Ron Thom’s modernist vision for Trent University

Whenever I visit Trent University, the architecture takes me to another place and time. It was the 60’s, a time which, despite its conflicts, was brimming with a futuristic optimism. Drab, conservative Canada was suddenly heady with an explosion of modernist architecture not the least of which was reflected in the buildings of Expo 67 – the U.S. pavilion by visionary Buckminster Fuller and the still occupied Habitat  67 by Moshe Safdie.

A university is an odd combination of private and public space. At its best it should be a safe, comfortable and inspiring haven where one can focus on thought and research, while engaging with the community at large. Though the internet will likely change the face of higher education in decades to come, how lucky are we to have such a university in our small town.

Ships in a Classical Calm - B. C. Binning

Ships in a Classical Calm – B. C. Binning

Peterborough capitalizes on its Victorian charm but the gorgeous modernism of Ron Thom’s 1963 vision for Trent University deserves much more attention. Also known for his design of Toronto’s Massey College and the Shaw Festival Theatre, Thom’s  background as a painter and the influence of his mentor, painter B. C. Binning is evident.  Many of the concepts he embedded in the design would do Jane Jacobs proud – a hub of buildings clustered around the library which acts as a village square, a walkable campus which minimizes the use of cars, respect for the natural beauty of the site and the use of eco-friendly concrete as a material.  Each building has a distinct identity while  incorporating views of forest, field and river – a collection of mature and playful shapes integrated by the use of the campus’s dominant material, concrete. Thom has shown its versatility – there are boxes and sails and porticos and staircases and terraces and towers. Straddling the Otonabee, but never disconnected, the complex at times is reminiscent of a Japanese fortress; or where ivy clings to its walls,  it seems hewn from the landscape itself, with touches of Frank Lloyd Wright and Bauhaus thrown in for good measure. Far from austere, in this context, concrete can even be airy. Connecting the buildings on either side of the river is partner Peter Merrick’s Faryon Bridge. Attention to detail is everywhere – like the variations in texture and the ubiquitous and friendly white globe lamps sprinkled liberally about.  The original furnishings were designed by a who’s who of industrial design for the 20th century – sadlly the chairs by Alvar Aalto, Robin Day, Charles Eames, Arne Jacobsen, Kaare Klint, Eero Saarinen and Michael Thonet are long gone. The mastery of Thom’s design is its ability to be both expansive and humanistic at the same time. Despite its place in the pantheon of brutalist architecture, it is a conversation, not a statement.

Thom’s design was meant to be modular with room for expansion. The Chemical Science building, winner of a Governor General’s Medal, by Teeple Architects and Enweying, the Peter Gzowski College and First People’s House of Learning by  Two Row + Dunlop (Stantec) opened in 2004 with some controversy, not surprising considering Trent’s reputation for mixing it up with culture and politics. Love ’em or hate ’em, both buildings are complex and distinct counterpoints to Thom’s original design.

Architecture should run after the heart and mind and never after money. Like music, it has tremendous staying power in our memories; it imprints itself on our mood and behaviour, and effects the quality of our work and play. So many of us spend formative years in these halls of knowledge, investing in a future we cannot dare to know. Arguably we should all have the privilege of frequently dipping into those fervent waters, challenging any stagnation in our thinking throughout our lives. Blessed with Thom’s enduring platform for learning, Trent’s campus could only benefit from more interface between the university and the Peterborough community.

Ron Thom set the stage for the fulfillment of Trent’s dream for itself and his substantial design continues to nurture students half a century later.

Read and view more about  Ron Thom’s design of Trent University in the Trent University Archives »

More photos of the campus here »

The joy of mid-century modernism – photos of Trent chairs from Lisa Rochon, architecture critic for The Globe and Mail »

Ron Thom: Gardiner Museum honours Canada’s best, unsung modernist architect by Sarah Kelsey, National Post, February 24, 2014 »

Show traces Thom’s resolve to create buildings both quirky and humane by Alex Boxikovic for The Globe and Mail »

Cover photo credit: Larry Turner

Bata Library

Bata Library

Entrance to Bata Library

Entrance to Bata Library

Lady Eaton College

Lady Eaton College

Faryon Bridge

Faryon Bridge

Bata Library

Bata Library

Enweying, Peter Gzowski College & First Peoples House of Learning

Enweying, Peter Gzowski College & First Peoples House of Learning

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