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Thursday December 24, 2009

Montreal architect designed Canada's first shopping centres

Special to the Globe and Mail

A Mac Kalman building rarely gave off the kind of avant-garde feel that would make the covers of architectural magazines. The more than 1,100 mostly workaday projects he oversaw could, however, chart the post-war development of Montreal commercial and real estate properties.

As an architect, he was obsessed with efficiency, both in a building's form and with the schedule and budget that got it up, leading him to be hired repeatedly by businessmen and developers.

From schools, synagogues and supermarkets to low-rent apartment blocks and expensive homes, his projects were institutional, commercial and residential, and most still dot the city in their original functions.

Despite him working under the radar of the design mavens, his name would make it into encyclopedic entries on modern Canadian architecture.

By way of some good postwar timing, Mr. Kalman happened to design the first shopping centre in Canada, which still stands today in the Montreal borough of St. Laurent.

Norgate Shopping Centre opened in 1949, a modest, uncovered, L-shaped strip of stores, with a parking lot that filled the inside of the "L." Its boast would be that it took care of its customers' shopping needs from just one location.

It was part of a larger project that he designed of modest family suites for postwar servicemen. The shopping centre was built to serve the new residents.

The concept - stringing shops together, anchored by larger stores Mr. Kalman referred to as "generators," - spread. His designs were used for Ottawa's first shopping centre, Westgate Mall, as well as several other Montreal malls, including the Van Horne Shopping Centre.

Maxwell Myron Kalman was a name he adapted from Maxie Kalmanovitch, the one he grew up with as the fourth child of Romanian immigrants.

His father, Ozias, was a house painter, roofer and general builder who sometimes found himself stalled at the planning stage of a get-rich-quick scheme.

As a boy walking to school, Maxie usually passed the busy office of an architecture firm and would stop to look in the window. He told himself that one day he was going to be an architect.

In the 1920s, he moved to New York to live with a stepsister, where he worked at odd jobs during the day and audited architecture courses at Columbia University at night. He came back to Montreal and enrolled in the architecture school at McGill University, where he graduated in 1931.

"Form follows function" was the dictum that was "hammered into the boys at McGill from first year on," he told Susan Bronson, Julie Desrochers and Naomi Lane, in one of the interviews they used in preparation for an exhibit they put together through the University of Montreal and McGill in 2006, on the occasion of his 100th birthday.

During the four summers of those university years, he was taken on as an intern by a large architectural firm, Ross & Macdonald, with the promise of a job upon graduation. But the firm was one of the many casualties of the Great Depression and Mr. Kalman was left on his own.

He hustled to get any contract he could, from garages to home additions. A big break came with the building that housed the union office for the Yiddish-speaking carpenters, the Workmen's Circle Centre, today the Sala Rosa, an alternative music venue as well as a Spanish social centre and restaurant.

During the first half of the 1940s, he was intent on contributing to Canada's war effort and refashioned a foundry in Joliette to help make parts for training aircraft and merchant-marine submarine detection.

Following the war, his reputation as an architect who could stretch a dollar further through his use of space, as well as someone who understood construction technology, really took off.

He designed several stores for the Steinberg's grocery chain and continued to specialize in residential housing. He had several repeat clients, many of whom would first hire him to design a commercial space and then their homes. His network was large, from labourers to philanthropists and from rabbis to businessmen.

According to Ms. Bronson, a former architectural professor who led the 100th birthday exhibit, the public tends to overlook the everyday architects like Mr. Kalman.

His son Hal, an architectural historian, says his métier is discovering that architects like his father can tell a lot about the society in which they lived. "He was of his time."

Maxwell Myron Kalman

Mac Kalman was born on May 30, 1906 in Montreal, where he died of pneumonia Nov. 27. He was 103. He leaves a son, Hal, stepdaughters Fran Yagod and Elsa Wendman and stepson Michael Abramowitz. He was predeceased by his first and second wives, Frances and Rose, and his son, Lawrence.

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