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David Bourke

B.Arch. 1954
Montreal, QC
June 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson

In my case, it was pretty easy. I was at Westmount High School in the early forties; I guess it was junior high, in the eighth grade or thereabouts. And at that time it was a thoroughly modern school and all the kids took what was called a Kudor Preference Test. And mine, because I had always been interested in drawing and stuff, mine came out saying very strongly one of the professions that I should consider was that of architecture. And that sounded pretty interesting for me. And I guess, thinking about it, my family was a family of professionals so entering the professions was not a peculiar thing to do; my dad was an actuary, one of my uncles was a dentist and another was a notary so entering a profession seemed quite a logical thing. So from the eighth grade on, I had simply decided I was going to be an architect and nothing changed really.

[00:59:27]

And then of course, you entered McGill, the reason being convenience or-?

Well, partly convenience, of course. In those days, mostly you stayed home to go to university if the university was respectable. In my case, it was much more so in I’m a real McGill person. My grandfather went to McGill, my father and all his siblings went to McGill, my two brothers had gone to McGill, so going to McGill was just a very natural thing to do. I didn’t even think about elsewhere I guess. It’s just what you did. That again, that was a very simple decision

[1:36:20]

What year did you start?

I started in ’48. I was sixteen at the time. And in those days, you may recall, McGill University had opened a temporary campus at Saint-Jean, Quebec to accommodate veterans from ’45 to ’50. Dawson College had about a thousand students on campus in every given year. That’s five thousand people in all passed through Dawson. I was not a veteran, but McGill in its wisdom, since most of the veterans returning from the war were choosing Engineering or Science, McGill said, “Okay, let’s keep it simple. We’ll send all the first year Science and first year Engineering students out to Dawson”. In those days, the first year was Science Pre-Engineering, first year Engineering and then four years of Architecture for a total of six after eleventh grade. Dawson was great fun. It was- we kids learned how to party from the veterans. We also learned how to study from the veterans. The veterans studies hard and partied hard. And when they were studying and the kids like us were partying, well, they let us know it. And we had great fun at Dawson. I could tell you stories that would curl your hair there. I guess the best story of all was the final- when they closed Dawson, it was in May, it would have been about May in 1950, and the veterans decided to have a party. And when the veterans decided to have a party, they really had a party. The party started at, I think, noon on Friday and ended at noon on Monday. And they imported Tex Beneke, who was a big band from California or something, and the thing it was a seventy-two-hour party on campus, in the hangars. You’ve got to remember that Dawson was an old Air Force base. And so we had our lectures and we had our floor hockey games and we had our parties in big hangars. And when you have a big aircraft hangar to have a dance in or just a beer bash in, it’s a pretty interesting environment.

[3:49:18]

I would think so.

Every Friday night, we used to import bus loads of women from Montreal for dances, but the funny thing is, every Monday morning, we would have a meeting of the students’ council, which included all students who wanted to come, and we would discuss the relative virtues of the women who had been there the Friday previous. And we would fluctuate just like a pendulum. One Friday it would be RVC girls from McGill, and then in the Monday morning post-mortem, people would compare notes and say, “Well gees, that was interesting, but not a hell of a lot- not very productive”. So the next Friday it would be girls from the Bell Telephone. And then Friday morning, sorry, Monday morning post-mortem would prove to have been somewhat more productive, but maybe intellectually on a slightly lower plane. So it was so funny the way we swung back and forth between.

[4:48:09]

Did any group ever get re-invited?

Oh yeah, every second week! ‘Cause these were almost every Friday night, they had these great armadas of buses coming out from Montreal to deal with a thousand sex-starved males. ‘Cause there were hardly any women on campus. There were a few married vets, but basically, it was an all-male campus, which made it a pretty raunchy place.

I would think so.

Great fun. And also the other thing though, everybody played- intramural sports at Dawson College were just great fun. Everybody played it. And floor hockey was the game of choice, and it seems to me that it was just it was part of the thing; you played floor hockey.

[5:31:08]

So there was great camaraderie, I guess, over there.

Great fun, great fun, yeah.

How long did you actually- how long-?

I was there two years.

Two years, ok.

And then so in 1950, I entered McGill in first year of Architecture. And so I was on the McGill campus. And that happened to be the year Dawson closed. And then I was at McGill for four years.

[5:51:11]

And then your studies were pretty well dedicated to Architecture.

Yeah. And more and more they moved toward Architecture. There was still lots of Engineering. As I think you’re aware that in the curriculum in the fifties, you did Physical Chemistry and Organic Chemistry and lots of Calculus and all of the Engineering subjects. But talking about that, in those days, the School of Architecture occupied half of a greystone, a semi-detached greystone on University Street just about fifty yards down from the Milton Gates. Across the street was the Arctic Institute, currently where the Presbyterian College stands. The Arctic Institute was a beautiful old house set way back from the street with a great circular drive in front of it and all kinds of gorgeous trees on both sides of University. But life in that greystone was great fun. The drafting rooms were in rooms upstairs, yeah, upstairs, two floors that would hold four, six, maximum eight guys at drafting tables. The main living room was a lecture room. Just as you entered, there was a little office and in the corner of the office was a library. I was recalling a girl, a very pretty girl named Libby Windsor, was the Secretary cum Librarian. So every time you came into school every morning, you would have to check in with Libby and see how Libby was, and how her love life was. And it was very, very intimate, because there were-

[7:32:00]

Small classes.

Well, our class was seventeen. That was about the average size, so that’s only, God, sixty-five people coming and going and not all at the same time, obviously, ‘cause lots of time, they were taking classes at the Engineering building and elsewhere.

How about, I guess, without necessarily going into a chronological pattern, how about some of the courses that you remember and/or some of the professors?

Well, I loved the Building course with Stu Wilson, ‘cause Stu was big on model-making and I happened to have been a model airplane-maker when I was a kid and I loved that part. Naturally, I enjoyed the History courses with John Bland. Joe de Stein, Structural Engineer, was a great teacher. A wonderful teacher and I and many other students developed lifelong friendships with Joe. Joe did all our structural work all during the time I was in partnership. But he was a man who touched many lives. Watson Bal… I was talking to some Ottawa architects just last week in Vancouver and the name of Watson Balharrie came up. Watson was an Ottawa architect who, bless him, would come on, I guess on the train, once a week.

[8:51:11]

He used to fly down, too.

Did he? Oh that’s right. He would fly his own plane, yeah. And do Professional Practice. But two sayings of Watson’s I have kept in my memory forever. One was, “Never let- if you enter into a partnership, never let your wives become too friendly, because they will start talking about how hard you work and how good her fur coat is or how good your car is”, and the other thing, also having to do with partnership, is he said, “You know, you got to understand that a partnership, an architectural partnership is like a marriage but without sex”. So that was Watson’s immortal words!

[9:32:02]

Prophetic. Both of those things, comments that he made, are, you would know, are quite valid!

And of course, Gordon Webber. One could never forget Gordon Webber. He was a very special character, especially when he used to throw parties for the students at his home on Chelsea Place [sic: Elgin Terrace] that no longer stands. And around about two in the morning, when Gordon would get a little carried away, he would take off his artificial legs and sort of flop around on his stumps. You could tell when Gordon had had too much to drink, ‘cause when he took off his legs. And, of course, the Sketching Schools were the greatest fun.

[10:11:19]

Was, I guess Gerry Tondino, was he at the school?

No, no.

No it was Arthur Lismer, right?

It was Arthur Lismer and I will never forget a wonderful Sketching School. We stayed in Deschambeault, which is a town just a little bit upstream from Quebec City right on the shores of the St-Lawrence River. We stayed in a little motel that looked out over the river. It was just gorgeous. But we sketched in Quebec City and Arthur Lismer was leading the charge. And to go charging around lower-town Quebec with Arthur Lismer leading the pack telling you what you should be looking at and how you really had to open you eyes, architects and artists had to open their eyes all the time and we were constantly looking at stuff. It was very thrilling. And those Sketching Schools were the greatest. On that particular Sketching School, Dusty Baxter was along. Dusty was our carnival queen architect, who went and married a Marine and went off to California. I don’t think she ever graduated. I was looking, trying to locate her, in the McGill directory but I don’t think she ever earned her degree. I think she got married instead.

[11:20:01]

I’m just trying to think, John Bland was there. He was teaching just Architectural History?

Yup.

Peter Collins hadn’t joined the staff in those days.

No, no.

Okay.

John Schreiber was another teacher, who was teaching as quite a young man. And Freddy Lebensold was teaching as a young man. John Bland, S.S. was there.

Was Harold? Harold was there.

Harold was there, yeah.

Do you have any memories of Harold? Was he teaching?

Well, we took one or two courses from Harold. Harold was very present because he had an office at the head of the stairs. One summer, about my- my wife-to-be at the time, Judy Veeth, worked as his secretary, and talk about a hair-raising experience. It’s not from her personal point of view but the kind of a life that Harold led. He would sort of not show up one morning and his wife would phone and say, “Where’s Harold?” and Judy would say, “I don’t know”. And it turns out, he would have gone to Ottawa for three days and neglected to tell his wife. Contrarily, as Judy would say, he would arrive in at four o’clock with thirty people in tow and say, “We’re all going home to my place for dinner” . And so Judy would be charged with phoning Mrs. Spence-Sales to tell her that there were thirty coming to dinner tonight! They lived on the South Shore.

In Préville, I think it was.

Préville, yeah. At a very lovely house. But, yeah, those are the professors that I remember, Jim.

[12:48:09]

When we talk about things that happened in school, especially in the curriculum, one very extraordinary thing that John Bland arranged, and I’m pretty sure it was in my next-to-final year, which would have been ’53, I guess, He engaged a man named Howard Fischer from Chicago to come to Montreal one semester and run a programme that was a very- it took a big chunk out of our whole week. And it was a sort of like a Design-Build programme, it was a Get Technical programme where we were charged with designing components, really designing components of a wood-frame house and then going down to an apprenticeship training centre which one of the carpenters’ unions keeps in East End Montreal and building the bloody thing. So our class basically assembled a full-scale house, or parts of it, not a whole house, but- and getting the framing details right, getting the joinery details right was very interesting and it was the one and only experience that my class had with actually working with their hands and building something that you designed. I say that ‘cause we had a similar experience later on when we went to Harvard, Jose Luis Sert had us building concrete shell roof structures, but that was some time later. So that, I just wanted to mention the Howard Fischer course. I’ m not sure; I think McGill may have repeated it at the School of Architecture a few years later. I’m not certain of that. If it did, it would have been in the late fifties. But I know that Howard Fischer- this was sort of a curriculum programme he was flogging around to schools of Architecture at the time and I think he did come back to McGill.

[14:44:26]

Do you have any memories of classmates or kids in school?

Oh yeah. We had a very interesting class that I enjoyed very much. We had two or three Francophones from, not from Montreal but from rural Quebec, from the Saguenay, from the Lac Saint-Jean area, Claude Bolduc, Louis Beaumier. I admired their courage very much because they came to McGill without a word of English to speak of. It was a hard course and how they managed to do it, I don’ t really know. It was just double effort. We had two interesting guys from Caracas, Venezuela. One- sorry, sorry, not Venezuela, from Colombia. One was Alvaro Melo Cortazar and the other was Alberto Remirez. Melo Cortazar was a very handsome young man and he liked the ladies. And he used to complain about the fact that his father only sent him two hundred dollars a month spending money, which in the early fifties was quite a lot of money. He was last seen, not by myself but I think by Russell Edge passing through Montreal with his wife, six kids, two bodyguards, two nannies. We concluded he must have been in the drug trade. Whether he’s alive today, I have no idea. McGill has lost touch with him. But Alvaro was a real swinger. Remerez not so much. And of course, there’s Russell Edge. Nobody will ever forget Russell. Russell died about ten years ago now. [...] And all through graduation, I kept very close touch with Russell until the day he died.

[17:11:25]

Yeah, he was one of the- rather unique, because I can recall one time watching him play tennis up at the hillside, and I looked out and I couldn’t believe it, he had a cigar in his mouth! He played tennis with-

Well, Russell really loved to party!

Yeah, he sure did!

And, well, you know, because we were only seventeen, we knew one another very well, all of us pretty well. And I keep in touch, those of the people who are still alive and we still have decent addresses for, I try to keep in touch with. This year, I may be trying to organize a class reunion. Abe Sheiden is a very interesting classmate. I don’t know if you are going to interview Abe.

[17:51:17]

No I’m not.

But Abe joined- He was with Arcop right after graduation but he was assigned to Place Ville Marie. And through that, he developed a relationship with the I.M. Pei people and he has been with I.M. Pei ever since. He is a relatively senior person in the Pei organization. But he has always been a bachelor, which means he gets assigned these projects that are out of town. And he was here, I was talking to him just a few weeks ago he was here for the funeral of our dear friend Emile Leziy, and I asked him when he was going to retire because he is my age, he’s 67, 68. And he said, “Well I’m not quite sure, Dave. But, you know, if you work for Pei, if you take on one project it means you are there for another five years because every project is so big. There’s no such thing as a little six-month project in the Pei office. So he’s not quite sure what he’ s going to do. But of course Abe is something else. And I guess that’s- there’ s Gordon Edwards and there’s Maurice DesNoyers and I see both of them frequently. We all inhabit Montreal. And that’s about it for the classmates.

[19:11:16]

How about-?

Okay, I graduated from McGill in ’54. I worked for a bit in Montreal. I had been lucky enough to win the Hugh McLennan Traveling Scholarship, which the only obligation of that is to go travel. So I took that money and got a little more and married my university sweetheart; in those days, you weren’t allowed to travel with a woman unless you married them. And we spent six months in Europe in a Renault Quatre Chevaux, a great deal of fun. I could tell you more stories about that. And Miss McLennan, who was alive at the time who gave the scholarship- and the other requirement of the scholarship was to have tea with Miss McLennan before you left and when you came back. Then I went to Toronto, worked for John Parkin in his design department then in field supervision. Then I went to Harvard for a year. That was interesting because I really learned the value of my McGill education at Harvard. This was a programme that doesn’t exist anymore. It was a class of forty people, about half of whom held B.Arch’s from elsewhere and the other half held, I guess, B.A’s from Harvard in Art History or something. And most of the class had never even seen a slide rule. And I was just appalled by their lack of technical knowledge compared to myself as a McGill graduate. And that was interesting.

[20:32:11]

Then I came back from Harvard to Montreal. John Parkin had just opened a branch, a very small branch. George Hibert was in charge and I was number two and we had a secretary and that was it. It wasn’t going very far, this little branch, ‘cause Montreal isn’t Sault Ste. Marie and you don’t run a Montreal branch like you run a Sault Ste. Marie branch. I was invited by John Parkin to come back to Toronto to run his design department. That was my moment of truth and so I said goodbye to John Parkin and decided to set out to stay in Montreal and sought out a partnership. And I had known Bill Stewart just remotely. And Peter Dobush and Bill Stewart were a very, very small office and they took me on board. And that was in, I guess, ’61 and we started to build and build.

[21:25:12]

I think one of the exciting parts of what we did is about in 1964, understanding the way that Montreal and Eastern Canada was changing in the architectural world, we decided that in order to survive and thrive, we must become a bilingual, bicultural firm. And all kinds of firms around Montreal were doing- were discovering the same thing. But they were doing it in a different way by sort of taking themselves one French partner or one English partner. We decided to do this in a much more complicated way. We deliberately looked around for a three-man partnership already in business with whom we could merge. And we found one. Gilles Marchand, Claude Longpré, Iréné Goudreau were already in business. We put the two offices together. We had a period of, let’s say call it like an engagement, whereby we carried out one or two projects together. They were Expo ’67 projects. We did it in their office because theirs was a much larger office. I worked in their office with a staff and then we ultimately merged in about ’66. We took off like gangbusters. By the time 1971 came, we had a staff of about a hundred. I think in 1972 when I left, we were the largest firm in town because we were getting work from everywhere. We were getting work from Ottawa, Quebec City, Montreal, Newfoundland, Eastern Townships. I should have mentioned, we had a wonderful advantage that helped in the long run. Peter Dobush, who was the oldest of the six by far, had been chief architect of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited during the Second World War and was very well-known to people who were by now the senior people in the scientific, what I call the scientific mafia of Canada. So we were receiving jobs from Atomic Energy of Canada throughout Canada, form the National Research Council. That in turn led to jobs with private firms doing scientific buildings of one sort or another. That in turn led to scientific buildings, science buildings for universities and high schools.

[23:50:12]

So it just kept expanding.

So it just kept expanding in a specialty that I would call the scientific institutional part of architecture, which is an interesting part that the clients tend to pay their builds, the clients tend to want excellence in their buildings ‘cause they’re pretty sophisticated machines. And as I say, it was great.

[24:13:09]

But with all this success, what prevailed upon you to decide to leave architecture?

Okay. In 19-

’72 was it?

“71 McGill University was celebrating its hundred and fiftieth birthday party. In the late sixties, McGill had gone through a terrible ordeal with student unrest, student turmoil, then the McGill Français movement, the whole political turmoil in Quebec. McGill University was suffering from a major public relations crisis in the late sixties. So the late Lorne Gales, bless his soul, had the guts to persuade the governors of McGill to fork out a hundred and fifty thousand bucks to run a birthday party, which would be the equivalent of a half a million bucks today to run a birthday party. McGill was broke then as it is now. I was asked as a volunteer to run that birthday party, so I worked for two years breakfasts, lunches, after work, and continued to be a partner in my firm. And we pulled it off. It was a success and things started to change. And so I was invited to come to work at McGill full-time. And I was forty at the time. I had been a partner since my early twenties and I guess I was ready for a change. I just, we won’t go into- I was comfortable to leave the firm; the firm was doing exceedingly well. There were some things happening in the firm that I wasn’t too comfortable with. I felt that we were farming out too much work into other people’s offices and we were losing control of the work ourselves. Bigness in itself was worrying me. Anyway, I left and I went to McGill to work at a whole bunch of jobs all having to do with public relations, fundraising, general management, non-financial-type management of the university. And I was there for twenty-five years. And I’ve retired two years ago. And I had a wonderful time at McGill. Working at a university is great fun. I taught for a bit, Professional Practice, Specs for the first five years that I was at McGill. I taught at the School of Architecture, that is. But I realized afterwards that the technical side of the profession changes quite rapidly and I was really getting to be a dinosaur. I was not really in it. You have to be really practicing it day to day to be able to teach those subjects. And so I let up in the teaching. But I’ve always been terribly interested in the school and kept very good contact with the school and with the professors who are there now and over the years.

[27:09:12]

It’s interesting because that was a momentous decision.

Yeah.

You were still quite young and with a very successful practice. Frequently people leave because it’s just the opposite. Their practice isn’t really what it should be and they have an opportunity. Any second thoughts at all in terms of-?

Well given what happened to the market in Montreal, the market generally in Eastern Canada but certainly especially in Montreal, I’m awfully lucky, awfully lucky that I changed professions at the time that I changed. My old firm doesn’ t exist anymore. It didn’t go bankrupt; it just kind of faded away. People retired, people died, Gilles Marchand kept going until very recently. Claude Longpré is still practicing I think in a consulting capacity. But the big firms just don’t exist anymore. The big firms that were in Montreal in the seventies, sixties and seventies, I mean a big firm in Montreal today is thirty people, I think.

[28:12:20]

Or an engineering firm [unclear]

Yeah.

The interesting thing about the- I guess your studies as an architect, it opened your eyes for all sorts of things that if you had just gone in and ended up working at McGill, a Commerce degree or something, you would never had an interest in. I mean, the perspective you’re interested in, you know, the museums and the arts and everything else.

No, I feel very lucky. You know if one reads about the building business or the architectural business in North America, there were only two periods in the whole century that were really boom periods, one was the twenties and the sixties into the seventies. And I happen to be born at exactly the right time. So did you, Jim!

Yeah sure! More or less, yeah!

When I see the young architects today with whom I have contact, including my niece, it’s very difficult being an architect. And so many bright, young people, the students I came in contact with, are so darn bright and know so much and so few of them have a real opportunity to design a building from stem to stern, from beginning to end.

We were the lucky ones.

We were really the lucky ones.

Well, thank you very much.

Okay.

I appreciated your time.

[29:31:07]

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