by Susan Wagg




1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

Biographical Details

Abbreviations and Notes

en français >>



The work of Percy Nobbs fully merits the attention given it by Susan Wagg and the McCord Museum. This monograph by Mrs. Wagg and the exhibition which it accompanies make a long overdue contribution to Canadian architectural studies. It is appropriate that the exhibition opens at the McCord Museum, formerly the McGill University Union and Nobbs's first Canadian building, and then travels to the Ring House Gallery at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where Nobbs played an important role as an architect and planner. Two other galleries will present the exhibition in 1983: the Nickel Arts Museum at the University of Calgary and the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen's University.

Nobbs came to Canada to be the second Macdonald Professor of Architecture and Director of the Department of Architecture at McGill in 1903. He found the department had been well established by his predecessor, Professor Stewart Henbest Capper, particularly with respect to its equipment and library; but in November 1903, not long after classes had begun, he wrote to the Principal asking to succeed Andrew Taylor as University Architect, pointing out that "it would be an advantage for students in the 4th year to see a little miscellaneous designing going on and have access to such jobbing as is required for the upkeep of a place like this." The matter was not so simply resolved, but Nobbs persisted that his "professional and professorial success were indissolubly united" and in April 1904, arrangements were made for him to practise in association with a firm of architects. Thus from the beginning he stressed the need to practise in order to demonstrate, which was his way of teaching.

Training in architecture had only recently become a university concern. Even then, most British architects were trained by assisting in the offices of busy practitioners; but in America, where such opportunities were rare, the intervention of universities had been sought. Nobbs evidently believed he could arrange a compromise between the American and British systems at McGill, where after all, teaching by demonstration was well regarded in the sciences and in medicine. So it happened that Nobbs's first major buildings were designed for the university, and their composition, scale, and proportions continue to be impressive lessons in civility.

It was inevitable that others would seek his services, and in 1911 he was obliged to relinquish the direction of the Department and continue only as Professor of Design - a post he held until 1940. From 1910 to 1945 he practised as a partner of George T. Hyde, one of Capper's first students. In addition to designs commissioned by McGill, the firm of Nobbs and Hyde undertook the design of school buildings for the Montreal Protestant School Board; the plan and first academic buildings of the University of Alberta; the Montreal offices of the Liverpool and London and Globe Insurance Company; shops and office buildings for Henry Birks and Sons; several clubs; church interiors; and numerous houses, both individual and in groups for rich men and for artisans. Conscious of his duty as a teacher, Nobbs selected his work carefully and made each undertaking a demonstration on which his reputation depended. Yet his role as a teacher of professional architects was incomplete; his nature and background made him aware that great buildings depended very much on efficient builders and particularly on skillful craftsmen. Fine compositions and impressive documents were not enough. He pressed his clients to employ firms of excellent craftsmen whose work he was ready to acknowledge. Indeed, it distressed him to see any of them enticed away to the United States for greater opportunities and better wages.

From the time Nobbs arrived in Canada he contributed regularly to the professional journals. His lectures on architectural drawings, decorative heraldry, decorative plaster, daylight, sunlight, natural lighting of picture galleries, housing, town planning, and university training in architecture were frequently published verbatim. A widely published lecture, "Architecture in Canada," presented to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1924, was a summary of his views on the building arts in this country midway in his career. Five years later, in his presidential address to the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, he discussed this subject again and added comments on the effect of "the architecture of uncompromising reality," then appearing in Europe, as distinct from a gentler architecture that allowed some make-believe as theatre does. Nobbs counselled both the acceptance of "the mechanization of mass production", as well as the retention of "a place for the skilled artificer". Near the end of his teaching career he gathered his tenets and lifetime observations into a book entitled Design, which was intended to encourage architects to consider what were the universal factors in the derivation of form - and mechanization of mass production was not one of them. The book puzzled critics who, perhaps not surprisingly, found it irrelevant to the architecture of the industrialized world and overlooked its pervading humanism. While a disappointment with respect to its original purpose, Design is a mine of information on Nobbs himself, his priorities, and his insights on form, often illustrated by examples drawn from the coasts, forests, and streams of Canada, which he dearly loved. Nobbs, a noted sportsman and conservationist, understood and respected nature more than most men. His expression, "Give the northwind time", nicely summarizes his opinion of the ultimate effect of climate on Canadian buildings.

With the exception of the offices of the Liverpool and London and Globe, senselessly demolished a few years ago for the most mediocre product of mechanization, Nobbs's buildings can still be examined. In addition, many exquisite original drawings and photographs of them, given to McGill by his son Francis Nobbs, are preserved in the Redpath Library, where copies of his publications may also be found. Over the past four years Susan Wagg has explored this material, first in the course of her studies in Canadian architecture and more recently in the preparation of this monograph and in the selection of material for the Nobbs exhibition.

Susan Wagg is well qualified for the job she has undertaken. She brings to this study the sensitivity of an art historian who has become familiar with Nobbs's background, the setting in which he worked, and the goals which he set for his work. She has an honours B.A. in Art History from Wellesley College and an M. F. A. in Canadian Art History from Concordia University. Her thesis, completed in 1979, was entitled "The McGill Architecture of Percy Erskine Nobbs." She presented papers on Nobbs in 1978 and 1980 to the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada and to the James McGill Society and is the author of "Percy Nobbs at McGill," which appeared in the August 1980 issue of Canadian Heritage. In 1981 she travelled to Britain, where Nobbs received his training, to study late Victorian and Edwardian architecture and recently has given seminars related to the personalities and times that were a part of Nobbs's formation. In this monograph Nobbs's origins have been examined and selected works reviewed in order to make a fresh appraisal of his contribution to the development of architecture in Canada.

To see the material of the Canadian Architecture Collection at McGill used in this way is a great satisfaction for me and I am grateful for the opportunity of helping wherever it has been possible.

John Bland [1911-2002]
Professor Emeritus of Architecture
McGill University

<< acknowledgements | contents | 1 early life and training >>