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Susan Olivier

B.Arch. 1984
New York, NY
April 13, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson

Okay, the first part of the programme is to talk about your decision to become an architect and how that came about.

Okay. Well, I guess I remember when I was in Marianopolis that up until that time, I had thought I wanted to be a doctor because I had had heart surgery so I thought that’s what I wanted to do. And then I changed my mind. I thought, well I was really quite good at Math and I liked to draw, that probably that would be a better place for me. So that’s how I decided on Architecture. And I actually spelled it wrong in the application but they still accepted me!

[0:39:13]

And your first year at McGill was, what, 19-?

I started in, I guess, 1980.

Okay. And start telling me about some of the courses that you first had and some of the professors, in any order you want.

Well, I guess, you know, the first year was kind of disconcerting, because you kind of go into Architecture expecting that they’re going to sit you down and make you design something and I remember they made us do this mood box. It was the first thing they made us do, with three guys I’d never met before of varying ages and from different places around the world. And I guess we missed the point of the mood box altogether. Ours was like absolutely the worst one. And I think we threw it out the window at Christmastime from about the sixth floor!

[1:27:14]

Do you remember who the two other students were? That was quite a few years ago.

There was a guy from Trinidad, Alan Chung Tai, and then there was, oh I forget, another younger fellow, blond, blond hair, I met at a recent reunion. And then there was an older guy who was an engineer. So we were really quite a diverse group.

So that wasn’t a very successful project. Who was the professor on that particular assignment?

It was a Design class. I want to say I think Bruce Anderson was in there.

Okay.

And then I remember, I guess, we were the last year to have Peter Collins. And I remember we had him the first semester and he was, you know, very interesting, and I’m sure most people would say he influenced them a lot. But at Christmastime, his wife died. And he kind of flipped out after Christmas. And the second semester, he, you know, I significantly remember him picking on people. I think he got very unhappy and something, you know, just- he missed his wife so much that he was just, like, crazy. And I remember he scared the pants off of me. I could do nothing more than slip into the seat and hide as much as I could, hoping he wouldn’t, you know, find me in the group. And then, unfortunately, he died at the end of the semester.

[2:48:02]

So I had forgotten about that. He and his wife died within the same period.

Within, I would say, six months of each other. I think they were so much- maybe- yeah, that was the-

But did you enjoy his course before he had the sort of problems in the family?

Oh yeah, absolutely. The first semester, you know, definitely taught you how to look at architecture. That was probably the course that seemed most like architecture in the first year.

[3:17:29]

Now, some of your other memories of McGill, good and bad. I’m sure most of them are good, right?

Yeah, I think most of them are good. I really liked McGill a lot. I liked the fact that the whole programme was small. I think that was, you know, good for me. I hear these people talk about going to these three-thousand-student classes. I don’t think I would ever have been able to function in a kind of situation like that. And I think some of my best friends in the whole world, you know, are, you know, from the four years that I went to.

[3:46:18]

Do you still keep in touch with some of the graduates, your classmates?

Definitely, definitely.

Any of them in New York?

Not that I know of in New York. You know, there are some, you know in Vancouver, in Montreal. I’d say most of them are still in Montreal.

Now talk about some of the other courses that you remember. And were any more influential on you than others? I mean, were the courses that you preferred that affected your career to some degree?

You know, I would say that the first year was kind of a struggle just trying to figure out what they were trying to get- the teachers were trying to get you to do. And then I would say, after that, once you started to relax, that’ s when things started to get better. And I remember David Covo got me to relax with my sketching and my design and that’s when, you know, that really started to work with me. And I remember Rad Zuk; he had a whole programme of how to look at a design and how to do it in sort of an analytical way. And I thought that, you know, for the way that I think, that was a really significant teacher and a significant course, but I think that probably wasn’ t until third or fourth year.

[5:00:06]

And how about Bruce Anderson? Did you ever see more of him in terms of a professor during your years at McGill?

No I didn’t have him much after that. There were, you know, other professors I felt that I linked up better with.

For example?

Well I think like Dave Covo and Rad Zuk. And, you know, Sketching School was always kind of fun.

Was Gerry Tondino at the Sketching School most of the time?

Yes, he was there the whole time.

He was the consistent thread, I guess then, eh?

Right.

He and another professor usually went on these expeditions.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think that’s why Covo made an impression because, you know, he was closer to our age and he went on all these, you know crazy trips with us. He came to New York with us when we were all like nineteen years old and made us walk through Central Park! I’m thinking whatever year that was, it was 19, probably ’81, which is when the city wasn’t exactly at its best. It was just after it went bankrupt!

[6:03:25]

It’s certainly improved tremendously…

Oh, absolutely.

…over the last few years for all sorts of reasons. Anyhow, we’re not here to talk about New York. What about- you had visiting critics that came in. Some of the people interviewed talked about some of the, like whether Ray Affleck or Fred Lebensold or Dimakopoulos.

Ray Affleck was great. I’m not sure I remember, you know, everybody else. I remember there was a guy from South America; I can’t remember his name now. Oh, Alberto-something-Gomez. I really didn’t like him at all!

[6:35:20]

You can say it with a smile, that’s a good sign!

Well, you know, some years have passed. And then, I forget somebody else who really used to drive me crazy too. Because sometimes they just came from out in left field, or else they weren’t good speakers or they weren’t practical. Sometimes people came from out of the country. They didn’t understand, you know, what it was like to design in Canada. Like Pieter Sijpkes obviously knows what it’s like to work in Canadian climate with his sculptures every year. But you know, other people, just you felt like they were sometimes from out of left field.

[7:14:16]

I guess we were talking about, you know, teachers and courses that were significant. And somebody that I forgot to mention earlier was Derek Drummond, who was very significant to me. He was the Director of the programme and one of the professors, you know, while I was at school. And what I found about him that I remember the most is that he gave me, and probably other students as well, a lot of support after school. You know, we were in our first jobs and we needed advice, where to go, how to deal with situations. You know, I thought that was really significant. And I remember something that happened, I guess, around fourth years where, I don’t know, a group of students seemed to get all up in an uproar that McGill didn’t have enough famous professors on its list of faculty. And I remember I got very upset about this, that they said everybody came from McGill and had no other experience. And I had done some research and found out that wasn’t really true. And I guess somehow Derek was involved in this and I remember we sort of got very, I guess very friendly after that. And I thought to myself, you know it doesn’t really matter if everybody on the faculty is famous or not. I thought to me the curriculum was good that it was sort of a classical architecture training, as opposed to later on I went to Columbia, which is kind of like off-the-wall deconstructivist and I think that was the most important. You didn’t need a famous architect with a huge ego to teach you, you know, how to design and how to become, you know, a good architect. So I thought that was something kind of worth saying to people. I don’t know if that’s still an issue.

[8:50:04]

Well, I think it is. And I think the comments are appreciated because well, that’s the sort of thing that we’re looking for in this particular type of interview. Any other memories of McGill? We can always come back to them, if you want to talk a bit about your career after, not too lengthy, some sort of a-

Well another person that was really significant was Julia Gersovitz. I just loved her programme. I thought that was great. And I kind of left school thinking oh gee, I want to become a historic preservationist. I thought that was great and I wanted to follow her career path. I thought, you know, what she taught brought back some things that probably had not been taught during the sort of modern period in architecture. And she brought that, you know, back to school and I thought that was really great.

[9:32:24]

She’s still very successful in that facet of architecture.

She’s probably- you know, she’s known here, so I would say she’s probably one of the more, you know, infamous faculty members.

[9:43:15]

Okay. Now, what happened, we can come back to McGill as I say, but what happened after you left McGill? You worked in Montreal for a while and then you came to New York?

Yeah, I worked in Montreal. It was kind of, I guess, in the mid-eighties when the economy just kind of took a dive and you know, I think a lot of us sort of hopped around from place to place for a while. And then I settled down. I worked at two places for a while, Air Canada and Tolchinsky and Goodz Architects, probably spent most time at with some of my other classmates. That office was really growing and some of my classmates are still there.

[10:17:16]

I still see Murray Goodz. Nice man.

Yeah, they’re quite busy. They get a lot of commissions.

And then you- what happened after that? Then you left. It seems to me you left Montreal at that time.

Yeah, then I decided that it was time to take a year off and did a one-year sailboat trip!

That’s right.

Used every cent I had ever earned!

But it was worth it.

Oh yeah, that was fun. That kind of thing, and some kind of travel, before you get too involved in life and kids and whatever, that’s something kind of neat to do.

[10:52:17]

So that took you up to about, what, 198-what?

1989. While I was traveling, I got accepted to Graduate School at Columbia. And I had originally applied for the Historic Preservation programme. And while I was on this trip I decided that, after doing some commissions, you know, before while I was also working, decided that I wanted more control over a project. That as an architect, you are always on the receiving end. Even though you think that you can design these great things, there’s always a client and they really direct a lot of what you do and you are not free. So I decided I really wanted to do real estate development. Then I would really have control over the whole process. So that’s what I ended up studying at the School of Architecture in Columbia. But it still was, you know, through McGill that I actually found Columbia through, you know, all the linkages there that I got there.

[11:47:04]

And when you graduated, tell me a little bit about your career after you graduated from Columbia.

After Columbia, I worked for a couple of years in construction management in New York City. I really wanted to do development, but again, it was sort of recessionary and they weren’t doing too many new things, just things weren’t built. And then I moved into real estate consulting, so we were consulting a lot for developers and owners and banks and that sort of thing. And then I left, that was for Ernst and Young Kenneth Leventhal, left there a year ago. And now I’ve been on my own doing exactly the same thing.

[12:21:05]

You’ve been on your own doing basically the same thing.

Right.

So you’re not into architecture anymore per se. Would you do a job as an architect today if you were-?

Oh yeah. I have a few smaller jobs. We’re actually reconstructing an antique barn on our property to go with our antique house. But I don’t do it every day. I’m not like really, I’m not really good at say the, at some of the technical things like if I did it all the time. But when you do real estate development and advisory services, design is always part of it. So what we’ll do, in a part of a feasibility study, for example, we’ll include a schematic design as part of the whole analysis in the development. So I still do a lot of design work.

[13:10:20]

Now you said earlier that you were going to come back and make some- you had some comments about McGill as a result of having worked.

Yeah, I guess after coming to Columbia and doing this real estate development, and one of the reasons that I did it at Columbia was because I always thought New York was cool. But Canada, nowhere in Canada offered this programme. And it really ties the whole financial analysis with development and building and I think architecture. And you know if I say one thing that I don’t think that McGill does now is to maybe integrate some courses in that into the study. Sort of, I’ve had this idea in the back of my head that maybe that would be fun. Maybe I could go back and maybe this would be my contribution to the school; come back and give some, you know, lectures on, you know, real estate financial analysis. Because compared to, you know, all the Engineering courses that architects do, this would be a breeze. And it would give them so much more knowledge of how a project could succeed and what you could do to make it succeed rather than just being the designer, which sometimes gets you- people, you know, put you into like a box in terms of how they conceive you. Oh, the architect is going to go wild on this. We have to make sure the architect, you know, gets reined in terms of, you know, what they do. And this puts you more in a sort of practical frame.

[14:29:09]

But it’s certainly something that I would suspect I know the school is lacking. And people gain it either by taking courses or you know working in situations where they develop the knowledge. Why don’t you drop a note to Derek, or David Covo, actually? Because I think that they would bring you in as a visiting professor.

I think you’re giving me the encouragement to do it.

[14:51:12]

You know, a lot of people said when we were in school that maybe the education was too theoretical, that it was too impractical. And I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. And certainly, the first time you go into the real world to work, the first thing that they want you to do is, “Don’t design. Sit down and do some working drawings”. Of course, you hardly had any, you know, training in working drawings. But I’m not sure that that really matters. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. And I thought that would really make the School of Architecture into a technical school. Maybe this is something you do in the summer that you teach yourself or whatever. But I still think you need the theory, you need the, you know, the higher-level education, higher-level thinking, the analytics. So I think that that was something that a lot of people talked about right after school and I think that it’s still the way that the programme that I thought the way it was when I was there, you know, worked. It made it difficult when you first went into the working field, but I think that, you know, you get over that.

[15:49:09]

Now if you had to do it all over again, would you change anything?

Would I change anything? I think that maybe the economy wasn’t so good when I was there, but I would really make an attempt for students to get more summer work in the profession. I think that would help round things out a lot more. And sometimes I think that the school kind of left you out on your own a little bit too much. Because you’re pretty young and you never had a job before. You know, maybe you’ve had some summer job to help you pay for school, but that was about it I think. That would make more of a continuity if they could really set up a programme that really maybe linked practicing architects with students more, or graduates or alumni, I’m not sure.

[16:34:16]

As you know, University of Waterloo has this course that you can have a- you could still go through the normal academic year and have some assistance, have somebody, either as a volunteer, going around and getting jobs.

Right. So it shows that it’s absolutely, you know, doable. I find that a lot of architecture schools are the same way. They’re kind of soft; say, “oh, you know, let’s sort of be free and easy”. And sometimes I think you’ve got to take more control.

[16:57:20]

I guess one of the things that we all learned was the fact that you found out soon after you left is that it’s also a business. And you are working in a business even though you’re an architect.

Absolutely.

I talked to a few people; I wondered whether this was significant. And other people felt, you know, they really shouldn’t really change the training very much because you should be aware of the fact that it’s a particular type of profession and if you’re good at that, the business will come. Though maybe that’s a bit too [unclear]

No, so now that you mention it, I notice that a lot of architects overall seem to be missing that sort of business background or maybe marketing or self-presentation. Maybe this can be something that can be thought about. Because so much of the time when you’re in a competition or you’re trying to get work, you’re presenting yourself. And you might have the best design in the world, but if you can’t present it, you’re not going to get the work.

[17:53:07]

I met a lady in Edmonton by the name of Vivian Manasc. I don’t know whether you know her. And she came through like gangbusters. In her whole career, she was a bright student I gather like you. Afterwards, she knew what she wanted to do and she actually went and took various jobs, including working Edmonton Hospital Authority just because they had a lot of buildings way back, I guess, sometime in the eighties or the seventies, and she wanted to see how presentations were made from the client’s point of view. And she learned all that. She took Marketing courses, and I have a sense that wherever she goes today to be interviewed for a job, I would say her batting average is two out of three. She said she was working, because she is very dynamic but she knows her business, she speaks with authority and she is also a good designer.

It makes a very big difference. I guess you get some practice at that in the critiques for your design where you have to present to your professor.

But you’re very young then.

Yeah.

You get intimidated by these professors.

[18:59:13]