Architecture is not an easy business. Just as with any career in a creative field, it’s not nearly enough to be talented. My grandfather, George James Valence (GJV) Thomson had an incredible eye, was a skilled craftsman, and had the education of an Architect from both Pratt Institute in NYC, class of 1933, and later at Yale’s School of Architecture. He designed and built our Family’s first house and two cottages, first in Dwight, Ontario and later in Bala. His paintings, sketches and watercolours demonstrate an accuracy of perspective, balance of composition and use of colour that is the hallmark of a bygone era.
In literally the first month after ‘GJV’ started classes at Pratt, the Great Crash set in, followed by the Great Depression. On Black Tuesday, even Goldman Sachs was reduced to 58% of its value overnight. 29.2 million shares were dumped from the NYSE in less than a week and countless individuals and families lost their life’s savings. Drought, erosion and plagues of insects wiped out the productive yields across North America and over the decade that followed the world became a meaner, intensely competitive and in some cases outright fascist place. For anyone living this, even if you were a Rockefeller, it looked like the apocalypse had arrived. And many individuals were deeply wounded by the losses. Losses of prospects, opportunities, equity and savings, but above all loss of livelihoods impacted this generation in ways that would play out over the rest of the century. That was the context my grandfather started his career with, and as Henry David Thoreau said in 1846;
“They can do without architecture who have no olives nor wines in the cellar” .Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience
And so as the Depression wore on, GJV did not manage to finish at Yale, but instead returned to Hamilton, ON and reluctantly I’m sure, worked briefly in commercial photography and light manufacturing before taking work in the family’s manufacturing and distribution business. While he maintained an avid interest in art, photography and architecture, he never formally practiced as an architect.
According to his son Sandy (my father) there were more than a few outbursts by GJV at the dinner table followed by a hasty retreat to his study, doors slammed shut, like an explosive symbol of the non-fulfilment of his hopes. Here was a sensitive, free, artistic spirit that was constrained to the opportunity at hand, and even while many others at the time would dream of such luck, it was not GJV’s wish to have it. ‘Doomsday’, according to GJV, was always just around the corner, whether instigated by the Soviets or Wall Street.
GJV’s interest in Architecture never dimmed however. His facility with wood-working (he once made me a toy battleship on a whim), his books on the Arts and Crafts movement in Scotland and the Scottish Architect Alexander ‘The Greek’ Thomson (grandfather of sustainable design) and Gustav Eiffel, his admiration for the ‘maverick’ Buckminster Fuller (who had debuted his Dymaxion car at the same time GJV was at Pratt) and his effusive praise of Architecture as the ‘Mother of All Arts’ had opened a door for me that I otherwise would not known was even there.
The Dymaxion car, ca. 1933, which Fuller introduced by driving and parking prominently in front of the New York Auto Show in downtown NYC in 1934.
Almost 42 years after that first introduction to the word ‘Architecture’, nine years of university education in Canada and Germany and ten years of internship, Thomson Architecture, Inc. was finally founded in 2018. In this almost entirely digital office, I still occasionally reference GJV’s text ‘Architectural Drawing’ from 1929 for historic details and presentation ideas. His wooden, imperial conversion scale is a quaint ornament above my stealth-black Apple computer. And when I reflect on his efforts to carve a path in this profession, I can only imagine the pressure he must have felt to balance the needs of his family, the expectations of his elders, and the opportunities of his immediate environment, in Hamilton, Ontario in the 1930’s.
Far more than artistry, practicing the profession of Architecture today requires an affinity for computer-centric design that frequently reaches the level of custom coding elements of the software. Skills are required in everything from project management, planning and zoning review, web-design and internet marketing to accounting and bookkeeping, graphic design and presentation skills. An architect also has to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of legislative, legal and insurance requirements (and fees!) and the constant innovation of the related science and technology such as the performance of the ‘thermal envelope’ aka. ‘Building Science‘, which didn’t even exist 50 years ago. Creating ‘Indoor Environments‘ really was a byproduct of the space race of the 50’s and 60’s with its Passive and Active Thermal Control Systems (ATCS/PTCS). Add to this the business acumen required in finding new prospects, artfully demonstrating why your trust is deserved, and then reconciling the the frequent mismatch between an owner’s wishlist and budget, and you’ll have some idea of what today’s architect is working on at any given moment.
At a time of global economic uncertainty and a resurgence in populism bordering on fascism, increasing droughts, flooding and related mass migration, together with the looming possibility that the carbon bubble may burst, there is a real urgency in calls for a Green New Deal. The perils of the immediate future feature higher stakes, larger populations of greater diversity, and ecological crises on a scale that dwarfs all precedents. The Doomsday of yore never looked better in light of even optimistic views of our expected future. Architects today must be in a position to offer designs for a future that are entirely free of carbon emissions and other toxins, that are resilient to increased winds and flooding, power-outages and the extremes of fire, cold and heat and even pollution. History may well repeat, but perhaps architects of today can offer more than a mere artistic or stylistic response to the needs of housing and community spaces. Architects can offer a path towards a sustainable future with the help of what Fuller called ‘the Design Science Revolution‘ and especially, the miniaturization and ‘Ephemeralization‘ of design, or doing far more with less. The design philosophy of Fuller has been used by our firm to great effect, where we have seen a doubling of performance at the same time as a halving of construction costs.
Architecture has never been an easy business, but at least it is rewarding, ethical, and artful, and if we get it right, it might just help us survive the future.