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Convocation hall
Photo by Makeda Marc-Ali

As Canadian as a Snowflake

Frank Darling's Convocation Hall is as reassuring as a warm muffler

Buildings that work are like good marriages: their success ensures invisibility. The values – architectural or social – that a structure embodies, the message it conveys, the vision of community it realizes, can silence a beholder into mere enjoyment.

Frank Darling’s Convocation Hall is that sort of building. Its columned exterior and inviting entrances, its all-embracing dome, the exactitude of its inner sightlines, the precision and economy of its seating arrangements, its connection to its purpose: we greet these qualities almost with insouciance.

“Con Hall” embraces crowds of graduands and their well-wishers on a seasonal rotation – autumn and spring – as predictable as a February cold. Its rafters overlook the colourful processions, lame jokes and tired exhortations that sate our yearning to mark a new stage in life, in one of the few ceremonies that a secularized culture has not snatched from us. It is a space as reassuring as a warm muffler.

That said, Darling uttered in glazed brick an architectural statement as expressive of the academic culture of his time as the fairy-spun alloys of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao are of the present day. The apparent ease of Darling’s statement belies the scale of the university politics he was dealing with, a tangle as deep and tenacious as the root system of a forsythia. Three storylines – Con Hall’s, Darling’s and the University of Toronto’s – explain what the university meant in Darling’s time. Conflict – cultural, religious, political and, above all, academic – shaped that vision.

War and Remembrance

Comparing the cultural politics of mid-19th-century Toronto Anglicanism with those of late-19th-century Ontario Liberalism might seem at first like matching a wine-tasting against a bowling tournament. However, similar features of each process defeated both Frank Darling and his father, Rev. William S. Darling (1818-1886), who was rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity from 1875 to 1882. In each case, their clientele wanted their institutions to be reassuring and traditional.

William Darling’s version of the traditional failed to reassure its Toronto consumers. By the late 1850s, colonial Anglicanism in Toronto appreciated that product differentiation involved more style than substance. Anglican and Methodist clergy could dance for days on theological pinheads. Everyone in the pews understood that a somewhat predictable God rewarded virtue (mostly) and punished vice (often).

What increasingly separated Anglicans from the competition was their stylistic flair. Good music, good smells, cultivated sermons preached to quality audiences: these, rather than low-Church evangelizing, made for a distinctive variety of Christianity. Fresh from the Oxford Movement in England, William Darling came to Toronto and gave Holy Trinity Canada’s first surpliced choir. He introduced other Anglo-Catholic refinements in the services and decorations, until his congregation found itself too distinctive, too elegantly serviced, for what was still a tough colonial culture. The result: in the early 1880s, William Darling was forced out of active involvement with Holy Trinity. He died in Italy in 1886.

His son, no less a stylistic innovator, endured a similar reckoning. After attending such elite enclaves as Trinity College School and Upper Canada College and fleeing a banking job that his father had arranged for him, Frank Darling began working in the Toronto architectural firm of Gundry and Langley in 1866. There he served the sort of gofer apprenticeship that constituted architectural training in the English-speaking world. By 1870, again moving up the ladder of colonial achievement, he joined the office of British architectural luminary G.E. Street (the Strand Law Courts). Toronto’s Anglican establishment supplied him with a number of commissions for Gothic Revival churches.

In 1882, the firm of Darling and Curry won Ontario’s first international architectural competition. The commission for the new provincial legislative buildings at Queen’s Park was theirs. The firm had come up with a grand Gothic complex, more intense in its decorativeness than Thomas Fuller’s new Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. The drawings display a vision of legislative politics as a secularized civic religion.

Sadly, the legislature, composed mainly of small-town Scottish farmers and businessmen, would have been more at home costing threshing machines than running an international architectural competition. The Gothic buildings seemed, well, uplifting and inspirational and in every way suited to a political culture that kept its head bowed and its pockets filled. But something bad happened on the way to Queen’s Park. My hunches here supplement the spare historical records.

Would a largely Protestant, liberal, modernizing government really want to render its personal architectural statement in a style originating in cultural forces that were anything but Protestant, liberal and modern? If you were building an agricultural and engineering college, would you want it to look like Oxford? If you were putting up legislative lodgings for a province built upon the encouragement of resource exploitation, technologized agriculture and manufacturing capacity, would you want something that looked like a church? And a Roman church at that? The province had helped fight a war to keep the West from ever becoming Catholic and French-speaking. Should it meet in buildings that reminded its members of all those things?

Darling’s buildings were never started. The kind of wheeling and dealing that leaves no written record concluded when the government announced that it had never really meant what it said about Darling’s submission. No, it had been thinking all along about something else, something better ventilated (this last, a matter of record). The commission had in fact been handed to one of the judges in the botched competition, British-born Peter Waite, who practised in Buffalo, N.Y. The ethics by which he was selected would have been appropriate in the fo’c’sle of a pirate ship and shocked the nascent profession of architecture in Canada.

Amid the furor, and despite the fact that Kivas Tully, the provincial architect, had approved of Darling’s scheme and was a family friend and fellow Gothicist, Darling maintained a dignified silence. New plans went ahead, and the Richardsonian-Romanesque pink palace that may seem dated now, but was the very last word in up-to-dateness then, became the Ontario legislature. Henry Hobson Richardson, the American who adapted the Romanesque as the apotheosis of fin-de-siècle style, had himself beaten out Thomas Fuller’s firm for the capital buildings in Albany, N.Y., in a similar kind of switched decision. Gothic was Out, Romanesque was In. And Darling, ever a realist, later executed striking work in that same Richardsonian-Romanesque mode.

Still, he had taken a hit. The cultural wars that had marooned his father seemed to have harpooned him, too. But other battlefields lay ahead.

Classicism and Enlightenment
Skip years now, to the first decade of the 20th century, and consider the man whom the University of Toronto retained as its official architect. The Queen’s Park setback had not harmed Darling’s standing with the forces of cultural nationalism. Whatever botch the politicians had perpetrated took nothing away from his prowess; placing him on retainer guaranteed that the university would have at least one imagination of distinction to apply to the problem of following Frederick Cumberland’s masterpiece – now University College. It was inevitable that the university would expand.

But what exactly was it that was expanding? There stood the weird, compelling UC, with its tacked-on, New-World School of Chemistry (now Croft Chapter House) modelled on a 14th-century abbot’s kitchen. The bauble functioned as one of those out-of-the-way places where odd people, few of them gentlemen, did science. New structures arose, accommodating the scientific activities that were reshaping society and culture. An Ontario university that could not meet the demands of that new culture was going to become yet another training school for preachers and poets. New colleges stood on the campus, but those colleges had been financed by religious communities, each of which had its peculiar, uneasy relationship with science and what it was doing to the traditional ways of making sense of the world.

This seemingly put-together-without-a-kit university formed an alumni association only in 1900. It seemed to have just grown, and lacked even a common meeting place, since the hall that had been used for convocation was destroyed in the University College fire on Valentine’s Day 1890. What kind of campus was it anyway? Certainly not one that the provincial legislature supported lavishly, or at times even willingly.

Slowly, the idea caught on that the university indeed needed someplace where everybody could sit down and listen to each other. Yet even then, a fight broke out. Put the building to the southwest of the university? Wouldn’t that block the view of the beloved UC, restored from fiery destruction after the conflagration of 1890? And even when those brush fires got tamped down, the new alumni association couldn’t raise all the money needed for a Convocation Hall, nor would the government provide any assurances.

We all know the end of the story: practically everyone reading this has had a degree conferred upon him or her in Frank Darling’s Convocation Hall. University historian Martin Friedland’s account of the intrigues that accompanied the beginnings of this Good Thing appeared in these pages in Spring 2000. Briefly, a mixture of bluff, bullying and log-rolling got government onside, and an alumni organization university-wide in its aspirations and loyalties (rather than denominationally based) helped by fundraising. When the building resulting from those labours opened in 1907, what did it say?

First, and above all, it spoke of University. In fact, its circular shape spoke of an inclusive university. Architectural historians discuss Darling’s debts to other similar structures, such as the Sorbonne theatre. What they may fail to mention, however, is that the very idea of centrality had gone missing at U of T. The spirit behind Con Hall kept U of T from devolving into a collection of colleges and schools. Convocation Hall stood in support of an evolutionary, modern, unitary ideal. How appealing that idea must have seemed at the beginning of the 20th century in a nation newly embarked upon creating a unified federal structure.

That modern ideal had been legislated into being by Queen’s Park in 1906. Bestowing upon the university a governing structure composed of an academic senate and a lay board of governors, the province had fitted the institution with a shape that would stay put until the 1970s. What historian Michael Bliss calls the “Golden Age” of the university would glow in the yellow brick that Darling favoured in his choice of materials. His Convocation Hall would be joined on its south side by a new home for physics (now the Sandford Fleming Building). The combination of the two would provide an impressive sweep, even though the gridded, block-long brevity of an uncurved street (King’s College Road) occluded much of that sweep when a visitor entered from the south.

Two features – dome and pillars, top and support – bring home the inclusive statement that Darling’s Con Hall proclaims. Pillars bespeak classicism, the classicism that by Darling’s time had been decoupled from its religious underpinnings and been turned into the emblem of the inquiring secular intellect. A questing 20th century would uncover a broad band of the irrational underlying classical culture, but for Darling and his public the pillars represented an austere, fearless, restlessly inquiring spirit that was quintessentially Greek.

Domes recall temples, mosques, cathedrals. That is, they call forth a universal religious impulse, a religious aspiration as akin to Thomas Jefferson’s one-God-at-most deism as it is to Italian architect Gianlorenzo Bernini’s exuberant baroque Catholicism. The inquiring spirit sits beneath the inclusive circle of the dome, inviting all to a feast of reason. Convocation Hall solemnly proclaims the aspirations of the modern university, and the remnants of the homage it paid to reason inspire us still.

It is as if Darling had swept aside the gnarled, decorated verve of the Gothic and thrown himself instead into a spirit more austere and less sensuous. He went on to design Trinity College, its ornamentation turning religion into a matter of style rather than consequence, the stuff of book jackets rather than psalteries. Something had been left behind: the Gothic-as-belief-system that had powered the Gothic Revivalists, but had now vanished from the serious world.

The banks became Darling’s greatest patrons. His confectionary Bank of Montreal at the foot of Yonge Street (now the Hockey Hall of Fame) swaggers as a model for the banks he later created, often the sole piece of distinguished architecture to be found in small towns throughout the nation. Whatever architectural dreams came to be in those small towns, Darling dreamed them first.

But his Convocation Hall interior rests, finally, on something more than dreams: it reproduces a symmetry found throughout nature, but especially north of the 49th parallel. Look if you will at the plan for the interior, the seating where you perched and counted the number of people to be graduated before your moment of fame arrived. Then look at that interior plan’s source in nature. It is a snow crystal. Can anyone conceive of a more Canadian design?

The dream of reason can be madness, as Goya told us. But for a moment, in Convocation Hall, the dream of a unified and inclusive system of education rests upon the associative, binding qualities of a snowflake. What could be warmer and more sensuous in a cold country?

Professor emeritus of English Dennis Duffy (MA 1962, PhD 1964) is indebted to Susan Bellingham of the University of Waterloo library for research assistance.

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  1. One Response to “ As Canadian as a Snowflake ”

  2. david ruddock says:

    I would like to contact Professor Duffy to let him know about Nicholas Ruddock's debut novel, The Parabolist, just released by Doubleday.

    Nick graduated from medicine at the U of T three years before I did, and Dennis was a friend and colleague of our father William, who features fairly prominently in the novel. Incidentally, the novel is set on campus in 1975.