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Andrejs Skaburskis

B.Arch. 1966
Kingston, ON
December 9, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson


I’m going to, in this interview, talk about, first about my decisions to become an architect and enter McGill. After that, I understand, we’ll be talking a bit about the experiences at McGill and then the post-McGill life. Looking back for me now, looking back maybe optimistically some almost forty years back into high school, I had no idea that I would move into architecture. My interests at the time were very clearly defined. And I was interested in painting and in geology. And the only thing that provided me with an inkling of architecture was the guidance counselor after doing the aptitude tests pointed out that maybe I should think about architecture.

[1:06:07]

Where was this? Where were you going?

At Monklands High School in Notre Dame de Grace in Montreal. So that sort of stayed on my mind for a bit as I pursued painting and my interest in geology, rocks. And with some interest or some degree of discomfort going into-towards further McGill as I was finishing high school, I was still undecided. I knew though that I’d have to have a profession, as my parents and I also was born in Latvia and I arrived in Canada, and so we didn’t have the independent means to allow me to just pursue interests for their own sake. And that dropped me out of art. I didn’t go into geology after talking to some folks, which really became my interest, because I didn’t think that I could do the PhD that I was told you needed in order to really do interesting work in geology. So since I saw myself as being non-PhD material, I went in to a profession, so the second-best choice in the way at the time into thinking about architecture. It did seem to bridge my interest in sort of science, math I liked, and art. And engineering was secure and I could still move after first-year engineering. So my decision, at least to go into the profession, sort of came in this sort of roundabout way in the last two years and it was never really a firm decision where I said at one point, “Yeah. I want to really be an architect and nothing but”. I sort of went into first year McGill, into architecture and as I stayed longer, I was more- first year and then certainly by the time second year, more convinced that that is really what I wanted to do. So it was a sort of a decision process that worked incrementally. And that’s how I ended up in architecture. And there was no option for me to do anything but McGill, simply because we could not afford to think of going anywhere else. And also being so in a way undecided about fields, McGill offered security, the home city, and the engineering department was good so that’s how I ended up in architecture at McGill.

[3:50:11]

Okay, days at McGill.

All right, days at McGill. The first day, the first two years were engineering and our first real contact with architecture came with Peter Collins. And one of the most- in the first week of architecture, we were given an assignment that I think was about the most difficult assignment that I’ve ever done in my life as a paper, and that was comparing- to write a four-page paper comparing the McGill campus with the University of Montreal campus. And we had sort of read a little. I had read a little in the summer, Pevsner I had read at that time. And I think most of us didn’t have the vocabulary to compare buildings or urban design or settings. So we were thrown into this, what turned out to be tremendously difficult. How do you decipher this? How to fill four pages? But we sort of moved through that and I think at that time, the architecture really revolved around Peter Collins’s history lectures, going right back to Greece, getting a sense that we were on a good foundation, certainly a long-standing one. And John Schreiber’s work with letters, Greek letters- not Greek letters, Roman letters and projections and then renderings and the kind of rudimentary things, I guess, that we had to know as architects. So that was- I mean that was the second year, had those two courses, but they were mostly still filled with more calculus, kinestatics, I think at that year, more mechanics and all the engineering subjects that were also, you know, some were interesting, challenging, and, you know, we could manage them, manage quite well.

[6:07:26]

What, I think, characterizes that year and the overall experience of the School of Architecture and of McGill within the Faculty of Engineering during the 1960’ s was the terrific regimentation of courses, no options virtually whatsoever, and the very sort of authoritative stance of the professors and the university as something that I think at that time that characterized that time for us, that things are now, I think, are very different. So second year, we worked. And I mean we worked mostly on engineering subjects day and night, some of the rendering and some in history. But then after that, after second year, and Survey School, which was a ball, always in Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon, after that, boot camp started with Stu Wilson. And that was when Stu Wilson would be- we’d be doing our first real design work and setting up our models, you know, working on timber construction, and Stu would come in after sort of doing a crit, we’d be sort of taking all our drawings down on the board at about five o’ clock in the afternoon, all reasonably demolished by Stu’s perceptive comments on where water would flow through the structure and where, you know, where there wasn’t adequate bracing in the building. And sort of feeling after having done that and after having had worked for, you know, at least the last week until one, two in the morning, we’d be finished, and at five on the crit, and then a few of us would still be around at eleven o’clock at night working when Stu would sort of come in and rage that nobody was there. “How come nobody was there? Just because we have a deadline doesn’t mean that you could slack off” was Stu’s reaction. So it was a period, third year, it was a period where we really were working full-time, day and night and without letting go at all.

[8:45:20]

So I think that, and if I’m going back and looking through, in, you know, fourth year, more relaxed, housing work with Jonas Lehrman, a gentle man, a thoughtful man, who was really so different from Stu that it seemed like at times maybe we weren’t being driven so we might have been concerned we almost weren’t learning as a result of not being pushed the way we were. Fourth year was very- wait a minute. That was fourth year with Jonas Lehrman. Fifth year was with Norbert Schoenauer. And Schoenauer for us was really the star professor, I think, at McGill. He was- he had a – I think a lot of us sensed, and I certainly sensed, a depth of understanding that he had of architecture but more of people. And he was really a humanist in all sort of regards of architecture and programming, in town planning aspects of the work. So there was this- so there was- I think we were looking, really, even at the fourth year, looking forward to working with and studying under Norbert.

[10:08:18]

I don’t mean to interrupt your train of thought, but did Peter Collins continue with-?

Peter Collins continued second, third, fourth and fifth years. So we had four years of history, history I’m grateful for, because every time I go to Europe, I look at the buildings. It’s wonderful. But we had a- I think not only myself, I think my classmates, Wit Rybczynski and I think to some extent, although quieter, Richard Rabnett, we had a bit of a discomfort with Peter Collins in that, certainly by the time of fifth year came about, we all, or most of us loved Le Corbusier. And Peter Collins, described- only at one point, to our shock, he recognized Le Corbusier was a genius. So we felt well, finally, Peter is now seeing something that we’re seeing and we were wrong before in judging Peter as being a bit of a stick in the mud. But then he qualified that by saying that he was an evil genius sort of architecturally. So there was this sort of a tension where Peter Collins was looking back at sort of calm, classical architecture and precast concrete as the epitome of modern architecture. Some of the rest of us really, really wanted to do the more dramatic thing.

[11:41:13]

Was Webber, Gordon Webber around in those days?

Gordon Webber was. Gordon, well, he died in the sixth year that we did our design work. And I must say, I didn’t appreciate it perhaps enough he was around. I would normally like that kind of stuff, coming out of a sort of painting background, but the pressures on us in terms of time, in terms of getting things done were quite considerable. We also had- these pressures were also sort of in a way fostered or exaggerated by the fact that all our marks would always be posted from high to bottom. And I was dependent on scholarships going through McGill so I was always, you know, shooting and I had to maintain an eighty percent average, that meant that Gordon Webber’s course that was worth fifty marks, fifty marks out of about a thousand or about eleven hundred marks total, I remember we worked with marks rather than with units, you know, you really couldn’t afford to spend the time. It was recreation, unfortunately. So that was- but Webber, I think, we went the first time to Sketching School at- way out there in- where was it? In Northern- not Northern Quebec. 150 miles north of-

Rivière du Loup or?

Saint-Gabriel-de Brandon? No.

Oh, Saint-Gabriel? No, that was where-

No that was at Sketching School.

That was the-

No, that was 150 miles on the river.

Okay. Past Quebec City then.

Past Quebec City. Wonderful, anyway, wonderful cultural change. The name- hold on, the name will-

It’s a memory that’s consistent with everybody who has passed.

Is that right?

The Sketching Schools, yeah.

Yeah, so then we-

There are other names. For example, Gerry Tondino, who is still at McGill.

Yes.

And John Bland.

Oh, Gerry Tondino is still at McGill?

Still at McGill. Still teaching.

I really enjoyed Tondino. Tondino did the sketching. Tondino, the amazing thing with Tondino was that he has, I don’t know, his familiar tremors, where his hand’s always shaking. He’d be coming up, you know, you’d be drawing a figure and doing something wrong, and he picks up the charcoal in his hand. Here, I’d been working this delicate thing. So he picks up this charcoal in his hand and then he puts the perfect line with that shaking hand without any problems whatsoever. So I think that always amazed me.

[14:17:03]

You’ll be happy to hear that he’s still the same person today.

Is he?

Unbelievable.

Actually, he’s one person I’d like to go back and see. I really-

And Harold Spence-Sales had left, I guess, by that time, eh?

Harold Spence-Sales was with us at the time and he was, I mean Harold Spence-Sales- You know, I’m teaching now and I could tell you Harold Spence-Sales would be up for all kinds of things. He never did anything naughty; we were all boys in there. But he talked in salacious language. And he would be talking in terms of urban landscape and he’d be talking about curves on the curb and showing slides of how the cobblestones interacted and he would be talking in sexual overtones virtually through the whole course in this manner and you know, never verbally overstepping it because of his tremendous command of the language but certainly made streetscape a salacious subject. And it was wonderful. I mean it was wonderful watching him sort of go through that. He didn’t teach us anything about planning. I mean unfortunately, he really was sensitive to the design things. And I’m sure much of what I see now and things I appreciate now and how in cities and in sort of vernacular architecture, how things are put together, how things move.

[16:05:06]

Was there a singular event or a course or an incident or even a visiting crit that might have influenced you in your career one way or the other? Because some people talk of, you know, the Ray Afflecks and the Guy Desbarats, some of these crits that came in. Some of them had quite an influence on some of the staff and some of the, and I guess, more some of the graduates.

I can’t say that there was any one single event. I think in my mind and if I really- if I’m now looking back, that was- actually probably influential in quite important ways was Norbert Schoenauer. And that was more not what he did in design but I think more the kind of person he presented himself as. And that’ s, as I had mentioned earlier, there was that humanism that he had. I can remember, as an incident of this that comes to mind sometimes, we had one of our classmates was a rather pompous ass through the whole period of time. And we were doing a school project for retarded children. And this person made some comment about television room, you know, “is aptly named- or television is aptly named an idiot box, because we’re-” you know. And it was very interesting. Norbert, we’d never seen anything like it, the calm, quiet Norbert, dressed him down terribly in order for that to happen. So there was an example there of for us to some extent, we were, you know, part of this battling with this person, some of us, battling with this person for having that kind of an outlook, and then Norbert, who’d never be critical, having stepped on him. It’s a very small incident, but I think that was important.

[18:07:01]

We had throughout- I remember in third year still, even in our year, we did calculus. And so we were doing rather advanced calculus and doing problems relating to the work effort like on sort of subatomic particles spent while their curling through lead plates, things of that nature. And that had been dropped. But that for me had become in my later work, in the work I did later, actually an important part. It provided me with a basis in mathematics that would help me move on later. So I think that was particularly useful to me. The other thing that was useful I think was a kind of an outlook, you know, I don’t do design. It was a kind of an outlook that we gained through our design courses that said you can do anything. You’re given a short problem, a two-day assignment or a one-day sketch assignment on something you’ve never dealt with before. Deal with it, do it, design it. And that kind of attitude, I think, is again something that architecture has taught me in those years in the courses that we had.

[19:30:11]

Well, I graduated from McGill in 1966 and was lucky enough to win the Dunlap Travel Scholarship. So I immediately went off to work to try to raise more money to give me enough to travel on for a year, to look at buildings and to do studies. So I worked at- right away I got into working on large projects. I had always been interested as a student in urban design. I used to boast that any dimension under fifty feet was a detail and didn’t concern me. So I worked at first for Mel Charney and then later Dimitri Dimakopoulos on a hundred-storey tower that was to go beside Place Bonaventure. Traveled for a year, came back to Arcop and worked for one year on Cité Concordia, where we were going to do marvelous things. We were going to demolish nine blocks just east of McGill, of those cruddy buildings that students often inhabit and put up about three, four million square feet of commercial on several levels above that, have a village green, above that, have seven thousand dwelling units, a hotel, a large office building and the likes. It was wonderful, wonderful restructuring of the city just the way an architect- the way I certainly would have enjoyed seeing. But the residents didn’t like it. And then, in fact, Ray’s wife helped organize the resident input.

[21:21:19]

Betty-Ann.

Is it Betty-Ann?

Yes, I remember that.

And then they came and- here we had been for a year on this ideal project, wonderful client, gave us all the time to do the work, and with Ray Affleck, sensitive, always concerned with the city structure, how we’re going to integrate this wonderful restructuring of the work. And there was a point when we were then finally stopped; I had to start to think. This is now 1968; this is the era of urban renewal, where we really were going to demolish pieces of the city without, you know, too much concern. And with glee, we were going to do good things. At Jean-Claude Lahaie, we were developing plans to take out Chinatown with its cruddy buildings. We were going to connect Place des Arts to Place d’Armes. This is wonderful, wonderful architectural work. But Cité Concordia came to a head for me when we had the citizens over, the citizens’ committee over the architectural office, showing them the wonderful plans, how nice the buildings would look, what a way we would be integrating setbacks, sort of transition zones connecting in to Mount Royal with overpasses. And one of the leaders started at the end sort of pounding the table with his fist saying, “But you don’t understand: the better it is, the worse it is”. A contradiction, but in a sense, I was puzzled by it. I saw that the cities had to change and in fact, there’s a process: you build new stuff, people move into the new stuff, leave old buildings behind, room for other people. There’s a process and there’s something good about changing the cities. At the same time, it’s not very good doing this damage to the communities. And I really couldn’t think that one out. And I had trouble thinking it out. And I spent some days away from work sort of just thinking what I had, making lists. I couldn’t really structure it.

[23:43:03]

And I had anyway, on that job, at the same time, I had always thought that I’ d be returning to graduate school, so I ended up- ‘cause one of our consultants, Roger Montgomery, on the Cité Concordia had come in out of Berkeley and it occurred to me to also apply to Berkeley. So I ended up in a two-and-a-half-year urban design programme at Berkeley and did a joint Architecture Master’s and Architecture Master’s in Planning. And I was hoping to go there to be able to think out sort of the problems of urban renewal and city restructuring and how the city ought to be rebuilt and what are the processes or the mechanisms of how cities might work and also to do some analysis of policy. The two years at Berkeley went rather quickly. Exciting folks. The urban design programme in itself was not interesting in that I had done the physical stuff at McGill and the main sequence is you also had systems thinking kinds of things, simulation modeling. It wasn’t terribly relevant. But my advisor, Roger Montgomery at the time, did encourage me to do some economics. So I started with some economics and I had a mixture now of some policy courses, economically- oriented on economics and at the end of sort of second year, I was about ready to come back to I don’t know what. What kind of a profession? I had had two very intense years in Berkeley, very different atmosphere. No competition at all. Nobody knew any grades. Grades didn’t matter, all that kind of thing. This was in the sixties, where I could smell the teargas and demonstrate against Cambodia, and the invasion of Cambodia and that sort of thing. And then Alonzo, who was at Berkeley at the time, encouraged me then to just think about doing a PhD in planning. I said I would think about it and let it go for months until spring when he asked me again to sign my name to the form. And instead of staying for two years in sort of 1969, 1970, I ended up graduating in 1976 with a PhD in urban and regional planning. I was consulting quite a bit at the time, so it stretched me out. The CMHC Fellowship was very helpful. But in the process, I did the three-course sequence in economics: Economic Theory, Public Finance, Econometrics, that people doing PhD’s in economics would do, so I retrained in economics and statistics to do research and work on issues. My thesis was on a redevelopment problem being generated by the BART system in the Bay Area and I can’t say that the initial policy problems that were raised in the context of Cité Concordia I could resolve with any clarity or fully understand. I think I do know now much, much more, but at that time, I couldn’ t know very much.

[27:13:08]

So that took me- in terms of effort, I think it was virtually like going back to architecture once again and starting up. And I went through a process of change and adjustment. For me, that was very difficult. The years, the first two years were fine. I was going back to architecture. I liked design. I was working as a designer. And then as I went into the PhD, I realized that the further I went, I was losing contact with architecture. So if I went back into an office, I wouldn’t know what the journals, what the latest thing was in terms of design. I hadn’t been drawing. Similar, at the same time, I had a very varied background. I wasn’t as sharp an economist as somebody who might have been doing their economics all through their undergraduate. So I was really, really changing positions and being in a kind of a- I went from a very directed programme of becoming an architect, being an architect all of a sudden to something very loose where just about anything seemed to work.

[28:32:17]

So the transition out of architecture was with sort of regret that I was moving, yet, felt that that was really what I was interested in. I was being pulled by work that involved more analysis and more research than architecture offers. So I moved out, finished, went back up to Vancouver and worked for a while, it was actually quite interesting. I worked with Richard Rabnett, an old colleague from McGill helping develop and doing the research and developing a new town, Tumbler Ridge. So we did that. And we worked on a number- I worked on a number of projects for Canada Mortgage and Housing, projects assessing markets, assessing processes in the housing market. So that was an era of research. Sort of for seven years with my ex-wife, we maintained a small consulting company. But still the kind of attitude of the sixties, this kind of interest in being relevant, this kind of a you don’t work just for money itself attitude prevailed, and as a result, we were not financially successful particularly. But the work was all interesting. It was all one of a kind research so you can’t piece it off to other folks; you can’ t develop anything much in terms of infrastructure. So after about seven years of consulting, working on interesting, interesting projects and then seeing that consulting funds from federal- my main clients were the federal government, Municipal Affairs in British Columbia and Alberta Housing and Public Works. And then seeing that research funds were drying out and the Conservative government was coming in ’83, when Queens University gave me an offer to come on as a full-time faculty member on a tenure stream without any sort of competition for the job, I simply took the job and said, “Here I am”. Thirteen years later, as a professor in urban and regional planning in what is probably Canada’s best planning school. Small, five people right now, but all five are very productive all in our areas.

[31:20:25]

Is there any private consulting or is it all teaching?

No, there has been. When I came in, I mean I came in and maintained consulting contracts. And I have been doing consulting back to British Columbia a number of times on things like developing cost charges or forecasting modules or improving forecasting modules, improving forecasting of household formation routes and things of that nature. In the last few years, I’ve been doing less of it. I mean now I’ve been doing a little work on how to make cities more compact, more dense in terms of [unclear]. But again, over the past three, four years, my consulting has been dropping off. I haven’t been pursuing it. My grants have been increasing, so again, shows, well, grants don’t make money. Consulting makes money, but grants give you the freedom to do the research that is independent of a particular client’s need. So I’ve gone more and more into academic and more and more into this kind of professorial world of research with teaching on the side.

[32:43:15]

The work that I’m doing now is almost all- all of it’s almost all research. I do applied research and most of it revolves around housing issues and around the urban and regional special structure. I’m asking myself now then to what extent and in what way did my six years at McGill contribute to the work I’m doing now, other than it sent me on the course that took me to where I am. But there are things that I think that I can still draw on or that have left an impression on me that affects what I do and how well I do it. At a very instrumental level, all of those early courses in engineering and mathematics have provided me with a basis that allowed me to not just do design work but to go into other fields in social science and provides me with the mathematics that I needed in economics, so I could pursue that. I think that if you’re looking at undergraduate education and recognizing that in the future, people’s careers will be changing and the notion of one job all your life or even one career all your life is over, then before, in the old days, thirty years ago, thirty-five years ago, when we still had a notion of one career, one job, the kind of training, the diversity of the training that we got at McGill was very good for the kind of contemporary career ladders or series of ladders and ledges that people will be moving on. So that was- the technical part and the diversity was for me an important contribution to work there that I’m still doing.

[35:01:19]

I think there’s other- I alluded to earlier, there was also this tremendous notion coming out of the- I think the very hard work, the very challenging design work that we were given, this notion that hey, I can start work on just about anything and finish it and I’m willing to go for it. And that was actually something like- there was a line that Peter Collins mentioned that’s come back to me several times. And he sort of said, “How do you become- how does an architect become an expert in hospitals? Or how does an architect become an expert in airport design? Well, you take on an airport commission. You take on a hospital commission. You go on, you say you’re an expert, you take it on and you do it. And there’s that kind of an attitude I’ ve had, because nobody in their right mind with sort of one or two stats courses embark with a PhD sequence in econometrics. I could do it, could manage, hard, done. So that was, I think that attitudinal thing that developed with that hard work, the discipline and the kind of thing that architects have, that willingness to jump in and muck about things that you don’t know until you finally know something about it. And I think that McGill trained me in that and I appreciate that.

[36:23:00]

And I think the third for me is in the work that I do, even though much of it all comes down to numbers, equations, graphs and in the end, presentation, it all still ties to imagery of cities. I mean they could be that they’re not specific images, but there is always or most of the work that I do has a physical entity in mind and that’s the structure of the city and how it’s changing. So I’m still with that and I’m maintaining that and I think, that that’s due to the interests that I developed at McGill, along with architecture, urban design, the travel opportunities that I had while being an architect, that interest and the love for cities, city forms and the city organism, the city structure. And I think that’s in there even though I’m now really working only on research that aims at policy changes and I mean the changes in tax regimes or systems or regulatory systems, there’s still that, sort of in the heart, there’s still that liking of love for cities as shapes. And I think that’s really- a lot of that really was sort of nurtured through the design and the history courses and all the work that I did at McGill for those six, long, hard years.

[38:08:17]

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