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Legacy of Traquair

Ramsay Traquair

Ramsay Traquair came to occupy the Macdonald Chair in Architecture in the fall of 1913 and, like his two predecessors also had a Scottish background. Born in Edinburgh in 1874, Traquair grew up in a very stimulating home environment with an atmosphere permeated equally by science and art. His father was a distinguished geologist, paleontologist, and curator of the National History Collection of Edinburgh's Royal Museum of Science and Art; his mother, an Irishwoman, was a well- known painter of miniatures and murals, the first woman artist to be elected to the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA), an artist in whom "the authentic spirit of the 13th century was manifested to the delighted amazement of Ruskin and Watts."

Traquair received his secondary education at the Edinburgh Academy, then spent a year at Edinburgh University, and a year at the University of Bonn, followed by an apprenticeship as an architect in the office of Stewart Henbest Capper. After Capper left Scotland to teach at McGill, Traquair continued his architectural studies at the School of Applied Art in Edinburgh, an institution that later became the Royal College of Art. On a scholarship, Traquair spent a year in the study of historic buildings in Scotland and was elected Associate of the R.I.B.A. in 1900. He travelled in the same year in Europe and sojourned a few months in Northern Italy with Nobbs. Returning to Scotland he worked for Sir George Washington Browne for a while, then sought experience in offices in London and Dublin, returning to Edinburgh to work for Sir Robert Lorimer, and later for Sydney Mitchell and George Wilson (the latter, Professor Stuart Wilson's grandfather.) In 1905, he started a practice of his own, with his most notable buildings being the First Church of Christ Scientist in Edinburgh and the Skirling House for Lord Carmichael of Skirling in Peeblesshire.

"Few church architects had sites as spacious and attractive on which to build as that made available to Ramsay Traquair for the erection of the First Church of Christ Scientist on Inverleith Terrace. On either side of the broad, pleasant church are terraced gardens which fall away to the Water of Leith beyond." Traquair exploited the sloping site to provide a generous and well-lit hall below the street-level main body of the church. The building was designed in a rubble-built Scots medieval style with a wide transverse saddleback tower, a barrel-vaulted interior, and round-arched nave windows.

Traquair's teaching career started in 1904 with his appointment as Lecturer on Architecture in the Royal College of Art where four years later he became the head of its newly established day course in Architecture leading to a Diploma that was accepted as equivalent to the intermediate examination of the R.J.B.A. While teaching at the College, Traquair was appointed a student of the British School of Archaeology in Athens, spending the summer of 1905 in Greece and Istanbul. He contributed to Professor A. van Milligen's book Byzantine Churches of Constantinople as well as to the Annual of the British School of Athens, with two essays on medieval architecture on the Peloponnese entitled, Laconia: Medieval Fortresses and Medieval Fortresses of the North Eastern Pelopennesos. Four years later, in 1909, he spent a second season in Greece working for the Byzantine Fund studying medieval architecture, documented in the essay entitled, Chuches of Western Maina.

In December 1912, Traquair applied for the Macdonald Chair in Architecture at McGill promising to regard teaching as his life's work with only so much practice as was necessary to keep in touch with realities, a promise that he lived up to after his appointment in 1913, only one year before the start of World War I. The design of the Baillie library window, some bookplates and woodcuts as well as the flag that flies over the Arts Building are the only physical reminders on campus of his designs.

Traquair was a scholarly person with great strength of character and at times a slight sententiousness of manner; he was a clear and good lecturer who enjoyed his loquacity. Good-natured and in possession of a good sense of humour he was also a great deal more warm-hearted towards his students than the Scots half of him would allow him to admit. All of these characteristics, however, made him a good and popular teacher with considerable influence upon his students; he justly enjoyed their esteem as well as that of his colleagues.

The orientation of the School during the tenure of Traquair - like that of his two predecessors - was governed by a pragmatic philosophy of architectural education which was concerned with traditional values and sound building practices in the manner that the three teachers (Nobbs, Traquair and Turner) were taught in Great Britain. The architectural program offered by the School continued to attract students but the graduating class peaked at 10 graduates per year in the thirties; thus the student body of the School, in comparison to the current enrollment, was small enough for everybody to know each other very well.

World War I and its aftermath, the Great Depression, limited the growth of the School. Nobbs was called to war service overseas and attained the rank of major. He came back to McGill in 1919 to continue teaching, but some of his former students did not return from the war. The names of four of these war casualties are familiar to every McGill student in Architecture: Gordon Blackader, Hugh McLennan, Murdoch Laing, and Louis Robertson.

Gordon Home Blackader was one of the two students enrolled in Architecture when Nobbs arrived at McGill. Graduating successfully three years later, Blackader went to Paris to continue his studies at the Beaux-Arts and joined the atelier of Victor Alexandre Frederic Laloux (1850-1937), a favorite of American students, who won the Grand Prix of Rome in 1878 and opened an atelier in l890. Blackader's McGill training must have served him well since several of his esquisses were rewarded with the prized Premiere Medaille. Returning from Paris, he worked for a couple of years for the famous New York firm McKim, Meade and White before settling down in Montreal to start his own private practice.

At the outbreak of the war Blackader enlisted in the 42nd Battalion of the Royal Highlanders of Canada and later served with distinction commanding a company in France. In the battles near Ypres, he was seriously wounded which led to his premature death two months later in London. The following year, in 1917, the Blackader Library of Architecture was founded in his memory with a very generous endowment provided by his parents. This library is still the pride of the School and its rich collections serving as a fountain of knowledge for students and staff alike are unmatched today in any other university architectural library in Canada.

Hugh McLennan studied Arts at McGill and then went to Paris to study Architecture at the Beaux-Arts. He was home on vacation in 1914 when war broke out. He immediately joined the 5th Battery of the 2nd Brigade Canadian Field Artillery and in the Battle of Ypres, 1915, he too was an early casualty. In 1929 his family established the Hugh McLennan Memorial Travelling Scholarship to be awarded annually to an outstanding graduating student in Architecture who gave promise of creative ability. Almost every year since then, with only a very few exceptions, a student has received this award. There is no doubt that travelled to the broadening of the recipients' outlook as well as to their appreciation of "the work and ideals of architects in other lands."

Murdoch Laing graduated in Architecture in 1915 and shortly thereafter joined the 24th Canadian Infantry Battalion. He was killed in action at Courcelette on September18, 1916, a year after his graduation. In her son's memory, Florence B. Laing, established the Murdoch Laing Prize for The design of a city house. The award is made yearly to the winner of a competition held during the summer prior to the final year of the architectural program.

John Louis Robertson also graduated in Architecture in 1915 and was killed in action on July l8, l9l6. In memory of their son, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Robertson founded the Louis Robertson Prize, a book prize for the student obtaining the highest standing in History of Architecture I.

The Honour Roll of World War I lists in addition to the above McGill architects, Pte. Allen Davenport Harvey (Arch.' 17), Capt. Benjamin Bertram McConkey (Arch. '14), Pte. Archibald McLeod (Arch.'15), Lieut. George Donald McLeod (Arch.'15), Lieut. Clarke Hall Popham (Arch.'17), Gunner Alan Irving Richardson (Arch. '11), and Robert Ward Shepherd Robertson (Arch.'16).

Many McGill graduates in Architecture returned from the war having distinguished themselves in service to their country: Major W.C. Hyde (Arch.'15) received the Distinguished Service Order, Lieut. W.A. I. Anglin (Arch.'16), Lieut. G.A. Birks (Arch. '19), Lieut. K.G. Blackader (Arch.'19), Capt. B.B. McConeky (Arch.'14) and Lieut. S.M. Sproule (Arch. '12) were awarded the Military Cross and, Lieut. P.E. Amos (Arch.'19) and Lieut. H.P. Illsley (Arch.'17) received the "Croix de Guerre" of France.

During the war, in 1916, the course for the degree of Bachelor of Architecture was extended to five years. The first year was still preparatory and the object was "to impart such general culture, scientific knowledge and skill of hand as will prepare the student to profit by the work of the succeeding years."35The course work of the next four years was grouped under seven main headings, namely, Design, Aesthetics, History', Science', Construction, Professional Practice, and Drawing".

After his return from the war, Percy Nobbs taught Design in second, third, fourth and fifth years and gave two complementary aesthetic courses, Theory of Design, and Theory of Planning. Ramsay Traquair lectured in History, Ancient and Classical Architecture, Medieval Architecture, Renaissance Architecture and Modern Architecture and also gave four aesthetic courses, Decorative Heraldry, Ornament in Form, Metal Work and Color Decoration, in addition to Historical Drawing, which included experience in measured drawing. It was in this latter course that Traquair with the help of his students assembled the extensive collection of measured drawings of the old architecture of Quebec which 'vas to become his principal legacy to McGill. Philip Turner gave courses in Building Construction, Building Materials, Professional Practice and Specifications. Architectural engineering courses complemented the curriculum.

Two new staff members, W.E. Carless and E. Dyonnet, were appointed in 1920; both were distinguished teachers and taught for many years.

William Edward Carless (F.R.I.B.A.) was born in Staffordshire, England and studied architecture in London and Paris before coming to Montreal. He too was a pioneer of the study of the early architecture of French Canada on which he became an authority. As an assistant professor, Carless taught two "aesthetic" courses: The Elements of architecture and The Elements of Composition, and three "drawing" courses: Architectural Drawing, and Architectural Geometry I and II Carless left the School in 1929 and returned to England where he died in l949.

Edmond Dyonnet (R.C.A.) was born in France and studied art in Italy before emigrating to Canada in 1875. He was a noted artist, principally a figure painter, who not only taught at McGill, but also at the Ecole Polytechnique, at the Council of Arts and Manufacturers, and at the Montreal Art Association. Dyonnet instructed in Modelling and later in Freehand Drawing; he was a colorful teacher and artist whose studio was located along a hidden lane behind Bleury Street near St. Catherine. Dyonnet served for a long time as the Secretary of the Royal Canadian Academy and co-authored this institution's history.

Throughout the twenties, Traquair, Nobbs, Turner, Carless and Dyonnet were the principal teachers at the School. It may be of interest to note, that for one academic year (1919/20) Ernest Cormier, a distinguished Montreal architect, assisted in design and that D. Stuart Forbes taught the aesthetic and drawing courses that Carless inherited. In 1929, Frank B. Chambers replaced Carless and remained at the School until 1942. While at the School, Chambers wrote The History of Taste published by Columbia University Press. Like most of his confreres, Chambers was a skilled draughtsman and architect who had received his training in Britain.

In the twenties and thirties, new ideals in Architecture were being expressed in Europe, but this so- called modern movement professed by the Bauhaus School at Weimar (1919-1924) and Dessau (1925-1932), as well as in the radical writings of such avant-garde architects as Le Corbusier, had little influence upon the teaching at McGill, although students had ready access to modernism through the journals and books in the Blackader Library. Copies of L'Esprit Nouveau - now in the reserved section of the library - were found by the author in the stacks among the Baumeister and RIBA Journals of the 1920's.

McGill, in its apparent disregard of the modern movement was not unique among established university Schools of Architecture on the North American continent and in Europe. Although this may imply an over sight, it was not. We must recollect that the Weimar Bauhaus was initially merely a continuation of an Arts and Crafts school established by the Grand-Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and its teachings were based on premises also advocated by William Morris and therefore quite analogous to the principles underlying the McGill curriculum. But the Bauhaus, with the reorganization initiated by Walter Gropius in 1919, became more industrial design oriented and emerged as an experimental school whose diploma was not perceived as equivalent to a university degree. Nor did Le Corbusier, a self-educated protagonist of a new architecture, initially enjoy much recognition by the architectural profession, even in France, and his Voisin Plan (1922) portraying a visionary architecture on the site of Paris (all old buildings gone with the exception of such monuments as The Louvre, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Sacre-Coeur, L'Arche de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, to free place for parks, high- rise apartments and cruciform sky scrapers) must have appeared shocking to people who believed in gradual change and who had a strong attachment to the traditional values exemplified by the timeless beauty and "sterling qualities" (a Nobbs expression) of medieval and classical buildings.

Among his colleagues, Percy Nobbs was the most outspoken about his likes and dislikes, and hence one can form an opinion of what he taught his students in the Design studio. In an article written late in his life and published in the RAIC Journal, he reflects upon "Architecture in the Province of Quebec during the Early Years of the Twentieth Century." Accordingly, of the existing buildings that he found in Montreal on his arrival, he liked the Board of Trade Building by Brown and Miller, the Bank of Montreal on Place d'Armes by McKim, Meade and White and the old McGill Chemistry Building by Sir Andrew Taylor, while the "Ruskinian freakishness" of Saxen Snell's Royal Victoria Hospital did not please him at all. He liked the Church of the Grey Nuns on Dorchester Street (now Boulevard) by Bourgeau as well as St. Patrick's also on Dorchester by Rev. Father Martin, S.J., while the Notre-Dame Church on Place d'Armes by James O'Donnell he found to be very dull, admitting, however, that it had "an adroit plan accommodating an enormous congregation"; the St. James Cathedral (now Mary Queen of the World Cathedral) on Dominion Square he viewed as "merely a quarter half- scale model of St. Peter's" in Rome, which of course it is. Nobbs also identifies in this article the architectural profession's "three giants" of the Pre-World War I period, namely, Norman Shaw in London, Ludwig Hoffmann in Berlin and Charles McKim in New York. The "new art" of Josef Hoffmann of Vienna (the "other Hoffmann" as Nobbs referred to him and in whose offices Le Corbusier decided to make architecture his own career,) Nobbs viewed to be in conflict with the forces of academicism. Derisively, he calls the followers of art nouveau "a frivolous lunatic fringe" and those of the modern movement emotionless "accommodation engineers." Were Nobbs still alive, he might feel vindicated in his view of "modernism" by the recent severe criticism of the International Style.

To be fair to Nobbs, however, one must understand the context in which his intransigent views were expressed, since they were directed towards frivolous "excesses" of modernism. Moreover, Nobbs' intransigence was not shared by all his colleagues and, therefore, rational rather than fanatic modernism appeared in students' design projects; for example, Dutch as well as Swedish contemporary design of the thirties was much admired. During the latter part of Traquair's tenure, the key words for design - according to Professor Stuart Wilson (B. Arch. '43) - were "purpose," "material" and "technique." And, as in the past, an emphasis on the development of drafting skills was nurtured in the School in order to equip each student with the ability to draw and sketch with ease. By 1921 Traquair had introduced a summer school in sketching and measuring for the study of buildings. This summer school had to be attended by all students between the second and third, and the third and fourth years. In addition, the summer school complemented a tradition of students' surveys of the traditional architecture of the Province of Quebec which had been initiated by Nobbs prior to Traquair's arrival at McGill. But it was under Traquair's guidance coupled with his course Historical Drawing that the surveys resulted in a copious record of Quebec churches, chapels, convents, as well as other rural and urban building types, which formed the resource base for numerous articles in the R.A.I.C. Journal and a comprehensive book entitled The Old Architecture of Quebec. For this pioneer work, the University of Montreal rewarded Traquair with an honorary degree. A portrait of Traquair, painted by one of his former students, F.B. Taylor, hangs on the north wall of the Blackader Library's reading room.

The annual dinner of the RAIC held at the Cercle Universitaire on April 24th, 1939, and a farewell dinner for Traquair given at the Faculty Club on May 5th of the same year, marked the end of an era at the McGill School of Architecture. At the first dinner, Percy Nobbs and Ramsay Traquair were awarded by the RAIC's President, R.H. Macdonald, the Association's medal for their outstanding contribution to architectural education; and, at the second dinner, presided over by Richard Eve, a graduate of the School, Philip Turner read the main address and P. Roy Wilson recited a farewell poem before Traquair was presented with a fine 18th century French Canadian armoire.39 After his retirement, and still unmarried, Traquair went to live in his summer house in Guysborough, Nova Scotia. "There he was in complete harmony with his setting, cultivating his beautiful garden, fishing the local rivers, drinking tea at all hours on his verandah and talking to his friends. Within his own grounds, he normally wore a kilt and was always 'The Laird' to his close friends." He died in his 78th year in Guysborough and was put to rest there in the cemetery of this charming small community.

One year after Traquair's retirement, in 1940, Nobbs also retired, but he continued his architectural practice beyond his teaching career in partnership with George Hyde until the latter's death in 1944, then for a brief period with Hugh Valentine (B.Arch.'28), and finally with his son Francis Nobbs (B.Arch.'36). In 1957 Nobbs was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by McGill and in 1964 he died about one year before his ninetieth birthday.

An important legacy of Nobbs is a collection of drawings and documents now housed in the Nobbs Room of the Blackader Library. A catalogue of his drawings entitled Percy Erskine Nobbs and his Associates: a guide to archives was published in 1986, edited by Irena Murray.