"To have a passion for society you must be an integrated, participating member."
Martin Cohos is a visionary architect and community leader who has helped to shape the Calgary skyline. He is man guided by a relentless sense of curiosity about the world, a great passion for society and a strong commitment to living fully and in a way that enhances the quality of life enjoyed by his fellow citizens.
Martin was born in Montreal on March 23, 1935 and grew up in a traditional Jewish Orthodox household. His parents came to Canada as children in 1910 when the residents of the Romanian community of Yos immigrated en masse to North America. His father, Abe, was a tailor and also served in the First World War. His mother, Rose, was a homemaker. Despite the family’s limited means, Martin felt unaffected by the economic realities of the Depression. He was happy to have clothes on his back, food to eat and school to attend. He grew up playing in the streets of his working-class Jewish neighbourhood and working to heed his father’s advice to be the best he could possibly be with any goal he set for himself.
One of the advantages Martin did enjoy was attending Baron Byng High School, which offered rigourous academic standards and fostered many students who went on to become prominent citizens. By age 16, Martin was ready for post-secondary school and enrolled in engineering at McGill University. After a year he switched to architecture, much to the dismay of his father who foresaw little opportunity for his son with such a choice. In the spring of 1957, as he was completing his studies, Martin came across an advertisement for summer student placements in Regina. He and a friend called the office and were signed up on the spot. They then raced across campus in search of an atlas to pinpoint where exactly they’d be spending their summer. Once settled in the west they continued to explore the map and found themselves drawn to Alberta for a weekend of mountain climbing. That first visit to Calgary was all Martin needed to see. In describing his soon-to-be home Martin says, “it was just glorious…an instant love affair.”
By the end of 1958, Martin’s life had changed dramatically. He had married his sweetheart Gertrude Medjuck and was a freshly-minted McGill alumnus with a Bachelor of Architecture degree under his belt. The day after graduation the couple packed their bags for Calgary and by the end of year they had become parents to their first child, Peter. Martin worked hard and by 1960 he had established a business that, in time, became known as Cohos Evamy and Partners, one of Canada’s major architectural, engineering, interior design and urban planning firms. As the firm grew so did the Cohos household, with daughters Elizabeth and Tamara welcomed into the family.
A trademark that pervades the architectural approach of Martin Cohos is a desire to design spaces that have a strong sense of humanity and allow people to sense the joy that went into a building’s creation. He wants users to feel welcome and safe and, above all, to feel energized, engaged and part of a community. Martin’s portfolio of landmark buildings spans a wide range of sectors and includes Bankers Hall, Eau Claire Market, Western Canada Place and Shaw Court in Calgary and CSIS Headquarters in Ottawa.
Martin’s contributions also include a diverse portfolio of community organizations for which he has served as a volunteer and philanthropist, such as the Calgary Planning Commission, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, the United Way, the Calgary Hebrew School and the Jewish Community Foundation. He has also been a longstanding participant in political debate at the civic, provincial and federal levels and has served as a dedicated fundraiser and campaign worker, living true to a personal axiom that “if you believe in democracy, you must be a political activist.” In between the obligations of work and community service, Martin has fed his passion for adventure and outdoor pursuits which have ranged from running marathons and cycling through the Rockies to taking part in 10 Himalayan expeditions and travelling the world.
Another aspect of Martin’s work over the years reflects his strong belief in the power and importance of education. He has long served as a proponent of what he describes as the “obligation and privilege of mentorship” and has helped to create numerous permanently endowed scholarships at SAIT Polytechnic, the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta as well as the national Cohos Evamy Architectural Scholarship Competition. If there’s one place where Martin’s vision and commitment to education can be fully experienced, it’s the SAIT Calgary campus. His connections to the school stretch back to 1960 when he served as an instructor. By 1975, he was helping the institute grow as a private architect with a commission to complete numerous buildings. He returned to SAIT in 1990 to serve a five year term as a member of the Board of Governors.
Martin’s work and his life took a dramatic turn in 1997 when he was diagnosed with cancer. He made the decision to immediately retire from Cohos Evamy Partners and step away from his community work so he could focus fully on his recovery. He emerged from the illness with a new lease on life and a renewed passion for service.
In 1999, Martin began what he calls his “post-professional career.” He returned to SAIT as executive director of campus expansion, a job that he interviewed for in front of a panel of 30 top executives. The title won, he offered his full-time services at an annual rate of $1 and then set about leading an aggressive, wide-spread building campaign that dramatically changed the face of the school. In 2002 SAIT’s sports fields were renamed Cohos Commons in his honour.
Martin has also generously donated his services as an advisor to the Banff Centre, the Glenbow Museum, Pier 21 in Halifax and the Salvation Army Summer Camp. A notable contribution was his six-year long service as senior architect, planner and adviser to Heritage Park in Calgary where he lent his expertise to projects including a new entrance for the facility. Martin also worked with Temple B’Nai Tikvah and Living Spirit United Church in Calgary to create a unique shared spiritual facility.
Martin’s contributions were recognized in 2004 with an Honourary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Calgary. In 2005, he was named one of the 50 Greatest Albertans by Alberta Venture Magazine, became a Paul Harris Fellow with Rotary International and was awarded the Alberta Centennial Medal. He is a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and recipient of the Generosity of Spirit Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
The motivation that drives Martin Cohos is as straightforward as it is powerful. He says, “You have to give something back…it really is exciting when you can not only take but you can give…it’s a beautiful completion of life!”