December 2, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson
How did you decide to become an architect?
Yeah, how did I decide? It was a bit indirect, Jim, to be honest. I was like every kid right out of high school right into university and not really sure what I wanted to do. But I heard that if I took a maximum number of subjects, I could go into either engineering or science or arts or architecture. In fact, I hadn’t thought much about architecture. And I remember I wanted to be a math physicist at one time until I darned near flunked out of first year physics. I decided that wasn’t a good idea. And marine biology for whatever reason. It might have been John Steinbeck; I knew he was a marine biologist. It interested me. And but I think it was the end of the first year I joined that UNTD Navy programme. Saw some great architecture in southern climates and George Challies’ s uncle, I think, was an architect and always talked about architecture. He gave me a few architectural books to take with me. “Now, that’s exactly what I want to do”, I said. I read through them and I thought to myself that would be an interesting profession.
What- how old would you have been then? Probably just after high school?
About, what, twenty? Nineteen or twenty I guess?
Yeah, nineteen or twenty years old at the time.
And you were at McGill then when you were starting to get your-?
Yeah, I started at McGill and kept all my options open just so I could, you know, decide what course I wanted to get into. But having seen some interesting architecture and starting to think about it over that summer, I decided that that had a nice combination of kind of arts, a bit of science, creative- I could draw; I knew I could draw. I knew I could do those things. And it just hadn’t occurred to me before but it kind of clicked over that summer. So I have to give George’s uncle some credit.
And it was natural, obviously for you to carry on at McGill. I guess you didn’t give it-
I was already at McGill, yeah. I worked out of town in the summers and studied in Montreal during the year. That was sort of the modus operandi. So that’s what I tended to do even then. And McGill was a logical choice. I never really considered any other spot.
Okay, McGill days.
Oh McGill! You’re asking me to compress a lot of time in a very short period here. Actually, I remember my whole of McGill as being quite exciting years. It was I think the combination of professors and definitely the students. It was the days when you worked, I don’t know, all night. It seemed to be to two o’ clock every morning. Kind of drove home. Got out of bed early the next morning, worked until two the next morning, just day after day. And challenged I think. Challenged by a lot of professors. I mean, you could be critical of professors, but if they didn’t do anything else, they got us to work long hours; they challenged us; they motivated us, sometimes because you were angry with them, and sometimes because you were working with them. But I can’t think of any professors I didn’t like. I think they all contributed, people like Stuart Wilson’s sketching camp was great. I still find it’s the best way to design. I still fill up a sketchbook every six months or so or every three or four months. I constantly sketch when I’m at home and outside the regular office hours. I find it a good way to get work done.
It also relaxes I guess. It’s a form of relaxation.
It’s relaxing but I find I can draw a lot faster than I can get it on computer and draw mechanically and whatnot. So it’s still a fast, three-dimensional way.
Is the sketching related to-?
It’s really drawing, drawing related to building design. And when I’m on holiday, I sketch a lot of whatever. It could be landscapes or it could be more, you know, being an architect, it tends to be more urban situations. And, of course, there was Peter Collins, who, I guess we got a very formal architectural sort of treatment from him in history. And I always remember going to Europe after taking my, what was it, history of architecture book.
Bannister Fletcher was it?
Bannister Fletcher, yeah. And it was kind of interesting to bring. But and also it wasn’t everything. I remember probably being more influenced by people like Vincent Scully afterwards, siting buildings and looking less at the building I saw and more at the context and how it evolved. And I guess from that point of view, there was always Norbert Schoenauer who would tell us that there was a lot of architecture that wasn’t in Bannister Fletcher that was equally important, books like Architecture without Architects that I still find fascinating to look back at, whether it’s an Indian village in Northern India or Iran or Afghanistan to see these places. Or more recently, I’ve been to China and looked at some of their architecture. So that’s been- that was a very good foundation.
Did you enjoy I guess the lectures with Peter Collins? Was that one of your favourite courses at McGill?
Yeah, they were excellent. I must say, I developed a bit of a bad habit, though. When the lights go off and the slide projector goes, I tend to catch myself napping. I did then and I do now, but I found the research, the kind of rigorous research quite interesting. And I still am fascinated by going back to Northern France, seeing the cathedrals or, you know, England. In fact, I just came back from New York. There was a great- paintings by Constable of Salzburg Cathedral. And you know, it brings back that whole discipline, that whole fabulous era of architecture. So I still- in fact, what I’ve got on the wall there is sort of part of our inspiration, San Marco in Venice. And if nothing else, it’s certainly created an interest in the history of architecture and not the sort of glib history of architecture. I think Peter researched it well. It was taught in a very systematic way. In retrospect, I really appreciated that foundation.
He certainly had a lot of respect. And I always found his classes interesting. This is not my interview, it’s yours, but anyhow, I just- and he was one of the people who worked as a catalyst for me to continue because he encouraged me all the time.
I’m just trying to think of others. Gordon Webber. Do you have any memories of Gordon Webber?
Oh, Gordon, you know, to me Gordon as a second year student at McGill is to me the kind of person you had never ever encountered before. He talked about composition, lines, the dynamics of lines, points in space, doing sculptural work and listening to music in the context of the body, you just don’t when you come out of high school in Montreal, you had never, at least I had never been exposed to that and I don’t think anybody had. And you know, when you get right- I find even today, like when I get right down to it and I’ve got an elevation of a building in front of me, I say, “Well you know, we’ve gone through a huge process here, gone this far, we’ve got to get this thing to where it works visually”. And you know, you find you use a lot of the rules that Gordon had taught. And a way of looking at a building other than the rigor of trying to figure out how to detail it, how to build it. But once all those things are looked at, there’s a certain visual discipline, which I think he taught us. Certainly, he opened up a huge world that up to that point, I’d never been exposed to at all.
None of us had. Do you remember-? Did John Bland-? I’m trying to recall. I think he taught Canadian history, didn’t he for a short period of time?
Well, John I think exposed us to what was really around us, to the great architecture of Quebec, that, you know, when you’re not living in Quebec anymore, you realize the fabulous history of architecture in Quebec itself, the small- the huge churches in all the small towns, the great farm houses, the great vernacular building. I think John probably more than anybody else taught us that those things were there. They’re in our back door. We didn’t see them but he got us out looking at them. And also I always appreciate John as sort of a practitioner of architecture, that he had the experience and he got [unclear] details approved. Some of the things that I know a little bit more about now, he exposed us to it in those days. We thought that was quite useful, not overly so but enough to give us the flavour of what it’s like to actually build a building.
Were you ever exposed to any, I guess I know the answer, visiting crits, like Ray Affleck or Guy Desbarats or Fred Lebensold or Victor Prus? Do you remember any of those people?
You know, I don’t really vividly. I don’t. I just remember Jane Drew coming to the school and there was a classmate of Moshe Safdie’s, what was his name? A tall guy.
George Polloway and she [Jane] was very critical about one of his projects. And I was fascinated by the dialogue. It was quite interesting. He said, “Jane, you’ ve got to look at the drawings again”. You know, he just wasn’t going to take any guff from her! It was kind of neat to see somebody with that kind of level of conviction. And she realized that she probably should look at those drawings again and try to re-understand the project. But no, I can’t say as any of the visiting crits, except for that particular incident. A lot of the speakers stand out in my mind, but not so much the visiting-
The lecture series?
The lecture series, yeah.
And I think at one time when we were there, we used to have trips to various cities. And I don’t know whether you recall any of that. Not that it’ s relevant but now I’m talking about it. We used to go to Boston on the weekend, Saturday morning, come back Sunday and be entertained by the AIA people there to see the buildings.
That I found really fabulous. In fact, I was doing that as a prof later on at McGill as well, taking students down to Boston and seeing the work; going to Commonwealth Avenue and down to Boston City Hall and the Italian district and it was fabulous.
You taught at McGill.
I forgot about that.
Yeah, after I graduated, I worked out of town for a while and then came back and taught at the University of Montreal for about a year or two as a part-time prof. And then at McGill, when there was an opening for one term, I was sort of full-time half-term prof. And then I came out here to Calgary. I used to teach two days a week or two half days a week at U of C.
What, when you were teaching at McGill, what were you teaching?
Basically taking the other half of Wit Rybczynski. Wit was on a sabbatical down I forget where right now, but I took his class. And we did- it was probably about a third-year level. Pretty capable students. We did a lot of housing design. There was some single-family housing, multiple housing. I forget what else. But also, just to sort of animate the process of it, we would often, or I would assign a one-day project or a two-day sort of charrette like they used to do at University of Montreal, the [unclear]. You just throw them at the project and see what happens. And those were really quite fun to kind of orchestrate a class and just prod them onto coming up with innovative solutions to things.
Then after I graduated, that was ’64, I had previously worked in London in 1962. I went over to the library; I decided I wanted to work for a good architect. I didn’t know what that meant but I thought if I went to the library and wrote application letters to every architect in Europe, I might find one. And I worked for Basil Spence’s office in the summer of ’62. So I decided I wanted to be a planner, too. Do just architecture as well as town planning. I had applied to the University of London School of Planning and to Basil’s office as well. And I got accepted at Basil’s office. And U of L was so long in sort of responding that I said, “Look, I’m coming over. I’m working anyways. I’ ll see you when I get over there”. So I had a job in London and when I got there, they decided they’d accept me at the University College of London as well in planning, which is a part-time evening course. And in those days, a place like Basil Spence’s office had fabulous commissions. They were doing great works in the southern part of London. I was working on the University of Sussex. I think I did most of the telephone booths, paving patterns, nothing terribly glamorous, but met a lot of interesting guys, went to the site, talked to the workers, went over to see Basil himself, who worked at a separate office. Just very kind of stimulating environment. But after about a year I decided the English approach to planning wasn’t North American enough. It was much more government-oriented than our system. Besides, some of the New Towns I found a bit disappointing. Some of the stuff that was coming out was [unclear] New Town and you know, we all looked at in magazines and whatnot. It was very nasty, just very crudely detailed. By North American standards, probably inhospitable and not livable. So I sort of made the decision that I would come back to North America to study. And I got accepted at Harvard. And in the meantime, I had written to Jeanneret’s office in Chandigarh. I thought well, I’ d like to work there. So my wife and I, we just bought a Volkswagen and just drove to India.
Are you serious?
Yeah, we didn’t quite get there because there was a war between the Pakistanis and the Indians. At the time, we got into Lahore to we had to drive back to Kabul in Afghanistan and I worked there for about six months and then went back to Europe and then went back to Canada to work before going back to graduate school. So it was a great experience. It’s wonderful to travel.
So this would have been about 1966 then? Summer of ’66?
Yeah. And then worked in Montreal for a few offices doing mostly design work and then got accepted at Urban Design at Harvard, which I found very interesting. Those were the days when Lindsay was the mayor of New York.
The urban design guidelines had just been developed. There were environmental movements and people talking about greening Fifth Avenue. And in fact, I’ll always remember taking a set of drawings down to New York and we had, one time we had Fifth Avenue all green, which indicated that it was pedestrian oriented as opposed to being grass. The customs officer looked at it. I was trying to convince him that it had no commercial value and he saw this and he said, “Yeah, you’re right. It has absolutely- something this ridiculous-” it had no cars on Fifth Avenue “it has absolutely no commercial value whatsoever” . So there was- a good experience at Harvard and then after that-
How long is that course? A year or-?
In those days, like a year and a few months. Just a little over a year, but it wasn’t the two-year course, which is standard now. And then after that, I did a lot of planning. I went to- I had a choice of either going to Montreal or a job offer in Toronto, but there was really nothing cooking in those days in Montreal, so-. A friend of mine had a job with John Andrews’s office in Toronto. He rented a station wagon and turned up with this huge truck. He said, “Look, if you want to go to Toronto, I got have this truck for the price of the station wagon. You know, throw your stuff in”. I said, “Look, I haven’t got anything in Montreal, I might as well go.” I never liked Toronto anyway, you know, that traditional rivalry, but it was, again, we worked on some great projects down around the CN Tower in Toronto and I worked on the Graduate School of Design building at Harvard. And then I kind of moved back to Montreal again to work in van Ginkel’s office. And did a movement and mid-town study for that office. We did a lot of urban design. Then he sent me down to Jamaica to work on the airport project there. And that was the first strictly speaking architectural work.
That was van Ginkel that sent you down there?
Yeah, with a team. People were doing some civil work, and other people were doing forecasting work. In fact, the guys that I’m currently with are very much from that- the groups I was working with at that time. And we were designing all sorts of crazy things in addition to buildings. We had this thing called the Ginkel Van, which was meant for an intermediate-level of transit in cities. And Sandy had this idea for a low-platform bus. And it worked fabulously well. It was designed if you can believe it by second-year architects. “You can graduate!” And we sort of went down to Vale. In fact, I just spoke to somebody last year about if they’d ever heard of this. He said, “Oh yeah, you know…” It worked well for a few years and it was replaced by other transit systems that had the same principle, but obviously a lot bigger scale and production. So that got me into planning and kind of back into architecture, and from then on, I really did both. I did planning half of the time and even today, I still- maybe three quarters of the time, it’s strictly architectural projects and others in more urban design, design guidelines.
Is there one of the two disciplines that you enjoy more than the other or is it a blend?
You know, I don’t see it as a line anymore. In those days, maybe. But, you know, you design a building, you work right within the zoning bylaws. And I’ ve always thought that if you can modify the zoning bylaws, why not, you know? You’ re really designing architecture. You know, you’re designing what the architects could then design. So I’ve never really regarded it as a strict line. I’m not a process planner. I’m still very much a physical planner, or I deal with physical things as opposed to processes or social issues. But I’ve just kept on pretty much in that vein, you know, worked in- you know doing more straight architecture in Montreal. And when I moved out west, did a lot of large-scale planning projects, master plans for Lake Louise. We’re doing urban design plans for east end of Calgary right now, trying to reinvigorate that area of the city. Just the whole spectrum. So I’ ve never seen architecture strictly as, you know, you get a commission and you design a building and you walk away from it at the end. I think you have to understand the planning parameters behind it. And, you know, it’s really fundamental to just being able to carry the project right through. And it’s too bad the profession tends to be compartmentalized a bit like that. But the way it’s practiced today, it’s certainly not. Nobody can afford to be strictly an architect, or strictly a- it’ s such a narrow band. And we work all the time, I work all the time with sociologists, economists, with people that I call process planners, who set up systems to make cities happen or make buildings happen. And I find that is as exciting as just the physical design itself.
The question I wanted to ask you and you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, if you had to do it all over again, what changes, if any, would you make? Obviously, the career that most architects have sort of thought of when they were both starting off, I guess it’s like that with any young adult, they think that the world owes them- not owes them a living but everything- the world is my oyster. Well, quite often it doesn’t turn out to be that. And I think you- I sense that you obviously enjoyed your life, but it’s the ups and downs I guess that create havoc for a lot of people. Would you do it all over again? Is that fair?
Well, you know, I would do it- I’m trying to think how I might do it differently or smarter or something. I think I would do exactly the same thing, Jim, except I’d do the stupid things longer. Afghanistan, I remember leaving there because we couldn’t have gone through the passes. They were getting snowed in. And I’ve often thought, “ You know, there’s an opportunity I should have probably worked at for a year or two”.
Because you would never get back there.
I’d never get back there and there was lots to do. There were schools to design, there were clinics to do, there were bridges to be built. All kinds of stuff that I’ve never been exposed to. You know and actually, I’m working on a small job, well, different scales of jobs. One in China, but it’s kind of interesting to go back to a technology that’s not western, let’s say. To work with mass concrete walls, sun-dried bricks and things like that. So no, I don’t think- I’ve had ups and downs but I can’t say it’s been-. Well, I guess the other downer is you know you work on projects- at one time, we were thinking about to be a great architect, you really have to be a great developer. And we developed all this. Luckily, we had a very good contract with a developer in joint venture. The thing went under big time. And as it turned out, naïve as we were at the time, we had no exposure to the liability. But going backwards, I’ ve probably leaned as much- had I not done that, because I wouldn’t have known the pitfalls. So when it’s a bit of digging ditches and falling into them, you know, you bumble a lot of them but-
That explains it very well, digging ditches and falling into them. Right, you have to learn.
You kind of learn. And you know, I’ve never been- I know some architects are really sensitive about wanting to control things that you want to control a building or how- or because you think that you can control it. But in fact, I’ m quite happy to work- to design the building so that they can change over time and I’m not- If somebody thinks a window should be two feet above the ground, or above the floor, not one foot six, that’s fine, because frankly, I’ m sick of seeing buildings with closets pushed up against floor to ceiling glazing, you know, that don’t work anyway. So you better listen to people and understand how it works. And I’ve worked on- well, we did the Chinese cultural centre here where very much the role I had was to organize the building but the basic orientation was done by people at our school in classical Chinese architecture. So we got the building facing that correct direction and we have the correct number of columns. And the proportion system was- certainly we helped, I mean, I helped on that, but I wasn’t– I just don’t find that you have to control in cities. Well, I think one good example is if you look at a city, it changes like crazy from year to year and people should feel free to adapt buildings to their own lifestyles. And so going back on it, I don’t think I would have- I mean, there are probably some smarter things that I could have done, but I may not have learned as much, so I’m not sure that I really regret that.
It’s very fulfilling; architecture is very fulfilling. I’m not talking about the financial aspects, but it is fulfilling if you’re kept busy all the time.
And the only thing is you want to be busy because that’s the time that you have fun in the profession.
Well, I’ve never not been busy. I’ve always- it might be the scale of commission changes, but if I’m not designing a big office building, we’re doing a small resort in the mountains or we’re doing- I’ve actually stayed out of single family housing, because that’s almost too specialized, but I’ve found that I’ve been pretty busy. Sometimes you work harder trying to get work, harder than you’d like, but generally speaking, the commissions are pretty exciting, the clients have been good and I don’t really regret any of that.
In terms of schools of architecture and where the profession is going, I think fundamentally, the design discipline is still important. That is still central to why we get hired as architects. There’s no question about that in my mind. What I find quite interesting these days is I guess some architects are quite insecure with that. But I think that a good design is still appreciated by a good client. And strong design has to sell to a much, much wider audience. In most cities, I shouldn’t say most cities but certainly here, if we have a fairly big project, let’s say a couple of units of housing, you’re working very much with a client who’s watching the bottom line and watching the market and watching the project from where he thinks it’ s going. You know what the design concept is. You have to then relate that to the community in your building, because eventually, you got to sell that to the guy across the street if this is going to work for him. The ward alderman will want to know about it, the community association will want to know about it, and if the ward alderman is not on side, if the community association is not on side, the project is not going to go anywhere. So it takes I think a lot of design talent to make these projects happen. And I think that’s still fundamental to an architect’s education. I think the part that disappoints me sometimes in the profession is just that we don’t build very well sometimes. I mean I walk through on my way to work everyday through the Beltline area in Calgary. There’s a lot of high-rise buildings there that are constantly getting new walls put on them and the exterior skin is failing and the glass is failing. They’re just badly detailed. So sometimes we do disregard, I think, the technology side. But on the other hand, I think you can’t be a renaissance man. You have to rely on people in your office, you have to rely on contractors that can perhaps detail some of the building some of the time. But in our case here, we design the building, we insist on designing a building. We take it from beginning to end. We insist on having the best possible contract documents we can build because our clients know that if we don’t have that done, they’re going to get hit with costly extras. And we’re definitely central to the team. People say, “Well, you’ re not anymore. It’s being controlled by developers or it’s being controlled by design-build guys. But I can tell you no design-build guy will get a building approved in the housing community. He’s just going to need an architect, and a darn good architect, to make that happen. He might be able to build cheaply but in an industrial park. But he’s not going to get any kind of building of any substance design. We tackle, I mean, just on a sort of philosophical basis, I’ ve always tackled single-family housing in a broader sense of doing community design on a big scale residential subdivisions of maybe a hundred acres or fifty acres, that kind of size. And there, it’s much more controlling the landscaping and controlling the builders. You’re not really designing every single house. You’re working with a series of maybe eight builders. They in turn have maybe ten plans and you work with them and modify their plans to fit within this sort of visual image of the community. But then again, for all the nasty things that are said about developers, architecturally designed communities with architectural guidelines that make sense are demanded by the broader market. So I’m not negative. I think a strong design core is still fundamental to just the basis of selling a project, getting it approved and making it happen.
Do you think the students are being short-changed on that now because of I guess the availability of CAD systems and so forth? Because some architects with whom I’ve talked feel that the old sketch pad and creating the ideas on paper and then putting it on the computer is still the way to go. I guess it’ s some combination of that. Other people design I guess almost from basic thought and programme on computers.
Well, computers they’re sort of- if you’re going to argue about computers or not, it’s almost the same as having a pencil. I mean you can’t run an office. We couldn’t run this office without computers. In fact, when I look for sketch paper, it’s sometimes hard to find. I guess I’m of a different generation. I still work with pencil, and pencil sharpener, and eraser and I love doing that, but- and the initial, broad brush concepts are still coming out manually. And we put them on computer in the way that makes sense, as a developer tool. But it’s not a thinking tool or a design tool. It’s just another pencil. It happens to be a very handy one because you send drawings to other offices, you can give files to engineers, you can do all kinds of other things with it. So I think to come out of school today without that background would be like coming out of school twenty years ago without being able to draft. You need to know how to put those ideas out, communicate. But I think the fundamental thinking process though, understanding how architecture happens, where it’s come from, it’s still an important part of the learning process. In terms of who we hire at the office here, I just look for people rather than where they’re from necessarily, at their attitude and look at their design approach and whether they’re- you know, their whole thinking approach rather than their you know maybe their detailed background. But certainly, McGill students, I think, are consistently as good if not better than any of the other ones that we’ve hired, so I think McGill is- by sticking to some very formal styles of education doesn’t shortchange its students and in fact is a darn good foundation. I think that you can’t teach everybody everything but- so you have to be able to lay down a core. And I think that core programme is a good one.