting all his energies to teaching. This conflict led to Nobbs' request, in 1909, to be relieved of the responsibility of the directorship. His replacement was effected in 1913 with the appointment to the Macdonald Chair of Architecture of Ramsay Traquair (1874-1952) - another friend with whom he had travelled in Italy many years earlier. Nobbs, however, remained on the staff of the School as a Professor of Design until his retirement.

During World War I Nobbs enlisted and was engaged in military training, teaching young Canadian recruits bayonet fighting. Later he joined the Royal Engineers and served as a camouflage expert in France, attaining the rank of major by the end of the war.12 In the meanwhile, Traquair continued to teach at the School of Architecture, and also gave OTC (Officer Training Corps) combat instruction on the McGill campus. Edgar Andrew Collard recalled that during his instruction Professor Traquair would leap in the air, clutching his bayonet-tipped rifle, his kilt flapping about his legs, and shout to the recruits: "What you require is more fer-rocity!"13


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8. Nobbs, P.E., "Opening Lecture of the Department of Architecture, McGill University," The Canadian Architect and Builder, vol. 17, no. 202 (October 1904), pp. 155-56.

9. Ibid., p .155.

10. "Annual Calendar for Session 1905/06," McGill University, 1905, p. 171.

11.Ibid., pp. 185-187.

12. Wagg, Susan, Percy Erskine Nobbs: Architecte, Artiste, Artisan / Architect, Artist, Craftsman. Kingston-Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1982, p. 73.

13. Collard, Edgar Andrew, "The professors soldiered as best they could," The Gazette, (November 14). Montreal, 1987, p. B-2.