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George Popper

B.Arch. 1973
Toronto, ON
March 11, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson


Let’s talk about how you decided to become an architect.

Well, it was actually by process of elimination. I just ruled out all the other professions that did not seem to appeal to me - medicine, law, engineering - and I was fascinated by the balance of the arts and the technical aspects, all in one profession. I wasn’t aware there was a heavy dose of business that had to be incorporated into the mix as well. But that’s basically how I got into it and I was always interested in drawing and three-dimensional things and building blocks. But until I got into it, I really didn’t know what it was all about. So it could’ve been a disaster but it turned out to be something that I enjoyed doing and it turned out for the best.

So you grew up in Montreal and I guess you decided when you decided to become an architect, was McGill the natural choice?

When I was growing up, I was growing up in a middle-class family and certainly going out of town was just not possible from the financial point of view. And McGill was a highly regarded school, Montreal was my hometown and I didn’t think twice about it really. It was the natural choice to try and go. Today kids go, look forward to going away and getting away from home.

So what year did you enter McGill?

I entered in 1967. It was an amazing year if you think about it: Expo ’67, all the exciting things happening in Montreal, Habitat. It was a very dynamic period in Canadian history.

There’ve been books written, I guess, about that particular year because it was certainly one of the highlights of my life and your life.

It was just so full of optimism. The world was ours.

Let’s talk about what happened when you started university in 1967. Was it a five-year course then?

Actually it was a 6-year course and during the course it became a five-and-a-half-year course because they were cutting back to a five-year program, so we actually graduated in December.

Okay, in December, rather than June?

Rather than June, yeah.

I guess what we’d like to talk about, not necessarily in a sequential basis, is some of the professors, or courses, or some of the professors you remember who might’ve influenced you in a good way or otherwise. And also some of the courses that you remember that probably had a similar effect.

After first-year engineering, which was first-year architecture at the time, was an awkward year, you didn’t really get a taste of what architecture was going to be about. You’d be in classes with hundreds and hundreds of kids looking at these screens of these taped lectures I remember, in Chemistry, in Math and so on, so I was a bit put off by that and spent a lot of my first year playing chess in the chess club and in the student union. But when second year started and we really got into architecture, the world sort of opened up and it was an extremely exciting time to be studying architecture. The professors were so varied, they came from different backgrounds, had different perspectives, it was an extremely intellectually stimulating place, with people at different ends of the spectrum, and each had their contribution. You had Professor Collins at one end, with a sound basis of history and where architecture was coming from. You had people like Bruce Anderson at the other end of the spectrum where design was sort of open ended, and while you were designing, a house or a tea pot was the same thing, or designing a script for a movie, that was also considered design, so it was a very dynamic place. I was mesmerized by Peter Collins’ lectures; particularly his use of the two slides and the contrasting images or similarities or points that he could raise comparing the two different images – it was a very interesting series of lectures that we looked forward to.

There’s one sort of amusing incident with Professor Collins. Early in the year, just as a remark, he made an offhand remark that if anybody would point out an error that he made, he would give you five extra points and the end of the year. And I’d been interested in Gothic architecture and done quite a bit of reading at the time. We were studying Gothic Architecture at School, and one lecture he was talking about Notre Dame in Paris and he was pointing out how the twin towers were such a powerful element and their perfect symmetry and composition were integral to the design or something. And I remember reading that the two towers were not the same size: one was actually larger than the other. But if you remember Peter Collins, he was a very intimidating kind of speaker. And being a young student, my heart was pounding away but I raised enough courage to raise my hand and point out that the two towers were not the same size and interrupted his lecture. He was actually quite gracious about it and he asked me to give all supporting material and he would review it. And I managed to do that.

It was quite interesting.

It was quite an exciting time.

I think the challenge he threw out to most of the classroom and one other person that I’ve interviewed, and I think you might know him – Lucien Lagrange - he had something to do with Louis Sullivan in Chicago, and he caught Peter and he very graciously accepted the fact. Well, that was rare and I don’t think all the years that Peter Collins worked at our university he was probably caught wrong not more than three to four times.

Yeah.

So that was interesting and you’re still good friends with Peter.

Still in his good books and very much stimulated by his lectures and probably regret not taking most of his lectures later on, but he left a very big impression.

But you’ll be happy to know that this seems the common memory of McGill: a lot of people say exactly what you did that they enjoyed the course and the regret was that they didn’t spend enough time on it because it was so wonderful. And some people, of course, had taken that course and built it into another career parallel to architecture, whether it’s history or teaching and so forth.

I did also take some related courses. I took a course in art history because of the influence of Peter Collins, I guess that was fourth year or something, and did well on that.

Did you have at any time Stuart Wilson teaching you?

Yes. Stuart Wilson is another of the professors that had a big, big mark on us, including at Sketching School. Sketching School was also a dynamic and fun place, and Stuart Wilson played a key role there with Mr. Tondino.

Gerry Tondino.

Yes, and that was a lot of fun and a great experience, I think, for students.

In fact, I think your partner implied that he enjoyed taking Sketching School so much that he took an extra session.

Yeah!

I’m trying to think of some of the other people who might have been there at the time: Norbert Schoenauer.

Norbert Schoenauer was there. But I’d like to say a few words about Stuart Wilson because, really, the three professors, I think, that had the strongest influence were the ones I’ve spoken about before - Collins, Bruce Anderson and Wilson - and you couldn’t find three people that were more different. I think it was a triangle almost. And Stuart Wilson was tough. It was almost like being in boot camp. And it was a very rigorous training but it forced you to be alert and work hard, and he did have a sort of sarcastic aspect to him, but I think he was well intentioned that he wanted to create good designers, and I think he understood the idea of dialogue in design and what design involves, and you learned a lot about that. It wasn’t just putting something on paper and that’s it. It had to evolve. And he had an artistic side and a very practical side too to his approach as well which balanced quite nicely and was part of that important triangle which we spoke about earlier.

Did Bruce have anything to do with you in terms of teaching? Obviously he did, but did he have any other courses, or did you have exposure to him throughout your…

I think it was in the earlier years: second and third year. Those were the real dynamic areas where we’re introduced to a lot of dynamic ideas and afterwards you went to studios, but it was a more philosophical basis.

Was Derek involved in the teaching when you were there?

Derek was involved, as well, and some lectures by John Bland.

On theory and history, no?

On theory and history, and some the design crits were also influential.

Some of the people who I’ve talked with remember some of the critics that came in. Fred Lebensold or Ray Affleck or any others: do you remember any of them or any other memories at all?

I remember there was one year when we had these brief design studios where you had one week to do your design and then you had your crit. And that was a lot of fun, and you got to do a lot of building types and look at different ideas and that was fun, and getting interesting architects and professors from a lot of different backgrounds. So that was very useful.

There’s one incident at Sketching School that I remember very strongly. I enjoyed working a lot in watercolours, and I’d done a road, a sketch of a road scene with lots of trees overhanging the road in watercolour, and every couple of days we’d have to put up our drawings at Sketching School and then there’d be a critique, and in one of these critiques I remember Wilson removing - going up to the wall and removing all of these drawings except mine and saying something to the effect that these other drawings don’t deserve to be near this one. Having this sort of fear of Wilson, I didn’t know what he was up to, then I realized this was an enormous compliment.

I would think so!

I blushed terribly.

You were probably killed by all your fellow students.

Yeah.

But I guess he was like that, eh?

He was very sparse with his positive comments. But you could read between the lines when you were in the right direction and doing a good thing.

What was your thesis, do you remember, and who helped you on it?

Actually Peter and I did our theses together, and there was one short period where you didn’t have to do your thesis alone. And Peter and I teamed up and we actually took a parcel of land across the street from Concordia - Concordia’s main building - and did a mixed-use building, with housing and commercial uses and so on and student housing.

I think that Peter started off with a STOL project. I think he was working on an airport project for a short period of time.

I think there may have even been two design projects at that time. It wasn’t sort of one major…

So what year did - I don’t want to cut you off in any way - but 1970?

I graduated in December ’72.

Okay. And then what happened? You started working?

Started working. Worked at a number of different firms - smaller, generally smaller - I was looking at a smaller firm to get sort of right into - do different aspects, rather than sort of getting caught in a large firm and just doing working drawings on some building in some faraway place. That worked out well, worked for a number of different people.

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