Detlef Mertins: architect, historian, professor, writer, modernist (1954-2011)

Detlef Mertins, a pre-eminent historian and professor of modern architecture, died on January 13, 2011. He was 56. The cause of death was kidney cancer after a year-and-a-half illness, said his wife, Keller Easterling.

Dr. Mertins was an architect, a professor and a prodigious writer. Born in Stuttgart on October 14, 1954, he immigrated with his parents to Canada in 1960. Detlef grew up in a family where design, art, and music figured prominently; his mother worked for Knoll Furniture in Stuttgart and his father was an architect. His sisters Heike and Doris described Detlef’s contagious enthusiasm: “Walking through Toronto neighbourhoods, Detlef would eagerly point out building features and styles. Even before we could travel to Europe ourselves, we had already visited dozens of places with the help of Detlef’s European slide shows.”

Dr. Mertins was Chair of the department of architecture at PennDesign at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught as a tenured professor from 2003 to 2008. His areas of academic expertise centred around the history and theory of modern architecture. Dr. Mertins held a BArch from the University of Toronto (1980), and a MA (1991) and PhD (1996) from Princeton University, where he studied under the direction of Anthony Vidler.

His academic legacy began in Canada, where he started teaching at the University of Toronto in 1985 and the University of Waterloo in 1988, later returning to Toronto, where he directed U of T’s Master of Architecture program and coordinated graduate studies. Dr. Mertins held the Canada Research Chair in Architecture (2001-03), the Konrad Adenauer Research Prize of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and Royal Canadian Society (2003). His academic influence left a significant mark on a generation of students, architects and colleagues.

Discussing architecture with Detlef required the utmost attention. His knowledge was never vague and could be footnoted on the spot. In conversation, one could almost see an encyclopedic constellation of ideas forming above his head, shifting into a perfect sequence for delivery which came fast and sharp, often leaving his audience with heads spinning, wondering if they knew anything at all.

Many remember Detlef’s formative years in Toronto as a rising academic, where his intensity was matched only by his wild, uprising hair and thick red glasses, a style he later renovated to suit his sharp intellectualism: smaller professorial glasses, black jeans and T-shirt, black boots, and in winter, a smart zip-up cardigan.

To peruse Detlef’s architecture library was an awe-inspiring experience, one in which any curious architect could easily lose themselves for hours. Design historian Virginia Wright remarked that his house on Clinton Street in Toronto was akin to an inhabited library and had to be structurally reinforced to accommodate the heavy collection. His library continued to expand during his years at UPenn, and its over 4,000 titles are being evaluated by the Libraries at the University of Pennsylvania with the hope that much of the collection will be housed for scholarly research.

Between 1980 and 1986, he worked at two prominent Toronto architectural practices, Baird Sampson Associates and Jones & Kirkland Architects. An academic who was also registered as an architect, Dr. Mertins combined these aptitudes to act as professional advisor on three competitions that would have a profound effect on the culture and quality of contemporary Canadian architecture: Kitchener City Hall (1989, won by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects), Erindale Student Centre (1996, won by Kohn Shnier Architects), and the Downsview Park Competition (2002, won by a team headed by OMA). The lucidity of a “Detlef brief” was legendary among the architectural community. His conviction regarding the instrumental role of a thoughtful framework in fostering architectural excellence was a thematic in these briefs, borne of his belief that practice, not just theory, benefited from such underlying rigour.

Director of the University of Waterloo school of architecture Eric Haldenby noted the seminal role the Kitchener City Hall competition played in launching the careers of several of Canada’s top architects – Kohn Shnier, Stephen Teeple, Saucier + Perrotte being among the shortlisted entries – as well as the winning firm KPMB. “Detlef’s ability to articulate both the vision and program for competitions created opportunities for emerging architectural talent, and a launching pad for new ideas about architecture, urbanism and the public realm. My generation will always be extremely grateful for Detlef’s stewardship and the way he elevated the ways in which we think about architecture,” observed Bruce Kuwabara.

A strong advocate for the preservation of modern architecture, Detlef led an initiative to save the Shell Tower at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1985. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, it gave rise to the Bureau of Architecture and Urbanism (BAU) in 1986, a group of architects who organized the exhibition Toronto Modern and its accompanying catalogue, to raise awareness and to build a case for the preservation of modern buildings in Toronto at a time when they were being demolished without a second thought.

Dr. Mertins’ scholarly output was prodigious. His publications include the English edition of Walter Curt Behrendt, The Victory of the New Building Style, The Presence of Mies, and Metropolitan Mutations: The Architecture of Emerging Public Spaces. Mertins published numerous essays in scholarly journals and anthologies, as well as critical writings on contemporary architecture, including, most recently, “The Modernity of Zaha Hadid” in the exhibition catalogue Zaha Hadid (Guggenheim Museum), “Mies’s Event Space” in Grey Room 20, “Bioconstructivism” in Lars Spuybroek’s NOX: Machining Architecture, “Same Difference” in Foreign Office Architects’ Phylogenesis: FOA’s Ark, and “Interview with Natalie de Blois,” in SOM Journal 4. Between 1985 and 2008, he presented lectures and symposia at over 100 international conferences in North America and Europe, at universities that included major Ivy League and European schools of architecture.

One of the foremost scholars on the work of German-born modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, he convened a major international conference in Toronto called The Presence of Mies (1992), published later as a collection of essays. He furthered this research as Visiting Scholar at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 1998, where according to Phyllis Lambert, “His ebullience was such that he worked simultaneously on Mies and the avant-garde of the 1920s, Mies and organic architecture and Mies and the art of city building, contributing essays to the publications accompanying the 2001/2002 exhibitions Mies in America, and Mies in Berlin – the only scholar who did so. His training as an architect, his familiarity with North American and German culture and his deep insights as a historian, gave him a range and understanding of Mies that no one else in the field possessed.”

The death of someone so young and vibrant deeply affected friends, colleagues and students in both his American and Canadian academic milieus. His contributions to theory and practice continue to be a touchstone for future architects, historians, and students, with the recent publication of G: An Avant-Garde Journal of Art, Architecture, Design, and Film, 1923-1926, and the forthcoming publication of a volume collection of essays entitled Modernity Unbound (published by the AA) and this year, the Mies monograph that he had been working on for many years: Mies: Larger than Life (published by Phaidon).

Detlef was an architect who built with words, words shaped into scholarly articles, words bound into books, words crafted into lectures. He understood that published works could do as m
uch to shape a metropolis as a lifetime of building. His passion for Mies and the avant-garde spoke to an abiding interest in how the boundaries of architecture could be advanced and tested first with paper works, exhibitions and writings. Victor Hugo, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, pitted book against building, saying, “this will kill that.” In Detlef’s conception, both could work together to higher purpose.

A thread of telling words emerges throughout the titles of Detlef’s writing and lectures, which is surprising given the concrete nature of architecture – words like transparency, lightness, dissolving, unconscious, transformed. In the catalogue for Toronto Modern, Detlef wrote about modernity, “that everything be pregnant with its contrary, nothing be stable, all established values be vulnerable, and ‘all that is solid melt into air.'” Yet somehow we are left with a very tangible sense of one man’s contribution to the modern project.

Detlef Mertins is survived by his wife Keller Easterling, and sisters Heike Mertins and Doris Mertins, and his parents, Edith and Heinz Mertins. UPenn School of Design Dean Marilyn Jordan Taylor plans to establish the Detlef Mertins Fellowship, and invites friends, colleagues and former students who wish to contribute to do so by contacting her at

By Beth Kapusta and Andrew Jones, with contributions by family and colleagues.