Architect & Teacher
Published, EAC Communiqué, December 1987
You’ve lived in Elora since 1969- you’ve witnessed and been an active part of a great many changes.
Of course Mill Street, as it appears today, simply didn’t exist. It was a virtual ghost town. A slum. Where the Yarn Bird is now, a dead African Violet sat in one window and the back of an old TV in the other. Aileen Harris bought the old brick building closest to the Mill and I bought and renovated the building that now houses The Desert Rose. No one could understand why.
It certainly must have changed the complexion of the places at the time.
Elora was beautiful before Mill Street was “cleaned up” but ironically there were few of us who thought so. Acceptance by the village was a long time in coming. There was then and still is now a very legitimate concern as to just how the village should grow. There are signs now that promote us as “Ontario’s Beautiful Village”. You can bet that anyone who can make money off this beauty will be here to capitalize on it – people who feel no responsibility to the village as a whole. It’s a matter of values – yours and mine – what happens in the future.
As an architect who could make a contribution visually, where do you see the responsibility for the village?
Because of the way the Ontario Association of Architects dictates how an architect can legally function, it is nearly impossible for me to serve in a professional capacity on as many projects as I would like. With the things I’ve done I’ve tried to get in touch with “the spirit” of the place and work within that context. When my son was small I worked out for him a simple definition of what an architecture is: “The point of architecture is to help people build houses they enjoy as their homes and the people of the Village can enjoy as part of their bigger home.” There’s that dual responsibility, the content and the context. A home within a home, not a house within a house. In respect to this, as an architect I cannot compromise my responsibility to Elora. I have to live with my reputation.
It sounds like there is a vast difference between building a house and designing a home.
Definitely. Again, I believe a “home” implies responsibility and care and the establishment of values before cost. That’s an ideal. The mentality of most of today’s purchasers leads me to the observation that they don’t want a home so much as they want a short-term investment. Most houses today are not designed to be valued or taken care of but rather to simply give an impression – one that the bank will buy. This superficiality, unfortunately, is what sells best.
And where does good design and aesthetics come into the picture?
That’s the other side of the coin: a good design is the best that can sell. I have files full of beautiful drawings but unless they get built …? Of course, beauty is a matter of taste but there is such a thing as “good taste”. Most people are accustomed to just wanting to be “fashionable”- fashion is superficial and often very temporary. Good taste has more to do with style and grace and longevity. In my research on the Orient I’ve come to fully appreciate their way, which is this: a thing is least beautiful when new and only gains beauty with age – a process whereby that thing is caressed with the eyes and the hands – it is that care that makes it finally and truly beautiful.
Is this good taste a matter of luck or education?
Probably both. Most people are not aware of how their taste, “good” or “bad” has been formed. To a great degree the media controls our tastes; just as we are persuaded to buy a certain cola, so are we influenced as to what’s merely “fashionable” in terms of our environment. Despite this, if a child grows up in surroundings that are cared for and worth admiring, that person is more likely to appreciate his surroundings, and place them in higher priority. Most people, for whatever reasons, are not willing or interested in putting the care or thought into their houses.
Is good taste expensive?
Not necessarily. A house can be very impressive in a visual sense and still not be a home. “Home” also has to do with the mythology that surrounds it, the depth of feeling that comes as a result of familiarity and a certain timelessness. A patina.
Sounds like love!
Yes, for an architect building a home has to be a work of love – it’s a losing proposition financially. Now, my own home – we’ve been here 17 years and we are still working on that patina. Of course we plan on being here for a very long time.
What do you see in Elora’s future?
There is an inherent danger in being “Ontario’s Beautiful Village”. We don’t want to become a “Disneyland” do we – or do we? Again, It’s a matter of values – yours and mine.
by Susan Larabee, December 1987
Elora was beautiful before Mill Street was “cleaned up” but ironically there were few of us who thought so.
UPDATE – 1997
The property owned by the Thompsons on Mill Street West, Elora, was badly damaged by fire in 1990. Its restoration, effected with quality, attention to detail and loving care, reflected more than words the convictions expressed by Fred Thompson in the above interview.
Fred Thompson still lives in Elora, and says he continues to watch new developments in the light of his original interview.