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Felice Mendell

B.Arch. 1973
Boston, MA
November 12, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson

I guess I wanted to go into Architecture from the time I was about twelve or so. And the usual, I was good in math, I was good in art and everybody said I should be an architect. It made sense. I read The Fountainhead, I did all the things that you are supposed to do that supposedly meant- told you what an architect was like. So I did that, and then I always- but all the way through school, actually, I was sort of between Architecture and Medicine. I was interested in being a doctor too. I don’t know why. And when I went to high school, it was very hard to be, you know, I was in Math classes and so on, and it was hard to be a woman, a girl in high school wanting to go into Engineering at the time, because that was the faculty I had to apply to. My guidance counselor refused to give me the application forms. And I went to my Math teacher and I said, “I want to go into Architecture and the guidance counselor’s refusing to give me the forms”. And he got the forms for me and encouraged me to apply. And I did and got in, got early acceptance into McGill, and there I was. It never occurred to me to apply anywhere other than McGill. And now, living in the States, the kids apply to ten different schools, and it’ s really been culture shock to go through this with my daughter, because I only applied to McGill. I knew I was going to get in, and that’s where I applied.

Cultural shock and financial shock!

Yeah, big time financial shock!


Professors, students… We had a really interesting class. And I don’t remember that many people from the class specifically. It was a class that really had an amazing dynamic and we all kind of kept raising the floor for each other. And there were some really interesting people in the class, people who are now teaching at McGill, Pieter Sijpkes and Dave Covo. I remember just a number of different people. But the professors that really had meaning for me, I guess, Norbert Schoenauer, who had such a sensitivity to design, was a very big influence on my choices as I went through and later. Particularly, he interested me a lot in housing. I remember doing projects on housing in third world countries, barianas in Mexico and Peru and, you know, just vernacular housing in general. Stuart Wilson, who, I never thought I’d say today that he was a big influence. And, you know I certainly don’t think his methods needed to be used on poor, innocent students. But for years, I had a practice, my own practice doing houses. And I knew how to detail a wood-frame house better than anybody I know here. And I could do all the drawings. I knew how every piece of two by four went together. And so the discipline of that, and the creativity of it in an amazing way was really there as well. We had a good time, although it was cruel.


In that respect, it was a lot of fun, right?

Well, it was like boot camp, you know? But I mean, I learned a lot. I really learned probably more in that class than I learned in anything, at least very, very specifically. And I think the good thing about it was, when you’re doing bigger buildings, there’s a lot of different disciplines that come in and you get a lot of help. But I had a practice where I was all by myself. And I produced- every line that was on the drawing, I did myself. And I knew how to detail a building whereas if I was doing bigger buildings, I could have drawn on more resources. So in a way, I think it made sense to have that level of detail in our education, around that subject. And I guess another really strong influence on me was Derek Drummond, who really encouraged me at times when I was really ready to drop out. And it was very hard being a woman in those days in the school.


Even in those days?

Oh, yeah! I mean, my class was- we had twelve women starting in second year, which was unbelievable. The school had never seen that many women. I remember the guys from the class three years ahead of us who had no girls, had never had a girl in their class all the way through, I remember rumours went flying through the school that the new class had twelve women in it. They were coming around to meet the “new students”. So, you know, there was some support, it was, I think, probably, it’s always easier for us than for other classes before us. I know now there’s a lot of women in the school.


Almost fifty-fifty.

Yeah. But it was hard in those days. And I also, I think, had always wanted to be an architect, I was becoming somewhat disillusioned about what architecture was. It didn’t have a lot of meaning. I just couldn’t figure out what I was doing there. And I was about to- I was good at design, I loved design, I was- you know, I had certain sensitivity in design, but I was ready to drop out. And Derek really encouraged me, helped me to get a research project that was sponsored by CMHC over the summer on housing for the mentally retarded. Worked with a number of other students, Ron Williams, on that. John Bland had gotten the grant for that. And it really re-inspired me. I was just in second year, the summer between second and third year. And it got me interested enough to finish architecture school. And it gave me meaning, because I realized that, you know, there was a way to really design, not just for the sake of design, but to really have an impact on people’s lives. And that’s, I guess, what’s been my guiding principle. And it’s interesting, the sixties, you know, the sixties and seventies when I went to school. We went to school- we were in architecture because we saw it as a social purpose. And we saw that the built environment could influence behaviour and could really have a lot to do with how people relate to each other and so on. And that’s really what ultimately interested me in architecture. In more recent years, I’ve found it more disillusioning, because I think that the emphasis on design for design’s sake has been harder for me to relate to. And I’ve consequently kind of left the field of architecture, although I’m working now in a very related field, in community development.


Just to get- if it’s okay if we get back to that, I was just wondering if there were any other professors that you have any memories, good or bad, of. Was Peter Collins there, for example?

Oh, Peter Collins and I did not get along too well! He was my nemesis at the school.

Oh, is that right?


Who was your, I guess, professor that helped on your thesis. Was that Derek?

No, Norbert. Norbert. And also the other person who had a strange influence was Joe Baker. And he, when I was in fourth year, he had something called the Community Design Workshop, which was something that really interested me and still interests me. The idea of really being able to go out in community and work with community people as end users and get them involved in the design is something that continues to be something that I am pursuing, sort of participatory processes.


Mr. Tondino is one of my favourite people in the school and is just an incredible and wonderful man. I loved drawing and sketching and used to- I somehow never could drag myself to my nine o’clock classes during the week, which were usually History of Architecture with Peter Collins, but every Saturday morning, for I think it was five years, when I was no longer even taking it for credit, I would be at Mr. Tondino’s sketching class. And I just loved it. I loved the things he said. I still can remember some of the analogies he used to use in that class and use them. Like, one of my favourites is something about a woman who puts a lipstick on and she likes the way it looks so she puts some more on and then she puts some more on and then she puts some more on! And the point that he was trying to make was that, you know, lipstick is kind of an accent and not a focal point! But Sketching School was very- it was a special time. It was a time where we really could bond with each other and have a really good time but work very hard. And, you know, I think that the emphasis that McGill School of Architecture put on sketching was wonderful. And I think it really gave a lot of us a discipline to a) see things differently and to develop our hand at drawing, which was very important. But the bonding experience was so much better at Sketching School than at Survey School! Survey School was another boot camp. But, you know, I never understood why we were spending a month doing that, you know, doing surveying.


Neither did I, for that matter.

Sketching School, doing that for, you know, a week or two was incredible. And it was a really good experience. It came at the end of the summer; it was a great way to start getting to know people again before the school year started and developed a lot of relationships.

And they were always good. Gerry Tondino was there, but there were- sometimes one of the other professors would go along too.

Yeah, Stuart Wilson used to go and he was a funny influence!

In a positive funny sense, right?

Yeah. I guess Dave Covo is doing Sketching School these days and that must be funny!


After I graduated from McGill, I worked at Arcop, which is sort of Graduate School for many McGill students. I had worked there on and off on charrettes when I was still a student, I knew a few people there. Went through- worked there for a while. And I was really lucky in that I got- I was working on Le Viaduc, which was in Place Bonaventure. It was a whole area that- an adjunct to side to the Place Bonaventure. And in the middle of the job, I was, you know, just drawing on it, suddenly, there was a lot of work at Arcop and everybody got pulled off the job to work on some other big job in the office. And there I was, all by myself, running Le Viaduc myself and- with Ray Affleck. And it was incredible. It was an incredible experience ‘cause I had to- I learned by the seat of my pants. And from there, I ended up- I got married and married Isaac Franco. And he was sent to Syracuse to do a project, which he had been working on for years. And I was working for somebody else, but work dried up. This was in New York State in 1973, when there was the oil crisis, had no work. And I ended up doing all of the interiors of the building, the theatre and office building in Syracuse, because it had gone out to bid without the drawings being complete. So I ended up taking the whole interiors package, working on the site, which was an unbelievable experience for one at that time. And it was great. I think it really influenced my later work because I really knew what goes on on a building site. I think I was able to, when I did a lot of my own private houses and stuff, was really able to supervise the construction and know what to do. But I guess I’ve worked at a number of different offices. I sort of, I think average about two years at a job and then move on. I had my own practice for eight years.


Was that in Montreal?

That was here in Boston.

While you worked, you worked at Arcop, and then you came down to Boston?

Well, I worked at Arcop, and then I worked at David and Boulva for a while. Then I had a child, kind of worked freelancing at home for a while and then we moved to Boston. And I wasn’t able to work here for a little while because I didn’t have working papers. And then finally I did. And I got a- worked for Moshe for a while, designed some exhibits for him, did some freelancing for Moshe Safdie’s office. Then I got another job doing housing for the retarded, a number of residences, which I had worked on when I was at McGill doing research. And so that was in a small office but it was really, really rewarding work. The work, the buildings that we were doing were just beautifully detailed, and very, you know, low cost, but very beautifully detailed. That was here in Boston. And then I worked in an office called Todd Lee and Associates, which had just opened up. I was doing hotels and got to travel to Asia. We were doing a hotel in Taiwan, in Hong Kong, which was pretty exciting. Unfortunately, after I went once, the job fell apart. And so I never got to go again and never really got to see much of Asia.


And after that I, by this time, I had a second child, and I decided that I really just didn’t want to be working in that office and quit. And by happenstance, ended up with my own practice, which I did for eight years. It was great. My kids were small, I was going to- they were in school and I got very involved in public school issues around the kids while I had my own practice. And I was working alone and it was kind of lonely. But it was a good thing to do because it’s hard to work in an architect’s office and be there for your children. And my husband was traveling all over the world and I just decided that it was time to sort of be low-key for a while. And then- so I did mostly houses and I got better and better at it and I got more and more commissions by word of mouth. And by the time- you know, after about eight years, I had some pretty large renovations and additions that I was doing. And I think I did a pretty good job at them.


But I decided that I really a) couldn’t stand being all by myself. I wanted to see what I wanted to do. And I thought, well, okay, what do I want to do now with the rest of my life? And I started thinking back over the things that I had really enjoyed doing, and it was housing. And I wanted to get back into that, either institutional housing like the- for the retarded or low-income housing. And did a lot of research, started really talking to a lot of different people, both architects who were doing low-income housing and people who were not architects who were doing low-income housing. And I decided that architecture is kind of the tip of the iceberg. I wanted to have a better understanding of how housing happens. What are the- how does it get funded, how does it get put together. And so I ended up worked at a what’s called a CDC, or Community Development Corporation, which are neighbourhood-based non-profits here in the States. And I did – I worked there as a Project Manager, became the acting Director there for two and a half years. And started really thinking about the end-user again, and how do you really get the end-user involved in architecture. When I had been doing my own private practice, it was clear, I was working with the people who lived in the houses. And I found that in most cases, they were people who had never been through an architecture project before and I had to do a lot of education, teaching them how- what the process was about was part of it. A little bit of counseling, marriage counseling in some cases!


But finally, when I was working in a community, it was clear that people in that community did not understand what they had to do with developing the housing. Even though they were community members on the board, directors and everything else, they just didn’t understand what their part in it was. And so I became really interested in how you really involve the end-user and how do you bridge the gap of language, because architects and designers speak a language that nobody else understands. And I started becoming very interested in community organizing as a field which really involves and educates people to be able to do their own projects and so on. At least down here, that’s the case. So I ended up in another job as- which was a brand new national non-profit that does community organizing in low-income communities throughout the country, organizing them into CDC-like entities that are really volunteer-based, run by the people living in the communities. It was a very interesting model. And I did that for a couple of years. I was Director of Development and Operations there, so I was doing administration. Got tired of doing administration, because I really felt too remote from the projects and too remote from the creativity that I had known all my life in terms of professionalism.


And so I ended up where I am now, which is the Executive Director of a non-profit called the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development. And what we do here is we develop housing in partnership with women’s groups. They can be a number of different groups, groups that have worked with battered women or with former substance abusers, things like that, and who identify housing as one of the things they want to do. But, of course, they have no expertise. So what this organization does is it comes in with the expertise to develop the housing. We don’t really do architecture; we hire architects. And it was actually started sixteen years ago by an architect, who started with the mission of- that housing today does not meet the needs of women in low-income communities. That most of them are single women with children and they have no supports and that housing the way we’ve been designing it doesn’t match their needs. And that there needs to be whether it’ s daycare facilities on site, or ways of sharing with other families, cooking meals at the end of the day or whatever. We had to find new prototypes for housing development and co-ops and things like that. So that’s how this organization started. It’s had a couple of directors between me and that founder. We’re not architects and now it’s come full-circle. And what I kind of hope to bring to it is to return to the question of participatory design. When we work in houses or in neighbourhoods, to really be able to bring people who live in those communities or going to live in the houses to the table and to find a way of really work together to design those environments. And at the same time, creating a pipeline of people from low-income communities who could maybe see a design field, architecture in particular, or planning, as a career for themselves. And so that’s my current quest!