New York City, NY
June 4, 1996
Interview by Jim Donaldson
I do want to point out one thing, which I think is absolutely crucial to this interview, that notwithstanding that we’re sitting in New York, Jim, and I say Jim Donaldson of course. If the camera takes a close-up, it will notice that I’ m wearing a McGill tie. But it’s a modern tie ‘cause it’s asymmetrical. The McGill crest is only on one side. So I think before bowties became a fashion, one might say the McGill emblem is blazing its trail down here in New York. And I got it in New York, not in Montreal.
You asked why I decided to study architecture. It’s an interesting question. It’ s a complex question for me. And I just have to go one step back in the background. My family, particularly on my mother’s side, bred, one might say, four prodigies in music and the arts. A little known fact but the family name is actually quite well known on my mother’s side and whereas I grew up painting and drawing an awful lot. And of course, I was a concert musician and graduated McGill University Faculty of Music when I was eleven years old, which I don’t think that any of the people I associate with McGill knew. With distinction, I’ m very proud to say right now. At that time, I was embarrassed. Architecture was interesting to me, but it wasn’t so much interesting in terms of architecture as it was something to do with the arts. And notwithstanding, I came from a medical family. When I applied for architecture at McGill, I do remember the colour of the forms. There was a green form and there was a white form. The white form was for the Faculty of Law, if I remember, and the green form was for architecture. And being indecisive in those days, and probably a little too young to have dabbled in architecture or the thought of entering the School of Architecture, I went down to registration with both forms filled out, fully intent on making the decision as I walked in the door and was told which way to go: left, right or whatever, to either go into liberal arts, the Faculty of Arts and then law or architecture. And at the last second, I picked architecture. So whereas it wasn’t maybe for altruistic reasons, certainly the thought was there because the forms were filled out very seriously, but I wasn’ t sure on the route until I finally made that commitment, which I guess to some degree is endemic to an architect’s work anyway. So I think the handwriting was on the wall at the time.
I went to McGill because McGill is- was and probably is to some degree- has the Canadian reputation of the Canadian Harvard. And I say this even knowingly today because one of my sons went through Harvard and just graduated Harvard Medical School. And the question he always received from his classmates and professors at Harvard University was “Why Harvard? Why didn’t you stay at McGill?” So I feel rather proud that I went through McGill and vicariously lived Harvard and hopefully, I’m a better person for it. But McGill had a very strong reputation and had some very good people. You know, John Bland was a power to be reckoned with. A very fine gentleman as was Gordon Webber and Stuart.
Was Norbert Schoenauer there?
Norbert wasn’t there. Norbert came afterwards. And my introduction to Norbert was a rather interesting one. My dentist’s assistant was Norbert’s wife.
Astrid, Astrid, of course. And we became friendly at the time and lo and behold, Norbert appeared on the scene and Norbert and I have been friends ever since. In fact, we saw each other last year. I stopped by the school last year when I came to Montreal for a short time.
Was Peter Collins at the university when you were there?
No, Peter came after. Peter and I, I must say, did not get along very well, perhaps for one basic reason. When I first started off, I’d already graduated McGill University in the Faculty of Science in math/physics, the honours math/physics course. And as a quote-unquote mature student coming into architecture, I had ideas of my own. And that didn’t incur any favour with Peter. So we had a tension-ridden four years or five years in architecture, where there was no support from Peter. And when I strayed from note-taking and submitting reports and had annotations in margins about things I was interested in in terms of the relationship or metaphors to life and modern architecture as opposed to the historicism at the time, Peter found me to be bête noire and we had our problems, one might say. Notwithstanding that he would flatter me from time to time asking me to critique some of his writings, but always made me very much aware that he was boss. He was the professor and if I were not to tow the line, I might suffer. And I did. And there are a lot of anecdotes of how I suffered with Peter, which need not be repeated because they’ re inconsequential in terms of what we do right now. But maybe I’ll recite one, which is rather interesting. The fact that I ventured astray, one might say, conceptually in some of the things I was interested in doing in architecture, in exploring, in one of the critiques, Peter made a public statement saying, “Michael will be a huge success as a commercial architect”. And we’re so far removed from that today, as you probably know, that it’s one of these embarrassing moments that sticks with you. And our success today in what we do and have accomplished, certainly in the United States, is not to prove the point. It’s beside the point because I think it was just a stab at me for, you know, moving off in directions which were not current at the time. Let’s put it that way and stop there. But McGill was very good. It was very fruitful. It was a tough, rigorous course.
Were there any incidents or any particular professors who probably influenced you?
Were there any others?
Yeah, I could say there are a lot of the [unclear]. And everything in life, to some degree, is very anecdotal, as we know. People had an enormous influence, which I didn’t know at the time. Although I was very much interesting in what they were saying, but I couldn’t find an application for it in school. One was certainly Gordon Webber and not so much Sketching School as it was, you know, the understanding of space, the division of space with lines, circles, planes, layering, which were terms which were not used at the time. And he was very much influenced by Moholy-Nagy, of course. And when I think of our work right now, and we have a national, if not international reputation here for doing, you know, for producing very modern architecture. And our work is minimalist. You can see by our offices if you look later, we design buildings that way; our offices are like that, I live like that myself in my own domestic environment, home environment. And when I reflect now on some of the moves we make and some of the ideas in architecture which interest me, and I don’t necessarily mean deconstruction or deconstructivist ideas because we haven’t [unclear] with that. Our work is truly modern work and we’ve withstood the barrage of historicism and post-modern architecture. And I think back, certainly some of the ideas and things I was doing at the time with Gordon, Gordon Webber, are things that I didn’t realize at that time. And it’s, you know, the old adage, you know education is wasted on the youth. If you could only go back and do it right now, more mature, more understanding, a little more sensitive, less brash, we don’t have to prove anything, I’d probably get a lot more out of it. But that carried me through. Whereas there’s not a direct, conscious link, I certainly have gone through life seeing life, human beings, buildings, space, everything as an object in space. And that is very, very much reflected in our architecture and how we approach the work we do. And we’ re publishers, very extensively. And this is-
Did you keep in touch with any of the classmates at all?
No, no, I didn’t, actually. I came to a different environment here. In Montreal, we were very busy. I joined Philip Bobrow.
Well, let’s talk a little bit about after what you did.
After school, I was awarded a Canada Council Fellowship. And I went off to Europe for thirteen months. I traveled extensively. I taught architecture at the AA in London for a short time. I did a lot of research on industrialized building systems, modern architecture, produced reports, of course, for the Canada Council. I was very much interested in how buildings were assembled, you know, and that’s what the good things at McGill grounded in you, the six-year education. You could go out and work and understand how buildings were put together, what the assembly of constituent parts really mean. And just to digress for a moment, we sit here in New York and the best students that come into my office to work here are not the ones who go to Columbia University and take a two-year post-graduate course in design. The ones that are good are Montreal students; we get students from Europe. One of the best schools here I believe is RPI in Troy, just outside of Albany, where they also go through the five and six-year course. And my youngest son graduated recently from RISD, in Providence, Rhode Island School of Design, with also that five-year course. And it’s when you live and breathe architecture for a certain period of time, that’ s when your contribution, or the opportunity to make a solid contribution to the profession in an office is there. And that’s what McGill was very good at. And it’s still in you, I mean, just injected into your bloodstream, you know, every subtlety, nuance of architecture, whether you liked it or not.
Anecdotally, others that had influence on me, we talked about him before, which was Watson Balharrie. He made one statement, he taught us specification writing. He made one statement, which had a very major impact on me. He asked the class once to raise our hands “How many of you are going to be designers and head of your own firm?” Every hand went up except two: Roy Mahabir and Michael Fieldman. Okay. Why? Roy was older and I was older. We thought that architecture is a much more complex thing than sitting with a pencil in your hand. There’s a business side of architecture, there’s a production side. They were all noble, important aspects of architecture. You can’t sit and design and not have the facility for implementation and understand those parts. And I still remember that to this day when I see people coming into the office that the grounding that we got there was not just to be able to sit in somebody’s office all year round and design buildings. There’s a much more complex, thoughtful, important leadership role that architects must play in the fabric or structure of society. I mean, my God, when you walk in the damn street, you know, like, I mean, you’re surrounded by building and architecture. If the influence isn’t there, what is, right?
It’s that kind of thing. So Watson Balharrie, a major influence. Stuart-
Stuart Wilson. In his own rough, peculiar way, had an impact, if for no other reason than to instill in you a commitment to architecture, that it’s not a nine to five operation. And by golly, when you worked in Stuart’s class, I mean, we used to work twenty-four and thirty-six hours without sleeping and eating, virtually, you know, a sandwich or two. And I think that thread of this commitment and the toll it takes on you, which is very corrosive, the profession is very corrosive today, is something which I remember. And even at my tender age, one might say, of sixty, we still put in these long hours and work around the clock. Notwithstanding we have computers and high technology, the profession still does not end at five thirty or six. That had an impact on me.
I just have one interesting anecdote, which you will appreciate. School was over; McGill University was over. I graduated, architecture, science then architecture, and we were off to Europe, to live in Europe. And I applied for a Canada Council Fellowship and I hadn’t heard whether I’d received one or not. And then we’d all packed and it was about two months prior to leaving, which is in September of 1963. And the phone rang. It was somebody from the Canada Council saying I’d been awarded a Canada Council Fellowship. But I didn’t believe him. I thought it was a friend of mine playing a joke. So I said, “Well, yes, that’s very, very nice. Thank you very much”. And I hung up on the phone. And then of course, a letter came in the mail, which delighted me. And we went off to Europe and did a little bit of a study that I told you, industrialized buildings, and I taught for a while. Went to several conferences, met Alvar Aalto. He had a major impact on me. You might appreciate this little anecdote, but to this day, I still carry a statement of Alvar Aalto’ s. We had dinner many times together. And we were at a restaurant once and the woman brought some flowers as a centerpiece on the table to which Aalto removed the flowers and made a public statement saying, “Flowers and food don’t go together. If you want a centerpiece, put on some fruit or something related to food”. And I think to this day, even when we entertain here in New York, the last thing I’ll ever put on the table is a flower or something like that. It’s got to be a stronger linkage to the food chain, one might say.
Anyway, came back to Montreal after traveling and working for thirteen months in Europe and perhaps one of the richest thirteen months of my life. I mean it is rather remarkable the impact that kind of voyage takes you on. And I mean to understand history but also to visit Le Corbusier’s work in Ronchamp and Unité d’habitation and so on had a major, lasting impact. And as an architect, you really have to get in and live and breathe these issues, these issues, these ideas really, ideas in architecture from whatever period. ‘Came back to Montreal and worked. Expo was just rearing its head and I went to start to work for John Bland. Bland, LeMoyne, Shine was the firm at the time. And worked for them for a short time and then had ants in my pants and moved on to Affleck’s office. Oh, I beg your pardon, sorry. I went to work for Dobush, Stewart, Bourke first then Bland, LeMoyne, Shine, then Arcop, which at that time was Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Michaud and Sise. Sise was still there at the time. And that was the days of Place Bonaventure. And then I joined Phil Bobrow in 1967. That was it. I started off in ’65 when I came back from Europe. And Phil had just been awarded the Nun’s Island project. So we did that project, which was, I guess, our first major project. We worked with Stanley Tigerman, who is today still a very close friend of mine, and Mies van der Rohe at the time. And worked with Phil. And then, I don’t know whether you recall, we entered this Operation Breakthrough project. This was George Romney, I believe. He was the head of HUD and there was this big, international competition. There were seven hundred- seventeen hundred, rather, and fifty-some-odd entries. And this little firm in Montreal-
Was Bill Dawson involved?
Bill Dawson was involved with us. We formed a company called Descon.
And we won the Operation Breakthrough competition. We were the only foreign winner. We beat out people like GE and Warehouse and the Japanese and the French and the Dutch and the Italians. And this little company got this- we got the largest contract from HUD. It was printed up, of course, published. And that was our first major, international, if you like, venture. And then we got a- when I was with Phil, we got a grant from the Ford Foundation to study student housing and programming. How you programme buildings. And through EFL, which was the Educational Facilities Laboratories, a subgroup of the Ford Foundation, they funded us and we developed the first architectural performance-based building programme system with engineering components as well. The University of Vermont heard about that and we did their first and we developed a new design-build methodology. We did a living-learning centre in Vermont, in Burlington for the University of Vermont. And then the dormitory authority in the state of New York heard about us, invited us down to develop a methodology for New York State, which we did. And we started to do projects, hospitals and academic housing in New York State. We did a project for the Rockefeller University and I said, “This is too good to be true. The environment down here is very, very different than Canada”. And I don’t think I’ m far off the mark by saying in Canada, to land commissions in Canada, you really have to know people very, very well, friends, a brother, a sister, a brother-in-law. And it was based more on connection than on capability, capacity, philosophy of architecture, where you were headed. And when I came down here and found out that an unknown firm in Montreal could come down here and pluck plums in architecture: a high-rise building for Rockefeller University, hospitals, student housing, as a foreigner, I said to Phil, “we’ve got to have a presence in the United States”.
So we worked from 1973 to 1975 out of a Montreal office. And then in 1975, I opened up an office here in Manhattan. And we started to get government work. We got a Department of Motor Vehicles building in the state of Maine and it was just based on credentials because how could we know anybody in the state of Maine or Massachusetts or New York state, for that matter. And it was a question of picking up the phone, calling, making representation about your credentials and what you can bring to the subject and the work started to flow. And I said to myself, “You’ve got to be a damn fool to hang around Montreal”. And I don’t say that disrespectfully. I say that in terms of opportunity and career if the United States is open to you. So Phil stayed in Montreal, I came down here. And we started to get major work: major hospitals, academic buildings and whatnot. And we started to attain a certain level of prominence. And because I was older coming down here and having to establish a practice, we had been practicing for ten years in Montreal; I became involved with a very good group of friends, names well known. I mean Kenneth Frampton is a very dear friend of mine, Peter Eisenman is a very dear friend, Richard Meier, Michael Graves, Charlie Gwathmey and so on. So it was very nice to come down into the US and be surrounded by, a part of this group of thinkers, which obviously is stimulating. How could it not be? Rem Koolhaas, for example, who wrote Delirious New York, in fact, he wrote his book in my office, my first office here. A little known fact. And people like Bernard Tschumi, who is now head of Columbia University. So coming down here was rich culturally, architecturally with this group, and the opportunity for commissions were there if you could make proper professional representation. So how could it not be attractive? And like the man who came to dinner, I stayed ever since! And finally, in 1986, I severed connections with Bobrow Fieldman of Montreal, got my green card, and like the man who came to dinner, never looked back.
And to kind of bring our work scope up to date, I think there are two things I’ d like to just mention, Jim. One is what we’re doing right now and why we’ re doing it. And I think perhaps where the profession is and where it’s going and whether the education as I knew it then and now is the same thing or different. What is the effect of computerization and so on? Right now, we try to graduate from project to project, bigger projects. You always think that you can handle more. We’ve never had an interest in doing really high-rise, tall towers, fifty-storey towers. I don’t find- I don’t have that kind of ego to have my name associated with some phallic centre in some city centre, so we’ve avoided that, I might say. We’ve just won an international competition for this new police academy. It’s a two-hundred-and forty-three-million-dollar police academy for New York City. It was a tough competition. We were competing against Norman Foster, Sir Norman Foster, who I thought would beat us. Venturi, Bob Venturi who we were competing against. I thought he would give us a run for our money. Well, his architecture is obviously very, very different from ours. So it was actually very gratifying to be in that arena and sweat and toil for the seven or eight months of that competition, at great cost, both emotionally and financially of course and win that competition. So that’s the kind of thing we’re doing right now.
We just also were awarded the highest honour by the American Institute of Architects for our new school on Roosevelt Island. It’s a whole new approach to school buildings, which in a sense takes me back to college and something, you know, Aldo van Eyck’s work in schools, which I looked at very, very closely, Hertzberger’s and so on. And that has received maybe eight or ten awards across the nation for probably the most significant school in the United States today, which is also rewarding. And as a footnote to that, I’m off to Japan a week from this Saturday. I’ve been invited in by a very large group of educators who made a special trip to come to New York to see that school of ours and I’m giving a keynote address on the 17th of June about design of educational buildings in the United States and Japan and hopefully come away with a commission or two. Because there are a lot of Japanese architects I admire and I’m wondering why Ando isn’t doing schools in Japan or Shimahara, for example, but hopefully, Michael Fieldman will parachute in and perhaps set a mark there as I tried to do in New York. So I look at it both as a flattering event but one also of opportunity because I’m interested in buildings and architecture and spaces and the whole social aspect. I should give you a footnote. We rarely do work for private clients. Our work is very modern and it’s hard to get people as a rule to buy into modern buildings, you know, houses or apartments, although we do a few here. Our work has a very minimalist approach to it. And so we’ve found that we can work in the public sector, which can beat you up. The school I did, by the way, Roosevelt Island in Manhattan, had twenty-two public hearings. They actually went back to Canada to try to dig up dirt on me to see whether a Canadian should really get this plum. And I was competing against Bob Stern, Jim Polshek, who was dean of Columbia at the time, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and because I wasn’t the local favourite- but we won it. We got the commission and did this building.
So we are really focusing on academic buildings and a lot of healthcare. We just, I’m rather proud to say, we just won a very large commission in Massachusetts, General Hospital, Mass General, and there’s a lot of talent in Boston, as you know. And I felt particularly proud that in New York, we could come into Boston and snatch this commission away from rather substantial, very, very good firms in Boston. So I was very pleased about that. But our focus again is healthcare and education buildings. It’s complex building programmes, as you know and you have to also be a doctor to understand procedures and how you approach patients, whether it’s an operating room or patient rooms or intensive care. So the grounding in that filled one’s head with the nuts and bolts, but in a sense, it was rather liberating because to have that in your bloodstream allows you to just to put pencil to paper literally and begin design. So I’m rather happy that we have focused on two building types, which really have important social aspects. And the work that we have done has been seen by individuals beyond the shores of the United States. And coming from a medical family, where, you know, these issues were, you know, part of my life space, and from the other side of the family, which was an arts side, I feel that our contribution in terms of that building type is something terribly rewarding and I can leave the profession having made a contribution in areas which further mankind. And that’s been extremely important to us. And my sons are following, fortunately, in my footsteps. So that’s what we’re about right now. I’m off to, as I say, Japan and other places, the Middle East, to throw in my hat into the ring for work there.
You were going to comment about the technology’s influence on architecture.
Yeah, when you walk around our office, you see that we’re arts-oriented. We do between six and say twelve to fifteen paintings, literal oil paintings, and washes with colour of all our projects. Our work has been in art galleries around the world. You know, the National Academy of Design, we were part of a major exhibition in Germany a few years ago. And we don’t sell our paintings. We sold two of them only, but it’s a very, very large collection. And we have not lost the touch by having the pencil in the hand and doing drawings. And all the work we do here, and I do the design, is done initially freehand. However, we are technologically up to date. We use the AutoCAD system. And we just upgraded our systems about five or six weeks ago. We have, I think, from speaking to colleagues in the city here, probably the most up to date computerized systems around in any office at the moment. And we do all our drawings right now on the AutoCAD system. But we do them in a way that we’ve always done our drawings by hand, line weight and so on. But it’s very important for us right now to have people come to the office who are computer-literate. And I myself, although I carry it around as a rather interesting little computer, I don’t know if you’ve seen these. This is a new Hewlett Packard. It’s a two-megabyte computer.
It’s a two-megabyte in this pocket computer. And I can do everything on here short of drawing and keep it in my pocket and download. I also give off information with an infrared beam so there are no physical hookups. Technology is here. Even an old crock like me gets involved in this. But we draw everyday. But computers now do form a major part of our life. And in fact, we don’t design with the computer. I don’t believe you can design with a computer. And I think Charlie Gwathmey wrote a very important article on that, whereas people flirt with it. Even my next-door neighbour, Steven Holl, who’s a distinguished architect, thought he could and doesn’t in fact. The production drawings is critical and the computer saved us time, a lot of money and the level of accuracy is something which the computer can generate and I believe takes away some of the sloppiness that architects may have been accustomed to surround themselves with.
It was interesting, when we first started chatting, and I quipped “Boy it would be nice to study architecture today knowing, you know, knowing a lot of things, right?” Reflecting on things that you were learning at the time and I think I referenced Gordon Webber. Had it been more current or had I been older maybe the connection would have been, you know, more prevalent and more conscious instead of subconscious in a way. And having said that, what do you advise children to do right? Or students. And I say that because I think I mentioned before that my youngest son, Anthony, who’s twenty-seven right now is an architect. He’s twenty-seven and a senior designer at SOM in New York. And I went through this agony what do you advise your child to do? He’s an architect so what would you advise young architects graduating to do? And he graduated from a very good school with aspirations to rush out, open up an office and start doing his thing. And I looked at him and said, “Anthony, you don’t know a hell of a lot. In fact, you know very, very little. You’ve had the good fortune to go to a good school for five years,” and I had given him a year in Italy as well in Florence to study art and photography and architecture in Florence for a year. “And you’re coming out just with ideas. And ideas have to be implemented and crystallized. And whereas there are people who make the jump from school to a rewarding career, there’s a lot more to learn. And school really only stimulates interest or curiosity and I think you have to go out and work. And pick a firm whose architecture you admire or you’re interested in or who just has a body of work which will give you a range of things on which to reflect and learn technique: how to design a stair, a bathroom, the meaning of a duct shaft, how you put a window in a wall. You know, does it leak? And how do you prevent it from leaking. Real issues. And if that kind of stuff is in your bloodstream, then it liberates you to make a meaningful mark, a line on a paper, that has a basis in reality” .
So if I said to students today, “What do you do?” because the profession is a very corrosive- I’m quoting a friend of mine, Rem Koolhaas, it’s a very corrosive profession. You have aspirations, you speak to clients, you staff up, you have a lot of people, projects are cancelled, your bank account goes screwy, you let staff go, you know, there’s no steadiness, even to the large, large firms. So what did I say he should do? If you admire a firm for the body of work, style of architecture if one can say that, the kind of dialogue if it has a heavy person in it who is noted for speaking eloquently about architecture, go there and work and learn something. Learn how to put buildings together. Watch. Keep your eyes and ears open. If you get opportunities to design, if you’re interested in design, go forward with it. Always remember that their name is over the door. They’re the boss, so you don’t fight, but you’ re there to learn. It’s no different than, you know, learning to become a carpenter and being thrust on a construction site and you’re about to drive your first nail into a two by four and get a building going, you look around and you see what the other guys are doing. And you learn from that. It’s the same in architecture. When you graduate, go and work for a large firm or a firm, which has steady work you admire and just go in there to learn. And don’t go in with your chest three miles out saying, “Boy, I’m going to teach them”. You’re not gong to teach them. Their name is over the door, quote-unquote Henry Ford, right?
And my advice is just get out there and get into, I think, larger establishments where you have a range of opportunities. You can work in design and go to the production department. I think you should learn how to write a specification. You know, when I was a student, I spent one student working with Max Roth. And you know what I did that summer? I asked for this job. I said, “Max, can I order your Sweets’ catalogues, you know, organize your Sweets’ catalogues and all the catalogues and literature which have come into the office? I’ll spend my summer doing that”. And the guy paid me to learn about materials, things I’d never dreamed of, you know? I learned about window systems and window walls and concrete block and bricks, I mean ceramic tiles. And today, I remember all that stuff and how to hunt things out and materials don’t change that radically, obviously. And that was part of an educational process I never had to revisit because it became a learning experience and you just apply it. And intuitively, you know how to do these things. So my advice is, take it easy and go out and spend another three, four years learning with responsibility over your shoulder. You’ve got to deliver this time. If you’re doing a bathroom detail, it’s got to be built. Know that it takes a body of information on a sheet of paper to have somebody built it. Learn what that means. And after that, you look around and say, “I like this firm or I don’t like the firm. Or, you know, I like their style, I don’t like the opportunity”. And then start to move on, because it’s better to move on with experience than to come out of school and ask for the world, because you won’t get it. You will not get it. It’s that simple. It’s a realistic approach to career advancement. It happens in every single profession.