Trent University under the modernist microscope

Trent University, Peterborough

Photo: Trent University, Peterborough


Larry Wayne Richards

Buildings and architecture

Published Date: May 19, 2005

Throughout the developed world, attention is being given to the built heritage of the modern era. Organizations such as UNESCO's World Heritage Center, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the Working Party of the Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement (DOCOMOMO) are defining critical issues and developing conceptual frameworks related to modern heritage. As well – from local to international levels – databases, public awareness programs and nomination dossiers are being organized. In this context, complex challenges are emerging in Ontario.

For many, the Modern Movement – which evolved from and reflected the massive modernization of life in the 20th century – is still so new that they lack perspective on, and appreciation for, the great accomplishments of the period. Assigning significance requires sufficient distance in time. Even the most sophisticated organizations struggle in looking at the 20th century. As of May 2003, UNESCO's World Heritage List contained 730 properties and sites, but only 12 were modern heritage listings.

Interest in preserving and celebrating Ontario's built heritage from the modern era has been equally slow. Nevertheless, recognition is finally coming to key projects in Toronto such as City Hall and the Toronto-Dominion Centre. Beyond Toronto, however, outstanding modernist buildings await proper recognition, documentation and preservation – including Trent University, a remarkable mix of architecture and landscape in Peterborough.

Designed by Ron Thom in 1964, the original buildings of Trent University constitute one of Canada's great works of architecture – a national and provincial treasure that deserves full attention for its artistry and cultural significance.

Thom was known as “Frank Lloyd Thom” (as in Frank Lloyd Wright). He came to national prominence in the 1960s when he designed Massey College at the University of Toronto. Critic Adele Freedman explains in her book, Sight Lines, that Thom had an intuitive sense about anchoring a structure in its site and said “a building has to make love to a site.” But at Trent, such lovemaking has not always continued in the post-Thom decades of campus expansion. Without proper designation, Trent's built heritage continues to have neither real protection nor rigorous guidelines for preservation or future development.

Trent's President Bonnie Patterson recognizes the tremendous cultural and institutional value of the University’s unique, modernist architecture. And market research indicates that Trent's distinctive ensemble of buildings and landscape is the third most important thing to incoming students. “We are at the point where there will be an interest in designation,” Patterson adds. “It is desirable to preserve what we have.”

She wants to examine university preservation models elsewhere and seek assistance from a broad range of external agencies. She is also enthused about the DOCOMOMO conference – “Conserving the Modern in Canada: Buildings, Ensembles and Sites, 1945- 2005” – held at Trent May 5-8, 2005.

One senses that Patterson welcomes having Trent examined under the modernist microscope. Recently, the institution asked, “What should characterize the University in 2010?” Surely, one of the answers must be to boldly protect and celebrate Trent's astonishing modernist heritage.