November 30, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson
Talk about how you originally became and decided to become an architect.
Well, I suppose I wanted to be an architect ever since I was about nine years old, even quite a bit of time before I knew what that all entailed. And I guess my story about graduate school will make that more clear because I went right through high school and into the local architectural department at the university, which happened to be in Nebraska and I got a pretty good, solid, professional architect’s education there, a Bachelor of Architecture degree, and then I was out for just one year working in an office in Omaha before I realized that I didn’t really want to be an architect after all, at least not exactly. Because my most rewarding experiences in undergraduate school had been in History and Theory and working as a TA for my History professor. And when I juxtaposed that with my first year in corporate practice, I was then definitely sure that I wanted to do History and Theory and teaching rather than be a designing architect, exclusively at least. So that put me in the search of graduate schools where I would be able to do that sort of thing, and fortunately, or unfortunately, I had a rather specific list of themes and topics that I wanted to take up in graduate school. And so, I wrote off letters to various schools, not very many of them, of course, were interested in answering me and saying, “oh yes, we can do that”. I remember I got a nice letter back form Jim Fitch at Columbia who said, “Well, I think what you really want to do, John, is study Preservation. Why don’t you come to Columbia and study Preservation?” But I didn’t really want to do Preservation! So I got a nice letter back from Peter Collins at McGill who said, “Yes, we can do a programme for you in History and Theory and we can have all kinds of stimulating conversations about the relevance of history to design and design teaching and so on”, which is what I was already deciding that I wanted to try and specialize in. So, with that, I took that as an invitation and went to Montreal and visited with him, with Peter and-
John, excuse me for interrupting, what year was that, that you went to McGill?
The year that I entered classes at McGill was ’75. Right, after just a year out of undergrad school.
So then you went- I guess your first contact, not only through correspondence but actually physically was with Peter Collins then.
Peter Collins was my first contact, and for the most part my only contact on the faculty. I knew Derek Drummond, he was Director at the time, and so we had some conversations. But Peter Collins and John Bland were the only faculty that I really dealt with and was privileged to study with. Also, I had very little contact with the undergrads or the undergraduate programme other than looking over shoulders at crits and things. And I never really got to meet and get involved with any of the undergraduate students.
Tell me a little bit about your studies. You are rather unique in the sense that what you were doing was unique. I guess it was the only programme at the time offered at McGill. You were it. There was nobody else in the course with you, in the programme with you, was there?
That’s right. Peter gave me this opportunity and said, “we can put this together out of some of my undergraduate courses and some independent studies and I’ll send you off into the History department to take some classes. Professor Maxwell, I remember, in History, I think he went on to become- moved up the ladder as a recall from my alumni magazines. But I really enjoyed his course, and of course, I had the opportunity to take Peter’s undergraduate courses, his Seminar in Architectural Judgment, for example, which was very memorable, and then to work on reading and writing in an independent study kind of situation. I got the M.Arch degree but I did it without doing studios or having very much other contact. So I understood it to be a kind of customized situation and I’m extremely grateful to Peter and to McGill for giving me the opportunity.
Did you have a lot of- you obviously had a lot to do with Peter at the time. Did you see him once a week or on a daily basis or- how often would you have to get together with him?
Probably about three days a week, counting the classes and then our own individual meetings to go over the stuff that I was reading and writing. So naturally, you know, Peter was my mentor and so I admired him enormously and I learned a lot from him. I can be more specific about that, if you would like and-
I wish you would because, as you know, just about everybody that I’ve talked to, I would say everybody without exception, if they’ve commented at all about Peter Collins, it’s been in a positive vein. They all had a lot of respect for him. They also realized that he had, like all of us, a few idiosyncrasies but he ended up being one of their favourite professors. And I guess a lot of people didn’t realize what an impact he did have on them, even at the undergraduate level. Great man, in fact, he was my mentor and encouraged me to continue to study architecture because the history appealed to me too. Can you tell me a little bit more about your actual- your studies at McGill, be more specific, or is that difficult?
Well, what I said I wanted to do there and what he was willing to support me in, and actually, looking back on it, there were not very many scholars in the field who would have been equipped, I think, as he was to pursue this question. But my question was, what is it about architectural history that can be made relevant to professional architectural education? In other words, how can history, historical knowledge become important in design thinking and in design education? This was my question coming out of undergrad school. So I wanted to put together my interest in design with my interest in history with the goal of teaching. So that was the question that I was most interested in and his background and writing and interest in theory as well as history, his kind of overwhelming professionalism about architecture kind of uniquely suited him, I think, to be interested in that question and to want to pursue it with me. His sense of professionalism, I think was so strong. At that time, he was in the midst of his enthusiasm about the law. And I’m sure many of the other graduates will be speaking about this, his Seminar in Architectural Judgment and, you know, this book had just come out. And my interpretation of that is that he thought we could learn a lot more of what architects needed to know by looking at some other profession, the professionalism of which, you know, was beyond question. We could learn a lot more from that than we could, at least from what he told me, how he advised me, is he said, “Be sure that you don’t take any courses from the art historians. Stay away from the art historians.” Well, I secretly went behind his back and sat in on an Art History course, which was reasonably valuable, but I- while I was at McGill, but his belief was that the art historical method sort of zapped, sort of drained architecture of its rigorous capacity for thought and judgment and being able to be convincing about why forms should be one way rather than another. So that was the premise of his Judgment Seminar, and it was a delightful experience to go off into the law library and read these cases and figure out how judges made their opinions convincing and grounded them in precedents and so forth.
Did he give you any references in terms of what to search out for in the law library or did he leave this to you entirely?
No, we had particular questions that we were pursuing and we had to look at a particular set of cases around each issue and then analyze the judge’s argument, figure out how he put his argument together to make it convincing, and how he used precedents in certain ways but not in certain other ways, and so on. It was a very rigorous exercise and I think something that still has, although, well, yeah, it still has served me certainly very well, I think. Several ideas I think that have come from that, one is that architectural discourse can and should be more rigorous than it normally is, that it is possible and important to be convincing about the ways we talk about buildings, and that writing about architecture should be clear and well organized and that, well, that we should just be very professional about it. And his professionalism about architecture, that architecture should treat itself as a profession more than as an art, in my case, he was also applying that to me as a scholar and as a historian, and he wanted me to be professional about that. So he was extremely detailed about critiquing the things that I wrote, and making sure that every footnote was just right and exact and so on.
But [unclear] Peter, because he could have stayed, I guess, teaching what he was teaching extremely well, and just kept working on that, to the undergraduates. But, I mean, obviously his interest in architecture, and as you suggest, was a lot deeper than that, and the books testify to that too. Did you keep in touch with him after you graduated? I guess, everybody made an attempt to, and I’m not trying to prejudice your comments, but sometimes, you know, everything else gets in your way.
Well, yeah, because of that mentor relationship, I guess, we had an opportunity to share more things later on. First of all it took me another, what, two years to finish my thesis, so of course I kept in touch with him long distance back from Nebraska again during that time.
And your thesis was what?
My thesis was a paper on the uses of architectural history, a survey of the literature up to that point on what other people had said about how is historical knowledge useful in professional architectural education. So it took me two years to work on that, it turned out to be about two hundred and fifty pages, I think. Probably longer than necessary but… Finally, you know, I mean that was one of his memorable pieces of advice, you know. Almost two years later, it was still- you know, the thing was still ballooning out in front of me and he just said, “Look, John, just get it organized, and write it up and be done”.
Did you have to present it to him?
I had to present it to him and it also went out to a mysterious committee of scholars from across Canada in order to get reviewed. I passed, there were a couple of negative remarks, but I passed and it was okay. Yeah, and we did keep in touch, because I needed recommendations for teaching positions, and I gather that he was extremely generous with those, because the letter that he sent here to Cincinnati was sufficiently effective and that convinced John Meunier, who was then the director here, that I should be hired to do, actually, coincidentally, exactly what I had sort of set my sights on earlier, to figure out how to teach Architectural History so that it would be central and engaging in the professional education of architects. And John Meunier was one of the first people to sort of pose that question in architectural education. And I think he was pleased that Peter Collins had a student for him, because he was a great admirer of Peter’s work as well. So, yeah, we kept in touch for that time, and then about the second year I was here at Cincinnati, we invited Peter down to spend a quarter as a visiting professor, so he came and did that. So we had another opportunity for a stimulating collaboration. I suggested that he should do a lecture series on classicism, ‘cause as everybody knows, I think, that really was his deep, his deep love, you know, all the way from Philibert L'Orme to Auguste Perret, you know, classicism was the ultimate standard for architectural thinking. And so that was a wonderful experience. He gave a series of lectures here to our undergraduates, and I sat in and took notes and learned even more from Peter during that time. That was about ’80, I think, 1980, and of course, that was just about another year before his untimely death. So-
Tell me, I’m curious now that- you joined here when, in what, in seventy-something, then I guess?
’78, I started here.
Tell me what your whole study, how it has affected, obviously I think I have the answer to this, but in terms of how you teach architecture. Is it any different from the way he was teaching it in History of Architecture?
Well, yes, I would say it is different from the way he was teaching History of Architecture. For all my respect for him and my tremendous respect for his book, Changing Ideals, I thought that his way of slicing through time was idiosyncratic, and myself, I felt the urge to be a little bit more, I don’t know if comprehensive is the word, but a little bit closer to what the usual textbooks do. But his way of asking critical questions about the historical material and going into depth in particular cases, sort of the case study method, I suppose, that he advocated so much from the law, did influence my teaching in history quite a bit. And then I stepped off the sort of Grand Tour long enough to really dwell with some examples in detail for a while and I think that’s always been beneficial to the students here. I very much took to heart the warnings about the art historical approach and I always very carefully avoided certain of those conventions, the most obvious of which is the style labels. I thought it was a great achievement to figure out how to teach a survey course in Architectural History without using words like Romanesque and Baroque and Rococo. These really do turn out to be useless concepts once you are far enough into the material. So I credit that to him and also a desire to not consider architecture primarily as a form, as a question of form, or the evolution or transformation of form, but rather to see architecture as a set of problems and opportunities in which designers are confronting situations, confronting constraints, you know, that was one of Peter’s favourite words, constraints. “What were the constraints in this design situation?” And I think that has always been a great help for architecture students to equate the kinds of situations that designers faced in the past with the kind of situations that they face in the present: professional questions, how do you solve the site and how do you deal with a temperamental client and all the rest of it. Those were also the same problems that were faced in history. So I guess it’s that professionalism, that overall professionalism about how you think about what architecture is and what architectural creation consists of. That’s-
His courses for the undergraduates, if my memory serves me well, you would have, I guess once a month, probably maybe even twice a month, where he would put slides on and ask you to write as much as you could about that particular slide. And that was very successful at the time. I’m sure that it didn’t have any permanent impact on you. All it did is create a tremendous interest in, I guess, the older buildings of Europe for a lot of us. And I kept in touch with Peter after I graduated and I’ll tell you a few other stories before I leave you. So you’ve now been teaching, I guess, what, eighteen years?
Twenty years, ok. And do you take the examples right up to present day. For example, would something like Frank Gehry enter into your discussions and lecture sat all in terms of historical-?
Well, the curriculum has, with new faculty members and so on, I stopped teaching the Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance Survey a few years ago, and now, the only undergraduate course that I teach is something that I call Architecture Since 1966. This is also, I suppose, where I part ways with Peter, because he never thought it was responsible scholarship to try to treat historically the current time and also he didn’t have very nice things to say usually about the currently fashionable architects. Fashionable, that was another one of his words that he would use to be dismissive about usually the most talked-about architects of the moment. So he didn’t really think that could be done or should be done but, you know, well, about five years into my teaching here I thought, I decided, that well, unfortunately that’s kind of important to do. We have to teach these students to be- to think critically about the current fashions, if you will. So I started this course. So yes, I do, I try to talk about Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman in such a way that students will be able to evaluate what they are seeing in the magazines and to understand the philosophical and theoretical background behind this work that they might not normally get from the letters to the editor in Architectural Record. So-
Or the New York Times.
Or the New York Times for that matter, exactly. So, yeah, I do that.
That’s, for a young undergraduate, that’s quite a challenge, isn’t it, to think that way. Because so many of them are anxious to get out and practice architecture and, what, I guess most people think of architecture as designing houses and buildings and all the rest of it. So I remember Peter Collins, he earned your respect because you realized the significance of his teaching and the impact it was going to have in your lives. You didn’t get that from everybody, mind you, because most people, or a lot of people were not interested in history any more than the history of the world. So what do you see in terms of, are you going to continue doing just what you are doing now, except getting better at it probably?
Probably the thing that I’m doing now that’s closest to what I learned from Peter is directing the Master of Science in Architecture programme here, which is a scholarly theory and research programme, which to the extent that I’ve been influential on our programme here, it’s sort of has become modeled on what Peter was able to do for me at McGill, that is, to give students an opportunity to consider the questions of theory and history and their relationship to practice and design. And an intellectual context, to treat these questions intellectually and to do serious reading and writing around some question, or around some topic that arises from that. So I mentor students now, and I quote Peter often to them about how to, you know, he said, “You should never quote another writer in your text unless you are absolutely certain that you can never say it better yourself. For example, to be very sparing about quotes, to be very sparing about footnotes, to be very well organized and very exact in the writing and so forth. So I mentor students in writing now, writing about architecture and organizing architectural theory for themselves. And I find that a lot of what Peter taught me is still very useful, still exemplary in many respects.
His ears would be red today. I think he would be awful proud to hear you say all these things because I can’t, of all the interviews that I’ve done, of course, your relationship with Peter was rather unique, but nobody spoke- and that’s why I’m interested in talking to you, because we don’t have that many people who worked with him almost exclusively in their, you know, career at McGill University. Did you have anything to do with John Bland at all during the course of your time there?
Yes. John Bland got me a job while I was a student there, doing the Percy Nobbs archives, sorting the drawings and tagging them by projects and putting them in order. I don’t know what- you know, I assume that that’s been done again and done in a much more professional way than I could have done it. But I guess it was a first step. And he put me to work in this great, marvelous room somewhere, I forget where the hell.
It’s called the Percy Nobbs Room, I guess, because they have it still. It’ s in the back of the Blackader Library. Up that ramp, there’s a big, big room, a beautiful room.
Yeah, that’s right. It was on top of the library. So, yes, John was involved with my- supervised my work doing that. But I also took his course in History of Canadian Architecture. That one had been blessed by Peter as being …unlike the art historians on campus, that one was ok to take, so I did that. And then I remember going to John Bland’s house once.
My wife and I went to this ancient little house that he had for a holiday meal of some kind. It was absolutely delightful.
[Missing words] stickler for exactitude in terms of writing and footnotes and all this. I think a good illustration of that, is, it’s actually one of my most often quoted Peter lines in reference to that technique that [Legrisier] and all kinds of other people used to use of taking a photograph of a building and putting proportion lines on it and proving this and that and he said, “Well, if you take a small enough photograph and a thick enough pencil, you can prove anything”. That was very typical of his sort of scoffing attitude towards some of these art-based techniques.
And have you related that story to some of your own students?
Oh yes, I do that quite often. Probably after I’ve just got done doing some demonstration of some golden mean or something, I say, “Well, but Peter Collins always used to say…” Then there was the sort of unending curiosity. I mean his whole personality seemed to be that of a scholar. And I remember one day, it was in Cincinnati here when he was here as a visiting scholar, we were driving him around town, giving him a tour of downtown and we pointed out the library, the city-county library downtown, we were going by. And suddenly he says, “Stop the car! There’s something about Thomas Jefferson that I wanted to look up”. So here in the middle of a city tour and suddenly he has a burning question about Thomas Jefferson and he has to stop the car and go in the library and look something up, and then he’d come back out and then we’d restart the tour of the city. Always this sort of bubbling over curiosity about things in general, any topic that he was working on.
And his mannerisms more or less expressed his inner feelings, ‘cause that was him. When he wanted to do something, he was always bubbling over with enthusiasm, almost to the point that he would stutter he got so excited. Well, I guess I would like to say thank you. This has been very enlightening. And if there is anything further you can think of…
Yeah, well, it was Maureen Anderson that I probably talked to first, actually, at McGill, and the first time I visited there and then all the time through being a student there, and having various kinds of needs. It was always Maureen that with- what I regarded as a young student, I regarded her as just the epitome of skill and graciousness and always admired her enormously. I remember when I was invited back to McGill, I guess I hadn’t mentioned this yet, I was invited back to McGill to serve as the editor of the issue of The Fifth Column , that was going to be a collection of Peter Collins’s writings. So I was invited to go through his files and select some things for this. And I remember when I went back there, I had a wonderful opportunity to go out to lunch with Maureen and do some reminiscing and so, yeah, I liked her very much and was very indebted to her, what appeared to me at least to be her skill at sort of running the school, holding things together and taking care of what we needed as graduate students.
She ended up, I didn’t know this, but having a great reputation for editing the English language and to the point that the professors there over a period of five years contributed a certain amount of money out of their annual stipend to set up a scholarship for students, for architects, for a lexicon [unclear]. I don’t know, I’m not familiar with all the details, but she was very proud of that fact, because anybody who was going to publish anything always gave the text to her to read over and she became very, very good at doing just that.