The first President of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects and Town Planners, founded in 1934, was Gordon Joseph Culham. Culham was a CSLA founder: one of six men and three women who met monthly at Toronto’s Diet Kitchen for lunch under the apple trees. The Society they founded was instrumental in leading landscape architects and planners into the modern age.
Culham’s credentials were impeccable, writes researcher and professor Dr. Nancy Pollock-Ellwand. By the early 30s, Culham had already made an indelible mark in both professions in Canada and south of the border.
Born in Hamilton, he graduated from Ontario’s Agricultural College in Guelph, and instructed there before enlisting in the army in 1915. After the war, he bought a 20-hectare market garden, but in 1922, he boldly changed direction, winning entrance into Harvard’s inaugural Master of Landscape Architecture and City Planning program. While still a student, he was hired by the most prestigious landscape architectural firm in North America, the Olmsted Brothers, where he worked on such important projects as the Cloisters in New York City, and the State Capitol Grounds in Olympia, Washington. There, with the celebrated British town planner, Thomas Adams, and with Frederick Law Olmsted, he worked on the highest profile plan of the times, New York City’s Regional Plan.
Culham returned to Canada in 1929 to launch his own firm on the eve of the long Depression that took hold across North America, but he continued his professional association with the Olmsteds and took on their Canadian clients, notably Colonel John Maclean, publisher of Canadian Homes and Gardens magazine. Maclean not only commissioned major work on his mansion, his hobby farm and his native village of Crieff. Culham also wrote series of articles for Maclean’s magazine. It was Maclean who firmly launched Culham’s work with the University of Western Ontario, a professional relationship that lasted until the mid-60s, when the University awarded Culham an honorary degree. Over three decades, Culham sited the school’s greystone buildings into a beautiful natural landscape, managing trees, directing reforestation and erosion control, and opening up perspectives to the wooded river corridor.
For Culham, landscape architecture and planning were completely intertwined. For him, writes Dr. Pollock-Ellwand, both professions were “a livelihood and a high calling.” Gradually, Culham’s career shifted to urban concerns. He partnered with Norman Dryden, preparing volumes of planning documents for more than a dozen communities. The documents, fundamental in their influence, were an integral part of the post-war surge in urban planning, and the work of Culham and other advisors was important to Jacques Greber’s plan for the National Capitol region.
Gordon Culham was made a Fellow of the CSLA in 1964, the year the program began.
For short descriptions of selected projects, see The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s website
For Further Reading
Gordon Culham: living ‘a useful life’ through the professionalization of Canadian town planning and landscape architecture. Nancy Pollock-Ellwand. Planning Perspectives. Vol. 27, No. 4, October 2012, 587-609.
Lead photo: Gordon Culham in the 1950s
1 Members of the CSLA and their spouses in the 1940s. Left to right: Humphrey Carver, Douglas McDonald, Norman Dryden, Gordon Culham, Mary Carver, Frances Steinhoff, Edwin Kaye. Photography by Frances Blue. Reproduced from Cecelia Paine, ed. Fifty Years of Landscape Architecture: the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects 1934 – 1984, Proceedings of the 50th Jubilee Conference
2 Gordon Culham and Edwin Kay in the 1940s. Photograph by Frances Blue. Courtesy Cecelia Paine