Thomas A Markus

Born: March 15, 1928;

Died: July 12, 2023

Emeritus Professor Thomas A Markus, who has died aged 95, was the University of Strathclyde’s first professor of building science, a post he occupied from 1966 until his early retirement in 1986 when he became an emeritus professor of the university.

Professor Markus generated a thriving research base in the department. Typically the work conducted under his leadership was collaborative and interdisciplinary. He immediately attracted funding for the establishment of the Building Performance Research Unit (BPRU), which he directed. Staffed across a range of specialisms, its purpose was to develop tools to appraise how buildings, including schools and hospitals, performed for the people who use them. He further enabled and participated in the development of spin-off research units, yielding numerous publications co-authored with departmental colleagues. One such unit put forward ideas for the rehabilitation of tenements, this at a time when the City Council favoured wholesale demolition of tenement neighbourhoods, dispersal of their communities to peripheral estates, and redevelopment of the sites with high-rise schemes. Under Professor Markus’s aegis an architectural office was set up to implement alternative community-based ideas and in so doing helped to re-shape Glasgow’s housing policies.

He founded and chaired the campaigning organisation Right to Warmth in which architects, engineers, lawyers and doctors collaborated to conduct research into problems associated with dampness and fuel poverty in local authority housing. In March 1983 he appeared before the Scottish Affairs Committee of the House of Commons to present its findings. Questioned about the efficacy of external insulation and cladding, he spoke of a tower block (since demolished) in Greenock, insulated with sheets of a plastic foam, rendered-over. Suspicious of the fire properties of the material, he removed a piece for testing in the laboratory and, at the cost of a scorched arm, found it highly inflammable.

Tom’s warning is recorded verbatim in the minutes: “If there was a fire and flames came out of the windows at the bottom of the tower block… I reckon that the whole surface would ignite very shortly. And hot, burning pieces of this material would drop over the people escaping from the building.” Thirty-six years later he sadly brought this evidence to the attention of the Grenfell Tower inquiry.

Thomas A Markus was born in Budapest in 1928 into a wealthy Jewish family. In 1939, sensing what may lie ahead in a Hungary rife with antisemitism, the family departed for England. They arrived in November 1939, having made their way, by way of Italy and Switzerland and, at some risk, across the Channel. Tom and his older brother, Robert, were placed at Kingsmoor School in Glossop, Derbyshire. Both went on to study at Manchester University and thereafter, to have eminent academic careers: Robert as a historian of Late Antiquity and Tom as a radical thinker and teacher in the field of architecture.

As an undergraduate Tom was part of a student set that gravitated towards radical socialism and Catholicism. Following his brother he entered the Catholic Church, joined the Labour party and became a supporter of CND. For Tom religion, politics and architecture became interwoven: politics as the interface between religion and secular society and buildings as the social sphere in which his politics would be enacted. This synthesis gave direction to the twin roles Tom embraced throughout his professional career: the one as a social historian of building types, particularly those that emerged in Britain during the rise of capitalism; the other as a building pathologist addressing problems with contemporary buildings, particularly where — as he saw it — deleterious effects were visited upon those already disadvantaged in society. The groundwork for these roles was laid in his postgraduate years in Manchester and (on a Fulbright Fellowship) at MIT in America.

In 1956, soon after his return to Britain, he was appointed by Pilkington Brothers Ltd (then the world’s largest manufacturer of glass) to lead a research group looking into the ways windows and glass behave in buildings. At this time glass-clad and curtain-walled buildings were very much in fashion; in performance, however, they were generating a slew of problems. During the eight years Tom was with the company he built up the expertise in building science upon which his academic career was founded.

While technical problems with buildings on the ground continued to occupy Professor Markus well into his retirement, already in the 1980s his main interest was shifting to the more fundamental issue first raised in his Manchester thesis: as to how buildings, in organising people in space, act as agents in shaping society. A steady flow of publications began (in 1982) with Order in Space and Society, in which he wrote about the planning of hospitals, prisons, asylums and schools during the Scottish Enlightenment. It culminated in Buildings & Power, which appeared in 1993. The book challenges architects of public buildings to create socially progressive environments for their users.

For the most part Buildings & Power evoked highly favourable reviews. It was welcomed as “a book of extraordinary and lasting value” and as a “benchmark” for future architectural discourse. Most notably it was awarded the Sir Banister Fletcher Book Prize by the RIBA and the Authors' Club as the best book published on architecture and the fine arts in 1993.

The success of Buildings & Power encouraged its publishers to embark on the boundary-crossing series, Architext, to be co-edited by Tom. Its mission ¬- to bring architectural discourse centrally into the social sciences - had what in today’s parlance could be called a ‘woke’ agenda, particular attention being paid to issues of “gender, race, sexuality and the body” and to “the global and postcolonial contexts in which these are addressed”. Over 20 volumes were published in the series before the editors stepped down.

Towards the end of his time at Strathclyde Professor Markus became increasingly involved in issues relating to working conditions in industry, particularly for workers with disabilities Soon after his retirement he was appointed to the time-limited post of Jubilee Professor in Chalmers University of Technology at Gothenburg, Sweden, where he was attached to the Division of Industrial Architecture, tasked with overseeing its research programme.

Throughout his career Professor Markus was in international demand as a visiting lecturer, examiner, consultant, and educationalist. In this last role he advised on architectural curricula for institutions in Trabzon, Turkey, and at Katmandu, Nepal.

In 1954 Tom married Beryl McDermott, at the time one of the few women who had trained as a barrister. Beryl, ever an enabling force in Tom’s life, died in 2014. Though deeply affected by his loss, Tom’s final years proved to be a lesson on how to make the most of what life still has to offer towards its end. He spent much time in keeping his relationships with his family and friends in good repair. Always a champion of the disadvantaged, he became a volunteer with Oxfam bookshop. He continued to co-edit the Architext series. And even after undergoing major hip surgery at the age of 90 Tom continued to show his remarkable resilience in dealing with life’s challenges and setbacks.

He is survived by his six children, 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Peter Reed