February 18, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson
I decided to become an architect when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life and I wanted to be a something, to have a title and to be able to identify what it was I was. And in high school, I knew I wanted to go to university just because I wanted to have that experience. Though I enjoyed the arts, I thought I would have to be taught sciences, so I went into the sciences. Then decided I liked applied sciences, so I was considering engineering and medicine and architecture.
I found architecture school very difficult. I found it too- a lot of hard work, which is fine. The studio experience is unique. I think it’s something that architects share from school that so many others don’t. You wouldn’t find that kind of camaraderie or that closeness in a general arts degree or anything like that. And that learning together, learning to work together, was very important, very valuable. And it’s a very good broad education. I’ve been involved with NCARB and CCAC and a number of bodies looking at architectural education and registration standards and whatnot. And I know the Boyer Report out of the United States calls architecture one of the best educations for training complex problem-solvers and that’s very much what we are. It’s very much what we enjoy doing is solving complex problems for people in our design and in delivering the projects. I’ve always felt that architecture is architecture when it’s built. Otherwise, it’s a pretty picture. And it involves the art and the science and the business. You lose any one of them, you don’t have architecture because it doesn’t get built. And I think that the schooling that we got at McGill did help us to understand those three aspects. Surprisingly enough, one of the few textbooks I opened again after school was Engineering Economy when I was trying to figure out what things cost and what was the present worth and future values and all the rest of it. And I think we got a good grounding in those sciences and in building systems. I thought the studios, though, the design studios, you were pretty much left out on your own and it was up to you to figure out how to do things and pull them together. And I don’t think the teaching was as strong as it could have been. There was a certain attitude of well, if we teach you how to do it, then you’ll only be able to do it our way. I think there’s a lot of basic skills that could have been taught more effectively and we could have used those basic skills to develop our own stronger skills. So I don’t buy that argument all that well. And there were some teachers there who, to put it politely, were past their prime when they were teaching me. Stuart Wilson certainly comes to mind. He may have had some strong history, but by the time he was teaching me, he was capable of ripping people apart and basically destroying them. I nearly quit because of him. And at the time, a man who’s now my partner, Len Rodrigues, who was a couple of years ahead of me, had gone through the same thing. And Len is a brilliant designer. And I thought if Stuart Wilson can make Len Rodrigues feel that way, maybe it’s not me. Maybe I am good enough to be an architect”. And so I stayed and I graduated and developed over a number of years.
Were there any other professors that sort of you remember that might have had some influence, good or bad, on your career or your education?
Collins was good.
Yeah. He challenged you to think, to think clearly. Not to think in clichés and also challenged you to write well, to have something to say and to write it well. And I found him very challenging that way and I’ve had to write a number of things over the years and I find a lot of people don’t write well, don’t clarify their ideas. And he helped me to do that. Tondino helped me to see colours and shadows. Shadows aren’t black and white. They have colours in them.
He’s still there, by the way. He’s still teaching.
I also found him somewhat intimidating because I wasn’t a very good artist or very good at sketching. But he did- and I don’t think he taught me to be a better artist but he did teach me to look at things and I think that was a valuable contribution. An old structural teacher, um-
I’ll think of his name in a minute. Structural engineering?
Yes. He was good. And he loved to teach architects.
We’ll think of his name in a minute. But how about- was Norbert around?
Norbert Schoenauer? He taught us a housing, historical kind of course. You know, a half-hour a week, so-.
Derek, Derek Drummond or Bruce Anderson, were they part of the staff? I guess they were at the time, yeah.
Bruce Anderson was teaching graphics in the early years, first year when I was there. And those graphic skills I’ve taken with me to today in putting together brochures and documentation and learning about colour and also in the things that I’ve been writing, how to present all that. So that was useful and also introduced us to photography. And they’re all kind of parallel skills that we use incidentally. I thought McGill was very good at those extraneous things, if you will, at the graphics. With Derek Drummond it was more on the lines of urban planning and siting and understanding those issues and traffic and flow.
It’s interesting because some of the people have talked about some of the visiting crits, architects who came in to sort of criticize or compliment some of your programmes, like Ray Affleck and Guy Desbarats. Were any of those people around at the time you were there? Moshe Safdie? They didn’t come in, did they?
No, no. In fact, we had very few outside critics. It was a kind of a slow time for that. It was also the time, just after was when the Alcan lectures started and there was still a reluctance to expose these young minds to all these visiting dignitaries. So though you would expect the school to have embraced that kind of exposure, they didn’t.
Or at least they didn’t seem to.
My association at that time wasn’t very close to McGill because I was off doing something else, but anyhow, we’ll talk later about that. So you graduated in what year?
’76. About twenty yeas ago I guess then.
Yeah, more than twenty years.
And what happened to you initially after you left, I guess, after you left McGill?
Oh I went to work for another McGill grad, Ed Kosh, who had a firm there doing mostly housing and fallout shelter plans. It was not a very busy time for architects so I ended up traipsing up and down various streets in the Maritimes, counting basements and where people might go in a nuclear emergency and creating pamphlets that could be published in the local newspaper in case of emergency. I spent a couple of years doing that, which was interesting in its own right but it certainly wasn’t architecture. And I also spent a couple of years working for an interior designer.
In Montreal. I learned detailing.
That wasn’t Jacques Dion or Laurent Hosmier?
It probably isn’t relevant anyhow.
Names just disappear! I’ve been gone too long!
So you spent a couple of years there and then eventually, you came out to BC.
I came out to BC in ’81, which was a grand time to come out. So different. You could walk in to any architect’s office and say, “Where’s my desk? I’ll start tomorrow”. And then ’82 hit and everything promptly went down the tubes. The government stopped spending, MURBs ended, and housing, the private sector, crashed. But I was working for Thompson, Berwick, Pratt, which was one of the big old firms in Vancouver and I stayed there for eight years doing a variety of projects. Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club was one of the nicest projects. It wasn’t huge in terms of dollar value but it was quite prestigious and I really enjoyed that. The School of Military Engineering, that was about twelve million dollars. Then I went to another firm and worked on about thirteen different schools in the province. And around that time, Spotowski Architects was looking to open an office in Vancouver and I was engaged to start the office here. And over the course of six years, we went from me to getting thirty-five-million-dollar projects! So we did well. And we’ve got just a great staff. It’s been really great to be able to built up a firm from scratch.
And keep it there. You have to keep the business rolling in. That’s another side of architecture that very few people are talking about, the fact that somebody has to go into business in the selling of your-
Just tell me your sort of unique position, because I believe you are the first person that I’ve talked to that headed up an association, be it federal or provincial. Could you just tell us in a few words what sort of experience that was?
Oh, I started my involvement with the institute when I got a call and I thought I was being asked to be an oral examiner. You know, we do an oral exam before you get finally registered here. And what I was actually being asked to do is to join the registration board. So I did and I was on that for about eight years and that gave me my introduction into the institute. And I became more involved in registration procedures and some of the other committee work. After a while, I was asked to run for council. And I really thought that I was too young, I didn’t have enough experience, I didn’t have enough breadth of knowledge. And I remember being at a women in architecture gathering and they were trying to get a slate together of women to run and so I said I’d give it a shot. So I ran and I was elected. And after two years, I decided to run again. I was reelected; I became treasurer. I was treasurer for two years and that was good. Being treasurer is the best job for learning what is going on because sooner or later, everything comes down to money. So I became aware of everything that the institute was involved in. And then I was vice-president and then I ran for president. And after a year, decided I hadn’t finished the things I’d started, so I ran for a second term and completed two years as president.
What was the final year you were there in terms of the association?
I’m still there.
Are you still president?
I’m the current past-president.
When I ran for my second term as president, our council terms are two years. And so I had to run for council again. So I’m finishing my final year on council as past-president.
One of the things that being president gave me was the opportunity to travel across Canada and around North America meeting with a number of different architects and becoming aware of the differences, especially when you are in the United States. You can be in a room with two thousand other architects and they’re all speaking English differently. The accents, the perspectives, they’ re so different. I think we’re all encountering the same problems but we all have different opportunities for dealing with them. And one of the things about McGill, because of where it’s situated in Canada, I find Quebec is even more different from the rest of Canada than when I was there. The uniqueness is very apparent. You just have to walk down the street. And it’s different. In BC, four percent of the registered architects work for government and industry. In Quebec, it’s more than half. It’s a big difference and it’s wrong here because who are these decision-makers within industry and government who aren’t architects? There should be more architects there. Quebec, I think, is maybe a little too far imbalanced the other way. But it’s just symptomatic or just an expression of the differences. And if you go to the Maritimes and from one Maritime province, you’d think they’re all the same.
So I occasionally see some of my colleagues from McGill. We don’t keep in touch as much as we used to. I guess we’re all involved in our own firms and our own families and whatnot. You kind of grow apart after a while. But there are more people from my graduating class here than there are left in Montreal.
Well, thank you very much. I would say I’ve enjoyed it probably as much as you have, maybe even more so. And I certainly hope that we meet again. Thanks very much.