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Gerald (Gerry) Sheff

B.Arch. 1964
Toronto, ON
Interview by Jim Donaldson

So how about how you decided to become an architect?

Ah. Well, I grew up in a family where I knew you had to become something. I didn’t want to become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. And I didn’t know much about architecture so it seemed like a reasonable thing to pursue.

And then-

Not a very profound answer but a big element of truth about it, actually. Architecture in those days or the image that I had of what an architect did and what in fact they really do was completely different. You have the image of an architect being a grand conductor, designer, orchestrator of events and other professional disciplines and creating and so on and so forth. There are some who do that but I would say they are definitely the exception rather than the rule. Most of them are servants not even at the level of a real estate agent.

Underpaid servants.

Underpaid servants for sure.

[1:18:27]

But you decided and then you entered McGill. What year would that have been?

I went to McGill from ’58 to ’64. I graduated in ’64 and then went and- and actually, even while I was studying architecture, I kind of knew that I might have made a mistake in terms of what I was doing, but I was the kind of person who sort of tends to finish what they do, so I completed it. And then I moved to England and I-

Now, I wanted to talk a little bit about your days at McGill. You can’t skip over that that easily! So you entered McGill and then there are sort of a number of professors that you worked with, courses that you took. What would be the highlights and your memories of either the professors or the courses or the influences or the people or the events that happened, which is about five years of your life?

In that period. Six years.

Six years, yeah.

Well, we occupied what in those days was the new School of Architecture in the new McConnell Engineering Building. We had the usual cast of characters, some of whom are, unfortunately no longer around, although I wasn’t that happy to have them around when I was there. But I look back with thirty-five years of memory, they grow- you grow more fond of them with the passage of time. The great characters who were there at the time were Stuart Wilson, you know third year construction. In fact I had him, I think I had him as a thesis advisor in the last year and he drove me completely crazy.

Did he drive you crazy during your third-year term?

He drove me crazy all the time. You know and he was the guy who sort of lived in his office. He built a mezzanine in his office and lived there. And when you’ d see him coming along the street, I mean he basically looked like kind of the bagmen and women you see today in Toronto.

[3:17:02]

An interesting man, though.

A very interesting guy. Very challenging. Gordon Webber, of course was around, another extremely interesting man. Tondino was around.

Gerry Tondino is still around.

And actually, I was back for the thirtieth reunion. It was the first time I was back for a reunion and I saw Tondino. And I was amazed, actually, because he was a guy who, you know, didn’t look all that well back then and he looks better today than he looked then! I mean this guy is really, really in very good shape I would say and I was really happy to see him. Bland, Bland was around. Maureen Anderson was around. She was for me- she remained the darling of the school. She was a piece of sanity in an island of what was sometimes insanity.

[4:11:16]

That’s the comment that prevails. Pretty well everybody, they miss Maureen. I say, “How about Maureen Anderson?” “Oh!”

Maureen was a doll. Was a doll, and I’m sure is a doll, although I have lost to some degree contact with her.

She’s retired and I keep in contact with her.

Yeah, she’s a great, great lady and she was really a special person in that role, exercise. Peter Collins was around.

How did you enjoy the History of Architecture courses?

Peter Collins?

Yeah.

It’s a tricky question. I failed History of Architecture, in I think it was in fourth year, I guess. I failed History of Architecture, nearly failed the year. And I had to write a supplemental and I think came within an inch of failing the supplemental. And was nearly held back and I had to beg my way in the fifth year because I couldn’t imagine repeating fourth year and having to be there for like a seven year stint at something I wasn’t even committed to at the time. And I did very well the next year in History of Architecture. Peter is a- or was ‘cause he’s-

Deceased.

In the dearly departed. Peter was a complex man. He was a unique individual. There aren’t many. I don’t know, you know it’s almost like he was born in the wrong century, I think.

That’s a good way to describe him.

He lived at the wrong time. He would have been better in seventeenth or eighteenth century England.

[5:51:17]

Because the subject he taught, he concentrated on, you know, a hundred years earlier than we were at McGill. I mean he really didn’t talk about current architecture.

But also, his whole manner, okay, and his discipline and his obsessiveness with studying slides and his studiousness and his esoteric scholarliness was a bit out of touch with anything that really matters. I had the privilege, just within the last few weeks. I don’t know if you know, Frank Gehry got an honorary degree from University of Toronto. So I happened to be at a dinner party at Rob Prichard’s house, the president of the university for Gehry the night before his degree. And I’d never met Gehry before. But I mean here is obviously a man who has done very, very significant things. But one of the wonderful things about him was that he was just a humble, ordinary guy who spoke in ordinary language, very unpretentious. Peter was a little bit pretentious, I would say.

[6:58:27]

I would say so. Academic. Whereas Gehry, his abilities reflect him. In many ways, your comment is valid. He is very easy-going.

Now he’s an evocative guy. He’s a guy who I would describe as evocative. The other characters who were around, the guys I remember- oh, Harold Spence-Sales was around with his puffs and his flowers and all of his sexual innuendo, which would probably get him thrown out of anywhere today. He could never get away today with what you could get away with then.

It was pure entertainment.

In terms of making comments about, you know, describing stone and everything else as if it was a beautiful woman and so on. We had one guy there for a short period of time. I guy by the name of Jonas Lehrman.

Oh yeah.

And I have no idea what has become of Jonas.

I think he’s in Winnipeg.

Okay. He had a very, very difficult time with our class in particular. He was a guy who was very, very obsessive and very, very pure and I mean he made Peter Collins look relaxed. And it’s actually, it’s interesting that a faculty could encompass a Stuart Wilson on the one hand and a Jonas Lehrman on the other hand, who were, you know, they’re of different species entirely.

[8:26:04]

You often wondered whether Peter and Stuart or Jonas ever got along. I mean, you know…

Well, my guess is they didn’t. My guess is they had…

Very little association.

…no use or respect for one another, which was part of the-

It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall in a faculty meeting, you know. And John Bland would come and-

Well John, but John was a great, you know, John Bland was a great mediator and diplomat and statesman. You know I worked for John Bland at some point after I graduated, after I came back from England. I worked for Bland, LeMoyne, Edwards and Shine in those days. I’ve continued to actually stay friendly with Tony Shine, who I talk to from time to time. But I remember them all well. Bland is a gentleman. I mean you have to have special skills to hold that band of rascals together. But the thing I remember, I’ll tell you one amusing anecdote about Lehrman, who I say had a very rough time. He didn’t last very long at the school.

No he didn’t.

I think he was drummed out at some level. I think he was just-

[9:32:26]

I think he was drummed out when they had that a couple of years after, when they had that student revolt. They had another student revolt.[sic.]

Right, and I think I was there. I forget the details. But what I remember was, if I recall correctly, he was like a Mies van der Rohe fan, okay? And he used to constantly, you know, echo, “Less is more”. This was his big theme in life: less is more. And there was one guy in our class by the name of Arthur Beitel, who was a huge character. I think he still is a huge character. I haven’t seen him in a long time. But he was an enormous character. He had a wacky sense of humour and quite an irreverent guy. And one day, he wrote on his drafting desk, in a corner of his drafting desk or the corner of his drawing or whatever after Lehrman kept hammering this expression, Arthur wrote down less is shit and piss. And Lehrman came along and saw this and practically had a nervous breakdown. He just couldn’t cope with what was going on.

[10:45:25]

You often wonder how people such as that got on staff to begin with. Obviously-

Well, I mean today, I mean today the whole dynamic between professors and students it’s- first of all, the line have been blurred.

Yeah.

And there are more people working together in an environment where they’re learning from each other and there is no authority anymore, is my sense, okay. You don’t get authority at least you don’t get authority from your position. You get authority from your expertise and from your capacity to help the other person. You know, they respect you professionally or what you’ re doing or what you’re able to help you with and so on. But it’s all, you know, the world has really changed.

[11:31:20]

Let me ask you, do you remember Sketching School? Did you go to Sketching School?

I remember Sketching School. I was a lousy sketcher. I was lousy in the history of architecture, I was lousy in sketching. I still have a few sketches. I remember we went to- first year, well, first Sketching School we went to Baie Saint-Paul, I think it was. And the second year, we went to Kingston. And the hotel we stayed in in Kingston, which was a firetrap, a few years later I think burned to the ground and several people were killed. They had- I remember being on the third or fourth floor and they had these big gym ropes in the room, which was your fire escape in case the thing caught fire. The guys who went to Sketching School with us were Wilson and Webber.

[12:16:16]

Webber, yeah, that’s right, yeah.

And, you know, that was, that was, you know, one of those experiences in life.

And of course, then one of the courses you probably had was Surveying School.

Survey School.

In Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon.

Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon, Survey School, I remember that. I remember plotting that grid, doing all the contours, you know, not knowing what a contour was.

Fond memories.

And… Absolutely.

How about some of your classmates? Not necessarily what they’re doing today but more interestingly, perhaps, about some of your memories of them. You mentioned some people earlier.

Well, I mentioned some of my classmates. Well, the guy- like, let’s say, look, the high profile people in the class were let’s say inevitably the people who either were design starts or acted like they were design stars or were prodigious workers or were prodigious presenters or characters in some way. So I mean, you know, Bruce, Bruce Anderson was in our class. Bruce was the most prodigious worker.

[13:25:16]

Still is.

And he was the most competitive human being I ever met, which, you know, which didn’t make him all that popular. You know, he may be a lot more popular now, I don’t know. But you know he was the kind of guy- at the- and I can still remember his thesis, you know. You know I came in with a few things on 8 1/2 by 11 and Bruce came in with, you know, rolls of tracing paper, you know thirty-six inches wide by the mile! Okay, he was doing elevations to you know double full-scale, as if volume mattered, which doesn’t mean he wasn’t talented. The big design talent in the class was, you know, probably George Challies, Ross Hayes.

Ross Hayes.

Big construction talent was probably John Houghton. He really knew something about construction. But you know, what I’ve discovered that is with passage of time none of what happened- Leda, Patricia Falta, Leda. She was one of the brighter students in the class. Ron Williams was one of the brighter students in the class. But doing well in architectural school has nothing whatsoever to do with doing well in either architecture or life. Okay, you can do very well in- you can do very well in life without doing- you know doing not that well in architectural school. And I think you can probably even do well in architecture without doing well in school.

[15:01:09]

I can think of many examples of what you’re talking about but I can also think of a few examples, and I say a few, of people who have done well who were the stars of the school. I guess-

Well, I’d say, interestingly enough, the stars in our class, let’s say the architectural stars, again, it depends what you call a star. Because you know you’re talking about people. I’d say nobody in our class, in our particular class. I don’t want to be unfair to anybody, but off the top of my head, I would say nobody in the class of ’64 has produced a body of architecture that has let’s say any critical acclaim. I’d say there are a couple of people who have made a success of architectural and/or planning practices. The most successful, let’s say in the practice or indirectly in the practice is probably Phil Beinhacker, who did create a firm of some significance. Probably the most successful one who stayed in Montreal who stayed in the business is Murray Goodz.

Yeah.

You know, has had a legitimate architectural practice.

[16:12:19]

It’s interesting when you analyze-

There aren’t many others. I mean, you know, other people have just moved in so many different directions. They either work for government in one way or another or they have left the practice and do something else. I mean I’m not a bad example, although you know I left the practice very early you know in what turned out to be a very creative way.

The people that you mentioned, I immediately identify with them because of their personalities and so forth. And you can see that they would have been probably successful in any endeavor that they went into. They happened to choose architecture because that’s where most of their talents were reflected. And then, you know, you mentioned Phil and I think you mentioned-

Murray.

Murray. I know both of those people. They’re in many ways opposite in personalities but they’re both very successful. Murray is a lovely man. His wife, he has a lovely family. I know him- I don’t know him well but I see him at the tennis club and all the rest of it. And I know Phil. I worked with Phil. Anyhow, before we get off the subject of your school days, how did you feel that you were doing as a student? Did you enjoy it? I get the feeling that you were looking forward to graduating.

Yeah, definitely looking forward to graduating. I can’t say- looking back thirty-five years, looking back from the perspective of thirty-five years, there were many things about it that were enjoyable. At the time, I didn’t enjoy it at all. As a matter of fact, I promised myself, I literally made a solemn vow to myself that if I ever got through this exercise, I would never ever go back to school again, because it was not a great experience for me. In fact five years later, I did go back to school. Okay, but at the time, you know, I’d promised I would never do it, and had a different kind of experience when I went back to school, because I went back to something that I could relate to more. I went back with the benefit of five more years of maturity and experience and so on. So I can’t say- you know, at the time, it was not one of the highlights of my life. And there were many days I wondered what the hell I was doing here and how I was going to get-

[19:33:24]

It must have made it very difficult, especially when you were in your first year!

It was very- well, I didn’t really realize it until year three, I would say, okay, because the first two years are really engineering and I was more comfortable in that environment. And it’s really only when I got into designing and sketching and that whole competitive environment about your capacity to produce aesthetic things. And I don’t think I’m a particularly good designer. I think I’m a great design critic. Or I won’t say great. I’m a very good design critic.

You appreciate good design.

I appreciate good design.

And you recognize it.

And I recognize good design. And good design is a very important part of my life right now. And in many ways, thirty-five years later, I’m now coming back to my design roots. You know, as I mentioned to you, you know, before you turned the camera on, we did an architectural competition for the offices. Well, I could never do these offices if I had practiced architecture. I’d never have the capacity, you know, to design them for anybody else or hire anybody to do it for me. So I live in a wonderful architectural space at the office, and I’ m in the process- I mentioned this to you before as well that Bruce Kuwabara is doing a house for me in Toronto right now, which is, you know, is going to be quite a significant architectural home, I hope, I expect. We’ve been involved in that. And that’s been a long process, ‘cause I did a competition for that as well with other architects involved.

[20:59:29]

Interesting.

And Bridget Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, who are two, you know, really young- younger upcoming people. I don’t know whether you know them at all or not, but they are two- going to be very important architects in Canada. They’re doing a boathouse for me in Muskoka that is a very significant, small architectural statement. And so I’m really getting to enjoy my architectural education by becoming involved in building for myself.

[21:29:21]

Tell us a little bit about your career after leaving McGill. And that was 1964.

’64, right. So in those days, well the first thing I did was move to- I had been married a year before I left the school. I moved to England. I went to work for Sir Basil Spence, Bonnington and Collins, as a number of people did in those days. A number of classmates also went to England. Coincidentally, while I was working for Basil Spence, his office was commissioned to design the British pavilion for Expo ’67 in Montreal. As a result, the British government, because I was the only person from Montreal in the office, they thought I knew something, and I didn’t tell them otherwise. So they asked me to go back and be the project architect, working in the office of Bland, LeMoyne, Edwards and Shine who had been selected as the Canadian partner, because if you recall in those days, every foreign participant in Expo had to have a Canadian registry. So I went back to work in Bland’s office, which was a little bit intimidating for me, because I wasn’t a particularly good student and here I was going to work for the director of the school. You know so it was a bit odd. And actually, I really enjoyed that part of my architectural career, because I was involved in a lot of management things and site meetings and things with the contractors and dealing with all the exhibitors coming from England and all the excitement and hype of Expo in those days, which was quite terrific. And the office was very exciting. And as Expo came into being, and the British pavilion, by the way, was one of the more popular attractions in Expo. But as Expo started to blossom, Montreal was going off, you know, off the deep end economically. You had the- Expo was an artificial high, the whole situation in Quebec and so on. And Bland’s office, you know, figuratively speaking, I don’t remember the exact numbers but it literally went from maybe thirty people when I arrived from England, you know down to you know me and two others sort of thing when I finally left. So I enjoyed that experience and then basically struggled for a year or two you know in the aftermath of Expo and went through an early midlife crisis and actually decided to go back to school. And in fact I ultimately went to the Harvard Business School. And I remember going to John Bland and asking him for a reference to- that I wanted to go to Harvard Business School, which I didn’t think I would be accepted anyway. And I remember his comment at the time was, “Well, I’ll kind of do it but I’d be much happier if you were going to the Harvard School of Design”. And I couldn’t handle the McGill School of Design; I don’t know how the hell I could handle the Harvard School of Design! But somehow I got in and somehow I got out, and actually did quite well in school, and then moved to Toronto because I’d already seen the handwriting on the wall in Quebec. By that time, I had two- a wife and two kids when I went to Harvard and then a wife and three kids when I came out. Moved to Toronto and went to work for Cadillac, which then became Cadillac Fairview, and essentially had a thirteen-year career in real estate development, where I was able to use many- you know I was able to use many of my perceived architectural skills, okay. I could marry the architecture and, you know, my capacity to read plans and knowing something about construction and real estate development. And had a great run at Cadillac Fairview. Really enjoyed myself.

[24:15:06]

Basically in Toronto, Gerry?

I was in Toronto but I had responsibilities all over North America. We were at the time, we were growing very, very rapidly. And I was- the last job I had was the president of Cadillac Fairview Land and Housing, so we were active all over Canada and the United States. And whenever I would feel unhappy at Cadillac Fairview, I would just walk into the drafting room, and that would lift my spirits because I would remember I could be there rather than in the executive office! And then I left Cadillac Fairview in ’84 and started the business I’m in now, which is Gluskin, Sheff and Associates. We’ re investment counselors, a complete change of career. My partner, a guy by the name of Ira Gluskin, was a very well known real estate securities analyst and that’s how I met him because I was in a public real estate company. He was analyzing it on the stockbroker’s side of the street and so on. And we started this business and there was a real estate connection when we started because many of our clients, many of our original clients- and what we do, by the way, is we manage money for high net worth individuals in the stock market and for some institutions. We’ve been in business for fifteen years now. It’s definitely the thing I’ve done that I enjoy the most. It beats working, for sure! And we started the business with many real estate clients. Many real estate people who we knew from our previous careers had money. Many of them knew us well enough to entrust us with their money, which gave us our initial start and today, we have, you know, a beautifully established investment management firm. We have about forty people who work here. We manage just over a billion dollars.

[26:13:13]

One of the aspects of your firm that I recognized as soon as I walked into your- you’ve maintained a tremendous interest in design. And you started to talk a little bit earlier about using firms and design competitions not only for your office but for your home. It seems almost anything you build, you get a good designer involved. That’s a little hangover, I’m sure. If you had never gone to the School of Architecture, who knows what career you would have taken and whether you would have the same interests.

Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt. I mean I think a big part of my architectural education is my current interest in design. You know, whether it’ s the design of our letterhead or the graphics of the firm or the way- you know or the kinds of people we hire if we’re doing an invitation, we work with the top design people in the country in everything we do that has any design aspect to it whatsoever, which is most things, in fact, okay. Something as simple as even the financial reporting that we send out to our clients or the kind of corporate information we send out on a quarterly basis, you know or the way we present our offices or our art collection or our community involvements and you know how they manifest themselves from a design point of view. It’s extremely important and I really do enjoy it immensely.

[27:44:08]

It shows. Any thoughts if you had to do it all over again, what you would have done? Would you have still gone through- I mean, maybe it’s not a fair question but anyhow, you could respond to it. Would you have taken architecture at the time?

That’s a really good question. I mean you’ve got to- I would say you know luck is a very important ingredient in life. And it’s like, I can’t remember who it was who said that you know-

Stephen Leacock.

Well, maybe okay- it may have been Stephen Leacock, although I didn’t know him, but it was sort of like “success in life is sort of ninety percent luck and ten percent brains”. But I’d say, if that’s true, I’d exchange the ten percent brains for ten more percentage points of luck! ‘Cause I think- I think there’s a huge element of serendipity to things. Now, obviously, you have to kind of be aware of what’s going on. I mean I love where I am in my life right now, so as a result, I have no problem with any other place I’ve been because it’s the whole ball of wax that’s taken me to where I am now. Okay, anything I might have done differently in the past, I probably would be at a different point now.

Yeah, that’s right.

So since I’m happy where I am, I’m very happy with the path that’s taken me here. If I wasn’t happy, I’d probably be miserable with many different points along the way, okay?

[29:25:12]

That’s the response that if the question were asked to me I would give too.

I think, you know, I think architecture- like architecture is- this is an interesting point. I think I was the first graduate of the McGill School of Architecture, I believe, I’m the first graduate of the McGill School of Architecture ever to get an MBA anywhere, okay. Now I think since that time, there have been quite a few McGill graduates and graduates of other schools who have gone on to do MBAs because- and in that respect, I’m kind of pleased that I was ahead of a curve. It was a very difficult decision to give up the practice of architecture, not because I was any good at it, but because you know we live in a culture where you spend six years sort of becoming an architect. You spend five years doing it, whatever that is. And then you wake up eleven years later and you got to actually- and sort of- in our culture sort of what you do is what you are. You’re sort of defined by it. Now you’ve got to say, “I don’t want to be this anymore. I don’t want to do this. This is not who I am”. “Well, who the hell are you?” You’ve got to sort of find some way of really- and it’s a very difficult thing. I think it would be much better, and I think, I believe it’s the case today, where if people went to study architecture not necessarily with any commitment to becoming architects but as a broad education where they might take it to do a whole variety of things. Now I think that many of the people who graduated with me or with you or in other years did in fact go on to do a whole variety of other things other than architecture, but I think in most cases, it’s because they were forced into it because they couldn’t make it in architecture and there was probably some sense of failure of not making it in architecture and going on and becoming, you know, whether it’s the head of Air Canada facilities or whether it’s going back to school to reeducate yourself in business because you don’t like the track you’re on and now you’re a real estate developer, which is not professional. It’ s something not as good or whatever. I think it’s nonsense. I think it would be much, much better if you studied architecture and the world was your oyster. You know, whether it was Air Canada or whether it was Cadillac Fairview or whether it’s money management or whether it’s teaching or film or graphic design or inspection of housing.

[32:08:01]

It’s- the unfortunate thing is you’re looking at it from hindsight, which is always 20/20. But when you’re young, the ideas- when you’re eighteen or nineteen, first of all, you don’t know what you want to do. And you think, as you expressed, you didn’t want to do anything else. None of the other professions interested you so you went into architecture. A lot of people go into the professions and they feel safe in them but they’re too anxious to get on with their life and really whether you take a BA or architecture, there’s only two years difference and you’re better going through architecture because it really sort of makes you sensitive to everything, whether it’s history, whether it’s design or anything.

I want to actually say this. I want to say this to the camera because it’s the most profound thought that I have, okay! I’ve said this for so long and I’ ve often said if I could ever teach a class of architecture, although again, I think things have changed. But if I could ever- if I could deliver one message to young architectural students in terms of the way I was educated, that I think it is a very, very difficult profession. I think architects, at least at the time and place that I was educated in the School of Architecture, end up growing up to be among the most frustrated people that I know, because the entire process of educating architects back in the sixties was to teach students to appreciate all of those things in life they would never have the financial wherewithal to enjoy.

Interesting comment.

Whether it’s fine space or fine furniture or fine art or fine travel or fine books or fine wine or fine music or fine theatre or fine travel. Okay, the fact of the matter is, it is an extremely unrewarding profession financially by and large. There are the odd exception but the rule is, it’s very, very unrewarding so you better really love it if you’re going to do it because you’ re basically, you’re basically going to have to be devoted to what you do and unless you are very, very extraordinary and the exception, it leads to a lot of frustration. And I know of examples of architects who graduated around when I did who end up not being fulfilled in their profession and who wind up you know focusing on very, very narrow things and becoming very obsessive about them, whether it’s photography or whether it’s physical fitness or running or whether it’s some very narrow interest where they could actually take control and express their aesthetic interest. But there are many, many frustrated architects, I believe.

Certainly more than the other.

More so than frustrated doctors or lawyers or accountants.

[35:08:24]