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Two Take Toronto

Seventies grads help power the stratospheric growth of Canada’s largest city

Toronto is a tall-shouldered city. I.M. Pei–designed towers soar above the financial district at King and Bay with windows that face the CN Tower and the lakeshore. But beyond this financial hub of Canada, pockets of culture beckon, from boutiques and music clubs on Queen Street West to the spicy scent of idli sambar wafting from the doorways of Little India eateries. Deeply entrenched in this stewy mix of on-fire industry and global culture are two compatriots, Rob Prichard ’71, H’07, and Marianne McKenna ’72, who got together one recent morning to talk about their shared past and present.

Toronto is an increasingly bike-friendly city, and mornings find Prichard pedaling through crosstown traffic to his jobs—chairmanships of three of the city’s major institutions: Metrolinx, a transit authority that aims to ease the congestion throughout the greater Toronto area; the Bank of Montreal, one of the city’s top five banks; and Torys LLP, an international business law firm. All three of his office buildings, where he serves as an adviser, coach, and mentor, are within several yards of one another.

When Toronto Life recently listed the city’s most influential people, Prichard ranked 14th, three places higher than author Margaret Atwood. The magazine dubbed him “the most connected man in Toronto.” Having been the second-youngest-ever president of the University of Toronto from 1990 to 2000, then CEO of Torstar Corp., a leading Canadian media company, from 2002 to 2009, certainly enhanced his visibility.

While he may be the most connected, the person who’s had a stronger hand in shaping Toronto’s physical landscape is McKenna, a founding partner of the architecture firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (KPMB).


The firm is currently expanding and renovating historic Massey Hall, the concert venue that has hosted musical greats from Glenn Gould to Neil Young, and designing new academic buildings for Northwestern and Boston universities and the Banff Center, among other projects throughout Canada and the United States. Founded in 1987, KPMB has won 14 Governor General’s medals, given to visionary Canadian architects. McKenna’s past projects range from a paradigm-shifting women’s prison to the stunning Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory.

As Prichard proudly notes, “Marianne is one of the most celebrated architects in Canada and well beyond.” That status was recognized in 2010 when the Women’s Executive Network named her one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women.

An even greater honor came two years later, when McKenna was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada “for crafting architecture that enriches the public experience.”

Prichard, who earned the Order in 1994, says, “It is the highest civilian honor; it’s a recognition of things you’ve done, but you didn’t do them to get recognized. You did them because that’s what you do, and you enjoy doing it.”

Receiving the award, says McKenna, “was empowering, and it’s a powerful tool.”

Both McKenna and Prichard wear the discrete snowflake emblem of the Order on their jacket lapels, a practice McKenna began, she says with a laugh, when “Christopher Plummer told me to.”

These days the friends are teaming up on Metrolinx, whose task is to transform the way the city moves the 6 million people who live in the greater Toronto area. Metrolinx is, reports Toronto Life, “one of the city’s most powerful entities with 200 infrastructure projects on the go or completed across the region.” McKenna serves with Prichard on the board.

While McKenna claims her style is to be the good, patient Canadian, Prichard scoffs: “She’s not patient. Don’t be fooled. She’s the most relentless professionally accomplished person you can imagine. I see it in action on Metrolinx. She’s obsessive about design excellence and making everything we do better.”


“In Toronto we have so much infusion of culture, visual arts, music, food, and broad-minded thinking,” says McKenna. “We value our public spaces.” Part of her intent on the Metrolinx board is to safeguard those spaces in a city that Prichard says is “alive with action and energy and growth. Marianne and I are lucky that the place we chose to have our families and build our lives and careers has been on fire.

“What’s different now about Toronto is that success here, whether in higher education or architecture, means participating in a global community,” he adds. “You’re stroking in the top league. Marianne doing projects from a Toronto base has a positive halo as opposed to what it would have meant 40 years ago.”

More than four decades ago, Prichard and McKenna landed at Swarthmore a year apart but with a lot in common. Prichard grew up in Toronto, McKenna in Montreal. Both had physician fathers and a familiarity with American higher education—McKenna, through her American cousins, Prichard through his father’s faculty connections at the University of Toronto.

Prichard entered the College, as he says, “on the bootstraps of my sister, [Jane ’68]” concerned that he couldn’t keep up academically. After working hard for a year, he says, “I found I could do the work with everybody else. From then on, the big experiences of Swarthmore were all about the social, the political activism, the unfolding of the world. It was transformative for me in every respect. I came out a very different, more experienced, more worldly person than when I arrived.

“You were more worldly when you arrived,” Prichard says to McKenna. (He met her when he showed up to check out the new Canadians.) She nods, recalling family trips to Europe and that the wardrobe her father bought her “to come down to the American school” was by André Courrèges, “very radical, very chic.”

At Swarthmore, she found there was a uniform—jeans and T-shirts. “I didn’t have any clothes,” she recalls. “I had to rip the epaulets off my gabardine raincoat, and that’s what I wore, and black velvet pants that I got somewhere. It undid my worldliness. It was a very unusual time.”


That first year, she would find out just how unusual. Here she was a Canadian and a woman, someone without a gun in the fight that was the Vietnam War and its fallout—the protests, rioting, racial unrest. In her adopted country, chaos swirled.

“Coming up to Christmas [1969], all hell broke loose on campus,” Prichard explains. “The African-American students took over the admissions office over racism in admissions and policies around the school, and I think they probably had it about right. It led to the sudden, almost overnight radicalization of the campus.

“It was really interesting to see the rules fall over, literally through broad civil disobedience,” says Prichard. “The world just changed. And the rules of the campus changed radically over about a three-week period because it was clear that a new set of norms had been established, and it was a better place. From being a university president to running a transit agency, my political values and my ambitions about leading a purposeful life were formed in those days.”

For McKenna, hearing the “spirit of dialogue that existed and the receptivity to change” during the tumultuous time on campus had a lasting impact. She says, “It took me almost 30 years to realize that the level of engagement we had, despite the disruption, the radicalism, was really important. I’ve never felt like, as a woman, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ That did not exist in the Swarthmore coed environment. A lot of that was based on the Quaker context. It was a time of investigation, but also you could feel community. It took me a long time to realize that so many of the projects I do in the city are about building community.”

Partly because of the constant tumult, Prichard took a semester off to attend Pomona College, then returned when similar issues erupted in California. After two and a half years, having switched from engineering to economics, he enrolled in a University of Chicago summer program that resulted in an invitation to stay and do an MBA. He accepted and didn’t complete his Swarthmore B.A. but later earned two law degrees as well as the MBA.

Back at Swarthmore, McKenna, an art history major, was auditing philosophy courses, taught by Daniel Bennett, who the FBI felt was radical enough to warrant watching. McKenna would return to her home in Montreal and see the disbelief on her father’s face when she told him about “the radical activities afoot, the [FBI] infiltration.”


One of the most memorable experiences for these two Canadians was enacted in Old Tarble, the student center that burned down in the 1980s. There, nervous men and sympathetic women gathered to hear draft numbers announced. One’s number determined the likelihood of being sent to Vietnam.

“I had no skin in the game, other than to observe,” says Prichard. “But for many of our classmates, that meant they had to contemplate civil disobedience, becoming a conscientious objector, or leaving the country.” Both Prichard’s and McKenna’s families provided aid to classmates who crossed the border to avoid the draft.

“I think the draft actually populated Toronto with many great urban thinkers and architects—some of whom we worked for and many of whom we continue to work with to this day,” says McKenna.

Prichard agrees that the wave of innovative Americans who moved to Canada during the Vietnam War helped fuel the ascent of Toronto these last 40 years. “If you dig deep enough, in every field of enterprise, from the university to community organizations, to everything we do in Toronto, especially on the activist/progressive side, you’ll find the aftermath of that. It was terrific for Canada, and Toronto was the biggest beneficiary.”

McKenna concurs: “The city has changed radically in that almost 40-year period to become a city with a huge ambition, with great tolerance, and wonderful technology.”

While these two snowflake-wearing Swarthmoreans could have excelled anywhere, they chose to channel their energies into bettering this city of 6 million by the lake.

“Robertson Davies, who was the master of Massey College, said that life begins when you make a commitment,” says McKenna. “That was something that really struck me. I didn’t want to come to Toronto; I had to come to Toronto to be able to work in my profession. But once you make a commitment—in a marriage, in a profession, to a city— your whole world evolves.”