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The School with John Bland: 1940s

 John Bland

A new phase of the history of McGill's School of Architecture began in 1941 with the appointment of John Bland to the directorship of the School.

John Bland was born in Lachine, in 1911, and received his elementary schooling at Montreal High School and secondary education at Loyola College. At the young age of seventeen, he was admitted to the McGill School of Architecture and graduated in 1933 with Honours. After graduation he went to England to pursue postgraduate studies at the Architectural Association School in London. There he became the Librarian of Planning and received the A.A. Diploma in Planning with Honours in 1937. Thereafter, he worked for the Planning Department of the London County Council and travelled in 1938 in France, Germany and Austria. In the following year, with Harold Spence-Sales, he co-authored England's Water Problem, a book sponsored by the Country Life Publishing Company for the purpose of evaluating drought conditions in southern England. After being elected an Associate of the R.I.B.A., John Bland commenced an architectural and planning practice in association with Spence-Sales. They entered and won prizes in several competitions such as the Timber Development Association Camp Competition (1937), the Liverpool Trades Association Housing Competition (1937) and the News Chronicle Schools Competition (1938). Their architectural work included a restaurant in Westminster (1937), a School for 80 children at Merstham, Surrey (1938), a House at Tadworth, Surrey (1938), and a General Store in Newhaven, Sussex (1939). Their planning work included The South London Survey for Sir Walter Layton (1937), Vulnerable Area Survey G.B. for Col. Doland, M.P., Chairman, Evacuation Sub-Committee (1938), and Future Development Section of the R.LB.A. Road Exhibition (1939).

The Nineteen-Forties

The foundations of a new phase of architectural education at McGill University were laid during the war years with revisions to the old curriculum and preparations for the anticipated influx of young veterans seeking architectural training after their return from the war. Cyril James, the new principal of the University, supported this development and encouraged broadening the scope of architectural education to include housing design and town planning;, both of which Bland rightly assumed would play an important role during the reconstruction years in Canada following the end of World War II.

With the retirement of Turner, the Advisory Committee in Architecture was now chaired by John Bland. Two additional members J.J. Perraut (B.Arch.' 15) and J. Campbell Merrett (B.Arch.'31), were appointed to the committee. Changes in the curriculum and new staff appointments were gradually introduced, and by the end of the war the School was restructured.

During these transitional years, two older members of the Advisory Committee, Fetherstonough and McDougall, became involved in teaching. The former taught Design, the latter Professional Practice. Moreover, Harold Butler Little (B. Arch.'20), a successful local architect, took over Turner's Building Construction courses. And, after Frank P. Chambers left in 1942 and P. Roy Wilson in 1943, Bland gave all history courses. S. H. Maw was assigned to teach Architectura1 Drawing I and II (1941-43), and Frederick B. Taylor (B.Arch.'30) Freehand Drawing (1941- 43), Modelling (1941-43), and Sketching School (1942-43).

Two teachers whose influence on students in Drawing and Basic Design were to be very profound in subsequent years were Arthur Lismer and Gordon Webber.

Arthur Lismer, a founding member of the "Group of Seven," came to Montreal in 1940 as the Educational Supervisor for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and after Chambers left McGill in 1941, Lismer accepted the invitation by Bland to teach part-time at the School of Architecture. Initially, Lismer taught History of Art and Theory of Design, later he replaced Taylor in Freehand Drawing, and from 1955 onward he taught only freehand drawing and continued to conduct the Sketching School with Gordon Webber.

Gordon Webber had been a student of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus (later the Institute of Design) in Chicago, and a pupil of Arthur Lismer before that. He was an artist and an exceptional teacher with an innate ability to identify objects of beauty in the world that surrounded him. His love of life was particularly touching since he was severely handicapped from a car accident in his childhood.

Constantly experimenting with colour, texture, light, and equilibrium of forms in his studio course Elements of Design, he guided his students' development in basic design. Webber believed that the eye was trained to observe, the hand to express, and the mind to relate design, and accordingly his course was structured "to co-ordinate the eye, the hand and the mind, in the basic elements of line, shape, texture, colour, light, space, and movement. "Webberism" became a frequent expression in the vocabulary of students for visual and tactile sensations of form and texture. Webber became not only a well-liked teacher, but also a trusted friend of most students, retaining that status long after they had graduated.

After having secured these two design positions in the early 1940's, Bland now turned to complement the artistic expertise in the School with competent building construction, sociology, and professional practice education. Building Construction was entrusted to Frederic Lasserre who had received his training in Toronto and Zurich, Social Observations for Architects to Professor Dawson of the Faculty of Arts, and Professional Practice to L. Austin Johnson, a lawyer. Finally, engineering course requirements were expanded and architectural students once again had to take several courses with engineering students.

Because of its relatively small size, the School for administrative purposes mainly was from the very outset attached to the Faculty or Engineering, but it had a special status which was expressed by identifying the head of the School as a Director while those of the Engineering Departments were Chairmen. Initially, however, there were very close ties between architectural and engineering education which unfortunately slackened during the period between the wars so that by 1941 there was little correspondence in the education of architects and engineers although three minor courses were still given to the architects by the staff of the Engineering Faculty. Moreover, admission requirements had become rather lenient. Architectural students, for example, could enter the architectural program directly after junior matriculation while a qualifying year in Arts and Science was a prerequisite for admission to engineering programs. When the engineers' qualifying year was transferred from the Faculty of Arts and Science to the Faculty of Engineering, Bland requested that this qualifying year also be mandatory for architectural students, a request that was approved. "The intention was to merge the few architects with the engineers, in so far as it was possible, in all subjects dealing with buildings, to eliminate descriptive courses that had been used for training in structural and mechanical engineering design (and which were very poorly regarded in the Faculty) and at the same time to overcome the inferiority architects at McGill were made to feel in relation to their engineering brethren by virtue of their inadequate preparation."

The conviction that the disciplines of engineering and architecture must be brought together to resolve modern building problems led to Bland's insistence that students follow some engineering courses even if it was "painful for the man with a flair for design to suffer the minutiae of structural calculations." Bland also believed that time spent at the University was also time for the development of good habits and self-confidence, and disapproved of an architectural education based merely on a "formalistic, thoughtless academic design both old and new."

It was during the first post-war years that John Bland's approach to architectural education became well- established. This approach entailed giving students a certain freedom in experimentation and the opportunity to specialize in a field of their own interest, provided that the basics of history of architecture and building construction were observed.

By 1945 a new five year program had been adopted that remained essentially unaltered for two decades. First year was a preparatory year shared by architectural and engineering students, but with the architects having to take in addition a studio course called Architectural Drafting and Colour I. The second year curriculum consisted of History of Art, Architectural Drawing and Colour II, History of Ancient and Classical Architecture, Building Construction and Drawing.

In third year, students took Design, Theory of Design, Planning, History of Medieval Architecture, Building Construction II, Social Observation for Architects, Freehand Drawing, and Sketching School. Fourth year courses were Design, History of Renaissance Architecture, Freehand Drawing, and Plumbing(a service course).

In fifth year students took Design, History of Modern Architecture, Professional Practice, Specifications, and Studio Work.

Over and above the aforementioned courses, architectural students had to take the required structural engineering courses. In addition, each year students had to prepare a report of about 3000 words upon their summer employment. Finally, before the degree was granted, students had to prove to the satisfaction of the Faculty that they had at least six months' working experience.

As foreseen, there was, after World War II, a great surge in university enrollment and the School of Architecture had to increase the number of staff and double its physical accommodation, which in the short term, necessitated the use of McGill's Dawson College located in St. Jean, Quebec. First and second year students in all departments of the Faculty of Engineering had to be resident students at Dawson, living in converted army barracks and eating in former mess halls. Many students were veterans who had had wartime responsibilities and naturally these students were older and more mature than those who came directly from high school. Nevertheless, desite the age gap, the two groups worked closely together, complementing each other, all sensing that a great many opportunities in re-building and expanding cities lay ahead of them. By 1947, increased student enrollment made the cramped quarters of the School in the Engineering Building unacceptable and a new home was found in a former Victorian residential building at 3484 University Street opposite the Diocesan College and near the Milton Street entrance to the campus. After the building was vacated by the International Labor Organization (which had been headquartered in Montreal during the war years and repatriated to Geneva after 1945), the entire two upper stories and half of the ground floor of the building was allocated to the School.

On the ground floor was the lecture room and administrative offices, on the upper floors the various drafting studios and teaching staff offices, and in the basement a darkroom for "light experiments" and photography, the latter under Webber's supervision. Also in the basement was the students' common room, the so- called "Focus Room," with its "low diwans" (actually mattresses on the floor) where such visitors as Lewis Mumford and Philip Johnson were entertained after their lectures. Students enjoyed their new home and the liberty it offered them. The building, a rambling neo-medieval mansion with turrets, secret nooks and crannies, and a picturesque but complex roof, became the setting for the teaching of "modern" architecture. "A hard doctrine had found a soft refuge" was the verdict of the students. But the new quarters with "cubby-holes" were much preferred to the old large "hall-drafting-room" of the Engineering Building. And no one missed the can hanging on a string in the corner of the old drafting room which everyone struck on leaving.

Apart from the expansion of the School's physical facilities, increased student enrollment also demanded an increase in the teaching staff. The appointment of new teachers was further necessitated by the resignation of Fred Lasserre who was invited to establish and to head the new School of Architecture of the University of British Columbia. Lasserre, who before returning to Canada worked for a while for "Tecton" (an avant-garde architectural office in London and the most important representative of the International Style in Great Britain at the time), was deeply committed to a modern architecture "without frills" and eager to take up the challenge of starting a new school.' He had the encouragement of John Bland, and McGill graduates Catherine Chard (B.Arch. '43), Peter Oberlander (B.Arch.'45) and Arthur Erickson (B.Arch. '50) who became teachers in the formative years of Lasserre's school.

After Lasserre left McGill, Watson Balharrie who had worked with Lasserre in Ottawa was asked to give Lasserre's courses. Balharrie was also a pioneer of modern architecture with a successful practice in Ottawa (Abra, Balharrie and Shore). He was a self-educated man who "had a profound sense of building construction and a clear, orderly way of planning. His buildings had an easy sense of looking good without any contrivance to achieve attention or to compensate for lack of ornament." Balharrie commuted willingly for years between Ottawa and Montreal to give his classes, often flying his own plane, weather permitting.

Also in 1946,Harold Spence-Sales was appointed Associate professor of Design, joining the staff in the fall semester. He had actually been appointed Assistant Professor six years earlier, but due to the war had been unable to occupy the post.

In 1947, when the School moved to its new location, Enrico de Pierro (B.Arch.'41) was appointed Sessional Lecturer with Balharrie to give subjects previously taught by Lasserre while Spence-Sales headed both 4th and 5th year design studios.

The following year, Robert C. Esdaile (B.Arch.'41 ) joined the staff as a Sessional Lecturer replacing de Pierro who now was asked to take charge of 4th year design. De Pierro and Esdaile left at the end of the academic year, the former to practice and teach at the A.A. School in London, and the latter to become the head of the Trondheim School of Architecture in Norway.

Shortly after his arrival in Montreal, Spence-Sales established with John Bland the first post-graduate architectural and planning program in Canada. The planning program was organized along interdisciplinary lines with a Master's Degree being conferred in the candidate's undergraduate discipline. The studies in urban planning were conducted under the supervision of a "Committee on Physical Planning" chaired by Spence-Sales. In 1947, three students, an architect, an economist, and a sociologist enrolled in the planning program and in its subsequent twenty-one year duration eighty-three planners graduated, many at whom now occupy key positions in the Canadian planning profession.

Bland and Spence-Sales were influential in the formation of the Canadian Universities Co-ordinating Committee on Planning Education 1950) and in the establishment of the Fellowships program of the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation available to students of planning.

Harold Spence-Sales was born in 1908 in Lahore, India (today Pakistan). After private schooling, he entered the University of New Zealand, graduating with a B.A. degree which entitled him to Associate Membership in the New Zealand Institute of Architects. He continued his studies in England, at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University of London, and the Architectural Association School of Planning; from the latter he received the Planning Diploma with Honours in 1937, and became an Associate Member of the Town Planning Institute (U.K.).

After graduation, he was appointed an instructor at the A.A. School of Planning (1937-38), and with John Bland practiced architecture and planning for two years.

Endowed with a keen analytic mind and an enviable command of the English language, Spence-Sales established a reputation as an engaging and provocative lecturer. His enthusiasm for natural beauty and an innate comprehension of the importance of enabling planning legislation made him a constructive and inspired physical planner of human settlements. His influence upon his students was far-reaching. In the early 1940's there was a considerable reliance on part-time teachers, a measure imposed by stringent budgetary conditions. As late as 1947/48 only two full-time professorial appointments were held in the School, namely, by Bland and Spence-Sales, the other teachers being Sessional Lecturers or Sessional Instructors. With the large enrollment of students and veterans, however, two additional staff appointments with design experience became necessary. In 1948, Stuart Wilson(B.Arch.'43) joined the staff as an Assistant Professor and the following year Fred Lebensold was appointed with the rank of Sessional Lecturer; Wilson was asked to teach 2nd year Building Construction and Design, and Lebensold became the Design and Building Construction II teacher in 3rd year. Later he taught in 4th year Design, and finally in 5th year Design, in the latter replacing Spence-Sales who was increasingly occupied with the graduate program in planning.

Stuart Anthony Wilson was born in Montreal in 1912. He entered the McGill School in 1912 to commence studies in architecture, but for financial reasons had to withdraw midway through his fourth year. Subsequently, he found employment in architectural offices in Montreal and continued his studies at the Montreal Technical Institute between 1936 and 1942 under the tutorship of John Roxburgh Smith. He returned to McGill in 1942 and graduated with a B.Arch. degree in the following year.

Always an artist by temperament and inclination, Wilson continued his education in summer and evenings at the School of Art and Design of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts under Arthur Lismer, and twice received the I.B.M. Scholarship for his work. Gordon Webber, Goodridge Roberts, Jacques de Tonnancourt, Alfred Pinsky, were his teachers among others. As an accomplished artist, Wilson had several solo exhibitions of his work.

Wilson's publishing record is also impressive with scores of articles that appeared in the R.A.I.C. Journal, The Canadian Architect, Architecture Canada, Habitat, Architectural Science Review, and the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. At present, he contributes weekly to The Downtowner articles on Art and Architecture, and occasionally visual work.

Wilson too had a profound influence upon his students. Being in charge of the first design studio in third year, he initiated students in "architectural" design, building construction methods, and working drawings for wood framed buildings. A "Building Workshop" for students was eventually organized by him to complement studio work. To pass third year design was considered by students a milestone and proof that they were now truly on the road to being architects.

With Lismer and Webber, Wilson also taught at Sketching School exemplifying with his artistic ability the significance of architecture's dual nature of art and science.

At the Spring Convocation of 1981, Wilson was named Emeritus Professor of Architecture and he continues to teach two lecture courses at the School.

David Frederick Lebensold was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1917, and received his primary and secondary education in his native country. Before the beginning of the Second World War, he went to London to study architecture at the Regent Street Polytechnic. After graduation in 1939, he enlisted in the British Army and served with the Royal Engineers until 1947. Returning to London after the war, he taught design first at the Central School of Arts and Crafts where he was the Head of the Department of Interior Design and Architecture, and later at London's Polytechnic School of Architecture.

Shortly after he immigrated to Canada, he was appointed to teach at the McGill School (1949-55). As a skilled draftsman and talented designer, Lebensold is remembered by his students as a demanding teacher and a tough critic. He held his teaching position for only six years because his growing private practice demanded his undivided attention.

Lebensold is best known as a gifted theatre designer, but he was also active in domestic, commercial, and public building developments as well as historic building rehabilitation. In fact, with his former neighbor Eric McLean, the Gazette Music Critic he became a precursor of the restoration work to be undertaken in "Vieux Montreal" where he resided before moving to Toronto. He bought the old Hatton Fish Market at 430 Rue du Bonsecours and converted the upper floor-levels and the rear into a multi-family residential building with offices at ground floor- level and a boutique in the basement. His own residence occupied the rear, the former cold storage area; it had a spacious two storey living room and a mezzanine master bedroom overlooking the upper part of the living room.

Inspite of the demands of his practice, Lebensold found time to attend design crits at the School and served as a Visiting Professor during the 1968/69/ and 1971/72 academic years. He died in July 1985 of a heart attack.

During the 1940's, the School of Architecture prospered under Bland's leadership and experienced an unprecedented growth. When Bland joined the School there were only 23 students enrolled , but over the next decade student enrollment consistently rose reaching 133 fulltime students during the 1949/50 academic year.