Markson’s Mark

“I am not a stylist, not a functionalist nor any other sloganist… the question of whether a house is really a house is more important to me than the fact that it is made of steel, glass, putty or hot air.”
– Rudolf Schindler

“If not for people who will inhabit it, then who is architecture for?”
-Jerome Markson

Toronto-based architect Jerome Markson’s career began in the 1950s, just as Austrian-born American architect Rudolf Schindler’s legacy was coming to a close.1 But both shared a profoundly humanistic sense. Markson was not interested in polemics, but rather in the users of his buildings.  As Laura Miller states in her comprehensive and very fine new book Toronto’s Inclusive Modernity: The Architecture of Jerome Markson, those users’ interests were “manifested in aspects of his architecture that transcend conventional notions of programmatic accommodation.” As a result, says Miller, there is “no identifiable signature style of his buildings… the idiosyncratic nature of Markson’s architecture was a deliberate choice.”

The Smith Residence in Woodbridge, Ontario (1955) includes small openings with coloured glass that enliven the economical structure. Photo by Peter Varley

The first section of Miller’s book focuses on the human quality of Markson’s work, as evidenced by the way he captured human interactions and signs of occupancy in photographs chronicling his work.  These images contrasted with the prevailing standard of the time—abstracted, formal photographs with no people. The second section of the book focuses on Markson’s long relationship—he is 90 years old—to Toronto, the city in which he grew up and where he practiced. The third section is a compendium of buildings and projects.

Indeed, the book is as much about Toronto as it is about Markson. Context was always important in Markson’s work, and a series of commissioned panoramic images by Scott Norsworthy convey the thoughtful integration of the architect’s projects in present-day Toronto. The images reaffirm Christopher Hume’s observation that Markson is “the rare architect who creates cities while designing buildings.”

Outside the Smith Residence, the home creates an expanded sense of space by using the wall of the carport to frame one side of the exterior yard. Photo by Peter Varley

There are a number of buildings that stand out. Markson’s health centres of the 1960s, especially the Group Health Centre in Sault Ste. Marie (1962), are notable for using atriums and skylights to introduce light and air to this building type—something very rare at the time. True Davidson Acres Metro Home for the Aged (1967) was also an exemplar (and an exception) for long-term care homes of this era, with its “downtown street,” thoughtful room layouts, daylit lounges and sensitive siting.

Built at a time when the philosophy of caring for the elderly was shifting, True Davidson Acres includes a street-like ground floor and resident rooms with multiple exterior views. The facility wraps around a large oak tree on the hilly, wooded site. Photo by Roger Jowett

Markson and his wife Mayta moved to Don Mills for a period of time, and his work reflects this lived experience. His suburban houses, such as the Seneca Heights Model Homes (1955), were often sited to create garden courts—defined outdoor places that added an urbanizing influence in the suburban landscape. This preoccupation with courts is further explored in Markson’s Urban Courtyard Housing scheme for Stelco Trend (1965) and his Bayview/Post court houses (1968). Particularly notable among his custom houses is the Aalto-inspired J. Posluns Residence (1960), with its carefully calibrated series of brick walls and vertical redwood strips.

The J. Posluns Residence (1960) in North York uses well-crafted brick and redwood detailing on both the exterior and interior. Photo by Roger Jowett

The greatest impact of Markson’s oeuvre, however, is his contribution to the many social and market urban housing projects that he undertook. Markson was part of a group of architects (and friends), including Jack Klein, Henry Sears and Irving Grossman, who made significant contributions to the city fabric of Toronto. One of their largest—and most fraught—legacies is Alexandra Park Public Housing (1965), designed by Markson together with Klein and Sears Architects and Webb Zerafa Menkes. Its architecture is wonderfully animated and nuanced, with elements including triangular bay windows, and reflects an attitude, as Laura Miller puts it, of architects “more concerned with augmenting the city they had grown up within, rather than remaking it.” Alexandra Park’s Achilles heel, however was its planning—a pedestrian-only vision relegated cars to the perimeter, closing off the complex from the surrounding city.

Markson’s Alexandra Park Public Housing includes exceptional nuance for its time, with a variety of unit types and landscape conditions, as well as portals framing pedestrian walkways under the apartment buildings. Photo by Roger Jowett

A more universally appreciated building is Markson’s David B. Archer Co-operative (1976), which, unlike Alexandra Park, is fully street-related within the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, with retail and community program spaces facing The Esplanade. Its basket-like balconies, red brick, and white window trim bring to mind the quirky but enduring architecture and urbanism of Eigen Haard (1920, Michel de Klerk) and Amsterdam South (1922-27, Henrik Petrus Berlage and others).

The David B. Archer Co-operative Housing complex is composed to address its different street frontages. Photo by Scott Norsworthy

Markson’s Market Square Condominiums (1980) is a mid-rise, high-density, mixed-use perimeter block scheme—a typology present in many European cities, including Barcelona. This typology was espoused by the late British architect Leslie Martin and his Cambridge-based Centre for Land Use and Built Form, as a way of achieving high densities using mid-rise construction. Miller quite rightly states that the city is poorer for the lack of uptake on Markson’s explicit demonstration of a highly livable alternative to high-rise point towers. In his characteristically modest manner, Markson puts it this way: “There’s an inner space for the people that live there, and around the perimeter there’s shops. And upstairs people live. What’s new? And what’s not good about it? I’m not afraid of repeating things. That’s what’s strong about it. The city needs that.”  

Market Square is bisected by a courtyard with storefronts. Photo by Fiona Smith

Markson’s wisdom extends to a larger view of life as an architect: “Certainly we have to take our work seriously, but not ourselves. Then we’ll do better work and have more fun.” My sense is that while making this serious and scholarly volume on the architecture of Jerome Markson, author Laura Miller also had fun. Her tribute to Markson at the end of the introduction is about as good as it gets: “Most especially, my conversations with Jerome have given me insight into the compassion, insight and humour of an architect whose buildings intrinsically reflect the same qualities.”

1 Markson’s friend and fellow architect Irving Grossman once briefly worked for Schindler.

David Sisam is Principal Emeritus of Montgomery Sisam Architects.

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