Article by Glenn McArthur

J
ohn M. Lyle was one of the pre-eminent architects of the first half of the twentieth century in Canada. He was acknowledged by his peers as a leading architectural spokesperson, one who worked tirelessly to raise the profile of the profession through his teaching, writing, curating and lecturing. Moving to Toronto from New York City in 1905, just after the devastating Great Fire in the former, he lived through the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression, two World Wars and the rise of a radical form of architectural modernism that undermined his aesthetic principles. Through economic hardships and the lifestyle changes that resulted from them, Lyle produced a significant body of work that always expressed a highly personalized and original approach to architectural form and detail. He is perhaps best known for championing an authentic regional consciousness in building design and attempting to pave the way for a uniquely Canadian architecture.


In 1928, Lyle had his first physical encounter with modernism when he took a ten-week excursion to France and England, undertaken primarily because he was ‘anxious to study the modern movement in architecture, which is now sweeping over the world.’

There were several different schools of modernism, each with its own themes, philosophies and inspiration, but they could be roughly broken down into three broad categories: decora tive, functionalist and regionalist.

The decorative camp was best seen through the work of French architect Robert Mallet- Stevens. Mallet-Stevens emerged after World War I as a fashionable avant-garde designer whose work was a sophisticated synthesis of cubist forms and decorative Art Deco detailing, using metal framing, reinforced concrete and wide expanses of glass.

The functionalist groups, whose work would later be dubbed the International Style, started to form independently of each other in three pockets of activity, with the De Stijl movement in the Netherlands, the work of Le Corbusier in France and the Bauhaus school in Germany.

A regional perspective to the tenets of the new modernism was characterized by the architecture
of a handful of Scandinavian designers including Sweden’s Erik Gunnar Asplund and
Eliel Saarinen of Finland. Asplund designed the Stockholm City Library using the basic forms
of a circular rotunda with a dome protruding from a rectangular base and a rigid fenestration
pattern dressed with plain brick surfaces. The design transcended traditions – it was neoclassical
in spirit but reminiscent of the functionalist and had a strong regional feel deriving from
local conditions and resources. These Scandinavian architects were open to outside influences,
but combined them with their local environments and traditions, creating work that was
modern, original and national.

In 1929, Lyle wrote an article based on his trip for the Journal (published by the Royal Architectural
Institute of Canada) and described modern architecture as possessing “a simplicity of
wall surface, both of the exterior and interior, a use of parallel lines or concentric curves, a use
of incised relief ornament with semi-flat surfaces, a daring use of modern materials such as the
combinations of metal and glass, wood and metal, an altogether charming use of what might be
termed sunshine colours, their interiors being keyed to a lighter, gayer note.”2 Although he did
not single out any particular architect or building for praise and was not impressed with some of
the work he studied, Lyle did find many aspects of the movement to be sound and beautiful.

He noted that one of the modern movement’s more interesting aspects was that it represented
a revolt against archaeology in architecture. This was particularly relevant for Lyle, who
had long felt that Canadian architects did not try to solve each new design problem in a personal
and individual manner, but relied heavily on Roman and Greek precedents. Lyle was certainly
not as dismissive of historical tradition as the principal exponents of the modern movement
were – he did not believe that any new style could be born overnight, but that development
would have to be gradual, with tradition as a background. He did concede, however, that the designers
in the “modern manner are blazing a trail that we must recognize as having great possibilities,”
and encouraged Canadian architects to take advantage of the possibilities the movement
had to offer.3 But Lyle warned that Modernism without regionalism would lead to an
architecture that was international and generic in style. He encouraged Canadian architects to
follow paths similar to those of countries such as Sweden, whose architects he considered to be
“developing their modern architecture along national Swedish traditional lines.”4 And returning
to his favourite topic – national architectural traditions – he wrote, “You say that we have no
traditions in Canada – I do not agree. There are the traditions of lower French Canada; the colonial
architecture of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario: the two-coloured brick architecture
of our own province, and for decorative motifs and ornaments we have the Indian traditions
and our own native flowers, fruit, animals and trees.”5

Taking his cues from the Canadian Group of Seven painters and Scandinavian architects,
Lyle decided to strike a modern Canadian note in architecture by focusing on a building’s ornamental
program. It was in this area that he saw “a rich field of inspiration lying dormant in the
fauna, flora and marine life of Canada.”6

Lyle took to the new cause of establishing an authentically Canadian architecture with the
zeal of the newly converted. He and his office began to “accumulate data in the forms of Canadian
flowers, fruits, trees, birds, animals, grain, marine life and Indian motifs. I sent a man to the
Royal Ontario Museum to make colour drawings of Indian forms. My office staff at first was but
mildly interested and it was not without much travail that we were able to translate the natural
forms into conventionalized ornament. The staff is now enthusiastic in its interest…they adopted
new forms or old forms in new combinations trying to create a new language based on Canadian
forms, the only criteria was that any form had to pass the test of beauty.”7

Lyle’s buildings from this period – 1929 to 1931 – exhibit an amalgam of modernism, nationalism
and regionalism that was innovative, dynamic and full of creative potential. We see it
in his work for W. R. Johnston, a summer residence on Lake Couchiching near Orillia, Ontario;
in his design for the Runnymede Library, Bloor Street West, Toronto; and the High Level Bridge
in Hamilton, Ontario and for a series of banks in Calgary, Halifax and Toronto.

This creative phase of Lyle’s work ended abruptly after the Wall Street crash and the ensuing
Depression, which reduced the architectural program of every building to its bare essentials. But
Lyle continued to change, embracing much of the modern movement by simplifying elements,
eliminating meaningless ornamentation and creating beauty through form, line and colour.
In 1935, Lyle was commissioned to design the Formal Garden at Robert S. McLaughlin’s
Parkwood Estate in Oshawa, Ontario, whose fifty-five-room house is a National Historic Site
open to the public as a museum. McLaughlin was the president of General Motors of Canada
and he commissioned Lyle to design a garden to replace a horse riding area that was part
of his twelve-acre property.

Lyle’s approach to this project was typical of many Beaux-Arts trained architects, relying
strongly on garden architecture and featuring a symmetrical plan, a meticulous attention to detail
and proportion and a masterful use of three-dimensional space. His design is formal, with a
central axis and cross axes and plantings all set within a symmetrically arranged geometric grid.

All architectural forms are white and the pattern is punctuated with oversized urns. From the
commanding view of the upper terrace, the scene is dominated by a seventy-metre long rectangular
pool of water containing six small waterspouts. The vista is terminated on that end by a single-
storey tea house consisting of a central block containing a vestibule, coatroom, washroom,
pantry and kitchen behind large glass doors. A pair of unadorned columns support a simple
entablature framed with projecting pavilions whose niches hold large urns. The upper terrace,
accessed by a pair of flanking two-tier staircases, features an open balustrade. A pair of piers
frame a terrace wall fountain with the head of Neptune spouting forth into a rectangular pool
that allows the water to cascade down a pair of semi-circular tiers to the ground-level basin.

Flanking the scene on the rectangular pool retaining walls are a pair of stone-carved Canada
geese striking a territorial pose with outstretched curvilinear wings, projecting necks and hissing
beaks, carved by German-born new immigrant and sculptor Friedrich Winkler. Running parallel
to the pool are narrow, colourful beds framed by Japanese yews containing standard hydrangeas,
while a series of pyramidal cedars create the complementary vertical accents. Flanking
the fountain and accessed by flights of stairs are raised beds consisting of four areas
separated by gravel paths. A low border of Japanese yews encloses a grassed area and geometrically
shaped spaces for annual plantings.

A formal garden of this size and expense was unprecedented in the country, and what
prompted McLaughlin to build it at the height of the Great Depression can only be speculated
upon. But there is no doubt about the garden’s serene harmony, achieved through the controlled
flow of space created by the Beaux-Arts axial plan, the virtuoso use of modern classical architectural
forms that are proportioned to dominate but not overwhelm, and a fascinating garden
planting that is restrained in form and variety of species. The masterful combination of
these elements makes Parkwood a unique garden statement in North America.

Lyle’s last opportunity to design in the modern style was in 1940 for Col. R. S. McLaughlin’s
bedroom, bathroom and art gallery at Parkwood. The only interior Lyle designed that is still intact
with all of the original furnishings and finishings, it gives us an example of the homogeneous
effect he strove for in his interiors.

The south-facing bedroom overlooks the estate and the Lyle-designed formal garden. The
room is a thoroughly modern statement in spite of being housed within Darling & Pearson’s
1917 Georgian Revival building. Conspicuously located above the fireplace and dominating the
room is a highly stylized pictorial scene, carved in low relief by Donald Stuart, of a standing buck
and a reclining doe beside a white pine tree on a flowing river’s edge. The relief is directly across
from McLaughlin’s bed and its symbolic reference can only be guessed at, but it must have held
a strong meaning for the owner. The sculpted panel is rendered in the typical fashion of the period,
in low relief with simple decorative patterning, and enlivened through the repetitive, simplified
motif of pine needles and water treatment.

Lyle designed a complete bedroom suite for the room, using exotic woods such as pollard
oak, brown oak and chestnut, lush material of gold silk damask for the three open-arm occasional
chairs, ivory leather for the boudoir stools and polished cream marble tops for the commode
drawers and side tables. Repeating designs of Greek key and a stylized leaf motif in two tones of
wood are carried through the furniture as well as in valences, door panels and fireplace implements.
The adjacent bathroom has a completely integrated modern interior of streamlined fixtures
and accessories in a vocabulary of chrome, glass and porcelain.

Portions of this article are excerpts from the author’s recent publication A Progressive Traditionalist:
John M. Lyle, Architect published by Coach House Books.

Image: John M. T-Square, caricature self portrait with Hors Concours
(excluded from the contest or unrivalled) red seal in the upper right hand corner,
revealing a sense of humour and his place within the architectural community.
It is an example of Lyle’s stylistic shift toward Modernism, which occurred in the 1930s.
Archives of Ontario
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