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Harold Spence-Sales

(With Mary Spence-Sales)
Vancouver, BC
April 17, 1996
Interview by Jim Donaldson


H.S.S.: John Bland and I met in a place called London House in Mecklenburgh Square in London. And we met as distinguished colonials who had come to the Mother Country to be shaped. And the beauty about it was, that London House was a most elegant place. We were beautifully looked after in every respect. But in addition to all of that, we were constantly invited to meet distinguished people. And all this came about through the patron of London House, a man named Goodenough, who thought that these barbarians from the Colonies needed shaping. The beauty about it was, that it wasn’t so much distinguished men that we encountered as lovely women. That was the enchanting part about it. And as a consequence, every one of us got ourselves entangled in a love affair. And it was Mrs. Crofton, the Commander’s wife, who in some sort of way behaved like an archangel. And they had a way of being able to understand whether you were in a difficulty or not. So almost all of us, almost every one of us had our indiscretions looked after.

[1:52:09]

Did you- how did you make up your mind that you were going to come to McGill University? Was that through John, your friendship with John?

H.S.S.: It was a sequence of events. There we were as young students of this new pursuit called Urbanism. And it was out of this sort of extravagant idea that we got to know all sorts of different people and came within their influences.

In what year did you actually come over? Was it 1947 then that you came to McGill?

H.S.S.: Yes, I would say so. I’m not very good at dates, but I would imagine it was somewhat like that.

And then you took up teaching immediately? Were there very many- Do you remember, Harold, how many were on the staff when you came over?

H.S.S.: Just two of us.

Just the two of you?

H.S.S.: We ran it.

Just the two of you?

H.S.S.: We were the students and we were also the formidable creatures in the game.

[3:00:19]

We were just talking about John Bland and McGill in the early- 1947, I guess.

H.S.S.: We were both colonials who had been sent by their parents to the Mother Country in order to be styled, in order to be shaped, measured and turned into a worthwhile, professional person. So the beauty about the AA was that it was not only a teaching school, but it was also a social place. The AA belonged to the members, to the architects of the city. So it was a club, but it was also a great teaching institution. And that’s where John Bland and I were really shaped intellectually.

[3:54:16]

And then you left London, I guess.

M.S.S.: Well, I think there’s a huge amount in before he left London. You have to remember that they graduated in the late thirties. The war hadn’t started then. And they had established a partnership. Harold, I think you have to speak about these things. And the competitions that you won. These are important things.

Yes, they are. They are, I’m sorry.

M.S.S.: And then the war came, and of course, John Bland had to return to Canada and you stayed on. And Harold was a very special person in the war. He was called a Designated Person. I had never heard the term. He was involved in secret work for the government over placing ammunition works, the exodus of children from the cities and of building of the pipelines and all sorts of preliminary things for the Great Invasion. All this was secret work, which Harold was involved in, and so on. And you were bombed out and you were this and you were that and you had all sorts of crazy adventures with the Sausage King and all these things. Then, when the war came and towards the end of the war, Cyril James mysteriously turned up in London during an air raid. And this was in the Strand Palace Hotel. And here, the great offer was made to Harold to come to McGill after the war to start this aspect of Planning in the Department of Architecture. And, of course, it would be John Bland who had started that in motion. So when the war was over, it was absolutely marvelous and Harold with his baby in a basket and his little son all got on the old Queen Mary and they arrived in Montreal. It still was a troop ship, you know? And so life began. He stayed-

[5:48:25]

And that was about 1947.

M.S.S: That would be 1947

And then I guess what I was wondering was you and John Bland were there. Were there any other professors at that time at McGill or were you the only two at the beginning?

H.S.S.: Well, we were the only two really at the time. Then others came along later. And my recollection is that it was our beginning and the organization that we managed to instill into the system that brought about the continuity of Planning teaching at the AA. So I think in a certain sort of way, he and I as vulgar little colonials established something worthwhile in the Mother Country.

M.S.S.: And in another colony!

H.S.S.: And in another colony!

Another colony yeah!

[6:53:10]

H.S.S.: And so we conjured up these extraordinary labyrinths of correlations and people and so on. And I think we created a sort of phantasmagoria, there’ s no doubt about it. And within this concept, we embraced every conceivable idea. As it turned out, it wasn’t really a highly organized, beautifully logical teaching process according to a particular curriculum. It was a sort of society. You might call it a society for provoking the mind.

M.S.S.: Yes.

Great.

M.S.S.: And who were they, Harold?

Who were the people, do you remember some of the people who were visiting?

H.S.S.: Well, they were principally John Bland and myself. And we had these offices on the other side of Bedford Square. We ran an absolutely unbelievably pleasant association with people. And it became in a sense another aspect of architectural teaching.

[8:15:19]

Was Frank Scott one of the people that you invited?

M.S.S.: Well, yes, I think if you could mention Colonel Baird and Frank Scott, the geographer, and Frank particularly in law. And just mention that it was political scientists, analysts and so on.

H.S.S.: Well, we had an idea; we had an idea that the pursuit of planning involved an engagement of a great number of specialties. And we thought about those specialties as being architecture, sociology, geography, and political science. And it was out of these departments that we formed, so to speak, the teaching nucleus. And in that respect, I think it was a novel happening. The terribly anxious thing with us was that we were innate designers and makers of things, so our pursuit of the teaching had to do with the making. So we were tremendously concerned with the processes by which ideas came about and then the pursuit of the idea itself and then the furthering of the idea. So that, I think, is really the intellectual basis that John and I introduced into the School of Planning at the AA.

[9:55:17]

And then of course over the-

M.S.S.: At McGill, not the AA, but McGill.

But over the period of time, since you were there for that number of years, I guess a lot of the things changed. Even the curriculum became more formal. And then you ended up sort of teaching a specific part of that programme.

H.S.S.: Yes, yes.

And do you have any thoughts about some of the other, I guess, programmes that were going on at the time?

H.S.S.: Well, what we were doing at that time was absolutely unique. There were- you see, urban planning is really a very old and ancient pursuit with the English. They’ve always been conscious of their cities and they’ve always been conscious of the design process.

M.S.S.: There were new urgencies.

H.S.S.: There had been housing; there was a great emancipation, an outlook which the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation instigated through Humphrey Carver. So these were- these happenings were events which really portrayed the arousal of the country. Prior to that, people had been thinking about how to do things decently this way or that way. But what really happened at that time was that through Humphrey Carver and other people in the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which incidentally helped to support all the studies that were taking place at different universities. We were entirely dependent upon funds from the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which were lavished on us in an absolutely marvelous, generous way. And without that sort of support that was really personified in Humphrey Carver’s contribution to Canadian evolution, that we prospered. And it was such a delightful thing. Whenever we had a really worthwhile idea, we were able to ring our friends in Ottawa and say, “Can we come and see you?” and “Here is a proposition” and if it was judged to be appropriate and salutary and likely to be contributive, the responses were generously in the extreme. So that we owe anything that we may individually have contributed to it was augmented and supported and thrust into reality by the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

M.S.S.: Yes.

[12:40:01]

Do you recall any towns or cities, do any come to mind that you are particularly proud of through your agents, I guess, that started?

M.S.S.: What about new towns, Harold?

H.S.S.: Well, these sort of episodes were really remarkable happenings all of their own. Oromocto is a military town. therefore, there was somebody in Ottawa who was concerned with the happenings in Oromocto. And so we got drawn into the game. One of the extraordinary things that I did was to make a gigantic sculpture of a warrior, because Oromocto is a military town and it had a great wall running through the middle of it, which we concocted to separate one parking area from another. And if you had this great wall, which was about twelve feet high or something like that, you couldn’t stare at it without ornamenting it. So I did a gigantic sculpture. And it got pushed out and it got put on the wall. Then it was taken away from the wall and it’s in the park by the Oromocto River.

[14:16:23]

It’s probably still there today.

H.S.S.: It is still there. I have a photograph of it somewhere. It would be difficult for me to find it precisely.

No, that’s all right. But did you, was Préville one of your- was that a project that you worked on as well?

H.S.S.: No, Préville was a new town.

New town, all right.

H.S.S.: Yes. And the whole Préville idea came about through the sort of arrogance and pomposity of the honorable Georges Simard who owned a great big arpent. Two, three arpents. Do you know what an arpent is?

Oh yes.

H.S.S.: So it was out of this sort of association, Jacques Simard came along and became a student for a little while, and that’s how- that’s literally how Préville evolved.

[15:18:24]

H.S.S.: On one of our peregrinations when Mary and I went that direction, and we went to Oromocto and introduced ourselves, we were suddenly extolled and we were feasted. Here had come the sort of originator of the town.

M.S.S.: Overwhelming, the respect they had for you, Harold. And all the documents were so carefully looked after and the planner-engineer had brought them out and showed you with such pride the original ones. The mayor was marvelous and the town manager, they presented you with a flag, and many things which were a memento of your great influence.

H.S.S.: Yes, where is my little flag now?

M.S.S.: Well, I don’t know but you don’t need it now. I know where it is, yes.

[16:09:13]

H.S.S.: John Bland and I were distinguished consultants. The whole country was in its post-war effulgent state and everybody was organizing the new towns and the this-and-the-that as aspects of the improvement of the physical environment of our cities. And it was the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation that propelled all this. It was Humphrey Carver’s sight of the combination and the contribution that the practitioners were capable of making. So we got invited to do incredible things. You know, I did two or three new towns. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? It was as if we were just coming through savagery or something like that.

[17:12:26]

H.S.S.: Planning in those days was a social process. As a social process, it was regarded as a subversive activity. It was not a contributive activity; it was subversive. Planning was a threat to society. And I’m not fooling. Your presence wasn’t really welcomed in those days. You know, you were somebody who was pursuing an idea that would seem to be his alone and nobody else’s.

But then again, those days in the history of Canada, town planning was very much in the vanguard. It was a new profession in the sense of Canada.

H.S.S.: No, not really. You see, town planning as such had been a sort of authentic pursuit for a very long time in Canada.

M.S.S.: In Canada or in Britain?

H.S.S.: Oh, in Canada too! In Canada too. You had, for example, in Ottawa probably the most beautifully organized capitol planning organization in the world.

That existed in that time?

H.S.S.: Yes! You had, what was his name now? Oh, I wish I could remember his name. I used to call him Button Boots because- he was a great French town planner who was drawn into, who was invited to Ottawa to help organize and set about the capitol city plan. Oh God!

[19:17:27]

I can’t help you there either.

H.S.S.: No, no it will come to me in a minute. So it was this it was this essential association with Ottawa that enabled chaps like myself who were planners to be in demand and to be sent here and to be sent there to devise little city plans and so on.

So Ottawa was helping rather than hindering your-

H.S.S.: It was the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation so the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation was the instrument, the financial instrument whereby urban development was being stimulated.

[20:05:27]

H.S.S.: The great facilitator or our affairs was the Faculty Club. And the Faculty Club had a great dining room. But it also had another parlour-like place that enabled to look into the campus. And it was there that we were able to order…

M.S.S.: Gin Alexanders

H.S.S.: Gin Alexanders!

M.S.S.: Made by Olie!

H.S.S.: Made by Olie. Olie was the bar attendant and he had a wonderful facility of producing the most innocent looking and the most ferocious drinks you ever had.

M.S.S.: They looked very nourishing.

H.S.S.: They looked terribly nourishing. They looked as if you were drinking a glass of milk.

Who would join you in these lunches?

H.S.S.: Well, anybody, because everyday, we walked from the school to the Faculty Club to have lunch. Or at the end of the day, we went to the Faculty Club to booze. And there we encountered all sorts of people. I remember once there was a delegation of Russian architects and planners who had come to McGill for some reason or another. And we then met at the Faculty Club and in this particular room, there was a very nice balcony that you inevitably went out on. And you looked at McGill. And one of them asked a question.

M.S.S.: It was about the library but I don’t know what he said.

H.S.S.: Well, it had to do with orderly architecture. Oh damn it.

But I’m just trying to bring you back to perhaps talking about some of the people like, I guess, Guy Desbarats or I’m thinking some of the architects and planners, and I don’t know as many planners as perhaps I should, but that you associated with. And you talked about Peter Collins earlier and you talked about Gordon Webber, I think.

M.S.S.: Yes, well why don’t you just talk about a few of these people to begin with and then about the students perhaps, Harold. You know, like Brahm and Guy and Ray and so on, if you want to, I think you should. But go back to some of your observations about your friends and your colleagues like, well, Stuart and Peter Collins and Gordon and all these little things that were exciting and beautiful.

[22:54:18]

Do you remember Stuart Wilson well?

M.S.S.: I was very fond of him.

H.S.S.: Oh yes, I remember Stuart Wilson very well. I remember the curiosity about Stuart. Stuart was always a wonderfully remote person.

They called him an outcast at times, because that was a role that he, I think, enjoyed.

H.S.S.: Yes, yes.

And about Peter Collins?

H.S.S.: Well, we loved Peter Collins but we also had a great contempt for him. And we had a great contempt for him because he was far too clever for us all. He was in a perpetual state of intrigue. You never knew whether you were the object of his intrigue or somebody else was. But Peter Collins could not be trusted.

[23:53:01]

M.S.S.: His intellect, you know, you said he was very- he was so confident of his own brilliance or something you mentioned.

H.S.S.: Oh yes. That was his- that was Peter’s own trouble. Peter’s real trouble was that there was only one brain in the universe.

And that was his.

H.S.S.: And that was his.

[24:11:17]

How about, I guess, Gordon Webber wasn’t there at your period of time, was he?

M.S.S.: Oh yes, very much so!

H.S.S.: Yes. But Gordon Webber was a mythical creature. You know, he really was a mythical creature. And his myth really lay in his legs because he was a cripple. And so he moved in a certain sort of way. I don’t think I’ve ever come across anybody who could less express himself correctly than Gordon. Gordon’s language was mystical. It was utterly and absolutely inscrutable.

That was part of his mystique, which I suspect he worked at.

H.S.S.: Oh yes, absolutely. And you simply loved this man. You excused him. You propped him up. You supported him. He exerted in some sort of way a vast spiritual sympathy.

[25:23:28]

Harold, did you work with, I guess around the same period, there was- the architects I think you worked with were Arcop, or Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos. Ray Affleck and- did you have much to do with-?

M.S.S.: Oh yes. Well, these were the post-war students. These were an exciting bunch!

H.S.S.: These were the students who as soon as the rebuilding of Montreal started, found themselves through this, that and the other happening as the new leaders, the new conceivers, the new city people.

M.S.S.: But these were the post-war students. You have to just mention them. You know, like Ray and so on, who were in the classes. And I remember it, being an assistant in the drawing with Lismer, I knew them very well and we had a lot of jocular fun and so on, because they were so serious and they were so lively because they had come out of this war.

And so creative.

M.S.S.: Well that’s the main thing.

H.S.S.: Well, it was the post-war episode. It was emancipation time. You know, we fought the war for this sort of reason.

And everybody looked forward to sort of the good years. And most were not disappointed.

H.S.S.: Well, it was a very important phase in the evolution of Canadian cities. The post-war euphoria, the post-war opportunity, the post-war episode of preparing for the great and noble future. Oh yes, we were all tremendously patriotic

[27:06:11]

H.S.S.: Well, when I was being interviewed about the appointment, I had to say that I wouldn’t be able to teach unless I practiced. Simply because in those days, the world was not a theoretical thing. The world was a world of practical, anxious, urgent pursuits in the physical sense. So you had to be- you had to have- you had to pursue ideas, but you had to pursue ideas through the mechanisms that you had in those days. So I was able to trot around and talk the most flamboyant nonsense about urban circumstance and urban ideals and all the rest of it, and people thought it was absolutely wonderful. And in most cases, your words never really resulted in anything happening. But it was a beautiful sort of ensnaring process. And I was good at it.

[28:10:17]

You carried on your practice throughout your life as well as your teaching?

H.S.S.: Yes. I maintained that I couldn’t really teach unless I did. This was a little practical thing. And it was accepted. It had- there were complexities associated with that, because it had to do with two incomes and this and that and the other. So the purists had to manage you in some sort of way so that you weren’t really appearing as a downright immoral opportunist.

[28:48:14]

H.S.S.: The most marvelous thing that happened to McGill in terms of its physical setting and its surroundings was my appointment as Garden Master. This enabled me to present the principal and the building committees and all the rest of it with pictures and ideas on beautification. So out of this came the reorganization of the Great Avenue. So I produced a plan in which taking the existing trees and assuming that such and such a tree was ugly and inappropriate, we worked up a beautiful pattern of how to start replanting the campus. And making the Great Avenue something of an avenue other than an approach to a tombstone, because you must remember that right at the very head of all this was McGill’s tomb. And almost everybody was certain that he was not buried there!

[30:05:02]

And the famous tree?

M.S.S.: The Emperor of Japan, wasn’t it, presented it or something? Okay.

H.S.S.: The beauty about the gingko tree was- the issue rather about the gingko tree was that from the point of view of a great designer, whoever planted at the end of an avenue a tree that contended with the podium, because that’s exactly what it was. When you looked up from Sherbrooke Street, the vista was, in the end, this bloody gingko. And my pursuit in life was to get rid of the gingko. And I succeeded in doing it in the end by altering a little piece of drainage and ensuring the exposure of the roots of the gingko into which we emptied lots of bags of salt and brought about the demise of this idiotic tree that everybody revered.

[31:20:12]

H.S.S.: The sort of little gangster games that used to go on at McGill that had to do with the way in which all sorts of private pursuits confronted with officialdom found their way of self-expression. There was always the coggery, the sort of inner gang of plotters and inner traitors.

Was Robertson one of those?

M.S.S.: Oh no!

H.S.S.: Oh yes! Absolutely.

M.S.S.: Robertson? Rocke Robertson, the Principal?

H.S.S.: Rocke Robertson as the Principal encouraged us greatly.

Freedom of expression, I guess!

H.S.S.: Oh yes, absolutely! Well, there weren’t any others ideas, let’s put it that way, eh. Nobody was coming forward with things to do to beautify and enhance and excite the campus. You know, there were the Roddick gates, and there was the avenue and there was this bloody gingko at the end of the avenue eh, right in front of the triangular podium. A more illiterate circumstance, you couldn’t imagine, eh? Like some- the tree itself came to us from the Emperor of Japan and nobody quite knew where to plant it. So it landed in the Arts faculty in the basement, and then somebody said, “Well, here’s a plant. It needs to be planted somewhere”. And they walked out and they put it there.

[33:10:25]

Without your approval, obviously.

M.S.S.: This is before Harold-

H.S.S.: Oh, it’s long, long ago because when I arrived on the scene, the tree was mature. It must have been planted twenty years before or something.

You mentioned Cyril James.

M.S.S.: Yes, well, he was the Principal.

…when you first started, that came over in forty- in the fifties. He was the Principal at McGill. Did you have much to do with Cyril James over the years?

M.S.S.: Oh, everybody did.

H.S.S.: Oh yes. Cyril James was the potentate. There wasn’t a single thing that happened at the university that he didn’t dictate and dominate, eh. He was a real tartar. I met him when I was appointed in London during an air raid in the Savoy Hotel. And it was absolutely marvelous. Here was I negotiating my appointment when the war was over! You know, the war was still raging. So here I had the chance of being emancipated and going to a new country and having a marvelous job when the war was over. It enabled you to exist. You know, you had something to live for.

[34:24:25]

We all have to. You mentioned the most important thing that ever happened to you at McGill University.

H.S.S.: Yes, absolutely. The appointment. I don’t know what sort of life I might have drifted into.

M.S.S.: Harold! Ahem, ahem, ahem!

I was told that the most….

M.S.S.: You bumped into me, Harold, one night on the campus. I was teaching the Adult Education classes. I was engaged and employed through the ages of Lismer and the Arts department. And I was quite active as a painter and this and that at the time. And Colonel Bovey was responsible for our classes and I conducted a great many painting classes for adults. And they were very successful and very lovely, exciting things to do. I was also engaged in the Federation of Canadian Artists. And people like Harold were invited to address that eminent group of artists and graphic designers and so on and people who were promoting art in Canada. So on these occasions, you would be coming from your building and I was either coming or going to do my little teaching. And we met each other really I think through the Federation episode more than through McGill itself, but we did encounter each other on the campus. And I think it was a very simple thing. We were always – enjoyed each other, we were friends. But very- you know there was not a very big connection at all. It was much later when I was away in England and one thing or other I always came back to McGill to visit John and Harold. That was imperative. That was part of my agenda. And I would bring paintings and things to show them and they were always so marvelous in receiving me. And so this connection with Harold, I always wanted to see so much, was established in a very lovely sort of respectful and friendly and affectionate way. And then time passed and our lives changed. I had moved around a great deal and things had happened with Harold. And the moment seemed to come when it was possible for us to realize that we were meant for each other in the end. The implication had always been there from the start that we had some deep compatibility. But it was an ephemeral, spiritual thing that came into focus later in our lives. And the moment we had that recognition, that perception of ourselves and that we were meant for each other, Harold set about it, Harold was the knight in shining armour, and he vanquished all his contenders, let me tell you, flying all over the place, coming and going, making gardens. It was the most incredible romance you can imagine. Naturally, knowing Harold, what a charmer he is, he was magnificent! And that was part of your title, Harold, of Rector Magnifico throughout your career. And here was the epitome of it.

H.S.S.: The Conqueror!

M.S.S.: That’s right!

[37:58:20]

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