Peter Collins

His early life and career were marked by a series of geographical displacements. Born in England, Collins developed a passion for French architecture. During World War II, he joined the Yorkshire Hussars as a trooper and served as an intelligence officer in the Middle East and Italy.


Peter Collins

 Peter Collins, architect and architectural historian (b 13 August 1920 at Leeds, England, d at Westmount, Québec, 7 June 1981). One of Canada's foremost architectural educators of the 20th century, Collins taught courses and authored prize-winning publications that suggested a new way of understanding modernism.

His early life and career were marked by a series of geographical displacements. Born in England, Collins developed a passion for French architecture. During World War II, he joined the Yorkshire Hussars as a trooper and served as an intelligence officer in the Middle East and Italy. After the war he returned to Leeds to complete his architectural studies, then moved to Fribourg, Switzerland. There he worked in the office of Denis Honegger, a former student of Auguste Perret, who was a pioneering architect of reinforced concrete. In Paris, to which he returned frequently, he was employed by Pierre-Edouard Lambert, whose firm was working on the reconstruction of Le Havre. This large urban project was supervised by Perret. Collins later wrote an article about the reconstruction and became a leading authority on Perret.

Collins's move to Canada in 1956 was inspired by his marriage three years earlier to Ottawa native Margaret Gardner Taylor. He completed a masters from Manchester University in 1955 with a thesis on mid-18th century French architectural theory. His essay on the life and work of Jacques François Blondel, an 18th-century French architect, earned him a Silver Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1954. In 1955 a Fulbright scholarship took the young couple to Yale University, where Collins taught architectural history.

Most of his career was spent in MONTRÉAL. Collins taught at MCGILL University's School of Architecture from 1956 until his death. Known affectionately to his colleagues as "PC," Collins delivered sharp lectures matched by his high standards and near obsession with precise language. Likewise, his deep interests in hierarchy and heraldry were complemented by his conservative politics, insistence on formal dress and military-style punctuality. The highly charged architectural scene unfolding in 1960s Montréal was a subject to which he frequently turned as an architectural correspondent for The Manchester Guardian. Collins wrote about 20 articles for the British newspaper during the 1950s and 1960s, in addition to approximately 100 articles for major architectural magazines in Britain, Canada and the United States.

Perhaps Collins's most important legacies are his three books. Concrete, the Vision of a New Architecture (1959) focused on the work of Perret. Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture (1965), still widely read as a major text on modernism, first appeared serially in the magazine Canadian Architect and was also published in Italian and Spanish (both in 1973). It was in this text that Collins located the source of 20th-century ideals long before the development of the modern movement and of modern architecture.

Research for Architectural Judgment (1971) took Collins back to Yale as a student of law. Collins's deep interest in precedent, meticulously argued in this book comparing architecture and law, had a discernible impact on his critique of modernism. He admired buildings that relied on and set precedents, while he disdained those that were unique.

Collins's role as a major figure in the historiography of modernism is only now beginning to attract scholarly attention. Special issues of architectural journals (ARQ and Fifth Column) devoted to his work, the republication of two of his books, and a symposium held at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 1999 have nurtured new interest in his prolific career.


Further Reading

  • Peter Collins, Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture (1998).