Fonds John Bird
1942-1992, predominant 1954-1992
The John Bird fonds is concerned, for the most part, with 24 architectural projects produced from about 1954 to 1992. These works include housing and commercial projects, industrial buildings, branch bank buildings, and religious architecture. Projects represented in the Archive that highlight Bird's work and career are described below. The numbers in parentheses, such as (#01), refer to related documents in the inventory.
Although Bird's independent output is relatively small, it is nevertheless noteworthy as exemplifying well-designed, "classic" International Style to late modern architecture, including several interesting modernist interventions into pre-war buildings. Bird's sure grasp and efficient deployment of the principles of modern architecture are evident his experiments with new construction techniques and building materials, applications of clear, functional planning, and features such as large column-less spaces enclosed by light, volumetric forms, ribbon windows and glass curtain walls.
Many of the architect's early commissions were for single-family residences for private clients and for the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Formed in 1946, the CMHC's mandate through the 1950s and early 1960s was to provide Canadians with quality, affordable dwellings. The small house designs by Bird (#05) were in response to the Corporation's call on Canadian architects to furnish suitable housing plans for public consumption. The archive documents include sketches, working drawings and correspondence between Bird and the CMHC's plan selection committee.
Bird's first large project was the office and factory building for Canadian Technical Tape Ltd. in a growing industrial-commercial sector of Ville St. Laurent (#04). Constructed in 1955, the plant consists of an one-storey factory with a clear-span interior space, fronted by a two-storey office block faced with a well-proportioned curtain wall of glass, aluminum and red porcelain-enamel panels. The design rationally accounts for difficult site conditions and practical operations, and facilities future expansions by cladding the factory walls with easily-movable, pre-cast concrete panels. The building in fact was enlarged by Bird several times (#04 and #20). The two-storey main entrance lobby of the office block featured a segmented spiral staircase attached to a second-floor connecting bridge. The back wall of the lobby was decorated with a prominent abstract mural of stone mosaic by artist Adrien Vilandre.
The Toronto-Dominion Bank, an institution eager to modernize and expand in the post-war economic boom, hired Bird for the purpose (often in association with Toronto architects McCauge & Sagan) between 1959-1992. Bird designed several new branch buildings with the same clean-lines and clear planning he used in the Canadian Technical Tape Building. The small T-D bank built in Ville Saint Laurent in 1960-1961 (#08) displays the same predilection for open interior space and aluminum and glass curtain wall.
Also for the T-D Bank, Bird produced a number of renovations of older buildings in the central Montreal area. The first remodeling job was the T-D bank on Saint James Street (now Saint Jacques) in Old Montreal in 1959 (#07). For the bank building at the corner of Bleury and Saint Catherine Streets (#13 and #22), Bird modernized and enlarged it into the neighbouring Blumenthal Building. Documents for this project contain period photographs of the original banking hall (constructed 1927, Jerome Spence, architect). Other projects include renovating and enlarging the small bank constructed in 1909 at the corner of Saint Laurent Boulevard and Prince Arthur Street (#23), and a study of the building envelope of the bank built in 1908 at the corner of Saint Catherine and Guy Streets (#24). Both of these buildings were early works by Montreal architects Ross & MacFarlane.
Bird's most innovative modernist intervention into an existing building was the renovation of Saint Gabriel's Church (#06) in 1959-1960. Designed by architects Maurice Perrault & Albert Mesnard, Saint Gabriel's was built in Montréal's Pointe Saint Charles district in 1891-1895, but was gutted by fire in 1956. Bird preserved the building's exterior stone walls as a non-supporting envelope, and inserted a secondary structure of laminated wood columns to support a new roof. An exceptional project for the period, it was nominated for a Massey medal for architecture in 1961.
Bird's next church design anticipated the decrees of Vatican Council II (1962-1965), which would emphasize the need of Increased congregational participation within the church. In January 1962 Bird was commissioned by the anglophone parish of Saint Barbara (founded in 1957) to build a new church complex in Ville LaSalle. Eventually named Saint John Brebeuf (#12), the church and rectory were built in 1963-1965, and although working plans were prepared for a social hall and bell tower, these were not completed due to insufficient funding.
St. John Brebeuf Church demonstrates the ability of modern architecture to adapt to unprecedented client demands by going beyond traditional building types and plans. Principally, to incorporate a closer relationship between the congregation and the rites of worship, Bird devised a column-free, circular-planned church, which allowed the pew benches to be grouped nearer to the sanctuary. Covered with a 130-foot diameter dome, the unimpeded space was formed by a concrete structure of 24 thin-shelled beams cast on site. The 70-foot long units were anchored by concrete buttresses at the base and joined at the roof by a concrete compression ring. Bird also designed the church furniture, including an austere altar that was placed forward in the sanctuary so the priest could face the worshippers during mass.
Bird's final religious commission, Saint Thomas à Becket Church (#17), was constructed in Pierrefonds for the only English-speaking Catholic parish on Montreal's north shore in 1968-1969. The project included a church, social hall and rectory grouped around a sheltering courtyard, similar to the plan of the St. John Brebeuf ensemble, but with very different, almost vernacular designed buildings. Again concerned with the liturgical reforms of Vatican Council II, Bird housed the church and social hall in separate but equivalent twin buildings. Physically connected with a meeting lounge, the buildings were both constructed of roughly-textured, exposed concrete walls with high-pitched, laminated wood-frame roofs covered in cedar shingles. The materials and forms closely tied the church and hall to the site and were ideal for the suburban, semi-rural setting.
Also of note concerning religious architecture, the inventory contains documents related to Bird's involvement with a research committee for Saint Patrick's parish in Montréal. The study, which took place in 1966-1968, followed an inquiry by Du Pont of Canada to purchase land around Saint Patrick's Church on Dorchester Boulevard (now boul. René Lévesque).
The John Bird fonds is organized into the following 3 series :
S1. Architectural projects
S2. Personal documents
Series S1 contains an inventory of 24 architectural projects by Bird. Series S2 contains two items - a portfolio of works probably created by the architect, and a photograph of architectural students at McGill University. Series S3 contains primarily publications with articles or advertisements related to the work of Bird.
John H.R. Bird (b. Montréal, 1923; d. Montréal, 2008) attended elementary and secondary schools in Montréal. He graduated with a B. Arch. from McGill University's School of Architecture in 1949. During his studies and for a period afterwards Bird worked for the Montréal firm of Mayerovitch & Bernstein, from 1944 to1951.
In 1951 Bird began a private practice in Montréal. He created his most notable independent work between 1959-1969 in a number of religious buildings for Catholic parishes in Montréal and suburbs (in 1953 Bird converted to Catholicism). In 1969 the architect closed his office to work for various Montréal companies. From 1969-1974 Bird was the architect to the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority, then he moved on to become chief architect for T. Pringle & Son Ltd. between 1974-1977. Bird joined Quésult Ltée., Montréal, as head of the architectural department for Algerian projects from 1977-1979, and then became an architectural consultant in the firm of Jacques Béïque Architecte from 1979-1982. He re-opened a private practice in 1983, and went into semi-retirement in 1994.
Documents are in English and French.
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