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Rene Menkes

B.Arch. 1955
Montreal, QC
August 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson

I guess the first piece of information that we would like to have is how you decided to become an architect and why McGill.

Why McGill. Well, the decision actually came about very naturally. I was very young and had always shown great interest in buildings. I used to spend a lot of time sketching buildings. Curiously enough, I had a whole series of sketches of pagodas and temples. That was my great interest. And then I moved up into copying buildings that I saw in magazines. I used to sketch them. And it just seemed right from that age that I wanted to be an architect. And I’m talking about the age of 10, 11, 12, that age and eventually moving up. And I graduated from high school in 1948 and I was sixteen at the time, which by any standard is quite young for university. And I was thrown into the first year. And of course, at that time, there were really- I didn’t give much thought as to what other universities were possible, available, etc. It just seemed- Montreal was a very cosmopolitan city and I was- I never gave much thought to other possibilities. And so I went to McGill.

[1:38:06]

I think it’s more natural then, when people live in a city, they inevitably- their first choice seems to be the university in that particular city.

Yeah, you just go to that university.

So you entered then the School of Architecture in, what, 1948?

So I entered McGill in 1948. And at that time, it was the last year of Dawson College, what was then Dawson College in St. John’s, Quebec. So I spent my first year in fact in Engineering, which they called Pre-Architecture out at Dawson, thrown in with the last remaining gang of vets. And that was a unique experience, because these were all much older fellows that had been through everything. And here I was sixteen years old. We grew up very fast at that point. But I was at that time clearly determined to go into Architecture. There was no other thought in mind. And sure enough, the following year, we moved back into the city and that was my first of the ensuing five years, there was one year at Dawson, five years at McGill, which were in Architecture. At that time, the school was the little building on the corner of Milton and University, which has since been torn down.

[3:08:00]

Yeah, yeah. The church there, that right, I think Presbyterian- Milton and University, on the Southeast corner, right?

No, no. The Southwest corner. It’s actually not Milton, it’s the gates, it’s the entrance to McGill, which is now the Macdonald Engineering and School of Architecture is now in there. But it was just a little greystone. And it was a very friendly environment.

[3:32:26]

How many were there in the class?

Well, there were sixteen in my class, with some interesting people. I had- Dimakopoulos was a classmate, much older. He had been to school, and then he became ill, he dropped out for a number of years, came back. So he was in my class. And Louis Papineau and Guy Lajoie. I don’t remember too many of the others.

[4:04:16]

So when you started, did you still have Engineering courses to take that first of the five years?

There was a lot of Engineering. McGill was famous for its emphasis on Engineering. John Bland who was the Director of the school was moving the school in the direction- it had been in the sort of the throws of the influence of Le Corbusier, and it was now moving more into the German Bauhaus. And the emphasis on Engineering was overpowering and considered the proper approach to an architectural education. My first experience in architectural education as such was really with Stuart Wilson. Stuart Wilson, who had the reputation of having either worked or studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and his own work showed touches of Frank Lloyd Wright and he taught us courses in Construction, Wood Construction. And it was an interesting process because- maybe the older people had an easier time, I found it rather mysterious because no one ever explained what the purpose of any of this was. You were just simply thrown in and there were handbooks on two by fours and two by sixes and were told to do things. And in retrospect, it may not be such a bad way. But I sort of miss the fact, I missed at the time and I certainly look back on it a little sadly that there wasn’t a sort of a greater sense of the point of what the whole exercise was about. And he had a reputation for being a rather tough, no nonsense individual, which after graduation I found to be overblown, but he was not an easy man to be a student for. But it was an enjoyable course and life in the school was quite pleasant. It was like a small family. We were unique in that I believe it was the only faculty, except for maybe the doctors, who were allowed to have alcohol on campus.

[6:30:12]

And ladies!

And ladies. And so it had a very friendly little common room downstairs and somehow you spent most of your daylight hours and most of the evening hours in the school. And that was life six, seven months a year non-stop.

It’s interesting because it also had something else which was rather unusual in the sense that although you were working as individuals, frequently projects involved teams. We worked with other architects. That was my experience, at any rate.

No, my year, the only thing that we did in teamwork, which I found was very fascinating and it was the beginning of a new project- programme that Guy Desbarats was installing in the school, it didn’t get very far but- and it was a kind of design-build experience where we were asked to, in teams, design very simple buildings. As I recall, the one we were involved in was a kind of rudimentary shelter. But it was to be pre-fabricated, an industrialized system. And then we went out to some site, which I don’t recall, away from the school where industry had furnished the material and we actually put up these buildings. And that was a fascinating experience because you actually saw what you were sketching, what you had drawn up, that you then had the experience of attempting to put it together, which wasn’t always as simple as you thought on paper. Somehow, that programmed didn’t last very long, but I thought it had the seeds- in retrospect, I certainly think it had the seeds of something very valuable. Guy moved on to other things and I think when he left, the whole programme petered out.

[8:28:02]

Generally, my experience at the school was not an overly happy one. First of all, socially, it was very difficult because you spent so much time at the school that you just never seemed to be able to get away and do other things. Plus the fact that the majority of the students were so much older that I felt a little out of it. It took me a few years to really get my feet on the ground. But I still found that it was just a constant battle of meeting the architectural requirements. The process of teaching seemed to be here’s something that needs to be done and you’ll figure out a way to do it. And the good ones will survive and the bad ones will sink. And there was never any- praise wouldn’t be the right word, but there was never any encouragement that you were improving, on the right track, it was just simply everything was always poor.

[9:33:02]

I guess, the only encouragement would be, indirectly, if you had passed your year.

Well, you passed your year. Although, there was generally a feeling that everyone passed. It just didn’t seem to be a criteria. But there was never any sort of reasonable explanation as to why things were good or bad or indifferent. And clearly one or two students who were talented, certainly Dimmy had the talent, but also the experience, I learned more from Dimmy than anyone else because I quickly realized that he knew, his father had been an architect, and he knew his way around a drafting table, what the point of it all was. And so, we had become quite friendly, and I used him as my sounding board and my peer example. I thought if he did something and it seemed to work, I thought, “well this is the way to draft”, because no one ever showed me what drafting was about, except in Mechanical Engineering, which had no relationship to- And the other examples of drafting were always something like Stuart Wilson, who did a very flowery, Wrightian kind of approach to drafting, and so it took me quite a while to understand the rudiments of it and to eventually develop my own style. And Dimmy was very influential that way.

[11:03:15]

Now you mentioned to me Gordon Webber was an influence on you.

Gordon Webber was a major influence because he went beyond architecture. He opened up for me vistas, which I never knew existed in terms of modern art, contemporary art. He gave us a course in painting, which was essentially painting in the contemporary vein, and it was through him that I began to understand what Mondrian was about and what the contemporary artists were about. And I began to see that what looked like simple splashes and throwing paint at canvases had a value, that it could be organized, that it could be joyous, it could be sad, it could represent a lot of things. And it wasn’t just simply a mess on the canvas that everybody’s looked the same. And from him I was able to grow into other things and it really opened up my eyes to a whole world of painting and sculpture, which I never really knew existed. My own upbringing had been much more conservative and conventional. I certainly knew the old masters, but in modern art, I wasn’t-

[12:32:02]

He also had the ability to see something good, or at least profess that, in anybody’s work. I mean he was never overly critical.

He was not- he was neither- that’s absolutely right. It wasn’t that he wasn’t critical, nor was he praiseful. He just always was able to see the good in things. And his whole life was based on that. And I guess his own infirmity must have had a lot to do with it, that he was able to see the good side of life. Notwithstanding his own handicap, he was able to see the good side. And I thought he was a wonderful person who was not taken seriously enough at the school. I think John Bland certainly thought highly of him. But his course was not taken seriously. People would slap paint on canvas at the last second and were always happy to see that they always got a good mark. But it was there for the taking and he was a wonderful teacher, which is more than I can say for some of the others. And I have a particularly sad remembrance of poor old Fred Lebensold, who I thought was just an outrageously poor teacher who vented all his neuroses on everyone around him.

[13:51:01]

That’s a similar experience on my part.

Not only could he never see anything good, unlike Gordon Webber, he couldn’t even tell you what was bad. He would just simply be scathing, he was so busy removing the monkey off his own back that he just piled it on all the students. There was only one student that he warmed up to, I mean, it was so self-serving it was so transparent, he became very friendly with Dimmy and in fact, started using him in his own office to work virtually full time. He would teach, Dimmy would work, and we saw less and less of Dimmy at work. Of course, eventually it worked out very well for him, because they won the Queen Elizabeth competition for the concert hall, which Dimmy was the prime…

He was the prime designer of the project, yeah.

…designer, draughtsman, etc. And it caused a revolution. There was such a strong outpouring from our class, we went on strike, went to John Bland.

As a result of Fred at the time?

As a result of Fred, that we just couldn’t take him anymore, something had to be done. And while we didn’t directly win the battle that year, the following year, Fred was no longer there, I think.

[15:21:08]

Because I remember you mentioning Guy Desbarats was around. Was Ray teaching in the school at that time?

No, Ray was not teaching at the school at the time. But he would pass by once and awhile. It was Guy that taught at the school. Hazen Sise taught at the school.

Was he teaching you Canadian History or-?

He was teaching Contemporary Architectural History. And –

Do you have any memory of him?

I have memories of him smoking his chalk, that’s the primary- He was a fiendish smoker. It’s funny to think of classes where people were all lit up you could hardly see the teacher in class! It seems so different today. He would get so confused, he’d start puffing on his chalk! But he was a wonderful character, who could be made to digress onto these wonderful stories of Dr. Bethune and Hemmingway, and the Spanish Civil War.

[16:22:09]

In the role that he played eventually in Arcop, slightly maligned. I think they sort of used his connections but didn’t have a whole lot of time for his insights.

No, they didn’t have much time, but he had a worldly knowledge and he was a wonderful man to be around. I enjoyed his touch and his- it was always very personalized because he knew a lot of these people.

[16:46:29]

Now how about Peter Collins? Was he there when you were there?

No, Peter Collins was not there.

He came after.

I came to meet him later on. And I know from people who were there during his time, some of the people I know during his time, that he was an excellent man. He had a wonderful way about him and he was very knowledgeable. And you could talk architecture and architectural philosophy in a meaningful way with him, in a way that I never had that kind of discussion with anyone else. John Bland was a very kind man, but not very forceful, not very dynamic. We always were disturbed that, first of all, the School of Architecture was part of the Faculty of Engineering and we always seemed to be unable to direct the curriculum in the way that it should be. The engineers seemed to have such a strong hold over everything. And we always felt John Bland didn’t exert his influence enough. And maybe at the time, he may have had his political reasons for maneuvering around and it probably wasn’t very easy. But he taught us History of Architecture.

[18:18:22]

It’d be Canadian History, was it?

No.

History of Architecture, ok.

I guess primarily European History of Architecture, which was always an interesting course. Turned out that it was on Thursday afternoons, which was our main movie afternoon. It was the one time we went to the movies. So his course was not always attended. But life was fairly easy, you know!

[18:41:00]

Did you have Arthur Lismer?

Ah, Arthur Lismer! Well Arthur Lismer is another wonderful person. We had him for…

Sketching?

…Sketching class. And we’d go to the museum once a week for that class. And that was wonderful because it was a liberating experience. He was such a wonderful man. My memory of him is running into him constantly for years on the sidewalks of Sherbrooke Street and he would always look up at the sky and see a bit of construction and say, “Ah, it’ll be great someday when they finish it”. But he had such a terrific attitude. But a very perceptive teacher and the Freehand class was always a liberating experience with him.

[19:32:17]

Yeah. ‘Cause eventually that ended up as courses given by Gerry Tondino and they were given at the school.

Right.

And they also had the Sketching Schools that you went to, I guess, twice in the years that you were at McGill. I guess you went through that experience too.

We went to- I don’t remember where we went. I get confused between Survey School and Sketching class.

Yeah. I think that Stuart-

We went to St. Gabriel de Brandon for Survey School.

Yeah, we all remember that. But I think Gordon Webber and Stuart Wilson probably participated in the Sketching Schools in your time, either a combination or singular.

I don’t remember Gordon Webber at Sketching School. I remember Stuart Wilson. I thought Lismer had appeared at some point…

He may have.

…but he may not have. I hate to think of that’s roughly, what…

A few years ago!

…forty-eight, forty-nine years ago!

[20:30:10]

So you have a few more memories of McGill? People that you’ve kept in touch with, I guess.

A number of people I’ve stayed very friendly with. Close friends, Louis Papineau, Gordon Edwards, are people that I worked with professionally along with- and am very friendly with. But essentially, my career sort of took me in other directions. I worked after graduation for John Bland and Vincent Rother and Charles Trudeau. And that was an interesting brief stay because I decided that I had to get much more experience. Their office was very small. It was very intellectual and stimulating in that sense, but I just wasn’t getting the meat and potatoes experience that I wanted. So I went off to New York and worked in New York for a number of years, I guess from ’56 to ’60 and gained the experience I was looking for, which was really large-scale construction. And eventually came back to Canada. I was hired by Peter Dickinson to work on the Bank of Commerce, which was just in design, construction about to start. And I was one of those rare animals that had high-rise experience at that age, even though I was still fairly young. And as life would have it, Peter, who was a dynamic, young architect himself, died at the age of 31, 32. And I was left sort of in midstream with two or three of the other associates, I had become an associate of the firm, with two or three of the other associates, we decided to forge together and try our luck with our own office, which was not what I had anticipated. I had originally thought that with people like Gordon Edwards and Louis Belleau, I would eventually attempt to, as former classmates, we would attempt to do something. And here were three young guys from different corners of the world, one from Egypt and two from England.

[22:56:01]

What year, Rene, would that have been, in about sixty-?

This is in 1961, fall of ’61. So we opened up an office and we started in Montreal and it grew. We decided to move more aggressively into Toronto and went from there to Calgary and Vancouver and eventually, took us to- we had offices in Dallas and Boston and Houston. It really became a very large firm. We were some four hundred architects at one point in the mid-eighties. And like many others in that situation, we were not the best managers in the world of our own affairs. And we ended up in a great squabble between what had become the Canadian partners and the American partners. And so we had a big battle and we split ourselves up again and we became Canadian partners- a Canadian office and an American office with no relationships. And went on our merry way. The eighties, final eighties were very exciting. We worked all over the world. We opened an office in Shanghai, which has been very busy, a number of important projects. But all good things come to an end, and our partnership agreement called for retirement at 65, which is probably a good thing. It gives the young people a chance to move up in the firm. But I wasn’ t ready to sit around and do nothing. And the opportunity presented itself that I could take over the Montreal, essentially the Montreal and the Quebec operation since I was the last of the partners that had any ties to Quebec. So I essentially gained control of the Quebec market. I was now a consultant to the Toronto firm. They are not allowed to work in Quebec. I’m not allowed to work in Ontario. I’m not sure who’s the winner and the loser on that deal! But it suits me fine because I’m really not in the mood to travel anymore extensively. I have two wonderful young partners here. And we’re doing some exciting work.

[25:45:02]

Off the top, this is sort of a question that you could respond to. If you had to do it all over again, would you do things in a little- I guess with the advantage of 20-20 vision in hindsight, because you’ve had a fascinating career when you think of it. You went from small projects to the most significant projects, the very large ones, all over the world. It’s hard to say, I guess.

It’s very hard to say. You would like to think that you could do certain things better, but you are what you are. You are a product of your environment and your education. And if the same people had to do it all over again, we’d probably make the same mistake. Our real problem as an organization, which I don’t regret at all, was that we didn’t believe in a hierarchical management. Partners ran all over the world, did their own thing and you collaborated with other partners or not as your mood felt it. And the result, of course, was, especially in good times, was that it was horribly wasteful. Money was wasted, growth was wasted but we had a lot of fun and people enjoyed what they did and no one was there telling them that this had to be done the IBM way. Eventually, you pay a penalty for that, because we grew too large to be able to function that way. But I guess the one thing I accept now in retrospect, is I think it’s nice to reach a certain size to be able to do projects of a certain scope, because that’s inevitable. You need a certain size office to do a certain size of project. But when the office gets too big, you end up doing nothing but managing the staff. You’re not doing architecture; you’re not enjoying what you originally set out to do. And now I’m back to a size of office that is totally manageable. We know everybody in the office. We know what everyone is doing. You have personality problems, they’re relatively easy to handle. And it’s much more fun. Much less stressful. Of course, my young partners do all the heavy lifting so.

[28:19:18]

It gives you a little more time to play golf.

It gives me more time for golf and other pleasant activities. But it’s a hard decision as to how do you control growth of an office.

Sometimes, in most instances, it’s too late. I mean, all of a sudden, you get a lot of projects, and I can think of Arcop, who had a major problem, as you know, in administration costs and overruns and everything else, to the point that they eventually fell apart, although they still exist, but they have an awful fracture in the whole organization.

Well, the one thing I have to say is that I mentioned how we fractured with the US operation, that was because as a management problem, that was getting too far away from home. But within Canada, we were able to still control that fairly well. And it’s one of the few offices, it’s now- we started in ’61 so we’ re talking about an office that’s now existed thirty-eight years, almost forty years. And it’s had a remarkably steady number of people. All the youngest associates that we created over the years are now the senior partners and there’ s a new generation taking over and so it’s been successful in being able to promote young people and carry on. And I’m very proud of that, that they’re doing extremely well now, but it’s essentially a new team of people.

Which is the way it should be.

Of the original founding four partners, now none are left. They’ve all- one has died, but the other three are no longer partners. And that’s really how it should be. You should be able to move on and let younger people have a chance. Some architects like to control everything totally. I find it very difficult when you’re doing, again, reasonably large projects, for an architect to claim that he’s done everything himself. It’s total teamwork. I guess that’s one thing that I gained out of McGill, the appreciation of teamwork and it’s teamwork not just amongst architects, but it’s with the builders, the contractors, there’s a lot of organization involved in putting up a building. Concept and design skills is terribly important, but it’s only one aspect of the success of putting up a building.

[30:50:24]

So it’s been a pretty rewarding career. You know, I’m talking just in happiness and enjoyment and-

I’ve enjoyed it tremendously and I’ve been asked at times, especially when I see what my son is doing in the business world, how it seems so much easier, and they make vast sums of money for what seems to be no responsibility, no risk. And they just fly around the world telling people what to do. I can’t imagine ever working that way. I loved what I did, and I would do it again. And even though I think architecture has become harder for young people, the way it’ s practiced, there’s still some great opportunities. And certainly Montreal, Quebec has suffered the last ten, fifteen years, but I think for those that are willing to stick it out, it’s a rewarding profession.

Thank you very much.

[31:52:08]