Waterloo Architecture remembers Morden Yolles
Morden Yolles, described by Waterloo Architecture University Professor Rick Haldenby as "a giant not only in the field of structural engineering but in design in general, in city building and food culture in Toronto" died peacefully at his home, surrounded by his family, on Monday, January 22, in his 99th year of life.
"Mordy was a major supporter of this School, and in some ways, he was the one who inspired us to move to Cambridge, when at a meeting of senior people in the profession he said: 'Rick, don’t add to that dog of a building; build something new.' He was wonderful, genteel and humane, brilliant and humble.”
In some ways, he was the one who inspired us to move to Cambridge
Professor John McMinn co-authored the 2002 book, Yolles: A Canadian Engineering Legacy with Beth Kapusta, sat down to answer some questions and expand on the life and career of Yolles.
WA. What impact did Morden Yolles have on your work?
JM. I had previously worked in the UK both in practice and on three book projects with world renowned engineer Peter Rice. Mordy was a big fan of Peter’s work, and after I moved to Toronto when Mordy was working on a special issue in Canadian Architect magazine on engineering practice and collaborations with architects, Mordy reached out to me to discuss exemplary engineering practice and the relationship to architecture in the European context. At the time I had little knowledge of the key works and key figures in Canadian modernism, that Mordy played such a pivotal role with, and through our conversations I learned about the work of the Yolles Engineering practice and the many inspiring collaborations Mordy and his office had with many key architects in North America from the founding of the practice in 1952, for over 50 years. One of the hallmarks of this was the innovative and creative use of concrete, in tall buildings, in residential architecture and in key institutional buildings, around the country – Trent University with Ron Thom and the News and Administration Building at Expo 67 with Irving Grossman are a couple of examples of projects featuring interesting concrete work, outlined in the book. Structural and decorative concrete design particularly in Ontario with Yolles and others, coupled with concrete forming trades, dominated by Italian immigrants who came to Ontario in great numbers after WWII, created a nexus of design innovation that was recognized widely in architectural and engineering publications of the time.
WA. You co-authored Yolles: A Canadian Engineering Legacy with Beth Kapusta. was there something that you learned through the research you took away from this project that you did not go into it with?
JM. Many things. The brilliant collaborations of Mordy and his principal partner in the early years, Roly Bergman, with pivotal architects like Peter Dickinson, Raymond Moryama, Irving Grossman and Jack Diamond to name just a few, was a reinforcement of what I had experienced in practice and in writing projects when I was living in the UK and France. In writing the Yolles book we spoke with all the key collaborators who were still living at the time, and we spent a great deal of time with Mordy visiting buildings they had designed. It was an immense privilege to get an inside look at these works and understand from Mordy the process, sometimes hard won, that gave rise to these seminal projects of Canadian Modernism. I had similar experiences in working both on design projects and on book projects with Peter Rice, and felt a tremendous privilege, working with Mordy to learn about and then to try to convey in our writing what goes into the making of great architecture that is born of the often fluid and intuitive collaboration between great figures in the parallel and yet very different professions of Engineering and Architecture.
WA. Is there a particular anecdote that summarizes his impact on the profession?
In the days after his passing, many people have remarked on some key character traits one couldn’t help but notice after spending even a little time with Mordy. People speak of his modesty, integrity and sincerity, all wonderful qualities he was so known for, but what I remember even more from my experience of spending time with Mordy when working on the book and other things we did together, is his sense of openness and almost childlike curiosity that Mordy exhibited. Many years ago Mordy formed a close and enduring friendship with the renowned Toronto photographer Ed Burtynsky, who spoke beautifully at Mordy’s funeral. In the process of doing the book we used a portrait Ed Burtynsky made of Mordy at the Toronto Zoo, to compliment the project description. In my mind that image of Mordy, hands raised to the heavens, perhaps in wonder, perhaps receiving some divine inspiration, speaks beautifully of the sense of openness and child-like enthusiasm and curiosity that were qualities I found so inspiring in Mordy Yolles. I think it was this sense of openness and curiosity that set a tone in his practice and contributed to the inspired collaborations that Mordy had with so many prominent architects over more than 50 years in practice, and left an indelible mark on Canadian Modernist architecture.
Recently Ed Burtynsky did another portrait of Mordy in his home in Toronto. It’s a panorama, showing Mordy surrounded by a plethora of artworks that fill his house. This too is a poignant portrait of a man who loved art and the relationship he developed with many artists. He continued collecting art right up till the end, and the diversity, quantity and sheer exuberance of his collection speaks further a life well lived, always engaged always curious, always interested in new experiences and relationships.
A 2001 Canadian Architect article co-authored by McMinn provides additional insight into Yolles’ work and impact on the profession in Canada.
Mordy was the son of Leon and Dora, the devoted husband of Edie, and the loving father of Eric and Dylan. He was the youngest brother of Burle, Ruby, Sylvia, and David and had a special bond with his sisters-in-law Louise Yolles and Gerry Wasserman. He was the beloved uncle of Catherine, Ian, Joanne, Vanessa, Jeffrey, Hal, Aaron, and Michael and their partners and children.