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Architect René Menkès helped Canadian cities reach for the sky



“Keep moving forward” was the personal mantra of architect René Menkès as he migrated from Nazi-occupied Paris to a welcoming Montreal, and through his long career reshaping skylines across Canada.

Mr. Menkès, who died on Oct. 7 of complications from pneumonia, made his mark through the design of towers. As a partner with the firm WZMH, he led the design of the National Bank of Paris Building and Cathedral Square, among a half-dozen major buildings in downtown Montreal; he also oversaw the Royal Bank Plaza in downtown Toronto, with its thin coating of gold, which supplanted the bank’s Montreal headquarters. In the eighties, he led the design of the Aquitaine tower at La Défense, outside Paris.

René Menkès was born on Feb. 10, 1932, in Paris to Issia and Tussia (née Sobelevitch) Menkès. His father and mother were both Jews who had immigrated to Paris – from Russia and Germany respectively – and by the 1930s, they saw clearly the threat of fascism. In 1939 they made a long visit to Montreal, considering it as a potential home; and when the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, they had tickets ready for their Atlantic passage.

It was a lucky escape – a quarter of French Jews would be murdered during the Holocaust. Young René was not obviously marked by the experience or by his transition to life in Canada. “He found Montreal a very welcoming place,” his daughter Alexandra says. “And as he grew older, he thought of himself as European but also a Canadian first.”

Mr. Menkès learned to play hockey, attended the prestigious Lower Canada College and while still in elementary school, discovered his intellectual passion: architecture. He liked to draw and paint pagodas, and soon other types of buildings spotted in magazines.

He began architecture school in 1948, at the age of 16. “I was at that time clearly determined to go into architecture. There was no other thought in mind,” he told a McGill University researcher in a 1999 interview.

He first attended Dawson College, with a class including war veterans (“We grew up very fast at that point,” he recalled). He then enrolled in McGill’s five-year program. The curriculum was Modernist but also, similar to more traditional schools, emphasized drawing. Arthur Lismer taught a weekly class in freehand sketching, at which Mr. Menkès excelled. His class of 16 students included several who would have rich careers in architecture in the postwar years: Louis Papineau and Guy Lajoie, who would found PGL and design Mirabel Airport; and Dimitri Dimakopoulos, of the Montreal firm that would design Place des Arts.

Mr. Menkès had his first experience of designing skyscrapers in New York. He moved there in 1955 and took a job at Harrison & Abramovitz. The firm had some of the most important commissions in New York City and the state; the young Mr. Menkès, according to his daughter, worked on the Time & Life Building and the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. “He loved big projects, and it must have been very exciting for him to work in that environment in Manhattan,” Alexandra Menkès said.

He also met the love of his life. On a blind date with friends, he encountered Ann Sullivan, a fashion model; the two were married within a year, in 1959. They would go on to have three children in the next decade.

The newlyweds returned to Montreal in 1960, and Mr. Menkès took a job with the young British-Canadian architect Peter Dickinson. Mr. Dickinson’s office, based in Toronto, was a hotbed of Modernist design in Canada, and the architects soon had projects across Ontario, in the North and in Montreal. Mr. Menkès, who ran the Montreal office, would regularly jet into Toronto for meetings – which a recent book about Mr. Dickinson recalls as heavily male and filled with clouds of cigarette smoke – but always returned to Montreal. In that first year the office was designing the Tour CIBC, next to Dorchester Square, which would open in 1962 as one of the city’s tallest buildings.

There would be more towers, but without Mr. Dickinson. He died of cancer in late 1961 at the age of 35. A group of even younger associates, including Mr. Menkès, established themselves as Webb Zerafa Menkès Housden, or WZMH.

WZMH became a force in Canadian architecture in the 1960s and 1970s, designing or contributing to office towers and institutional buildings across the country, including Calgary’s Municipal Building and the CN Tower.

Mr. Menkès’s Montreal office specialized in high-rises. “There was a strong Modernist aesthetic in the office, and he was a strong proponent of that,” says Carl Blanchaer, an architect who began working with Mr. Menkès at WZMH in 1981 and is now a principal of that firm. “He was trying to find a timeless language for architecture.”

That language was in keeping with the dominant ideas of the Late Modernist period: Mr. Menkès’s buildings were sometimes in concrete but increasingly with skins of reflective glass. These were intended to break up their large masses and evoked an orderly and technologically advanced future.

WZMH grew quickly, and by the 1980s had hundreds of employees and a handful of foreign offices. Mr. Menkès was interested in both the financial and human aspects of such a large operation, his daughter recalls. “Architecture is very much about working with a team of people, and he really prized those collaborations. It’s also a business and he understood that clearly.”

But unlike many executives in fast-growing businesses – and many architects – Mr. Menkès by all accounts was a warm and thoughtful colleague. “He had a real generosity of spirit,” Mr. Blanchaer remembers. “He was a very gracious person; he was able to draw on the talents of the people around him and didn’t feel the need to claim credit.”

He did, however, enjoy a new challenge. Moving forward, in 1994, he parted amicably with WZMH to launch a second firm, which would become Menkès Shooner Dagenais LeTourneux (MSDL). He recruited two younger architects from WZMH, Yves Dagenais and Anik Shooner, as his partners, and the young firm continued to specialize in offices and high-rises. “He was deeply interested in pleasing the client and ensuring that the building really functioned the way it should,” Mr. Dagenais says.

The firm continued his specialization in large commercial buildings and carried on Mr. Menkès’s tradition of creating a humane workplace. “He really understood that to have a great building, you need happy people,” Mr. Dagenais adds. “We learned a lot from that about how to run a practice and run an office.”

Mr. Menkès retired from practice in 2009, but continued to drop into the office frequently, Ms. Shooner recalls. “He was a very warm person and always ready to offer advice. We always valued that.”

Mr. Menkès, who was 87, leaves his wife, Ann; three children, Katrina, John and Alexandra; and two grandchildren.

His professional highlights with MSDL included designing the headquarters of the Canadian Space Agency in St. Hubert, Que., whose aerodynamic forms and sleek metal cladding “really captured the aspirations of the agency to lead the way with space travel,” Mr. Dagenais says.

That building also prefigured a change in architecture. The glass skins that had been so fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s disappeared. And while all-glass towers have had a renaissance in the past decade, Mr. Blanchaer suggests that the next generation of commercial buildings will be less carbon-intensive and more energy efficient. This is already evident in MSDL’s recent work.

Ms. Shooner suggests that Mr. Menkès would have been more than ready to make this change. “He was always ready to embrace the future, and he wanted to build something that would survive him. I think he was proud that our office will do that.”

Edited by Shawn in Montreal
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