September 25, 1995
Interview by Harry Mayerovitch
This interview is taking place in the charming home of John and Fay Bland. And it is conducted by Harry Mayerovitch. The context of this interview is that the School of Architecture is preparing to celebrate its centennial this coming year. And in connection with that, it was felt that some recollections, some notions by those who participated in the early development of the school who were either students or professors there, that these notions would be well to have preserved so that, no doubt, in another hundred years, those future generations will benefit from our experience. So I’ve been asked to speak to John and ask him about his feelings and about his experiences both as a student and as subsequently head of the School of Architecture. So, John, here we go.
Here we go.
We were both classmates. I think we registered in, what, 1928.
’28 it was
We had a class of about nine at the time. I think we had the largest class of that current group. Do you have any recollections about that period as a student?
Well, we do remember the school was operated by old Ramsay Traquair and he had, I think, his chief assistant as far as we were concerned was a man by the name William Carless. And we were really taught to draw and to learn something about the history of architecture. But you know, I had no idea what other schools of architecture were like. So I didn’t- I wasn’t critical in any sense. We simply accepted the School of Architecture at McGill as it was with the people who were involved with it. It was only later, after you did experience other schools that you began to realize what kind of a school it was. Well, it was obviously an Arts and Crafts school, wasn’t it? We were, for instance, we were taught to design from the basics of materials and how you assembled the materials. I remember, I was thinking about this the other day, I remember the enormous effort that was taken in showing us how to build a wall with the proper bonding materials. I don’t remember all of it, but I remember a Flemish bond and I remember an English bond, and I remember the closers, the extraordinary little bricks that were introduced in order to preserve the bond going around a corner. Well, that was the way we were taught and when learned later that no one ever built a bonded brick wall like that at all, they used metal clamps to bond the brick to whatever the backing was, and they used a continual running bond, don’t you think that we were taught details that were really quite extraordinary?
They stemmed, I think, from a certain tradition, did they not?
Oh, undoubtedly they did. But, for instance, I remember particularly a course called Ornament and Decoration in which we learned to design, for instance, metal, metal bronze materials or wrought iron or something of the kind. And they were the ancient crafts, they were not the ancient crafts, they were old crafts. They were certainly crafts that belonged to the, perhaps the late sixteenth century, the seventeenth century. But you never saw such things, you never saw work of that kind in contemporary work. One feels that when we were in school, it was as though William Morris was still alive and still able to provide the things that we needed to build with!
Well, did you feel, perhaps, that we had not yet caught up to the industrialized [unclear] here?
No, I don’t think that we had caught up to it at all. I think that we were trained rather dislike anything that was industrial. We were really taught to regard most things that were made by hand in the old-fashioned manner. For instance, I don’t know whether you remember, but we had a long study of how you design wallpaper. How you made patterns so that when the paper was complete, you weren’t able to detect how the printing had been made, what the repeats were.
It was extraordinary.
Diagonal repeats and square repeats and so forth
Well, it was really, that didn’t occur- at the time, we simply accepted it. It was the way it was. But I remember later going to the AA, and particularly in the design classes at the AA, I was considered an absolute freak! Because I had this attitude which was- in England had been banned for fifty or a hundred years I think.
Well, I recall, for instance, that we had a course in Heraldry.
Oh, well that’s true. And that’s exactly the same as- it was- I don’t know, we were taught to believe it was necessary to know heraldry. We knew how to, what do they call, emblazing. We knew how to design coats of arms and things of that kind and were totally unnecessary. And not used. If you ever saw any heraldry in a modern building, we could see it was all faked. You know, the kind of heraldry we’d find in a pub or something like that or there’d be nothing at all. Oddly enough, oh, just thinking of heraldry, Nobbs designed the, Nobbs or Traquair, I think it was probably Nobbs, designed the flag of McGill and the coat of arms of the university, which he based upon what he assumed were the arms of James McGill. And years later, in Edinburgh, I think it was, or in Glasgow, I’m not sure, they built a school and they called it after James McGill and they had no hesitation of putting his arms on it. And some nobleman by the name of McGill saw this, saying, “what the hell [tape glitch- unclear] nothing to do with that please”. And they discovered that Nobbs had got this information from Birks or somebody in Montreal who had simply adopted the arms of a man by the name of McGill and assumed that it was James McGill’s arms. And there was such a commotion over it, that they got the Herald King of Arms or whatever they call- in Britain to grant a, what do they say, after in death, posthumously, the arms that we use at the university, which had nothing to do with the fur trader, James McGill. Well, that was the kind of thing, we were taught things, I think, that were totally out of date.
But they did stem from a specific building tradition that rose, I think, out of the Scottish experience.
Oh yes, indeed. If you want, yes- I think that when we developed the library, what is it called, the Canadian Architecture Collection, we collected- Traquair had left us all his things, all his things that related to McGill, and Nobbs’s son, Frank Nobbs, gave me his father’s work. And these things, drawings and papers, were gradually analyzed. And we produced two documents, one, I think, Traquair and one called Nobbs. And we looked at everything that they had written and we found published in magazines and so on. And I think it was in analyzing those accounts that I really learned what the school had been. But not- I don’t think it was what I learned as a student, it was really what I learned later, from what I had read of their intentions.
Do you want to talk about anything about the student days?
No, I just want to say that when I left McGill and I went to London, I was quite, you know, how can you- I was unconscious, I suppose, about the attitudes that I had, but I was put into a class at the AA with other students who had been together for five years. And really I, it wasn’t long before I realized that I was completely a freak. You know, from the point of view of design, I might have come from another age and people found it very funny, as a matter of fact. And it was at that time that I began to realize that there were ideas in architecture and there was something called modernism that we really hadn’t heard about at all. I think at McGill, modernism was at least nineteenth century, anyway. So it was quite different. And in London, I worked with some other students and we tried our hand at some competitions. We found that we were happiest working in competitions that were for very up to date, modern buildings, not the old churches and state buildings of that kind. We would never have won a competition of that sort. And we were quite successful. And there came along a competition that was established by old Turner at McGill, I don’t remember, whether you remember that competition for the gymnasium and armory.
Oh, I don’t recall.
Did you compete in that?
Well, we heard about it, and we thought- there were a couple of McGill people in the house I was living in and together we made a submission. Well, I suppose that the submission must have surprised people here. I remember later learning that Major Forbes, who was in charge of Athletics, felt it was a pretty good scheme. But he wasn’t considered an architect of any ability and I suppose it was fortunate for us we didn’t win the competition. But we at least, I at least made a name for myself by having submitted it.
And it was how soon after you got back from England?
Oh, it was submitted from England.
Oh, from England, right.
And I never saw the other schemes, but of course, I know the building that they built. But there wasn’t any exhibition at one time. And I think it was as a result of that competition that I was invited to return to McGill. Old Philip Turner, I really don’t – he must have realized that- Well, Traquair resigned, he must have retired. Nobbs had one more year to go. And the Principal at McGill at the time, Dr. Douglas, was fed up with the School of Architecture, because it was small and had never developed in any particular way and had really gotten smaller and smaller. And the depression upset it very much. I mean there were very few students.
That was 1933 thereabouts.
Well, after ’33. Yes, about ’33 when we graduated, it was getting small then. But in ’38, it was not flourishing. Traquair was leaving and I think Douglas wanted to close it up. Turner felt that there was some hope and it ought not be closed. And he took on- he became acting director and they may have been looking for somebody to carry it on. I know Douglas had no interest in carrying it on. But they did form a committee to help Turner to find a new head or to find some way of closing the school, I expect. And Turner thought I could help and I could help him in some way. He thought that I had some energy, I guess. And he invited me to come back. I was working in London at the time with a man by the name of E.A. Rowse. And we had a school called the School of Planning and National Development.
How do you spell his name?
Rowse. R-O-W-S-E. And he was a person who got things done. It wasn’t a big school, but it was a little school. It was a little school of Planning and it belonged to the AA, it was part of the AA. Do you know what the AA is?
Yes. Although, those who are going to listen to this may not have heard about the AA so-
The Architectural Association of London. And in that school, there were two- I had two companions. One was Vincent Rother, who had studied at MIT and came to London later and the other was Harold Spence-Sales. And Rowse knew that I’ d been given the opportunity of going back to McGill. And one of the notable people in his school who knew Nobbs, as a matter of fact, was Sir Raymond Unwin.
And he got Raymond Unwin to write a letter of recommendation for me and Raymond Unwin did a job on it that I think- I’ve never seen the letter; it doesn’t seem to be anywhere around. But as a result, Nobbs and Traquair- Nobbs and Turner, Nobbs brought be back, just as an assistant to Turner. I had no particular job to do, what the hell. And the school was pretty much as it had been, except that- for instance Chambers was still there, P. Roy Wilson and it was still in the Engineering Building at McGill.
Carless, was he there?
No, no, Carless had gone a long time ago. I think Carless went when we were students. But when I came back, the school was much as it had been with the exception that Traquair was not there. But there were very few students. And one of Turner’s ideas to increase the enrollment was to admit women. And that was a very significant happening. And we- I don’t know, in the first year, whether- yes, I think we had several women in the first year.
What year would that have been?
’39. It was the year the war began. So the school began to change then. Eight women were admitted. And the other thing that happened was as the war commenced in Europe, the students who had been studying in Europe found it difficult to return in the circumstances of war. And we began to get- we got a few students who had begun their architectural studies abroad and came to McGill part way. We got, Alvaro Ortega, who had been studying in France, a Trinidad boy by the name of, I forgot his name, but he came that way. So the enrollment, the population, the student population began to change. Now, it changed further when we had Germans who, I suppose they were mainly Jewish boys who had been refugees, what do they call them, in Europe, in England. And in the critical period of the war, the English weren’t certain of these people at all. They were young, they were male, they could be dangerous. So they were all shipped abroad. And a good many of them came to McGill.
Do you remember any of their names?
Peter Oberlander, Rolph Duchesne were two I remember who came into the school. But others came into the general population. For instance, there was a boy who worked with Cecil McDougal, who was a very competent architect. I wish I could remember their names but I can’t at the moment. But can you see, the school began to change because the students began to change.
Was that on the basis of their demands?
Yes. They were surprised at some of the courses that we had. I remember, we had a museum of plaster casts, I don’t know, you must remember that museum. It was really a dreadful museum. And I know that we had all the parts of the body: a hand, an arm and a foot, a leg, and things of that kind. And we used to use them for freehand drawing.
And I remember one student felt that it was impossible to draw a foot or something like that, and he just refused to do it! You know, and it was something that never would have occurred to us as students, but people who had been in other schools, they couldn’t believe that they could be called upon to do it. So we began to have, not student rebellion, but at least the students were beginning to question the things that we were doing.
Well, you were obviously pretty receptive to-
Well, I was just an assistant to old Turner. I had no authority to do one thing or another.
But you had had a similar experience, I think, in London. You became aware of these new movements.
Yes. Turner and his advisory, we called it advisory committee, they were architects, Cecil McDougal, Ernest Barott, Fetherstonhaugh, Jean-Julien Perrault, I think, and Robert Montgomery was the youngest member. And I suppose they became a little sympathetic with the changes, but perhaps not much happened until Turner got very ill. And this was a very significant thing as far as I was concerned, because I was really his assistant and we ran the school for two or three months, if not half a year, by running back and forth from the hospital where he was in bed. I would bring him correspondence and he would scribble replies to letters or make decisions. And the advisory committee that was set up I think to find a direction for the school became more and more useful, because I had to make use of them to make decisions. And as a matter of fact, some of them came in to help. Oh, that was when Nobbs left. And I think it was about the same time that Chambers left as well and we had to fill their shoes. And the advisory committee were called upon. And they had nothing else to do. They were delighted to work. Barott became an instructor of design, so did Fetherstonhaugh. McDougal took a lot of Turner’s own work. So you see, we had another change in the development of the school. Now, I think we operated for a time that way. And it was then that I had more to do than I had before and I found myself being the Acting Director. And one of the things that seemed to me to be important if the school was to survive, was that we had to make more use of the Faculty of Engineering. You remember, when we were students, we were admitted to the school in a five-year course on a junior matriculation. Well, I couldn’t- I believed that we could make far more use of the Civil Engineering Department if we were properly qualified to take their courses in Structures and Strength of Materials and Mechanics and so on. So we introduced a senior matriculation and a first year in Engineering rather than the old first year. And the first year in Engineering, if you remember, was Physics and Chemistry and rather advanced Mathematics and some English I think. It was a preparation for Engineering and we made it also a preparation for Architecture. Well, that made a very significant difference, I think. We didn’t realize, at least I didn’t realize at the time, but as it happened, we had more mature students.
Well, I guess this was now getting toward the end of the war when we began to have a flow of new students. And we were lucky at McGill because they were carefully selected. I mean, a senior matriculation was not something that was easy to obtain and first year in Engineering was not an easy course. And I must say, I felt so much better having the participation of the engineers in developing the students because I think we still had a five-year curriculum, so it became a six-year curriculum. And I was rather alone in directing it. I would have been alone without the engineers. So I think it was a very significant move. And I think that McGill became rather celebrated as a most difficult School of Architecture in the Canadian sort of sense. And I think we had a pick of good students. We had excellent students.
You really had, you really made a significant change in the nature of the school.
But I think it was all accidental. You know, I don’t think anybody decided- certainly nobody decided when I was hired that I was to do this. It just happened that I had these opportunities.
Well, but you obviously recognized the tenor of the times…
I guess that’s true.
…and were prepared to adjust to them, which of course is a very progressive attitude. Well, it is generally agreed that your tenure there was, how many- about twenty-five years?
Thirty-five, I think.
Where you did establish extremely high standards and where I believe also this is true, that there was an atmosphere in that school during your directorship that has been praised. And it was very human and very understanding. And from that point of view, I believe that this school developed a terrific reputation throughout the country.
Well, thinking about it, I must say that I was lucky in the people that we were able to get. Now, it’s hard to reconstruct this, I have to- well, for instance, Lismer came to Montreal to run the School of Design at the Montreal Museum. And I got to know him and I told him that he could be very helpful at the School of Architecture. And he began by teaching a course in the History of Art. We had, I think, it was an old course that had been done by various people. But when Lismer came to do it, it became different. Do you remember, you don’t remember but he illustrated what he was talking about, not with slides as we do but with actual drawings. And the boards after his lecture were fascinating. People used to come photograph the board.
I get the impression, then, that what you did was to sort of take both ends of the curriculum and sort of expanded them outwards. You started off with the engineering aspect, the practical aspect, and then you introduced, say, with Lismer and people like that the aesthetic aspect, so that you got a, it seems you got a more well-rounded-
Exactly. It’s exactly what happened. I felt sure that the students were being taught all the objective subjects thoroughly well in structure and analysis of building and so on, and we were quite free in the arts. Lismer brought Gordon Webber. Lismer didn’t bring him. He suggested that Gordon would find a useful role to play in the school and he had worked with Moholy-Nagy. And I think that Gordon’s contribution was tremendous. He took, he really took the place of the old course in Ornament and Decoration. I mean, Gordon taught students that they had so many opportunities to do things well. Even putting one brick on another. You could do it in a clumsy way or you could do it neatly and you could have an event. It was astonishing what he got them to do. And they made constructions. Do you remember-you don’t remember but, I remember when the school was- after the war, we had classes at Saint-Jean, an old Air Force training place that was taken over by McGill. Dawson College, I think it was called at the time. And Gordon was an instructor there and Jillson was the Principal. And Jillson had quite an opinion of himself as far as art was concerned. And he came one day into Gordon’s studio and said, “Ah, Mr. Webber, what is that supposed to be?” And Gordon said, “That’s it”. You know it wasn’t representation at all. It was something new. And Jillson was so astonished to be told something he had never known, I guess. Well, that was what Gordon did for us.
Well, what- now what is apparent and ‘cause this has been mentioned by others, was that you did introduce to the school a new attitude and one which it seems has persisted to this day. So you have definitely left your mark on the whole system in a very wonderful way…
That’s nice to know.
…in which is being appreciated to this very day, John.
Well, we had to experiment, you know. Some of our experiments really developed, perhaps some didn’t. For instance, do you remember Dr. Dawson who was in charge of Sociology?
No? Well, we got his interest in the school and he developed a course for us called Social Observation for Architects. I was very enthusiastic about that because I think that architecture at the time began to have social implications that were far greater than they had ever been recognized before. That was one thing. Well, we developed Planning, for example. And now we have a department in Planning, which originated with a degree in Architecture.
Well, John, it seems to me as a result of hearing what you have had to say, that the School of Architecture of today owes you a great debt. And you have certainly left your mark, which will be felt presumably for another hundred years. And I would like to say that, on behalf of the committee, we are very, very grateful for your thoughts and your recollections and they certainly will be appreciated and we thank you very much for this.
Nice of you to say that. Thank you.
The CEGEP thing was introduced; students had two more years after high school. And some of the preliminary work that was done in the old first year of Engineering was unnecessary. So we cut it back I guess to five years, which is five years now. But before we did, we had a situation that was really quite significant in the development of the school. We had a student who went through all five years of a six-year programme and was failed in the final year because of Design. I remember his parents came to see me and they really were justified in saying, “Why the hell didn’t you find out earlier?” Well, the Design instructors were adamant at the time that this man had no right to have a degree in Architecture. I think maybe he did get a degree after passing again the final year, I’m not sure. But it was an unhappy situation. And it seemed to me that what was necessary, in such a long course as we had, was to have an intermediate degree. And we introduced a degree. I think the University of London did it before and they had a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture. But the Arts Department at McGill didn’t want to allow me to use the B.A. in that sense. So we made a Bachelor of Science in Architecture. The Science Department were not happy with it, but they weren’t in time. It was passed by Senate before they heard about it, I think. But we did get this intermediate degree. And at the moment, I think it’s just a stepping-stone that occurs before you get the final degree but the purpose of that degree was to give people the opportunity of leaving without the ordeal of passing the final year in Design. I was criticized for that, people said I had invented a degree for failures and things of that kind, but that wasn’t the case. Now, I don’t know yet whether that intermediate degree is being well used. I think it ought to give people the opportunity, after- not after five years now, it’s after four years- they could leave and come back. They could leave and have practical experience or something of the kind and come back. They would be better off for it.
Well it does, to me, it has become clear that architecture has become so broad an occupation that there is room for many specialties, many technical qualifications, so I think it seems to have been a very reasonable thing.
Well, that’s something that is a quality or a virtue in the school that can be yet be further explored. Because I think it is rather silly just giving people a degree and expecting them to carry on.
So the development of the school seems to be a never-ending kind of thing.
That’s true, that’s true.
It has to adjust to a great variety of changes, which are hard to anticipate sometimes.
Impossible. And circumstances change too, which makes a curriculum in Architecture- you have to question everything that you are doing. And I suppose that is happening right now. One wonders whether there is sufficient orientation toward building. I think today, well I question some of the things that I see being done. And some of the things that I read in the architectural papers, it makes me wonder whether these students are really interested in building or whether they are interested in doing something else.
Well, I think it’s been said, anyway, that Architecture and the thinking that’s involved in that course does prepare you for a variety of occupations.
So in that way, perhaps, no matter how broad the school curriculum is, it may very well prepare for a richer life in any event.
Well, thank you again. This postscript has been very, very interesting.