November 11, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson
I arrived in Canada in 1949. After I arrived, I worked as a lumberjack in Northern Ontario, later as a tool and dye maker at Bell Telephone and as an inspector at the Pratt and Whitney Company, producing aircraft engines for the Korean war effort. Thus, it was the Korean War that made it possible for me to put enough money together to study architecture. I decided to become an architect long ago, back home in Prague, living in a city, full of remarkable architectural wonders. Because of the war and because of immigration, my desire to study architecture got delayed.
Once my family settled in Montreal, McGill became a natural choice. When I applied to McGill, I had no papers, as we had escaped from Czechoslovakia without papers in 1949. McGill would not accept me without papers, even though I submitted sworn affidavits to make my case for admission. Instead, I had to enroll in Toronto University for my first year of Architecture. I was admitted there at the face value of my affidavits. Since I had to live away from home for two semesters, this became a big financial hardship. After I made it through the first year of Architecture in Toronto, I finally got accepted into third year at McGill. And that’s how I made it to McGill. I stayed there and earned the six-year professional degree there.
Of course, third year, I’m only interjecting, third year then, you only had three years at McGill, I guess. You had third, fourth and fifth.
Yes, three, four and five, since the first year in Toronto counted as second in McGill.
So then you joined McGill and you were in third year, and do you remember in those three years some of the interesting things that happened, and the influences and professors and classmates that you can recall?
Yes, with pleasure. Many things went through my mind when you sent me the letter offering this interview. Many differences pop as well, considering the passage of time since my studies at McGill in the fifties. For example, today we talk a lot about multiculturalism, racial diversity and so on. If I look at the yearbook of my graduation in 1960, I find it interesting that out of the sixteen members of my class there were only five native Canadians. The rest was all women, foreigners and Jews, I remember them all and we had absolutely no problem with each other. There was Henry Golba, a Pollack, Enrique Silhy, from El Salvador, Anne-Marie Balazs, a Hungarian, Sarina Altman, an Israeli, both Jewish, Irene Droste of German origin, Audrey Yuen, Chinese from Hong Kong, as well as Akos Frick and Steve Mezes, both Hungarians-I remember them all.
In fact, right after graduation, Golba, Enrique and myself drove and camped together on a fantastic trip from Montreal to El Salvador, Enrique’s home. We still write each other postcards and promise to visit each other. I see Golba quite often when in Montreal. Anne-Marie is somewhere in the United States teaching architecture-like me. Sarina became active in real estate and so on. So, what we today call diversity was already existing in at McGill during the fifties, without much fanfare and politically correct invocations. I don’t see that much of a difference between then and now, really!
Do you remember any of the professors that-?
Yeah. I mean, mostly my favorite professors like Stuart Wilson and Peter Collins. I still keep Stuart Wilson’s letters and Peter Collins notes in my library. Both were not only great teachers, but remarkable characters as well. Especially Stuart, who was quite different from a “normal” professor–sleeping in the basement of the school, drinking a lot and occasionally using some rough language. Of course, as students, we liked this a lot. On the other hand, Peter Collins was a perfect scholar, eloquent and knowledgeable, a brilliant lecturer. I loved his History Courses.
In addition to being eccentric, Stuart was also very personable. He was the only one who took interest in me as a person. We would sit down in one of the snack bars in the building or outside bars and have a beer or a coffee and chat for hours and talk about everything, not only about architecture. He was a deep human being, full of wisdom and compassion. I loved him very much. Not to forget Gordon Webber, who was somewhat different in other ways from the rest of the faculty, not only because he was crippled but also gay. It was him, who awakened a lot of creative urges in us with his photograms and experiments with space and materials.
Among the others, I remember Schreiber a little bit. Bland was, what his name says. I chose him as my graduation thesis advisor. He was respected by all of us as a superb (Miesean) designer, very lucid and very professional. He helped me a lot to understand the design process, and had a very beneficial influence on my subsequent design approach in practice. I remember Lebensold a little bit. In fact, much later during my teaching career, he invited me to Vancouver as a possible candidate for a teaching position there. I didn’t make it, but that’s another story. As for the other design teachers, they remain a blur in my memory.
Do you remember Harold Spence-Sales at all? Was he teaching there at the time?
Yes, having studied Urban Planning and Urban Design at Cornell, I was later not so impressed by his approach to planning. He was a typical English New Town planner and he indoctrinated us with his concepts for Garden Cities and the New Towns, which I don’t think are the only answer to urban planning. But that came later.
I’m just trying to remember whether any incidents at university that you remember that probably influenced your career. You mentioned Stuart Wilson, Peter Collins. Was there anything- also any hilarious times that you recall other than probably some drinking parties that we all experienced.
Yes, our Christmas celebrations in the basement of the school. This was a time, when we were not yet so puritanical and were still allowed to have hard liquor and beer during class celebrations. I remember Enrique Silhy-dressed up as Santa Claus. He would sit every one of our professors on his lap and make good-natured fun of them. That’ s the only time when we were free to tell the professors some of our impressions of their behavior and when we were permitted to do this without it being taken as lesse majeste. Not everybody went along with it, of course. Schreiber didn’t like it, Bland was very uneasy about it, and Wilson punched Enrique in the nose after his session on his lap! Enrique punched back and Wilson cursed him with words very foul. Evidently, they both had a little too much Christmas punch. They made up afterwards. Actually, it happened only once. That’ s probably the most vivid memory of a hilarious time I had during those years.
And then, of course, there was also Sketching School, which you mention in the questionnaire.
There was a course that was taught when I was there, and it was called Professional Practice. Do you recall that at all?
Yes, in fact, I do acknowledge, that McGill gave me the most solid foundation that one could imagine in terms of becoming a professional architect. I emphasize the word professional. It was a first-class professional school, and it was in that sense that I absorbed enough technology to carry me through my further studies and my subsequent career. To some extent, I’m still feeding on it. For example, I use the manual that Stuart Wilson taught on workshops and technology as a starting point in my lectures on Materials and Methods of Construction. The same goes with lectures on Surveying, Foundations, Wood, Concrete, Glass and Steel. I remember well the course on Foundations. A Chinese professor, who gave me a lot of trouble with Calculus, offered it. I had to take it three times, before he passed me.
Actually, the connection of Architecture with Engineering is very much like we have here at MIT. I think that it was very beneficial for both architecture and engineering students. We did not fully appreciate it at that time, because as architects, we always have this little–what would you call it–differences with engineers.
Your last year at McGill, what do you remember about that? You were starting to talk about an incident.
I think the last year really made us feel that we were becoming true professionals. The thesis year was excellent in the sense that it allowed for a full development of our design/practice skills. In many ways, I regret that most schools have since gone to the “four plus two” model. Instead, the McGill Program carried you from year one till year six in terms of a very solid preparation for practice in the real world.
What you have now is four years of piecemeal preparation and two quick years dominated by the design studio. As a professor of Architecture, I’m quite aware of this difference. At McGill, the last year was really an opportunity where you were able to put together all the things that you had learned in the previous years in a solid way, which did not only include design, but the knowledge of building technology and professional practice as well. The final exam was very rigorous. We were locked up for a full day to struggle with a comprehensive exam, which included all phases of professional practice. It prepared me very well for my later professional exam to become a member of the Quebec Association of Architects (PQAA).
Just an aside: Avrum Regenstreif, arrived late for the exam. We all hissed and rolled our eyes. Since you had finish everything in eight hours, we thought that nobody could make it by coming late, but Avrum did make it-in spite of our chagrin. You were locked up and in eight hours, you had to submit a finished project-no if’s or but’s. That was it. Such strict examination rules do not exist anywhere any more. We have become much too lenient, I suppose. McGill was a tough school, but a very good school.
In terms of visitors, I remember best Rafael Soriano from California. He was a pupil of Neutra and a friend of Conrad Wachsmann. He possessed a very interesting personality, his lecture was filled with great humor and wisecracks about architects acting as gods. I was elected at to be his student liaison for the lecture, which impressed me very deeply. When I later landed in Berkeley as a PhD student, I found him in a houseboat in Tiburon and I we became good friends. I did some work for him and became his quasi assistant-colleague-helper. He didn’t pay me, but we did some interesting projects together. I find it very sad that so far nobody has published his collected works, because I do consider him as one of the remarkable American second echelon modernists.
But I wanted to ask you, you already inadvertently- but I mean, after you left McGill, you worked for a while in Montreal and then you went to where, to Cornell?
At that time, there were sixteen of us who graduated and each one of us was guaranteed a job. This doesn’t happen today. I think that at that time, the McGill architecture department graduated only as many as they could find employment for
Sarina Altman and I got the Otis Elevator Prize for best final design and I suppose that Arcop picked me as one of the winners. That may be a little bit of self-aggrandizement, but I am still proud of it today. I started working for Arcop immediately after graduation, and spent about almost a year detailing the escalator spaces for the Ville Marie Project. The reason for my leaving was that Henry Golba, Enrique Silhy and myself decided to drive together down to Enrique’s’ home in El Salvador. Each of us had saved a little money about five hundred dollars each, which at that time was enough to pay our way. Enrique bought a big American car in Detroit, to sell with a profit in San Salvador. We drove right across Canada, down through the United States, across Guatemala, to his home in El Salvador. This was certainly the most adventurous trip of our lives. We camped all the way, in camps, on empty lots and in wild nature. At that time it was perfectly safe. It was also the first time I got out of Canada.
After I returned, I decided to work for a smaller firm. I found that working for a large firm like Arcop, you became part of a big corporate set-up, pigeon-holed in this or that design or production department. This isn’t bad for anyone wanting a steady, permanent position in a prestigious firm, but deep down, I wanted a job where I would be in control of all the phases of the process.
And so I started working for Arnold Schrier. He was an architect who largely did speculative stuff. To some extent, such firms are somewhat sneezed upon by prestige outfits like Arcop, but you certainly learned a lot in a hurry. I learned to do warehouses by the square foot, apartment buildings, and supermarkets, all jobs that had to be on budget, in time and constructed in a more or less standardized fashion as to their design features. Late. After getting married, I worked for another big firm, Ellwood&Aimers.
My ultimate desire was to get back into teaching. It seems to run in my blood. My father was a professor and my grandfather a principal of a public school in Bohemia. When I talked about this with Kati, my new wife, she simply said, “well, why don’t we do it.” She encouraged me to apply for graduate studies at Cornell and also helped financially with her job in medical research. So we moved our meager household to Ithaca, and I entered the Cornell Urban Design Program, with Colin Rowe as my advisor and professor. Again, I was fortunate with this turn of events. Colin Rowe was one of the best teachers who taught this subject, well known for his wit and incredible knowledge of architecture and urbanism worldwide. This is when my serious intellectual life started. McGill gave me the solid professional, foundation for my professional career, while Cornell awakened in me the scholarly, intellectual part. And after that- should I continue?
Yeah, after Cornell what did you do? Did you go then to California after?
Yes and no. Cornell was wonderful, because it exists in a sort of world of its own. It’s not like Montreal, which is an urban campus and has the wonderful advantages that you can rub shoulders with city people, day and night. In contrast, Cornell is a sort of Athens on a hill. I completed my Masters it in one and a half years, and subsequently applied to a number of universities. Eventually, I got picked up by Ohio University and started my new academic career as a lowly Assistant Professor. I spent two years at Ohio University. The reason for leaving was that the university decided to close down the School of Architecture, due to competition from Syracuse University and The University of Miami, also in Ohio. And so we had to move on. I applied again to many schools, with a tempting offer from The California Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo. It was at that time the largest school of architecture in the United States with almost one thousand students enrolled there.
Is it still the largest, do you think? I mean it’s still very large.
Yeah, it still has nine hundred, one thousand students. And there my McGill education came in very handy because it was a hands-on school, very much professionally oriented. And students came mostly from the blue collar, where students were sons of contractors, of engineers and so on. And I had to teach everything there, from Building Construction to Urban Design to Studio.
Intellectually, it was a professional practice school, with no research component at that time. So, being ambitious and wanting to get out of San Luis Obispo to find a more challenging position, I looked for some way to advance myself academically. By chance, I met some people at the University of California in Berkeley, during an ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture) conference. They advised me to explore the possibility of applying to their new PhD Program on Building Technology. We had saved some money at that time, and I decided to apply for a scholarship. To my surprise, the Graham Foundation informed me that I was granted ten thousand dollars as a candidate most likely to succeed and complete the Berkeley PhD in Building Technology and Building Systems. As planned, I did all my course work in two years and subsequently stayed for another year as research assistant to Prof. Dick Bender, later dean of the department. To my regret, Berkeley had a policy at that time, proscribing to employ their own doctors.
So, again, I had to look for a job, as I did not want to return to routine teaching at Cal Poly. Bu coincidence, Cornell was advertising a position in their Building Technology section. I applied and got the appointment. And stayed two years at Cornell teaching Building Technology and a special design studio on Building Systems.
Would that’ve been, Eric, the early seventies, around ’70, ’72?
Cornell was 1973 and 1974. It also affected my future career in a circumvent manner, to wit: I met Alvin Boyarsky–a former Cornell professor–during one of his famous seven week summer seminars in London. He was also a graduate of McGill, and later became the director of the AA in London. During a lecture he gave at Cornell, Alvin invited me to this summer event. I went to London for two weeks, after visiting the Tokyo World Fair of 1972.
It was during that seminar in London that I met John Habraken, Stirling and the Archigram people. The mood was similar to that prevailing in Berkeley during those years, and seemed to have penetrated much of the presentations of the London event (with Mao and Che Guevara becoming adored symbols of the sixties youth “revolution.”) Since I had spent two years in Berkeley during the late sixties, I was much sought as a witness of the events there. The interesting thing to mention is, that while the streets in Berkeley were full with hippies and police dispensing tear gas, the PhD program at the University went on as if nothing was happening.
As mentioned above, I met Habraken in London and became very impressed by his housing research program called SAR (Stichting Architekten Research in Eindhoven). On my way back to California, I visited him in Eindhoven and met his family during my stay in his house. Based on my own studies of housing systems and prefabrication in Berkeley, we found to have much in common professionally, with some very interesting conversations on the questions of mass housing, prefabrication and urban planning.
In 1975, he was appointed as head of the School of Architecture at MIT. Immediately after his appointment, he was advertising for somebody active in the field of housing research, prefabrication (and someone familiar with his SAR Methodology). Having absorbed his methodology in London and having studied it in detail for two years after, I knew his stuff, and evidently was the only one in the US so prepared. I immediately applied to MIT, and was promptly offered the position of Research Associate in the Housing and System Building research facility. I should note that it was not a faculty job, but a research job, with some teaching on the side. Not sure what that meant, I was somewhat reluctant to leave my tenure track job at Cornell, but I accepted in the end and so we moved to Boston in the fall of 1975. My position as Research Associate during the he first five years mandated that I had to generate at least half of my salary with my own research, with teaching covering the remainder. It taught me how to hustle for clients again! Fortunately, I got enough research support to pay half of my salary and even have some left to pay for a couple of graduate research assistants. This is how my career as a consultant started.
Soon after his arrival at MIT, Habraken founded the Minimum Housing Group with its own graduate degree (Master of Science of Architecture Studies, or MSArchS). Through the effort of many of our foreign graduate students, the group became globally known and eventually received research support from all over the world (as well as support from the US International Aid to Developing Nations [USAID]). As part of my research activities, I spent eight years consulting on housing systems in Egypt, three years in Brazil, two years in Mexico, one year in Colombia, and weeks in Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Europe, offering seminars and courses on housing in all these countries. On the basis of that work, I eventually got appointed as regular faculty with full institute pay and on tenure track. I retired from teaching and research in 2003 as Professor Emeritus.
Could you talk a little bit about the way you see education has changed and what the changes are and will continue to be?
Well yes, it has changed a lot in the mechanical sense. The big change came with the move from a six year Undergraduate Professional Degree to the “Four Plus Two” model. Having gone through the six year system, I’m not sure that the Four Plus Two is a better solution mainly for two reasons: One is that the first four years of the new undergraduate model–like at MIT–are not strictly speaking rigorous undergraduate Architecture programs, since many students take architecture merely as a major, with Art courses and other courses not strictly related to architecture included in some of the schools. This is followed up with two years of exclusively architecture related courses, assuming that the students are fully prepared in the fundamentals of architectural theory and practice. Another aspect is that with the introduction of computers and the evolution of a very sophisticated construction technology, two years become inadequate to comprehensively cover any new specialty either professionally, or as potentially separate disciplines.
I see this at MIT, where–for example– one can spend two years on environmental studies at–say–the expense of two years on advanced course work and research in construction technology. In addition, and depending on their undergraduate background, many of the graduate students don’t get the requisite basic courses in technology during their undergraduate years. Not only that. But shifting from a four-year undergraduate program to a two-year graduate program, often moving from one school to another, we have tremendous problems in matching our requirements to the varied backgrounds of the applicants. In that sense, I think that the whole system has become rather inadequate to meet the professional demands of current architectural practice.
By and large, the profession itself has not taken over responsibility for the education of architects in terms of the needs of professional practice, the result being that we have constant complaints from the profession that we are pushing out inexperienced academics rather than professional architects. That may be exaggerated, but the students do become imbued with a sense of a somewhat exaggerated “creative” urge towards doing exotic things in the studio that very often are neither realistic, feasible, or even reasonable in the professional world. Aside from that, this tacitly assumes that each graduate candidate is a potentially budding genius, rather than being taught to be proficient in all the other aspects of architectural practice. That alone makes it difficult for the profession to find people trained as job-ready professionals. Most offices are subsequently forced to “retrain” their junior staff at their own expense, thus effectively adding another year or two to the time required to become professionally proficient.
The last factor is the fact that most schools are constrained by their budgets to be able to hire high level practicing professionals, who are not recompensed adequately for their time, when compared to what they make in their practices, or who do not have a higher degree to become academically acceptable.
You say we; are you talking about MIT?
I’m talking about MIT, yeah. And I understand it’s very much the same in other schools as well. So what you have, in effect, is that very often-recent graduates from Doctoral programs, who have never been in practice, teach students hardly much younger than their studio “masters.” One could say that it is a story of the one eyed leading the blind. Therefore I think that we’ve become–quote/unquote–too academic, too theoretical, and more or less unaware of the constraints of the ‘real’ world. In my mind, two years is really not enough to crank out a proficient professional. In that sense, the McGill five-year program was very good.
I gather you would not graduate anyone from MIT- they all become computer-literate. I guess they can do all the drawings on CAD systems and so forth.
Well, a radical change happened two years ago with the appointment Bill Mitchell as dean. It was him, who has dragged us–sometimes reluctantly–into the computer age. Please, do not think that his approach was entirely wrong! The computer has become another indispensable tool in the practice of architecture, but it is merely one tool, not a ‘winner take all’ device. It was a necessary reform, and the students are very enthusiastic in being able to use it already when in school. The danger is that they now sit for hours, day and night, manipulating computer images and turn into some species of computer ‘couch potatoes.’ No doubt, they do become very proficient in manipulating exotic image on the computer screen, but often forget that in the real world they will deal with real materials, real weight, and real structural resistance, which cannot be manipulated and interfered as easily as you do by clicking a mouse on the computer. The end result is that we have students who will produce designs that would require tremendous technical effort on a real site, which would become very expensive and which would quite often be impossible to realize–just because it’s possible to do it by sitting down in front of a computer and click a mouse. As a result, the student is inadvertently led to the conclusion that if it’s possible to do it easily on the computer, you can also do it easily in the field. I think that’s one of the dangers of computer “design.”
The other danger is that it is the coded algorithms of the graphic software that dictate their own expression by the dictate of the programmer’s inputs, which are difficult to change or control by the uninitiated user. Still, I think that the change was inevitable, mainly due to the nature of the academic notion of progress, and so we have to accept what is happening now, albeit with some of the reservations, mentioned earlier.
I wanted to ask you a question. I think I already know the answer, so it’ s a bit rhetorical. If you had to do it all over again, I guess you would.
Absolutely, it was worth every second, every minute of my life.
You’re saying it with a big smile too.
Thanks very much.
(Edited by Eric Dluhosch.)