Harold is remembered in the history of Canada as the founder of the first university planning program in the country, at McGill University, but his legacy extends far beyond the campus, and even beyond the legion of luminaries he trained. He left his mark on the landscape of every province through his work in the preparation of municipal plans, on planning legislation, in urban design work, and in the creation of urban artistic installations.
Harold Spence-Sales was born to luxury in Lahore, India, educated in architecture at Victoria College, Wellington, New Zealand, and sent to be “finished” at the Architectural Association in London where he studied town planning. With fellow student John Bland, later to become Director of the School of Architecture at McGill, he established a very successful planning and architectural practice in London, meanwhile winning several competitions. During WWII he worked as a “designated person” seeking out and designing sites for factories for war materials, and later on, reconstruction schemes.
Lured to McGill in 1946, he joined John at the School of Architecture and immediately began setting up a post-graduate program in planning, one in which students registered in the department of their undergraduate degree, and did their studies under his tutelage. Studio work was at the heart of the course of studies, and usually focused on the current interests of Harold.
At this time it was assumed that faculty in professional fields would supplement their income by practice: indeed their meager salaries demanded it. Harold’s students were thus exposed to a whole range of very real projects: revision of the Planning Acts of Alberta and Newfoundland, setting up planning structures for cities such as Vancouver and Edmonton, municipal plans or central area redevelopment schemes for Prince Albert, Sudbury, Cornerbrook, Sept-Iles, the Town of Mount Royal, Charlottetown, Edmonton, Vancouver, Westmount, Beaconsfield and Montreal. Some of these were undertaken in collaboration with John. New towns were planned and built, including Preville (now in Saint-Lambert, Quebec) and Oromocto in New Brunswick.
Harold was passionate about aesthetics, both in the built environment and in landscape. His design methods started with learning the shape and feel of the land to be developed. He would become totally absorbed by the form, texture, colour, drainage patterns and vegetation, and long before ideas about “plan with nature” were articulated, he was teaching environmental sensitivity. His writings include How to Subdivide (1949), A Guide to Urban Dispersal (1956) and Beautifying Towns (1967).
For the McGill campus, he insisted on the planting of the linden trees along the front drive, having foreseen the death of the founder’s elms through dutch elm disease. He also organized the then random parking into tucked-away boxes, and secretly engineered the death of the ginko tree that masked the founders tomb and the magnificent façade of the Arts building. He was well known as a witty, provocative and sometimes outrageous habitué of the Faculty Cub, along with his friends Frank Scott, Jim Mallory, Kenneth Hare and others, and where a sketch of him by Arthur Lismer hangs in the second floor hallway.
In 1970 the circumstances of Harold’s life changed; he left McGill for British Columbia, with renowned artist, Mary Filer. Here his planning consultancy work continued to prosper, and his artistic work flourished. He started to focus more on new residential environments. He had always reminded his students that “suburbs are the cradle of civilization” and to be emphatic in their sound design. In association with the developer Genstar, he pioneered the design of ornamental storm-water retention ponds rather than heavy-duty engineering, both to save on costs and to embellish the landscape, while ensuring aquifer recharge.
His collaborative work with Mary resulted in many installations, often fusions of her brilliant glass work and his representations of urban and architectural form. One of these is in the lobby of Simon Fraser University’s downtown Vancouver campus. Recognition of his extraordinary talents led to him becoming a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners (1978), an Emeritus Professor at McGill (1987), and an Honorary member of the British Columbia Association of Landscape Architects (1998). With Mary, he was awarded an Honorary degree from Simon Fraser (1991) for his contribution to the arts. McGill offers a scholarship in his name.
Generations of Canadian planners have been influenced by his original thought and imaginative style of planning. He died in Montreal in 2004.
(Adapted mostly from material from Jean Wolfe and William Perks)