Robert Fairfield, architect
Robert Fairfield, a noted Canadian architect from Toronto, left his architectural mark on Stratford. First, he designed the original Stratford Festival tent in 1953. And then, four years later, he designed the permanent Festival Theatre building that opened in the summer of 1957. He also designed the British Mortgage and Trust Building at 1 Ontario St. in 1962.
We all know the story of Tom Patterson (see Delamere Avenue) and his role in bringing a Shakespearean festival to Stratford. What is less well-known is that Robert Fairfield designed the festival which was manufactured in Chicago and shipped to Stratford. Here, it was raised under the supervision of Roy (Skip) Manley, (see Queen Street), an American who had worked all over the Americas as a tent-master, much of the time with the Ringling Brothers circus company.
Tom Patterson retold this story in his book First Stage, of a meeting in December 1952 between Tyrone Guthrie (see Guthrie Avenue) and Bob Fairfield. Guthrie had already met several architects from Toronto, who pretended to know everything about theatre building, but understood nothing about the thrust stage designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch (see Queen Street), modelled on the original Globe Theatre in London England, that eliminated the separation between performer and audience.
Guthrie was not impressed. Then, by chance, Guthrie called an old friend that he had worked with years before, Dr. Ned Corbett, who now lived in Toronto. When they met over drinks, Corbett mentioned his daughter had just married a young architect named Bob Fairfield.
Patterson and Guthrie took a chance and met the young architect. They talked of the weather, avoiding the real purpose of the meeting. Finally, Fairfield blurted out: “Hey, I don’t know what you’ve got me here for, because I don’t know the first damned thing about building theatres.” Guthrie pointed his finger at the young architect and exclaimed, “You’re hired.” That was early December 1952; they would open the Festival in early July 1953; As Patterson recalled, “There was no time to dither around.”
There were many meetings both on and off site with the building committee, the builder, Oliver Gaffney (see Queen Street) the directors and stage designer.
Bob Fairfield had imagination, and unlike other architects Guthrie had talked to, he actually listened to Guthrie and Moiseiwitsch and was not bound by pre-conceived notions. He designed the whole tent around the stage, the bowl/amphitheatre and everything else. The only major difference between the original tent designed by Fairfield and the permanent building he later designed that was completed, despite Stratford being in the middle of a snow belt, after the conclusion of the 1956 summer season and in time for the 1957 season, was the addition of a balcony.
Fairfield’s design for the permanent theatre was adapted from the original tent. The design was circular, as was the tent, and the dramatic “pie-crust roof" echoed the folds of the canvas “roof” on the tent. The permanent building was dedicated on Sunday, June 30, 1957, and the next night the theatre was officially opened with Michael Langham’s production of Hamlet, with Christopher Plummer in the starring role. (see Christopher Plummer Drive)
On July 12, 2002, at the commencement of the Theatre's 50th anniversary celebrations, the Stratford Theatre Corp. officially recognized Robert Fairfield as the designer first. of the tent, and then, the landmark Festival Theatre.
Though Fairfield had died in 1994, Stratford's artistic director in 2002, Richard Monette, (see Richard Monette Way), paid homage to “his stunning and radical design” at a large gathering of Stratford dignitaries and friends in the Festival's new riverside Marquee Room. Many responsible for creating the Stratford Festival, including Tom Patterson, attended the 50th anniversary celebration and the commemoration of the first productions of Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well -- staged in the big tent.
Fairfield has been described as a “saint” and a “saviour,” and praised for his talent and his efforts at getting the thrust stage and the bowl/amphitheatre seating designed and built within a tent for that first production of Richard III in July 1953. The success of the first season was sufficiently strong for the corporation to proceed with a permanent theatre. It was Fairfield's imagination that led to adapting the tent-like form for the permanent theatre building, completed in time for the 1957 season. In 1958, Fairfield was awarded the Massey Gold Medal for Architecture.
Today, visitors and theatre patrons can view a commemorative plaque in the Festival Theatre lobby honouring Fairfield's contributions. Though Fairfield designed one of the most innovative and striking architectural compositions of the mid-2oth century, he is not well known in Canada as an architect. But his vision is greatly respected.
Thanks to Bob Fairfield and the insight of Tyrone Guthrie, who hired a young unknown and unpretentious architect, Stratford’s Festival Theatre remains one of the iconic architectural gems of the mid 20th century.
The following article provides further detail of Fairfield’s life and work with photos of many of the buildings he designed. Fairfield and DuBois Compiled by Gord Conroy