John Leaning – architect and author

By David Pritchard

Most people who know John Leaning would agree that he wears his many achievements lightly. It is not widely known, for instance, that he is a recipient of the Bletchley Park Commemorative Badge, granted to the men and women who took part in the breaking of the German Enigma code, the greatest secret operation of the Second World War. Nor is it widely recognized that as a young man he worked in the office of the great French architect, Le Corbusier, and later met Frank Lloyd Wright. These are only minor footnotes in a distinguished career as architect, planner, educator and author that has encompassed not only Ottawa but countries as diverse as Tanzania, India and Bolivia.
leaning_grove hotel
John Leaning was born in London, England in 1926, where he grew up in a succession of drab lower-middle-class suburbs. In his unpublished autobiographical memoir “The Grasshopper’s Dream,” he describes his eccentric family and forebears, who included characters as diverse as a 14th century brothel-keeper, Saint Thomas More, and a tutor to Queen Victoria’s children. Leaning’s own parents had slipped into poverty and there was little spare money in the house. A wealthy aunt paid for him to go to a private school. He had decided to become an architect by the age of 10, and after completing his education, began work as an architectural assistant.

In 1944, Leaning was called up for military service. Fate decreed that he would be sent to Hanslope Park, an outpost of Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, where British code-breakers were deciphering German military signals. The huge project, which employed several thousand people, was so secret that Leaning was transferred into MI6 and made to sign the Official Secrets Act. His first job was to draft plans of electric circuits, which he afterwards learned were for the Mark2 version of the Colossus machine, the precursor of the modern computer. Later, as unit surveyor, he plotted vast banks of radio aerials that stretched over five miles of the surrounding countryside.

At the end of the war, Leaning left MI6, and after an unhappy spell in London, entered the Liverpool School of Architecture in 1949. The next few years were important in his life, for he met and courted his beautiful Swedish wife, Blenda, to whom he has now been married for over 60 years. He also became a Quaker – a faith that he acknowledges as the moral bedrock of his personal and professional life. His career took him to Sweden, where he worked in Stockholm and Malmö.

In 1955, the Leanings decided to immigrate to Canada. It was not a particularly easy transition, especially since Blenda and their infant son, Anthony, had to be left behind in England. As Leaning wryly states in “The Grasshopper’s Dream,” “to really appreciate this country, its quirks, its ugliness, its peculiarity, its vastness and diversity, one should enter it the hard way – by boat, as an immigrant, with as little money as possible.” Yet his first impressions of Canada, of which he knew almost nothing, were unexpectedly pleasant. He was delighted by the francophone culture of Quebec, which allayed his fears that Canada would be little more than a colder, quasiAmerican version of his native country. The next few years were spent near Montreal, where the Leanings rented an ancient cottage on the banks of the St. Lawrence while he continued his studies at McGill University.

In 1958, Leaning was offered the post of Chief Architect to the National Capital Commission (NCC) that, under the direction of the renowned French planner, Jacques Greber, was beautifying and developing the Ottawa region. Years of neglect and economic depression had left the city’s central core rundown and decaying, and a major effort was required to turn it into a worthy capital for Canada. During the decade in which he worked for the NCC, Leaning oversaw many important projects, including the planning of the Sparks Street Mall (1964) and the restoration of the MacKenzie King Estate. One of the most successful of these was the rehabilitation of Sussex Drive (1965), which previous planners had tried to clear of its old Victorian and Edwardian buildings. Despite their limited powers to stop private development, Leaning and his co-workers at the NCC were able to preserve much of central Ottawa, whilst establishing Gatineau Park, the Greenbelt and the landscaped pathways and gardens along the Rideau Canal.
The decades after he left the NCC in 1968 were extremely busy for Leaning. He began a private practice, lectured for many years at Carleton University and between 1980 and 1982, served as the Chief Architect of Canada Public Works. His many Ottawa projects during this period included the restoration of the East Block of Parliament, the Centretown Redevelopment Plan, the design of Confederation Square and the planning of campuses at Carleton and Ottawa universities. His extensive knowledge of Ottawa’s buildings led him to write Our Architectural Ancestry (1983), which traces the lineage of the city’s rich variety of architectural styles from the end of the 18th century to the 1920s. Illustrated with drawings by Lyette Fortin, a restoration architect with Parks Canada, the bookexplores a subject that most people in Ottawa had previously ignored. In a later and more substantial book, Canada’s Architectural Ancestry (1985), he applied a similar approach to the whole country.

The Leaning family’s connections with the Glebe date back to late 1957, when they bought the house on Third Avenue that remained their home until less than a year ago. At that time, says Leaning, the area was “regarded as a central area slum” and his decision to buy a house there mystified his fellow workers at the NCC. But he soon grew to love the neighbourhood and its eclectic mix of residents. “The quality of life in any place in the world is a function of one’s immediate surroundings and acquaintances. We had the good luck of finding the Glebe eminently compatible in both senses from the very beginning” (from The Story of the Glebe, 1999).

In the 1960s, Leaning and other community activists joined forces to “stop developers making the Glebe into Los Angeles.” Plans to widen and extend Carling Avenue (which at that time ran all the way to O’Connor) threatened to bisect the area and destroy its integrity. They founded the Glebe Community Association and after intense campaigning, the road proposal was dropped. Leaning, encouraged by former mayor Charlotte Whitton, prepared the Glebe Traffic Calming Plan, the first of its kind in Canada; it became the model for many similar schemes across the country. He was also involved in the successful battle to change the zoning bylaws after three residential tower blocks were built along the eastern side of the Glebe on Queen Elizabeth Driveway.

Leaning’s study, The Revitalization of Older Residential Districts (1970), uses the Glebe as a model for his theories on ethical and people-friendly planning. It emphasizes the need to preserve older housing and keep residential streets free of heavy traffic and highrise developments. Almost 30 years later, his The Story of the Glebe (1999) related the history of the community that his proposals at that time had helped save. The book traces the growth of the Glebe from uninhabited wilderness to fashionable suburb and examined its rich architectural heritage. In A Narrative History of Hintonburg-Mechanicsville (2002), Leaning performed a similar service for a very different neighbourhood, Ottawa’s first “streetcar suburb” and one of its earliest industrial centres. The book, with its stress on Hintonburg’s diverse historical and social background, contributed greatly to the ongoing revival of the west end.

As an inveterate traveller and explorer of different cultures, Leaning takes great pride in his work in developing countries on three continents and in Arctic Canada. His experiences often reinforced his belief that “the old ways were sometimes the best ways,” and confirmed that rigid planning policies, no matter how benevolent their intentions, often brought havoc to traditional communities. At Mvumi Ikulu in Tanzania – where Leaning led a Canadian development team between 1970 and 1972 – he saw five thousand Wagago people forcibly gathered into a new ujamaa (collective) village that was meant to offer schools, hospitals and clean water. Mismanagement by the officials in charge of the project resulted in few of these services materializing, leaving the inhabitants in a far worse situation than before. Eventually most of them abandoned the village and returned to their widely scattered settlements of mud huts.

Leaning’s many journeys inspired a series of five illustrated children’s books called The Travellers’ Dreams (1995-1997), originally compiled for his grandchildren and published under the pseudonym Boffin. The books, which follow the adventures of a group of mysterious travellers, showcase his considerable talents as a sketch artist and are enlivened by his quirky yet informative texts. The whole of Book 2 and much of Book 3 celebrate the natural beauty of Canada, from the west coast to Ottawa and then north to the pole. Book 4 is a colourful homage to India, a country that he had worked in and visited on several occasions with Blenda.

To conclude this brief profile of John Leaning, I should mention his annual architectural tours of the Glebe, which have given so much pleasure to people over the years. On these he has displayed the qualities that made him such a valued resident of our neighbourhood – wit, erudition, common sense and above all, humanity.

Glebe resident David Pritchard is an author who writes on Irish history and culture.

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