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Issac Franco

B.Arch. 1970
Boston, MA
November 12, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson

Well, I decided to become an architect when I was twelve or thirteen. I was living- I was born in Egypt and I was living in Alexandria at the time and I was taking courses, painting courses from an art teacher. And he suggested that I should become an architect because it would be an easier life for me than to be an artist. And so he taught me how to draft and to do perspectives for little houses, which- I was very young. I was twelve, thirteen. And I enjoyed it very much. And from that time I decided that that’s what I wanted to do, become an architect. And I never thought of anything else or had any ambivalence about it. I know that I wouldn’t be able to do anything else today. So I moved to Montreal when I was seventeen and went to high school for about a year and a half. And oddly enough, during that year and a half, they were teaching technical drawing at the school, which I didn’t take because I knew how to draw already. But to be able to be exempt from that particular course, I brought my drawings that I had done in Egypt on that house. And everybody got very excited. And I actually dragged five other kids from my class to architecture school, four of which have graduated from McGill. So it was very interesting that my high school class actually had I think five students going into the School of Architecture.


So McGill was the natural choice.

That was the natural choice for anybody in Montreal if you had the grades and you had the ability. What was also kind of coincidental and interesting that I was placed in a school, in a class in high school, which afforded- allowed me to go to McGill, because I did not know what the requirements were at the time. But I had done intro algebra and trigonometry in Egypt and they put me into a type of class that would allow me to go into engineering. And that was pure luck. But I got into McGill in ’64, I guess, and went for six years. It was a good experience.


Tell us about some of your experiences that you would like to remember and also some of the influences, whether they be professors or fellow students or courses that you took.

Well, actually, you know, Stuart Wilson was obviously a very big influence in terms of discipline and rigor and hard work, which he instilled in all students that went through him in that second-year course. Obviously an interesting experience and a certain character. He was tough but he was- and demanding but you learned quite a bit from him. And Peter Collins was certainly an inspiration in terms of looking at old buildings and the history of architecture and appreciating the discipline of architecture. And those- you know Norbert Schoenauer and Baker had actually joined my year to join the studio. I think it was fifth year. That was very good, very good studio. We enjoyed it. And those are kind of the highlights in terms of-


Do you remember a professor, or an associate on the staff, called Gerry Tondino?

Oh yeah. Gerry was incredible. He actually- you know, as I said, I was a painter when I was a young kid in Egypt but I had- Tondino was very helpful during Sketching School too. He focused me into the kind of work I should be dong. And I remember one day he actually took a painting that I had prepared for that sketching school and just asked me to look at a one-inch by one-inch square in the middle and paint it in a large format because he wanted to me to simplify the way that I would depict nature. And that was very interesting in terms of how to use colour: rather than in small increments, into large blocks. And I loved going to Sketching School. I loved going to his courses.


I wanted to ask you, in your thesis, who was your mentor?

Well, actually, strangely enough it was Moshe. He was a visiting professor that year. There was- Rad Zuk was the professor, but Moshe was giving a- took a third of the class and had- I was working with him all the time during the summers, but there was a group of three of us that did a thesis together under his direction. It was a transportation centre, intermodal transportation centre, which is interesting in view of what he has written about transportation in his latest book. But it was a good programme. We had fun during that year. It was an interesting year


And then, of course, do you have any other memories of McGill? I guess there are a lot of them, some you probably can’t repeat or don’t want to repeat.

Well, I think one of the major events of the six years I was there was the three days that we actually shut down. It was I think the only three days the School of Architecture was dark for as long as it existed, I think. And it was a little bit of an upheaval but it was kind of a- at least showing us that we were trying to have some control in terms of what was being taught and how it was being taught. It was kind of a traumatic event for the school and for the students but I think it was good in the long run. I think it opened a few eyes. So that was kind of memorable.


In retrospect do you feel that sort of the closing was justified and changed the curriculum to the degree that it was satisfying?

It changed for a short period of time. I think it slipped back again. But it was our fourth year so we were there for a couple of more years after that and it changed- for us, it changed a little bit during that year and then I don’t know if- I think there is a little bit more freedom in terms of how you study at McGill these days than there was in my time. The courses were set; they weren’t picked. There were no options. You took a set course basically.


After I graduated, I worked with- I worked, always worked in architects’ offices when I was a student in the summer, even when I was in high school. I always wanted to be an architect so I looked for and got positions in architectural offices even in high school. And then during the six years of university, I worked with Moshe. As a student, I worked on Habitat and that was a very enjoyable and good learning experience. I think my foundations were based basically on- from this office. But then when I graduated, Ray Affleck, who was also my teacher in my last year that was taking a third of the studio, had seen me, had known about me and asked me to come in and see if I was interested in joining Arcop. And I went and interviewed, although I was supposed to go back to work for Moshe. But he offered me a job and I thought it would be good to break, to see whether I could do it in another office. And I stayed there for about six years and worked with Fred Lebensold actually most of my time and learned a great deal from him too. We worked on theatres, which was- for six years, worked on a large complex, a concert hall in Syracuse. And I actually worked on the site for a couple of years. So basically, I got my training on one building for about six years from beginning to end.


Just by coincidence, that theatre in Syracuse, was that where you met your wife, Felice?

We met in school. We didn’t go out together in school, but after I graduated, and she was still in school for about two years, she came out and worked at Arcop for a couple of months in the summer, and we started seeing each other. And got married just before we went to Syracuse together and worked in Syracuse on the site for a couple of years together. So, yes, it was the same time period. And then I got back- after Syracuse, I got back to Montreal and went back to Arcop for about a year, but things were very, very slow. And I used to go to see Moshe all the time, just at lunchtime and say hello to see how he was doing. And one day, he offered me a job. I wanted to find other opportunities. Montreal was very slow at the time. I wanted to look elsewhere. I said, “No, I don’t want to stay in Montreal. I’m going to go somewhere else”. He says, “Well, I’m going to Boston in about a year. If you want to join me, I’ll take you along”. And that’s- it happens here I am twenty years later. But, you know, fascinating kind of work that we’re doing in this office. It’s so varied and it’ s so diverse and all over the world and just some of the, you know, type of work that we have, it’s very enticing and just very seductive for architects and for me to stay and continue with it. You know, I work well with Moshe in terms of you know, knowing him for so many years and having a shorthand communication with him. It’s a relationship that’s been built with trust and hopefully with a lot of joy in what we produce, it shows.


Do you have a particular role in terms of the partnership? Do you have one expertise or do you sort of-?

No, I basically, I’m a principal in the firm. I take care of a number of projects and I take care of some of the management of the office also. And as [unclear] and changes in the office have to come, my role has expanded in terms of overall management of the office but my love really my- what I get most pleasure out of is doing architecture, doing buildings. And I’ve done buildings in Mexico, in Israel, in Singapore, all over Canada and the States. And that’s where I get my highs from, not from running an office.

Not just buildings. They end up being quite unique.

Oh yeah, they’re unique in building type. We’re doing condominiums in Singapore; we’re doing a school in Jerusalem, a college in Jerusalem right now. A hotel in Jerusalem, I spent two or three months in the Jerusalem office working out on the new hotel, which is going to open in a few weeks. I’ ve done a school in Mexico, museums in Montreal and in Quebec. It’s a variety of things. I’m doing a theatre, theatres in Toronto. So it’s a variety of things and it’s a variety of size of buildings and buildings types, which- I’ ve finished working on the design of the airport in Tel Aviv, the Ben Gurion Airport, which is going to go into construction soon. So, you know, it varies. That’s what makes it interesting.


Well, I think today students come out of the universities and it’s a variety of- they seem to get a variety of experience and a variety of talents. A lot of the education that we had at McGill based us in a very kind of a strong- to be strong technically and to be strong in design. But there was not an emphasis strictly in design. A lot of schools that we see, students that come out of other schools come out as being good designers but they really don’t know how to put a building together at all. And you see that even in the schools in Boston. People coming out of MIT are much different from the people that are coming out of Harvard. And you get the students out of other American universities, they have different talents and different emphasis on their education. I’m not sure how McGill has changed in the past twenty-seven years since I left it, but I assume that the same tradition of strong technical backbone to the education and also the ability to design and deal with social issues is still important at McGill.


Do all your people today have to be computer literate? In other words, they know a CAD system?

Yeah, yeah. I think most people come out of school with a computer, with a CAD- some ability in CAD. I’ve picked it up in the last eight years just by watching other people work on it. And I find it a very good tool to develop things. It gives you some rigor in the design process and it gives you a bit of discipline that is important. But, you know, it’s only a tool and if you use it to the degree that some of the students use it these days, it becomes a means to an end and you know the end is a design of the particular drawing rather than helping you doing it better.


They almost become couch potatoes.

Yeah, they become, you know, an exercise in graphics and they succeed in doing renderings but not in doing better buildings. So if you don’t use it as a tool but you use it as a, you know, means of expression, it’s useless for us.

I have a question I want to ask you and it seems to me it sounds a bit rhetorical. I only ask it of those people whom I feel comfortable, knowing that perhaps the answer is what I expect, if you had to do it all over again, would you do the same type of life?

Yup. As I said, I don’t think I would be able to do anything else. A few years ago, when the economy was so bad and we had so little work, I was wondering what else I could do and it was very difficult. But this is what I always wanted to do and I’ve been lucky that I’ve been doing important buildings. I’ve been working steadily for twenty-seven years since I graduated without stop and I haven’t had really a dull moment. But, no, I wouldn’t do anything else differently.

Well, thank you very much.

You’re welcome.