by Susan Wagg




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Biographical Details

Abbreviations and Notes

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The partnership of Nobbs and Hyde ended in 1944 as a result of Hyde's death. Nobbs carried on briefly under the name of Nobbs and Valentine and finally in partnership with his son, Francis. By mid-century, however, by which time his designing days were virtually over, the practice of architecture had changed radically. Nobbs's disillusionment with the new climate was expressed in an article written for the Journal, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in 1956 when he was eighty-one: "At the end of the First Great War the cultural heritage of the Western World was shaken. By the end of the Second World War there was no money left to finance a cultural heritage. Construction and the apparatus of life had to be contrived with dollars worth 200 by 1900 standards. We had to try to forget what the practice of architecture meant and content ourselves with accommodation engineering."1

Nobbs was fortunate that the majority of his work was carried out at a time when traditional methods were still the accepted ones and his Arts and Crafts ideals could be realized, for his particular nineteenth-century training ill-prepared him to deal with the very different world which was gradually taking shape. A late commission, the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada (Fig. 28) on University Street in Montreal, designed in 1926-27, is by no means an example of "accommodation engineering"; but it does indicate the dilemma that Nobbs and other Arts and Crafts-trained architects faced. Financial considerations and changing design criteria led to the choice of a severe, stripped classical treatment which, although a dignified and reasonable response to current circumstances, was of necessity a far more homogeneous, less idiosyncratic manner of expression than was Nobbs's custom. Indeed, the Institute reflects to some degree the very impersonality and standardized quality that characterized the Beaux-Arts approach Nobbs opposed and which also distinguishes International Style modernism. Both movements, as William Jordy points out, opposed "the emphasis on naturalism, nationalism, and individuality which had constituted design in the mid-nineteenth century";2 yet these were the very elements that had inspired the best Arts and Crafts work.

Not surprisingly, the architectural philosophy Nobbs inherited from the Victorian age was permeated with nineteenth-century evolutionary theory, causing him to believe that if he stressed the essentials of good traditional building in his teaching and demonstrated the highest standards in his designs, this would adequately prepare the ground for the gradual development of an appropriate, contemporary Canadian architecture.3 Yet as the new century wore on, not only did building materials change drastically and the cost of craftsmanship become prohibitive, but the nineteenth-century romantic view of the interrelatedness of man and nature was superceded by a very different conception glorifying technology and challenging nature's powers. This new view required expression in architecture as much as in the other arts; Vincent Scully refers to Frank Lloyd Wright's difficulties in adjusting to these profound changes, for Wright (1869-1959), like Nobbs, was a nineteenth-century romantic who had been deeply influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. Wright's growth, however, was not halted by this philosophical impasse. He was able not only to adjust to, but also to shape, the modern era. Like other great creative spirits of the early years of the century, he looked beyond his own immediate environment to the vital traditions of a variety of non-European cultures, seeking forms and images that would broaden and reanimate the dying forms of Western art. The Chicago architect, as Scully points out, was able to draw on the angular and abstract forms of Japan and pre-Columbian America, for example, and re-think them in terms of new uses and new structural systems. In so doing, he effectively synthesized permanence and innovation. Wright's receptivity to the world at large was also crucial in that it added universality to his own instinctive feeling for place, another necessary coalescence in an age of increasingly rapid communication.4

In contrast to Wright, Nobbs remained a traditionalist, unable to achieve this twentieth-century synthesis in his own designs. Despite the fact that in his work and teaching he consistently stressed the essentials for good building in any age, he lacked two important qualities the innovators possessed: the fascination with the new, which, as Lewis Mumford points out, "roused the imagination of the best architects,"5 and the unwillingness to reach beyond the confines of his own tradition for fresh sources of inspiration.6 Unlike Wright, he had not received his training in the pioneering atmosphere of Chicago, whereas the Arts and Crafts movement that had nurtured him had originated as a protest against modern industrialism, laying stress on the therapeutic beauties of old materials and ways rather than on the exciting possibilities of the new. Consequently, although Nobbs saw great promise in the new materials and methods, nothing could ever supplant his deep feeling and preference for well-laid stone and brick. In Wright's designs, however, old and new can co-exist in mutually enhancing ways. The Kaufmann House, "Fallingwater," in Pennsylvania (1937-38) consists of rough indigenous stone sections combined with daring cantilevered concrete slabs.

In the realm of form and imagery, several factors prevented Nobbs from venturing beyond the boundaries of European humanist tradition as innovators like Wright did. Nationalism and Britain's ingrained insularity allied to a powerful desire to perpetuate humanist values had led most of her talented late Victorian and early twentieth-century architects to seek solutions in the country's own architectural past rather than search for meaningful answers elsewhere. Sentiments such as these and also a sensitivity to his conservative clients kept Nobbs well within the confines of Western tradition. Canadian standards and capacities, as well as taste, were as yet relatively undeveloped; Nobbs correctly saw his role as one who prepares the ground for future growth. Yet in this capacity, he surely placed too much faith in the "majestic and relentless"7 evolutionary process, for change today occurs at a pace inconceivable to Darwin. Furthermore, sudden, convulsive change alters life significantly; yet Darwin, in an age racked by political revolutions, perhaps chose not to see so unsettling a side of nature. Certainly Nobbs's valid style did not have time to flower,8 whereas Wright's more radical approach was attuned to an age of accelerating change.

If Nobbs's situation in time meant that many of the principles he taught and which his work embodied were largely ignored by the architectural mainstream during the middle part of the century, a number are, of course, again being recognized in the so-called post-modern period. The social, ecological, and energy crises of the past two decades have reminded all thinking people, architects included, of man's basic dependence on nature and on other human beings. Nobbs was also quite correct in insisting on the relevance of history and tradition even in an age of steel and reinforced concrete. On the purely practical plane he might easily have voiced Lethaby's oft-quoted observation of 1929: "M. Corbusier has called houses 'machines to live in', and the thought is suggestive; but a reasonable building is not necessarily a series of boxes or a structure of steel. The most scientific and sensible building for given conditions might still be of brick and thatch."9 While recognizing a few real masters in the emergent European International Style, what worried Nobbs particularly was their vociferous rejection of the past. "The monuments of the past," he wrote, "being very well built . . . have a way of outlasting the schools of thought and entering into the residue of past experience of the man in the street of today and even of tomorrow."10 As he well knew, architecture is a major part of human civilization, "a means for recording the cultural and economic history of peoples."11 With this in mind, it is interesting to read a recent assessment by Ada Louise Huxtable of the new French towns that began to be introduced into the Paris region in the mid-1960s, planned developments following the precepts of Le Corbusier. Huxtable was struck by "the curious way that the buildings do not seem to relate to the people and places they serve in any way except the directly functional" and concluded that what had been discarded was urban civilization. "Le Corbusier's concept of towers in a park was meant to remake the 20th century city, but it eliminated its humanity and connective tissue instead." She warns that "the ultimate loss can be urbanity itself, in the most civilized sense of the word."12

Urbanity was a quality that Percy Nobbs continually sought, not in the slick sense, but in the most humane. Gentleness and humanity, the true essence of Arts and Crafts teaching, infuse his work. The fact that his buildings reflect the end, rather than the beginning, of a tradition does not negate the value of his message. For Nobbs, architecture was not simply "the economic improvement of real estate" but an artistic medium "in which the physical is enlisted as a bridge between spirit and spirit, artist and public."13 Through this uniquely public medium, Percy Nobbs was able to express his deepest feelings as a human being and within the framework of his own objectives, to grow and mature as a creative artist. Although his work and ideas were out of fashion when he died in 1964, it is now possible to look back and assign to him a well-deserved place among that group referred to by his contemporary, the Canadian architect John Lyle, as the inspired traditionalists.14


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1. Nobbs, "Architecture in the Province of Quebec During the Early Years of the Twentieth Century," JRAIC 33 (Nov. 1956), p. 419.

2. William H. Jordy, American Buildings and Their Architects, vol. 3: Progressive and Academic Ideals at the Turn of the Century (Garden City: Anchor, 1976), p. 349.

3. He thought it would be regional.

4. Vincent Scully, Jr., Modern Architecture, rev. ed. (New York: Braziller, 1974), pp. 25-29.

5. Lewis Mumford, Roots of Contemporary American Architecture (New York: Dover, 1972), p. 23.

6. Partly, of course, a reaction to unselective eclecticism.

7. Nobbs, "University Education in Architecture," p. 71.

8. Nobbs was certainly influenced by Webb's theory of style, which Robert Macleod describes in Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Feltham: Hamlyn for Country Life Books, 1968), p. 16. Webb believed that "if a thing were done well and rationally-responding to climate and site, and using native materials-it would assume a valid style quite naturally and unconsciously. But this was not to say that earlier stylistic idiom must be avoided... provided the elements were 'assimilated'."

9. Macleod, Style and Society (London: Royal Institute of British Architects, [1971]), p. 135.

10. Nobbs, "Present Tendencies Affecting Architecture in Canada, Part III," JRAIC 7 (Nov. 1930), p. 392.

11. Nobbs, "Present Tendencies, Part I," JRAIC 7 (July 1930), p. 245.

12. Ada Louise Huxtable, "Cold Comfort: The New French Towns,"New York Times Magazine, 19 Nov. 1978, pp. 168-69.

13. Nobbs, "University Education in Architecture," p. 69.

14. John M. Lyle, "Canadian Decorative Forms,"JRAIC 9 (March 1932), p. 65.


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