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552 LETTERS IN CANADA 1982 chitecture makes a significant contribution to understanding the current architectural scene in Canada. (GEORGE KAPELOS) Susan Wagg. Percy Erskine Nobbs Architecte, Artiste, Artisan/Architect, Artist, Craftsman Translated by Cecile Grenier and Suzie Toutant McGill-Queen's University Press. xii, 99, illus. $12.95 When Nobbs arrived in Montreal in "90}, architecture was a fledgling profession, without coherent organization, educational policies, or qualifications . Committed to creating Canadian architectural excellence, he taught design for thirty-five years, served on innumerable civic committees and as president of three professional associations, and campaigned for quality and responsibility in architectural and urban design. For half of his ninety years he was a leading spokesman for his generation . This essay catalogue, the first major study of his remarkable career, accompanied the exhibition that opened, appropriately, in the Nobbsdesigned McCord Museum in April 1982. Even more slender than its volume suggests, with French and English texts juxtaposed on each page, its brevity is compensated for by substance. Production quality is enhanced by the excellent illustrations, four in colour, useful notes on biography and design chronology, and the handsome layout. It is a model monograph, with seven thematic chapters devoted to the architect's early life and training in St Petersburg and Scotland, his first major commission at McGill (the University Union, now the McCord Museum), the domestic designs of his practice, a discussion of his design philosophy as exemplified in a single building (the McGill Pathological Institute), his involvement in planning, a brief section on his surprisingly varied extra-architectural interests, and a succinct conc1usion. In the tradition of his philosophical forbears - Pugin, Ruskin, and Morris - Nobbs did not restrict himself to mere building deSign, but also worked seriously in the 'allied arts' of iron- and plaster-work, stained glass, architectural sculpture and cabinetry. His arts-and-crafts approach to materials was reflected in his 'fanatical concern' for craftsmanship. The owner of his last house recounted how, enraged at the quality of the bricklaying, Nobbs 'sprang to the chimney scaffolding and tore down several feet of newly laid courses, flinging the bricks about the yard as he went along.' From recollections such as this, and a wealth of quotations from Nobbs's many articles and reports, we get a vivid sense of his trenchant personality. Less relevant to his design work but essential as biography were his passionate involvements in fencing and salmon fishing. HUMANITlES 553 The portrait that emerges is of an astonishing public figure uniquely representative of his time. Wagg is careful to relate Nobbs's beliefs and actions to their sources in the figures and literature of pertinent nineteenth -century aesthetic movements. This recurring comparative analysis is particularly welcome in a publication such as this, directed as it is to the non-specialist, and yet a significant contribution to scholarship. Wagg conSistently describes context, sources, and philosophy of design in her discussions of individual projects - good basic art history - but in the process manages to convey a rich tapestry of cultural traditions and expectations, at times transcending the confines of her subject. This format is noticeably weaker in the chapter on Planning, however, where there has been an over-reliance on Nobbs's own publications without adequate reference to the problems that were faced by the planning community in Canada. The lack of historical context undermines the entire chapter, which as a result is only a superficial survey of the architect 's personal efforts. Herein lies the most frustrating limitation of the book: the necessity of analysing Nobbs's work without the benefit of a detailed historical perspective on the intervening years. A comprehensive study of Canadian architectural and urban history is still waiting to be written, so Nobbs's impact on the profession can only be inferred from the information presented. Wagg has written a monograph that studies both a single figure and a critical period in Canadian cultural history. Her summation accurately isolates the heritage under which traditionalists like Nobbs and his contemporary John Lyle struggled, in the face of waves of European modernism . Theirs was the last generation to have confidence in historical sources of design. As Nobbs wrote sadly in 1956, 'by the end of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 552-553
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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