The Ottawa Citizen, Monday, November 10, 2008
Jim Strutt, who died Saturday aged 84, was a prolific architect whose adventurous and expressive buildings include the Canadian Nurses Association headquarters on The Driveway and a series of houses in the Gatineau Hills.
Inspired by Buckminster Fuller, father of the geodesic dome, Mr. Strutt devoted his career to exploring non-standard geometries and structure. He contributed to the advancement of architecture in Canada through research and development of innovative structure, weight-efficiency ratios and space frames. “From round-plan homes, to rhombi-shaped yacht clubs to hexagonal recreational facilities, his enthusiasm was a powerful force to be reckoned with,” says Titania Truesdale, an intern architect who is writing a book about him.
Light and airy, Mr. Strutt’s houses feature flowing spaces, large expanses of glass and distinctive undulating roofs. The nurses’ building sits in a park-like setting and is best known for its skylight shaped to resemble a nurse’s cap. Mr. Strutt designed and built the first wooden hyperbolic paraboloid roof in Canada for his own house on Mountain Road in Aylmer. (A hyperbolic paraboloid is a series of straight lines at progressively changing angles that generate a curved form.) He was interested in lightweight structures and creating spans with a minimum of material.
The house was the scene of some great parties hosted by Mr. Strutt and his late wife, Audrey. “It was not uncommon to have members of Parliament, including then-prime-minister Trudeau, attend these events of strawberries and champagne with most or all ending up diving into the cliff-edge pool,” says Ms. Truesdale.
James William Strutt was born in Pembroke on January 8, 1924 and raised in the Glebe. After graduating from Ottawa Technical High School he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942, at age 18, and served as a pilot during the Second World War. He was based on Canada’s East Coast and his duties included escorting merchant marine ships to convoys across the Atlantic Ocean, and searching for German submarines.
When the war ended he entered the University of Toronto. His first choice, aeronautical engineering, was full so he attempted mechanical engineering. Bored by it, he took the last place left in the architecture school.
“I had no idea I would enjoy myself so much,” he said in a 2006 interview. When Buckminster Fuller came to speak at the university, Mr. Strutt became intrigued by the possibilities of shapes like hexagons and tetrahedrons, and attracted to the ethics of enclosing space with less material. He and Mr. Fuller became friends.
“He was very open emotionally,” his son David Strutt, 52, recalled yesterday. “He would embrace people. He was quick to make friends and he was very trusting.”
At school he also met legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright and was influenced by the American’s organic architecture, which harmonized with the landscape and used natural materials.
From 1969 to 1986, Mr. Strutt taught at Carleton’s architecture school and served a stint as its director (beginning in 1977). Here, he conducted research into non-orthogonal geometry and computerized design.
Later, with mechanical engineer Bill Dawson, he developed an earthquake- and hurricane-resistant building system that was used in the 1997 Canadian embassy in Algiers, and in small houses in places like Colombia, Turks and Caicos, Peru, El Salvador and Sudan.
“He was extremely creative, yet so humble,” Mr. Dawson, 85, said yesterday. “He never lost his temper. He was always calm, and terribly honest. If any question came up on income tax he would give in favour of the government. That was typical of the way he dealt with people.”
Mr. Dawson recalled their dismay at being offered cocaine in Colombia as payment for a project. “We wouldn’t even dream of doing that.” Mr. Strutt’s life’s work—more than 5,000 drawings—are in the collection of Library and Archives Canada.
Five of his Ottawa designs are listed as heritage buildings: The Fischer House on Pleasant Park Road (1962); the Westboro beach pavilions (1966); the Canadian Nurses Association Headquarters Building (1969); and St. Mark’s Anglican Church (1954) on Fisher Avenue.
His Uplands Airport Terminal building (1958) was one of the first postwar government projects to combine architecture and art (the sculptures of Louis Archambault), and his technical solution for the air controller’s uninterrupted view has become a standard for airport control towers.
He also contributed to the lively architecture of Expo ’67 with a design for the Plaza de las Américas.
The father of four loved politics, music and art, and counted prominent Canadian artists such as Jack Shadbolt, Michael Snow, and Eleanor Milne among his friends.
“He played a mean boogie woogie on the piano,” says Ms. Truesdale. For the past five years Mr. Strutt has lived with bone marrow cancer.
Arrangements for a funeral and memorial service are pending.