The email from Dave LeBlanc The Architourist columnist for the Globe and Mail (Canada’s national newspaper) arrived just as I was about to sit down at a lecture by well-known Toronto urbanist Ken Greenberg facilitated by the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery at the Walper Hotel in downtown Kitchener.
I fidgeted through the whole talk, turning the message over and over in my mind. Dave was asking me to give him an “architour” of the homes on Manchester Road, Kitchener that were featured in my recently released documentary film “Finding John Lingwood” about one of Waterloo Region’s leading modernist architects.
“I’m a total MCM (mid-century modern) nut”, wrote Dave. So, being an MCM nut too, we arranged to spend a day touring John Lingwood sites and talking about Waterloo Region’s rich stock of modernist buildings.
Here’s Dave’s column:
The first time I found architect John E. Lingwood, I wasn’t looking for him.
It was a photograph of a striking church in Images of Progress 1946-1996: Modern Architecture in Waterloo Region, a small publication put out in 1996 by the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery. Sadly, I turned the page and moved on.
For filmmaker Dwight Storring, finding the Modernist was a slow burn. Landing a job at The Kitchener-Waterloo Record in 1980, the Bancroft-born photojournalist unwittingly stepped into one of Mr. Lingwood’s major works, the Record’s 1973 building – a commanding brick bunker with stepped piers and thin windows – designed for owner John E. Motz. Thirty-five years later, Mr. Storring would begin research into the life and diverse career of John Edwin Lingwood (1923-96) and, by the end of 2018, release Finding John Lingwood, a 55-minute documentary that takes viewers on a similarly textured and meandering journey.
Mr. Storring is clearly a romantic. In the film’s voiceover, he states: “I’d come from small-town newspapers where broom closets doubled as darkrooms and journalists sat shoulder-to-shoulder with advertising sales staff. Over the next 25 years, I would come to know every square foot of that building: the echo of the stair-wells; the clunk of the freight elevator; the communal clatter of keyboards; and the rumble of the presses.”
The Fairway Road building has since been demolished, but Mr. Storring pays tribute via interviews with former president Paul Motz, who explains that the building’s materials, millwork and furniture were all locally sourced. “You had everything in town, there was simply no need to go out…even our boilers were made in Galt,” he says. Former publisher Wayne MacDonald calls the building “iconic.” Slow camera pans of period photographs accompanied by a sweeping, electronic soundtrack by Nick Storring certainly reinforce that status (and the fact that almost 15 minutes have gone by), so that, when the camera lands on the grassy field where the building once stood, the loss is palpable.
I’m sitting in Mr. Storring’s car looking at this same field, but it’s covered under a thick blanket of February snow. “Such a wonderful place to work,” he says, quietly, and then explains that the other building on this site, the Fairway Press building (which came first in 1967), also by Mr. Lingwood, was disassembled and moved to 101 Randall Dr. in Waterloo.
But I’m not here to discuss what’s gone; in operation for 36 years, the Lingwood office completed more than 700 projects, most in Waterloo Region, and, like in the film’s remaining 40 minutes, I’ve come to see what’s left.
John Lingwood grew up in Guelph. After attending Second World War flight training in Winnipeg (and just missing out on active duty), he attended the University of Manitoba to study architecture. In 1955, Mr. Lingwood, then 32, moved his family (three children then; one more would come later) from Detroit, where he’d been working as a draughtsman, to Kitchener to start his own practice. With the city baby-booming as much as the rest of Southern Ontario, the handsome architect found work easily, especially in the form of schools, churches and government buildings.
“He was operating in kind of a golden time,” Mr. Storring confirms as he points out the car window to a trim little building at the corner of Weber Street West and Ontario Street North that was built, originally, for a dentist. “He was a glamourous character and his wife was beautiful, and they entertained like crazy.”
In fact, his charm worked early: Two years after his arrival, he’d hook up with home builder Harold Freure, who’d been busying himself with tracts of standard postwar bungalows, to do something different on a 20-home patch of land on Manchester Road at River Road East. “They were ahead of their time; they weren’t easy to sell but we did sell them,” Mr. Freure explains in the film. “They were different on the exterior, different windows … they had the long, narrow brick, which John liked, we brought in a lot of that brick from the States … but he was always looking for different materials.
Passing through an unusual Frank-Lloyd-Wright-in-Japan style of gate, my hand reaches to trace the long bricks of the Manchester Road home Mr. Lingwood designed for himself at No. 414. While the Lingwood family no longer owns the place, current owners Jan and Basia Mytnik are rare birds in that they relish the original details, including Mr. Lingwood’s odd light panel sculpture just inside the front door, and the dark brown ceramic tile with “hieroglyphics” in the home’s great room (added 10 years later).
“She never wanted a new house,” Kamil Mytnik says of his mother. He explains that, before they bought the Lingwood home in 2001, they’d lived in a custom home where she’d been able to choose everything. “But new houses, they don’t have a soul, a character, so when she saw this place…”
As we’re leaving, the Mytniks say they’d like to build a carport someday, but only if it “looks like it has always been there.”
(In the film, the Mytniks are able to show Mr. Lingwood’s youngest daughter, Lisa Overton, her childhood home and tell her how much they cherish it.)
Earlier that day, Mr. Storring and I visited what former University of Waterloo architecture dean Eric Haldenby calls “one of the most extraordinary pieces of Modern architecture … in the country,” Carmel New Church (and school), which opened in 1962. While it’s the same church I saw years ago in that little publication, gazing upon the origami-like roof with my own eyes takes my breath away.
As assistant pastor Nathan Cole showed us around, I thought about how, as Mr. Lingwood articulated his own ideas about architecture and nature, he was also fulfilling the Swedenborgian church’s mandate as to the geometries and materials he was allowed to employ. The result, however, was a stunning success that’s been largely preserved; fittingly, Mr. Storring gives the subject almost 10 minutes of screen-time.
We wrap our tour with a drive-by of a Brutalist, former courthouse at 200 Frederick St., and a “polarizing” Postmodern 1991 bank at 381 King St. W. This variety of architectural styles, Mr. Storring says, made the Lingwood office interesting. To underline this, the film closes on John Lingwood’s final project, a massive, sprawling, columned Texas mansion for his daughter, Wendy Gray.
Cue the credits … and consider John Lingwood found.
Upcoming screenings of Finding John Lingwood: The Original Princess Cinema, 6 Princess St. W., Waterloo, March 17 @ 3:30 p.m. and March 19 @ 7:00 p.m. It will also be part of the Architecture + Design Film Festival Winnipeg this May.