Renowned Architect Still Making a Mark

October 14, 2014
By Matthew Totsky

If you’ve driven around Oakland County’s upscale suburbs or shopped for real estate throughout Metro Detroit, chances are you’ve seen the work of famed local architect Irving Tobocman. His sleek, contemporary designs — accentuated with white bricks, seemingly flat roofs and impeccable landscaping — stand out. A Tobocman-designed building still seems ahead of its time, although many have been around for nearly 60 years.

Tobocman graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Michigan in 1956. His first assignment was a set of apartments in Northwest Detroit near Six Mile and Greenfield roads. “They were the first flat-roofed contemporary apartments in town,” Tobocman says. “The project was a big hit and the apartments were rented out before the drywall was even finished. That was 58 years ago and I’ve been off and running ever since.”

At U-M, Tobocman studied the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe approach to architecture. While elements of the legendary German-American architect’s work can be found in Tobocman’s own creations, he admits that he’s still learning, even at this stage of his career. “Every building I’ve ever seen has influenced me in one way or another,” he says. “Not just the really good ones, but the bad ones, too. I learn something from every one of them.”

More than a building

A Tobocman-designed building can easily be identified from the exterior by its painted white brick and flat roofs. “I like white buildings because they look good 12 months a year,” Tobocman says. “In the snow, the sunlight, the shadows and in the moonlight. White buildings are universal. The roofs look flat, but they really aren’t. They’re slightly pitched and have internal drains instead of external gutters.”

Tobocman is quick to point out that to him, there’s more to architecture than the actual structure itself. “The driveway, patio, lighting — these things are all part of it,” he explains. “I don’t insist, but I try very hard to work on the interiors of the buildings I design. I feel strongly that a sofa is a part of the architecture as much as a window is. I’ve designed a lot of furniture for my homes.”

The same thing can be said about landscaping, he says. “I don’t know the difference between a maple tree and an oak, but I understand the scale and where the trees should be placed and how they affect the visualization of the building. It’s all about scale and appropriateness.”

The interiors of many Tobocman homes have white walls and floor-to-ceiling windows. While the architect realizes he has no control over how his clients decorate their homes once they’ve been built, he still has strong opinions about interior design. “To me, the house is the host to everything that comes into it — the art, the furniture, the people, and things like food and flowers,” he says. “I don’t like a lot of color built in. The people who visit the home bring the color. Walls built with materials that are favorites at the time are like a romance. You fall in love with something that’s your favorite at the time, but that love can be short-lived. Something like a piece of marble is timeless. It is beautiful now and will be beautiful 50 years from now. If something is good, it will be good forever.”

Business as usual

Over the years, Tobocman has done his fair share of commercial projects. “If you include apartments, then I’d say it’s been a 50-50 split between commercial and residential buildings,” he says. “I’ve done thousands of apartments in the ‘60s and ‘70s and well into the ‘80s. I also did the Max Fisher building on Telegraph and Maple, and the headquarters for Sandy Corporation on Big Beaver near Crooks in Troy. I’m presently working on a mixed-use building in Royal Oak and a new synagogue in Birmingham on North Old Woodward near Oak. The design for that one has already been approved by the planning commission.”

Tobocman’s designs aren’t confined to Michigan. If you know where to look, you’ll find them in 30 different states, throughout Canada and in England and the British West Indies. “There are two of them in Windsor across from Belle Isle,” he says. “But I won’t do a job unless I am able to supervise it. It doesn’t matter if it’s in California, Wisconsin or Florida. I’ll travel, but I don’t do anything overseas anymore.”

As he approaches his 82nd year, Tobocman doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. He’s reluctant to label his work with any particular architectural style. “They’re sleek, contemporary buildings,” he says. “I’ve applied different approaches from the early 20th century, but I wouldn’t say they fall into a certain category, like modernism. A building and architecture are meant to be in a place for 80-plus years. You have to be mindful of what you leave behind. Architecture is not fashion, and sooner or later, all of those ‘isms’ become ‘wasms’.” NS

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1 Comment

  • Susan Tobocman
    March 5, 2022 at 11:07 PM

    Thank you for this wonderful article about my father. FYI two of the photos here is not his house.

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