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Thomas Berkes

B.Arch. 1962
Los Angeles, CA
April 21, 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson


Tell a little story. I’m sure we’ll all be interested.

The story is that in 1957, I arrived in Canada and I had just finished high school in Hungary. It was after the revolution. You know, I was a pretty good student, but I couldn’t get into the Hungarian university. So I decided since everybody is walking out, I‘ll walk out. And my aunt had a restaurant in Montreal so I ended up in Montreal. And I wanted to go to university. I always wanted to be an architect as far as I can remember in grade 4. I liked to draw and doodle and things like that. And I went- I didn’t speak a word of English so I went to McGill with a translator.

This was, what, 1958?

’57 fall. And I enrolled.

You got in just like that?

Just like that. I went to see Dr. Lowell. He was the student counselor at the time. That was way back. In fact, I even got a scholarship, because they figured I’ll be out of there in the first semester or first half. As it turned out, I failed a couple of subjects and he was so impressed that I only failed two that he renewed my bursary and that’s all!

[1:26:23]

So you went to McGill because it was the logical thing to do.

It was the only thing to do for me because I wanted always a higher education and I wanted to be an architect. And I didn’t speak a word of French, but I preferred to speak English than French. So that’s how…

…how you went to McGill.

McGill, yeah.

[1:48:04]

Okay, so we’re going to talk about your years at McGill.

McGill. Well, the first experience at McGill was actually pretty frightening because the objective was to finish McGill. Now, there were conflictive advices from professors. I know that Peter Collins told me, “It doesn’t matter when you finish as long as you finish and become an architect”. And I didn’t want to tell him, but what am I going to eat meanwhile because I have to make a living too. Meanwhile, Wilson said that, “If you can’t hack it, get out. You don’t have to be an architect”. And as a matter of fact, if I had any problem with Wilson that I wanted to do nice things of my own that I had visualized and he frightened you so much that you started to do the so-called right thing just to get by. And that, unfortunately, killed my creativity on the year that he was- I think it was third year when he was our class professor. Then I ended up getting him for my thesis. But by then I didn’t give a shit. And he was drinking too much anyhow!

[3:24:09]

It’s interesting because some of the people have said, and I’m saying this on camera too, that Stuart Wilson was bad for the school because he intimidated a lot of very sensitive people, who eventually might have made good architects because an architect is very sensitive quite often and they left. Mind you, some of them came back.

That’s exactly the word: intimidation. And I couldn’t get my own style coming out from the beginning. The other thing that I remember, since you interviewed Rudy, I don’t know if he remembers, we had Shadbolt as our class professor. And we were doing these projects when we teamed up two or three people. And we were doing I think a library. And Rudy and I came in first. So we were so impressed with that that we said, “Okay, we will team up for the next project”. And sure enough, we came dead last in the next one!

[4:25:27]

So I’m not quite sure of the lesson to be learned there.

There’s nothing!

How did you enjoy Peter Collins? I mean he told you-

Peter- that, you know, believe it or not, the first year, I went to classes and then after the first or second week, I see all the kids coming in with pieces of paper written something on it handing it in. And I said, “What is that?” He says, “Oh, that’s homework”. Somewhere along the line, I missed the assignment all together because I didn’t speak the language. So I went to Peter and said, “Listen, I really, I just didn’t understand that we had to-“. “Don’t worry”, he says, “it will come to you”. And it sure enough did. So much that by third year, I got an A in History of Architecture. And I always loved- his slide shows I thought were really good.

Very entertaining.

And I learned an awful lot from it, which I then used, because I did Paisano. And I did Paisano, the restaurant on Cote des Neiges.

Oh, okay.

I was the architect and I worked with the owner on different Italian-style rooms, like one dining room called Raphaelo, one Michelangelo.

[5:50:14]

And, you know, the irony, my first date with my second wife was at Paisano’s. I lived in the Rockhill Apartments [unclear] there, and she said that she fell in love with me immediately. So you were the influence!

That’s terrific.

So there you are!

Yeah.

So Peter Collins-

Peter Collins was amazing. And then the other thing I remember, we were writing one of these slide tests, you know, we always wrote it. And Morty Wellen, who has a memory like an elephant, remembers dates and names. I don’t but I know style. So he sat on one side of me writing the exam and Norm Pressman the other side. They looked in on what I’m writing. I didn’t look at them because I know more, except they got a better grade on it than I did because Morty knew all the names.

[6:38:01]

His memory is still like that. Now, we had some other professors there. I guess there was Doug Shadbolt. Did you get- did he-?

Well, that’s the one I told you about. Rudy and I got the-

But how did you find him generally?

I though he was a pretty good teacher. In effect, I understand he ended up being the Dean of Dalhousie at one time.

Yeah, that’s right. And then he went out-. He was very, very strict on programming as opposed to getting into the design. He wanted to- I guess Derek Drummond was a great follower because Derek was always programme, programme and then you start designing. And let me ask you, how about Gordie Webber. Do you remember Gordon?

I loved Gordie. You know something, I enjoyed him very much because I understood him. I don’t think many of our classmates understood and when he did the Mondrian-type of thing. And I had that stuff- I kept everything even from Sketching School. In fact, you are going to see one of my watercolours up and framed in my house. Two of them actually.

[7:46:10]

So you enjoyed Webber.

I enjoyed Webber a lot.

‘Cause he had the photography and then he had the, you know, the colours and the forms.

Yeah. He had the elements of design, where he used the- and architects even in our days, they’re still using that system in many of their- the way they shape a building or the interior and so on. And I’m sorry that I lost them somewhere along the way. Maybe in Sketching School I lost all my stuff.

[8:16:15]

Now how about- was John Schreiber around then too?

Argh! Not one of my favourites. I don’t think he knew- I don’t think he had much talent. And I’m sure we all agree on that. But he had a very nice car!

Nice car and he was a-

Aston Martin.

Yeah. And he was a great draughtsperson too. I mean, his drawings-

He should have stayed as a draughtsperson!

Obviously, he wasn’t one of your favourites. And then, of course, you would remember Professor Spence-Sales. He did town planning.

Spence-Sales screwed me. But good.

He screwed you?

Yes. And I don’t know why he did that. I applied for scholarship after I was already married. And I went into town planning and I did- spooled pretty good marks. I had a professor at- it was still Sir George. And I took several courses with him. And I wanted to get a scholarship. And I applied for one. And Norbert was the one who actually advised me to fill out the application. Everything was fine. And then I got a scholarship, except instead of getting the higher one, even though I applied for the higher one, I got the lower one. And Norbert told me that Spence- Sales crossed out my application from the higher and put it on the lower. And I declined it because it wasn’t enough for me to- well, I think I got like twelve hundred instead of thirty-six hundred. So-

[9:50:28]

How about the course with Harold? Do you remember anything that he-?

No, I didn’t like him at all. I liked Norbert very much. Of course, one Hungarian to another, we understood each other.

Did Norbert teach you?

Norbert did not teach me per se, but we had some interesting discussion because he was a pretty good- in fact, I understand- I don’t know what happened to him now but-

He just retired. He was still teaching.

Oh really? I was back on an AIA meeting in Montreal and Norbert attended with me.

And then there was- Norbert is actually- has retired. He’s Professor Emeritus and he still has an office there. And he gives a course every year and it’s the most attended course at the university. And three hundred and fifty people attend it. It’s on housing. And he’s teaching a lot of the Engineering students go in-

Does he still look like a Flying Dutchman?

Oh yes. Very much! Now, do you remember somebody by the name of- was it Valentine?

No.

Remember the architect who gave us business- there was a course on business that we used to have in the morning at seven thirty in the morning?

No, I couldn’t even make it for Engineering Practice. Nikolidis used to make carbon copies of the class and that’s why I went through. I got an A. Never attended a class. I shouldn’t say that! You’re going to have to edit this out.

No, no. But then there was John Bland, of course.

Oh yeah.

I mean, he must have had some influence on your-

John Bland was very interesting because I always felt a little bit of a distance. I never got as close as some of you guys like Derek. Derek got, I think Derek was- and then Scott Gavin was-

Gavin Scott.

Gavin Scott was close to him and so on. But I remember that I was doing my thesis and it was due- the deadline was, I don’t know, a Thursday or a Friday. So for two days I didn’t go home. I was working through the night and then John Bland comes up and says, “Tom, go home. Your mother doesn’t know where you are. She is looking for you. Whatever you did ‘till now, it’s not going to make it any better. Get out of here”. So I went home and got some sleep.

[12:20:25]

And there was, of course, Gerry Tondino, who you would remember.

Oh yeah! I remember. He used to teach us something about mechanical-

No, no. Gerry Tondino was the sketching-

Oh, oh, yeah. When we went in there. You know, when we had the nude model, and of course, being Hungarian, we are very close to being Italian. I had no problem with nude models because I’d had them before for other purposes! But I remember Norm and Morty-

I think they nearly dropped their pencils!

Then we had to do sculpture.

Oh yeah.

And I figured, I’ll get the easy way. I’ll do something very easy to do and if it’s fairly regular- I’ll make a shell. So he says to me, “Well, are you a spokesperson for Shell Oil Company?”

[13:20:26]

Then I remember we used to go to the Museum of Fine Arts to do the sketching.

Then your overall impressions of McGill were mostly positive, I guess.

You know, the one thing I miss about McGill, and in my circumstances, I just couldn’t have had it, is I couldn’t get enough social thing out of it because I was too busy trying to pass courses and make it through. And earn money to be able to do it. But other than that, it was fine. I know my kids are in sororities and fraternities and God knows what, and, you know, they enjoy it.

Well, that’s the way it should be.

And that’s- well…

I mean, a father and mother immigrate to a country and then the children have it easy because they were born in the country and everything else.

We’re trying to give them what we didn’t get.

[14:16:25]

That’s right. Always, yeah. Okay, I was going to ask you, do you have any memories of Sketching School? I think there were two of those. Then there was the infamous Surveying School.

I remember Sketching School very well. We were up at Montmorency Falls in the monastery, we were living there. And Marcus Scoler and I, at that time, you could go and climb up and down on the waterfall itself. And we went down to the bottom and we picked up driftwood. And I was still weightlifting at the time, so it was no big deal for me to climb back up and go and catch dinner. Marcus missed the whole dinner because he couldn’t climb up. And he was carrying two driftwood. I only had one, and I still have the driftwood right here in my fireplace. And I actually enjoyed it. I even have pictures of Norm and I think Arthur Lau and Morty and I carpooled up together.

[15:21:02]

But there must have been, in that Sketching School, I guess, who was in charge of it? Was it Stuart Wilson or Gordon Webber? There was always a professor or two.

You know something, I don’t know. But we were pretty well on our own on that.

But we used to have a review of the sketches every night.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, in the- yeah.

Now how about Surveying School?

Surveying School was great.

That was at Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon.

Yeah. In fact, you took me up there with your Volkswagen. And I loved it because I was pretty good at surveying. I had no problem understanding that if I see more on the rod, then I’m lower down, which a lot of people just could not comprehend. In any case, I know that if you threw the rod, I think it cost three bucks if you got caught and a plumb bomb cost a dollar fifty because we were fooling around with it. And there was a guy, I don’t know his name, who was a year or two ahead of us in Engineering, who for five dollars projected the whole farm project on the wall. You put a piece of paper on it and you could trace it over!

[16:39:07]

But I also remember we were all staying in the hotel.

Yeah.

And the food was lousy. And I remember Rudy initiated an episode where everybody turned their plate- it was spaghetti and they all turned it over and walked out of the dining room. And I can remember, I roomed with Rudy and Rudy had a box full of socks. He changed his socks. He had orange socks, green socks, everything else. But those are some of the good memories.

The one thing I remember most from Surveying School, and it’s a good thing that my wife isn’t out here listening, the professor’s daughter was a knock out.

Oh yes! That’s right!

I forgot her name. It was a French Canadian professor.

Saint-Louis… Arnold Louis.

Arnold something.

Yeah, that’s right, yeah. I forget.

But that daughter was some daughter!

There’s nothing wrong with saying that even in front of your wife!

[17:31:06]

I was interested to know a little bit about your career after you graduated, which was 1962, I guess.

’62. Well, the first thing I worked for a short period of time for a landscape architect, which I started as part-time between years fourth and fifth and fifth and sixth. And then I worked for an architect, Shrier and Kessler for a while and I got involved with a lot of these [unclear] loft building and then when I went on my own in ’69 and I did a lot more of the concrete loft buildings and I did some restaurants including Paisano. And I had a pretty good little practice going. And then when the separatists,’76, came in, of course things didn’t look so good. So what we had to do is make a decision and I decided to move. And of course, everybody moved to Toronto so that was already saturated and the bigger firms had branches there. So I tried Florida, and there we had some problem with licensing. And I looked at Houston. That actually went down because the oil thing after in Calgary. And Los Angeles, and I got a company in Los Angeles who would sponsor me, so I got a permit to work here and a green card. So in 1980, we moved out here. And we bought this house that we still live in.

[19:13:08]

But you moved to this area, the San Fernando Valley.

Right here.

Right here, yeah.

Yeah, yeah. I immediately bought this house. And so, I came out a couple of months before and started working for this firm. And then I worked for that company only about six or seven months because I had to travel an hour back and forth.

In your Pinto.

In my Pinto without air-conditioning which I brought from Montreal. That was a mistake. And I got bronchitis, so I stopped that and I looked for another job and I ended up being director of construction, design and interior, everything else for a firm that was building their own chain of movie theatres. And I’m in that specialty field as an architect ever since. And I had several clients and I made several movie theatres. In fact, we got a couple of awards, one in Palm Desert, we made a movie theatre; we got an award I think in the eighties. And then we got another one up in upper- Northern California in Redding in the nineties.

[20:37:24]

So you basically have been doing theatres for about twenty years now.

That is correct.

So the niche business, which is- did you do anything else?

I did little shopping centres because some of the clients that I did the movie theatre in their shopping centre liked my work and they gave me to do their next shopping centre as well. I did several major tenant improvement of other, like health clubs and restaurants because I was like by the landlord or the client who I did the theatre for. And I’ve been doing that up and down. I’ve been as far as Guam and as far up as Oregon. And whatever there is, that’s-

I guess when the client has found a real professional who knows his business, they’re going to stick with you. They don’t- I mean, the cost of moving you up to a project is insignificant because of the work that you are going to contribute to it.

Right and once they talk to me and, you know, we go into preliminary, they know that I have the knowledge. Normally, unless they are really cheap, they’ ll take me!

[21:54:25]

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