Canada's next look: flat-chested cities
Led by a controversial Torontonian named John C. Parkin, Canadian architects are putting up more and more of the steel-and-glass slabs that belong to what Frank Lloyd Wright called the flat-chested style. Here is what other architects think about Parkin, and what Parkin thinks — and does — about the cities we live in
IN 1954 AN American manufacturer sought out a young Toronto architect. He wanted the architect to design a plant for suburban Don Mills, a building typical of Canada. The American’s concept of such a building was a CNR palace hotel, a Canadian imitation of an American imitation of a sixteenthcentury French chateau.
As a consequence of this meeting of minds there now stands on Don Mills Road a simple steel-framed rectangle with glass walls and a flat roof. The young architect. John C. Parkin, may privately have agreed that Canadian architecture was Victorian, but he was convinced (and convincing) that the style of the future was Parkin’s.
New styles in architecture, like young men upward bound, normally battle the status quo for years. But today across the country the International Style, or. as Frank Lloyd Wright termed it, the “flat-chested style,” has traditionalists in rout. The largest firms of a decade ago have shrunk to middle size. The new victorious leaders are building steel - framed, glass - walled cubes. A sense of excitement pervades
the profession of architecture in Canada. which is now more than 2,100 strong, swollen by hundreds of foreign and British architects, and broken into some 750 firms. Biggest of all, swept to the top by the movement, or. some say, shoving it ahead of them as they climbed, are John C. Parkin and his unrelated namesakes, John B. and Edmund, partners in John B. Parkin Associates.
No one in this rigorous, practical, cant-clouded, carping profession is more admired or more disparaged than 38-year-old John C. Parkin, the Messiah of the renaissance. Swinging west and cast on a Canadian Club circuit these next two months, he will try to sell fifteen audiences on the need to change our skylines. His buildings have helped raise taste, ethics and standards of construction.
“I’d sooner lose a contract to him than anyone.” says Toronto architect Alexander Leman. “Whenever a Parkin building goes up,” another apostle of Modern said recently, “it helps sell one of mine.” Says Eric Arthur, head of design for Toronto’s School of Architecture: “No one has influenced Canadian architecture more.”
But his critics view his zeal as ambition. his principles as prejudice, his poise as arrogance and his confidence as conceit. Young would-be virtuosos in design write him off as a businessman. and some businessmen of the art call him an aesthete.
Architecture is the only art that produces a necessity, and none is therefore so paradoxical. This is an art that also is a business and a profession. The architect must simultaneously fulfill the needs of his client, his own urge for self-expression and his obligation to the public.
The Parkins have turned this art into big business. In their huge, glasswalled office facing a park in Don Mills, 170 architects, engineers and draftsmen sit hunched over swatches of paper bathed in fluorescent light. On these drafting boards arc designs for buildings worth two hundred million dollars, from a gum factory to a synagogue to a home for unmarried mothers.
Architects call this “the blueprint factory.” You feed in specifications, they say, and out roll the massproduced blueprints, homes for unmarried mothers looking like gum factories, each bearing the Parkin
brand-image: blank glass walls and stark steel beams, precisely spaced according to formulae.
Yet from coast to coast in Canada the most meaningful architecture is coming from such giant firms, from Thompson. Berwick and Pratt of Vancouver; from Green, Blankstein. Russell and Associates of Winnipeg; from Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Michaud and Sise of Montreal. Parkin himself has won nine Massey medals for design, and in 1959 The Canadian Architect’s poll of twenty members of the profession showed that they rated three of his structures among the eleven “most significant postwar buildings.”
His detractors suggest that Parkin purchased these honors. “He doesn’t have to create,” says one. “He can buy originality. He ferrets out the top university graduates, talks them into working at bargain-basement rates, initials their designs and takes the bows.”
The Parkin drafting room filters the flux of talent from abroad. Young men from Latvia, Poland and the Ukraine trade shop-talk with colleagues from Germany, Austria, Malta, Greece, the U.S. and the West Indies. Every few days they look up to see “J.C.” strolling down an aisle, handsome, solid, impeccably dressed, composedly puffing a pipe. Conversation ceases. Some nod and grin as he passes. Others tense. The staff is split between those who like him and those who don't. As one explains, “A dynamic disciplined person seems autocratic until you know him.”
Parkin halts beside the floor plans for Ottawa's Union Station, which a young Japanese-Canadian from the west coast, Gene Kinoshita. is pondering. “We'll need a significant roof form,” Parkin reflects. “We'll make it a symbol. Perhaps imply a portal or gate to the capital. We don’t want a giant shed for human beings.” He
turns away, then pauses, “That promenade will be delightful to look down on the trains from, but locate it so we can take it off if the cost runs too high.”
He studies the elevations for a clinic for alcoholics. “You've got something big and powerful there, Pete, why not echo it throughout the building?" He points to a roof-line. “Isn’t that thin?”
“It doesn’t have to carry air-conditioning,” designer Peter Warren explains.
“Suppose they decide to air-condition in 1970?” Parkin moves on to a cosmetics factory. “Don't you think, with that warm purply brick, the light should come in through amber glass?” He frowns at an overhang. “Can you pull that back? It muddies up the view.”
“I know, but it won't work if you do.”
“I don’t see why not.” Parkin pencils some changes. The young architect slowly nods.
This, in effect, is the largest training school in the Commonwealth. Says Bob MacLeod, who once ran his own Vancouver office, “When you get a new problem you just walk across the room and talk to someone who's met it before." “You learn how an office should be organized,” says John Gallop, who roamed as far as Hawaii after graduating from the University of Toronto. “I learned more here in six weeks than in three years out of school.”
Not all the staff are uncritical. Some resent the contract forbidding them to freelance, though many ignore it. Others claim they get no credit for their designs, have no freedom to work out their own styles. “I don’t think a really brilliant designer would stay here,” says one. “He’d have to see eye to eye with J.C. on design.”
Parkin is pegged as an imitator of Mies van der Rohe, the German famous for displacing masonry walls
with glass “curtain walls” hung from a skeleton of steel. An apocryphal story has Parkin and Professor Eric Arthur touring an architectural exhibit. Arthur stops before a photograph of a school.
“That's one of yours,” he says to Parkin.
Parkin studies the label. “No, it's Mies.”
Parkin’s home on the opulent edge of Don Mills reveals Mies’ influence. Its front, which encloses a courtyard, is a windowless wall of white brick, so simple it seems affected. Parkin collects comments on it. “What is it?” he hears weekend strollers ask, “A warehouse? A cloister? A powerplant?”
Mies preaches that utility is beauty —that an ornament on a building is no less, perhaps more, vulgar than a tattoo on a beautiful woman. Mies’ dogma was and is the rebel’s credo in his battle to banish Victorian embellishment.
Parkin holds to this principle but each year grows freer in interpreting it to his own taste. “You’re naïve if you place your opinion above the masters at the outset,” he says. “But unfortunately, the over-publicity of a few senior eccentrics has nurtured a Hollywood star system in architecture. Some young graduates expect to get star billing right away, only to find that our casting resembles a good documentary.”
A Parkin “designer” is usually several men. For the $30,000,000 renovation of Malton Airport, largest single commission in Canada’s history, senior partner John B., associate engineer Ed Wilbee, and architect Lloyd Laity watched the handling of baggage and people at forty airports.
The key question, they felt, as they batted ideas around, was how far does the passenger walk? The shortest possible distance was out from the centre of a circle. This led them to bend their first plan, a straight
mile-long building, into a striking new design: planes nose in to a circular aeroquay ringing a square central terminal, where cars, approaching by tunnel, park on the roof. “I think it’s unique,” says Jack Shaw, the project manager, “but I doubt if Laity would take all the credit.”
“It’s awfully hard when you get this big to say who was the true creator,” muses John B. “J.C. may plan the attack, but the boy who’s doing it makes it his own. Doug Rowland (the chief designer) and the project designer add their ideas. And maybe the guy at the next desk to the designer thinks he’s contributed more than the lunkhead who drew it.”
“We'll give three or four people credit on the airport,” says John C. “But we’ll fight the guy who says this is my design and mine alone. Any bright kid can draw buildings on paper. That doesn’t make you an architect. You don't study Wren’s drawings in school, you study his buildings. Until your building goes up and works it isn’t architecture.”
“I tell John that architecture is like pregnancy,” says Harold Town, an eminently successful modern painter. “A few minutes of creative glory in which you conceive the building, then nine months’ gestation in which someone else has to sweat it out. battle the ignorance of clients, the apathy of engineers, the greed of builders. If it wasn’t for Parkin, what buildings would these young designers have done? If they think he ties them down, let them leave. Art’s a rough trade. You’re like a pro hockey player. You expect to lose a tooth. If it bothers you, sell programs!”
Few professions are as competitive as the architect's. When the president of the Sun Life Assurance Company falls ill he calls his own doctor —no one competes for the business of curing him. But the Parkins had to top thirty firms for Sun Life’s building in Toronto, reported to cost
close to nine million dollars. A few months ago two Montreal architects toured the Parkin office. Within six weeks three key Parkin men had Montreal job offers. And architects quitting a firm are not always above taking clients with them.
“You bet we buy our designers’ brains. What else are they here for?” says John B. “We pay them as much as anyone else, and we give them plenty of leeway. But a firm has to stand for something. Someone has to say, ‘Yes, that’s good’, or ‘No. that won’t do,’ and that’s J.C.”
John C. began competing in school. His father, an accountant, was a frustrated architect in a family that dealt for a hundred years in lumber in Lindsay, Ontario. John C.. as a child in Winnipeg, played with blocks and Meccano sets, and drew crude house designs on his playroom floor. In high school he studied drawing at night, while cramming purposefully to stay at the head of his class, perhaps in rivalry with his brother Alan, a year younger and now president of the Canadian Psychoanalytical Society.
At the University of Manitoba he met the first man who had ever really impressed him. Professor John Russell. Russell taught that design extended to theatre, ballet and daily life, and he gave himself to community work. “Russell gave me a social conscience,” Parkin says.
In Toronto, John B.'s pioneering Sunnylea School, flat-roofed, low, with a bright childlike quality, was ending the era of schools that look like jails. John C. wrote to him, noting that their names and aims were similar, and John B. later offered him a job.
While John B., 34 then, beat the backbush for more schools, John C. designed modern buildings, some of Canada’s earliest, perhaps because clients were often too unsophisticated to protest. Next year. 1946, John C. set off on a scholarship to win his master’s degree from Harvard.
Here the competition was stiffer—
fifteen men from all over the world, paced by Paul Rudolph, now the leading young U.S. architect. But the real inspiration was Walter Gropius, one of architecture’s great men. who was then a boyish 63.
Perched on a stool in his drafting room. Gropius told his incoming students, “We’ll have no marks. You'll pass or fail. You’ll work as a team. If you see an idea on someone's board that you need, borrow it, leaving, out of courtesy, an idea or two in return.”
Parkin was astonished and delighted. This wasn’t the usual Paris Beaux-Arts concept of teaching, which stresses competit.on. This was new. “For the first time in my life.” he says, "I learned to work with someone else.”
Gropius, who in 1919 founded Germany’s Bauhaus, the first school of modern design, saw architecture, as Victor Hugo did, as “moiher of the arts.” He saw the architect as the universal man, not, like Leonardo da Vinci, master of all arts, but a chairman of specialists — engineers, designers. painters, sculptors. The concept had vanished as architects preoccupied themselves w th selling taste to the nouveaux riches thrown up by the machine age. a concern with appearance that left functional buildings to engineers. Now the master builder, whose craft-teams built the great Gothic temples, was reappearing again after almost three centuries.
Parkin went into Harvard, he says, “a design agnostic.” He came out with faith in tradition, for Gropius was part of it. He also came out engaged, to a Harvard MA in fine arts, Jeanne Warmith of Toronto. He talked with her of the new kind of firm that he and John B. would build, wherein architects working with engineers would fuse function and appearance.
Architects since the 1800s had abdicated the field of industry. They thought that CONTINUED ON PAGE 28
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Canada’s next look: flat-chested cities
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There were, of course, clients who simply wanted the greatest possible space for the least money
engineers were crass and engineers thought them incompetent. The breach doomed the poor to ugly efficient factories and the rich to beautiful mansions with poor plumbing. With two engineers, Ed Wilbee and Ewart Mews, and John B.’s brother Edmund, a Harvard-trained landscape specialist, the Parkins set out to sell glass-and-steel to industry.
They came on the scene as industry was spilling into the suburbs. Homeowners feared for house values but wanted to lighten taxes. John C.’s first factory, for Fabergé Perfumes — low and bright with a serpentine wall, a reflecting pool and gardens—showed that factory districts need never again be the other side of the tracks.
But there were clients who simply wanted the most space for the least money. Wilbee measured machinery, charted the movement of raw materials, invented methods for stacking goods. With the money saved on space John C. bought better brick and design.
Wilbee’s knowledge of product-flow in factories helped in planning hospitals. They placed the reception room where the night nurse could double as night switchboard operator, and put the supply and disposal area next to the operating room. They turned away clients who wanted Georgian-type buildings, and eked out income by designing washers and radios.
They perfected a group approach to cope with the; new group patron, the corporate committee that was replacing the tycoon. They developed specialists in schools, factories, hospitals, shopping centres, recruited experts in civil, electrical, structural and mechanical engineering, in cost analysis, spécification writing and field supervision. John B.'s squash-ball bounce and salesmanship brought in clients. John C.’s skin-andbones walls and assembly-line units cut costs in materials and labor, and added inches and flexibility to offices.
In fifteen years they’ve built a thousand buildings, from a hotdog stand to a Simpsons-Sears store and proved that art has lost nothing by efficiency Philip Johnson, director of architecture for the Museum of Modern Art, called John C.’s landscaped mall in Don Mills “the best small shopping centre I have seen.” Toronto’s Parkin-designed subway stations, announced the late Frank Lloyd Wright, in a rare mood of approbation, were "the best in the world." And the Parkin office, built four years ago, which counteracts specialization by seating experts so that they exchange views, was labelled “the best of its kind” by the dean of architecture of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Around this office, success is weaving a myth. It is common belief among architects that those who work here must punch a time clock and dress in white shirts and dark suits to match the decor. Staffers joke that J. C. can press a button and lower the ceiling beams on recalcitrant heads. Coffee breaks are taboo. The firm's routine reflects its founders— practical, pleasant and controlled.
From his chastely elegant office Parkin peppers the staff with memos: “Running glass dimensions through a computer might yield a chance design, something unexpected, like a painter throwing paint at a canvas—within a carefully controlled structure, of course.” “I’m enclosing a clipping on a new glare-resistant glass. Would you look into it?”
“On one of our recent contracts I noted stainless-steel switch plates grouped
with bronze thermostats. In future all exposed metal shall be a uniform color.” Parkin believes, with Mies van der Rohe, that “God is in the details.” “Like most fine artists,” says John B., “he’s a perfectionist.”
After his noonday sandwich he may head downtown in his 1957 white Chrysler to chair a meeting of the National Industrial Design Council or the exhibition committee of the Toronto Art Gallery. He also serves on Canada’s UNESCO commission, for which he journeyed to New Delhi in 1956. He was president of the Canada Arts Council from 1955 to ’58, and his public speeches and private lobbying with cabinet ministers generated much of the pressure that pushed the government into creating the Canada Council, patron extraordinary of the arts. “He’s a crusader,” says his successor on the Arts
Council, Arthur Gelber, “and wherever he goes he’s selling architecture.”
He is currently campaigning to waken the public to the need for better public buildings, city planning and housing, a result of having toured fifteen Canadian cities last year as one of a three-man committee of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. He would like to see our sprawling, grimy lakefront sheds replaced by handsome buildings, restoring the waterfront to the public. He would turn our city centres into earless parklike plazas, flanked by towering apartment blocks sited for sun. light and air, and beyond these the suburbs, landscaped for privacy and serenity. “We’ve got to take architecture to the people,” Parkin says. "As Winston Churchill said, ‘We shape our buildings, but in the end our buildings shape us.’ ”
His crowded schedule forces him to take comradeship where he finds it. and after a dress-suit dinner at the Royal Canadian Academy he may set off on an unscheduled party with artists Ron Wilson or Harold Town that ends in a tour of a building at four a.m. He tries to save his weekends for his wife and three children, but a good deal of time is spent on his living-room floor poring over designs.
Like architects all over the world he is searching for richer expressions of the modern functional philosophy. The uncluttered cube has won the day but its starkness fails to satisfy. Architecture is moving again toward variety and ornament, drama or delight, a greater expression of emotion.
“We’ve got to keep moving forward or we’ll fall back,” Parkin says. “But we can't ring in change for the sake of change. If the Greeks and Georgians had done that those styles would never have developed—it took several hundred years to refine the Greek temple. There’s still a lot of refining to be done in metal and glass. You can’t be swept up in fads and fashion. You can’t test for bugs as you can in cars. A building is a drop-dead situation.”
The irony of the architect as artist is that he cannot have complete individual freedom. If his boldly original roof caves in he is criminally responsible. If it leaks, he has failed in his professional duty. The architect’s course lies somewhere between his personal visions and popular approval, and sometimes Parkin talks as if the safest course were the best. “Ambition isn't individuality," he says. “Originality is rare. We don’t want to pursue an illusion. We’re not geniuses. We just work hard.”
But sometimes he talks like a man who aspires to more than excellence: “It took years for the great architects. Wren, Palladio, Saarinen, to develop their individual styles. We’re only thirteen years old.”
This is the schizophrenia of the fine architect, a man who can talk of dollars and cents, of convenience and public relations, while harboring an unrealized ideal of beauty, -fr