Renowned contemporary architect Irving Tobocman killed in car crash
Irving Tobocman, the renowned Birmingham architect was killed Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, in a car crash in Bloomfield Township, Mich. He was 84.
BIRMINGHAM, Mich. — His work would be classified as modern, but the homes and buildings that Irving Tobocman designed over the years are considered by many to be timeless masterpieces.
The renowned Birmingham architect, recognized around the world for his sleek, contemporary designs, was killed Friday in a car crash.
“I would call him a modern master,” fellow architect Victor Saroki said Monday. “He grew up in that era of architecture and was quite prominent in the Birmingham/Bloomfield area for a lot of the modern homes he did.”
The Nov. 10 crash occurred at the intersection of Telegraph and Lone Pine roads in Bloomfield Township. Initial reports indicate a 2016 Jeep Wrangler, traveling northbound on Telegraph, ran the red light and collided with Tobocman’s 2004 Ford Thunderbird that was traveling westbound on Lone Pine on a green light.
Police say the driver of the Jeep, a 16-year-old Bloomfield Hills resident, was taken to a local hospital and listed in stable condition. A female passenger in her vehicle was also taken to the hospital and listed in stable condition.
Both girls attend Bloomfield Hills High School. While the crash remains under investigation, police do not believe alcohol played a role in the accident.
Tobocman, 84, was pronounced dead at a local hospital. His two children, musicians David and Susan Tobocman, live in Los Angeles and New York, respectively. On Monday, they sat together at their father’s home in Birmingham and talked about his life.
“He worked until the day he died,” Susan Tobocman said. “He designed over 400 buildings in California, New York, Texas, Florida, Canada, India and other places. He was truly a giant in his field.”
He did everything by hand, with pencil and paper instead of computer. He approached each project like Frank Lloyd Wright, taking artistic control of every detail from the landscaping to the cabinetry. At the same time, he was a disciple of the Bauhaus Movement that flourished in the early 20th century and produced contemporary icons such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn.
“He always said a key understanding of proportion and materials was the essence of his designs,” David Tobocman said. “Homes were his specialty, but he also designed stores and restaurants and commercial buildings, synagogues and large apartment complexes.”
His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Poland in the 1920s. Growing up in Detroit, Tobocman developed an artistic flair at a young age, along with a love of music and literature. He graduated with a bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Michigan in 1956. His first project was a set of apartments near Six Mile and Greenfield roads in northwest Detroit.
“We actually lived there for several years,” Susan Tobocman said. “There were two apartment buildings and my grandmother owned one of them.”
Closer to home, he designed the Max Fisher Federation Building on Telegraph Road and the headquarters for the Sandy Corp. on Big Beaver in Troy.
The family then moved to Franklin Village in 1967, where Tobocman built a house on a two-acre wooded parcel. It was one of the first contemporary homes in the area and the two children have memories of passersby pulling over in their cars to take photos of the uniquely-designed structure.
After his children grew up and moved away, Tobocman moved into a house he designed in downtown Birmingham.
“He never liked those towering ceilings or open floor plans,” David said. “He didn’t like to exceed more than 12 feet with his ceilings … but the hallway going into the room always had a lower ceiling to give you a sense that you were moving into something larger. It was a matter of scale of proportion.”
He liked to fill his homes with candlelight and fireplaces, crystal goblets and sterling silver. Susan said his vision was a juxtaposition of modern sensibility, peppered with a mix of antiques, contemporary furnishings and the comforts of home.
“It was much more eclectic than one might expect from the outside of his homes,” she said.
A Tobocman-designed home came with certain signature markings — the flat roofs and white painted brick, oak trim, floor-to-ceiling windows and lots of skylights. Tobocman loved the integration of nature with his work and always tried to create a seamless transition from the outdoors to the indoors.
To Tobocman, designing a home was like putting together a puzzle. He started with the land, always allowing the topography and particular flora to suggest the shape and materials of the house. Whether it was a small home or a large one, he always tried to create a sense of continuity in which one room flowed into the other.
“Even with those gargantuan 18,000-square-foot homes, he would insist on creating these small intimate spaces,” David said. “He never wanted to make you feel like a mouse inside this gigantic room.”
Tobocman’s younger brother Alfred was the building contractor on many of his projects.
“They were incredibly close,” David said of his father and uncle. “They were best friends throughout their lives. Al helped my father marshal his vision and bring it into the world.”
Susan said her dad had a razor-sharp mind, always hungry for knowledge and new experiences. He never rested on his laurels and never planned to stop working.
He was also a staunch supporter of the community, holding fundraisers at his home in Birmingham to help inner-city theater groups, Democratic politicians, local and national and other causes.
“He loved to be around people and he loved jazz — that’s what got him out of the house,” she said. “He was a pillar of the Detroit jazz scene — all the jazz musicians knew him.
"Both David and I are career musicians," she added. "He always encouraged us to follow our passion instead of following a career just to make money, a strategy that actually worked for both us. He was also a great musician who could play almost anything by ear.”
While the two children celebrate the man, they bear the pain of losing their dad — and a close friend.
“He came to New York just a few weeks ago,” Susan said. “He and my son were so close … he loved to visit his grandchildren on both coasts. He loved his family so much.”
Follow Jay Grossman on Twitter: @BhmEccentric