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Gilles Gagnon

B.Arch. 1949
Montreal, QC
November 13, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson


I was fascinated by McGill University before I came. I had an older brother who studied Engineering, coming from Royal Military College in Kingston. And I used to come and see him at the university. I also had a brother-in-law, Daniel Boyd. And I was fascinated by the English sort of character of McGill University. My education was in the classical colleges and the scientific colleges, all in French, Quebec institutions and McGill I thought was so different that I would want to go and study there. So after my classical studies, Latin and Greek and so on, and the scientific course, I signed in to Engineering in 1942. This was a bad time to join McGill because it was during the war. And 1942 was a bad year for me because I was wounded in an officer-training course. So I was kind of handicapped for a while. And one of my brothers, who was in the British Navy had just been killed in the war in 1942 so it was kind of a dark year. But McGill fascinated me. And in those days, McGill was quite different than what it is now. It was very sort of English university, classical sort of, maybe a bit Ivy League. And you could see the professors with their togas and their caps and the students with grey flannels and blazers with crests and so on. The university was covered with institutions and sort of fraternities, who controlled all the social and athletic and extracurricular activities on the campus with the Scarlet Key Society, which I joined. Eventually, I became vice-president of the Scarlet Key and stadium manager for the Scarlet Key, the Molson Stadium. So the campus was quite interesting. It was still when I entered the old type of university that I had known when I was younger. The faculties were in conflict with each other. Just the students were having fun sort of, you know, Arts and Science used to fight Engineering and, you know, Engineering used to fight Medical Faculty and whatnot. We used to play tricks on each other. And I remember one day, the Arts and Science boys took a Volkswagen up the stairs into the second floor of the Engineering building. I still don’t know how they did it but we had the trouble of getting it out. And so we played similar tricks on them and it, you know, was an exchange like that. But the atmosphere was good and dynamic.

[3:51:26]

The professors were very competent, very serious. But they were few. Being a war period, all the younger assistants and professors had gone either in war industries or joined up, signed up for, you know, combat. So only the older professors stayed there. But they had more of the tradition. So we, you know, we, in classes, you know, the professors still had their togas giving their lectures and so on. They had assistants and they controlled the entrance and the exit from the rooms. And if we read the McGill Daily, we were pushed out, “Out you go!” So this was a kind of atmosphere that prevailed. When I was in third and fourth year Engineering, I took Civil Engineering, I used to meet the architects a lot. They were in the Macdonald Engineering Building on the last floors, the two last floors, the studios on the last floor and two lecture rooms on the floors below. And I was already giving- sort of helping the older professors at that time, because they were short of assistants. So I was a kind of technical assistant in the drafting rooms and in the laboratories and so on. Sometimes, I took over part of the exercises and assignments; I did some corrections and whatnot. So this way I met the architects. And you know, Jean Michaud was there and, you know the, a lot of the older groups that I do not remember quite well but they were very involved in architecture, because the courses were changing at that time. They had an exhibition of Le Corbusier. I was quite impressed with that. They had huge photographs of his works and I met Le Corbusier later on but at that point, I didn’t know him at all. And also Frank Lloyd Wright, there was a group that preferred Frank Lloyd Wright, another one that preferred the modern architecture of Le Corbusier.

[6:32:25]

So this fascinated me. I was quite interested. So I decided that after my Engineering course, I would take Architecture, which I did. But again, it fell into a bad period. The school was moving into the small building on University Street, the double-mansion building, which we called the Loose Recluse. It was disorganized. It had been sort of cleaned up and emptied of all the furniture and so on. And John Bland was Director, recent Director, actually, was trying to organize it, set up a library, some offices, a focus room and a lounge for the students and a sort of dark room for Gordon Webber and his sort of mobile and photographic studies that we used to do with him. And the building was old; it was, you know, sort of nearly falling apart. It was due for demolition to extend the Engineering building, the new addition to the Engineering Macdonald Building into which section the Architecture was to go eventually. So in fact I was conscious of the four locations of the School of Architecture, the old Macdonald Engineering Building on the top floors, the mansions on University Street, then the new extension of the Macdonald Engineering Building and finally, you know, the old Chemistry building.

[8:21:15]

But didn’t they- were they not over on McTavish Street for a while?

Yes, that’s when they demolished the mansions to extend the Macdonald building into which the architects were to go. So there we were in this building. John Bland had worked for me a special course spread over three years because I had already done Engineering so I was exempted from all the technical lectures and so on. I could have done it in two years but John Bland convinced me that that was difficult because some lectures were given every second year. There were not enough professors. To my knowledge, there were only six professors at that time in the School of Architecture. There was John Bland, there was Watson Balharrie, there was-

[9:21:22]

There was Gordon Webber, of course.

Well, Gordon Webber, of course, and there was Enrico de Pierro was teaching us design. And Spence-Sales came from England to start teaching Planning and Urban Design. Then there was Lismer, Dr. Lismer, from the museum who taught us History of Art, and we used to go to the museum and do frescoes and mosaics and sort of bas-relief that, you know, were still part of the old teaching, this aspect of the- but Lismer was a great teacher. We loved him. He was very sarcastic, very funny and, you know, he gave us assignments that were really out of this world. We had lots of fun. So in this building, we were a rowdy bunch. My class, we were only six.

[10:30:24]

The classes were quite small; I remember that, within those years. Very small.

Well, not only because of the war, because I think the school had decided to register less students only, you know, the best ones. I don’t want to brag here but- because they knew it was coming, this move and then back to the Engineering building and the setting up of the school in that mansion on University Street. And then most of the boys were at war, you know, also in the services. It’s only when I graduated that they suddenly came back in large numbers. This building couldn’t contain them. It was quite a problem. So we were kind of left to our own for, you know, some periods and we made a lot of noise and we did a lot of things, you know, that was-

[11:35:13]

Do you have any memories of Watson Balharrie?

Yes. Watson used to come from Ottawa in those days to teach us. We appreciated Watson Balharrie very much. He was practical, he was simple and direct. You know, he taught us the use of materials, the construction regulations, the construction code, the restrictions, the health aspects and sanitation aspects of the buildings and orientation and whatnot. And gave us a lot of hints on construction aspects. You know, how do you go about, you know, supervising the construction of a building you designed. He was a great expert in that. And he was efficient and simple and direct. So Watson Balharrie we thought was- in fact, all our professors were very good. John Bland used to teach us History of Architecture.

[12:47:16]

Was it History of Canadian Architecture or was it History of the World? Because Peter Collins eventually talked about the history and John Bland-

Yes, but that was before Peter Collins.

Yeah.

So then sometimes John Bland was helped by Hazen Sise. We used to prepare some lectures on history of architecture and history of science. When I gave my lecture at McGill on the history of science to the engineers and the architects, you know, that’s after the war already, some years after. And there were a thousand students registered. I had two lectures of five hundred each, practically. And Hazen Sise gave me all his notes. It was very useful. I could start from there and John Bland too. So, anyway, back to the school. So Enrico de Pierro was following us for design. Enrico de Pierro was a fantastic designer. He was not very well known at that time but he criticized us, he stopped us, he directed us, he said, “No, no, no, you can’t do this, you know”. And then he gave us all the reasons. And so we- then he did some crits. We used to put up our work on the wall in the little rooms. All the rooms were small because it was an old residence, so, you know, we were sort of all five of us squeezed together and we’d push the tables and we’d do something. There was no real focus room to do this at that time yet. So he was very efficient. And then after-

[14:40:25]

Enrico was very young at the time because-

Yes, he was very young.

He must have just graduated a few years before. Because I talked to him, I guess in June in London. And today, he looks absolutely fantastic.

Yes.

Great man.

Oh, he was brilliant. He returned to England and I went to see him several times in the AA school in London and he took me around to visit a lot of things. I saw a lot of his work. At that point when I used to see him, that was after the Hoddesdon CIAM congress in 1951, he was involved in what he called brutalism. And all his buildings were fantastic, actually. Very good design. He was brilliant, very brilliant professor. So for the crits sometimes he said, “Well, these rooms are really too small”. So he invited all the class to his house East of St. Lawrence Street on Ste-Helene Street. His father was a minister in the St. John United Church on the corner of Ste. Elisabeth and Ste. Catherine there, you know? So we went to his house. It was a great, big old sort of house with mansard roof and large fireplaces, you know, large rooms. And I think he was a unique child of this family, I’m not sure. Anyway, we had all this great big house for crits. And he used to serve us juices, you know, only. We wanted beer and something strong. And he said, “No, no. No liquor in this house. You know, I don’t drink”. And so, you know, we finally drank all these- his whole bottles of juices.

[16:34:18]

What about- was Gordon Webber involved in all three classes when you were there?

Yes, Gordon Webber was already there when we came. And I’d already noticed Gordon Webber in the Engineering building when I was studying Engineering, when we were first in there, you know, with his cane and his specially-designed suits by himself and you know, his kind of debonair, and you know, everybody sort of looked at him sort of crossing the campus, the way he used to stop and gaze at different things and trees and sculptures and buildings. And so, he was a strange professor, compared to the others in togas with hats and things.

[17:21:12]

Did you realize at the time the influence that he would have on your life in terms of your career? I mean a lot of people were too young and didn’t realize how important the courses that Gordon Webber was teaching. You know, they didn’ t- they were more interested in getting into doing models of buildings or what have you. But it was a very influential-

Well, when he came, you know, he came directly from the new Bauhaus school in Chicago with the- what’s his name-

You’re having the same problem as I had. Moholy-Nagy?

Moholy-Nagy. And so he brought this teaching of the new Bauhaus school to McGill. And at first we didn’t catch it. We didn’t understand it. But we knew that there was something in it because we were learning, you know, sort of space relation, textures, colour, sort of three-dimensional sort of feelings of space. We used to do sort of models and mobiles and photography exercises where we would confirm our designs by photography. Actually, Gordon was walking around with his camera all the time, photographing the sidewalks with all the holes and the bumps and the cracks and whatnot, and the snow banks in winter. So we loved Gordon because he was simple, direct. He let us do what we wanted but criticized, highly criticized what we did in a very gentle way.

[19:13:05]

He was never too hard on any one person. You know, if you did your work the best you could, you didn’t- you always passed your course. I thought he was very fair and very obviously very intelligent and very influential person.

Yes. Well, he knew how to deal with the students. And you know, he was teaching drafting at first. I had a lot of drafting myself before but my classmates hadn’ t. And also basic design and photography, of course, used for architectural purposes. But also used to show us, to force us to see things that we were too much in a hurry to see. So he’d present us the photographs and say, “Now you see this, this, this, that and you know”. So it was kind of a way of making us aware of design, of quality of buildings, but mostly of space, the feeling of three-dimensional space. The way we moved into it, the way things disappeared behind us and suddenly textures and colour appeared and the incline of the planes and so on. It was trigonometrical geometry in a way, you know but taught in a very sort of artistic, architectural way. And then Gordon was a lot of fun. He also used to invite us all to his apartment and have tea and play some loud music and he loved to dance. He only had one leg but he could move around like nothing! You know, he had us do some ballet for a while.

[21:09:15]

Well, he even had people do ballet in the fifties, I guess. He just lived up here on Doctor Penfield now. He lived in one of those houses, which have now been taken down a long time ago.

Well, coming back to the campus and all the faculties and so on, at that time, the School of Architecture and the Engineer School too, we exchanged lectures with the other faculties a lot more. We went to the Medical Faculty for sanitation and so on. We went to the Arts Building, you know, with Lismer for History of Art. Then we went to the Engineering and different faculties. So the faculties were kind of separate. They were separate entities, you know, with their own sort of rules and regulations and way of doing and seeing things. And Gordon was quite friendly with the girls in the Victoria College. So he used to- they were doing ballets, you know, the girls. It was a finishing school. So they were doing ballet, but the boys couldn’t get in that building, so we couldn’t practice with the girls. So the girl teacher used to come to the School of Architecture, show us the male parts of the dances, and then the girls would do the female parts in the Royal Victoria College. And then we’d have one dress rehearsal. And then we’d have the sort of class programme, this show once a year. And it was a mess, actually, really. Nothing was coordinated. It was just horrible, but we had a lot of fun.

[23:05:14]

I was going to say, you probably had a lot of laughs.

Oh yes. We used to have so many laughs, you know. But you know, this thing, Gordon sort of involved us into these events. Like the Sketching School, you know. We used to go to Sketching School. It was like a bunch of gypsies going, you know, in a small village, sort of taking it over. And we’d be perched everywhere doing sketches, you know, sitting on the- people weren’t used to that in these small places. You know, they looked at us and they’d say, “Oh, these strange people coming from-”. And we’d have meetings every night and we made crits of our sort of drawings and correct them sometimes and whatnot. And we could bring friends and girlfriends. You know, some students had their girlfriends with them at the Sketching School. It was like, you know, sort of a picnic.

[24:00:13]

A picnic. It wasn’t a difficult period. Sketching School, if I remember, was a very enjoyable time. Everybody had a good time and you had beer after and then you’d have a few drinks in the evening over dinner and talk about your sketches and so forth.

Oh yes. Well, and we were motivated. We did a lot of work. I remember doing so many sketches, which I kept for a while and then I just gave them up.

[24:30:24]

My classmates were not numerous, like I mentioned. There was John Bird, Arnold Shrier, there was Nora Johnstone, who was taking some- she hadn’t graduated- she was the year before us. She was missing a few credits so she was with us for a while. And then Bernard Barbeau and Terry Leslie and myself. And we were quite rowdy. We had parties in the basement there in the Loose Recluse lounge. Sometimes, we slept there the whole night when we were doing our thesis and some exercises. We’d work all night. You know, we had keys to the building and we could do what we wanted. We just bought some beer and had a party there, played some music, we had a record player and, you know, we were dancing and smooching and necking and whatnot. So, you know, it was- then we went back upstairs, you know, at daybreak and sort of continued our work.

[25:44:03]

But later on, Spence-Sales came in from England. John Bland had been looking for somebody. You know, the School of Architecture had no, at that time had no Master’s degree in great form of that. I think Rudolf Papanek was the first one to have a Master’s degree and he got it the year I entered the School of Architecture in ’47. So he more or less had to do it on his own and you know, sort of outside. He went to Harvard, he went to MIT and so on. So John Bland wanted to start Master degrees in the School of Architecture and some specialties, options like Town Planning or Urban Design or Regional Planning. So Spence-Sales was the ideal person to do that. But Spence-Sales was very formal. You know at first we- he came direct from England and had this approach. It wasn’t the AA School approach. It was something else. I think the MARS Group approach, more or less. And he was from the MARS Group with, you know, Sir Hugh Casson and Jacqueline Tyrwhitt and Cadbury Brown and all those people from London that were sort of pushing the modern architecture at that time. So Spence-Sales, we didn’t like him at first. It took us about three, four months before we kind of accepted him. We used to play tricks on him, like all the others, too. Lionel Loshak used to drill holes in the plaster wall and put a sticker and say, “To be opened on Christmas Day”. And of course, everybody came in and opened it. There was just kind of junk things in there. We used to laugh. We were absolutely crazy sometimes. It was so tired working hard that sometimes then you could appear or come in the room where we were drafting and we were up, we had the tables one on top of each other and we were drafting near the ceiling, you know! So, you know, to tell you, you know, we were students. Anyway, so-

[28:15:16]

But the advantage during those days is that we could easily get a summer job. It was wartime, there were war industries, which couldn’t find personnel, you know, so that the architects were extremely busy and the engineers even more. In fact, we had employers come and, you know, sort of offer us jobs, which we would say, “Oh no. That’s not good enough”. We were able to choose practically what we wanted and stop when we wanted and start when we wanted. It was great in that way, you know. During all my engineering and architecture courses, that’ s seven years of summer work I did, you know. I first built some ten thousand cargos for the war in Bickerdike Pier in Montreal with Dominion Bridge, no United Shipyards. And, you know, I was a draughtsman at Dominion Bridge doing structural designs. Then I was with Fraser-Brace Engineering doing the atomic energy plant in Deep River on the Ottawa River. This was very secret. And one day, Mr. Brace said, “Will you please send this drawing to be printed?” And all the drawings were in four parts so that nobody could put them together and they were all printed at different times. So, you know, I was starting. I had never done sort of office boy work. So I put the plan in the tube instead of outside the tube. And so, you know, this drawing disappeared. It never came back because they never found it. And this tube went around all the architectural offices and engineering until they finally found it. And everyone was looking at me you know! So then I did the Montreal metro with them, starting to do the tunnels or studying the tunnels. There was an idea of doing it at that time.

[30:32:01]

So what year did you actually graduate in Architecture?

Fraser-Brace Engineering was in ’46.

Okay, but you were at school. That was a summer job.

Yes.

Yeah, okay.

I was just finishing Engineering and going into Architecture.

Okay, okay.

So then after that I worked for a large architectural firm, Barott, Marshall, Montgomery and Merrett, McDougall, Smith and Flemming. I was lucky because we could choose the best architectural firms and this is what I did. And I gained a lot of experience that way. So when I graduated Architecture, I was admitted the following year into the Province of Quebec Association of Architects. It wasn’t the Order of Architects at that point. And I passed an oral exam, which was tricky, at the Province of Quebec Association of Architects. And Cormier was my interviewer, Ernest Cormier, which I wanted to work with Ernest Cormier, but he didn’t have enough work at that time to get me going. But anyway, he was very difficult and tricky. You know, I nearly flunked that oral exam, because he knew I was an engineer, so was he, and an architect. So he asked me a lot of questions, which were, you know, were in between those two professions and sometimes I was puzzled. I couldn’t quite answer them.

[32:22:27]

Tell me about after you graduated. Did you travel at all?

Oh yes. Yes, I traveled. I used to travel when I was a student. We went to New York, I went to Chicago, see some buildings, you know, the loop buildings, you know, done by Sullivan and all the others. And then in 1950, the year after I graduated, I was still at McDougall, Smith and Flemming doing my apprenticeship. I did a one-year apprenticeship. I actually did two years experience with them before I, you know, started on my own. So I went to the Frank Lloyd Wright School and stayed there for a while.

[33:09:03]

In Taliesin?

1950.

Whereabouts?

Taliesin East, Taliesin II. Taliesin I had burnt down, you know, it was set on fire by this crazy man, and Taliesin II had been rebuilt but there was a fire in Taliesin II. So when I was there, we used to work for Frank Lloyd Wright. He had us put shingles on the roof, put some bricks up and cut the stones, together with peeling the potatoes and all that for each meal everyday. You know, we were sleeping in bunks. It was our life. And I remember his son Lloyd, he was quite young then, his grandson was about fifteen years old or something like that. And Frank Lloyd Wright was over eighty at that time, in 1950. And he used to have him drive the truck for cutting- the tractor for working on the fields on the farm. And he said, “You know, this grandson of mine is no good. He’ll never be an architect. All he’s good for is to cut the grass and look after the farms” and so on. We were scandalized. We couldn’t understand that because he used to come in the atelier and work with us and do all kinds of things, you know, simple things. He was very young. He was, you know, doing this, office boy, getting the plans out of the drawers and bringing it to us and the reference books and the, you know, the norms, the architectural norms. And Frank had a lot of sketches, you know, pulled out of all these numerous numbers of drawers.

[34:56:19]

Did you ever keep any of his sketches?

No! So anyway, so I went with Frank Lloyd Wright. Then in ’51, when I was working with McDougall, Smith and Flemming, we were at that point doing a lot of buildings. We were doing the extension of the Redpath Library here. We were doing the Physical Science Centre at McGill. And Hazen Sise was in charge of the extension for the Redpath Library. And he was also with me on the Montreal General Hospital and the Sherbrooke General Hospital. So all these large projects were done at the same time in McDougall, Smith and Flemming office. And I had been to Scandinavia and so on, I worked out with Hazen Sise a new window for the General Hospital with the Venetian blinds between the sealed glass, which was something quite new here at that time. And I also worked out a new machine to clean the windows, tracks on the roof with a little dolly and so on. This was something that didn’t exist before. So Hazen Sise, you know, sort of thought that I should go and replace him for the CIAM Congress, the ninth one in Hoddesdon. So I went there, and of course, all the famous architects, modern architects of Europe were there: van Ees- van de Velde, van Eesteren, and Le Corbusier. There was Ernesto Rogers and there was Poulsen from Sweden and I went to study town planning with Poulsen after that for a while. And there was Bodiansky, Vojensky and, well, anyway, many, many architects.

[37:00:02]

Well, this going to the CIAM congress brought me back to the School of Architecture because I had met Le Corbusier; I was translating all his speeches in English off the bat like that. And I went to his office and I also went to Chandigarh, where he was doing the master plan there. So this brought me back to the school because, if you remember, I was impressed when I first saw the students in Architecture when I was in Engineering with the exhibitions on Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier and I said to myself, “I must meet those two persons. I have to do that”. So I did. And so, you know, the circle was closed more or less. So when I finished, coming back to the School of Architecture, they suddenly moved back into the new Engineering building. And compared to, you know, the mansions, we used to call that the prophylactic School of Architecture. Sparkling new and clean and organized and so on. As for the Macdonald-Harrington Building, the old Chemistry building, it’s, you know, I have the feeling that it’s like disorganized organization. It’s back to the old atmosphere of the top floor of the Engineering building, or partly with the mansion on University Street. But at least, they have the whole building and they’re organized and they’re more independent than they used to be. So, you know, John Bland was there a long time and he did a lot of work. He was very, very good directing the school.

[38:44:02]

Gilles, did you keep in touch with the school or did you teach afterwards at all at McGill?

Oh yeah. I taught at McGill a lecture on History of Science afterwards. But I was teaching at Beaux-Arts and at Université du Quebec in Montreal and I was also working for John Bland, Bland, LeMoyne, Shine, Victor Prus. After I did Expo ’67, a master plan, sort of. I did Mirabel Airport with John Bland and then I did the Olympic Games with John Bland, for John Bland. So, you know, it brought me often back to the school indirectly and so on.

[39:28:00]

So if you were asked would you do it all over again, I think I probably know your answer.

Yes. The only sort of things that I regret is that, and it’s understandable, is that I was mostly involved in large, international project management. This was the last sort of important part of my experience and work. And we had little teachings in that from that respect at the school. And I think it’ s still a lacking sort of part of the School of Architecture. I wish that they’d bring that in too, because now you get all kinds of adventurers who manage projects that architects design and sometimes they make a mess out of them because they’ re not qualified to execute the work or to manage the execution of the design or the construction or everything else so. But of course, it was quite unknown at that time actually.

Well, thank you very much. It’s been as interesting for me as it has been for you, I’m sure!

[40:44:18]

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