November 9, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson
(Note: The first part of the interview was recorded without sound)
And then, you go mad. You’re wasting all this time and literally crossing the stuff out and trying to get it. But it turned out that I was right. Because then he had about six or seven of us after he had marked them. And this was really at the end of fifth year or something like that. After he had marked them, he had about five or six of us, the top students, and said, “Well, you know, I was really disappointed by the results. They were not good. And first thing that I should really do next time I have an exam, any exam is ‘PLEASE READ THE QUESTION CAREFULLY AND ANSWER WHAT IS ASKED’” And that’s exactly where I’d had the problem with and obviously wasn’t the only one. And he did say that time, he said “And the only person that actually succeeded in doing that was Patricia Falta”. So it was- but I remember that so clearly; the only time in my life when I really realized I wasn’t answering the question and took the time to redo it. And I couldn’t remember- and this is really funny too- ‘cause basically there were concepts, of course. The three-year course, comprehensive [unclear] it’s more on concepts. And I couldn’t remember one name, I couldn’t remember one date, I couldn’t remember anything, but I could remember the concepts and that’s really what he was trying- and, you know, “Can you follow through”, I don’t know, “the story of stone from somewhere to somewhere?” Or “how does it affect the buildings that you can remember?”
It doesn’t give you any time to think. You almost have to respond immediately.
Well, you have to respond immediately but you have to think. And that’s why we had been so used to responding immediately because the questions weren’t as complicated. So we were used to responding immediately, whereas here he actually wanted us to think about it and not just throw, say, “Well, you know, this guy built in stone and that guy built in stone and that guy built in stone” . And that wasn’t the question. Say, “Well, how was it affected?” So that was quite an interesting- so that was Professor Collins. And then because I had this kind of relationship with him, you know, en guillemets, as we say in French, having gone to his office all these times, then they assigned him as my tutor for my final project.
Oh, I see.
And that didn’t work at all, of course, ‘cause he wasn’t a designer. He didn’ t care. And I had a very small project. I didn’t have anything monumental. If I’d had a church or a, I don’t know, Supreme Court building or something, but I had a nursery, kindergarten school.
Oh, he wouldn’t be even interested in that.
Something very, very human, you know, small-scale human where every detail counted and where that whole behaviour of children and teachers and so on worked. So that was a kind of a low-down. I didn’t finish on the highest note.
I don’t want you skipping all those years now. Do you remember anything else about some of the other professors? Did you have Stuart Wilson or did you have Bruce? Bruce Anderson of course was in your class, I guess.
Yeah. Bruce Anderson was in my class.
But there were other people there.
No, sure I had Stuart Wilson. And Stuart Wilson, I think, was in third year. It was only in third year because it was the first time really architecture, I think. The second year, we had Gordon Webber in second year. We did all those dots and things like that. And I have all sorts of memories of it. But I do have memories of course of Stuart Wilson’s course. First of all, he was always known to be very hard and to have people rush out of his crits crying and so on, which happened in my class. I certainly wasn’t one of them. And I somehow got to understand what he was trying to do or to say. I don’t know how, it wasn’ t- you know it was- but I would kind of lie there in bed two days before it was deadline time and say, “Oh God, now what is it he wanted?” And finally, it would come to me. And so it was quite interesting because I actually managed to do reasonably, quite well in his course. And, of course, I remember we had all those structural models that we had to do.
Yeah, we used to have to build those balloon frames or Quebec frames.
And for your own building depending if- I, of course, I was smart. I had a post and beam so it was less complicated. But it was Bruce Anderson, actually, who made all our little 2x4’s and 6x8’s and so on.
Oh, he did.
Yes, he did so many things. I mean the guy was incredible.
He still is, as a matter of fact.
Well, he still is incredible. He was incredible. He could just do that and you could give him an order and so on. But I remember doing those models, constructing them and so on. That was really lots of fun.
So your memories of Stuart Wilson are positive then? I mean you felt he didn’t do your career any harm.
No, he didn’t do my career any harm and he never knocked me in any way. Obviously, I had enough respect. I mean there were other people that he knocked desperately and so on but I certainly never did get knocked by him. And I don’t think it was because it was me, it was just I guess whatever I had to say was acceptable. Again, I did have trouble with Stuart Wilson but much later. I was doing- I came back and did my Master’s of Architecture and originally, Stuart Wilson was assigned to be my thesis- but this is much later, this is. And I didn’t quite know what I wanted to write about but Stuart would come up with incredibly esoteric, philosophical questions, which were of no interest to me. And I went through about half a year of meeting him once a week and trying to figure something out and that became a complete puzzle. And eventually, I had to quit. He would have driven me crazy. But he did not drive me crazy in our third-year course at all as an undergraduate, no.
You talked- Gordon Webber, of course, you took the courses with him. And then there was Stuart and there was I guess Peter Collins. Did John Bland teach you at all?
Well, John Bland taught just the History of Architecture.
Yeah, of Canadian Architecture.
Of Canadian Architecture. Doesn’t leave any great memories one way or the other.
Was John Schreiber around then?
John Schreiber was then. John Schreiber taught me right after the drafting course, the engineering drafting course, he had a course on shade and shadow and on lettering, wonderful lettering, and how to cross a sphere with a cone or something and all those kinds of wonderful things and you had to shade them up in watercolour. And I still have it somewhere in the basement that package of things done on watercolour paper I think and all really neat. Again, a wonderful job because it again corresponded to a certain neatness and a certain precision.
He was a very much a detail type of person too. And his drawings were- you know, he became- he did a lot of gardening and landscape architecture.
And when you see his drawings, they’re magnificent.
They’re magnificent, that’s right.
As a matter of fact, I just saw him last week.
Yeah, I’ve seen- yeah.
He’s still around Montreal. Like everybody else, we all get older but he’ s still kicking around.
Yeah, I saw him two years ago. On and off I see him.
I’m trying to think of some of the other professors.
Well, then there was Norbert Schoenauer. Actually, I had Norbert for a studio. And he had just recently finished his Master’s of Architecture at McGill- or Urban Planning, or whatever, I think. And I loved it because it was housing; it was a housing studio. And I really did take on to that too, sort of again that person environment, that do it so that it feels right, so do it so that the views are good, so do it so that everything is comfortable and so on, and innovative but not monumental. See, innovative but not having to go into the monumental way. So that was a very nice studio. I enjoyed that much. I remember I did a crazy final presentation, which was in coloured inks and I couldn’t get my pens to function because I guess some of the colours they had more grain in it. And I literally- well, I didn’t sleep for the two nights before, and I literally rushed to school. By this time, I lived very close to school, about five minutes walking. And at like five to five Friday, rushing that last project to Norbert Schoenauer because I had so much trouble with my coloured inks. I never used coloured inks in my life again! But again, trying to, you know, do something detailed and nicely and there was real room for coloured inks because I wanted to show how these boxes were stacked on top of another. In fact, they were stacked boxes, in fact, that last project, very much like Moshe Safdie came up with Habitat. It was different, because it was literally built on a hill. It was a project built on a hill and so that whole thing came up in a very similar way to Moshe’ s. And that’s why I had these different colours for the different boxes so that the different units could come out, very similar to Habitat ’67 after. That was a very- I really liked Norbert and I again had him, finally, when I did my Master’s later on, I finally had Norbert as my advisor, my thesis advisor, and we did housing.
He is one of the- it’s almost unique that everybody speaks at a very high level about Norbert. I mean other professors are sort of from time to time are criticized or receive accolades, but he’s consistently very positive.
He’s consistently- yeah.
And then there was Gerry Tondino, I guess, was there at the time. He was in charge of the Sketching School as well as the Freehand-
No, not Sketching School while I was there. It was Gordon Webber and Stuart Wilson was doing Sketching School at the time I was there. I remember both of them at Sketching School there, too. And I guess, just one time when Gordon Webber was there and, you know, meeting in his room at night in the little inn at Baie Saint-Paul and listening to him chat and so on.
He was a character. Did you get the book that was published-?
It was a very small one.
That’s right. Yes I did get that, yes.
Which I think Bruce did.
Which Bruce did, yeah.
And somebody’s in the process of doing one now on Stuart Wilson. I think David Covo is doing that. So that should be interesting. What about some of your classes, some of the courses? You obviously enjoyed most of the courses. What about some of your classmates? Do you remember any of them that left a lasting impression on you?
Well we were a certain- there was- we weren’t- I tended to leave at five o’ clock at night because- to go home so we didn’t have- and many of the fellows did too. We didn’t have these all-night sessions at school. I wasn’t part of that hardly ever except for some group projects. But we were, of course, Ron Williams was in my class. And we were- Ron and I were always like this [moving hands]. He was first and I was second and then I was first and he was second. And so we were always like this. And we were exchanging a lot of information because we were that kind of grouping. Bruce Anderson, of course, was very much a part of our existence there. Not only did he always cut up all our wood for us and so on but he was a very, very active presence. And of course, we saw that he was more close to some of the professors, even at that time he was. And so he was kind of interesting. A little bit of a- a very much an enigma in a way. An unknown because he would go to Europe in the summer, and then he came back very soon with a glamorous wife and all these things, very much an enigma. But at the same time, terribly positive, everything, and you know, wonderful projects and all sorts of things. Quite interesting.
He actually married one of his students, I guess, Bissera.
Later. That was the second wife. But his first wife, he came back with from France, one of the first to be married. And, you know, all of a sudden- but always very much an enigma there. Patrick Blouin, Patrick Blouin. We were- I was going out with a fellow, with an engineer in fact, whom I married eventually. No, while I was still at school, actually, I married him. And we were doing some of the balls. We were living some sort of social lives, a certain type. And Patrick Blouin and I used to share the social life parts of it. We’d say, “Oh, did you go to this ball? Did you go to that ball?” And so on and so forth. There was a whole lot of interchange of that variety with Patrick Blouin.
A nice fellow. I knew him very well and I always had a great- I could picture his face just like that.
Oh, he was wonderful.
He died so prematurely.
He died about fifteen, twenty years ago, I guess. A long time. Well, it’s fifteen years.
Fifteen years or something like that, yeah. No, that was- no he was great. Jacques Dalibard, well, he was an older, wiser, again, a sort of an elegant man. But, you know, just mainly remember him. We had Doug Gill from Trinidad. He was a Trinidad fellow. And he was wonderful. He lived in residence so he spent a great deal of time at the school in the studio working and so on and so forth. And everybody loved him. He was a great fellow and he died quite young.
It’s interesting because some people will say that they wish they had the opportunity to go through university or the school when they were a few years older. And I was a few years older, because when I went in, I was twenty-four because I’d already got a degree. And I don’t think a man matures very much in his twenties. A woman probably does but a man at thirty is probably equivalent to a woman at twenty-two. I’d probably be criticized for saying that but I mean most men at thirty are still boys.
And even though I was married at the time, I was a serious student, I didn’t do many of the charrettes because I didn’t, you know, I was living here, in Town of Mount Royal. Anyhow. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. But after I was finished, I said to myself, “Boy, I wish I’d been able to go through there again because I would have had a different outlook.
On life, yeah.
And after you graduated, did you travel at all?
Yes, well, I was married by then and my husband- and you wouldn’t do that nowadays. You probably wouldn’t have done that even fifteen years ago, but my husband got a good job in South America. And so, like a good wife, I went to South America with him, not worrying about- nobody worried at that time that I should work and continue my career and all of this. In those days, we just didn’ t worry about those things. But I liked the idea of going to South America. Of course, Brazil and things. Wonderful architecture there and a wonderful quality of life. I mean if you’re- I know there’s a tremendous amount of poverty. And at the time, there was not dictatorship. It was just out of dictatorship. It was at quite a blossoming period at the time.
In Brazil? Were you in Brazil?
Well, we started out in Argentina, went through Uruguay, Brazil and ended up in Colombia for about two years. But by that time, I was getting really, really anxious to start working. So in Colombia, I did work. I did work for a firm, quite a reasonably good firm there and in fact I built housing. And we worked on housing quite a bit. We did some competition projects there, which we didn’t win. It was- it was just so crazy. There was one competition and I loved- Bogotá particularly is well known for its brick architecture. And it’s well known because there’s a particular light that shines on brick. Fantastic brick and you can modulate it; you can do wonderful things with brick. And, of course, you have no insulation problems and the main d’oeuvre, the work, is no problem, so you can just specify brick by brick. Wonderful stuff. So I designed this competition project all angled and all done in brick, all exciting, exciting. And which project won? It was a Miesian, flat, straight, ordinary, ordinary little box. I could have died. It was just the dullest project. But, of course, probably the jury thought it was more up to date, more high-tech or something. Well, we’re talking ’66, 1966. But nevertheless, what a-! But I loved the brick. And then I did some housing. And it was published in a book, not under my name, but in a book of Colombian architecture. It was published under the name of the firm and quite a few good pictures of it because it was rather stunning. But it, again, used the potential of modulating spaces.
So how many years did you- you came back eventually to Montreal, I guess.
Then I eventually came back to Montreal. Then I went to Europe. I went to Europe in 1968 because I hadn’t done my trip of Europe. Most of the other students went to Europe whereas we went to South America. So then I went to do my trip in Europe in ’68 and that didn’t turn out very well because I had an accident and I became paralyzed. So then I came back to Montreal and went and did my Master’s with Norbert Schoenauer, specializing in housing. And then started working here. And one of the people I worked with was Nils Larson.
Who had also been in our class but I think he graduated about a year later for some reason, but he had also been in our class and he was in Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation at the time and I worked with him. And he was the one that got me to specialize in accessibility for persons with disabilities. He was the one that said, “Well, this is really what’s the up and coming thing and since you have a kind of a direct knowledge of it, why don’t you do that. And that’s what I’ve been doing since 1972 since I started working with him at CMHC.
But you’ve also been teaching.
And I’ve been teaching. For twenty years, I was teaching design. Mainly design and also barrier-free design. But barrier-free usually gets shunted a bit. But mainly design, in the design studio at the University of Montreal for twenty years, which I loved, because it did give me the opportunity to design. You know, design! And design is just a wonderful- and here were twenty students and you could work at twenty different ideas. And I just loved that.
You said there were maybe some other people you had forgotten.
Well, I hadn’t forgotten them, but I always- because I was a reasonably astute student, often the professors in studio, or others, would choose me as a leader of a group. I think in those days, they chose the leaders and then the group would form afterwards. But the leaders were chosen, I guess to avoid that all the good people at the top, people would get together or something. Anyway, I didn’t like that at all. I hated being chosen a leader again. It wasn’t really what I liked to do best. I feel I’m a good right-hand person but I’m not a born leader, even though I’ve had to be a professor for twenty years, so I had to use that too. But years afterwards, I was chatting with Gerry Sheff. He was at Harvard Business School by this time, and he said, “You know, after I figured out that you were really good”, he said, “I would always sign up for your group because I knew you could always help me. And I was very, very weak in architecture. I was weak in many of my courses, so I would always sign up for your group and you always helped me pull through”. And he said, “I really want you to know that I really appreciate it” . Eight years later or something. That was a wonderful thing to do.
If I remember, he got out of architecture. He went into the investment.
That’s right. He went to Harvard Business School and then went into investment. And he’s probably the richest graduate that we have, because he’s really made the money. I mean he’s given all sorts of money left, right and centre.
I think I know the answer again, but if you had to do it all over again, would you go into the same career?
Oh absolutely. It is the only career. And I very much like the School of Architecture at the University of Montreal. Sorry, at McGill.
Was Joe Baker there?
Joe Baker was there when I was doing my Master’s he was not there at the time of my undergraduate course. No, I liked it very much. I was very, very happy, but I’m the type of person that likes whatever one has to do and does it. And I still thought being at McGill was a wonderful place to be. I have no reason why I would want to be anywhere else. It’s a beautiful campus, we had nice graduations, we had nice balls, we had nice parties, why not?
In retrospect, it was not a tough time. My recollection of university, it was a fun time. And we worked. But it’s like anything else in life. If you work hard and the fun is there afterwards, then you feel as if you’re rewarded for it, you know?
It was a great time. It was a fun time. And in fact, we worked hard. We worked a lot harder than anybody in science and arts and so on. And I always wore it proudly like a badge of honour like, “I had to stay up all night last night. And you guys, you all have these simple courses”. Wore it like a badge of honour and it was just great fun. And my parents who were worried about me not losing my sleep, but it was still, it was part of what we were doing. And it- part of the fun too to say, “I can do that and this is- it’s so important for me that I’ll do it”. And all those presentations, which are such nerve-racking things, but they’re also very interesting aspects. I can go through that. I don’ t just have to put two plus two plus two is six and so on and so forth, all these dumb kind of courses that students have to do. These were much more exciting courses.
I think the regret that some people have, and I’m not quite sure how you can marry it into the studies, because the emphasis obviously is architecture, design and creativity and so forth. But some of the regrets that people have is, of course, it is also a business. And they didn’t pay very much attention because there was a course given at McGill when I was there, and I guess when you were there. It was by Watson Balharrie or there was another professor who taught Architectural Practice.
Right, Architectural Practice.
And it wasn’t a course that people paid very much attention. I don’t think you could have got very much out of it. But that’s the downside of architecture, because once you start practicing, you have to have some work coming in. Even Moshe Safdie originally had to go out and win competitions or have a salesman going out, who likes getting work into the office. It’s very difficult to make a living. I guess that’s-
Yes. Well, but of course, at the time, certainly, I didn’t think it was a problem, was we expected to go into a firm. We didn’t expect to go and rush around doing our own business and administering and paying salaries. And in fact, when I graduated, I wanted to take a break. And I hadn’t looked for a job before and I didn’t look for a job and it was June and then kind of July and my husband kept on saying, like, “Aren’t you ever going to get a job?” Like, started to say like- you know it was summer, so I’m-, “Aren’t you going to get a job?” And so I said, “Well, hmm yes, I guess so”. And so one day, one Monday morning, I got up and I literally got dressed and put on makeup and jewelry and everything and took the Yellow Pages. Would you believe I took the Yellow Pages? I took architects and I started calling up architecture firms out of the Yellow Pages Monday morning, made appointments that day, about five or six appointments for that week. But, you know, I had to do the whole thing. I mean I never left that Monday, I never left the house, but it was the proper thing to do. Then I went for about six appointments and I got five job offers in that one week.
That was 19-?
Got five job appointments, in one week- in four days, because then I told everybody, “I’ll call you on Friday if I’m coming in”. And I called somebody and I went in on the Monday. Those were the days!
Who did you get? Who was your first job with?
Bland, Lemoyne, Edwards and Shine. But it had really nothing to do with Bland per se. I met Shine; it was Anthony Shine, Tony Shine.
Tony Shine. He’s still around. Gordy Edwards is still around.
Yeah. And it was Tony Shine that I basically worked for- with. And then they gave me- well, this was right after graduation. This was before we went to Europe. And then after I literally started doing some details, toilet details, toilet details for the Law building. I remember that. And then they said-
In Ottawa, yeah. Was that Ottawa? No.
No, no, it was McGill, it was McGill. And then they got the job for the labyrinth at Expo ’67.
Oh yeah, sure, yeah.
And actually, they sent me out to do that. And it was wonderful. I say they sent me out because it was a developing of a whole new idea. This was before Imax, Imax then, but it was with Colin Low, who developed Imax, and Roman Kroiter, who were both National Film Board people. And we worked in Canadair, off Canadair in one of the big hangars, because they were actually building these things. And I was doing drawings of site lines and possible layouts of totally new and unusual theatre situations for watching cinemas. There were cinemas that you looked down, so how do you stack people to look down? How do you stack people to look up at a screen that was about sixty feet high? And so that was a wonderful job. And it was then that I left. And I really could have had the whole opportunity to design the whole labyrinth. And I left. That’s probably my big regret. I mean I loved South America but I do regret- but in those days, it was really wasn’t that much of a-.
But today, if you graduated in the same circumstances, you’d be knocking on a lot of doors before you found a job.
Oh, for sure, and I wouldn’t get a chance to design Labyrinth after working in a firm for two or three months, that’s for sure! It was- so that was a wonderful time too, for sure.
So you’ve had a- in terms of your career in architecture, it’s been fascinating then.
It’s been, yeah, yeah, it’s been fascinating.
You know if you just sat there and smiled, I’d know the answer right away because you wouldn’t be as happy if you hadn’t enjoyed it. That’s very important, obviously.
Oh yes, as you say it’s my- a lot of it is my whole life, because- and I knew that and that was why I was kind of also when I decided in that one split-second that I would do it, I knew that it was a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week commitment. You know, you just-
Yeah, that’s right.
I mean you don’t have to work- it’s not a question of- but it’s always part of you. You can’t look at something without seeing it in a context of where is it located, how it’s designed, what it means, how it works, and all those things. You’re always learning, you’re always evaluating, you’re always enjoying somebody else’s work and so on. So it is- it’s a whole lifestyle.