Palo Alto, CA
Interview by Jim Donaldson
So I guess what we’d like to do here is how you decided to become an architect and why you chose McGill.
Well, my father was in construction in Kenya, he had a big construction company and in Uganda, he built most of the parliament buildings and the hotels there. So I was a little bit familiar with the building aspect of it. I didn’t really know what it entailed. I had a more glamorous idea of the practice of architecture. But growing up in Kenya, I was shipped out to Montreal at the young age of fifteen and I went to a private CEGEP there called Centennial Academy, which is, I think it’s in NDG. And then got into McGill for Architecture and it just seemed like, you know, the place to go to…
The natural thing to do.
… the natural thing to do and McGill hade a reputation of being a great school so I-
So what year was that that you entered McGill?
1979, ok. So then at that time, I’m sorry, but are we now looking [unclear] - you went in for five or six years or did they have the two degrees?
They had the two degrees. You could get your B.Sc. in three years and then the Bachelor of Architecture at the end of the fourth. So I went in not really knowing what to do and was- I think our first project was the Mood Box. And in fact, Kevin Curran, and I think there was a girl named May Chow, and I can’t remember who the other person- there was one other- maybe it was Marguerite Thielens and we had a mood box and we went into the East End of Montreal and did the mood box and to me it was very different from my idea of, you know, what I was going to be doing, but loved it. And you know, that first year from being so close together with all these people, developed great friendships.
Who was the professor that initiated the Mood Box? Was that Bruce?
Bruce and Dave Covo and then there was a guy named Arthur Atchison at that time who, you know, nobody particularly cared for. I think the first week or two he told this one girl off and told her that she didn’t deserve to be in Architecture if she didn’t live and breathe architecture, you know, twenty-four hours of the day. But it definitely was, you know, startling for most people because, you know, that’s when the late nights and the all-nighters started for, you know, most of us we hadn’t done any of this before. But it was a lot of f-
It was a major step in one’s life because not only did you go from U0 or from CEGEP, then all of a sudden you were on your own and if you didn’t keep up, then you were almost out of the course by Christmastime.
Right. And that’s what happened. I think the first year we lost – I think there were ten or twelve kids who actually did drop out. And I remember people crying because they didn’t see their mother enough. Of course, some of us were already away from our families. Yeah, there were lots of people that did drop out, but I think some of us had come from other provinces and I had come from a completely different country so for me, the idea of dropping out or, you know, it just didn’t make sense. But we also had a lot of fun at these all-nighters and developed closer friendships, I think, for it. And also, by the end of the first year you also got to know what was expected of you. There were lots of courses, you know, and lots of requirements, I remember, which was very different from anything we had done before. But I think the fact that it was only, I think forty-eight people that –
That’s all that were in your class?
Yeah, it was either forty-eight or forty-five or forty-eight people that were admitted in. It just made for a nice environment. I had come from a system where, you know, your professors are- you never addressed them by their first name, and so being able to get real chummy with your professors was an added bonus too, and the guys, you know, in the photo lab, Dan, I think, Dan Curcillo and it was fun.
You mentioned Bruce and David. Did they actually, did they continue to teach you?
Yes, I had- think I had Dave Covo in second year, as well. And Bruce Anderson, I didn’t have him in third year, but he was my thesis advisor for my Master’s, for my project.
We’ll get to that in a few minutes. What about- I’m just trying to think of perhaps some of the other professors that you might remember that might have influenced you. Was Professor Collins-?
Professor Collins taught us History, and of course, Gerry Tondino doing Sketching School. And I think it was Professor Selby…
Oh yeah, ok.
And who else was there…
In terms of Peter Collins, did you enjoy the History of Architecture course or did you find it difficult?
I enjoyed it. I think out of all the professors I was most intimidated by him because he seemed so British and you had to- it was a different form of learning for me to get to know these buildings by sight and, you know, learn about the history and he had, you know, flicked chalk at some people who had been sleeping and stuff like that so he was definitely somebody I respected but was intimidated by.
And you were never looking forward to a slide test, I’m sure!
I was never looking forward to a slide test!
Those were murder! And I was told by one young lady recently that, I don’ t remember this in my case, but he said, she said that Professor Collins told you where to sit at the beginning and it was all done in alphabetical fashion that would allow him to help him remember your name, whether there was any truth to that or not. And I think something else, he was very determined about you being on time otherwise the doors locked.
But having said that, a lot of people enjoyed the course. I guess, when you look back, it was interesting but it was so different from everything else you were doing at the school.
I don’t think I fully appreciated it my first year. I think if I had had it, say- I think it was a great introduction but I wish I had taken it later on because I would have appreciated it a lot more because it was just bam! into something that was very unfamiliar to me and-but, you know, I later developed, you know, an appreciation for. To think back to other professors, you know, Peter Sijpkes was-
Peter Sijpkes is still there.
He’s still there.
And Vikram Bhatt.
Vikram is still there.
And yeah, he was a good pal. And of course, there’s Maureen Anderson.
Yeah, and she’s not still there.
She’s not still there.
No, I talk to her on a regular basis only because we’ve got so many other people who were friends for so many years, and I’m sure our friendship goes back about thirty years. And I am trying to get her to consent to do an interview. And she’s not up to it yet, so I don’t want to pursue it, but I’ll keep edging her towards the positive decision. I think she’d have a lot to say.
She was the mother that we didn’t have there. She was absolutely wonderful.
Everybody felt the same way.
She was just wonderful.
Yesterday, I was talking to somebody and first he said, “I want to tell you how much I appreciated John Bland for the following reasons, and more important, or equally important was Maureen Anderson”. Was John Bland there?
No, he wasn’t he-
No, he wasn’t. Was he teaching at all when you were there?
No, ok. He had retired.
He had retired. I think he would come in every once in a while to give a course, but he had retired.
You started talking about Gerry Tondino. I guess he was quite an influence on most people and he wasn’t too difficult with people. I mean there was a certain level of confidence.
No, it was great. He was a wonderful sport. And it was a killer, you know, used to, I think we used to have art classes in the first year on Friday afternoons, which wasn’t so bad. But I remember in second year, when we had to wake up at Saturday mornings and go in and, you know, most of us would wake up too late to go to class or go in late. And he was always great. I think the Sketching Schools were wonderful.
Gerry Tondino, usually he was paired with one of the other professors, I guess.
Usually Dave Covo. Dave Covo used to take us to Sketching School, yeah.
I’m trying to think, is their any particular course that you enjoyed the most when you were there or was it just-?
I used to enjoy Norbert Schoenauer’s, you know, Indigenous Housing and of course, the design courses were fun and, you know, the photography and-
Was Bruce teaching the photography at that time?
Bruce taught the photography. In fact, actually I had Bruce for- I did a summer school with Duncan Swain and Howard Davies and we made a film together, we did an animated film project, and Bruce and Dave Covo had run that programme. So that was fun so we really got to use the photo equipment and Dan Curcillo, you know, used to help us out and there used to be those two guys in woodworking too, that were quite- I don’t think they’re – Rondeau and Deveault.
Oh yeah, that’s right. I think they’ve changed since then. As a matter of fact, I’m getting something done now by somebody that Bruce has recommended. I guess what happens, there’s a whole theory on teaching that you know, that the best teachers are the ones that run a private practice. And therefore Bruce Anderson probably represents the best sort of composition of teaching and practice. And then others would say that McGill doesn’t actually encourage their staff to have a private practice, because they pay them enough money [unclear]. But I always find, when I was going- I’m sure you knew Bruce was practical because he was running a practice.
I’m trying to think if there’s anything else, you know incidents or anecdotes that you remember, Sketching School, that almost dissuaded you from becoming an architect?
That dissuaded me? No, no.
Everything was encouraging, everything was positive.
Oh yeah, everything was encouraging, everything was- yeah, I mean. Anecdotes, I don’t know, I remember Rad Zuk coming in, you know, talking about practice, and I don’t think Rad Zuk was in practice, but he had a very practical approach to designing buildings with his, I can’t remember how many systems. I think there were seven systems?
Probably, I don’t remember either.
Yeah, but that was, you know, very rigorous. But you know, in terms of developing the system of how to design buildings, I remember even doing the architectural exam here, you know, separating the structure and, you know, developing a theme, and his different systems. You know, I tried to do that and it definitely worked, it helped a lot. I remembered his way of organizing the building and let me think who else was there…
That has a lasting memory on most people that I have talked with who were influenced by him, who were taught by him. They always- He or she will always bring up that whole theory that he had. I’m just trying to think, you mentioned Norbert. Now did Norbert actually teach you?
Yes he did. I took courses from him and then when I started my Master’s, he was in charge of the programme the first semester and I studied under him too. There was Adrian Sheppard. I don’t think Adrian ever taught me but he was also a pal. I used to just go and-
He is a very lovely guy.
He is a lovely man. Yeah, I remember spending long hours just going and sitting and talking. But I think that can be said for a lot of the professors, they were very approachable.
Yeah, most of them were. In fact I did a movie of Adrian, and I was a little apprehensive at first, because he was a little reserved when I talked to him, when I would meet him at McGill and so forth. Nice enough fellow then and I used to meet him and his wife and later [unclear] but he did an excellent interview. I mean unbelievable the things that he said, I mean, it made my whole day at that time because I was very, very surprised.
There was something else. Well, then you graduated in Architecture and then you went on, you continued on when you took your Master’s degree.
I took my Master’s degree.
I worked for a little while, came to California and then went back and started on my Master’s and went for a little while into the Minimum Cost Housing Programme that was run by Witold. And if I didn’t get along with anybody at McGill it was definitely Witold, because he had a different way of running things and so we had a brief altercation.
That comment of yours is quite interesting, because I would say anybody who makes a comment about him, that’s exactly what they say. They either say nothing or they bring that up and then they say immediately “I had some difficulty getting along with him”.
He had his own way of running the programme. And it was almost like- you’d go in to learn about how to- I thought the idea of, you know, having come from a third world country, how to build cheaper housing interested me. You know, I thought maybe at some point I could go back to Kenya and learn how to build cheaper. But the entire time, and it was a short programme, we were there, I remember we were studying this one slum in India, and more than two months was spent in just measuring little plots with a ruler and doing demographics and I just felt that that was a big waste. And that had been the problem with a lot of the people who had- the students who had been there the year or two before felt that they hadn’t gotten very much out of the programme that this was a long study of Witold’s and they were doing this one little piece and they weren’ t getting the broader outlook. And then we had gotten into probabilities and I just didn’t feel like we were doing any, you know, we were going anywhere and I didn’t see what kind of degree I would be getting towards the end because, you know- studying this one little slum in India, it wasn’t going to get me any closer to that knowledge. So we had- so of course, I went to Bruce.
Oh yeah. So I switched programmes and I went into the regular Master’s programme run by Norbert. And I think Bruce had- there was some sort of altercation between Bruce and Witold.
Well, to this day, I am supposed to do an interview with Witold. Even though he’ s been on camp many, many times, specifically, he’s never talked about his days at McGill. He’s been interviewed on his books, and I guess he’ s teaching at University of Pennsylvania now.
I’ve had three appointments and he’s cancelled all three. He’s very apologetic and so forth, but I can understand it, there’s no rush. However, I’ ll probably end up doing it somewhere along the way. And if he has something nice to say about you I’ll tell you!
I wouldn’t mention me! Because he said to one of the other students that was there that I had made things very difficult for him when I ruined something and so I wouldn’t bring up my name if I were you!
So you eventually got your Master’s Degree, then. In what year would that be, about eighty-?
That was ’89. ’89-90.
And what did you do then, were you living in California at the time or-?
No, I was in Montreal.
But you said you had come up from California. Worked for long in California before you did your Master’s?
I had gotten married and moved to California. And that was kind of short-lived, that marriage. And so I wasn’t working at that point. But then I went back to Montreal and worked for, I worked for a while and then decided to go back and get my Master’s Degree.
You worked in Montreal for one of the firms, architectural firms in Montreal?
Right. I worked for a couple of firms. There was a guy named… oh dear. He just had his last name.
It wasn’t, you didn’t work for Arcop or any of the [unclear]?
No, I worked for… it was another one, not Arcop, but it was… I’m drawing a blank now, sorry, Jim. But I worked for Colombani. Yeah, I worked for Colombani for a while. And I worked for Julia Gersovitz, but mainly for Colombani before I came here. And then I got a job in Fresno for a great architectural firm that was doing a lot of the building in Fresno, and I was there until I moved to the Bay Area. And he did a lot of the fast-food restaurants, and upscale housing, and medical offices, and, you know, he did a little bit of everything. So worked there for a while, got my American experience, or a part of it, they only give you half of whatever your Canadian education is and half of your Canadian experience towards your degree, towards your time.
In order to get your license.
Your apprenticeship, yeah, towards your license.
Is the association part of the AIA or is it Californian?
It’s part of the AIA but California has their own exams.
So you passed those and you worked as an architect. Did you actually ever work in private practice? Or, I guess you can say you are in private practice today!
I’m in private practice today! Well, after I had the twins I stopped working. I was in private practice, well, I was in practice with this firm in Fresno for a while and after I had the twins, I decided to take a break and then I had number three so I’m still on an extended leave.
One of these days, would you like to get back to architecture?
I would like to get back to architecture or something related to architecture, like, you know, facilities design or sometimes I think about, you know, going into interior design or something that wouldn’t take up as much time. But I must say, I feel a little outdated in everything is done by computers these days. Yeah, so having been out of it…
So just, sort of, do you want to sum up?
Sum up my years at McGill? Some of the best times I’ve ever had. Great friendships, great teachers, lots of good memories, you know, some not so good, but generally, I would do it again at McGill. And maybe take it a little more seriously than I did!
That’s what everybody says!
But I can’t think of a better place to have gone to school or done it with better people. You know, it was like a family. The people, I still remember my professors and I still remember a lot of my friends and some of which I am still in touch with and some I wish I were still in touch with. But I think it gave a very good base for being- for getting ready for anything. I think architecture, going to Architectural School is basically, you know, if there is one degree that’s going to give you a grounding to be able to go into other things, I think architecture is probably one of those, but-
You may be forced to go into other things as a result of not being able to make a living in architecture! The interesting thing is that a lot of people take Engineering and never practice engineering. They just- that’s sort of a background for going into business or anything else. But very few architects, I don’t know what the percentage is, but I would imagine it’s less than twenty-five, thirty percent, move out of architecture. They try and stay in some sort of architecture-related business. In a way, they would be better off going off, and I have interviewed quite a few people who have gone off and gone to the fields and have done very well. And credit their architectural education for making them more sensitive to people and all those other things.
Well, thanks very much!