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culture

Icons of Mid-Century Modernism

New book explores the legacy of architect John Cresswell Parkin, who dragged an extremely conservative Toronto into the modern age.

Ontario Association of Architects Headquarters Building, 50 Park Road, Toronto, 1957  From Panda Associates fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives (PAN 57885 2)

Ontario Association of Architects Headquarters Building, 50 Park Road, Toronto, 1957. From Panda Associates fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives (PAN 57885-2).

John C. Parkin and John B. Parkin (no relation) hit it off right from the beginning. In 1944, fresh off his studies at the University of Manitoba, John C. Parkin, 22, met John B. Parkin, an established Toronto architect 11 years his senior. They agreed to form a partnership, but first John B. insisted his Sheffield-born colleague accept a scholarship for graduate studies in architecture under Walter Gropius at Harvard—rightly believing that the knowledge he would gain about International Modernism would help their firm to distinguish itself in the ranks of architecture’s avant-garde. When John C. Parkin returned to Toronto in 1947, the pair formed John B. Parkin Associates as planned, forging an extremely effective partnership that drew on both their strengths.

As perhaps the leading proponent of modern architecture in the country, John C. oversaw all design work. John B., who possessed a keen mind for business, drummed up their commissions from clients ranging from local school boards and industrial conglomerates, to the Salvation Army and the federal government. “Through the following two decades, the two Parkins and their associates built the largest and most distinguished Canadian firm of the period,” writes architecture professor Michael J. McMordie, co-author with Linda Fraser and Geoffrey Simmins of a recently published book, John C. Parkin, Archives, and Photography: Reflections on the Practice and Presentation of Modern Architecture (University of Calgary Press, 2013), which examines the firm’s architectural output from the late 1940s until about 1970.

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It’s an important book because, although John Cresswell Parkin did more than anyone to drag “Toronto, and Canada, kicking and screaming into the modern age”—as Christopher Hume has argued—the architect and his work have never before received such an extended treatment. Moreover, Parkin’s modernist legacy is slowly disappearing from the Toronto streetscape: the Bata Shoes Canadian Headquarters, the Toronto Aeroquay, the Pitney-Bowes office, and the Salvation Army’s National Headquarters have all fallen victim to the wrecking ball. So too have John B. Parkin Associates head office at 1500 Don Mills Road and the residence John C. Parkin designed for himself at 75 Bridle Path.

(Left: George Harvey Vocational School, Toronto, 1953. From Panda Associates fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives (PAN 53753-23).)

The time is ripe, the co-authors suggest, to introduce Parkin’s most important works to a generation that doesn’t (or can’t) know them first-hand and to reassess the architect’s legacy. The resulting 176-page volume falls somewhere between a coffee table book and an academic work. There are numerous photographs, most black-and-white, taken at the time by Hugh Robertson’s Panda Associates on commission to John B. Parkin Associates. But as the co-authors take pains to explain, John C. Parkin, Archives, and Photography is not intended as a comprehensive biographical monograph. Rather, it’s made up of a series of stand-alone articles examining themes and aspects of John C. Parkin’s career from the varying perspectives of archivist and historian, architecture professor, journalist—and Parkin himself.

John B  Parkin Associates, 1500 Don Mills Road, Toronto, 1955  From Panda Associates fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives (PAN 551149 2)

John B. Parkin Associates, 1500 Don Mills Road, Toronto, 1955. From Panda Associates fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives (PAN 551149-2).

“We knew perfectly well that if we were going to practice contemporary architecture in what was at that time an extremely conservative city…then we had to be, in effect, much more efficient than anyone else and have more versatile resources,” John C. once said of the firm’s early aspirations and challenges. “We had to reject the notion that contemporary architecture was more expensive, wilful, capricious, and somehow not functional. In effect, we had to be just a little bit better, just a bit more efficient, and our buildings had to be, above all, completely and consistently contemporary in every detail. We had to have clean and orderly premises, in effect to get rid of the idea that, well, ‘they’re a bunch of arty, young men more concerned with design and not at all concerned with the hard realities of building.’”

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And so, the two Parkins brought all the requisite design skills—including structural, mechanical, and electrical engineering, landscape design, interior design, and industrial design—under one roof, each associate concentrating on an area of specialization. The innovative structure—illustrated through a circular organizational chart reproduced in the book—meant that commissions could be carried through all stages from specification writing, to cost estimating, to site supervision while the partners exerted a high degree of control over cost, schedules, and the quality of technical work.

(Right: Model of Terminal 1, Toronto International Airport, Malton, 1958. From Panda Associates fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives (PAN 58312-3).)

Parkin’s emphasis on promoting a cohesive corporate identity and presenting the firm as cosmopolitan and urbane meant the firm’s employees conformed strictly to his unspoken expectation they be clean-shaven and wear suits with crisp white shirts, knowing—as a Globe Magazine article put it in July 1969—”that a man of eccentric dress ‘might not get to meet a client.’” Parkin was also quick to recognize the potential of promotional photography, and enlisted photographer Hugh Robertson.

Harnessing lighting, shadows, and creative angles to capture modern structures with great artistry, Robertson played an instrumental role in “selling” modern architecture to the public when his work was reproduced in magazines and promotional publications. “In many cases, [Panda Associates'] photographs created iconic architecture from designs that would seem to ‘typify the sterile glass box,’” Fraser and Simmins assert.

Don Mills Residential Development, Don Mills, 1959  From Panda Associates fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives (PAN 59963 45)

Don Mills Residential Development, Don Mills, 1959. From Panda Associates fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives (PAN 59963-45).

John C. Parkin, Archives, and Photography beautifully reproduces 71 of the photographs found in the extensive Panda Associates collection at the University of Calgary Archives, capturing the range of commissions—major and minor—with which John B. Parkin Associates was involved in the 1950s and 1960s, including Toronto City Hall, the Ontario Association of Architects Headquarters, the Toronto-Dominion Centre, Yorkdale Mall, and an assortment of public schools, TTC bus exchanges, and a gas station. One might quibble that some examples of the firm’s designs for bank branches, or for the York University master plan, might have been included. But, considering the breadth and depth of John B. Parkin Associates’ prodigious body of work, not everything could make it. All the firm’s iconic landmark buildings are well represented among the book’s photographs.

Regent Gas Station, Toronto, 1949  From Panda Associates fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives (PAN 49759 1)

Regent Gas Station, Toronto, 1949. From Panda Associates fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives (PAN 49759-1).

An interview McMordie conducted with Parkin in late winter 1975, reproduced here as the closing chapter, provides the greatest rewards for readers. In what amounts to an extended monologue, Parkin reminisces about his early career and his collaborative partnership with John B. Parkin, and provides insights into his philosophy and practice. He references, for example, an outspoken curmudgeon who complained that Viljo Revell’s design for Toronto City Hall was setting up “vortex currents around the council chamber that would cause it to lift-off,” and his own proposal to preserve the city’s historic buildings by relocating them to the district around St. Lawrence Hall so that the downtown core could be a blank slate for development. With only one part of a three-part interview included, though, the chapter—and book—ends rather abruptly.

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The co-authors’ stated purpose is to cover only John C. Parkin’s peak period, which concluded when, in about 1970, John B. Parkin decamped to Los Angeles, and the firm split to form Neish, Owen, Roland and Roy (NORR) and the Parkin Partnership. Presumably, the available archival fonds don’t include holdings on John C. Parkin’s later, albeit less celebrated, career, or projects like his unbuilt plans for the National Art Gallery in 1975. Nevertheless, it’s disappointing to need to go elsewhere for discussion of the period up to his retirement in 1987, when John C. Parkin, Archives, and Photography could have easily included a timeline of key moments in Parkin’s life to fill in blanks not covered in the text—or just a full list of the projects Parkin designed throughout his career (and their specific addresses).

(Left: Toronto Transit Commission Bus Terminal, Bay and Adelaide, Toronto, 1947. From Panda Associates fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives (PAN 47645-7K).)

The authors have combed through the archives to present an interesting and illuminating introduction to and overview of John C. Parkin’s work—though in doing so, they’ve just started scratching the surface of the vast material available in the John B. Parkin Associates Fonds and Panda Associates Fonds. One hopes that this will be but the first in a series of books exploring Canadian architectural history and photography through the trove of resources held by the Canadian Architectural Archives at the University of Calgary—which features the largest collection of architectural drawings, photographs, and business records in the world.

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