Interview by Jim Donaldson
Well, I was an architect first after I came to Montreal forty-three years ago. You might know my background. I was born in Transylvania, which is more notorious for other things than architecture! I came to Montreal forty-three years ago. And at the time, I benefited from a scholarship that the CMHC was offering people in need to study planning, which really was my chosen field. I decided really that I liked it more than architecture in itself. So I got a CMHC scholarship and I went to McGill for two years, studied with Professor Spence-Sales. We were only five in the class at the time. Which-
What year did you go to McGill, did you start?
1962, if I remember.
’62. Close enough.
And you said there were five in the class?
Five in the class, yes. You know, George Steber, and Leon Kentridge, and you know, people like that. Norbert Schoenauer was just before me, and Jeanne Wolfe, who is the present director, was before me. So it was an early Planning School and I benefited a lot I think from, not just the planning course, which was fairly, well, not classical but, it was a planning course structured a little bit after the British system, having been started by Spence-Sales but mostly by his personality, which was a very odd one, you might remember him.
It helped you learn how to think rather than to learn. So it was an interesting thing for me. It allowed me I would say to integrate, also, into Canadian society, learn English a bit, which I still have an accent here. Then I married a British lady who taught me the rest.
Oh, I see!
Sort of various layers of Transylvanian accent and all sorts of things. And it made me think that there is more to the profession than just building. Planning was an important dimension, which allowed me to detach myself. Incidentally, I started working in Montreal the very first week when I arrived for Professor Bland, which was Rother, Bland and Trudeau.
And which was a wonderful experience. We did the Ottawa City Hall at the time. I had Roy LeMoyne and I had Rene Menkes. I had, you know, these people around me for a year or two.
Now this was before you went into Planning.
Before I went into Planning, I spent a year and a half, actually, in architecture. So maybe I should have started with that, but I have a sort of confused mind. It has its advantages, I guess! So afterwards, I applied for the scholarship, which I got from the CMHC. In the meantime, my wife was working, the first child was born, and I studied Planning with Spence-Sales for two years. And I continued with him, I was his assistant in his office for another year more.
Do you have any memories of Harold Spence-Sales? I guess you have a lot of memories of him, eh?
I have a lot of memories of Spence-Sales. I don’t know whether I can relate to- I could talk about all of them.
Well, you should talk about some of them.
Some of them, I can talk! Some of them, he might be proud of, but I don’t know whether he wants me to talk about it!
The whole purpose of this interview is to be as candid as possible, because nobody’s going to come after you and no one is going to come after me.
Well, he had a marvelous bath in his office, you know, University Street, one of those coach houses? So he would have a nice bath every lunchtime and he would come out nice and pink. And Miss Smith would organize the office. And we would be working quite hard. Lincoln Chang, who then went to Vancouver, was the sort of chief slave; I was the secondary slave in the office. And we worked quite hard on various projects, like Victoria Square and the master plan of McGill University, which we did, we drew up, with the gingko tree and all the rest. And Spence-Sales’s way of thinking and allowing us to develop an approach rather than just draw, which is very rare these days. People just sweat and sit down and draw what’s needed. I’ve tried to keep that in mind ever since. And for forty-two years, it’s kept me alive somehow or another. Well, I spent a couple of years with Spence-Sales. I still have the drawings.
You mean after you graduated?
After I graduated, yes.
But before you leave McGill, do you have any other memories of those two years with Harold or any anecdotes or funny stories, any characteristics of Harold? Because I remember him too because we took, I think, a Planning course in fifth year.
But we only saw him for a short period of time. And I’ve kept in- not kept in touch, but I’ve seen him on occasion. In fact, I did an interview with him about two years ago in Vancouver on his life.
Yes, so you did. Well, they have a wonderful house out in-
The chocolate factory.
The chocolate factory, yes! With the birds fluttering around. Well, I was sort of privileged with Spence-Sales, because he sort of tolerated my Transylvanian background due to my English wife, you know, which sort of made it more easily palatable. He would tell us marvelous stories about his childhood in India. You know his father was the chief- the general manager of the Indian Railways. So he had an interesting background. He would tell us marvelous stories. This was incidental, when I worked for him, this was the time of the Società immobiliare di Roma. They loved him, him being the sort of what Italians would think an Englishman should be, but they don’t make them anymore in England.
So he was working on the master plan of Victoria Square, which I sort of drew, sketched a little bit. And it was a wonderful experience. It was a far better plan than the one which has been built. And he got along quite well with them. Then there was Mr. Miron. He had all sorts of clients, and they liked him, I think both for his professional sort of knowledge and his approach and his background as well. They respected him. It was Myron and this sort of Vatican’s representatives, because it was the Vatican who built the Victoria Square. Then we got a project to study the area between Sherbrooke and as it was called McGregor at the time, it’s Doctor Penfield now, which was a bit of a crazy project that we prepared. And we did Sainte-Thérèse-en-Haut, which was built.
I remember that.
Which for its time, it was a good project. And I think we learned a lot from him. And oh yes! And we did Oromocto, the master plan for Oromocto. And I went up to Seven-Islands, to Sept-Îles with him. So it was an interesting experience and I remember it with fondness. Following that-
So you graduated in, what, 1964 then?
Yes, I graduated in 1964 and-
You stayed working for him for a while, I gather.
Yes. Yes I worked from 1961. I have to just mention, to be exact in-
It’s not all that important if you said two or three years-
I worked for Jean-Claude Lahaie for a year afterwards, but what I did is from 1960 to ’62, I worked for Spence-Sales. I graduated in ’62. Then I worked with Rother, Bland and Trudeau, and then I applied for the fellow in government, because he started working in 1963-64 for Expo ’67. And I was lucky enough to be hired by Monsieur Robillard, among the first ones. We were about five or six people who started the master plan. It was Sandy van Ginkel who headed the group, who left afterwards. And we worked and I stayed from the very beginning of the Expo ’67 experience to the end and even afterwards for a year, for the City of Montreal. I was in charge of the La Ronde, the planning of La Ronde, which was a marvelous experience because it allowed me to learn a dimension of life, which is amusement, entertainment rather than just the straightforward building. And Mayor Drapeau at the time sent me out to Copenhagen to learn the trade of how to make people have fun without really trying.
You seem to be a natural for that.
Yeah, well, I don’t know. Ask my wife. She might not agree with me always! And to Munich to buy rides and then we would dress up the rides here and try to make them different or Canadian or whatever. So I worked for six years for Expo ’67.
So you worked all those years as a planner. You didn’t practice any architecture per se, though, eh?
Well, it was architecture, because I was briefing the architects, all the architects, like sort of Puller, Ayotte, John Schreiber and Gaboury and Max Roth, Vecsei and Ian Martin and all these people, they had their projects on La Ronde, so my job was to coordinate and make sure that the project evolved, that they had some common sort of traces in graphics, lighting, which was a very important part of McGill- of La Ronde. So I worked on that. The consultant was Sasaki and Strong. It was basically Dick Strong you know, with the second phase of the building. The first phase was a far more sort of exciting person called Sean Kenney, who was a stage designer, probably one of the greatest designers. Unfortunately, he died at a young age. But he was the consultant who suggested some extraordinary things, which were not built, except the Gyrotron, which was not appreciated enough, but which was an exciting project on its own. So that was very, very exciting.
So that responsibility took you when, ‘till about the end of what?
’67. But then you carried on La Ronde afterwards.
Yes, yes. Then they asked me to stay on with the city with Man and His World, which was a little bit less exciting, but I had to come down to earth, which was difficult after Expo. You know, it’s that sort of thing that one sort of goes up once in a lifetime, and then it’s hard to get down. I’m trying to get down not too fast for the last thirty-five years now!
So now after, I guess, La Ronde, what happened to Andrew Hoffman?
Well, after La Ronde, I worked for Jean-Claude Lahaie, who was the sort of only and biggest planner at the time of Quebec. And I was working for six years for various master plan development projects of a variety of neighbourhoods from Sainte-Foy to the South Shore, from the colline Parlementaire to the Ottawa Valley. A variety of projects for six years where it was more the sort of more applied planning. It was a big office. We were about fifty people in the office. And I was working on master plans. And my colleague was Morris Charney, who is also a McGill graduate. And he did the urban design. And it was an interesting experience, which I quite enjoyed.
And then what?
Then I quit and I set up a small planning, architecture and planning firm. I tried to do local work, mostly as a consultant, working as the sort of planning arm, say, of Arcop, with Ray Affleck, Fred Lebensold and things. A couple of projects on, you know, master plan for- in Verdun, development projects in the lake district, Argenteuil and things and a number of projects. And after a while, I realized that as I was not building and planning has become a very politicized profession, and not really having an ambition, it’s really my fault, of not setting up a planning firm large enough to deal with the type of projects that I wanted to do. I became a consultant to CIDA, I would say more like an in-house consultant, meaning that I would work as part of CIDA and I would do yearly two to three missions, I called them, les missions, this is a Gallicism, to mostly Francophone Africa, because my first language, or second language, or third, whatever you call it, was French, so I could work easily in Francophone Africa. They basically sent me to places where nobody else wanted to go, like Zaire.
Why would they want to send you there? I guess they figured-
Nobody else really wanted to work in Zaire. It’s not the world’s most attractive or easiest place to work in. So I went, I think seven times in Zaire.
So what exactly did you do when you were in Zaire? I mean-
In Zaire I worked mainly at the beginning in Bengamisa, which is an agricultural station where Patrick Blouin was building actually at the time houses for Canadian experts in forestry. It was a forestry school. Then they hired me to do a location study for a sawmill in the Upper Zaire. Then I had to do a study, which was a political one. It was Mr. Mobutu who asked Pierre Elliott to build him a university for Forestry and related things. And Pierre Elliott was wise enough to ask CIDA to see that there was really a need or possibility for it. So I was going with the Dean of Forestry from Laval University and a professor or two and a management expert and we reviewed the entire teaching framework of Zaire, which was practically non-existent, it was one of these balloon projects, so I would say my main attribute for CIDA or for the Canadian taxpayer is to demonstrate that certain projects do not have to be built, that it would be a catastrophe. So maybe I saved there fifteen to twenty million dollars, because there was no possibility. They didn’t really have a high school, so they couldn’t certainly have a Forestry Department in university. But I had to go through the rigmarole and go through five different places. We had Mr. Mobutu’s private plane and entertainment and the whole works of receptions and things, which was a certain type of experience.
Well, I’m sure it was entertaining at the time.
Yeah. So I did that and I went back for other projects, which were more realistic in Conchasa. In the meantime, I did a project, which was interesting, for the United Nations in Madagascar, where I actually lived for six months, for the study of a port and a new city to bypass the Suez Canal. This was after the Suez crisis. I was the Canadian input. There I worked with Macklin Hancock, Project Planning International of Toronto.
I’m trying to remember, the Suez crisis, was that in the seventies, early seventies?
That’s right, early seventies. They blocked the Suez so you had to go all around the Cape. And as people didn’t want to have a perfectly good port in South Africa at the time, they looked for this port in Madagascar, which is exactly the place where the Coelacanth was found. You know, that funny fish with legs and things?
So I tried to minimize the damage to this paradisiacal environment. It is a place worth going, the most wonderful people on earth. Fortunately the project was never built, because in the meantime, they kicked out the French base from the North of Madagascar, so there was a good deep-water port. There was no need for the port that I worked on very hard for a whole year! So I continued, I continued with CIDA for on and off for twenty years. They sent me to Tanzania on a housing project, which was very interesting. I went to Rwanda for Canadian agricultural experts. I may add that Rwanda was the most quiet, the most pleasant, the most equilibrated country I worked in…
It’s hard to believe.
…in Africa. It’s hard to believe. Unfortunately, the people I worked with were all killed. So it is sad to think about that.
So you’ve had a- your whole career, basically since you left, I guess, through planning has been with CIDA, which is very interesting.
Did you ever find- was there always a job ahead that they always had something for you to do? Was there ever a, sort of a spell where there was no-
There were little spells, sort of, of more quiet. I had my little office on Sherbrooke, corner Côte des Neiges. And I would do projects here as well, sort of, the odd subdivision or the ski developments and things. I did the Morin Heights ski development, the master plan, and did a bit of renovation and sort of architectural renewal projects, something on Pine Avenue and nothing to write home about. I worked with architects more. And funnily enough, these last ten years, I’ve sort of returned to working with architects.
Is that because the CIDA work sort of dried up, is that what you mean?
Yes. They dried up and, well I did the master plan of Hudson, and I did the master plan for the city, it was the last of my sort of more interesting projects, of Les Recollets, which is next to Old Montreal. We did that. And then I became the town planner of Dollard des Ormeaux…
… or as I like to call it, El Dollardo!
Well, the dollar sign is important, and it’s the El Dorado of some people! I’ m not sure whether the mayor would like to hear that.
Is it- working for a community like that, is it satisfying? I mean, I know they pay you to some degree, but is it, not rewarding but is there any satisfaction or is there always fighting bureaucracy?
It is both. The mayor is very talented, he’s an excellent man, and he helps me a lot. I have a presentation this morning. Incidentally, I am the Wednesday Planner. You know, they assign one day a week. That’s all they can afford. Not that I’m expensive, but that’s all they can afford. So if it’s Wednesdays, it’s Dollard.
It gives me justification to keep this office and give my wife some peace and quiet.
Naturally. But when you say you’re the Wednesday Planner, do you- is there much preparation or do you just go there and talk to them?
Yes, there’s a little preparation. I’m getting telephone calls. To give you an idea, tonight, I have to address the council and try to demonstrate why they shouldn’t have a Wal-Mart in the middle of their town, which isn’t an easy task, because, you know, money talks. So I have to demonstrate. I had a planner, also a McGill graduate before me, fifteen, twenty years ago, Eva Caragianis, who laid down the ground roots for the master plan and I’m trying my best to follow in her footsteps. I go over architectural plans, I suggest improvements, whether it is a shopping centre addition or whether it’s an industrial building or whether it doesn’t house, which doesn’t fit into the neighbourhood, try to, I don’t want to be presumptuous, to improve on [unclear] or at least keep the things on a sort of even.
It’s much more exciting working within a city. You know, you look out on Crescent Street, you know, a whole city of streets like that. I think of Boston, and I guess Old Montreal, but in some ways, Boston has been superior in terms of development because of the money in it. But it must be exciting for a planner to work- I think David Farley worked in Boston for a while.
Yes, oh yes. Oh yes, oh yes. David’s a wonderful guy and he’s a good planner. And, of course, I work with Jeanne Wolfe now. I go into McGill a few times a year as a non-paid workshop, on the workshop. Mainly on things like the Lachine Canal, which I did the master plan of at Jean-Claude Lahaie’s, so I’m the Lachine Canal boy, or various projects in the Southwest, which I did the master plan for.
There was a very interesting article this past weekend in the New York Times in the Travel Section on the Lachine Canal. I don’t know if you saw it.
Ooh! I would love to get a copy of that! Would you-?
I don’t have mine anymore. I know because I gave it away, but it was all about Montreal Number One and they showed all the bicycle trips along the Lachine Canal and the bridges and everything. You could still get it over at, you know, one of the- the newsstand on Dominion- Canada Square, yeah.
It’s last Saturday’s?
Sunday, Sunday Edition, yeah, New York Times.
Oh, that’s great, that’s great, that’s great. I’m going to get it because I suggested the bicycle path twenty-five years ago. It was still-
The whole article is about the bicycle paths.
Well, it was still an industrial canal at the time.
Yeah, that’s right. They talk about that. And they talk about why the canal existed because of the rapids and all that. So you’d find it interesting.
You’re going to talk to us a little bit about working without- for no money.
Yes. Well, you know, after a while, when you are tired of the rat race, but you still want to be in the race but not being a rat, I joined CESO, which is for retirees. It is a CIDA-managed programme for professionals who want to give their time for free but be paid just the expenses and have some fun. So I did that for the last six, seven years. I worked in mainly South America. They sent me first to Bolivia, to Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, where I worked, designed a framework for a resort, because I did some hotel in design before. So this was sort of in between planning and architecture just to help them. And I spent- these are sort of month-long trips which are followed by a couple of months of work here, writing a report or sort of tidying up the pieces. So the first one here was in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The second one was in Colombia, in Bogotá, which was based on my earlier, earliest work here, based on the amusement park. So they wanted to have an amusement park, and I tried to talk them into doing a thematic amusement park rather than a typical American roundabout and rides. And I tried to do something with the Colombian background. And apparently, the amusement park is built, which-
On a thematic, the thematic background?
Yes, it’s a thematic- it was sort of, I should say it was based on La Ronde, but the same sort of idea, the more- the mountainous region, the sea, and you know, cowboys and miners and the various fields of experience and something of Colombia’s past. Colombians are wonderful people, and it’s unfortunate that people only think of drugs when they think of Colombia. They are very sophisticated and some of the best architects in the world today.
But it’s almost, I don’t mean to politicize our conversation, but it’s almost a minor form of anarchy, because the government can’t seem to, you know, do anything about the guerillas and kidnapping and so forth.
It is absolutely awful. And because you- at the same time, you must have spoken to Ricardo Castro, whose book on Salmona is a fabulous book. Now, Salmona’s work is an experience. I think architects should learn, should learn what building, what brick building, what proportions are from Salmona more than probably from any other living architect. I was just looking at it for pleasure.
You’ve seen his work when you were in Colombia then.
Oh yes! I went diligently to see practically everything that I could see, including Cartagena, which is a wonderful seaside place. I tried to give myself a little bit of baksheesh or you call it pourboire or, you know, to tip. So after I do my work for a month or so, I take a week off on my own and try and see the country. Maybe I should do these things before working in the country. Then I could speak with them!
Are you still working with CESO now?
Yes, I work with CESO. Well, I did go to Peru, on a very large planning and housing project, which might continue. And at this moment, I’m working with the Kahnawake Mohawks, with whom I worked thirty and ten years ago, and they called me back for a thematic cultural centre as well as some housing project that might work. I did do a housing project, which was built there about ten years ago, and I like working with the Mohawks. The next project, because I have to think ahead, otherwise, I go stale, is in Jamaica. I was asked to work on a small resort and housing or something in Jamaica. And I might go there in the fall.
Is that with the same group?
With CESO, I see.
It is with CESO, but funnily enough, it is the same people who asked me to work in Bogotá who moved now to Jamaica! But they seemed to have liked me because they asked for me to go there. So I hope to go there in the fall, or maybe early winter, though I’m the minority, I like the Canadian winter.
You do like the Canadian winter?
I love the Canadian winter. I ski and I’m in my element in winter.
Yeah, I think I do to, but I also like getting away for the odd week. But basically, I’m a winter person in Montreal, and I ski as well and play tennis all week inside.
That’s right. Sure. “Notre pays, c’est la neige”.
I beg your pardon?
“Notre pays, c’est la neige.”
That’s it, yes!
Well, you asked me whether I have any advice, or what do I think of after, what, forty-five years in the profession. Well, it depends on the personality. Some people who are ambitious who want to build up an office have to do continuous compromises. If you want to have a more varied experience, you have to sacrifice certain material goods, certain, you know, the idea of a big office. It’s slightly different for a planner from an architect. The architect builds. He has a continuous satisfaction out of seeing things built, from drawing up a small detail to seeing it properly built, or being frustrated when it is not. A planner is more superficial. It sort of flutters around and looks at the whole rather than at the detail. I still enjoy designing a good kitchen, which I do for friends occasionally.
And don’t expect to get paid, right?
No, no, just for fun! Just to see that I am still capable of doing it. But basically, it’s good to look at the long range, if it is possible, to see what can you do, where are you going, and not make sort of immediate commitments that bogs you down for many years.
But you are fortunate because hindsight- I mean, the advice that you can give to people you’ve been through so you know. But I think you had that even when you were younger. I mean, where you are today, is because that’s what you wanted to be.
Probably, probably, but I’m very grateful to this country that gave me the opportunity to do, to be able to do that. I think you have to work in Africa, in South America to really enjoy Canada and Quebec, you know?
Somebody told me recently how fortunate we were, we all agree, that we lived in North America. But to avoid all the major catastrophes in the world, and you probably went through one of them on the fringes, but to avoid the wars, and the Americans have been through the Vietnam, the Korean War, the First World War, the Second World War. We were born in a period that we didn’ t- I never fought, I never joined any army in my life. I didn’t avoid joining, but there wasn’t a time to join-
Well, we were just glorified Boy Scouts, which is great! What’s wrong with being glorified-?
Nothing! As long as there’s a lot of Girl Guides around, right?
Exactly! And you know, I was always accepted being Canadian. You know, everywhere where I traveled. You know, the first sentence was, you know, “I’m not, you know, American, French or whatever” whatever language. Anyways, I speak all my languages with an accent, so it was not very difficult.
It has a certain élan, but a lot of people, if you asked them to go one step further and, say, ask them what they knew about Canada, they couldn’t be very specific other than the general overall impression that it must be a great place to live. Which it is.
Well, that’s great! Let’s keep it like that!
Yeah. Thank you very much.