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Peter Gabor

B.Arch. 1973
Toronto, ON
March 11, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson

My most vivid memory of McGill is having set a fire under one of my classmates and then she went and set my hair on fire! So that left a big impression on me.

That doesn’t happen with your wife today, does it?

No. But I was a strange kid in that I knew I wanted to become an architect when I was 10 years old and I know that all my classmates at the time, and throughout high school, I always thought it strange when we went on visits or to watch movies, I was always commenting on buildings and urbanism and they thought this was not something appropriate for someone my age. It was interesting then that I had to beg to get into the architecture school. It was a large class, in 1969 I guess it was, and I remember having to use my powers of persuasion to get Derek Drummond to let me into the school, so I was the 65th of 65 to get into the school that year, and I was the only one from my school. I went to St. George’s School and I was the only one of my classmates to end up in Montreal for university. So I was one of a class of I don’t know how many hundred to go into Engineering 101, whatever it was, and I knew nobody at the school, and that was a little bit difficult at the time. I really didn’t expect it to be an engineering school and McGill turned out to be a 100% engineering in the beginning and only 0% engineering in the end. But I managed to survive engineering; I actually met my future business partner that first year, through my parents, actually. I didn’t meet him in class. His mother was a patient of my father’s, and he was having trouble too meeting people, so I guess the two of us turned out to be - we were both Hungarian, which helped, and we became very good friends and we finally did our final thesis together, and by the end… we’re partners now for 20 years, but that’s getting in advance.

So let’s talk about your days at university. Do you remember any particular professors that influenced you, or you could talk about different ones, some good and some bad, whatever you have to…

Well, sometimes you have professors whom you don’t appreciate at the time and you only appreciate later. I knew in the first classes of architecture when Stewart Wilson was our professor and we got… he was sort of an irreverent kind of guy and showed probably some lack of respect towards his students, but I think in the end it was a very appropriate beginning for an architectural education because - and I think - this is something that I remember about McGill generally, it really prepares you for the architectural world in its toughness, its critiques, its ways of teaching really imbue a sense of both possibility and reality in the marketplace. One of the key things Stuart and Derek and all the professors throughout who were so hard in their criticism made you appreciate was that criticism wasn’t about you personally but about the work that you are doing and this has led to a much happier career in day-to-day business where you are designing, you are meeting people, presenting your designs which aren’t always perfect, and need work and the school’s training allows, I think, McGill graduates, certainly myself, a way to deal with these situations very, very professionally so that your self-confidence isn’t shaken when a design goes badly. It’s a very, very good experience and I remember some of the crits, some of the crits were quite brutal. I did two final theses - I didn’t make my first one - I chose a topic which was very politically charged and I remember, I think Tom Blood was my advisor. And we worked on a STOL airport for the…

Vertical takeoff?

Yeah, short takeoff and landing. And I still remember when I first presented the idea, I think I was required to defend the political choice of doing the design in the first place and how this was disruptive and not a good thing rather than the architecture, but in the end, by the time I gave my final presentation, the uzis were out. I was quite upset at my advisor at the time for not warning me, and he certainly didn’t help me, but I survived and then I went on to do a project with Norbert Schoenauer which was a very interesting project, so in a perverse way it’s a good thing I didn’t succeed on my first one because my second one was so interesting. But my years at McGill, I remember them as being very, very good. I had good friends, some of whom I still have, fortunate to have so many people move here from Montreal. We had some exceptional teachers, and I know that, Collins…

Peter Collins!

Peter Collins, I always enjoyed his lectures. In retrospect, I wish I’d paid more attention and gone deeper into history with him because I now find it very interesting. The school, I don’t know too much about the school as it is today, I don’t know how it’s evolved. I actually went to visit David [Covo] the last couple of years. My hope is that I will have enough money one day to be able to give more to the architecture school, because it looks like it needs a little bit of money.

I think so! Did you ever have any - did David or Bruce teach you?

No, David was a classmate.

Oh, David was a classmate?

Yeah, but Bruce, I think, taught photography and graphics, and those are the things I enjoyed a lot. The most interesting part at that time was I think he and one of his students were having some kind of…

Whom he probably married?

That’s right, he did! I don’t know if they’re still married?

Yes, they are.

Good, good.

You’ll be happy to hear that!

That was big news then!

The subject of affairs is not a very common topic on these tapes.

Gerry Tondino, John Bland - I guess John didn’t have much to do. Did he teach you a course then?

John Bland… I don’t think so. Maybe in the early years. Tondino: I enjoyed Sketching School so much I went on an extra one.

I see!

Not that I was a great artist or anything, but I really liked getting away. I wish I could do that now: take a week, because it takes you two to three days to relax enough that your hand can actually, you know…

Steady!

That’s right. But he was a - that was a great class, his class.

He’s still around McGill and he’s still teaching as ever.

Oh, yeah.

Interestingly enough, there was a person who worked at McGill by the name of Maureen Anderson who recently retired and they set up a fund for her, like an endowment, a scholarship for her - do you have any memories of her? Because some people talk very eloquently: either you knew her well, or you didn’t know her at all. Those are the two categories.

Yeah, I hardly knew her at all. The only memory I have, if I dig deep, I remember, very gracious person, always willing to help.

And loved the students obviously. Difficult to replace somebody like that. And I’m trying to think, through my memory of those particular years. Were there any - you mentioned Tom Blood - do you remember any of the visiting critics that were brought in to your various design programs, like Ray Affleck or Fred Lebensold?

I think Fred came for some of the crits. One of the things I enjoyed most, actually, was a course, I guess it was in fourth year or maybe fifth, where instead of having a major project all year, we had a series of outside visitors, setting the assignment and critiquing, one a week for a whole term. This was very, very stimulating, and very, very exciting. For one thing, we got to see lots of different building types, and some of the lessons I learned in that class, because it wasn’t only architects that came in but they were actually developers, property managers, designers who came in and they taught us some pretty good lessons. One of the other things that we did, and it’s not directly tied to the school, but it was difficult to get summer jobs.

Still is...

And one year there was the Opportunity for Youth Program, the federal government paid us a $1000 or something for the summer, which was good money then. And Jacques Binette and George Popper, my partner, the three of us conceived a project and actually got it funded, and we had a great, great summer. We designed a hyperbolic parabolic shell using steel decks to build a chapel for the B’nai Brith camp at Ste. Agathe, and we got all the materials, we procured all the materials, we got all that donated and shipped and went up there. We not only designed but we built, and that experience of actually building what you design was one of the most important things in my career at McGill because all of a sudden it gave you an appreciation for what it is that you have to put on paper. And the difficulty or the ease with which somebody can implement that design in actual construction. One of the first things that had happened is we had calculated the angles wrong where the two main beams came in, so we had to figure out a way to resolve it at the site and we worked with concrete and steel and fibreglass and wood, and I think it was a fabulous experience and I think we used all of our experience to date in design, and that construction experience really cemented the realism with which we do our designs even today. That’s one thing that I see McGill does consistently well, certainly did it for me, and people I know compared to other universities, is that - and you can debate whether it goes too far or not - but by and large, McGill graduates know that buildings have to be on solid foundations, whereas in some other universities, never mind that they don’t know that this is truly, they don’t even know about foundations sometimes. We have in our hiring practice at the office had to be wary of hiring students from other universities because of this lack of knowledge of construction. So I have good memories of the school, made some good friends. I think I got a good education. I would’ve maybe liked to spend more time on design, which is hard to critique because we had 50 hours a week of studio and stuff. But you look at some of the great architecture schools and there are people there with vision and strong convictions and you can go there and study a certain way of doing things which was missing at McGill, it was a general - it was good quality education, no doubt, but was missing that dynamism that comes with a key individual who leads you down a certain method. He might not be all that.

That’s right, but that often comes from whoever is setting up the school...

Yeah. One of the things they didn’t teach us in school is that an architecture career is really a rollercoaster ride. Because you definitely have ups and downs in an architectural career and actually that should be taught to the students and how to prepare for that because we learned by the second cycle what to do. After graduation I didn’t go to secondary school, to graduate school at ARCOP. So I went to work for Max Roth and learned a lot of good things there. I worked over five years with various companies. I worked with Eva Vecsei on exciting projects, at Concordia, and I ended up with Lagrange et Matthews which was the Canadian arm of SOM out of Chicago. We were doing great…

Lucien Lagrange?

Yes, Lucien Lagrange. When we were doing the headquarters for CP Marathon, various other interesting projects, and the PQ government got elected in…

…‘76

…in ’76, and the day after, we got a call from every single client canceling every single project. Needless to say that was not good for the staff of the office. At around Christmas time, I got laid off. I never got so drunk as that Christmas. Whoa! I didn’t drink for two years after that! I realized at that time that it was going to be a difficult situation in Montreal. I didn’t have a teaching bent so we looked - my wife is an urban planner, also a McGill graduate - we both got job offers in Edmonton which we politely declined. We had no experience with that end of the country. We had friends who moved to Edmonton and Calgary but we didn’t. She got a job here [Toronto] and I moved here not knowing anybody and started practice at the time because the situation here was pretty bad and I couldn’t get a job so I started to practice. I remember, what I did to get jobs at the time was I got on my bicycle, printed out business cards and dropped off cards at construction sites. And that paid off about a year later. My first year here I made a grand total of $5000, but by the third year here, I was doing very well and at that time George Popper, my partner who had been having fun in Europe and with whom I did a final thesis, as I told you, wanted to come back and I invited him into the practice and we’ve been together ever since 1980.

Amazing.

And we were going great guns doing mostly infill housing till about 1981. There was a big recession and we nearly lost the practice and our houses. It taught us a big lesson, that recession, because that’s when we first realized - we talked to different people - that we really had to diversify the practice. And we’ve been working at that, ever since. We’ve been fortunate; we’ve had a very successful practice, although it’s had its ups and downs. Our most famous project in the city is probably Castle Hill which is a very upscale redevelopment project of terraced town housing. We’ve done hundreds of houses and thoudands of homes in the city. We’ve done some commercial work as well. We’ve won our share of awards, including the Governor General Award which we’re very proud of. One of the interesting - the most interesting - development of late is our getting into the urban design field. And this was through our involvement in a redevelopment project here in the New Urbanist fashion, working with Andres Duany out of Miami. And this started us on the road: we ran up, we toured, we went to a lot of New Urbanist conventions and we started doing plans, for people as well as for architecture, and we thought this was a great thing to do because not only was it interesting, not only was it something that was new and exciting and kept the practice alive, but it could also feed the architecture side of the practice later. And last year, I was chair - the local chair - of a big international conference on New Urbanism that was here in Toronto.

I remember that.

And from that, we’re now working in Chile doing a new town centre for one of the poorest suburban cities within the municipality of Santiago. This is very exciting and we hope to build on this for both our urban design, planning and architecture, and what it’s made us realize is that we have something to offer, and this is something that the school might - and I don’t know if it’s teaching urban design - but architects have forgotten and abandoned urban design to landscape architects and planners. And I think we’re best equipped to think of three dimensions. Our whole approach to planning - and we get hired - is that we bring both a philosophy and an ability to predict the three-dimensional impact of what we’re designing and work back from there, rather than the traditional planning approach which is not nice coloured sections on a map and who knows what it will look like. So this is very successful. I think one of the things that we’ve realized in our career, George and I, is that every once in a while you have to reinvent yourself. You have to be constantly learning. You have to be constantly challenged otherwise you’re going to be in a sort of dead-end practice, and no matter how good you are and talented, if you’re relying on that one segment of the market - there’s many, many strong famous firms here that died in this recession because they were focused on one aspect of the economy, not broad based enough. We do a lot of different housing projects, and this has been a happy circumstance because there’s always some housing going on.

So you’ve enjoyed your career in architecture. If you had to do it all over again, you’d probably modify it slightly, but you’d still like to be where you are?

I’m very happy being an architect which is difficult to understand for some people. I know that it’s financially not always rewarding. It had difficult periods. Another thing that we’re doing now is we’re getting into development. The sort of thinking is this way: when we do a project, and it goes well, then we might get paid our fee; when we do a project and it fails, it doesn’t materialize, then we don’t get paid. So at best, we might get paid working for somebody else. We figured why not take the same risk with our own money. The downside risk is exactly the same.

That’s a good way of looking at it.

But the upside is…

The upside is far more positive.

Yeah! So we’re now developing a condominium building. We’re redeveloping where our offices are and we see, actually, over the next couple of years, we’re maybe 50% architect, 50% developers.

Good! Well, thank you very much. It’s been very enjoyable.

Yeah.

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