by Susan Wagg




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Biographical Details

Abbreviations and Notes

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The Gothic Revival, which generated the Arts and Crafts movement, had stressed not only how buildings were built and what they were built of, but how they looked in the landscape. In 1905 Nobbs observed that the country houses of Lorimer and Lutyens "looked as if they had grown and not been planted amid their surroundings."1 Unlike Lorimer, Nobbs worked chiefly in an urban setting; but he was as sensitive to the built environment as to the rural one, a capacity he shared with such Arts and Crafts figures as Webb, Lethaby, and Lutyens. Like all these men; he respected the old architecture of each region. In 1877 Morris and Webb had been driven to found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (S.P.A.B.) to combat the ravages of both decay and overzealous restorers. Webb at times refused to undertake work that involved the destruction of old buildings he admired; at Standen, his last great country house (1882-84), he incorporated an old tile-hung farmhouse into his new structure.2 A particularly engaging example of this conservationist philosophy is the Nicholson Institute in Leek, Staffordshire (1881-84), designed by W. D. Sugden, an enthusiastic follower of Morris and Webb and one of the first members of S.P.A.B. Sugden allowed a seventeenth-century house occupying the street frontage to remain even though it blocked the best view of his own work. Yet the Builder reported that the quaint garden of the old house with its sunflowers and hollyhocks "imparts a charming old-world flavour to the whole scene."3

In the year following his arrival at McGill, Percy Nobbs was urging the university not to pull down the Arts Building, begun in 1840 and the oldest structure on the campus, even though, as he himself admitted, it was thoroughly out of date, insanitary, and dilapidated inside. He urged instead a sympathetic remodelling of the old façade.4 In 1924, in a paper read before the R.I.B.A. entitled "Architecture in Canada," he was still complaining that the architectural treasures of the country's early years, built by both the French and the English, were "in a sad way, and public interest in their preservation is as yet non-existent. A survey of the older architecture is now begun by the students of the Department of Architecture at McGill [research carried out under Traquair's guidance and published by the university as Series XIII (Art and Architecture) from 1925], while the Province of Quebec Association of Architects has a scholarship for travel and study of old French work. These are poor expedients when public pride is lacking."5

Despite Nobbs's deep affection for the architecture of the past, more often than not, when he himself was called on to build in concert with existing buildings, he was forced to exercise considerable Christian charity. "Urbanity," he wrote in his book Design, "has something of mercy in it and mercy carries a double blessing."6 ("Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.") The architect's various designs for McGill University required just this quality of mercy, for most of the structures which stood on the campus when he arrived in 1903 dated from the eclectic eighties and nineties when, in his own words, "taste in buildings was as fluid and flimsy as taste in dress to-day, and an affair of moments only."7 What homogeneity the campus did possess was the result of strict adherence to one material: Montreal grey limestone; but the buildings themselves were, as Nobbs noted, "a somewhat disjointed and oddly assorted crowd."8

Typical were the group siding on sloping McTavish Street, which bordered the western edge of the campus. At the upper extreme rose Presbyterian College (begun in the 1870s and extended in 1882), in a Ruskinian Gothic manner, while slightly to the south lay the Richardsonian Romanesque Redpath Library, which had opened in 1893. Although these nineteenth-century structures had been built at different times and in different Victorian revival styles, both had been inspired by medieval architecture; and this gave Nobbs his cue when he was asked to design an extension to the library in 1921. From his profound knowledge of medieval building he made this observation:

Some of the irregular groups of associated structures which have not been designed by one master at one time, but, as in the cases of Edinburgh Castle and Mont St. Michel, have developed into what they are by an agglutinative process extended over several centuries, may nevertheless be regarded as an example of intentional composition. The difficulty of their sites and the variety of their elements have not been a hindrance, but a source of inspiration to the successive designers who have played their parts in masterpieces of joint effort.9

Accordingly, Nobbs accepted the legacy of the Victorian past, designing an austerely detailed modern addition to the library (Fig. 15) in such a way that the tall, narrow windows which functionally light the stacks call to mind the great halls of the Middle Ages. Many of these great halls had been additions; and Nobbs, following medieval precedent, created harmony by relating the widths of his mullions to those of the earlier library. Thus, without resorting to the "mullions and buttresses and parapets all turned out by the yard"10 which, in his opinion, characterized much contemporary Collegiate Gothic architecture, he was able to successfully attach a spare, almost undecorated extension (PL III) to a highly textural, decorative Victorian Romanesque predecessor. Clasped between the end towers of the old building, Nobbs's elegant addition, with its simplified lines and shape, created a fitting conclusion - both visually and stylistically - to the architectural sequence that un- folded along McTavish Street (Fig. 17). Unfortunately, his con- tribution to this joint architectural effort has been largely obliterated by a later, purely functional addition in reinforced concrete. Modernism's utter rejection of the past left little room for mercy.

Perhaps the finest embodiment of Nobbs's sensitivity to the urban landscape is the Pathological Institute (1922-24) (Fig. 18), a joint undertaking of McGill and the Royal Victoria Hospital, built to house the hospital's pathology department and the McGill Medical School's departments of pathology, bacteriology, and medical jurisprudence. The Institute occupies a narrow, sloping corner site extending north along University Street and east along Pine Avenue. To the west, towers the Royal Victoria Hospital, a massive, Scottish Baronial pile dating from the late nineteenth century, while downhill to the east along Pine Avenue is a series of small row houses - modest family homes. Nobbs was acutely conscious of the disparity in size between these flanking buildings; and even as he fulfilled the complex requirements of a highly specialized modern laboratory and teaching facility, he met the equally formidable aesthetic challenge presented by the surroundings.

Rejecting the grandiose scale of the hospital, Nobbs devised a lower two-part structure, the main body of which extends north along University Street and houses the autopsy theatre, museum, morgue, offices, classrooms, and some extremely sophisticated microscopic laboratories. Facing Pine Avenue and linked to this main building by a covered archway is a little house. The bottom two floors of the house originally provided living quarters for caretakers which were totally isolated for health reasons from the rest of the Institute. Above was located housing for experimental animals accessible to the main building only by means of a connecting passage over the archway. The latter opens onto an inner courtyard, furnishing a thoughtfully discrete entry for undertakers' vehicles. More importantly, however, this courtyard insured an adequate supply of steady, northern light needed to illuminate the great microscopic laboratories that look onto it.

Nobbs's perspective drawing of 1922 reveals clearly how the massing of his two-part structure is skillfully arranged to act as a transition between the vast hospital and the little houses. At the corner where Pine Avenue and University Street meet, the architect created with his gabled end bay the strong visual emphasis needed to withstand the bulk of the hospital, while the lower height of the stair tower and, finally, the domestic scale of the attached house descend to meet the smaller forms of the row houses. When completed, the Pathological Institute served as the keystone in a gracefully descending architectural sequence that repeated the natural contours of the hill (Fig. 16). Not only was the clash of scales beautifully resolved, but the whole area was visually enhanced.11 Here, too, history had taught Nobbs that a planned urban experience did not always need to be a formal classical one. A lovely watercolour rendering dated 28 June 1922, before the working drawings were issued, shows Nobbs envisioning these relationships. The new building nestles into its site as though it had always been there.

While Nobbs's ideal of architectural courtesy required generosity on his part, it did not call for total self-effacement. The Pathological Institute is as much a criticism of the nineteenth-century hospital as it is an accommodation. The humanly scaled Institute makes a far gentler statement than does the vast hospital, which had been the grand million-dollar gift of two Scottish-born railroad financiers, Sir Donald Smith (later Lord Strathcona) and Sir George Stephen (later Lord Mount Stephen), to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887. Modelled on two earlier Scottish buildings, David Bryce's Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh (1874-79) and Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire (1600-3), the Royal Victoria Hospital is constructed of aggressively rough rock-faced masonry, laid in the relentlessly rigid courses that reflected the Victorians' love of technical perfection. The harsh masonry handling and superficial stylistic borrowings which are characteristic of this earlier phase of Victorian Baronial architecture were anathema to subsequent architects like Nobbs. Following the example of his teacher Lorimer, Nobbs designed an original creation based, not on any particular historical structure, but on his own thorough understanding and love of old Scottish buildings. His L-shaped plan, for example, is far more typical of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Scottish Baronial architecture than is the symmetrical Fyvie Castle, while his beautiful, variegated, squared random rubble far more closely approximates the mellowness and texture of old Scottish stonework. Also important, Nobbs's masonry handling called on the individual creative skills of the masons. Ruskin had warned in "The Nature of Gothic," a chapter from The Stones of Venice that was decisive for Morris, that "men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them."12 Remaining true to his Arts and Crafts training, Nobbs respected the individuality of the craftsmen, the material, and the site.

Individuality and humanity also characterize his choice of ornament, which for him was an essential carrier of meaning in architecture. Nobbs wrote that "ornament, like the spoken word, may hint at the ineffable, or merely state the obvious, and its phrases have values great or small, quite separate from the technical values of cadence and rhythm or colour scheme and composition brought into play by artistic elaboration."13 He states the theme of the Pathological Institute by means of a Latin inscription carved over the archway facing Pine Avenue. Translated, the words read: "Here is the place where death comes forth again in life." Thus pathology, the science that seeks to discover the causes of disease and death, aids in the perpetuation of life. With this meaningful theme established, the carved decorations on the exterior continue in this vein. The old tower houses and castles of Scotland had been embellished with pious mottos and with carved crests and monograms, and Nobbs revived these traditional decorations to convey a contemporary message of comfort. Among them are medallions paying tribute to earlier contributors to medical science: Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, and Rudolf Virchow, the father of modern pathology. To encourage the pathologists of the future, Nobbs had a delightful owl, symbolizing wisdom, carved over the students' entrance. With these and other means, the architect effectively transformed a twentieth-century laboratory structure devoted to the study of disease and death into a celebration of life. Everything about this building speaks of the triumph of life over death: the structure's purpose and theme, the organic quality of its random masonry and asymmetry, the way in which the old forms and techniques find new uses, indeed the very use of those forms most closely linked with Nobbs's own Scottish heritage. When Nobbs himself died in 1964, the writer of one of his obituaries observed:

He was a man steeped in the traditions of architecture, feeling the value of designing buildings for modern use in such a way that they would not lose touch with the heritage of the past. It was his conviction that what is functional is quite compatible with what also expresses the continuity of mankind.14

The Pathological Institute is his most eloquent declaration of this belief.


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1. Nobbs, "On the Value of the Study of Old Work," p. 75.

2. Standen, East Grinstead, Sussex, is now a National Trust house open to the public.

3. Mark Girouard, Sweetness and Light (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). Morris spent time in Leek carrying out experiments at the dye works of Thomas Wardle.

4. Nobbs, "McGill University Disposition of Future Buildings." Document is in the Peterson Papers, dated Dec. 7, 1904. (Handwritten.)

5. Nobbs, "Architecture in Canada," p. 91. Also important was the research carried out at this time by Marius Barbeau.

6. Nobbs, Design, p. 113.

7. Nobbs, "The General Scheme for the University of Alberta," JRAIC 2 (Sept.-Oct. 1925), p. 159.

8. Nobbs [Concordia Salus], "Montreal Notes," CAB 17 (Nov. 1904), p. 177.

9. Nobbs, Design, p. 339.

10. Nobbs, "Architecture in Canada," p. 93.

11. Unfortunately, the effect has been partially destroyed by later building.

12. John Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic. A Chapter of the Stones of Venice, ed. William Morris (1892; rpt. New York: Garland Publishing, 1977).

13. Nobbs, Design, p. 123.

14. MUS 17, p. 73 (Montreal Gazette, 11 Nov. 1964).


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