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Robert (Bob) Flinn

B.Arch. 1962
Halifax, NS
October 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson

The reason, Jim, I became an architect, or I wanted to be an architect was simply because I was an engineer first. And being an engineer, I had lots of good jobs up in the woods and in very interesting projects, but I got a little tired of that and I decided I better get back to the city. And I rationalized it to the point where I figured that buildings were built in cities and not in a rural environment, so I decided then to study architecture. And my road to McGill was kind of a varied one because I had applied when I was on a project up in the North of Canada doing engineering work, I had applied to Harvard. And I was accepted by Harvard and fine, they gave me all the credits that I had applied for from the engineering side. And I just didn’t get down that fall. I missed registration. So I had to lay off for another year and in the meantime, I broke a leg at Tremblant, and I arrived at McGill on a cane in the fall, in that particular fall.

[1:14:28]

The fall of ’57, I guess, yeah.

I guess ’57, yeah. So then I can always remember the- I didn’t understand the structure of McGill because the Faculty of Science had a department of engineering and a school of architecture and I had to deal with George Jolly to try and get my credits. And I think one of my finest days at McGill was when I was sitting across the table from George Jolly, High Heels Jolly, with his cane on his desk just to defend himself against any irate students, I was persistent in saying, “Well, why won’t you accept my credits? They’re from an accredited school of engineering in Canada and all of it are engineering credits”. And in frustration, I said, “Well, what schools do you recognize?” And I said, “ Would you recognize McGill, or would McGill recognize Harvard or MIT, for example?” He said, “Yes, of course we would”. I said, “Fine.” And I dug in my pocket and I passed him the letter from Harvard and he just blushed and, you know, he turned my way and he said, “Well, I guess you got your credits!” So that’s how I arrived at McGill.

[2:30:09]

Now tell us, I guess, we would like to know a little bit about your- you spent five years at McGill, of course.

No, I was there four years.

Four years, oh, okay. I guess I was there five years. So you joined the year- well anyhow, it doesn’t make any difference. What about some of the professors that you remember that probably influenced you? Is there anyone in particular?

Yeah, Zippy Schreiber was always a very good friend of mine. And he helped me through- remember the Architectural Daily News or whatever we called it? And you know, up in one corner there’d be the weather and the other corner, there’ d be something else. And I can always remember- well, I was still running an engineering practice in Halifax. And I used to fly to Halifax almost every week. On the top corner of the publication it said, “Flinn is gone again”. And I can remember coming back, my thesis year coming back from Halifax, on the flight, and I got to know the airline cabin crews pretty well because I was flying so often. And I had a car at the airport so I asked this young lady if she would like a drive downtown. And she said, “Well”, she said, “I’m not going directly home. I’m going to Professor Schreiber’s because he is having a pre-Lenten party”. So I said, “Oh, I know a Professor Schreiber!”

So you went along!

I wasn’t invited but I got there and I remember the next day, Zippy said to me- you know why we call him Zippy? Zipatone.

Yeah, Zipatone.

So he said to me the next morning, he said, “You know”, he said, “It’s too bad you’re not going to graduate this year”. And I said, “Well, why is that?” And he said, “Well, you haven’t even posted your theme for your thesis yet”. And I said, “Well, it will be in this afternoon!” And I can always remember, boy, I went to work real diligently then. And so I did. But I remember the last night before we posted the thesis, he was on his hands and knees up in the planning department, up over the School of Architecture, on his hands and knees helping me cut out a model because he figured a model would be better for presentation, because I was doing a courthouse for Halifax. And so we worked all night together and so he was a great guy. Another thing I liked about him was his car. He had that Aston Martin.

[4:49:00]

Oh yeah, the Aston Martin. I still see him, as a matter of fact.

Oh do you?

He’s still around, yeah.

Well, he, no he was a great guy and, yeah, so-

How about some of the others? I mean, do you remember Doug Shadbolt?

Yeah, Doug Shadbolt was maybe the strongest professional influence I had because he was supposed to be my professional advisor. But at that time, he was negotiating a position to come to Halifax. So I came- I helped him get his job in Halifax. So- we had a great rapport, and I knew Doug quite well when he moved down here. So he was one of the mainstays and he apologized for not being on hand to do, you know. That’s when I got in touch with John Schreiber. Then he was more closely related to me than he was, so that’s the way that was.

[5:37:03]

Do you remember, I’m thinking of Stuart Wilson? Did he-?

Stuart was such an easy, laid-back guy, you know? And I can always remember a Sketch School in Quebec City. We were somewhere in the old town and he said, “Flinn, you’ve got to get more texture in your sketches”. And I said, “Well, how do you do that?” And he got down on his hands and knees on the sidewalk and he used his thumb to rub against the concrete underneath the paper. And he said, “Now there’s texture!” So those are the things, the crazy things that I remember.

[6:12:28]

What about your- one professor who has probably had influence on some people is Peter Collins? How is he in your eyes?

Well Peter was the demon in my eyes, only because I’m a, you now, quote-unquote an uneducated engineering coming into a, you know, sophisticated school of architecture. And I was supposed to be caught up in Histories of Architecture. One year, I did three Histories of Architecture.

Wow.

In fact, the year The Bounty was launched down in Lunenburg, I left- I went to the launching and then I went directly to the airport and flew to Montreal and had to do two visual and oral exams in Histories of Architecture. I was- I had been up for at least three nights and I didn’t know- you know, I had so many pictures and so many details in my mind but I did actually get through them all. And I graduated okay with all that stuff behind me.

[7:08:11]

And how about- I’m thinking of Gordon Webber. Do you remember him at all?

Oh yeah, I knew Gordie, yeah.

He seemed to be one of the people, in hindsight, influenced an awful lot of people. I know when we were going through there, we didn’t always appreciate him. I guess that’s what most people said.

He was a very gentle man. I liked him as a personality. But what amazed me the most, Jim, in that what I knew about his is that he designed the seating for the air terminal over in Ottawa. And he was a small man with a deformity but he could still manage to design things that were comfortable for an average-sized person. And I always enjoyed, you know, anything that he designed as far as seating was concerned. Because there’s a lot of bad seating out there.

[7:55:08]

Oh yeah! Which I had nothing to do with, by the way!

No, no, no, I’m not saying you did.

I’m trying to think of names like- was it Hugh Valentine?

No.

Did you have any-? Watson Balharrie?

No.

Okay. Those are professors that gave us Architectural Practice. Do you remember the fellow that used to come in and talk about the business of architecture? One who used to fly- He used to fly down- Watson Balharrie flew down in an airplane from Ottawa and the other fellow used to live on the lakeshore and came in by train. He was a bit of an odd ball. Well that wasn’t a very good experience.

You know what? In all my years at McGill, I never had anybody stand before me and tell me anything about business.

Well, maybe because you had already had that course.

No, well, maybe. There was something called Engineering Economy.

[8:40:12]

[Section of tape recorded over]

No, Maureen was always a sweetheart, you know, and she always understood where you were coming from, you know.

She always seemed to have time for everyone. The other person I was interested in was Gerry Tondino. He was around- he was the fellow that gave us the sketching in the course, you know, in the school.

Over at the museum, yeah. And then he used to come for Sketch School at our school, yeah. His daughter was down here two years ago and I had contact with him at that time. As a matter of fact, the last time we had a reunion in Montreal, he was there as I guess it was a staff reception by our class.

Yeah.

And I enjoyed visiting with him at that time. And it was shortly after that his daughter came down here. She was working on something called Black Harbour, which was a TV, a national TV production out of Hubbards, just eight miles up the road here. And so we had her by a couple of times. And he was very kind. He managed to get my daughter, Kirsten, into a Sketch School, or a sketch class that was overloaded with students. And he managed to get her in and she enjoyed doing that. She was taking a fine arts, no a general arts course at McGill at the time.

[10:01:07]

I’m sort of interested in sort of what you did after you graduated. You came back to Halifax, I guess?

I came back here. Well I stayed in- I graduated pre-Expo. And there was a lot of activity in Montreal at the time. I mean, old Sise. He was a great friend. He was the best crit I ever had. He would, you know, would explain why he critted the work in a particular way. And he offered me a job. And I thought about it for a while, but I still came back to Halifax. So I settled in here, and I had to do a period of indenture. And I guess it took me about eight months before the architects would recognize me as a, you know, as a capable person. And they did license me. Two years later I was president of the association, mind you, and I tried to make some changes. The practice of architecture in Nova Scotia, it’s a small operation. When I came here, we had thirty-five members of the Architect’s Association in Halifax, for the whole province. And I think at last count it was about two hundred and eighty-five. And that dilution- the marketplace isn’t that big here. And, of course, along the way, the government found ways to take the work away from the private sector and found ways to take the work away from the private sector and give it either to in-house people or- and then they learned something about competition within the fee structure of architects. And after a while, you know, it gets down to what we have now called P3 schools. That’s the private sector. Everything is done now on the private side and it’s all paid for and it’s all- the government will rent back those schools. But I understand it, the developers are paying about two, two and a half percent for the design. Well I couldn’t- if two and a half percent, Jim, of a six and a half, seven percent fee, everything- there’s no five percent profit in an architect’s fee, you know? And so I never could understand that so I backed away from all that. So the marketplace shrunk very deliberately. The people trying to service the requirement expanded exponentially.

[12:17:17]

Yeah, I’ve been told that by just about everybody that I’ve talked to. To me that’s absolutely crazy.

Yeah and of course the banks when they- through their own stupidity, they realized, you know, all their mistakes in South America and in the mortgage business and all that kind of stuff, so they started to get very tight about things and they, you know, they never understood architects. They never understood how architects get paid, but they have to keep staff, they have to keep space, they have to keep all those things. So when it comes down to the crunch, nobody really understands in the financial side of things how an architect or an engineer functions. Because after thirty-three years, the Royal Bank of Canada dumped me on my head. And I had worked with them; they solicited my business, kept insisting I have more credit line that I really didn’t want. But you know once you get a larger shoe, you tend to fill it. And that’s what happened. And then every time the crunch came along, the bad times, in the eighties, they want their money back. It was all demand stuff, you know, demand loans. So they crucified me, really, really. You know that office building I was telling you about earlier on?

Yeah.

You know, I had to sell that to satisfy the bank. But they said, “Well so what?” You know? But that’s fine. But that was all part of my retirement, you know. And everything you tried to do in good times-. And you know, the cycle of architecture is something fierce too because your good year was always the year there was a federal election. Then you had enough work then to get money in to pay off so they were on a level plane again. Then of course, for the next four years, you went downhill. So you’re in debt by the time they called an election, you know. So I didn’t like the economics of architecture at all. And I think Derek Drummond’s uncle, his uncle Dick, Dick Bolton, told me one time, ‘cause he was kind of my father confessor on Sherbrooke Street. And I’d go into see him. And he’d say, “You know, Bob, you shouldn’t practice architecture unless you have independent means”. And that is so damn true.

[14:19:07]

It’s an interesting comment, isn’t it?

It is a very interesting comment.

There are very few- there are a few who have done very well because they have found different facets to practice in.

Sure. But down here, our marketplace in Nova Scotia is too small to specialize.

I know.

You almost have to be a generalist. Well then the larger offices always say, “Well, he’s too small. Don’t give him the work”. And that’s the competition that I had. And they kept me out of hospital design all my life. I never got a hospital design ever. But I’ve done maybe four hundred beds in nursing- in second, you know, in level-2 care nursing homes. And have done some very successful buildings because we managed to understand how they worked. That was, I guess, part of it. And then we’ve done ten-million-dollar nursing homes, we’ve done five-hundred-thousand-dollar nursing homes, you know, small ones, and those things. I’ve done about thirty-eight schools across the province: high schools, elementary schools. I’ve done a lot of university buildings, test laboratories and things like that that worked out very successfully. But along comes another wave and then, of course, you’re out of it. So that’s fine and I appreciate that because something had to move sideways before I got in, so I expect that some young person is going to come along. And then, of course, as things go along, the profession starts to jeopardize your opinions by saying, “Oh, he’s too old”. I mean, that’s the next step, you know.

[15:51:21]

One time, you’re too young.

Yeah, you’re too young.

Not enough experience. And then you’re too old.

And then when you have lots of experience, you’re too old. So I mean, it’s dog eat dog, I don’t know, that’s all.

[16:04:28]

Yeah, Jim, now I’d just like to say a few words about the School of Architecture and the class that we were. You know, we were about twenty-two, I guess, all together and we were pretty strong. You know, there was a lot of glue in our group and we’ve always stayed together. And we still manage to have our five-year reunions. I see you- I’ve seen you in the summers…

Close to twice a year, yeah.

… about once a year for the last…

At least.

… twenty years, I guess. And those kinds of things. And then to try to keep the McGill family alive down here, I worked very closely with the alumni office in Montreal and I was chairman of the branch down here for some twelve years or something like that. And I enjoyed it. But it was great because we kept- you know, the old-timers were the best followers. The young people always wanted to come only to try and find some contacts for business reasons. But the old people were really serious. They enjoyed being there. They were all McGills and I think that the McGill family- you know, I’m always proud to say that I’m a McGill.

So am I, yeah.

Because I’ve been to three other universities and you know a graduate from different ones but at the same time, McGill still stands out in my mind as being the best school. And, of course, I use that because that was my last graduation, which makes me sound younger! So I’m devious, you know! No, but we have a lot of people down here from McGill. And they’re great people and they’ ve been around and they’re very supportive. We have people that will drive in sixty, you know, eighty miles to come to an alumni affair and it’s, you know. But it’s getting hard to get people out because people don’t like to spend, you know, for two hours they don’t want to spend thirty bucks plus all their transportation and everything else and they still have a cash bar, you see? That’s always the fight, to try and-. And we have a new chairman now and I wish her the very best. She’s the first lady chairman we’ve had in a long time. And she’s about her business now of trying to carry on from, you know- ‘cause recently I got, you know and- you know.

[18:21:00]

And another thing too, I would just like to suggest to anybody that might listen to this thing over the years that every architect should do volunteer work. You know, the community needs that kind of work. And I’ve had some special interests in different groups. Last week, they presented me with a plaque for service to the CNIB, twenty-two years service with the CNIB and it’ s- that was- no, I’m sorry, twenty-seven years service with the CNIB and, you know, that’s quite-

That’s long. That’s quite a commitment, yeah.

That’s a long time. And, you know, but I learned a lot of contacts from that. And that family is just as strong as the McGill family. They stay together and they have a common cause. You know, a good education from McGill and care for the blind is also-

[19:09:18]

But you perhaps are a rarity because there are not very many younger people practicing architecture today that do very much for the community. That almost applies in any realm of business too. I mean they don’t make themselves available unless they are working for the Royal Bank or-. Somebody in his own profession, self-employed, is not going to take the time off. Unfortunately, that’s true.

That’s true, yeah. Well, the- I think it’s economic, Jim. I wouldn’t blame it really on the architect. The poor architect can’t spend the time to do all these charitable or these, you know, volunteer things, because he needs the time trying to generate business and trying to perform. Because this profession is getting so thin, you know. Then when you come to the- when you’ re slowing down at the end of a career, what do you do with a practice? I mean, our liability is unlimited; we go on forever. And I think every school of architecture should get on that bandwagon and try to solve that problem. Because, I mean we can’t- why should we be responsible for thirty years, you know, I mean, no. So that’s my biggest beef with the- we have to teach the kids more about business in school, we have to find some way to end a practice, unless you want to sell it off, show it to somebody who has nothing and pay him a thousand dollars to take your practice just so that your liability will be gone, you know. And so-.

[20:40:26]

And you certainly don’t want to wish that you will be gone before your liability is gone, if you know what I mean.

I know, but the liability doesn’t go when I die.

No, I know.

It goes on to my next generation. And I don’t like that either.

Yeah. It’s not a bad life, though.

Oh, I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been fun. There’s nothing more pleasing to me than to have a client say, “Boy, you really did a good job on this one”. And a lot of clients, you know, they don’t really care because they’re committees and a committee doesn’t really respond. But if you have a personal client- I get a lot of satisfaction out of small, residential jobs. Not that I do that many, but I’ve had a lot of people who have responded nicely to me for that reason. But then I’ve done five-million, ten-million-dollar jobs, and they just say, “Well, have you sent your last invoice in yet?” So I mean that’s it.