November 13, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson
Tell me how you decided to become an architect.
Well, I grew up in an architect’s family so I guess I knew a lot about architecture from the start. My dad had been a McGill architect as well. I guess, well the story I’d like to tell is that for my sixth birthday, I was given the working model for Place Bonaventure to look at since the building was being built and the architects had no further use for the working model. Unfortunately, we, being four boys in the family, we put it in the basement which is where we also played hockey and took the attitude that the building had been built and the working model wasn’t all that valuable and it sort of became demolished in our basement, but it gave me the time to understand how a building was put together by taking it apart.
I guess it was only natural that when you decided to become an architect that you were going to go to McGill or was that an issue at the time?
I guess I wanted to stay in Montreal. I wouldn’t say it was so much McGill per se. I knew in a certain way the tradition of the school without necessarily knowing the details and I wanted to stay in Montreal. So-
What year did you start your courses at McGill in Architecture?
I started in 1980.
Tell us about, not necessarily in a sequential order, but some of the thoughts you have of McGill, the professors, the students, the courses, your influences, inhibitions.
I guess one of my favourite teachers was Gerry Tondino, partly because he wasn’ t actually an architect. He was a pretty important influence. And I started at the end of the reign of Stuart Wilson and Peter Collins. I think my first week at the school was Stuart Wilson’s retirement party. He was still very present in my years as a kind of a presence, distinguished presence after he wasn’t teaching studio anymore. And I also was lucky enough to have Peter Collins in his last year that he taught.
So that was the last full year that he taught.
That was the last full year that he taught, which was my first year 1980-81, yes.
Was Peter one of the professors that you enjoyed going to lectures with?
Well, he was very theatrical. They were shows. I mean, he took a lot of pleasure in- he was a world-class historian and academic but he also understood that a major part of education was entertainment. He made sure we were always very entertained. He wanted to keep our attention and get the message across. So there were lots of theatrics, which certainly made it an event, every lecture.
Otherwise History can be a boring subject.
Yeah, it certainly wasn’t boring with Peter Collins. I guess the great thing about Peter Collins was that there was still a connection between the historians and practice in his time. He considered himself somebody who was really contributing to the active practice of architecture by studying history, which certainly now there’s more of a division between those two things. So I feel lucky that I still saw the end of that idea of connecting those two pursuits.
I guess the courses continued in History, he was no longer teaching-
There’s always History being taught.
But who taught it subsequent to him? Was it John Bland or Annmarie Adams or someone-?
Annmarie, I guess when they hired Annmarie, she’s taken over a lot of them and Ricardo teaches a lot of the courses. And Bruce. And, of course, they have Alberto, who sort of, as a theoretician has replaced Peter Collins in that role.
And who replaced Stuart Wilson in terms of the role that he served at the school?
Well, he was one of the very strong studio professors. I’m sure that in most of your interviews with people from the sixties or seventies, you’re going to hear a lot about Stuart Wilson.
Sure. That’s an understatement! I’m just trying to think of some of the other professors. Was Bruce in the school then?
Yeah, Bruce was there. And I had, we had David Covo first year and Bruce. Rad Zuk was very strong on his- all his grids and his very rational approach to architecture.
The time I was at McGill was the beginning of post-modernism, really. The year I started was the year that Ronald Reagan was elected; sort of a right-wing shift in America, post-modernism came in. I remember I hadn’t been in school for a few years before I went to McGill and when I got there, there were other third and fourth year students who were wearing shirts and ties, which to me seemed really a strange aberration. It wasn’t my idea of what a university was and that certainly hadn’t been my experience in being out of school. But that was sort of the spirit of the early eighties. Michael Graves was the architect that everybody looked at. Mies was, you couldn’t even mention his name. He had been completely given up for dead and buried and long gone. And it’s interesting to see how, well by 1990, it had sort of come full circle. He was very much a favourite name.
Of all the professors that you associated with, were there any particular ones that had a strong influence on you either personally or career-wise?
Well, Rad, I think Rad Zuk was a strong influence in the sense that I don’t really- the hyper-rationalist approach I don’t really agree with, but the fact that he challenged, he actually had a method that he proposed that we follow, challenged me to decide whether that particular approach suited me or not. It was a very systematic, modernist approach to complex problems. He was always interested in the complex problems, really, the larger organizational problems. So I- and I respected a lot that he developed a very particular, didactic method that he helped us learn. The whole- his idea of these matrices where you would figure out ideal relationships, I found sort of absurd. I more went with the idea that you would intuitively discover what seemed to feel right, like putting a pair of shoes on and when they felt right, you knew that you were on your way. But the rigor of that approach I certainly respected and mostly because I probably wouldn’t do it the same way. He was a very strong influence.
Well, you mentioned earlier about Gerry Tondino. I assume all he taught you was the Freehand Sketching and Sketching School.
But in terms of attitude towards design or creative process, those were the actual things that you were learning, how to draw. Maybe they aren’t directly related to architecture but in terms of your respect for your own creative process it was very important.
What about, I’m trying to think, was John Bland- did he have any influence at the school at the time?
He was still teaching some history courses. I unfortunately didn’t have a chance to-. He was present at the school, to some extent. More he was working a lot on his catalogue and he had his room at the library.
And Bruce or David, they were on the staff, you mentioned?
Yeah, it was an era when Derek was the Director and it was the last years in the old McConnell Building. I think they moved maybe two or three years- I think they moved in the late eighties. So we were in the old McConnell Building still.
And the other question that is inevitably asked is what was the course that either you liked the most or the one that influenced you the most?
Well, probably Freehand Drawing. I took first year Freehand Drawing every year. You only had to take it once but I managed to take it every year all the way through school. And probably after second year, I took second year Freehand Drawing every year too. So I just continued to-. But, like I say, that was mostly Gerry’s approach, more like a hockey coach would be, that it was a question of developing your attitude and your approach and your confidence and your creative process. In the end in architecture, a lot of the technical things or the knowledge are things that you are going to learn while you work. But that other thing is something that a teacher can really help you with. It’s your overall attitude or your commitment.
Another question we always like to ask is how about some of your classmates? Do you keep in touch with any of them or did any of them have an influence on your life?
Yeah, a lot… Not necessarily from my year, but from that era. We still play hockey one night a week with about five or six architects who are still from the same hockey team. We managed to win the McGill B-League Intramural Championship when I was there. So that team still, with Randy Cohen as a coach and Howard Davies and Duncan Swain, Danny Pearl. A lot of the same people are still in Montreal and we still haven’t grown up. We still play garage-league hockey!
Anyhow. Tell me, what year did you graduate?
1985. And after that, what did you do? Did you start a practice immediately or did you-?
Well, you have to do your stage. I worked for two or three years. The late eighties were- there was a lot of work in Montreal. So I worked at Arcop and at Jodoin Lamarre Pratte, which were two of the bigger firms. And the main thing I could learn from those experiences is I wasn’t particularly interested in working for anybody else. I didn’t learn very much about architecture, but that was a good thing to learn. So I started very early on my own and I would- in terms of my training was sort of self-taught by doing very small- the smallest residential projects at the beginning. It’s been seven or eight years that I’ve been working on my own.
I’m trying to think. In your studies at McGill, were there any as you look back now, were there any deficiencies in terms of things that perhaps they should have taught but they didn’t or they should have taught better or any shortcomings to the course? You can say what you want because you get no [unclear].
Well, it’s funny, because at lunch today, for my office lunch we were talking about having- I was at one of the other universities, at University of Montreal yesterday for a crit and they have a new building. I’m changing the discussion to a different school, but people are complaining about the design of the studios that they’re noisy or they’re this. You know, the more I think about school I mean really it, you know, in Europe, it’s up to the students to create their own curriculum. There was a student revolt in the last year I was there in 1985 and I actually didn’t participate in the revolt. I wouldn’t sign the letter. I had no complaints; I had been out of school for a while before I went back to Architecture and I had a great time. I didn’t- maybe I had less illusions about the idea the professors were also human beings and some were a little better at their job than others and every one of them had good points and bad points and they were people and I thought it was a pretty good place.
The nature of the revolt then was in order to have the curriculum changed and get rid of perhaps some of professors, I guess, eh?
I think most revolts- I remember thinking about the revolt, it’s usually the most sort of vociferous or meanest revolts are usually the very best students who have never been out of school, gone right through their training from primary, high school right through. And when you get to the end of the line when you are going to graduate, you’re basically being kicked out. I mean, you don’t understand if you were a star and were great at this system why you should have to leave. I think the revolt was mostly based about mostly based on being upset about not getting to be a fourth-year architecture student star for the rest of your life. That last year is a great year. If you could do that for the next thirty years, it would be great but it only happens one year in your life. So they were sort of annoyed or angry that they couldn’t repeat that. That’s sort of how I looked at the revolt, eh. It seemed to me pretty clear. Of course, I think everybody who organized the revolt is now a professor in an architectural school as well, which was, you could sort of see that coming. And the reason they were concerned about architecture professors was that that was their real ambition or that’s what they were planning to do.
To get into the same profession.
To get into the same, yeah. So they were being critical about something that was- really at the time they wouldn’t have said that they were going to be professors but I think most of the people in the revolt- I maybe had less particular interest in full-time teaching.
Are you doing any teaching today?
Yeah, for seven or eight years I taught some of the studios at McGill. I mostly just do invitational crits. We’ve had a lot more- I have a couple of young children and a very little young- both the family and the office are young and demanding of time so that’s sort of the phase now.
But you have got invited back to do a crit.
Oh yeah, I go pretty regularly. It’s great. They get us for free for a whole day. But on the flipside, when you go for one day, you look great because you don’t stay long enough to show any of your bad sides. You’ll leave like a hero!
The irony of that of course is that Ray, your dad, used to come in and interview- not interview but participate at crits I guess when I was going to university. I guess just about every member of that firm at one time came in.
All of them. I guess, obviously, if you had to do it all over again, you would probably- I think I will let you answer that. Would you more or less go back to architecture? Do you enjoy what you are doing today?
I’ve had my stage or my training of basic architectural, you know, site supervision, managing projects. The last few years in our office, we’ve had bigger projects and I regret maybe that I didn’t get that experience earlier on. Then again, the early nineties in Montreal, nobody was doing anything anyway. So those years sort of went by. But it was my lack of ability to work for somebody else. It might have helped if I’d just slowed down the process. I had to learn things more on my own.
Yeah, that’s a comment that someone else, more than one person has admitted. The whole process of project management, you know, working in the field and so forth, I don’t think there’s any training for that other than, you know, on [unclear].
I would have had opportunities though where I could have, before starting on my own at quite an early time, I could have maybe worked for other architects and managed projects and learned that. On the other hand, I could only really learn it when it was my own office and I was ultimately responsible. When I was on the line, I tended to be a lot more careful about what I was doing.
What do you want to do with the rest of your life? Continue doing what you’re doing and enjoy it. Is that it or is it-?
Yeah. Before I went to McGill in Architecture, I was a painter. Before I had kids, I used to teach and paint and be an architect. And now, it’s not much other than architecture and the family. So I hope to be able to paint again.
Because there was a time a few short years ago when I would inquire about you, not because there was any business around to offer you, but people would say that you were concentrating on your painting and more interested in painting at the time. So of course, for a number of reasons, that has changed. Times have changed.
The office got busier; it’s harder to make a living selling paintings. The sort of work I do in painting is similar to what I would do in architecture. I don’t really consider them- they are just different ways of expressing the- but I would always want to do both. I mean, what’s great about architecture is you do work with other people. It’s what’s great about it that’s also the part that if it goes bad, it’s the worst thing. If you get in a bad situation, it’s the most frustrating thing, somebody you can’t get along with. If things go well, it’s the best part of it, feeling that you collaborated. So in painting, it doesn’t have that side of it. I don’t think I could be all alone all the time with my-. And there will be time to do that again, for sure.
Well, is there anything else? Do you want to give any advice to any of the young people who are coming along? Or just if they enjoy it, stick with it, I guess, eh?
Well, it’s a great profession. I never really feel it’s that much of a job. I mean, it’s a job in the sense that there’s often long hours, you have to slug out- there’s a lot of putting out the garbage. The less glamorous aspects of getting a project done. But it’s a very creative profession. You stay young, you certainly stay young for a long time because there’s always this idea that you’re building up and trying to get somewhere. You certainly don’t just get a job one year out of school and then settle in and try- you’re always sort of trying to get somewhere, which is the thing I really find challenging about it. There’s always an idea we can do a better project, we can get a more interesting project, we can improve on the last things we did. Even the last few years, we’ve always done a lot of houses but we’ve been really working in a new way on how we produce and develop our design projects and small residential projects. So that’s been an exciting-.
To just finish up, I’m curious, and it’s more to satisfy my curiosity, on housing, do you use a CAD system at all or is it pretty well all hand-drawing?
No, well we do a lot of institutional work where usually the client- it’s a requirement that it’s all done on the computer.
So most of the time, mostly the guys who draw here are usually drawing on the computer now.
‘Cause most firms that are busy will not hire anybody unless they have those skills. I guess most people coming out of university have those skills today.
Yeah. Well, now you can learn this stuff in a week anyway. It’s not really very hard anymore for people. There was somebody in the office this fall who picked it up in about a week, AutoCAD. I haven’t actually learned to do it myself. I use a computer a lot for other stuff, but I still-
You still draw-
I still draw by hand. During supervision, if there’s small sketches or revisions, I do them by hand on an 8 1/2 by 11.
Anyhow, thank you very much.
I enjoyed talking to you and I’m sure other people will enjoy listening to you over the years.