'Builds Model Modernistic City" stated the 1936 newspaper headline. The photograph below showed a complex cardboard-and-glue "city of the future" illuminated from within by electric lights. Tiny bulbous automobiles, carved from wood, lined the boulevards and, floating above it all was an inset photograph of the serious-looking 16-year-old designer.
In March, 2008, no headline or photograph in any newspaper marked the passing of the 88-year-old. Had the cardboard city been forgotten and James Albert Murray had become, say, a clerk in a shoe store, that might explain things. But the multiple award-winning architect, planner, educator and author did build the city of the future … over and over again.
He was born the day after Dominion Day, 1919, "on the kitchen table" of his family's Carlton Street home, and he decided to be an architect nine years later, says his wife of 54 years, Bess Murray, 88. He graduated early from Jarvis Collegiate - not long after winning first place at the Canadian National Exhibition for that model city - and spent a year working at Mathers and Haldenby, one of the city's top firms at the time. From there, it was on to the University of Toronto's architecture program, then enjoying the unofficial leadership of New Zealand-born professor Eric Arthur, who had arrived in 1923 and, over the years, had convinced the school to change from a traditional Beaux-Arts approach to a modernist one.
In 1942, the year before the top student graduated with his tiny class of 12, he found himself teaching a class of over 100 newly enrolled ex-soldiers due to a leave-of-absence by Prof. Arthur. He must have been good: His career as professor of design at U of T would last two decades.
And speaking of decades, he was with Canadian Architect magazine for almost four. The idea came about in the 1940s, remembers Mrs. Murray (who met her future husband in 1938 while playing tennis), as he was designing what was, arguably, Toronto's first modernist home for James A. Daly, president of Maclean-Hunter. Mr. Daly asked the young architect if a critical magazine featuring the work of Canadian designers existed; it didn't, so they created it in 1955 and Mr. Murray signed on as editor.
Around the same time Mr. Murray was drawing up dozens of houses for Macklin Hancock's "New Town" of Don Mills, he created the city's first curtain-walled office building, the Anglo Canada Insurance Building at St. Clair Avenue West and Deer Park Crescent. Completed just two years after Manhattan's first, Sidmore, Owings & Merrill's 1952 Lever House, the Anglo building was similar in the way its tower also presented a narrow face to the main street as it rested on a wide, corner-lot podium. One of his favourites, it was demolished in 1999 and replaced by a faux-historic condominium.
Another favourite project demolished in his lifetime was a custom home on Park Road designed for activist and civil libertarian Margaret Spaulding, known to many as "the Rosedale Red." According to a June, 1951, Civil Rights Union newsletter, it was "the kind of house that is built to fit the personality of the individual who is to live in it."
"He always laughed and said nobody liked his best buildings," recalls Mrs. Murray.
Dozens of apartments, industrial buildings, schools, churches and innovative housing followed, including a collaboration with German-born architect Henry Fliess on split-level row houses in Don Mills, South Hills Village, which won a Massey Medal in the late 1950s. While they kept separate architectural practices, Mr. Murray would partner with Mr. Fliess over the years on mega-projects such as the Sherway Gardens shopping mall and a project for U.S. developer James Rouse in Baltimore, Md.: "Whenever we saw an opportunity we both wanted to get involved in together, we did," the 88-year-old Mr. Fliess says matter-of-factly.
Add to that the planning work for projects such as St. James Town and Erin Mills, the countless essays, editorials and studies he penned for every level of government (often on the future of housing) and, finally, his involvement bringing the brightest architectural minds to lecture at U of T - such as Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, Paul Rudolph, Eero Saarinen and Frank Lloyd Wright - and it becomes apparent that Mr. Murray was a cultural force as well as an architectural one.
A few weeks ago, as I gazed upon a swaying Japanese maple poking through a James Murray-designed hole in the roof of a custom 2,300 square foot North York home and was regaled with architectural tales by the home's second owner (a contemporary of Mr. Murray's who worked in a related field), I couldn't help but wonder why so little has been written about this remarkable career: Here was a hometown boy who dominated his field for six decades, a gentleman-architect who taught generations of modernists, and with a portfolio of work stretching from Southern Ontario to Vancouver, the United States and Asia … and yet, nothing.
The lack of an obituary is understandable; the family was devastated and had other things to attend to. Yet I can't help but think that if James A. Murray were an American, a book would be on the shelves by now.
"If anybody had asked Jim to do a book he probably wouldn't have done it," finishes Mrs. Murray. "He wasn't interested in pushing himself … in fact, I used to natter at him about it."