Assoc. Prof. Janine Debanné leads updates to Barbara A. Humphreys Memorial Reading Room

January 4, 2023

In 2020, the Azrieli School of Architecture & Urbanism received a generous gift in honour of Barbara Humphreys, BArch, MRAIC, an architect, architectural writer, historian, teacher, female role model, and pioneer of heritage conservation in Canada.

Born in 1919 in Kelliher, SK, she died in Ottawa in 2017 at age 97.

Her husband, Douglas Humphreys, aged 102, and daughter Gwyneth made the gift, which has funded updates to Room 201 in the Architecture Building. Formerly the Technical Data Room or TDR, it has been renamed the Barbara A. Humphreys Memorial Reading Room. They imagined a contemplative reading room where architecture students could spend quiet times immersed in the pages of a book during their years at the school.

ASAU students reshelving books: Ava Appleby, Tiffany Basso, Samantha Hayes and Rachel Ferrington

Jill Stoner, the school director at the time of the gift, asked Associate Professor Janine Debanné to guide the renovation project. Barbara Humphreys had known her as a student, and in the 1980s, she hired Debanné to illustrate her column “How to Read a Building” in Heritage Canada Magazine.

Debanné guided the updates to the reading room, with input from school colleagues and her friend Kenneth Hayes, an architectural historian and carpet and modern furniture expert. She also designed the new bookcases and a sloped journals wall, constructed with care in the school’s woodshop by technicians Mark MacGuigan and Robert Wood.

The vision for the room was that of a casual and contemplative “reading garden.” The room is in three parts: arrival and journals under the mezzanine, lounge seating by the windows, and the bookcase wall, which reproduces the back-to-back row of bookcases of the original TDR.

In years past, books and journals were housed in elegant, tall, steel shelves designed in the early 2000s by architect Stefan Hensel, who taught at the school through the 1990s.

These shelves were removed when the mezzanine-level Nan Griffiths Memorial Seminar Room was constructed, but some were preserved. They have been re-installed along the southern wall. They hold new acquisitions, books organized by themes, and historical journals.

Two large trees, a Ficus and an orange tree, complement the room’s cinderblock walls and create a garden atmosphere. 

In recognition of Barbara Humphreys’ commitment to architectural heritage, the furniture choices speak to the building’s era. Designed by Carmen Corneil with Jeffrey Stinson in the late 1960s and completed in 1972, it is a timepiece that straddles the sixties and seventies.

The new primary desk seating is a classic beech-plywood DSC 106 stacking chair, designed by Giancarlo Piretti for Castelli in 1965, and still in production by Anonima Castelli in Northern Italy. It has a frankly constructivist mix of elements that resemble traditional drafting furniture.

Two vintage Saghi lounge chairs by Kazuhide Takahama for Simon Gavina, designed in 1971, sit as a pair under the western window. Their low profile is a nod to the David Rowland 40/4 stackable lounge chair that at one time filled The Pit. 

Six Pelicano chairs, red in colour, and a matching table, designed in 1975 by Luigi Saccardo for Arrmet, provide a pop of colour.

Choosing a sitting chair was a challenge, says Debanné. The room is tall but not large, and it was important to provide sufficient comfortable seating for a small gathering. The Marcel Breuer Lounge chair, designed in 1929 but still produced by Knoll, offered an excellent solution. It is a classic example of an early Modern cantilevered chair. Upholstered in Knoll’s “paprika” fabric, the chairs bring warmth and colour to the room.

Barbara Humphreys enjoyed weaving, and it seemed appropriate to choose soft furnishings that accentuated craft values. The handmade carpets selected for the room include a large oval antique American rag rug and a Shahsevan hand-dyed, wool runner. 

Starting in the new year, students will staff the Barbara A. Humphreys Memorial Reading Room for regular hours, making it accessible again with an extended selection of books and periodicals.