Evolving our foundations

Story and photos by Jack Neal

It is hard to ignore the eclectic style of McGill’s buildings. Whether it is the imposing limestone pillars that adorn the Arts Building or the clean-cut, grille-like exterior of Leacock, McGill boasts incredible architectural diversity. This, in part, is due to the university’s substantial history: Almost two hundred years of multiple shifts in architectural movements, designs, and individuals involved.
For students, these buildings exist as functional spaces in which they learn. However, for the architects, they are works of art influenced by the social, political, and economic climate of their time. These buildings represent a window into McGill’s history, acting as a physical reminder of the past. Each building was meticulously designed to address a particular need related to its time of construction.

The first buildings erected on campus during the mid 1800s were inspired by a revival of Greek and Roman architecture, emphasizing lineage and order. Among these structures include the Arts Building, designed by John Ostell as the face of McGill. The intricate stonework on the exterior, accentuated by its modest roof, provides the Arts Building with a dominant presence on campus. Other details such as the Tuscan Columns supporting the grand portico further the building’s portrayal of Greek and Roman décor.
While revered today for its aesthetically pleasing symmetry and revival of classic architecture, the Arts Building suffered serious architectural flaws at the time of its opening. According to McGill’s historical archives, “The [Arts Buildings’] roof began to leak, the rooms were cold and dimly lit, there were numerous rats in the walls, and several windows were broken.”

The ornate interior that the Arts Building is now known for is actually due to a refurbishment that took place during the late 1920s—80 years after its initial construction. Through this transformation, the new architects were able to realize the original vision for the building, where additions such as black columns and a pink Tennessee marble floor provided the interior with its intended grandeur.

McGill’s refined Classicism, however, was quickly interrupted with the Brutalist architectural movement in the 1960s, where the rigid silhouettes of Stewart Biology and McIntyre Medical Buildings dominated the Montreal skyline. The fancy ornamental designs that reigned up until the 1960s were now rejected by Brutalist architects as unnecessary and costly following the Second World War.
As a result, the new buildings constructed on campus focused on conveying simplicity, architectural honesty, and showcasing their raw materials. The smooth slabs of concrete that dominate Stewart Biology’s exterior, in the addition to the small, rectangular windows lacking décor, are all characteristic of this movement.

“[These buildings] reflect the desire to appear high-minded and serious,” said Sarah Moser, a professor in McGill’s Department of Geography. “Thus, institutions such as McGill University were keen to adopt it.”

Unfortunately, many of these Brutalist buildings resulted in overwhelming designs that are generally less welcoming than the preceding architecture. The imposing columns outside McIntyre Medical Building, for instance, obscure the entrance space. The structure’s take on the Arts Buildings’ portico—an exterior consisting of over 20 feet of concrete—is also much more utilitarian in its design.

Despite the differences in aesthetics in McGill’s architecture, these buildings all share a purpose. The differing styles in architecture should allow us to appreciate each building for its unique representation of Montreal’s society at the time of its construction. The Arts Building is just one example of the evolution of structures—and attitudes towards these designs—on campus. Considering the differing opinions surrounding the buildings’ aesthetic appeal, it raises the question as to why most students attribute higher value to the Arts Building over the Brutalist structures. Is it to distance ourselves from the unappealing architecture of Stewart Biology Building, or rather a rejection of the culture that designed it? It will be interesting to see where we stand in relation to these buildings in another 60 years.