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Elizabeth Davidson

B.Arch. 1973
Toronto, ON
March 12, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson


I’m a fourth generation architect. My great-grandfather and grandfather practiced in Toronto. And actually, it’s almost a family disease. There are architects all through the family. And- although, that wasn’t a really big influence because my father died when I was very young and his father had died so there were no living architects around me. But I guess late in high school, I became- I was very good at math. And my math teacher started talking to me about architecture. And he actually took me down to U of T to hear John Parkin and a few other architects who were practicing at that time. And I guess in about grade 12, I decided I was definitely going to go for it. By the time I got to grade 13, I went out and met with some architects to find out where they recommended that I go to school. First of all, they had to get over the shock that I was a girl and I’m not supposed to go into architecture. Once they got over that, then they actually universally recommended McGill. They felt that U of T was going through some changes at that point and this was actually before things more dramatically happened at U of T, but they felt that the graduates that were coming out of McGill were- had a good practical knowledge as well as a design knowledge. They also felt that because it was part of the School of Engineering, that as a girl, this was a good thing because I would actually know a little bit about building and engineering. And so I did apply to McGill and I applied to UBC and I applied to University of Toronto. And University of Toronto, you had to prepare a portfolio, which I stayed home for one day, prepared, and walked in with a wet oil painting for my interview because I did not want to be accepted. A little background of U of T, my great-grandfather established the school there and my grandfather was the first graduate. So there was just a little bit of pressure on me to go to U of T. I didn’t want to be accepted.

[2:11:28]

So you deliberately went in with a wet oil painting to make sure that you weren’ t accepted!

Well I sabotaged the interview. I also, there were about seven people who interviewed me and they basically said, you know, they didn’t particularly like women coming into architecture ‘cause they just took up spaces and then they went off and got married and had babies. And so I basically turned the tables and ended up interviewing them because I had nothing to lose. And I got a telegram the next day that I was accepted. And then they got very upset because McGill was extremely slow in responding so I kept getting nasty phone calls from U of T saying there were other people that wanted to become architects and could I please make up my mind. So anyway, McGill finally got their acceptance out and I went to McGill.

[2:59:18]

As far as- by the time I was in grade 12 and grade 13, I actually started reading a bit about architecture. I really had no idea at that point how significant my family had been in Toronto. I didn’t realize the buildings that were Langley buildings. But I really didn’t know very much about it at that point, even going into school.

[3:23:00]

Well my arrival at McGill was unusual. Here I was coming from Toronto, eighteen years old, didn’t know a single person in Montreal and I arrived for the summer course that I had to take because I was going into second year. And I had made all my own arrangements. In those days, parents didn’t go with you to go down to university. You did your own arrangements. I had phoned Royal Victoria College to arrange early entry. They said, “Yes, no problem”. They knew about this course. I arrived on the doorstep and the porter said, “There’s no place for you to stay. We’re not open yet”. So there I was, eighteen in Montreal, no place to stay and of course starting the next day. So I stayed at the Y for the first two weeks in Montreal, which was an experience in itself, especially for a girl from Willowdale.

[4:13:18]

Yeah, that’s right!

So I learned a lot about life in those first two weeks. So that was really the beginning. And Ted will tell you that I don’t remember anything about McGill because I think I was at the student union once, I think I was at a football game once and really the only thing I remember about McGill was the School of Architecture and when it snowed, the only tracks in the whole university were to the School of Architecture because it never shut down! The early years, second year was Derek was our professor, so it was a very animated year. I won’ t tell you my Derek story!

[4:52:06]

I wish you would!

All right, I’ll tell you my Derek story. Well, I’m extremely ticklish. I don’ t know whether Derek will remember this. I’m extremely ticklish.

I would suspect that, yes.

And he came up behind me one time and, in those days we called it twitched me. He went like this. And I jumped and I didn’t even stop and I turned around and whomped him right across the face! Well, I didn’t do so well in design that year! He wasn’t too happy!

He deserved it, though. Sometimes- I’m glad somebody gets these sort of occasions.

Well, he- I don’t think he liked me too much those years but he was kind because I eventually did actually very well. And Derek was I guess, well he was head of the school when I finished. So he was the one who was able to tell us the good news because I had won a prize and whatnot. So that was very nice. So we made up over the five years. Other professors that I remember distinctly, Peter Collins, of course. I guess both Ted and I found him probably the most intellectually inspiring of all the professors we had at McGill. We took one history course together, which was interesting because as you can probably tell, I’m very verbose, and I write the same way, Ted’s very precise. And we wrote an exam side by side. I think he filled one book; I filled seven books. And we both, if you remember the way Peter Collins marked things, the top student got a hundred and we each got a hundred because we were in two separate years. So he thought we were a match made in heaven! That we could both get a hundred in our history exam! And I didn’t know anything about history but I told him all his stories back, so we managed.

[6:39:20]

So, yes, he was very important. We had Bruce Anderson and Stuart Wilson the same year, which just about killed most of us, because they seemed to have a competition to see who could kill us faster. And I still remember Stuart Wilson coming in one Friday evening; he never had any sense of time. He came in the studio, I guess about midnight, and there was nobody there. He decided we didn’ t have enough work to do so he posted a project that was due at 5pm the following Sunday, two days later. So we had a crit, actually, at 9pm that Sunday, and that was just typical of that third year. And it was strenuous to say the least. We couldn’t figure out after third year whether the work got easier or we were all so organized that no amount of work seemed like as much as it was in third year. After that, I had Norbert for my sixth-year thesis project and did a housing development. And one of the things that I remember about Norbert as part of our presentation, we had to also do a pro forma of the project, which was amazing because it taught us so much about actual development and being able to justify your project as well as being able to design it well. And it was actually a great year because we had that combination fifth and sixth year when CEGEPs were introduced. And so a few of us took advantage of that so in fifth year, I took almost all of the courses that I needed to take and then finished in the half-year of sixth year and concentrated almost entirely on design with the exception of a couple of courses. And Norbert used to laugh because I would be in the studio from 9 to 5 everyday. And Ted was working so I’d be there and I had individual tutoring! I mean it’s unbelievable. Nobody else was there. They were all in class. So it worked out very well. It was great.

[8:41:21]

Were there any other professors there that- there must have been more. I guess probably, I’m trying to think. John Schreiber wasn’t there. No, he was gone.

Yes he was.

Oh he was, okay.

I was the first year that he returned for and-

He wasn’t very popular, as I recall.

No, we didn’t get along very well.

Was he teaching landscape or was he teaching-?

No, he was our design professor at that point. And we established at the beginning of the year that we would basically, he would do his crit and I would do my work and that’s about the amount of contact we would have. We just didn’t get along very well. So that was fine. And, I’m trying to remember. He may have taught us landscape as well, I don’t remember. In which case, the landscape part was fine because I actually remember enjoying that course quite a bit. But it was our actual studio that didn’t-.

[9:40:10]

Now you also- I know I heard of one Sketching School that you went to but you went to another one. You probably took two Sketching Schools.

Yes I did.

You did that, okay. And one you were married. Were you married at both Sketching Schools?

Um… Where was my other Sketching School, Ted?

T.D.: Oh, we went to Trois-Rivières.

Oh, Trois-Rivières. No you went to Trois-Rivières but where did I go?

T.D.: No, you went to Trois-Rivières!

Did I?

T.D.: Trois-Rivières and Belleville.

See? He tells- I don’t remember anything!

T.D.: I went with her and we were married when we went to Trois-Rivières.

So, yeah. I went to Trois-Rivières!

Okay!

Actually, a side-story about Gentile Tondino. It’s really interesting; I’m on the board of the Stratford Festival. And Richard Monette is the artistic director. And there’s a little article about Richard Monette and had a photograph of his living room and a sketch over the mantle by his uncle, Gentile Tondino.

I’d forgotten that, yeah.

And Guido, Gentile’s son, is now a designer at Stratford. So Guido and I have reformed contact about- through his father.

[10:48:20]

Interesting!

Yeah, it’s a small world!

A lovely man! I don’t know how old he is, but he has to be- here we go about age. Maybe we should drop it. But he’s got to be close to seventy.

Probably, yes. ‘Cause I think that Guido is approaching forty.

Yeah.

Yeah.

[11:00:43]

How about friends? Sometimes people recall friends and that recalls incidents. Do you have any friends that you sort of keep in touch with in your class?

Definitely. Actually, I keep in touch with a number of people in the class. Peter Gabor and George Popper are still very good friends. And we were really a six-some with their girlfriends at that point and we spent a lot of time together and we still are very good friends. And actually, there are some other people in the class that we still keep in touch with. For us, for Ted and I it was a little odd because we were married so we weren’t with the dating group. We were very serious and stable and boring, I’m sure!

Which you aren’t now, right?

No, we’re just old, married and boring, so-!

Apparently!

So it was odd for us because we were, you know, we would go home and have dinner and so it was quite a different environment. Second year, I was in residence and third year was the one year that I had an apartment when I wasn’ t married. And it’s probably a good thing I got married because I’m not sure I would have survived all six years!

[12:15:16]

In fifth year, we had visiting professors who were actually practicing architects. And it actually worked out really well so we were able to select from various people who came in. And Fred Lebensold was my visiting professor. Although, at that point, we were just permitted to take outside courses outside the School of Architecture. Even though when you took an outside course, the credits were cut in half. So I decided to take music and it was six credits and it ended up being worth three but you can imagine how many hours it took. Well, it happened to be at the same time that Fred used to come in to teach us design, so he thought I was in music. He used to always tease me that I was in music. In any event, we had a good rapport and I decided I wanted to work with Arcop. I decided that was the only firm I wanted to work with. So I finished in December, which was an odd time and right after Christmas, I went and sat in their front lobby. And finally, Art Nichol said to me “Well, if you’re just going to continue sitting there, you might as well come in and start working”. And so I did and I worked on window details for six months. And Fred Lebensold used to walk past and said, “I can’ t believe it. We have somebody who graduated in music who is working in the office”. So there was a running joke that went on. And then we got our results and I won the same prize that Ray Affleck had won. It was at that point the first prize because the Dunlap, they split in two.

T.D.: Hugh McLennan.

Hugh McLennan Scholarship, that’s right! So at that point, Ray decided that if I had won that, that maybe I wasn’t just a window detail person. So he literally that day plucked me from that group and I started working on design and we started doing hotels. So it was really exciting ‘cause it was a really small group. Then we worked with Ramesh, who literally almost killed us. But it was a really, really exciting period. But my little group was very busy and what I didn’t notice was that the other fifty-three people in the office weren’ t doing much of anything. And one Friday, I went in to see Ray and say in my usual way, “So, what’s next?” And he said, “Well, actually, nothing. We’ re laying off basically half the office”. And fortunately, it was really fortunate, actually, it happened on a Friday because I think over the weekend, Roy LeMoyne phoned because he had found out what had happened and asked if I could come and work with him on the Olympics. And the following Monday, a huge number of people were actually laid off by Arcop and of course that number really was very difficult for the architectural community to absorb.

[15:06:27]

The community to absorb, exactly, yeah.

So I think the following Monday, I was already working at C.A.I.M. and so we started working on the Olympics. The interesting part about that was I was hired by Roy for his office but then it was a joint venture. And the fellow in charge of it was Michel- it will come to me. Anyway, he actually interviewed me for the Olympic project. And at the very end of the interview, he said to me, “Well, of course, you can’t speak French”. And I said, “I’ll learn”. So I did. Ted couldn’t believe when I came home and I said that I’d taken a job in French. He said, “But you don’t speak French”. I said, “I know, but I’ll learn. It’s a good project!” So I took six hours of French a week to try and keep up because everything we did on that project for two years was in French. We survived. I had a headache for two years, but it was a great project. And then at the end of that, we decided to travel and that was when the PQ election was and amongst other things, we knew that there was no future in Montreal. So we moved to Toronto. And actually, it was a pretty dismal time to find a job; it was very hard to find a job. That was ’77, I guess by the time we got back from Europe. And it was quite shocking because we sort of expected to land here and be offered all kinds of jobs and we weren’t. In any event, I started with Sankey at that point and stayed there ‘till ’85, actually, and worked through the ranks and becoming associate partner. And it was a really interesting time, especially the Ottawa project, which was an enormous urban planning project. And none of us had any expertise on it but we managed to do it by the seat of our pants and by working very, very hard on it. And it was a great opportunity, I think, for all of us. And actually, we did some other very interesting work there as well when I was there. But in ’85, it was time to leave. And again, we took the opportunity to travel for a while and then came back. And actually, we were away for four months, walked in the door of our house and the phone was ringing, literally, and it was my first commission. And I had not even made at that point the decision for sure to go into practice.

[17:39:28]

Isn’t that wonderful! Fortuitous.

And that was that. So that was ’85. And since then, we’ve- actually, we nabbed a draughtsman who is with us now, left shortly after I did, with Sankey, and came and joined me. So we’ve been working together for nineteen years. And the work has ranged over. It’s-

I wanted to ask you, you worked on the- you were on the council for a while, the Ontario Association of Architects.

Right.

Were you on that very long?

A total of three years.

Did you enjoy that?

It was a very interesting experience. I guess I was second or third woman who had ever been on council in a hundred years. I was the first one who was on executive because I was the vice-president. And it was a very interesting experience. I actually reran because I was very involved and I think at that point the director, the not-political level, the executive director didn’t particularly want me to be back on council and always read my minutes and always questioned things and it was just a pain. But it was a really good experience. And then from that point I did a lot of- I chaired the centennial committee, I did a lot of work with the OAA over the years. And I think in those situations, you always benefit. You learn a tremendous amount and you literally get out as much as you put into them and I got a lot out and I put a lot in. So it was a fair exchange.

[19:18:24]

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