Review of Bruce Anderson exhibition at the Gallery at Victoria Hall

When an architecture student was asked to explain how his building would fit into the surrounding neighbourhood, he replied, “First we destroy all man made objects.” This response was voted the one-liner of the year by the class of ’67, and although a little overstated, it very much reflected the spirit of the times.  It was a spirit that Westmount architect Bruce Anderson has resolutely kept at bay throughout his long and distinguished career.

Anderson’s design reflects a respect for, and sensitivity to, the work of those who came before him – work that has shaped the unique character of our community.  His homes are spacious, gracious, even palatial.  But the warmth and subtlety of their stone and brickwork, and of their slate or terra cotta roofs, always complement the environment, natural and man made, in which they are situated.  Small wonder that Mayor Peter Trent and many of our city councilors turned out in force to Anderson’s exhibition at the Gallery at Victoria Hall on March 2.

The event was bittersweet.  The photographs, hand drawn architectural plans and working drawings, were breathtaking.  The exquisite intricacy of Anderson’s handmade models and maquettes revealed overall harmony of his designs, viewed as a whole, from above.  They were, as one viewer commented, works of art in themselves.

The vernissage wine bore the label of the Andersons’ own cellar.  Every detail of the event spoke of a graciousness and genteel elegance of an era that may well be drawing to a close.

Bruce Anderson is equally an architect, an artist, a craftsman, an architectural historian, and an educator. Born into a family of educators (of whom he is clearly proud), Anderson began teaching architecture at McGill University as soon as he graduated from the program. He has an educator’s commitment to preserving knowledge, and an educator’s generosity and patience in sharing what he himself has learned. I asked him what inspired him to focus on traditional design, when so many of his colleagues were experimenting with new building materials and new forms that were correspondingly iconoclastic.  Without a moment’s hesitation, Anderson credited his professor and mentor, Peter Collins.  Collin’s belief that good architecture stems from the history of style, and what one reviewer calls his “deep sympathy for the classical spirit of the eighteenth century” infuses his fascinating book Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture. The book is appropriately available in the Westmount Library alongside City Houses & Country Estates : Traditions Maintained : the Residential Work of Anderson Architects.

In shaping the “Westmount look”, Anderson also credited the city’s stringent building regulations, which require walls of solid at least eight inch masonry and high quality roofing materials, and permit only one garage door to face the road.

He explained that locally available materials also played a role.  Although the warm, buff-coloured stone used around windows and doors has to be imported from Indiana, the bulk of the masonry is Quebec limestone and locally made brick.  In many cases, the stone is still used directly from the quarry, and dressed on site by master masons as it is laid.  There is a real sense in which Anderson’s houses, and the older houses that inspired him, have grown out of the very mountain of which they stand.

When I asked about the building regulations, particularly the masonry requirements, Anderson explained that they ensured the buildings were built to last.  In other words (mine), they are built to ensure that not only as an homage to the past, but also as a gift to future generations.

And yet, 21st century clients are testing the limits of traditional design.  In new houses and in renovations, they now require numerous bedrooms, “his” and “hers” bathrooms, clustered master suites and guest suites, indoor parking for multiple vehicles, open concept living spaces that require the elimination of traditional bearing walls.

Distressingly, Anderson did not mention that clients wanted greater sustainability, or that they want to reduce the carbon footprint of their dwellings.  There was no mention of green roofs or solar panels.  When I asked about these things, Anderson simply said that his work had not particularly focused on green design, and he agreed that it is, or has been, difficult to incorporate ecological technologies into traditional designs and traditional building materials.

And yet, perhaps it could be done.  Perhaps architects Thiago Valente and Mary Venditti who have rented the lower floor in the Anderson Architects’building,  4470 Sherbrooke Street West, to start their architecture firm, will address themselves to this challenge.

Or perhaps Diana,  Anderson’s daughter, who completed her training at McGill University and is a licensed architect and board certified in hospital architecture, in addition to a board certified internal medicine physician.

Certainly, Diana played a very active role in making the Victoria Hall Gallery exhibition so beautiful and so welcoming.

And Bruce Anderson himself continues to serve on the Planning Committee of the City of Westmount.  This, too, is a hopeful sign.


Brenda Linn

Westmount writer and educator

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