THE WRITINGS OF PERCY ERSKINE NOBBS
The essays Nobbs wrote at the time he came to McGill show his interest in aesthetics and his long-held opinion that barring actual experience, drawing is the way to understand buildings and the only way to describe them. The early essays appear to forecast his vision that just as the Arts and Crafts movement, with all that it implied, had grown from the turmoil of the Gothic Revival, architecture anywhere could be based upon an imaginative understanding of common building materials and trades, shared traditions, the lessons to be learned from existing buildings, and the desire to make something appealing. His opening lecture at McGill was entitled "Building Trades" to avoid conveying a notion of amateurism that he sensed had become associated with the word crafts, yet crafts were what he intended to discuss. He explained that in designing a teaspoon or a town hall, while knowledge of how the object was to be used was primary, what could be used to make it, what had been past experience good and bad, and how well it could be done were the questions.1
In 1903 Nobbs gave the Canadian Architect and Builder (CAB) three short papers that had been written as an introduction to the study of architecture. These concerned drawing as the means of describing buildings; distinguishing between styles and style, the various manners of architecture at different times and places, and the manner or skill of architects; and the nature of materials and appropriate ways of using them.2 In 1904 CAB published two illustrated papers Nobbs had prepared as lectures: the first on the design of ornamental plaster, the second on the drawing of architecture.3 The latter had been presented to the annual meeting of the Ontario Association of Architects the previous year. In 1905 the same journal published a paper that had been presented to the Sketching Club of the Province of Quebec Association of Architects which included an appeal to respect vernacular architecture and to learn from old examples of unpretentious work.4
"Art in its Lowest Terms" was the title of Nobbs's university lecture, in 1906.5 He considered it an important event and noted on the cover of his manuscript that the Principal, the classicist William Peterson, was complimentary but the Department of Philosophy was hostile. The lecture was unpublished but in 1906, 1907, and 1910 Nobbs presented papers to annual meetings of the Ontario Association of Architects that were published and together form a sequence exposing his philosophy. The first dealt with European official architecture, tracing its origin, development, strengths, weaknesses, and particularly its academism.6 In concluding he referred briefly to the special position of Britain in this matter, though limited time prevented his expanding on this point. In the following year he was given the opportunity to elaborate and explained how the rediscovery of the importance of material in the Gothic Revival had stimulated all forms of British architecture including the classical and set it far apart from European academic concerns.7 This unacademic stance surfaced in an address to the American Institute of Architects in Chicago in 1907, when he drew a parallel between the rarified classical work, then dominating America, with the work of Smirke, Tite, and Elms in England just before the high tide of the Gothic Revival, which when it ebbed away left a rejuvenated 'astylar' free classic with Gothic directness and elasticity. While seeming paradoxical, he ventured to suggest that a Gothic Revival in America then would lead to a broader view of classic architecture -- and emancipation; yet he added that he hoped the day was coming when there would be neither Gothic nor classic, but modern buildings infused with all the delicacy of the Greek, the force of the Roman, and the verve of the Renaissance. And he stressed the need to consider the great periods of architecture as sources of spirit rather than motif.8
His unacademic position must have disturbed some people and perhaps given the impression that he had little regard for abstract rules of performance and saw no role for the state in architecture, since his next published paper was a vigorous and explicit outline of a role for the state. Nobbs saw the need for government aid for travelling scholarships and the establishment of teaching museums for the purpose of developing an architecture based upon distinctive national traditions.9 And in the next opportunity he had to address the Ontario Association of Architects, he prefaced the presentation of his own scheme for teaching the principles of architecture (the McGill curriculum) by pointing out its compatibility with his unacademic stand.10 In the same year, 1910, he made Canadian architecture the subject of his address to the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, wherein he presented the idea of art as a simple natural human activity and not an inexplicable, quintessential mystery.11 Nobbs believed that in the ordinary choices architects make, they inevitably express their feeling for a work in hand and thereby convey messages to other men for as long as a building stands. At the very least the messages need to be pleasant and appropriate, but there are no bounds to feeling and the ability of architects to be expressive.
After the war of 1914-18, Nobbs's essays follow six themes, nearly all of which fall within the scope of Canadian experience: architecture in Canada, community planning and housing, design and crafts, professional development, his own work, and expressions of appreciation for certain of his most admired contemporaries.
On the occasion of the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1924, Nobbs presented a paper on Canadian architecture to the Royal Institute of British Architects which received a great deal of attention in architectural journals.12 It was followed by another specifically upon the English tradition in Canada for the prestigious Architectural Review.13 The theme was pursued in the Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (JRAIC) in 1930 and in the Studio in 1932.14 Four years later he reported again upon architecture in Canada, and his last essay on the topic appeared in 1956.15
Nobbs's interest in community planning and housing in Montreal grew from his concern for the proper siting of buildings and his frustration with the layout of streets without regard to orientation or view and often without regard to the gradient of the land on which they were built. He was offended as well by the general disregard for the reservation of space for public buildings, which, if well composed on prominent sites, could punctuate the urban pattern and give a lively identity to places in an otherwise dreary scene. Thus his first essays on this theme dealt with minimum needs for sunlight, the advantages of group planning, and standards of layout of land for residential purposes.16 Two of his essays were reports upon planning activities in Montreal in 1926.17 In the following year he was joint editor of a special planning number of La Revue Municipale, which included his essays "The Syndication of Land" and "A Provincial Town Planning and Zoning Enabling Act."18 In 1928, the year he was President of the Town Planning Institute, an account of the objectives of town planning in Montreal was written for the McGill News; and a consideration for the need to control the height and use of buildings was written for the Journal of the Town Planning Institute of Canada in which he pointed out that as to the control of architecture, the less the better.19 For Nobbs, architecture concerned the impression a building gave and was inconceivably a matter for municipal regulations. In the early thirties Nobbs co-chaired the joint committee of the City Improvement League and the Montreal Board of Trade, set up to consider problems of housing and slum clearance. The committee made the first thorough examination of such conditions in Montreal and prepared a specific program for three-level government action.20 A perceptive report entitled "A Metropolitan System of Waterside Parks for Montreal" was written in 1934, possibly for the City Improvement League, but nothing came of it and it remained unpublished.21 An explanatory article outlining a housing program to meet Canada's needs was published in a construction trade journal in 1936 and may have been a good deal more effective than his appeals to public authorities had been; since housing, years later, came into being as a means of assisting the building industry to employ men.22
Four pleasant essays concerning architecture and design appeared in U.S. architectural journals in 1923, the same year that ten handsome photographs of the work of Nobbs and Hyde were shown in The American Architect - The Architectural Review.23 In 1935 Nobbs appears to have been asked to write a paper on architectural economics by JRAIC, In complying he made his familiar distinction between design and architecture. Design, he wrote, being concerned with the solution of problems, the discovery of form in terms of practical purpose, material, and technique is entirely tied up with economics; whereas architecture is primarily concerned with impressions. In many cases the discovered form is the subject of artistic commentary, but in monumental architecture, where purpose is not necessarily practical, spiritual content may have little or nothing to do with a solution of a problem and can have only a flimsy relationship with economics.24 For Nobbs architecture was not a synonym for building. It had to do with the artistry of men in doing their best to make buildings effective. Architecture was his word for such a conception, and he was unhappy with the idea that architecture was merely what people calling themselves architects did. In 1940 Nobbs wrote a paper on the question of a Canadian flag, in which he fairly well outlined the design that was adopted twenty-five years later.25 Heraldry fascinated him - possibly as a microcosm of his ideas on design and architecture. Involving purpose, material, tradition, rights and wrongs, the rules of heraldry set positive limits yet allow ample scope for wit and expression in execution. Nobbs's last essay on design and material dealt with ornamental iron, which much of his own work shows him to have been a master of.26
A concern for the development of the profession of architecture in Canada can be seen in many of Nobbs's essays, but one dealing specifically with the relations of architects and clients was published in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects in 1921.27 A re-examination of the role of university education in architecture to meet current needs appeared in 1925.28 In 1927 he wrote a three-part account of the Royal Institute of British Architects to explain to his fellow Canadian architects its organization and control, its educational activities, and its library and journal.29 The need for reform in the rules for architectural competitions engaged him, and a constructive paper on the topic was published in 1935.30 An extensive paper on the remuneration of architects was prepared for the 15th International Congress of Architects that was to have been held in Washington in September 1939 but was cancelled due to war in Europe.31 Much of it appeared later in two articles in JRAIC - the first under the original title, the second as "The Sliding Scale of Remuneration."32
Nobbs described his own work in six essays. The first dealt with work at McGill in 1920.33 "The Canadian Battlefields Memorial Competition" described the work he did for the Imperial War Graves Commission of which he was a member.34 Work at the University of Alberta was reported in two stages, the first in 1921 --the initial layout and the Arts Building; then in 1925 - a further developed scheme and the Medical Building.35 "Bibliotheca Osleriana" in 1930 and "McGill Decorations for the Royal Visit in 1939" described two works for McGill in which Nobbs sought excellence through his talent for effective display.36
Lastly, five of the essays were appreciations of men with whom he had worked and whom he greatly admired: Sir William Macdonald, one of McGill's great benefactors; his teacher Sir Robert Lorimer; the town planner Noulan Cauchon; Ramsay Traquair, his successor as Macdonald Professor of Architecture at McGill; and Frank Darling, dean of Canadian architects.37 Having designed two buildings for Macdonald, Nobbs knew him to be wise and affectionate and regretted that as time passed, his spiritual attributes were being hidden by mere accounts of his wealth. Lorimer, the artist and craftsman, following a generation of archaeological barbarians, had uncovered the spirit of old Scottish buildings that had been ignored. He was the last of the great romantics with a name to set beside those of architects Philip Webb and Richard Norman Shaw. Cauchon, in Nobbs's view, embodied the patience, strength, and courage of his French, Irish, and Scottish forbears. He was a passionate and tireless improver in the forlorn cause of housing and city planning in Canada. Traquair's near perfect background in science and art and his fascination with how things were put together made him a gifted professor of architecture whom everyone enjoyed. Traquair, too, had learned from Lorimer to appreciate the charm of old buildings and thus began his celebrated work of exploring and recording the old architecture of Quebec. Darling's greatness was impossible to overlook: he deserved the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded him in 1915 and takes his place among those who had received it beginning with Cockerell in 1848. Darling knew well how to relate the insides and outsides of buildings, but above all he understood the importance of scale whether in the design of a house or of some Augustan work. His notion of unit planning was a contribution to modern Canadian design.
Individually, Nobbs's essays are nicely composed and a pleasure to read. As a group, they tell of Nobbs's own development, account for events as he saw them, and provide insights on his contemporaries.
1 "Opening Lecture of the Department of Architecture, McGill University," CAB 17 (October 1904): 155-56.
2 "Drawing and Architecture," CAB (Archt Ed) 16 ( October 1903): 168-69; "The Styles of Architecture and Style in Architecture," CAB (Archt Ed) 16 (November 1903): 184-85; and "Material and Technique in Design," CAB (Archt Ed) 16 (December 1903): 200-201.
3"Plaster Decoration - Modelled and Hand-wrought," CAB 17 (January 1904): 4-7 and "The Delineation of Architecture," CAB 17 (January 1904): 29-33.
4"On the Value of the Study of Old Work," CAB (Archt Ed) 18 (May 1905): 74-75.
5"Art in its Lowest Terms," The University Lecture, McGill University, October 1906, Nobbs Archive, CAC.
6"The Official Architecture of European Capitals," Proc OAA 6 (1906): 78-79.
7"Gothic Revivals of the XlXth Century," Proc OAA 1 (1907): 42-52.
8"Address by Prof. Percy E. Nobbs," Proceedings of the Forty-First Annual Convention of the American Institute of Architects, (Board of Directors, A.I.A., 1907): 148-52.
9"State Aid to Art Education in Canada," Construction 1 (April 1908): 44-47.
10"Architectural Education in Canada," Proc OAA 10 (1910): 81-87.
11"Architecture of Canada," Construction 3 (October 1910): 56-60.
12 "Architecture in Canada -Part I," JRIBA 31 (9 February 1924): 199-211; "Architecture in Canada - Part II," JRIBA 31 (23 February 1924): 238-50; Architecture in Canada, (London: Royal Institute of British Architects, 1924); "Architecture in Canada," JRAIC 1 (July-September 1924): 91-94; reported in The Builder 26 (25 January 1924): 142-43; and reported in Archit J 59 (30 January 1924): 239.
13"The English Tradition in Canada," Arch Rev 55 (June 1924): 236-41.
14"Present Tendencies Affecting Architecture in Canada," JRAIC 7 (July 1930): 245-48; (September 1930): 314-17; (November 1930): 388-92; and "Tradition and Progress in Canadian Architecture," The Studio 104 (August 1932): 82-91.
15"Recent Architecture in Canada," JRAIC 13 (September 1936): 167-91 and "Architecture in the Province of Quebec in the Early Years," JRAIC 32 (November 1956): 418-19.
16"Planning for Sunlight," JTPIC 1 (April 1922): 6-12; Suburban Community Planning, McGill University Publications Series XIII (Arts and Architecture) No. 7 (Montreal: [McGill University], 1926) and "The Subdivision of Residential Property," JTPIC 5 (April 1926): 10-16.
17"Memorandum on the Town Planning Movement in Montreal since January 1st, 1926," JTPIC 5 (February 1927): 5-6.
18La Revue Municipale: Special Town Planning Number (December 1927).
19"Montreal and Town Planning," Supplement to the McGill News I (December 1928): 12-17 and "On the Control of Architecture," JTPIC 1 (October 1928):120-22.
20Joint Committee of the Montreal Board of Trade and the City Improvement League Incorporated, A Report on Housing and Slum Clearance for Montreal, by P.E. Nobbs, Chairman (Montreal: Montreal Board of Trade and City Improvement League, March 1935).
21"A Metropolitan System of Waterside Parks for Montreal," 1 November 1934, Nobbs Archive, CAC.
22"A Housing Program to Meet Canada's Needs," The Construction Trade Review and Forecast (1936-37): 64-65.
23"Daylight in Buildings," Am Archt - Arch Rev 124 (4 July 1923): 1-6; (1 August 1923): 99-106; "Wall Textures," Am Archt - Arch Rev 124 (12 September 1923): 247-50; "Literature and Architecture," JAIA 11 (September 1923): 343-46; "On the Appreciation of Things Made to be Seen," JAIA 11 (October 1923): 401-4; and Am Archt Arch Rev 124 (July 1923): 10 pl.
24"Architectural Economics: Design," JRAIC 12 (February 1935): 30-32.
25"Canadian Hag Problems," McGill News 21 (Spring 1940): 14.
26"Metal Crafts in Canada," Can Geog J 28 (May 1944): 212-24.
27"The Architects: a Talk to Clients," JAIA 9 (July 1921): 227.
28"University Education in Architecture," JRAIC 2 (March-April 1925): 68-71; (May-June 1925): 106-9.
29"The Royal Institute of British Architects," JRAIC 4 (May 1927): 186-87; (June 1927): 230-32; and (July 1927): 240-41.
30"Competition Reform," JRAIC 12 (September 1935): 150-52.
31"Etude B: Comparison of the Remuneration Received by Architects in Different Countries: the Remuneration of Architects," The Fifteenth Annual International Congress of Architects Report, Volume I. (Washington: American Institute of Architects, 1939): 409-17.
32"The Remuneration of Architects," JRAIC 18 (January 1941): 6-9 and "The Sliding Scale of Remuneration," JRAIC 18 (April 1941): 70.
33"The Sites of University Buildings," McGill News 1 (June 1920): 2-5.
34"The Canadian Battlefields Memorial Competition," Construction 14 (June 1921): 160-70.
35"Construction at the University of Alberta," Construction 14 (January 1921): 3-12 and "The General Scheme for the University of Alberta," JRAIC 2 (September-October 1925): 159-65.
36"Bibliotheca Osleriana," JRAIC 7 (June 1930): 204-5 and "The McGill University Decorations for the Royal Visit," McGill News 20 (Summer 1939): 9.
37"Sir William Macdonald: Some Reminiscences," McGill News 4 (June 1923):1-2, 4; "The Late Sir Robert Lorimer," JRAIC 6 (October 1929): 352; "Noulan Cauchon - An Appreciation," JRAIC 13 (June 1936): 122; "Ramsay Traquair, Hon. M.A. (McGill) F.R.I.B.A.: On his Retirement from the Macdonald Chair of Architecture at McGill University," JRAIC 16 (June 1939): 147-48; and "The Late Frank Darling," Construction 16 (June 1923): 205-6.