Interview by Jim Donaldson
I flunked out of high school.
And went to the Ontario College of Art. And I was there for a year and a half and my father wasn’t very happy. And I was completely out of money so my father said, “You come home and finish high school and study architecture and I will pay for everything.
So your dad made that decision for you.
So he made the decision for me. And actually, I mean he was smarter than I was because I mean, I don’t regret it at all. But at the time, I didn’t really think I had any chance of getting into architecture because I hadn’t finished high school. Anyway, then I had to decide where I was going to go and I applied to University of Toronto, MIT and McGill. And one of the reasons I had flunked out of high school is I couldn’t do French. So in my grade 13, I did very well but with no French. MIT and University of Toronto turned me down because I didn’ t have any French, but McGill, it didn’t bother them at all so I came to McGill.
What year was that?
‘Would be ’51.
I was a long time at McGill because subsequently, a year, two years after I’d made this deal with my father, he had terrific financial problems and I was cut loose. So I had to take a year off and I worked for the Bell Telephone Company on the mid-Canada radar line and made at the time- I was the junior person in the Bell Telephone- they were the supervising contractors, I made what at the time was a small fortune, because I was in isolation and I didn’t get any- I didn’t have any expenses. All your clothes and food and everything were paid for. So when I came back, I was financially better off.
So then you started in ’51, so you dropped out. So when did you really start in earnest to study architecture?
Well, maybe after that, about ’54, I guess.
Okay. Was that in second year? It was a five-year programme then.
I took a year of engineering and then I’ve really forgotten, but I mean I was there ’54, ’55, ’56, ’57,’58. Yeah, so I think it was a six-year programme for me.
So you graduated in ’58.
I graduated in ’58 or ’59. I think it’s ’59.
Now what we’d really be interested in hearing from you are some of the professors that taught you and the ones that impressed you and otherwise.
Well, I’m sure- Well, I mean Gordon Webber was a close friend. I think it’s partly because I went to the Ontario College of Art. And we were very close and continued to be close after I graduated. He came down- I went to the United States after I graduated, shortly after so I mean-. And Gordon was the complete Bauhaus instructor. You know, he’d come from Chicago; he studied under Moholy-Nagy sort of part of the international movement in architecture. He was terribly, terribly serious and a hell of a lot of fun. So I feel that he was- he had a tremendous influence on me but I must say that, I mean, I probably was more prepared for that sort of thing than others, having been at the College of Art. Ray Affleck-
Was he teaching at the school then?
Well, no, I wanted to tell- I mean, he was I think coming in-
As a visiting crit-
As a visiting critic. But he hired me in my last year. He hired me for the summer. And they had an office on de Maisonneuve. And I was doing bathroom detailing and answering the telephone. And at the time, you had to answer the telephone with the names of all the partners.
Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos…
Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Michaud, Size and Lebensold, good morning! And then sometimes I broke up and people weren’t too happy. But the thing that- the instant that I really remember about working for him was that they were designing houses mostly. And Ray had designed a house on the side of the mountain in Westmount. I can’t remember the name of the client. And it had a flat roof and the client didn’t realize that it had a flat roof until the house was almost finished. And there was a great ruckus. She arrived and there were tears and screaming and so on. Anyway, I’m telling that story about the flat roof because the whole school was very much influenced by the international style and by Mies and Walter Gropius and the educational system that was at Harvard, so we were all designing buildings with flat roofs. I mean it didn’t matter what the context was at all. I mean, you could look and everybody else had a sloping roof but we were all-
I want to get back for a minute, for more than a few minutes. How about the others? Ray was probably- was Stuart Wilson teaching you then?
Yes, Stuart was there.
And what are your memories about Stuart?
Very, very tough. Very serious. He took us to Ottawa and to Île d’Orléans for…
…. Sketching School. They were great experiences, really.
That was probably another side of him because of course, he was different when he was in class, because I think he taught Construction and we had to build houses and so forth.
He was very, very tough.
Yeah, he was tough.
Critical. Very serious person. I suppose that just overall, I mean we- the concentration on drawing, on practical- things about practice, structures, detailing, and how to illustrate. We had life drawing, we had still-life drawing, we had Sketching School, we had mechanical drawing. I mean everybody that came out of the school learned these skills and how to express themselves, which I think on reflection was one of the great and continuing contributions of the school. I sat on the admissions committee at Harvard in the late sixties and McGill graduates were still at that time, if they had good letters of recommendation and reasonable marks, they were admitted. There wasn’t any-
No question, they were still considered.
They were considered to produce somebody who wasn’t on the cutting edge of theory but who knew how to do things.
Good practical, functional architects.
That’s right. And very good material for the post-modern debate and so on that at that point was pretty hot and heavy.
I’m wondering now about some of the other professors. You can jump around if you wish but there was-
Well, I wanted to mention Harold.
Oh, Harold Spence-Sales, certainly.
Because after my father cut me loose and I came back, Harold- I think he’s the owner of the largest collection of David Farleys in the world. He bought them when I needed money.
Isn’t that interesting!
He’s still, of course, alive and living in his chocolate factory in-
In fact, I interviewed them a couple of years ago, with his wife. She was there.
Yes. And so- plus, I worked on projects for him drawing and that helped, you know, a lot. He was sort of crazy-
He was unique!
He was unique!
Did- he took, what? He gave a town-planning course.
He caught a town-planning course, you see. And then when he retired, I came back to McGill to- the programme sort of closed down for a year or two and John Bland hired me to restart the Planning programme so that’s that- I came back to architecture and shortly thereafter, we got approval from the Quebec government. And the School of Urban Planning is great, eh, which I was the director of for seventeen years.
Okay, and what year was that when you started? Probably in the sixties sometime?
No, when I came back, it was ’70. ’71.
’71 okay. I knew it was either late sixties or ’71. So in terms of Harold as a teacher, do you remember some of the events in the classroom or anything? I know he was quite flamboyant and he was quite theatrical and dramatic and-.
The funny thing is, I don’t really remember the classrooms that much. I mean we were in these houses. You know, we were at the corner of Milton and University and we were on McTavish and every time- every year, you know, there was some movement. And we were in little rooms. And most of the teaching I associate with McGill is small group, criticism, parties. I mean, I must say that I didn’ t really go to many of the lectures. And this is- you see, my main activity at McGill was theatre. I was very active in the Red and White Revue, I was the stage manager of My Fair Lady; took it to Stratford and to Royal Alec in Toronto. I was the president of the Players Club. I spent an awful lot of time. And John Bland called me in to complain about the- or to say that he noticed that I hadn’t been attending his History lectures and at the conclusion of this, he said, “But you know, I think what you’re doing is more important. Don’ t worry about it”.
He was teaching, David, Canadian History. Was Peter Collins there at the time?
I think he brought Peter, but I don’t remember Peter very well.
I guess Arthur Lismer was doing Freehand Drawing.
Arthur Lismer was teaching at the museum.
Museum. And I guess for some of the students, that was part of the curriculum that you’d go over there for classes.
Yes, we did. We would go there once a week and we drew and we also had a modeling studio where we worked with clay. And there was John Schreiber. And I worked for John Schreiber the summer before I worked for Ray Affleck. And at that time, he had a little office as part of his office at school but it was on McTavish Street and he had a garden on the roof. And he was doing houses also, not, by the way, flat-roof houses.
No, that’s right.
He was doing very extravagant roofs.
He always had interesting- the one very positive thing about John, his drawings were unbelievable, the detail that he put into his drawing.
John is still an incredible draughtsman. I mean he is- and he was a very good person to work for. I have an anecdote about John, which is not really architectural but he was designing a house in the Eastern Townships and he had an MG. And the client felt that he should- you know, that the car was too small and so on, I guess, because he bought a very expensive car, what, an Aston Martin.
Oh, an Aston Martin!
And we went to- when you got into the car, you had to lift your paw- your feet up like a horse, you know, while he cleaned you. But anyway, this was in the winter, you know. And we picked the client up and her first words were when she got in the car, “Oh, I’m so happy you bought a more practical car”! Anyway, I was doing detailing for him. But you see my career has really not been in architecture.
No, I know that.
It’s been in city planning and urban design.
So we’ll talk about that but I just- I want to get to the segment of the days at the univ-. Was there any- Balharrie, was Watson Balharrie-?
He came down from Ottawa at the time.
Yeah. He used to fly in.
Yes and taught… something!
I think he taught business.
In fact, business practice or something, which nobody paid any attention to.
Yes, that’s right. And I’m just wondering- John Schreiber… Doug Shadbolt.
Oh yeah, Doug Shadbolt. Yeah that’s right, he was there.
And he was- I don’t really- I mean I got to know Doug very well but he wasn’ t- for some reason, he wasn’t my instructor, really.
But I don’t think he was at McGill for a great period of time, was he?
No, then he went to Ottawa to start the new school.
He went to Dalhousie I think first to Tufts or TUNS down there and then he went to Carleton in Ottawa.
I interviewed him as well.
Did he say anything-? Well, I mean the thing that I remember about Doug, I mean besides being a swell person, was that the rumour was that when he started the school at Ottawa that there was to be no history taught. And again, this is rather symptomatic of the tumultuous time, which was the sixties, in architectural theory and in whether one followed the Bauhaus or international line, which Gropius had brought over and others had brought over to the United States or whether one followed the Venturis and everything that’s come after. And the seeds of all that were there in the early sixties and the late fifties at McGill and at Yale and Harvard, etc., etc., etc.
Let me ask you, David, do you remember- do you have any memories of the other students who were in your years with you? Classmates, everything like that?
Well basically I remember students, but the- not- well, Dick Dibben and I were roommates and he’s- I don’t know whether you’ve interviewed him, he’s an English architect and lives in Southampton.
In I think it was 1960, I had met Sandy van Ginkel because he was a guest critic at the school and I was in- no, I think it would be in maybe ’58 because it was my year before I finished. And he and I hit it off quite well. And then the following year, he was very much active in being a critic for my final thesis. And he and Blanche hired me to come to work for them.
They were living in Montreal then.
They were living in Montreal and they had an office in their home and I went to work for them for two years. And in 1961, Harvard started their urban design programme. And Blanche was very connected with Harvard or I think that’ s one of the reasons that I got accepted. Anyway, ten of us were admitted from all over the place for the first degree programme in urban design at Harvard. And it was through them that I even thought of applying and of course I moved to the United States and stayed there for ten years, maybe eleven years. Anyway, they, Blanche and Sandy were very influential in my life in convincing me that I should go on for post-graduate work. And in one way, I probably would have practiced architecture. But as it turned out, I ended up practicing planning and urban design.
So what, this was in the sixties when you were working and then you left then and you applied and you got accepted at Harvard.
In ’61 that I graduated I think it was in ’61 from Harvard.
It was a one-year programme in urban design. And then I went to work but I- part-time, I was teaching a course at Harvard and I was working for the planning services group and I was studying planning, because I decided I’d take a planning degree also. And in 19- I think it must be ’62 or some such year, Mayer Collins was elected as a reform mayor in Boston. And at this point, everyone was very much concerned about urban design and inner city neighbourhoods and the mayor had run on this platform. And he had hired David Crane from the University of Pennsylvania who had a design team of designers and David Crane was on the crit of my thesis at Harvard and he hired me to join this team to work at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
And you worked there for how many years?
Not long, maybe three years. And then I was- at this point I was very influenced by someone who was not a Harvard graduate who felt that I should go into planning and architecture- or planning and urban design and I did. So- and teaching. And a job became available at the Graduate School of Public Administration in New York. They had- were starting a planning programme and I went there. That was my first full-time teaching position.
And that lasted quite a few years, I guess?
No, it didn’t last that long. I mean, four years. What happened was that Mayor Lindsay got elected and they had an urban design group in New York. They also had what was called the Urban Design Council, which was an advisory group to the mayor on urban design questions. And I was hired as the first executive director of the Urban Design Council. So then I was half-time at NYU and half-time for the City of New York. And in 1968, I’m not sure I made the right decision but Harvard offered me a full-time teaching job.
So you went back to Boston.
So I went back to Boston.
Good for you!
Well, I mean I know that you love Boston but I love New York more! Anyway, these were tumultuous times. I’m talking about the whole of Cambridge being closed down when McNamara came to visit and all the shops, windows being broken and helicopters in the air and you were lucky if classes occurred and it was very-.
During the Vietnam War.
That’s right. Can I tell an anecdote…
Which is non…
…architecture? Go ahead!
I had a friend, a late friend. His name was Peter who was from Toronto and he was visiting me in Boston on the weekend, one of the worst weekends in, I think it would be ’68. Somebody could check. And there was smoke in the air and helicopters and Cambridge was completely closed off. To go to the airport, when I took Peter to the airport, you had to go west and work your way around to get to the tunnel. We got to the tunnel and it was completely clogged and people were running around hitting each other’s cars with rubber truncheons and so on. By the time we got to the airport, my friend Peter said, “Look. Leave everything. Come back to Canada. You’ve got to get out of this”. He insisted that I fly back- you know, just drop everything. It turned out that the Boston Bruins had won the Stanley Cup and that’s why everybody was going nuts in the tunnel! Anyway-.
So you stayed at Harvard for a while and then-.
Well, John had more or less decided that I was going to replace Harold. And so we talked on maybe three occasions and then something happened. I was in New York and I was going to come back and then Harvard offered me a job and it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to go there for a while and so on. So there was a bit of an interval. But anyway, I ended up back, unbeknownst to me what was going on here. I was completely- so demoralized out of all the turmoil that was going on here. I arrived back here in ’71 and –
And you stayed heading up the school for, what, seventeen years?
Yeah. Well, yes. For the first year or two, Maureen Anderson and I worked on making the application to Quebec. Well, I mean of course, with all these things, nobody believed at McGill that you could get a new, a brand new-
Well, school going, you know, and funded. But we- I was ignorant enough and we filled in every form and did every single thing without any politicking at all but just did every single step that was required and we got funding. And so, well this is not very interesting, but the fact is you can’t have an accredited planning programme unless it reports vertically. In other words, it couldn’t be a part of Architecture at the time.
Okay, I see, okay.
You couldn’t get an accreditation. Your budget had to be reporting vertically rather than-
And who did you report to then? Was it the head of Engineering?
Yes. Gerry Farnell. Well, actually, the first is the late Dean Dombrain. Dean Dombrain was the first dean that I reported to. I reported to a lot of deans!
You mentioned Maureen Anderson because she really was always with the School of Architecture. She didn’t work for planning at that time eh?
Well, you see, I was still a professor of architecture.
While this application was going on, I was part of the Faculty [sic: School] of Architecture. The idea was to try and get a new programme of planning going. And as it turned out, it’s still really, I mean, they’re right together. And they’ve always worked together and give joint courses and so on. Well, I became the director of the School of Urban Planning and I didn’t even change offices, you know, I mean!
Did you enjoy those years?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. I had a hell of a good time. And I mean that was fun because I learned to speak French going with Maureen to a- not that Maureen- Maureen was much better than I- going to what was called Faculty French twice a week. And no, it was a very, it was a pretty good time. And the school grew and we hired people so it’s now, nowadays, I think the university is thinking that Architecture and Planning should be one unit again. This is not a perennial- maybe every ten years this comes up.
David, did you- were you able to carry out any consulting business when you were head of the school at all?
I did a lot of consulting. For many years, I was a consultant to Lavalin through Daniel Arbour and Associates. So whenever I felt like it really, I did work there. So I worked on many projects there. And off and on for other architects where there was an urban design thing. And I worked with Lloyd Sankey on a number of things.
I remember that.
Really as a consultant, although we did win a minor award for our-
Ottawa, was it?
No it was for Old Montreal for, goodness, the warehouses, which are next to the church. I worked with John Schreiber and Ron Williams and I won the commission for Champs de Mars next to city hall. I did a lot of traveling on Master’s and PhD orals and things of that sort and going to reviews at different schools.
And you also, of course, as a sideline or a hobby do painting.
Yeah. Well that was- I’m not doing as much now as I was but for a period there, I had two one-man shows and over the space of six or seven years I was very, very busy. It was sort of when you finally decide you are going to have a show, then it becomes very, very- do you have enough paintings and what stage are they? Are they framed? And so on. It’s like an architectural project almost, you know? The- I want to- there are a couple of other- the thing that interests me really, well, on reflection, which interests me is this turmoil, this theoretical- the turmoil over architectural and planning teaching and I’m thinking, I’m just going back to Harvard now and I shared a house with four other architects. And one of them was named- he- this is right back in ’62, he was trying to graduate in the Master’s of Architecture class from Harvard. And he designed a building, which had eyelids for- half-moon windows. And it was also curved like, well, it’s really like a, excuse me, a comforter. And there was no way that Harvard would pass him. And we built models and try to persuade him that, I mean, look it was a beautiful building but it was never going to pass and of course it didn’t. So then he moved to Yale. It was actually a student residence. Anyway, the point of telling you this is that, you probably know, it looks like the Chateau Champlain.
Oh is that right?
But the idea that you would do something so personal and un-international in its concept, I mean, it was completely unacceptable.
It’s interesting because of course, there are some very prominent architects today who have their own style which is almost impossible to copy. I’m thinking of Frank Gehry.
You know, his sort of work. Probably that there would be some connection with what you’ve just described because, I mean, his has got a very personal stamp on his work.
I forgot to mention that when I worked for Ray Affleck and I had to answer the telephone with their names and so on, and the flat roof, I had a very good summer and then I went back to finish my- to do my thesis year at McGill. And during- one day, I got a telephone call asking me if I’d come into work for one day at what is now called Arcop. It was still on Maisonneuve Avenue. So I went and everybody who had worked there in the last five year it seems to me was installed at a drafting table and we were supposed to be busily working on projects. And then some of the partners arrived with I.M. Pei. And I.M. Pei was looking for a Canadian architect, so this was in aide of showing that the firm had the capacity to do the job. And they of course subsequently became the Canadian architects for Place Ville Marie. Anyway, that was-
So they had all the drafting tables occupied.
Yes. And I.M. Pei glanced in, you know, to see.
I don’t think that- I think that’s been emulated many times because-
I guess so!
I’ve heard stories where people, you know, the architects, there are a couple of offices in the same building and there’s a special project they asked if they could borrow a couple of draughtsmen thinking they could fake it.
Oh, we never did anything as Machiavellian as that in planning!
Did you work at all-? You mentioned Maureen Anderson. Did you get to know her at all? I mean was she-?
Maureen and I worked together. And unfortunately, I mean the School of Architecture wasn’t going to give up Maureen.
And of course, so then when I became- when the School of Planning was created, well, there was an administrative assistant to go in that position, so-. I had a very good administrative assistant, but not Maureen, which would have been my choice. And of course, Maureen and I have been since then friends for years. Lots of love
I still keep in touch with her. I still call her maybe, what, four or five times a year. Anyhow, yeah.
There’s one other à propos activities. I sat on the Viger Commission for a number of years. This is just à propos of that earlier- you asked me what I did besides the school. I suppose I really think, you mentioned yourself, I mean I really feel that McGill was a good thing. It had lots of warts but I mean as training, the thing that I remember most is that everybody was extremely serious. And we worked very hard and we came away with some skills.
And we had fun in the process.
And there were great…
…great drinking parties and all sorts of scandals and you know, all sort of intermingling. Let’s put it that way! But it was a good period at McGill. One gets the impression walking around the campus these days that it’s still pretty much a party place.
Yeah, I think so.
You know, I just want to tell you another thing, which I was involved in at McGill. I sat on the senate development committee and there was a discussion of why McGill- this would be in the seventies, why McGill didn’t have more French Canadian students. And one of the reasons was, of course, that the French universities and the English universities agreed that they wouldn’t poach. I don’t think it was written down but more or less that was one of the reasons. But McGill wanted to have more French students, Francophones. And they had a survey done. And all the students, the high school students, a large number of them said, “Well, McGill is hard and it’s no fun”. So there was a decision taken that they would start making it clear how much fun McGill was. And, I mean, they weren’t lying either.
I often wonder, the advantages of an urban university I think are great. And I don’t know whether the same camaraderie exists, and maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t, there’s a different degree if you’re in a sort of suburban- I’m thinking of York University in Toronto compared to University of Toronto and McGill in Montreal, which is downtown. There is something really positive about being in a downtown university.
Absolutely, absolutely. McGill is very lucky that the city grew around it. I think the underlying idea was that we would be a suburban, country university, according to James McGill but I mean it didn’t quite work out that way!
Well, thank you very much.
It’s a pleasure.
I’ve probably enjoyed this more than you have.
Oh, thank you very much!