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Jerome Markson sits in the David B. Archer Co-Operative in Toronto on Dec. 11, 2019.Alex Bozikovic/The Globe and Mail

Architects like to tell stories. They often have grand explanations for a particular shape or angle. But when I asked Jerome Markson why he chose red brick for the building we were sitting in, the David B. Archer Co-Operative in downtown Toronto, the architect laughed. “This whole city was made of brick! Mostly red brick, and some white brick” – a wave of the hand – “all from a couple of pits over there.”

This is true, and Markson is formed of that same clay. Born, raised and educated in Toronto, the 90 year old spent half a century shaping remarkable structures across the city and its suburbs. Those buildings are tough to summarize. He has no manifesto and he dislikes grand gestures.

But his work has plenty to teach us. It blends practicality with whimsy. It explores different strands of Modernism. But above all, for Markson, and others of his generation, architecture is a tool to build community.

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Markson completed the Archer housing complex, seen here circa 1979, as part of the public redevelopment of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood.Fiona Spalding-Smith

All these themes resonate today, and they’ve been captured in a fine new book. The scholar Laura Miller’s Toronto’s Inclusive Modernity: The Architecture of Jerome Markson makes a strong case for Markson’s importance and relevance.

Miller, herself an architect and theorist, moved to teach at the University of Toronto about a decade ago, and she was fascinated early on by Markson’s work. “The quality of the architecture was remarkably high,” she said, “and I realized that you couldn’t really understand it without understanding the city.”

As she said this, we were in the Archer, a housing complex he completed in 1979 as part of the public redevelopment of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood. It combines a seven-storey apartment building, townhouses, stacked townhouses and a small street and playground. Our ground-floor meeting room was rectangular and, at a glance, nothing special. But nearby a wall of windows looked out on the playground; I noticed that the windows got narrower and higher as they moved across to the right.

It turned out there is a reason for this: to hide cars in two nearby parking spaces and a parking-garage ramp. “With cars, we often tried to minimize them, and push them to the edges,” Markson said. A useful lesson.

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The builings at the Archer Co-Op are intriguingly varied.Handout

Miller pointed out other details that she appreciates. The sizes and forms of the buildings are varied: sloped roofs, flat roofs, protruding balconies and recessed terraces. If you view these structures together, they form “a sort of relay,” she says, “as one unit speaks to another.” This compositional craft is real, and also subtle. What most people will notice is that the buildings are all clad in red brick. The houses have sloped roofs. The place feels friendly.

That tension, between the familiar and the novel, is where Markson’s work thrives. “There is often an idiosyncratic detail that gives a sense of peculiarity and difference to the work,” Miller says.

He got some of this from the Finnish master architect Alvar Aalto; When Markson and his wife, Mayta, visited Finland as newlyweds 60 years ago, he was wowed by several of his buildings. He noted that they were mostly rational and straightforward: “But the part that is wonderful,” he told Miller in an interview for the book, “is the inexplicable parts, the personal parts.”

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The Cedarvale Community Centre, now known as the Stan Wadlow Clubhouse, in 1966.Canadian Architect

This is very much true of Markson’s work. The best of his buildings accomplish their practical requirements and then mix in a dash of weird. I recently visited a 1965 Markson building, a community centre now named Stan Wadlow Clubhouse. It’s got a big social hall that is largely triangular; but above the floor where kids were playing dodgeball, giant timber trusses stretch across the room to land slantwise on a brick wall at the centre. The building mixes squares, circles and triangles, masonry, concrete and timber. And it works.

It works because Markson has a fantastic eye and relentless creativity. In some very inventive private houses and, equally, in public buildings, he never stopped exploring. Miller documents the range of his work, which moves from rigorously Miesian boxes to the opposite: The Enkin house of 1967 feels almost like a set of sheds that have been assembled – very tastefully – over time. Not many designers have that kind of range. “I was looking at Mies, and Aalto, sure, all of them,” Markson said. “But you’ve always got to use your own brain.”

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The Enkin House, seen here circa 1970, feels like a set of sheds assembled over time.Roger (H.R.) Jowett/Handout

You don’t see that attitude or that creativity in today’s Canadian public buildings. Construction is more expensive and less flexible, so oddities are pricey; and clients provide architects much less freedom than they had in the 1960s. This is one dimension of architecture – the humane, specific detail – that’s often lost.

Another is the construction of social and co-operative housing, which are deeply important to Markson. Miller writes in the book that such efforts as David B. Archer are “endorsements of city building as a means of building greater social equity.”

When I asked Markson about this, he responded in a slightly elliptical way. “I was never very interested in politics,” he said. “But people I knew all felt that this was Canada and we should help each other.”

This, of course, is political. Markson got some of his views from the progressive immigrant Jewish milieu in which he and his brothers were raised. (Their father became a doctor, and had a practice on Dundas Street across the street from the Art Gallery of Ontario.) Markson got idealistic Modernist training at the University of Toronto’s architecture school, and worked often for labour clients, designing union halls and medical clinics.

But the architecture profession, too, leaned to the left. One of the central themes of European modern architecture was to create housing for the masses, and Markson and his colleagues aspired to do this.

And they did it. In the 1960s and 1970s, Toronto – and to varying degrees, Montreal, Vancouver and other Canadian cities – created substantial quantities of non-market housing. At the same time, the same architects were often designing apartments for developers. These are huge and crucial components of the metropolis. And the best of them are very good architecture indeed.

Of course, architecturally ambitious social housing sometimes failed. This connects to a popular idea that “Modern architecture” was invariably inhumane. Modern architecture was, in fact, an incredibly broad and varied set of ideas, and it doesn’t always get a fair critical assessment.

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Toronto's Alexandra Park, seen here circa 1969, comprises townhomes and mid-rise apartment buildings.Simeon Posen

Miller makes the case that one affordable housing development that Markson shaped – now doomed – has plenty of value: Alexandra Park in downtown Toronto, which is now being largely demolished and rebuilt. It was a city redevelopment of a so-called slum, which was combined into a single “superblock,” with no through streets, and built out with affordable houses and apartments. Markson designed it along with his good friends Jack Klein and Henry Sears and colleagues at Webb Zerafa Menkes.

Its design is now seen by some residents, although not all, as a cause of the neighbourhood’s high crime and social isolation. “The go-to culprit is the superblock,” Miller said. This has been a common argument for the reconstruction of other social housing projects across North America, including Regent Park in Toronto.

But be careful in drawing conclusions. Markson, Klein and Sears never wanted to build a superblock. It was imposed on them by city officials and planners. The three architects (among others) called for through streets and some older buildings on the site to be retained. And as Miller points out, they were clearly influenced by the British Townscape movement, which aimed to shape cities to look like informal and incremental development. Alexandra Park reflects the visual planning of Townscape to create buildings of different scales and shapes, and there is likewise a conscious variety in the outdoor spaces. The buildings themselves are quite beautiful: The townhouses are asymmetrical brick compositions that evoke the best of Aalto.

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Most of Alexandra Park is now slated for demolition.Roger Jowett/Handout

Miller’s view is that the problems of Alexandra Park come down not to the buildings, but to the site planning and to the economic segregation of the place. “I was really impressed by the quality of the architecture and the open spaces,” she says. “It had a humaneness and a scale that was approachable.”

She compares it to postwar Finland; it reminds me of several London housing estates, which remain in good shape. But there’s a better counterargument across town in Toronto, at the Archer complex. It has many of the same virtues without the flaws.

Indeed, Archer is proof that a master-planned complex can be a success. Four decades after it opened, it remains healthy physically and financially. Agnes Cheung, manager of the co-op, greeted our group in the cedar-and-terracotta lobby. “We are in very good shape,” she told me. Two-thirds of the apartments are market rent, one-third subsidized; some original members still live there, Cheung said, and there are co-op families now in their third generation.

In retrospect, it is small for a development in the very heart of a booming metropolis. (The progressive politics of the day were hostile to the idea of density. Some things never change.) Still, the Archer creates quite a lot of housing on a fairly small site. It is the sort of “missing middle” development that is now badly needed in suburbs across the country, and it provides a good architectural template: connected to the ground, light on cars and shaped by a creative mind. “As architects, we were given a lot of freedom,” Markson said. “And we found a way to make it work.”

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