Interview by Jim Donaldson
The reason I became an architect is one of the more difficult questions to try to answer because I don’t think I really consciously was aware of what an architect was. I think I had an idea but I wasn’t really familiar with what an architect was when I set off to study Architecture. Growing up in Windsor Ontario, I was fascinated by Detroit. Detroit was the city of skyscrapers that we’d see across the river. And a city of great baseball stadiums, Tiger Stadium, the hockey arena and whatnot. These were great buildings. And I think the fascination with these large and tremendously complex buildings was the thing that probably interested me the most in trying to understand what building was. And I guess in grade 13, when we all have to make our decision in Ontario whether we are to go on or not, I elected to go on and study Architecture because it allowed me to be able to be thinking about how one might actually do buildings of this nature some day. And I looked around to see which schools to go to. And I remember applying to four different schools. I was accepted to all of them. And then it was the question of which one to actually attend. And I went for sort of survey trips to each of the schools, to Toronto, to Carleton, to Manitoba and to Montreal, to McGill. And now McGill, of course, was for Engineering, not for Architecture. Because at that time, if you came from Ontario, you could not go directly into Architecture from grade 13, you had to do one year-
What year was that?
’74. 1974. So I had to do one interim year, which will demonstrate how much I wanted to come here because elsewhere, I didn’t have to do that. I could go directly into Architecture. So I came here. I elected to go to McGill and to come here to Montreal really within five minutes of getting off the airplane here. I was absolutely enthralled by the city and the fact that the campus was such an urban campus smack downtown with the mountain behind it was tremendous. I was a suburban kid. I grew up in the ‘burbs and as I mentioned, my vision of the big city was Detroit. And Detroit even then in the seventies was still a fairly lively big city in terms of its downtown. There were lots of people in the street. But it was so very different from Montreal. Montreal is a city that you could walk in, you could explore. The whole political situation of Montreal intrigued me. I found this growing up as an Anglophone in an area that was largely Anglophone, Southwestern Ontario, my knowledge of Quebec was next to nil. My knowledge of the French language was what you learned in high school, which meant I could order a cup of coffee and nothing more. So I saw it as an opportunity to do a lot of things. To become more culturally aware as a young twenty year old to get involved somewhat politically, to leave what I felt was just an industrial town to come to a city that seemed to offer so very much more. And to come to a school that had a tremendous reputation behind it. As you are probably aware at that time as well, I don’t know if that’s still the case, that you would eventually interview with Derek or somebody at the School of Architecture and he would pose certain questions about why you wanted to come, etc. etc. And of course, they would use that as the opportunity to also try to encourage you to come, to tell you some of the history of the school. And no, it seemed to me to be the obvious, the very obvious one.
The first year I studied Engineering and was very glad to get that over with and to go into Architecture. I did actually extremely well because you had to have good grades to get into Architecture at that time. It was extremely competitive. And I ensured that I had, in American terms, a 4.0 average. I ensured that I had a perfect record to be able to enter the programme, to get over that hurdle. And then I commenced in the School of Architecture. And the first year was an eye-opener because, of course, architecture is more than building and my introduction to engineering was all about building and there was not really any kind of theory involved with it. It was very practically-oriented. So it took quite a bit of an adjustment to understand that it was a very labyrinth-like discipline that involved a tremendous amount of reading and exploration in areas that I really had no knowledge of. And so the period of transition to become a proper student of Architecture took some time. It actually took at least a couple of years to at least get into the spirit of trying to understand that architecture was not just building.
I think the first year was particularly intriguing because it was the year in which you’re forced to work with other people in the design studio as well. And of course, you don’t get immediately into architecture but you get into trying to understand how buildings are built and the nature of the construction process and whatnot. And that meant working in teams with classmates. And that was also a difficult transition because everything I had done to date was working really on my own. And I was always a very self-motivated person and I had set my own agenda; things would be on my terms. Working in a group was not that way. And it was very appropriate because, of course, as I am now fully aware of, to work in architecture, to teach Architecture, to practice in architecture in any way, shape or form involves a collaborative effort. But that of course again took some time to understand the nature of a collaborative effort. It was consensus. It was give and take. My idea wasn’t always the idea that would win; it wasn’t always the best idea.
Were these teams foisted on you or did you have a choice in-?
That’s interesting because I don’t exactly remember that. I have a feeling we had a fair bit of leeway in choosing our team members. I think so because it seems to me I ended up working with the same people a lot. So I think it must have been related to that. Now, what’s also interesting is that some of the first people I worked with have- became and continue to be my closest friends. So that first year set up a set of relationships, which have continued for over twenty-five years. And considering the fact that I’ve moved, I’ve lived in different countries, I now live in America, and many of my friends in that class, in that first year that I worked with in a team, on team projects, have moved out to other countries. So very few are actually left in Montreal of the four or five that I initially started to work with in a collaborative effort.
So in your first year in Architecture, do you remember some of the professors in particular or any of the courses?
Yes, and actually, I think the two professors that within the first two years, actually, that I found provided a lot of direction and a lot of inspiration really for me were Stuart Wilson in particular. Now, I think Stuart was actually second year where he provided a lot of inspiration for me. And I don’t mean inspiration in the sense that we get along. We did no get along. Stuart was a very demanding professor and he expected a lot of his students. And he expected you to come with a lot of knowledge to the class that most of us simply did not have, including myself. But what I liked was he was absolutely fervent about what he stood for. And I think it was very important to have someone who was quite strong and who was quite focused on what they believed architecture was about. Particularly his interest in geometry, which was something that- an abstraction, which of course was something I, again, knew really very little about. And I really didn’t understand geometry within the Geometry courses I had taken in Mathematics. So I didn’t understand how really that could be a founding order for something, a way of seeing things. Stuart, as I said, proved to be a very, very influential professor, perhaps because he was such a curmudgeon, he proved to be all the more powerful an impact on me. He wasn’t the kind of person that you’d befriend, he was a person you would come to respect. And I really did come to respect him very much.
The other professor who, and again, I will probably get my years wrong, but was Peter Collins initially that had a tremendous impact on me. Because of course he tried to now situate what you were doing in the studio within the broad world of ideas. And Peter Collins, of course, coming from England, coming from a very different background to North America, choosing to emigrate and to make a new life and make McGill his home. These were all things that interested me tremendously. Why someone would do this. Of course, I’d been in England, knew a fair bit about England and I was fascinated as to why an Englishman would choose to come to Montreal and make a life here.
Did you ever find out?
No, because much like Stuart, Peter Collins was a very formal gentleman, very reserved. Not someone who engaged you in an American sense, where he basically told you his life story in five minutes. By no means. And I do know that a few times I did try to probe and I know I crossed the line, because he was very reticent to open up in that avenue. You know, at the time, I didn’t understand it, but I think I respect that now. I understand people have their areas of privacy and they need that.
Did he teach you History at that time?
Yes, he did. And I remember, of course we all remember A9, which was the fascinating room, which you would enter and within two minutes invariably fall asleep because there was no oxygen in the room. But the slides he showed were always analogous to architecture, almost always analogous to architecture. Painting, in particular, and one would have to try to draw linkages back to the relevance to architecture and the history of ideas. And again, this was a fascinating period for me because it was a broadening period, a period where you could actually start to see linkages that were not so obvious at the outset of the programme.
I remember one occasion with Peter Collins that- myself and Ron Lawee, who was my best friend at school, we were both very interested in traveling and going to Europe in particular. And we had approached Peter and asked him where he thought we might go to travel. And he suggested to us, well, why not look at study abroad as opposed to just traveling across Europe.
And was this during the- when you were still studying?
Still a student, yeah. And it was in third year. And he suggested to us that he had a very good colleague in the South of France in a school outside of Marseilles where he would try to arrange for a study abroad programme. I didn’ t follow through on it, primarily because Ron didn’t want to follow through on it and I was very afraid of going over there on my own. But it excited me to the possibility of actually living and studying in Europe, which is something that eventually I would go on to do. But I would say that, again, it was Peter’ s encouragement to even think about that, to give it serious consideration, that eventually I would be able to do it. I would not have, I’ m sure, not have really thought about it otherwise.
And I remember one occasion with Stuart Wilson that actually was one studio scene that will always remain with me and is indelibly printed on my memory. And that is our first review of our first model that we had to build of a tensile structure. And he came in, he was a smoker, he came in with his cigarette, at that time you could actually smoke in the studios, and yes, it was hanging out of his lips with the ashes burnt all the way down with the ashes just hanging on waiting to fall onto your work. And I remember I’d worked with David Norman, who is an architect in Vancouver, on that. And he came over to our desk and looked at the model, picked it up, turned it around a few times, turned it upside down. This is string and paper, a very awful model I’m sure. And put it on the floor, walked around it a few times, gave it some more observation, and then did a dance on it. And both Dave and I were horrified! We’ d stayed up all night, of course, building this model. And it was now demolished. Horrified in the sense that we had failed, not that he had stepped on the model and demolished the model, that we were offended by the fact that that had occurred, but rather that somehow, we had completely, utterly failed in the exercise, to have understood the idea of it, which had led to him feeling that the appropriate demise of this was to reduce it to the ashes like his cigarette. I can tell you the next time, I paid a lot more attention to what the point was and to try to understand better what he was trying to get us to see. So now today, of course, I teach today and I know you can not, first of all, smoke in the classroom and secondly, if you were to, in the States, if you were to take somebody’s model and step on it, you probably would end up in court. So I know you can’t do that today.
Did he enunciate or did he say anything further or did he-?
No, actually he didn’t really make full sentences about that kind of thing. He just would give a word or two of descriptive, and sometimes, four-letter descriptives of the project. The point being, that he made it very clear to us that it was a perplexing structure that we had made that really didn’t make a lot of sense and that there were more logical approaches to structure that we could, if we just paid more attention to follow and discover. So, no, actually, it was very interesting that he didn’t have to say a lot. It was the action that spoke certainly louder than words on that occasion.
You have to have pretty think skin and accept humility from time to time.
Yeah, except at that time, we were maybe 22, and I don’t think we had as thick skin as much as we were very much, not afraid, we weren’t afraid, but we were very much in awe of Stuart. And I think both Dave and I continue to think of him as one of our closest and most influential professors. And for that reason, we both felt awe for him at that time. And we certainly didn’t speak poorly of him after that. We told the story about it and most people laughed at us for having done such a lousy model.
So, that was- you talked a little bit about the first and second year. Were there other professors? I guess there’s some that I guess get mixed up in the years, because you had some professors, like Peter Collins, I guess, that carried through for a few years, but there are other people. Do you have any memories of them as well?
Sure. The two other professors, Rad Zuk and Norbert Schoenauer. And Rad Zuk, again, I think the influence being that he really allowed us to understand that one could have a very process-oriented approach to design and that it could be, in a sense, rational. At least one could have one layer of the design process that had a rational component attached to it. And his building systems approaches and that was an eye-opener. And it’s actually something that I continue to explore today and it’s a method of working that I encourage students to look at today. With Norbert Schoenauer, there’s a very different experience, because we actually did become friends after the studio experience. I was fascinated by Norbert in many respects. He taught us both Design Studio and The History of Housing. And he was a Hungarian minority from Romania who had emigrated to Canada. And he was a very spirited individual. And I remember when he walked up on the platform in A9 the first day of The History of Housing, he introduced himself as Professor Schoenauer, and within two minutes he had told us that he was a Socialist. And I thought, “Well, that’s very interesting. So what’s all this about now?” And he made explicit his political desires and his worldview throughout his conveying to us his appreciation of the history of housing. And I very much appreciated the agenda that he tried to present to us as young architects that housing was all about agendas. It was all about trying to advance causes. It was all about belief structures that went well beyond walls and a roof and mere enclosure and shelter. And it was intimately attached to larger cultural issues, and as I’ve mentioned already, social and political issues. And that of course really founded my interest and continues to found my interest in architecture today. Norbert really, if anyone, opened that window of opportunity, allowing me to see the world in a very different way. I think he did, and I’ve never told him that and I never will.
Well, I think it’s something that I just keep private. And Norbert, he knows I respect him, and he knows I feel very fondly towards him, but I just can’t say that. At any rate, I did quite well in his studio and certainly in his History of Housing class. And what I looked forward to doing was to see if upon graduation later, I could actually start to apply some of the larger ideas that he raised. So housing became my focus. And laterally, through housing, urban design with a focus, of course, on the housing component.
Did John Bland- was John Bland teaching while you were there?
No. Well, John was, but I had him only very briefly in the first year. And he was really- I think he might have been professor emeritus at the time. My contact with him was certainly negligible.
How about Gerry Tondino? I guess he was there too.
Oh yes, we had a great- I loved very much the Sketching Studio. And we had a great summer in Peterborough, Ontario doing Sketching class. And again, it was the experience that went well beyond just drawing and ways of seeing lead to how one could sketch. It was very, a very much tremendously exciting time, because you were with your friends, you were in a small town. At the time, we had motorcycles so we could ride up to Peterborough and be out and enjoying the streams and the canals and the waterfalls that are in the dams in Peterborough. Most of my sketches in fact were of places I had hung out during the day.
Who was the director of the school when you were here? Was it Derek?
Derek. Well, briefly Norbert, and then Derek. There was a rapid transition from John Bland through Derek- through Norbert to Derek.
And did Derek teach you at all?
Yes, he did. He taught me Site Usage. And my contact with Derek was mostly his interest in squash and my interest in squash. So I had very little direct contact with him other than through our mutual interest in sport. And I think I only played him once, because he was a much better player than I was. But I watched him very often up in the squash courts up on the hill.
There was one opportunity that I had when I was at McGill that, again, had a very strong influence on my life and that was I joined a group called World University Services of Canada. And in 1976, we were sponsored to go to Guyana, or what was known as the Socialist Republic of Guyana at the time, in South America. This was just after having taken Norbert’s course and his tremendous interest in socialism. My role as an architecture student was to document to a degree the housing conditions in Georgetown, which was the capitol, which is the capitol of Guyana. And it proved to be a seminal event in my life, period. I met people from twenty different people countries during that summer. I traveled in the jungle; I traveled too to the border of Brazil, to the borders of Surinam in Venezuela. We flew in old military DC3’s and I remember one of them was such a rust bucket that I actually stuck my hand through the wall, the fuselage, the skin of the airplane outside into the slipstream. Thought nothing of it, it just was exciting to be able to do it. We went to a number of sites, including Matthew’s Ridge, which was a kind of a camp where street kids would be sent to for the summer so they would learn discipline but they’d also learn about how to work towards creating this new society that their Prime Minister was trying to promote, Forbes Burnham.
At any rate, I came back to McGill after that summer, and most of my friends thought I had gone through some tremendous metamorphosis, because it was the same summer I decided I’d no longer wear glasses and I’d cut my hair so I looked like a very different person. And the next fall, the immediate fall, I was able to invite up to Montreal, to McGill to lecture one of the professors that I had met in Guyana, Rory Westmas. And that was when Witold was here, Witold Rybczynski. And we had met with Rory and had a very nice visit with him. Rory had been in jail for about ten years because of his beliefs, his political beliefs. And he- I remember when I first heard about Nelson Mandela, I thought about Rory Westmas because he’s a man who came out of prison not bitter. He was a political dissenter. Spent many years there and he came out and he embarked upon his career as an architect just as if nothing had occurred, architect and educator. These kind of people are extraordinary people to me. Believe me, when you’ve met them, you never forget them. They leave an indelible impact upon you. And I’ve in the last few years, lost contact with Rory. I understood he’s still in Guyana but I don’t know what he’s doing exactly now. But I went to visit a few times after to try to keep in touch.
After you graduated?
Oh yes, yeah, to go back, to see what was occurring.
So any other memories of McGill? We have a lot of time and we have a lot of tape. We can always go back to it. But I would be interested in knowing a little bit about what you did after you graduated.
Sure. Well, upon graduation, I had the chance- I called up another international organization which allowed you to work in Europe for the summer. I’m forgetting the acronym right now. I.C.O.N.? International… No, it’ s not I.C.O.N. Sorry, I forget the acronym. But at any rate, they provided jobs for students for a brief period in various European countries. And I applied to go and work in Holland, the Netherlands. And was accepted and went to work for what is known as the Rijksdienst voor de ljselmeerpolders, which was the corporation that was in charge of developing the polder area of the Netherlands. So as my first opportunity from a first job, it was my first opportunity to be involved in the actual development of a city. And that city was Lelystad, which was named after the engineer who had developed the polders. And it was a tremendous experience: a different country, a different language, different ways of working. All of it, of course, totally new to me. But what amazed me was how everything was so integrated. In the office, as an architect, you worked with landscape architects. They weren’t down the hall, you were side by side. You worked with economists, you worked with social workers. It was an extremely- and engineers. It was an extremely broad and comprehensive approach to building a city. And what amazed me about the Dutch is they understood building cities to be part of building a nation. So the two were inseparable concepts. I spent about six months there, which was the term permitted under the visa, and then I returned to North America and had a very difficult time now-
This would have been, what, 1980 then?
That would be 1980. And returned to North America, had a very difficult time finding a practice in Montreal, because that was now my new home, that would allow me to pursue these larger issues of city building and interest in housing at the very large scale and whatnot. There were many jobs available at that time. I had no problem finding a job. It was a question of finding employment that allowed me to pursue the interests that I had. It wasn’t until I worked with Arcop that I was able to finally get into some of those interests and primarily because of Ramesh Khosla and the very close working relationship, very tempestuous but very close working relationship that we had. And Ramesh had, I’m thankful to say, fortunate to say, took me under his wing. So we traveled a lot and we spent some time in Alberta doing that. The Arcop years were very good years. I learned a lot about how to actually conceptualize, from conception through to actual construction of a building. I really learned that at Arcop.
Which one of the partners did you work with?
Ramesh. All the time. He was the only partner I worked with. And I worked indirectly, who is now a partner, with Bruce Allen. But it was Ramesh that I worked with. Ramesh and I found that we both liked the same people and the same writing, the same literature. So our relationship was actually built out of a mutual interest in other areas other than architecture and we were able to bring that mutual interest back into architecture.
So we’re now at Arcop.
Right. And that was, again, in the early eighties and it was the opportunity to really cut my teeth in architecture. And I was fortunate to be able to have what turned into a very, very close working relationship with Ramesh Khosla. I didn’t really get a chance to deal very often with Ray. He would come across to look at the work that I’d be doing for Ramesh, but they more or less did their own projects, because I often was involved in the two years I was there with Ramesh’s Indian work. And that really was kept quite separate from the general work in the practice. But the fascinating thing was not just the Indian work; it was the work all overseas, including India. In Libya, I remember one Christmas working the entire Christmas period including Christmas day to complete the conceptual drawings for a proposed hotel in BeniWalid, outside of Tripoli, Libya. Which Ramesh jumped on the plane the next day and flew over to Tripoli to meet with his client to present. It was exciting. It was tremendous. He felt like Montreal was a base, and it was just a base for a wider world. And he could come and go from Montreal and maintain your contacts and really explore the world from this fabulous city.
In some ways, it’s still like that as you know, because a lot of the successful engineering and architectural firms do their work outside of the country.
Not so much in Canada and a little bit in the US, but basically offshore somewhere.
Yeah. Well, the international component is, of course, is really where my interests lay.
So how long did you stay at Arcop?
About two years. And then while I was at Arcop, I took a vacation, after two years, I took a vacation for a week or so and I was visiting Ron Lawee and David Norman, two graduates from here, in Geneva, in Switzerland where they were living. And they were working for architects there. And I was playing tennis one day and I played tennis with the representative of Trinidad and Tobago on the court. I beat him, but he still offered to have a glass of beer or something together after. We went for a drink, we chatted, and within five minutes, I was offered a job to work for the government of Trinidad.
Down there. And about a month later, two representatives of the corporation I would be working for, which is a quasi-public, quasi-private partnership called Nipdec came from Port of Spain to Montreal to interview me. And I was approved for the position and about two weeks later, I was down in Port of Spain. And I worked there for on and off for about a year and a half. And it was again, a very interesting experience, working now a second government type of job, very different from the Netherlands, also in housing, also in master planning. And I had the very intriguing position of being a foreigner, of being white, with all that that implies in the Caribbean, trying to propose housing projects that were low income for Trinidadians. Not really understanding the culture, because I was new to the area. Certainly not understanding the economic situation and what one could or could not achieve. So I was learning very quickly to try to come up to speed very quickly about what could be done. It proved to be an exceptionally good job. It was not without a lot of difficulty, but it was a very good job. I met a lot of people again who I maintain close contact with ‘till today. And from there, really, I decided to do a lot of traveling after I left Trinidad. With [Laura Neil], a graduate, I traveled around the world over a period of about six, eight months.
Was that sailing?
Were you sailing?
No, I wish we were sailing. We were flying. We flew around the world and we spent a lot of time in Southeastern Europe and then in Singapore. Which is eventually, she stayed on in Singapore because she was really attracted to it and I was not. So I went on and traveled through China and then came back to North America. It was on that trip to Singapore that eventually she met someone, Robert Jan Van Pelt, who teaches at Waterloo, who introduced her to her husband, and she’s now living in the Netherlands.
He’s quite a well-known and respected politician.
He’s a member of- he used to be [unclear] Parliament.
Well now he’s a member of the Cabinet, of the Dutch Cabinet and he has the portfolio for the Caribbean. So it’s a very senior portfolio, and a very difficult one as well given the fact that, again, it’s a colonial vestige. So it’s a sensitive portfolio.
So now we’re up to, what, when? 1986?
About 1986. And upon returning from this extended trip around the world and seeing that, I opted to go back and study again. And I went to the Architectural Association in London, where a friend of mine, Randy Cohen, had just graduated from there and he had spoken very highly of it. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I had a tremendous awareness of Britain, interest in studying in Britain because of what I felt would be very high standards and the AA of course was a school that was extremely well-known, had a tremendous history and also had a very close relationship to Canada through its Chair at the time, Alvin Boyarsky, who was a McGill graduate. So there was a very close relationship back to McGill in that respect as well. I did my year and a half graduate study at the AA in Housing and Urbanism and then I embarked upon my own practice after that.
In Montreal. I came back to Montreal. And practiced for a period of about a year and a half and then decided that I was not really cut out to be a sole practitioner. Did a number of projects that were interesting, normally in joint venture, actually, entirely in joint venture with other people. Did a fair number of study projects for the city of Montreal and for the federal government in housing, CMHC. And then decided to go ahead and pursue a doctorate because about in ’92, 91 or ’92, I decided that my future lay in teaching. And my desire was to teach overseas. And in most schools overseas in most countries overseas, one requires a doctorate to be able to teach. So I bit the bullet, and took my chances and went back to the AA and spent the next seven years in and out of the AA while I was completing the doctorate, doing some teaching on the side. Some vary nice opportunities to teach in foreign countries, also in Canada briefly. And then I completed the doctorate just a little over a year ago and I’ve been teaching in Texas since.
How did that happen? How did you go from London to Texas?
Yeah, well that’s a roundabout route. And certainly, when I left the AA, most people looked very skeptically at the idea of my leaving London to go to Texas, particularly West Texas where I live. The route was interesting because I first went to Colorado and I had a one-year teaching position there. Boulder is where I lived and I taught in Denver at the graduate school. And tremendous city, both Boulder and Denver. The explosive growth that one really only finds in Asia at the time before the recession and certainly in America, these unbelievably rapidly growing cities. And my Doctorate was about the American city. It was about American culture and urbanism. So it was a very nice fit to go to Texas because one of the cities that I looked at in great detail was the city of Houston, so I understood a little bit about Texas, the Lone Star State. And was- at the first opportunity to go there, seized that opportunity and have been there since and hope to be there for some time.
So what are you teaching?
Urbanism with a major focus on housing, and Urban Design, and on occasion I teach Acculturation courses for Montreal, because we now have- Texas Tech has a Montreal programme.
‘Cause you have- how many students are with you up here now?
There are twenty-two.
How many, twenty-two?
And what do they do? They’re up here for a whole month?
No, they’re up here for the summer. So they’re up here for almost three months. And it’s a summer programme where typically, one takes one’s students to Europe or Asia, and sometimes to other parts of the world, but typically Europe and Asia. We have a European programme, but our focus on Texas Tech is in trying to create a North-South dialogue. So this is the opening of a further dialogue we’ d like to have with Mexico. And hence, the idea is to bring the students into a foreign environment. And Canada certainly is foreign from America, as I can tell you now from living in Texas. And the desire is to use Montreal as a base and the resources of McGill and the contacts already existing at McGill. Different culture, different language, it’s a tremendous opportunity for the students. So they do a full range of studies. They do their Urban Design Studio and then we do Urban Theory and Architectural Theory and a number of other courses, so it’s a very daunting task.
They have the odd evening off, I guess, eh?
They have the odd evening off.
Well, they’ve had too many evenings off!