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Donald Johnston

B.Arch. 1971
Ottawa, ON
October 30, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson

Well, I was always focused on becoming an architect, certainly for as long as I can remember, certainly before high school. It probably contributed that one of my relatives was an architect in Australia. But I think it really grew out of my ability to draw and interest in buildings around me. I chose McGill; actually there really wasn’t a choice. I went through the school system in Montreal. At that time, the School of Architecture was a six-year programme starting with first year Engineering. And you could go straight from High School. So in a lot of ways, McGill was the continuation of going through high school. And I was in first year Engineering at sixteen years old. Very young, but I had made choices of my courses in high school in preparation of going to the School of Architecture. I can remember visiting McGill at open house when I was a high school student and visiting the School of Architecture and running around the studios and letting my high school friends know that this is where I was going to be going to school. So there really wasn’t a choice.

[1:23:15]

I was at McGill between 1965 and 1971. At that time, we were located in the wing of the Engineering building just near the Milton gates. It was a six-year programme towards one degree, a Bachelor of Architecture and it included first year Engineering. When I think of that time, it was an extraordinary time to be in Montreal. It was a time when Place Ville Marie was built; the Bonaventure Hotel was being built; Habitat ’67 and, of course, the Expo site; the Leacock building at McGill; the library in Town of Mount Royal. It was a time when we felt anything was possible and you didn’t have to go elsewhere to see the best things being built. So that was extraordinary. Also, the sort of rediscovery of Old Montreal, which was slowly being rebuilt and refound. So that was one context at the time. Another at the time, of course, was simply the emergence of Quebec culture and the marches down Sherbrooke Street to McGill School of Architecture, a solidarity with the Independentist Movement. So that was another context of Montreal, which was extraordinary. And I think the third thing came out of the United States and out of the police riots in Chicago, and I guess out of war. But there was a sense of revolution, a sense of ability to change the world and that students were engaged in that process. And I think those were important contextual aspects to that time.

[3:15:26]

In terms of my own experience at McGill, I think of it in two parts, the first three years, after which I took a year out of school, and then the last three years. If I think of- if I could condense it into a few words, I guess it would be engagement, and maybe exhaustion. I think of first year as a, on the one hand, awakening a wonderful enjoyment of McGill and it’s social activities, being part of downtown Montreal, and at the same time, just the grind of Engineering and the course load. Second year was similar, quite Engineering-based, and I still have a recurring nightmares from that era of some forgotten course that I all of a sudden remember I have to write an exam in an hour. But in second year, Derek Drummond began to introduce us to the school. The crucible, though, was third year, and Stuart Wilson’s studio. And I remember third year as being mostly terrorized by Stuart Wilson and to some extent by Bruce Anderson with his CBA course. The first three years, as I mentioned earlier, I was sixteen years old in university and I think of the time as spinning more or less out of control. It was a wonderful learning period, but a time where I just squeaked through.

[4:55:23]

The year I took off, I worked for Marshall and Merrett, Stahl, Elliot, Mill over on Mountain Street. I learned how to become an effective member of a team, producing real working drawings, real wall sections and being- watching how people did it in a very competent, professional manner. And so when I returned to school in fourth year, I felt much more confident and competent. I remember the time as having respect of my peers and of the faculty that I dealt with. The fourth year was 1968, the year of revolution around the world, and Paris and us weren’t- our school wasn’t immune from that. At one point, there was a student strike that closed the school down. I can remember leaders like Stan Downey and Jai Sen being charismatic characters in upper years that led that strike. I participated in it myself, but it certainly was an engagement of that year.

[5:58:29]

And what I remember most fondly from that year was Gerry Tondino and his wonderful Life Drawing classes and making those conceptual leaps of not just drawing lines but learning how to draw volumes. Then fifth and six year, and hitting my stride, fifth year, we worked in dyads, as we called them, or teams of two, on more complicated projects. I worked with Freeman Chan, who is now teaching in Hong Kong. And having fun and being able to handle more complicated problems. Sixth year was the year of the Community Design Workshop and working with Joe Baker as a very inspirational leader and friend. And learning to try to apply our energies to helping the disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our society, an experience which I think has affected my career ever since. So I remember those years fondly and I think of the excellent, exquisite seminars given by Peter Collins on History of Architecture and later, his Seminar on Architectural Judgment. Of course, the studios were central to our existence in those days and I still maintain the terrible work habits we learned in those days that I still don’t think I’ m doing a job well enough unless I miss the night’s sleep and work until all hours. I wish I could overcome that, but I haven’t been able to do so.

[7:44:22]

In terms of influences, I certainly picked up something from every faculty person, but in terms of standing out, I would have to say it was the relationship with Joe Baker. In my sixth year of school, Joe Baker had negotiated an arrangement with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation that we had access to a million dollars to buy properties in Point St-Charles, a disadvantaged area of Montreal, and to set up co-ops, this is before the co-op programme that came later in the seventies, to renovate those places and to try to buy back control of the community for its residents. We renovated a flat in Point St-Charles and became part of an effort to change the nature of life in that community along with the legal profession and a number of other skills in keeping. So it was an opportunity to see a different Montreal. It was an opportunity to apply our energies to trying to improve things for a disadvantaged part of our culture. And that experience and that responsibility that Joe passed on to us is something that continues to inform and influence decisions I’ve made in my career and I know others who went through the experience with Joe would say the same.

[9:28:20]

I graduated in 1971. While I was there, they introduced an additional degree so we got both degrees at once, I guess, the Bachelor of Science and the Bachelor of Architecture. And I had worked in my sixth year in the Community Design Workshop and that continued through the following summer where we had opportunities for youth grants that enabled us to continue with the programme for a while. But I had been lucky enough to win the A.F. Dunlop traveling scholarship, or at least share it with one of my colleagues, Freeman Chan. And I left Montreal in September of the following year and went to work in Europe. I worked in Zurich with a small firm of architects, doing residential and some small commercial work, which was a wonderful experience. And from there I spent a year and a half working in London with a commercial office doing some mixed-use developments and a few office buildings, etc. But it was a time really to see the surroundings so my life was shared between my work and of course seeing Europe etc. I had gotten while at school after my fourth year, which also ensured that my marks went up by at least ten percent. And so those years were spent with my wife in Europe.

[11:04:00]

After two or so years in Europe, I returned to Canada and we decided, my wife and I decided to move to Ottawa, where I took a job with Murray and Murray Architects. And over the next few years, we did a number of university projects and a number of residential projects where I acted as a project architect, design architect for a number of those projects. But after four years there, I made a decision, which changed the direction of my career. I realized that I had gotten into it for housing. I wasn’t up for another university building. I wanted to go back into housing and not necessarily from architectural perspective but I guess more from a policy perspective. So at that point, I decided to join Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. I spent a few years in Halifax, where I participated in the development in the old North End, the shape of it and the regeneration of a public housing project in Uniacke Square, again, which drew on my experience at McGill with Joe Baker. That regeneration initiative was with the black community, historically disadvantaged and it was very much not only a physical upgrading of that community but a social experience as well. From there I became Research Director with Canada Mortgage, which is, if not the only, certainly the most significant housing research organization in the country. And I enjoyed my work there very much. And much more recently, I’ve now become the Senior Director of Technology and Policy with the Canadian Home Builders and my efforts there are aimed at creating a positive climate for home building, which includes policy as well as technological issues.

[13:09:01]

After graduating and working in Europe for a couple of years, I came back and wrote the entrance requirements for joining the OAQ. And I swore at that time that would be the last exam I ever wrote, and I don’t think I’ve had to write an exam since then and I certainly don’t intend to do any more. But I did go back to school in that after about ten years out of school, I assisted in the design studio for a couple of years at the Technical University of Nova Scotia. That was a very good experience and ten years was a good period of time to be out of school to go back. It was many times that I would find myself speaking to a student and then saying, “Oh yeah. I remember being on the other side of that conversation with some teacher trying to get an idea across to me”. So I found teaching a very good discipline of sorting things out and that was a very worthwhile thing to do.

[14:07:09]

I’ve also had an ongoing relationship with the school through Avi Friedman and the Affordable Homes Programme in that it’s connected with my work, at the time, with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. I enjoy giving the occasional lecture to his students and participating in his initiatives. I also had the opportunity to travel with Vikram Bhatt and David Covo when we went to China. Again, preparing presentations and working with them was a real pleasure. So my association with the School of Architecture has really permeated my life and it’s been a source of great pleasure and interest.

[14:50:02]

In terms of the school and the teaching of Architecture, I found a tremendous gap between what I learned in school and what I had to do in offices. Had I not taken a year off and worked as a draughtsman and learned the craft, of making sure that there weren’t any mistakes on a working drawing, or whatever, I would have been totally lost with what responsibilities were thrust on young architects. I was in charge of ten million dollar projects, where I was supposed to somehow know how to do these drawings. And I think that there was a huge gap there and potentially, where that sort of an apprenticeship is needed on those kinds of skills if you’re going to be working in that environment. So I felt only prepared for that kind of activity because of the time I had spent as a draughtsman and not from the School of Architecture. So there was a big step there in transition. But I really view my career as a whole series of transitions and that was simply one of them. And the skills that I picked up there, my ability to draw, my ability to design, to solve problems, to articulate answers, to work in teams and to see meeting the user’s needs as the fundamental criteria of community design and architectural design, those have served me well through the various pieces of my career, whether it was working at the Privy Council Office, setting up Cabinet meetings or whether it was developing policy or whether it was working with community groups, those skills, those general abilities to solve problems, to do research, to learn have been very, very valuable. And I’ve agreed with a number of graduates over a few beers that it’ s a wonderful education. The profession may be the pits but the education is wonderful.

[17:05:00]

Over the years, as the Director of Research at CMHC, I had the opportunity to hire a number of architects, young graduates of the school. And they all impressed me. They could think, they could write, they could solve problems, they could work hard. And so I look to that as a real, a good indicator of talent that they have graduated from the School of Architecture. In terms of changes in the profession, I’m not a practicing architect so I feel on the edge of it, but what I would note is that the offices I worked in a number of years ago, the principals were wealthy people, were very financially-secure people. Whereas my contemporaries today who are in private practice are very much hand-to-mouth, they’re very much working at the boards. Now that’s just anecdotal, but I think that there has been a change in those terms and I think it’s not just the market. I think the profession is being marginalized. And architects, for example, have to come to terms with design-build arrangements, they are being passed by in terms of how buildings are being produced today and they have to become engaged if they want to have an influence on it.

[18:36:21]

A few years ago I attended a number of sessions at Carleton University, at their School of Architecture. And while this phase may be past, I was concerned by the level of introverted preoccupation with esoteric vocabularies and esoteric drawings that spoke to no one other than other architects. And I would hope that that exclusivity is kept in check. While we do share a vocabulary amongst architecture, it’s terribly important that we also relate to the general population and we don’t become caught up in our own preoccupations, that our profession is very much one that serves the public and has to be accessible to them. And in terms of what schools should be doing with their students, again, I’m not qualified to speak, except to observe. I think that it’ s important that the students get out to see their environment. As students, we got out to look at communities, how they worked, what made them tick. Montreal is such a fertile place of the most wonderful medium-density housing solutions and interesting streets and fabulous heritage that it’s important students get out and see. That would be my recommendation that it’s always part of the education at school.

[20:14:19]