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Jacques Dalibard

B.Arch. 1964
Montreal, QC
July 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson


I’m sort of curious how you decided to become an architect and why McGill.

Well, it was a long process. I first studied history in France at the University and then eventually, I went to England and studied philosophy and also history, actually. And while I was at the University of Bristol, the Department for Adult Education asked me to give talks on the reconstruction in France after the war. I didn’t know a damn thing about it, so I did quite a bit of research and I found that there was the classic battle, the classic French battle of the anciens and les modernes. And you had the people that wanted to reconstruct the way it was before the war and the people who wanted new things. [Audio glitch] that new town were better and then suddenly, I realized that through my research that there was quite a real debate and I got very interested in the debate. One thing that got me into architecture, even though I didn’t think of studying architecture at the time, but my mother-in-law, who had an antiques shop in London, was buying Elizabethan and Tudor cottages in East Anglia and Kent and she was restoring them and finished them. She was finishing them with antiques and selling them to rich Americans. And that was another- and she asked me to help her. So this is how also I got interested in building. So eventually I did [audio glitch] immigrate to Canada. And when I arrived in Montreal, I did the round of the universities because I figured that I will need [audio glitch] a Canadian degree if I wanted to stay here and I applied at McGill. I was [audio glitch] at other universities, but I met John Bland and I was very impressed with John. [Audio glitch] to go and study architecture at McGill. This is how I got to McGill.

[2:31:26]

And what year would that have been?

That was in 1958.

’58, okay.

Yes. Actually, I jumped the first year because I already had some degrees and so I started in second year. [Audio glitch] who really had an impact on me was Peter Collins. And I can say that to a large extent, my career comes from Peter Collins. He was probably the main professor who really got me to reflect, to think, to question, you know [audio glitch], to develop concepts and because all the other courses were to me, they were interesting enough but they were disconnected. Even the design, I felt was not trying to make use of all the other engineering courses that we were taking or even trying to make a connection with the other courses that we were taking. [Audio glitch].

[3:48:16]

I had Stuart Wilson, of course, in my first year of design. And Stuart was cryptic. And I really didn’t communicate very well. He thought I was a rich kid because I was wearing an expensive suit that I brought from England. Actually, I paid for all my studies and I was working as a bartender at night. Actually, I spent eleven years at university all together and I financed the whole thing by myself. I didn’t get a penny from anybody else. No scholarship or anything. And I arrived in Canada with thirty-five dollars.

That’s not bad.

Reflecting-

I’m sorry; you started talking about Stuart Wilson. Once he got past the idea that you were [audio glitch].

Yes, well, actually, because we went on Sketching School with him and this broke the barrier a little bit. But this was at the end of the year and I think it was too late to really get the full benefit of the attention. And I didn’t see why he was treating me this way so I just ignored him. But the other person that had an impact was Gordon Webber, of course. Actually, not so much from a design point of view but from a philosophy of life. He had quite an impact on me. He had this ability to see the positive side of everything and I probably had the tendency to see the other side. So I watched Gordon and I got a lot from him. We were very good friends. We stayed friends for many years afterwards. Otherwise, I feel that probably the professor that may have had a little bit of influence, may be Norbert Schoenauer, though by that time, I was getting involved in a lot of work outside the university and I wasn’t spending that much time in the studio, which probably was a mistake but I had to earn a living. And I was running a design office on the side, and so when came the end of my studies, I was all ready.

[6:34:00]

Already established.

Established as an exhibit designer. And I did a job with the Canadian pavilion for Expo. And that was good because at the time, I was not at all interested in preservation of historic buildings; I was interested in futurist architecture. And I came in contact with a French engineer who was in Philadelphia at the time, called Les Recollets. And I got very interested in [audio glitch]. And when I worked on the Canadian pavilion, I designed one of the structures. And there was quite a team there. There was Arthur Erickson, Evans St-Gelais, [unclear] Schuler, Matt Stankevitch, Rod Robbie and myself as the junior architects working directly for the government. They were in private practice, I was working for the government but I was part of the team. And Arthur, I don’ t know [audio glitch] but he did everything he could to kill my design anyway, very effectively, because I don’t think there was any room for any other designer but Arthur, and so that was it. And it was just a time when- I was in Ottawa, you know, the first few years of work because I started in ’63, actually. And we moved to Montreal. And it was a shock to me because the amount of demolition that had gone on during ’63,’64,’ 65 and ’66 had been absolutely incredible. And this made me really reflect again. I was offered a job to work on the Canadian pavilion for Osaka. And then I decided that there’s something better to do. And I got interested in trying to preserve the existing. I thought, you know, surely, you must be able to- not to preserve from a point of view of historic value or heritage value but just from the environmental point of view. I thought it was an incredible waste, all this demolition. So I became a bit of a pioneer in this field. In fact, when I applied to the CMHC for a grant to do some research in preserving historic neighbourhoods, they just laughed at me and said, “For what?” And so I was looking for an angle how to get into this field. And I thought at one time maybe I should study urban planning. And the irony of it all is that I applied at the University of Montreal to study planning and they turned me down. Then they wanted engineers and lawyers at the time. They didn’t want architects.

[9:49:09]

So eventually, just by chance, I had- my design office was still working well. I mean I had a very- in fact, I had got a big contract to refurbish Expo after Expo. And then I saw an ad just by chance. The federal government was asking for a restoration architect. I thought, “Well, why not?” So I applied and I was the only person who applied and I got the job. And within three months I was there, I realized that this was really a specialized business and that I had better do some research and some studies, get a degree in the field or something. So I went to see my boss at Parks Canada and I said I wanted to do a Master’s in historic preservation. He said, “ Absolutely no way. You just started to work. We can’t let you go”. And I said, “Well, that’s just too bad because I think I’m going to find myself a programme as in Europe or in the States and I’m going to do some credit studies in the field. And so I went to Columbia and I did the Master of Historic Preservation at Columbia. It was the first programme in the States that started in ’67 and started just a year before I went there, because I went there in ’68. And it was a good thing. It really was a clever move, actually, because it’s not so much what I learned at the university but all the contacts that I made when I was in the States. And so when I came, and of course, the Government within three months I was in New York, they contacted me and said, “If you promise to come back, we’ll pay for- we’ll give you half your salary and pay for your studies”. So that was an offer I couldn’t refuse. So I came back and then I built up the restoration division for the federal government. I was the first restoration architect there. They had never had a restoration architect before. It was mostly- most of the work was done by engineers.

[12:20:09]

Was Columbia one of the first schools to build a reputation in that area?

Yes, it was definitely the first school, no question about it. It was started by James Marston Fitch and he started it with- he had one other professor with him, Charles Peterson, who had been one of the chief architects of the parks service in the States. And they were, you know, close to retirement both of them. But they had good contacts. They didn’t know so much about setting up a course, but anyway, it was experimental to a certain extent at the beginning, but it was very dynamic. And what Fitch did is invite anybody who was doing any kind of restoration in the State to come and speak to us. So that was very, very interesting. And the next thing I did is I thought, “Well, I better start some sort of an organization to try and concentrate all the information that is available and all the expertise that is available on the continent. So I started an organization that is called APT, which is the Association for Preservation Technology. And I invited some Americans to come to the initial meeting and there was people from Parks Canada and some other architects in Canada and we started a very interesting organization, which is still alive today, which is actually the main organization in restoration in North America. And that is international too. We have members from Australia and from Britain and from all over the world. So it’s been a very successful undertaking.

[14:17:18]

When you talk about restoration, do you do restoration of buildings in a certain niche? Could you do the restoring, for example, if someone called you and asked you to restore Place Ville Marie, is it out of the question to do a building that is a contemporary building?

No, well, the thing is, I was working for Parks Canada at the time. I have to admit that I was not particularly interested in just historic buildings. My interest was much broader than this. I had a very broad concept of heritage right from the beginning. I always felt that trying to preserve an isolated structure was meaningless, that really what was important was to create a whole context. And so I was probably one of the pioneers that pushed for the creation of historic districts. And eventually, got the federal government to preserve complexes of buildings, like the Halifax historic properties on the waterfront and get them to designate Quebec City as a city, as a historic city. Eventually, I got to direct another programme for Parks Canada, which was called the ARC programme, and it stood for Agreement for Recreation and Conservation. And the whole idea was to develop a network of corridors across Canada where you would preserve the natural as well as the cultural resources, the heritage resources. And I headed that programme. And then Columbia asked me to come and head the programme. So I went to Columbia and succeeded James Marston Fitch.

[16:26:20]

What year would that have been?

That was in ’77. And the minute I was at Columbia, of course, I was asked to come back to head Heritage Canada. It was a difficult decision to make, because I was a full professor at Columbia, I had tenure and- but they made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse

in the end, because you know, it was really giving me a big pot of money and letting me do to a large extent what I wanted to do. And so for seventeen years, I headed Heritage Canada. And had a very good board at first. I had Pierre Burton on the board and there were some interesting people. And I was able to do some I think some really significant things. And then I was able to really take a totally different approach to heritage, because I set up what I called the Main Street Programme, which was basically downtown revitalization. And we did it in small towns, medium-sized towns and even in large towns. We did a project in Toronto. And that, I think, was really meaningful, because there, we were really trying to maintain the- make these communities economically viable, maintain a way of life and in the process, preserving a lot of rather ordinary buildings, but buildings that give a character to these communities, like a little town like Perth in Ontario, which is really very nice. And we’ve done the same in Quebec and Alberta and British Columbia, all over the country.

[18:27:08]

And it’s I guess it’s at times frustrating because there are so many challenges. But the rewards are always there when you see something accomplished. Now, you received the Order of Canada. Was it for your work in Heritage?

I think it was mainly for my work in Heritage Canada. I originally, I thought I was getting it because I did a lot of other work. I worked abroad quite a bit. I worked for UNESCO. When Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1975, I was sent there by the secretary general of the United Nations to try and preserve the heritage of the island. And I had to go from one side to the other and try to convince the armies…

And it still needs convincing today.

… not to blow up the heritage buildings. I mean and to stop the looting and all these things. And so-

I mentioned the Order of Canada because- in architecture, because for any Canadian, that’s quite unique, but for an architect or somebody that’s in your line of work, that’s very unique. And I have to think it’s quite an honour for all of us that you obtained that. Or earned it, deserved it.

Yeah, well, I think it’s, you know, I think the impact it had on Canadian communities, I think we did Main Street programmes in about, I know probably over two hundred communities in Canada. And this, you know, had quite an impact, because what happened is that, you know, you have the shopping malls and the downtown areas where there’s small communities have to compete with the shopping mall and they cannot. And so you have to find a way that they can compete. And so you have to help the population to come back to the downtown, and that means that you have to have different kinds of stores. You go for boutiques where you can have personal services as opposed to the run-of-the-mill of the chain stores. And you have to create all kinds of activities and people are going to reappropriate the downtown area. And then eventually what happens of course is that people discover that these downtowns have a lot of character and so you also get tourism. In fact, in Perth, the big problem is that they have probably too many tourists now coming.

[21:02:23]

Interesting, because Perth is not on a main traffic span.

No, no, no. But it’s a very attractive town. And when we came there, they were in the process of ruining it because they were building a shopping mall just on the outskirt, which of course meant that most of the shopkeepers were going to desert the downtown. But they didn’t in the end and the downtown is very alive.

[21:29:12]

I also got very interested in working at the international level. I was asked to do a number of things by UNESCO at one time or another. So I did travel a fair amount. And I was very involved with an organization called ICOMOS, which is the International Council of Monuments and Sites. And I founded the Canadian branch of UNESCO, of ICOMOS, sorry. And that’s also a very active organization in Canada now and gives a chance to people to have contact with specialists in other countries. That’s really quite important. Anyway, after about seventeen years of Heritage Canada, I thought it was about time that I retire and I was sixty by then. And I was planning to write, to work on a book. And I started to work on a book, but the University of Montreal contacted me and asked me if I’d come and teach. And I was a bit reluctant at first. I wanted to have free time. And eventually I accepted, but I’m also teaching in the States, in Savannah, Georgia. In fact, they want me to open an international centre for conservation. So I think I may do that next year when I retire after sixty-five. Again! And that’s interesting, because the institution is really quite special and they have students coming from all over the world already. So I’ll probably really do that.

[23:27:19]

There’s no mandatory retirement I guess from University of Montreal.

No, no, I will probably continue to teach at the University of Montreal for some time, partly because I find it extremely stimulating. We have- it’s really bizarre, in a way, because I expected to have mostly people from Quebec, but we have people from the other provinces, but we also have a lot of people from abroad. This year, in one of my courses, I had I think twelve different nationalities represented, people from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Turkey and we had people from Bulgaria and Poland, I mean it’s really- Vietnam. So it makes teaching very interesting because all these people have different points of view. It’s a graduate programme so they have some experience in their country so I find it challenging too, because since they don’t really quite understand the systems that we have here in North America, they are literally puzzled by the fact that we have practically no legislation in terms of conservation. We are still forever trying to save individual buildings and there’s really comparatively little expertise, whether it’s in the trades, when it comes to finding the right tradesman to do the work or-

[25:29:25]

Or the people who give the tradesmen the instructions as to what to do and how much to do it.

Well, traditionally, the tradesmen were actually telling the architects what to do because they knew a lot more about the material than the architects. The problem now is that if you want to work in this field, you really have to have a good understanding of the work of the tradesman. I mean, when I started to work on the reconstruction of the fortress at Louisbourg, which is not a restoration project, it’s mainly a reconstruction, and it’s you now, it’ s in Cape Breton. I mean obviously, you can imagine, there aren’t too many stonemasons or blacksmiths. And the whole point of the project in fact was to create jobs for the miners that were going to be unemployed. So we had to retrain these people. So we had to bring people from abroad to train the miners into blacksmiths, carpenters, stonecutters, etc, etc.

[26:41:08]

So I’m thinking as you’re talking that your career has taken on sort of many facets of preservation. Is there any one, I guess, project or anything that you’ ve done in your life that you’re more proud of than anything else?

Well, I think that there is no question that as far as I’m concerned, the Main Street Programme is the thing that I am proudest of. And I tried to establish a similar programme not for small towns, small towns, but for regions, which I called heritage regions. And the idea there was to actually take a whole region that had a very definite character because of its boundaries or the type of activities that it had or the political structure or whatever. But there was something that you know the people in that region could share that sort of kept them as a group. And try to help these people to put in place- to maintain their way of life but that means that you had to work really at four levels: one was obviously to give them economic opportunities; use the cultural and natural resources to promote social harmony and then of course, there’s the whole question of sustainable development. And to top it all, give these people a strong identity. So if you- it’s very important to do this, then you could really help the region. And I’m thinking for example we did a lot of work along these lines when the fisheries collapsed. The big problem was to find activities for the people and also to make sure that there wasn’t too much social tension. It was a real problem. And Newfoundland is interesting because traditionally, people settled along the bays and you had the outports. And then- but those bays are actually created by peninsulas and they find themselves with the new type of life with the roads that have been built, the life is in the peninsula as opposed to the bay. So if you take one of these peninsulas, you will find that maybe on one side, you have people from Scottish descent and on the other side, people of Irish descent. And now, they’re not communicating with the people around the bay, they’re communicating with people in their peninsula. And you know, you have the Irish and the Scotts suddenly confronting each other and so you know to get this whole region to work together, you really have to do an in-depth process to get them to share their identity and to respect each other’s identity, so that they will work together as opposed to fight with each other. So you know, heritage becomes very central to the life of a peninsula because traditionally, that’s not the way these people were living. They were living around the bay.

[30:19:14]

It’s interesting because when people think of heritage, they basically think of preservation and restoration of towns and buildings and central areas. And the point you just talked about is something that does not comes to mind, really.

Heritage, you know, has become so broad now. I mean but it’s partly because the rate of change is so rapid. People are looking for meaning. Also, religion is far less important than it used to be, so people are still looking for who they are and where they’re coming from and where they are going. And religion used to try and answer those questions and now they’re looking at heritage to answer those questions!

[31:14:09]

A new day. I always like to ask a question, which you don’t have to answer, but if you [unclear] had the opportunity to do the whole thing over again, do you think that you’d pretty well follow the same course, now knowing-?

Yes, I am really reasonably happy with my career. I would have liked to have done more because I still feel that it has- there’s a lot of things to do. I mentioned the heritage region programme, and I think I would have liked to see this right around the country. I feel it’s absolutely essential if we want to keep this country together, I think it could have a very strong political impact. I’ve been lucky in some ways because I mean for the last thirty years, thirty-five years even, I’ve been going from one end of the country to the other almost on a weekly basis. And I’ve visited almost every community in Canada. And one of the things that has struck me is, you know, this country is built and is going to be destroyed on the basis of a giant misunderstanding between the different regions. I mean it’s not just Quebec. I mean, you know, we’re putting a lot of emphasis on Quebec, which I think to a large extent, it’ s almost a red herring, because when I look at British Columbia and Alberta, they have absolutely nothing in common with the Maritimes and Newfoundland. And you know there is really very little respect between these communities. So I feel that heritage really is absolutely central, but not heritage in the narrow sense. I mean it has to be built up in terms of, you know, using to the maximum because let’s face it, Canada is the biggest country of immigrants. And when you take the Chinese community and you show them some nice Quebec farmhouse and tell them that it’s their heritage, it’s a big step. And so the question the Chinese can ask is, you know, “Is that my heritage?” And so we have to realize that the Chinese have their heritage too and we also have to respect that heritage. You know, it’s very amusing because when I go to Europe, especially at the beginning, and I would go to meetings of these international organizations, people would always ask me, “Oh, you are in preservation, heritage preservation in Canada. It’s a very young country. What do you have to preserve?” And I would say, “Look, it’s very insulting to think that you have nothing to preserve, because everybody has something to preserve to start with. We all have some kind of history”. But I said, “You know Canada is actually very rich because we have people coming from all over the world and they brought all kind of things with them that have heritage value. And we just have to valorize these- what they have brought up. In fact, I’ve developed a lecture where I show the influence of all the different ethnic groups on the architecture of Canada. And it’s very- it’s fascinating. I mean we have all kind of buildings that have been influenced by the various ethnic traditions.

[35:07:08]

I guess Canada was fortunate, because around forty-five years ago, you decided to immigrate to Canada. And the whole country has benefited. And you’ ve had fun in the meantime, I guess.

Yeah, well I had a lot of fun. I mean it was ideal, I mean I can’t imagine how I could have had a similar career if I had just stayed in France. Canada was a dream country for me.

Well, thanks very much.

[35:37:20]

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