- Architecture, Town Planning and Community: Selected Writings and Public Talks by Cecil Burgess, 1909–1946
This is a timely and very readable book, given our continuing respect for good architecture and the increasing urbanization of Canada, and specifically Alberta, the adopted home of Cecil Scott Burgess. This book is skilfully edited by Donald Wetherell, who also provides an excellent introduction and biography of Burgess. The book is organized in four parts, corresponding with eras in his professional development. The major part of the book is composed of a selection of Burgess's many public speeches and presentations. There are numerous sketches and diagrams that demonstrate Burgess's mastery of design. While these documents provide a very good sense of the man as professional designer and educator, we know next to nothing of his personal life. An intensely private man, apparently he did not keep personal reminiscences.
Burgess was a leader in architecture and town-planning thought and practice in Alberta from 1900 until his death in 1950. Born in India in 1870, [End Page 319] raised in England, and educated in Scotland, Burgess was very much a man of his time. He held to, and viewed the world through, the values of a late-Victorian English gentleman; he sought to marry order and discipline, and respect for heritage, with beauty and a joy for life. Burgess entered architecture and planning practice at the turn of the last century, a period when many European and North American cities were industrial wastelands, badly polluted, and poorly designed. These industrial cities were too often bleak, grimy, and depressing places. Epidemics were common, air and water quality were poor. In response, the design and engineering professions worked to improve hygiene by improving water and sewer systems, and by separating incompatible land uses. Architects and planners such as Burgess turned their attention to improving public spaces through the creation of parks, hospitals, and university campuses.
Burgess operated at several levels during his long career. He was very much an applied practitioner who believed strongly in the mastery of the technical skills and craft of architecture, design, and planning. Following his move to Canada in 1903, he taught architecture at McGill University, and he then started and single-handedly ran the professional architecture program at the University of Alberta in 1913 – a remarkable achievement.
Burgess interpreted architecture as a social art: good design meant integrating form with function. He also believed that town planning and architecture had to be integrated; cities had to be considered and planned with function and aesthetics considered equally. Burgess also felt that buildings had to be more than 'machines'; they had to enhance health, contribute to personal fulfillment, fit together and complement each other in their siting, and reflect the community's culture and landscape – in other words, a sense of place. Interestingly, he paid much more homage to Alberta's natural landscape than its cultural landscape, which he tended to disregard. This is probably a reflection of his (and Canadians' generally) great respect for British cultural values and history. He developed master plans and building designs in his position as campus planner/architect for the University of Alberta; several of the buildings with which he was associated, such as the Arts Building, remain on that campus. He advised the City of Edmonton on its city-wide master planning and zoning.
His intellectual range was remarkable. He could operate at a citywide level, and he could design homes in exquisite detail. Throughout his career, Burgess designed residences. He was a strong proponent of the Arts and Crafts design style of architecture, with its emphasis on liveable, holistic, and highly functional buildings. Health and hygiene were dominant themes in his work. For example, he refers in several presentations to the need for wall surfaces and ledges that could be easily cleaned, and a preference for sunlight and ventilation. Interestingly, he also designed a soup tureen for the University of Alberta. He was, [End Page 320] in short, a man of very...