Interview by Jim Donaldson
I guess the first thing we’d like to know is how you decided you wanted to become an architect and why McGill.
Well, I guess I owe a lot to my father in one respect and that’s that he encouraged me in kind of a latent way. I mean he had a workshop. My dad was a school principal and he liked to do woodwork. I guess it was involved in- it was part of his Swedish background. And he came from the country. And we had a workshop with lots of woodworking tools, metalworking tools and lathes and so forth. We had a kiln. So we were always encouraged to do things, make, you know, make small pieces of furniture, boxes, things like that. And I used to make models. So that’s really where my architectural interest came from. I used to look at houses, particularly in the country, we had a cottage that he built, and I used to make models of these houses that I saw just by sort of sketching a rough plan and I’d make them out of wood. Prior to that, I used to make models of airplanes. These sort of interests kind of led to architecture, I guess. And it was also by elimination. I didn’t think too much about engineering. I had a brother who went into electrical engineering. But architecture seemed to be the best, you know, compromise, so to speak, of all the different disciplines. It was much easier in those days.
You mean to get in?
Well, to get in, I-.
Obviously, you decided on McGill because of, what, the proximity of the university?
Well, McGill, I didn’t think there was any others in all, in fact. I mean it was a small world then and we kind of saw McGill as the only place in the world I think. And it was a big place at that time. Everything ran out of Dawson Hall, of course. And the principal probably only had one or two assistants. Now there’s five or six or eight vice-principals. But in any case, when I finished grade 11, high school, I guess for romantic reasons, I ran off to Europe.
What year was that?
In June of 1958, I took a boat, the Empress of Canada, on my own, and I went to Europe. I think it was in pursuit of, you know, I guess a childhood sweetheart. And I went to France, England, Germany, all over the European countries, Spain. Then I went to Sweden. I decided, you know, I’d like to sort of reestablish contact with Swedish relatives who we had no contact with whatsoever. My dad and his five sisters were very much involved in sort of Swedish life and so forth through their parents and one of his sisters married a Swede. There was contact but I only had a list of addresses and I went to Sweden and made contact, which we still maintain today. When I came back, it was late. It was early September. I wasn’t enrolled in anything. I couldn’t get into McGill, of course, because-
This was still ’58?
Yeah, it was ’58. And my dad being involved in the school board, he pulled a few strings and got me into Montreal High grade 12, which everybody considered to be a pretty good programme. So I did grade 12 and then I was able to apply to second year McGill. But I wasn’t fully eligible because I didn’t have an engineering drawing course, which they gave in first year. So I took a summer course at McGill and it was taught by Peter Covo, who was a mechanical engineer and a teacher, who subsequently was, I guess, early for anyone, he was killed in an automobile accident. And his son, of course, David, later I brought into the school. And he’s now director of the school. But Peter Covo was a masterful delineator. He could really draw in the way mechanical engineers draw, gears and all of that sort of thing. So I learned in about three weeks, you know, how to draw mechanically.
And then I went into the school. And the first course we had in architecture was a course- we had two courses, basically. The first one was a course called Basic Elements of Design taught by Gordon Webber. And, of course, the second course was History of Architecture taught by Peter Collins. And these are both incredibly memorable characters. Gordon, as you know, was very, very eccentric. He was small, he had one wooden leg, he designed his own clothes. And the first day we arrived in the class, it was the studio on the second floor of the McConnell Building, we met as a class for the first time, and Gordon didn’t have many words for projects and he had nothing written. He met us and he said, “I’d like you to go away and in a week’s time, come back and depict for me by means of drawing what you think architecture is and what architecture represents for you. So we went away and people were quite upset and worried and you know, concerned. They didn’t have any guidance whatsoever. Well, a week later, we came back, and all of the projects were pinned up on the wall. Well, it was hilarious. Doug Gill, now deceased, from Trinidad, he had a little cottage drawn up with palm trees. That was his idea of architecture. Other people showed apartment buildings and tried to kind of second-guess what he had in mind. I mean architecture had to be something perhaps institutional. Some people had a classical building. Most people had modern sort of buildings and particularly suburban houses. I still have the drawing. I was going to bring it today but it was in a portfolio somewhere. And it was a drawing, which was based on a drawing of Hugh Ferriss, who was a great delineator of New York City. And I drew this skyscraper done with charcoal and in different grays and whites and done it at night with a great searchlight on the top so the building was there, it was very misty and it was kind of an impressionist idea. Well, people were kind of flabbergasted that here was someone who was really thinking big time. And it’s quite amusing. And Gordon talked about these buildings. But he was an incredible teacher.
How did you make out in that assignment?
I did quite well in that assignment, although I guess it was probably seen as a little bit- I don’t know whether it was seen as being a bit conceited or pompous because it was so dramatic. And yet, it provided a good forum for discussion. And, of course, then he started to teach us about design. And he could design beautifully. You know, how to place a circle in a frame. How to place two circles in a frame. He started to teach us about composition, something that, unfortunately, isn’t as well-taught today. He had been trained at the Bauhaus. And with that experience, which in itself was based on traditions of sort of composition and creation. He taught a great deal. But other teachers thought of him as rather subjective and a little bit kind of touchy-feely in character.
But you eventually after you graduated and taught, you wrote a book on Gordon Webber.
I wrote a book on Gordon. It was something I wanted to do for many years. I had- John Bland said to me, you know, “Go upstairs. You’re replacing Gordon, in effect. And you have to go up to where he had his studio and there’s a filing cabinet there and a desk. Please clean out all his stuff. Throw it out” . Well, I never threw it out. I took all of the documents and I kept them. And they provided good information. They included things like his old student notes from the Chicago Bauhaus, some wonderful little sketches, which I’ve given to the library, to the Canadian Architecture Collection. And even some photographs that he took, photographs of him with Arthur Erickson and other students who had gone through that he was quite fond of. So that was quite interesting. And as a student, I found Gordon quite stimulating. He taught me things like, he taught me about photography. There was no discipline in the course; you simply did it by doing. And I’ve never lost that interest and love of photography. And I’ve done a lot of photography in my career. The other thing he taught me was how to look at buildings differently, how to look at buildings not as volumes but as, you know, planes, space, as transparency. And one of the projects I did in a fourth-year class, he suggested I take the model and that I remake it in a very different fashion using grids, using textures and transparency. And I did this and then I put light inside it. And it was quite amazing what that taught me, the way to look at things differently. To see space in a different way.
So he was one of your more influential teachers.
He was, he was, but not in a- in a very qualitative sense. You couldn’t necessarily, you know, write a book about how his ideas influenced you, but they certainly did in a kind of latent way.
It’s unfortunate because a lot of the, I guess, fellow classmates- you were probably more mature for your age and a lot of them didn’t take Gordon Webber too seriously. Not that he had to be, but I mean they didn’t enjoy his course.
No they didn’t and that’s, of course, never changed in school. You have a class and some people just want to do things and get them done. Some people never understood him. They didn’t have the sensitivities, perhaps. He was a master at being able to put something in a location. If it were on a wall, for example, he would know where to put something on a wall, like a painting. He would know where to hang it. And he would hang it in such a way that you would look at it and you’d say, “My goodness. This is beautiful!” And if you’ d have to put two or three or four paintings, again, he would do something that you would be surprised at. Of course, I befriended him afterwards when I came back to the school to teach.
The second person that influenced me enormously I guess was Peter Collins. Well, in the second year course in architecture, apart from Gordon Webber, the only other teacher we had in architecture was Peter Collins. And Peter was a, you know, a wonderful teacher. I mean he lectured beautifully. His lectures were very disciplined. You couldn’t talk out of turn, you couldn’t make noise and if you came late, you were thrown out of the class, literally. He was a disciplinarian and he was an autocrat in a way. But he knew his material and he was, of course, world-class in terms of his ability to see how to interpret history. I found his course fascinating. I did very well in it; I mean I worked very hard. We had to do notes that were illustrated and we all put an enormous amount of work into those notes. I still have them. And he taught us, of course, for about three years sequentially. The courses got tougher as we went along. He didn’t tolerate, you know, any funny business. And of course, he was a real classicist and that was his love so he didn’t tolerate any, I would say, other kinds of thinking, so to speak. He was a rationalist.
He, if I remember, had examinations periodically where he would put slides up and ask you to write everything you know about what that reminds you of.
Well, we called it the slide test.
Slide test, that’s right.
And he put up a pair of slides and you’d have to make comparisons. And you couldn’t just repeat what you saw on the screen. You had to make something of it. And a lot of people failed because they just said, “Oh, this is a slide of a, you know, a Doric column” or something like that.
In Palermo, Sicily, or something like that.
Well, the other thing he did was he tricked you because he often had a slide of something that was, for example, a piece of a ruin, a capital of a column that was turned upside down. And some of the students who weren’t, you know, too keen on history, were never sure of what that was. They made a whole mess of answers! Peter, he was a complex character, of course. But he loved architecture and he loved the bright students. The weak students, he often tried to meet them privately and suggest that they might find a better venue in arts, especially the girls. He didn’t think too much of girls studying architecture. I think he frequently felt that they should, you know, pursue more social interests.
He also had a great love of, I guess, of concrete, of buildings in concrete at one time and he wrote a book on it.
Well, he worked- that came from the fact that he worked in France for Auguste Perret, or a disciple of Auguste Perret, Arthur Honegger, his name was. I don’ t know if it was Arthur or Honegger. Honegger was the Swiss architect and he worked in the Perret manner with a lot of concrete and modern buildings that had a certain classical basis. So he was very committed to Perret, to concrete, and to the whole rationalist school. He was quite intolerant, though. I remember an incident where I was in my fourth year, I guess with some youthful enthusiasm, I decided I was going to get married, my first marriage, which never worked out well. And I went to Peter Collins on a Friday, suggesting to him that would he mind postponing the submission of a paper he had asked me to write on architectural education of all things because I was going to be married on the Saturday. And he looked at me, he said, “I think you’ll have time to write the paper and submit it on time”. So I never felt good about that. I thought that was a little bit too severe. I did the paper; I still have it. And perhaps it had some kind of effect on me with respect to architectural education as a career. But when I finished architecture in my last year, I can remember one incident where people were- students were really frightened of the thesis requirements. And this was, I guess, sometime in probably February, early March, and they hadn’t done much. They hadn’t progressed much with their thesis and John Bland and Peter Collins and Harold Spence-Sales and the staff asked that the work be pinned up. And people pinned up the most preliminary stuff. And they started receiving letters from John Bland saying, you know, “Either you get on with it or you may have to repeat the year”. And when they went around looking at the projects, I’ll never forget Peter Collins looking at my work, which occupied a large piece of wall and he simply turned to John Bland and he said, “I don’t think we have to look at this work. It’s the most meritorious work we’ve seen and there’s no point in discussing it”. And, of course, I was devastated. I mean everybody wanted their work discussed, but he was being complementary but there was a put down at the same time that, you know, they should just move on. He asked me at that time, if I would mind after we finished the year if I would mind teaching his courses in the next semester, in the fall semester, because he had received I guess a sabbatical and he was going to be teaching at Smith College, a girls’ college in the United States. And he said that he thought I would be the best person to teach his course. And, of course, I found it to be quite a challenge and it was also quite an honour to teach the course. I worked extremely hard. I think I worked probably twenty hours a day in the fall of 1964 teaching three history courses, giving lectures, and trying to do it the way he did it and trying to do it with the same kind of enthusiasm and quality. So I had to read many books.
But without the years of experience that he had.
Yes, exactly. Now, he gave me his notes but his lectures were never written out. So I was able with my own notes from the courses that he taught me, and with his notes and all of the slides, of course, which were in his office, and books that he had used in the course. Students had said afterwards that these were good courses, that they very much enjoyed them and they found them tough, and I guess that sort of established my own kind of position as someone who might be considered for a full-time job, which occurred a year after.
Well, I guess I’m being a little bit chronological but after I got into third year after second year, that was the year everybody dreaded, because, of course, that was the first time that we would be studying a Design and Construction course as it was called. And the teacher was Stuart Wilson. And Stuart was a celebrity in one sense that he was- his reputation preceded him. He was a taskmaster. And we all had great respect for him because he devoted himself to the school and to the students and to his class to the extent that he would come in in the middle of the night. And, of course, if he arrived in the middle of the night, he expected students to be there. Well, we weren’t all there and, of course, he got irritated too frequently to the extent that he would often extend the scope of the project to include something else or he would say, “I’m going to have the crit right now and those of you who are here are going to benefit and those who aren’t won’t. I found that one of the most memorable things, of course, not happy at the time was the first project he asked us to do was to- he had just gone to Arizona with a group of students and New Mexico in the States and he got interested in the Hopi Indians. So he asked us to do some research on this group of Indians and their housing and their customs. And I did something quite lovely, I think. We did these masks and I drew up and made a mask. And when he went around marking them, he didn’t see my name on the project so I never received a mark for the work. And no matter how I badgered him about it, he simply ignored it because he probably lost the mark sheet. Anyway, it was one of the things that I remember well.
He also asked us to do a set of working drawings. And that was the first time we had to do any technical architectural work. He was so rigorous in his criticism that I think I ended up doing three sets of working drawings because you know, he wasn’t very kind if you didn’t dimension well or if you, you know, didn’t have all of the information down. But it was good training. Students were quite frightened of Stuart but he was a real supporter. He also taught me a great deal about how to look at things. He had this amazing mind in terms of being so well-read. He sort of practiced a kind of phenomenology where, you know, he could look at a situation in the city and he could start telling you things about it that you wouldn’t have imagined. He did the same with his sketching. He would sit down on the curb and if you looked at what you thought he was drawing, you would say, “Well, I don’t know what he’s- what is he looking at?” And then when you went and saw the drawing, you realized that he had kind of framed something very special and had done something quite extraordinary. So I learned that from Stuart. And-
Was that your first exposure to sort of building architectural models?
Yes, yeah, well, architectural, I had done architectural models after a fashion. I had also done a lot of furniture. And my interest in the workshop, I guess through my dad’s workshop and my own brief experience with workshop practice, led me to get involved in the workshop to the extent that we had projects with Stuart Wilson and Doug Shadbolt at the time. We had to build a structure and we had to test it. The test was that as many students as possible were asked to get on top of this structure, and of course, when it collapsed, if it collapsed, it was deemed not to be to successful. I think this came from an experiment that Frank Lloyd Wright did when the city authorities refused the first design for the Johnson Wax Building. And he built one of the mushroom columns and loaded it to about ten times its design strength. And finally, it collapsed, but everybody was convinced then that it would hold up. So I designed a sort of barrel-vaulted structure. We were given some very scrappy wood and it was quite a traditional design, in fact, and this put out a lot of my classmates, I think. And I sort of leaned towards the traditional, the more classical in design. I remember designing an ice palace. That was one of the things we did. And Patrick Blouin won the competition, which in his case involved some very abstract stalactites. And it was quite a nice design. It was quite beautiful. My own design was very Palladian. It had a kind of symmetrical stair. I think it was oval in shape and so forth. I guess the only person that would have appreciated it was Peter Collins. And at that time, traditionalism was very unpopular. John Bland, of course, had transformed the school from a traditional school under people like Nobbs and Traquair into a modernist school where all of the vestiges of the past were removed and you really didn’t talk much about traditional architecture, which was a sad thing, I think. That would be my one criticism of the school, that it got into this modernist game, and as a result, many of the buildings that were designed by graduates during the period of the forties, fifties, sixties, they didn’t turn out to be very good buildings, I think. They haven’t survived well. They’ve not weathered well as compared to some of the buildings designed by earlier graduates under Nobbs and Traquair.
Did Harold Spence-Sales teach you at all?
Yes, we had courses taught by Harold Spence-Sales. We thought of him as a bit of a dandy. He was, you know, extremely verbal.
Very flamboyant and theatrical.
Flamboyant and he was able to, I guess, teach us something about presentation but not a lot else. I think he was ill-prepared. He often, we heard, prepared his slides a few minutes before or he got off the shelf a set of slides that he had used for the lecture the year before. And it was pretty ad hoc. I think he improvised frequently. But-
But at least we can say that his classes were entertaining. I don’t know how educational or practical they were but he was quite an entertainer. And he’d walk around and he’d stop talking and with his hair-.
Yes he- in retrospect, I think he had a lot more to offer than we made out at the time.
The other teacher that I, you know, that really I found very important in my career was Norbert Schoenauer. I had come through fourth year and the professor, the new professor that was assigned to us, was Jonas Lehrman. And Jonas Lehrman and I very quickly locked horns or crossed swords. My work went from an A-level to a C-level, despite the fact that my classmates thought the designs were pretty superior and it seemed to be something that people felt he had a grudge. He was a very eccentric person. I had a very miserable year as a result of that. When I entered the fifth year, Doug Shadbolt had left, and Norbert Schoenauer, who had just finished graduate studies in the school, he took over. And what a wonderful breath of fresh air! He was supportive, he was gentle and a real humanist. Of course, his love involved housing and many of the projects he did with the students involved housing. But housing was never thought of by people like John Bland or Harold Spence-Sales as architecture. Housing was seen as- I guess Frank Lloyd Wright used to refer to it as stabling. But Norbert brought something, a big prospective to teaching and students loved his course. And he was a good design teacher. He was very fair and he gave me a lot of support. And I think my whole attitude towards architecture improved very much during that fifth-year course. And I have a lot of gratitude to Norbert for that.
What was your thesis in fifth year?
The sixth year was the thesis year. And that was the year where I really, I think I really blossomed in terms of working at architecture, sort of finding myself. I picked a thesis that involved housing. I picked a thesis that was a little bit unconventional in that it involved an air-rights development in lower Westmount, where the project was built over both the railway line and would have been built over the expressway as well, which was under construction. And it was a very linear scheme. Now, Stuart Wilson provided a lot of the intellectual content. He helped me sort of focus the scheme to become more of a thesis and less of just a design project. Norbert was my thesis advisor and through both of them, I think something quite special came out of it. The project was selected to be submitted for the Pilkington Scholarship and it won the first prize. It was the first time that a housing project had ever won. Moshe Safdie, of course, had been submitted, but he didn’ t win the Pilkington prize. That was about three or four years before. So that was a real boost for me. The Pilkington was considered to be the top prize in Canada.
It doesn’t exist any longer.
It doesn’t exist. It was cut out I think for various reasons but it was a great thing and it enabled me to go to England during the summer of 196-.
’65, actually. I postponed the travel and I was able to go and look at many things and look at buildings and study architecture firsthand.
Before we get on to your years after, I want you to talk a little bit about some of your memories other than professors.
Well, we had a very interesting class. I have fond, fond memories. My classmates may not share them, but I think it was quite a significant class. Over my career in teaching, I realize that there are bumper crops, bumper years where you have some exceptional people. And our class was an exceptional class. I think we had people like Ron Williams, who’s done wonderfully well in his career in teaching and in practice. Ron was considered- he was the smartest guy in the class and I always felt that. And he was a bit of a scholar and an intellect. And he drew beautifully. So he kind of set the stage for the quality of work in the class along with a couple of other characters. There was a bit of a clique in our class, which basically involved Phil Beinhaker, Ross Hayes and George Challies. They sort of were a triumvirate and they always tried to outdo everyone. They often worked in a group together. And there was a lot of talent there and a lot of sort of determination. George was considered probably, you know, the design star, along with Ross Hayes. Ross has done extremely well as an architect, particularly in Calgary. And Phil Beinhacker was the kind of horse trader, the person who could-
He was then, I guess.
And still is, I guess. Yeah, he was then and they were interesting characters. One of the people that I liked the best was Mel Glickman. Mel was a good friend. I went to his home and met his parents and we had a lot of time for each other. He was a real comic. And tall and gangling at that time, I guess he’ s widened out a little bit.
He’s still tall!
And he had a way with the ladies, not that he was as good-looking as some other people, but he had this wonderful ability to sweet talk gals and he’d share the experiences with me. He was also a very human character. Patrick Blouin, who was very strong, and his father, of course, was an architect. And Patrick was very much liked by students. He was the, I think, one of the class presidents. He committed suicide some years ago, unfortunately. He had a lot to offer, but he achieved a great deal as well in his shorter career. There was Jacques Dalibard, who I was particularly friendly with. Jacques had been a draft dodger, I think, from France. And he had very many preoccupations. He worked after hours as a bartender; taught me how to mix whiskey sours the proper way. And we shared a lot of experiences, particularly socially. And outside class, we had a very interesting experience at Sketching School in Kingston. He drove a little three-wheeler car called an Isetta, where the front opened up and there was one wheel in the front, two in the back. It was basically a little motor scooter with a body on it. And the two of us went up to Kingston in that car. And I was interested in antiques so we spent little time sketching and too much time searching for antiques. I bought a painting that turned out to be quite valuable at the time. It was as portrait by William Sawyer, an Ontario portraitist from the nineteenth century. Jacques was interested in French Canadian furniture. We piled up the car to come back. We had a long refectory table on the top with about eight chairs, Indian-back chairs, and a few other articles of furniture, I think a rocking chair. And I had the painting there somewhere on the car, on the outside. And we were driving along the 401; people thought we were absolutely mad. You couldn’t see the car for the furniture. And Jacques subsequently has done extremely well. I mean he’s received the Order of Canada; he’s been the head of Heritage Canada for many years.
He teaches at the University of Montreal.
Teaches at the University of Montreal.
He’s one of the people we interviewed.
Heritage restoration course and he’s done a great deal in Canada for heritage and historic buildings. Chris Feise was a good friend. Chris was German in background. And Chris sort of enjoyed most of the students, particularly the few ladies that were in the class, one of which was Virma Panton from Jamaica. And Virma was a friend to all. She was just a lovely girl. And we still communicate. She stayed with us here when she came a few years ago and she had a wonderful way with here. Murray Goodz and Gerry Sheff were also in the class. Murray had a great career here. He did many of the downtown buildings and he was always a lot of fun to be with. I remember things like the parties at the old student union, which is now the McCord Museum, where we would go. And one of the parties was- the theme was a Roman party and so we all had to put togas on and I don’t think anyone wore anything under the togas. It was hilarious. The students served platters of grapes, which I guess was just a, you know, a front for all of the liquor that was circulating. Gordon Webber got so drunk that he ended up rolling on the floor on the grapes. And I still remember the scene. It was quite hilarious.
It was his form of Jackson Pollock paintings!
Yeah. And Gordon enjoyed the students socially. He liked going to their parties. We had a lounge in the basement and the Christmas parties were quite fun. Gerry Soyferman, who was in an earlier class, very often performed as the Santa Claus at the Christmas party and asked the teachers, the professors, to sit on his knee, which was just hilarious. One of the most funny experiences, not a funny experience for the teachers, often was the handing out of Christmas presents and the presents were always related to the character of the individual professor. We scandalized Professor Spence-Sales because the students gave him a pair of ladies’ panties for the Christmas present. He was quite scandalized. And Professor Bland at the time, we thought it was a nice gesture to give him a Christmas turkey. But of course, the turkey was alive in a box with some holes in the top. And I think he was very outraged by this. He thought it had some other connotation. The turkey was last seen running around the corridors of the building. One of the janitors, I guess, took it home. Of course, you know, I ended up being on the end of that receiving line when I became a young professor. And I used to wear corduroy suits and the students gave me a pair of red, corduroy underpants, which I was rather incensed by that, I must say, but they thought it was funny. We had a lot of fun as students. I see many of my colleagues still and we’ve had a couple of good reunions as well. The class was very large. It was probably the largest class that had come through at the time.
What would that have been? About twenty-four?
About thirty-six people…
…. starting out. And it sort of set the new pattern for larger classes, I suppose. It also involved female students of which there hadn’t been that many. In the class before, for example, there were no women. And they kept us in line.
I’m sure they did.
Pat Falta, of course, was one of the most interesting of the girl students. And she later went to the U of M to teach.
How about a few stories or a little bit about the history of after leaving McGill? Which was what, 1965?
I left McGill- It graduated in 1964. I always remember working in the studio, it was actually in ’63, the fall of ’63 in the final year, when Kennedy was shot, we were all in the studio. And I never forget that, of course, as nobody would forget that tragedy. But I graduated in the spring of 1964. Then I taught in the fall of 1964 Professor Collins’s courses. And I befriended people like Stuart Wilson. We used to kick around. He was always on the down and outs but we had a lot of time for each other and a lot of conversation and a lot of drinking beer and sketching and so forth. And I socially got involved with other professors: Norbert and Gordon Webber and John Bland. It was quite something. Then I went to Harvard in 1965. And I was encouraged to go to Harvard by all the professors. And that was probably one of the best things I could have done. I received the Frank Knox Memorial Fellowship to study there. I took a course in urban design. And David Farley was an influence because he had been an older student. And he had been in Boston. He had gone to Harvard and he recommended it very highly.
While I was at Harvard, I came back to the school. The students invited me to give a panel discussion. And that was interesting. And shortly after, Gordon Webber died and there became- this was not a very frequent thing, an opening came up. And John Bland asked me if I would be interested in coming back to teach after I graduated in the fall of 1966. And I gave it some thought. Of course, I had gone through a very messy divorce. At that time, you had to go through the Parliament of Canada of all things and it wasn’t a happy situation. And I turned down a number of offers, having gone through Harvard and at that time, there were people that came looking for talent. And I was offered several jobs including jobs in Canada by Parkin Associates. And I thought I’d be better off at McGill because it was quite a stable kind of situation to go into. So I accepted the offer that John Bland made me. The salary was $8,400 a year to teach full-time and to basically take over Gordon Webber’s courses and to perhaps to rethink them. And I did rethink them and I gave them a name, which confounded everyone. They were called Communication, Behaviour and Architecture. And they involved a whole approach towards looking at the environment, studying how people live in different situations and also integrating photography, filmmaking, printmaking and so forth. A lot of students went through those courses and I think a lot of students decided that architecture was not for them and they went into things like filmmaking. It was good in that sense that it showed people other ways to express themselves through design. And I then embarked on other kinds of courses. I taught a course in urban design and subsequently was asked to teach a full-fledged design studio. And the design studio work I found very stimulating.
I guess one thing that I touched on earlier, I’ve always felt that the school sort of missed out in terms of teaching a more traditional approach to architecture. This is something that I’m doing now and enjoying immensely. My design courses are focused on the more classical tradition versus the modernist tradition. And students are actually working on projects where they are dealing with a particular language or particular style of architecture. And this has been quite rewarding. Students enjoy this very much.
I just wanted to ask you, do you have that liberty? The school doesn’t stand for any particular period. I mean, you can teach sort of classical-.
No. McGill has had that reputation. From the time of John Bland, I think the school has been quite liberal. John always felt that you should bring in good people and let them do what they enjoy doing and let them teach the way they like to teach. And that’s been a good philosophy. We have quite a diversity but there’s no sort of pre-stated philosophy as one sees in other schools where you have to teach something or teach along a certain party line. And I’ ve enjoyed moving the course that I’m teaching now into a more- sort of a more modern-classical tradition. And students are enjoying it. The school, you know, has really stayed pretty much the same, I would say, in terms of the course makeup. One of the things that I think we’ve benefited by enormously is the new School of Architecture in the Macdonald-Harrington Building. This is something that I was able to initiate at McGill when I became director in 1985. And I think that that has really changed the whole complexion of the school. It’s been a much better place than the old McConnell Building, which was always associated with Engineering. Now we have a home that is associated with the School of Architecture. It’s a great building. It was designed by Sir Andrew Taylor. It’s a powerful building. It has high ceilings and big spaces and it’s built of nice materials: stone and brick and wood. So that’s been a very positive thing and I think that was something that I felt very good about having been made director. The other thing at that time was that I introduced graduate studies, or I should say expanded upon the graduate studies programme, which was a very small programme. It was really a kind of a part-time thing and people would take a graduate student and the graduate student would work with a particular professor. We introduced a number of programmes. The Affordable Homes Programme was underway but became bigger and it spawned a new programme called the Affordable Homes. And we’ve introduced since then two other graduate programmes. One is the history/theory programme and the other on environment. So the graduate part of the school has expanded. We’ve introduced a PhD Programme now. So there’s a full complement of studies that I think give the school a great deal of quality and really feed the staff makeup. We have a number of people now that have PhD’s from different backgrounds and I think this is very good.
I wanted to ask you. I guess you are one of the few on staff who have a practice as well as teach. Is that a good situation?
Well, this has been something very important for me as an architect, as a teacher in architecture. I don’t think you should separate practice from teaching. I mean, many of the teachers are purely academic, but bringing that practical side to the students I think has been very rewarding and fruitful and I think the students have appreciated it very much. My practice has been very unusual, I suppose, very different than most practices. It basically focuses on both institutional buildings and private homes. The homes that I’ ve designed are designed for people that enjoy the qualities that architecture can bring to life and many of them have been quite elaborate projects involving many drawings, some involving as many as two or three hundred drawings. It’s sad in one sense that these residential projects are not easily publishable. People, you know, who build complex homes don’t often want their homes published; they don’t want their names mentioned in that regard. So like many architects whose names some students don’t even hear about, the work that one does is kept fairly private. And one doesn’t sort of get the publicity and get promoted in that respect.
Well, except that the plus side is that if you do the work well, the best publicity is the referrals, I guess.
Well, I guess it is. We’ve done work for Paul Desmarais Sr. and his son, both his sons André and Paul Jr. We’ve done work for people like Paul Martin and many distinguished Canadians. And I guess one day, the drawings will be, you know, looked at by people in terms of domestic architecture. But I have a great love of working on houses, working on the details, working on interior qualities that these houses need to have.
That stems from, I guess, growing up with your father.
That interest.Yeah, the interest in the details.
The making of architecture, the using materials. The institutional work has also been interesting. We’ve done a lot of work on the university club, which was, of course originally designed by Percy Nobbs, the second director of the School of Architecture. I’ve been working on the university club for about fifteen years and done restoration of the interiors and added new parts to the buildings. So there’s a certain tradition there, which I think is quite important.
Well, I thought I should add something about my better half, my marriage to Bissera, who was a student in the school and graduated from the school. This has been a very special part of my life, of course. We have two lovely daughters, the eldest of whom is going into the School of Architecture this year. And she has a lot going for her. She’s very talented, particularly in photography and drawing. So there may be yet another Anderson architect! So I think that’s something that has been very important in my career. Bissera, of course, has worked with me for the last twenty years in the firm and been extremely helpful. We were looking today at a design problem for a very, very fabulous house up in Westmount. And we were trying to redesign some of the exterior landscape work with retaining walls and stairs and gardens that had been let go. And she really provided some important comments and ideas for the project. So here we are.
It runs in the family. I guess there is something about designer genes!