Legacy of Nobbs

Percy Nobbs

The second phase in the history of the McGill School of Architecture saw the entrenchment of formal architectural education in the Faculty of Engineering under the instruction of three distinguished professors who constituted the backbone of the school: Percy Nobbs, Ramsay Traquair and Philip Turner. These three represented a formidable team since Nobbs was a talented designer and successful practitioner in possession of enviable talents in draughtsman ship and modelling, Traquair, an accomplished scholar of architectural history and theory, recognized internationally as an authority on Byzantine Architecture and later as a pioneer in the study of Quebec's vernacular architecture, and Turner, a pragmatic architect and practitioner whose forte was a thorough knowledge of building construction practices. This diverse experience in design, history and building construction manifested itself in a successful collaboration with the unifying force of similar educational backgrounds in Britain characterized by humanism, traditional romanticism and, most of all, a marked influence by the arts and crafts movement. Each of these men became director of the School, Nobbs from 1903 to 1913, Traquair from 1913 to 1939, and Turner as acting director between 1939 and 1941, and their length of tenure varied as much as their individual expertise.

Percy Erskine Nobbs was born at his mother's family house in Haddington, Scotland, in l875, but since his father worked for a bank in the capital of Russia, his early childhood was spent there where he also received his first artistic training attending classes at the St. Petersburg School of Design. At age 12, he returned to Scotland for his secondary schooling at the Edinburgh Collegiate School, but continued to complement his formal education by attending classes in drawing, modelling and design, first at Heriot Watt College, then at the School of Art and finally at the School of Applied Art. Like his predecessor, Stewart Henbest Capper, Percy Nobbs received his higher education at the University of Edinburgh and obtained a Master's degree in Arts. Just before his graduation, in 1894, Nobbs travelled to Russia, attending the coronation of Czar Nicholas II as an artist correspondent. In 1896 he was articled in the office of Sir Robert Lorimer, a distinguished Scottish architect known as a romantic traditionalist and follower of the arts and crafts movement. Elected an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, after successfully passing the Institute's examinations and winning the Tite Prize in 1900, Nobbs travelled for several months in Europe spending considerable time in northern Italy. with colleagues, Ramsay Traquair and Cecil Burgess, the beginning of a long association in education in later years in Canada.

After his return from the continent, Nobbs moved to London where he worked first for the London County Council and later for various practising architects. In London, he was interviewed by the Principal of McGill, William Peterson, and despite his being only 28 years of age was offered the Macdonald Chair of Architecture.

When Percy Nobbs arrived at McGill there were only two architectural students waiting for him, G.H. Blackader and H.E. Shorey, who had just completed the preparatory first year. Nobbs immediately began to reorganize the four year architectural course into two streams, one leading to the new Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.) degree, and the other to the Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) in Architectural Engineering. While he retained much parallel instruction with civil engineering students for the latter, including the prerequisite of Applied Science Matriculation for admission, the former was liberated from some of the more demanding technical courses of the Faculty of Applied Science and replaced with courses from the Faculty of Arts; moreover, for admission to the B.Arch. program the less stringent Arts Matriculation (with French compulsory) sufficed. Thus, the preparatory first year of the B.Arch. program now became separate and distinct from that of the B.Sc. program. As before, architectural studies proper began in second year and the amount of time devoted to design studio work increased gradually in the upper years.

With increased enrollment it became necessary in 1906 to add three new assistants to the School's staff. Cecil E. Burgess was appointed to teach History of Architecture (Egyptian to Byzantine) and Building Construction, E.E.S. Mattice, Structural Engineering, and Marcel C.T. Beullac of the Dominion Bridge Works, Professional Practice. Nobbs himself taught Design, Theory and Evolution of Architectural Form, Building Trades, Ornament and Decoration, Science of Planning, and two history courses Gothic Architecture and Renaissance Architecture.

Philip J. Turner joined the staff in 1909 to teach Building Construction, while Burgess took charge of the History of Medieval and Renaissance Architecture, both of which he relinquished a year later to Thomas Ludlow, a newly appointed Assistant Professor. A new instructor, Henri Hubert, a well-known sculptor, was appointed in 1910 to teach Modelling.

The growth of the School is reflected by the increased number of graduates from two in 1906 to eight in 1912. Of course, with the establishment in 1907 of a second School of Architecture in Montreal, the Ecole Polytechnique on St. Denis Street, and in 1923, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, there was no pressure to grow very rapidly, but by far more restricting to growth were the effects of World War I and the Great Depression of the late twenties and early thirties.

Shortly after his arrival in Montreal, Nobbs also sought professional involvement in the practice of Architecture arguing that a practice was essential to demonstrate to students the application of good architectural values. And indeed, only one year after his arrival in Montreal, he succeeded in obtaining from the Governors of McGill the commission to design the McGill University Union - now the McCord Museum on Sherbrooke Street West. Although the design was his, the building was executed in association with the firm Hutchison and Wood, since Nobbs himself had not yet established an architectural office.

The Macdonald Engineering Building was damaged extensively by fire in 1907 and rebuilt to Nobbs' design on very short notice to be operational for the fall semester of the same year. The location of the School of Architecture was moved from the top floor of the Engineering Building to the ground floor where the Engineering Library used to be in the 60's and 70's. A wide stone ledge protected by a handrail and resting on huge stone brackets on the two sunny facades of the Engineering Building attests to its former use by students for making reproductions of their drawings, since in the early days of blueprinting prints were made individually by placing drawings over sensitized paper in glazed frames and then exposing them to sunlight. These frames were placed on the above mentioned stone ledges outside the windows and after proper exposure retracted and the sensitized paper processed in metal tubes with the help of ammonia.

In 1910, Nobbs entered into a partnership that lasted until 1944 with one of Capper's first students, George Taylor Hyde, who graduated from McGill with a B.Sc. in Architecture in 1899 and later studied at M.I.T. This lasting partnership resulted in the design and execution of many renowned buildings both institutional and domestic. Noteworthy on or near the McGill campus are, in addition to the Union Building, the University Library Extension (1921), the Osler Memorial Library (1921), the Pathological Institute (1922-24), the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada (1926-28), and the Royal Victoria College Extension (l930).

Nobbs' architectural practice was extensive. He is credited with the design of many fine domestic buildings including one designed for himself on Belvedere Road in Westmount which he built in 1914, five years after his marriage to Mary Cecilia Shepherd of Montreal. This was the house where his two children were raised.

Notable non-residential buildings by Nobbs and Hyde in Montreal are: The New Birks Building, Cathcart Street (1911); Edward VII School, Esplande Avenue (1912); University Club of Montreal, Mansfield Street (1912); Bancroft School, St. Urbain Street (1914); and the Drummond Medical Building, Drummond Street (1929). Finally, Nobbs' Master Plan for the University of Alberta and the design for the Arts and Medical Buildings of the same University deserve special mention.

Professor Nobbs wrote extensively on architecture and architectural education including a book entitled Design: A Treatise on the Discovery of Form (1937). From his writings, it is apparent that he subscribed to the time tested values espoused in the arts and crafts movement in Great Britain and that he shunned both the flamboyancy of eclecticism and the nakedness of modern architecture; instead of these stylistic extremes he preferred the middle road of sober architecture, well-built, functional and respective of its surroundings with an appropriate balance between simplicity and the measured use of ornamentation that had meaning, and then only in selected places. In short, he was a man of strong convictions and an experienced architect. He had a deep passion for architecture not only as a designer but also as a builder; he was, for example, never reluctant to do craftsmen's work as a demonstration on the building site when it became necessary.

Moreover, he was a versatile man who had a wide range of interests and was an expert in several of them. He was a skilled artist and craftsman, and as well an accomplished sculptor and painter. He was also an athletic man who won a silver Olympic medal in foiling display (London, 1908) and, as an outdoorsman, was very fond of fishing and an expert in making flies for both trout and salmon fishing. Salmon Tactics (1934) and Fencing Tactics (1936) are two books authored by Nobbs that substantiate his expertise in these two domains.

It is not surprising that this versatile but somewhat temperamental man had little patience for school administration which led to his request in 1909 to be relieved from this responsibility. His replacement as director was effected a few years later with the appointment of Ramsay Traquair (with whom he had travelled in Italy many years before) to the Macdonald Chair in Architecture. Nobbs, however, remained on the staff of the School as a Professor of Design until his retirement.