Among the giants of postwar Canadian architecture, one of the most audacious turned out to be an expat Australian. John Andrews, who spent his prime career-building years in Toronto, made his mark with the CN Tower, Scarborough College and other iconic structures in the 1960s and early 70s. Although he spent the last half of his long life in his homeland, where he died on March 24 at age 88, he exemplified how well an immigrant could help define the country’s contemporary identity.
“What he brought to Canada was a fresh idea about the value of humane modern architecture” says George Kapelos, a professor of architecture at Ryerson University. “His iconic buildings represent an ideal of bringing people together, in a way that would provoke conversations, interactions, and connections.”
John Hamilton Andrews was born on Oct. 29, 1933, and received his Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Sydney. He then crossed the ocean to study at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. While still a student, he made his mark by leading a team and three other classmates who entered the international competition to design Toronto’s new City Hall. Their distinctive crenellated-roof low-rise proposal beat out hundreds of competitors to reach the list of just eight finalists. “It was very progressive in its view of the world, of how you could engage the public in a meaningful way,” says Prof. Kapelos, author of a book on the 1958 competition.
Although Mr. Andrews ultimately lost to Finnish architect Viljo Revell, his shortlisted proposal impressed the Toronto-based firm John B. Parkin & Associates, the local project architects for the new City Hall, and they offered him a position of senior designer at their Toronto office. In 1958, newly married to the former Rosemary Randall, with whom he would have four children, he moved from a dilapidated Cape Cod home to his new life in Toronto.
As it turned out, Mr. Andrews had a significant role in creating Toronto’s new City Hall after all, when Parkin & Associates was enlisted as the local firm to carry out Mr. Revell’s proposal. But Mr. Andrews – a rough-hewn, swaggering, blunt-talking Australian – found the Parkin environment to be pretentious, impersonal, and much too rigidly hierarchical.
After leaving Toronto in 1961 for an architectural pilgrimage in Europe, Mr. Andrews returned six months later and launched his own eponymous firm. He also began teaching at the University of Toronto architecture department, and, in 1967, became its chair. Though unable to devote himself full-time to his U of T position, he played a key role in its evolution by recruiting Peter Prangnell to its faculty and then as his successor as chair of the school, giving it a more student-centred focus. “He knew Peter to have a humanist pedagogy,” says George Baird, professor emeritus and a former dean of the school, now known as the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.
In 1963, facilitated by his position at the University of Toronto, Mr. Andrews won his first major building commission: Scarborough College, the university’s satellite campus. Bisected by a jagged interior skylit corridor and steepled with a 60-foot-high chimney, it drew international attention upon its completion, including a cover story and four-page spread in Time magazine. The sculptural concrete low-rise, along with many of Mr. Andrews’s other landmark projects, will be featured in the monograph John Andrews: Architect of Uncommon Sense, to be published later this year by Harvard University Press.
The acclaim for Scarborough College drew a plethora of commissions his way, including student residences for the new University of Guelph and Brock University, and Weldon Library for the University of Western Ontario. He also designed Gund Hall, the 1971 home of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, which along with Scarborough College tends to be the cited by critics and fellow architects as his most critically important work.
And yet the project that has become most famous among ordinary Canadians is not a building but a telecommunications structure: the CN Tower, which Mr. Andrews helped design in collaboration with WZMH Architects and a brilliant engineering team. What’s more, neither the design team nor the critics were particularly admiring of the tower upon its 1975 completion. The main problem was that Mr. Andrews had conceived the tower as one component integrated within a complex planned transformation of the Canadian National Railway lands along the lakefront into a huge mixed-use development called Metro Centre. Plagued with logistical issues and infighting, the Metro Centre project collapsed, except for the CN Tower. Mr. Andrews then returned to Australia, and the tower design had to be modified by others to help the structure fit into its unexpectedly empty urban context.
The implosion of the Metro Centre project was one factor compelling Mr. Andrews’s return to Australia. “Common sense” was one of his mantras, and he bemoaned what he saw as city and transit officials’ lack of it. “For instance, if you do not put the bloody underground underneath the rapid transit and have a connection between the two, it will not work. A station down there one, up there, and one over there, will not work,” he wrote in a 1982 monograph of his work.
But even bereft of its planned context, the CN Tower became an instant and beloved landmark for locals and tourists alike. For more than 30 years, its 553-metre-high tapered concrete shaft, cinched with two circular observation decks, was the world’s tallest freestanding structure.
In 1974, Mr. Andrews moved back to his native Australia, now revered at the first Australian architect to have achieved international renown. He went on to build prominent structures in his homeland and received the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1980. But throughout his life, he continued to bemoan the lack of common sense in the way buildings are made. Reflecting on the Scarborough College project 20 years after its commission, he railed against the building committee’s aversion to providing comfortable seating for the students. “The University insisted on something non-slashable,” he wrote in his 1982 monograph. “Finally the University agreed that the majority of people, even students, do not slash furniture.” He concluded that passage with an observation that could serve as one of his life’s key aphorisms: “Like anybody else, students are reasonably competent to look after possessions they like, so long as others do not surround them with meaningless, humiliating rules.”
A list of Mr. Andrews’s survivors was not available.