Interview by Jim Donaldson
As a kid, I always liked sketching things. And curiously enough, when I did drawings as a kid, I always drew sections. I seldom drew elevations of things. I was sort of interested in the insides of things. I guess sections are kind of architectural. Like most kids my age, I was very interested in building models and I built all kinds of models. I had a model railway. I probably spent more time building model buildings for the railway than anything else. I would go and sketch a building in downtown Montreal and then I’d build a model of it. So I’d always been very interested in architecture. It’s interesting, when I was at Lower Canada, I thought that I might be headed for engineering or something like that or possibly joining the navy. And then we took a preference test at LCC. This was a very bizarre test because it had, you know, questions like: “Would you rather help an old lady cross the street or paint a poster for a school play?” Which turned out that most of my colleagues giving the politically correct answers ended up supposedly destined for social work. But mine turned out to be architecture. At that point, I thought about it and I said, “Why not?” And that’s really how I chose architecture.
McGill was a natural for a whole bunch of reasons. Both of my parents taught at McGill. Probably the first word that I heard at the dinner table was McGill. And secondly, it was within an easy walking distance of where I lived. I already knew about McGill so it was really a logical one. And, of course, McGill was a very good school of architecture as well, so.
So you entered McGill, what, in what year?
First of all I can talk about some of the professors who influenced me and the ways in which they did. I mean they probably all did in various ways. I think the professor whose teachings really had most influence, although we didn’t realize it at the time, was probably Gordon Webber. Because the basic design course that Gordon Webber taught really taught us a lot about design in the most fundamental sense, which no other course did. And I thought that that was an extremely useful course and an extremely interesting course.
But your comment is interesting because a lot of us didn’t appreciate it as much. In hindsight, we appreciate the value of Gordon Webber a lot more.
That’s right. I think it’s just a function of our maturity at the time. And I went to McGill as a teenager, as most of us do.
So Gordon Webber, and I think he taught, what, one or two years when you were there?
Oh, it was more than one or two years. Gordie taught for I think probably from second year up until fifth year, possibly into sixth year. So there’s a whole sequence of courses. We sort of started out with working with the most basic design elements like the dot and the line and then as you went through the years, got into colour and texture and tactile experiences, even making musical instruments. It was wonderful!
And Gordon had an absolutely wonderful enthusiasm for what he did, which was somewhat infectious.
I think he was probably very diplomatic. I think Gordy really could see the good in almost everybody. So I’ve got a very high regard for Gordon.
How about some of the others who were there in your time? Like, I’m thinking of- who taught history? Was it Peter Collins then?
We had Peter Collins for most of the history courses. Again, probably four years of Peter Collins. At the time, I felt that perhaps his methods might have been a little rigid, but in – well, he used to lock the door of the lecture theatre promptly when the lecture started and he wouldn’t let anybody else in after that, which seemed to me a little extreme, but it did mean you got to his lectures on time. I think he really imbued in all of us a great love of architecture and a sense of what went before. And I had the extreme pleasure of writing and reading a citation for him at the Technical University of Nova Scotia because we gave him a Doctor of Engineering honoris causa several years ago. And it was very, very nice to be able to do that and to be able to put in my own words what I felt about Peter and what he had done for us.
How about- I’m trying to think of some of the others like, I guess Stuart Wilson was around during your years.
Well, I remember the president of our class was George Schonfeld, who you probably know. And as you probably also remember, we used to have- every year there was a dinner for the graduating class in Redpath Hall. And George sort of described our progress through the school and I remember him describing his third year and our dealings with Stuart Wilson, you know, “We fought him in the design studio, we fought him in the workshop, we fought him in the construction site”. That was an incredible course though. As architectural basic training, I can’t think of a better one. We were able after that third year, which is really the first design year, and when you consider the incredible progress that you made in that year, starting off really with not knowing how to design anything because second year was mostly second year engineering. So this was the first architectural design construction course. And we went from really never having designed anything to producing a complete set of working drawings for a building and the framing model and everything else. You know, the output in that year was absolutely phenomenal, a great test of stamina. But it meant that when you went out into the world and worked in that summer, you had a tremendously good preparation. And the other thing, of course, that one carries through life is if you survived third year under Stuart Wilson, you can survive anything!
I mean, we learned a great deal from Stuart. Like many experiences at university, you sometimes realize the benefits more strongly after than you do while you’re going through it. I’m sure that basic training is much the same way. But it’s the closest thing to architectural boot camp that I can think of.
Was John Schreiber around when you were there at all?
John Schreiber taught us a course in architectural graphics. In those days, we were working with watercolour washes and that type of thing. And John was also my thesis advisor in my final year. I was doing a theatre project for McGill in that year. I didn’t have that much contact with John actually throughout that year.
Well, we had an early meeting and we talked about theatre and so on. And I’d always been interested in theatre and had worked in the theatre at McGill for years and years and years and produced plays and so on, all that kind of thing, and also worked a lot on the technical side. And we sort of had sort of some interesting discussions right at the beginning and then I guess he left me on my own because he figured out that I knew what I was doing.
And you could pretty well cope with it.
Yeah. I think he did and I rather appreciated that, actually.
Was John Bland teaching in those years?
John Bland was teaching History of Canadian Architecture when I was there, which reminds me of a very interesting anecdote. You probably remember the annual Christmas parties, which were extremely funny. You probably remember Gerry Soyferman as Santa Clause, for example. Well, John Bland, as Peter Collins did, used to ask students to run the slides at the back of the room. And something curious always seemed to happen with John Bland’s slides or the person that was operating them. You know, half of them came out upside down, backwards, out of order and everything else. And one year, and it wasn’t our year, I wish we had because it was extremely funny, gave him this absolutely beautiful coloured waistcoat which was full of pockets with various gear in them. And the gear was really essentially various signals to the projectionist. You know, there was a cricket, which sort of said, “It’s the wrong way round”. And there was a whistle, which said, “It’s upside down”. And there was probably a flag or two. But the funniest one was sort of a pistol with a label on the handle that said, “Forget it”. That was one of the nicest presents. He used to keep it hanging on his office wall, I remember.
I remember one year, maybe it was- I don’t recall, obviously, which one. But since it was Christmas, they gave him turkey, except it was still alive.
Well that was the last Christmas party. I think the faculty decided that was it after that. Things were getting somewhat out of hand. We gave Stuart Wilson a bottle of whiskey cast in a block of plaster because one of the projects we had- we had all these construction, little constructional things we had to do. We had to sort of carve things and we had to place concrete and God knows what. And one of the things involved working with plaster casting. So anyway, we took this bottle of scotch, it was a very good scotch, wrapped it in burlap and reinforced everything, and then put it in this rectangular block of plaster. And we shaped it in such a way that the end which looked as if it were the neck of the bottle was actually the bottom of the bottle. So then he immediately went into the workshop and went at it with a chisel. We were kind enough to tell him that actually the end which looked as if it was the neck was in fact the bottom so he attacked the other end.
He would have always thought that you did not do that intentionally. Maybe, I don’t know.
But I think he got successfully to the bottle and didn’t break it and presumably enjoyed the contents. In fact, some of us may have enjoyed some of the contents with him at the time.
Do you have any memories of Sketching School?
Some places were better than others. We did one in Baie Saint-Paul, which was wonderful, which I really enjoyed. We did one in Kingston, which I didn’t enjoy as much, because I think at that point, I don’t know what there was in the Kingston water supply but it thoroughly disagreed with me so I had sort of intestinal problems through most of Sketching School.
Which doesn’t make it very comfortable.
No it doesn’t and I think my sketches from that Sketching School reflect my state of body as opposed to my state of mind.
The other trip that we took, most of us took, I guess, was to Survey School.
Ah! What an experience! I always got along very well with engineers, as I still do. And I happened to make friends with one of the engineer- I guess he was probably a graduate student, who was working in the instrument shed at Survey School. And I was very lucky because, because he was a friend of mine, I always seemed to get the beautiful, Swiss-made Wild instruments, which weighed about a third as much as the horrible old dumpy levels and so on, didn’t dig holes in your shoulder, had three leveling screws instead of four and were optically superior. So I had quite a time at Survey School. That was convenient! There were some funny things that happened. We won’t talk about the finest unit of precision, which is used in engineering, which was that there were- there was at least one woman at Survey School. You’ve probably heard this unit of precision mentioned, which I will forebear to discuss. But there were some things that I really remember about Survey School. This was, of course, in Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon. And we stayed in various holiday hotels, which were sort of known as the Blank Pavilion and other names like that. And then, of course, there was Plague Beach, which we went to from time to time. And the proverbial creek, which we always ended up having to drop a plumb bob in the middle of, a chaining exercise. One of the fellows who ran, I guess it was a motel, at the time the students were leaving, they were sort of packing up and they were all ready to go, he presented one group with a bill because he claimed that they had scratched his picture window. And this would cost, I don’ t know, the princely sum of thirty dollars or something in those days. And I remember seeing this and the student protested he hadn’t, he certainly hadn’t scratched the window and this fellow absolutely insisted. It was getting rather unpleasant, so the student handed him the thirty dollars and the guy smiled and said, “Thank you very much” and put it in his pocket. He happened to have his field boots with him and he took them and he threw them through the window, completely destroying the window. And the hotelier was rather angry, but the student said, “Well, you know, you’re going to replace this window anyway. I’m just helping you remove it”.
Sort of one-upmanship.
Yeah, the other thing that we used to occasionally do to torture our fellow students was this: Survey School required a lot of precision. So we all had these ancient, Marchand calculators and so on that we rented. The thing about a mechanical calculator in those days is it doesn’t recognize that dividing one by zero is an impossible operation. So what it does is it tries to get to infinity. So you press one, you divide by zero and it goes ka-chonk-ka-chonk-ka-chonk. Bloop. Ka-chonk-ka-chonk-ka-chonk. And will do that until the damn thing burns out or wears down. So the thing that we used to do, which we thought was excruciatingly funny is sneak into somebody’s bedroom at four in the morning and divide one by zero on the Marchand calculator and then sneak out! So those were some of the memories of Survey School.
I’d like to talk a little bit about McGill. McGill is, as you know, in my blood because of both my parents, one of whom was a nuclear physicist and the other was a physiologist. And I think probably McGill is one of the most civilized universities that I’ve experienced. When you meet McGill people later on, and I suppose Montreal has somewhat that quality too, there’s a sort of a civilized and a gentle quality which I associate with McGill and also I certainly associate with my memories of Montreal. As far as the School of Architecture is concerned, we were very lucky, I think, to be in a very small class. There were only fourteen of us.
And your graduating year was-?
1965. There were fourteen of us. I calculated the attrition rate from first-year engineering through to the end was probably around ninety-four percent so we were the survivors, also joined by some people who had missed a year or dropped down a year or something like that. So we didn’t finish with everybody who we started with. But I would say probably out of the fourteen, somewhere in the order of nine of us had started together. And although as in any class, you know, there were groups of sort of commonality of interest, basically, we all got along really well and we all helped each other. And the School of Architecture in a sense felt somewhat like a happy band of brothers I think. You know, I have these sort of very, very happy memories. I mean there were tough moments and we all used to get together at the time of the supplemental exams in Calculus and Advanced Calculus and things like that. But I would say that, you know, by and large, it was a wonderful experience. I think that John Bland is largely responsible for this. John’s integrity, his decency, his vision of a school which recognized the fact that architecture is both art and science, the fact that he put together an incredible curriculum which included not only all of the Bauhaus programme, which Gordie in effect ran. He’d studied under Moholy-Nagy, of course. He’d been in Chicago, I believe. A lot of- a great many engineering courses, which were also I think highly beneficial, particularly courses like Strength of Materials and some of the structure courses were really quite good, plus, of course Architectural Design and Construction and a very good programme in history. It was a remarkably well-rounded curriculum, a test of stamina as well, of course.
Yeah. It’s interesting; I think that most people who graduated feel exactly the way you do, both about McGill and the School of Architecture. Almost like, I don’t want to use the word fraternity, but all the positive nuances of a fraternity were there.
Exactly, a band of brothers. Interestingly enough, I belonged to a fraternity as well, Sigma Chi, which was one of the fraternities that remained while a number of the others disappeared for a while.
Wasn’t Rudy Javosky? Was he there at the same time?
Rudy was there. There were a number of other architects in the fraternity. There were probably more architects in Sigma Chi than any other fraternity. Ron Williams, Ron Williams was there. This is an aside really. We’re not talking about fraternities but the fascinating thing was, I’ve been on the board of directors of the RAIC. My term just ended this past summer but fascinatingly enough, four members of the board are all graduates of McGill, three of them are fraternity brothers, all having been in Sigma Chi and representing most of the provinces of Canada, because I represented four of them, the representative of British Columbia was also a McGill graduate, Robert Thibodeau represented Quebec and Lachapelle represented Ontario. Now, Lachapelle finished off at the technical university but certainly started at McGill. He probably had too much of a good time!
I’m interested a little bit about your years, or we can always go back to other thoughts of McGill, but you graduated in ’65 and then what happened to you after that? Because you’ve taken off a different-
Well, it’s interesting. As I mentioned before, I’d always been interested in theatres and performance spaces. And when I was working on my thesis project, I went to see Victor Prus, who at that time had just won the Grand Théâtre de Québec competition. And Victor looked over my work and then he asked me if I’d like to look over the drawings of the Grand Théâtre, which of course I looked at. And he’d given me a fairly good crit on what I’d done, so I, you know, almost being slightly outspoken, also gave him a crit on the Grand Théâtre de Québec. So we sat down. Having a cup of tea after and Victor asked me if I would like a job working on the Grand Théâtre. And, of course, I leapt at this opportunity because it was a very, very interesting building, one of the few competition entries which didn’t increase by one foot in any direction, developing form the competition entry to the final design. So it was a very exciting experience to be working on that project and a very wonderful experience to be working with Victor. I think we had the luxury in those days to really study problems very well. The bottom line wasn’t the only thing. And I remember Victor would say, “Well, Peter, I would like you to study this particular part of the project”, which might have been the small theatre. And what Victor would say is, “I want you to go away for two weeks and I want you to come back with four different ways of doing this. And then we’ll sit down and talk”. And I thought this was absolutely wonderful. I mean it could very well be that the first one that you came up with was the most logical and the best. But nevertheless, it was this studying of alternatives. And Victor was a great teacher…
So you worked with him for a while.
… and a great inspiration.
I worked with him until we were into the final phases of working drawings. And at that time, I had the opportunity to go out on my own. I had two or three projects and I’d just joined the PQAA and I also had an office that I could work in with some people that I had worked with before. So at that point, I left Victor’s office and struck out on my own.
As an architect?
As an architect. And did some small timber buildings, which I thoroughly enjoyed doing. And then this was really the post-Expo period. Montreal was going through the cycles that it tends to go through. Things were getting into a bit of a slump. There wasn’t a great deal of work around. And I’d had a traveling scholarship left over from McGill, which I had never used. So I thought and I was encouraged to, not by my parents but by the colleagues who I was working with, to go off and get a Master’s degree in architecture. So I wrote to Columbia, MIT and Harvard. And from Columbia and MIT, I’d received great stacks of forms to fill out. From Harvard I received a one-page letter which said- I was accepted to all three-, which said, “Yes, we would like you to come to Harvard. Send us fifty dollars US”, which was actually less than fifty dollars Canadian at the time. So I threw all of the other paper in the wastepaper basket and sent a cheque to Harvard. That’s how I went to Harvard.
So you took your Master’s degree in Architecture?
That’s right. And I found out, to my great delight, that I could take as many courses at MIT at the same time, because there was complete cross-registration between Harvard and MIT. So it was the best of both worlds.
So did you specialize in acoustics then?
Well, I started to at that point. Bob Newman, part of Bolt, Beranek and Newman, one of the founding members, taught acoustics at both Harvard and at MIT. But the MIT acoustics courses were more intensive with more contact hours. So I decided to do several acoustics courses at MIT. And about the time I was graduating from Harvard, Bob Newman asked me if I would like to come work for him at BBN, which is exactly what I did.
Were they located in Boston at the time?
They were in Cambridge. They also had offices elsewhere but Cambridge was really the head office and that’s really where the partners were. So I leapt at the opportunity and I haven’t regretted it since. I’ve been involved in acoustics really since I graduated from Harvard, which was really around ’69.
So you worked with Bolt, Beranek and Newman for a period of time and then you came here.
Until about 1977. And I was lucky enough to work very closely with Bob Newman and to work on a lot of really interesting projects all over the world. The reason I went into acoustics I think primarily was the fact that I realized that I could work on more interesting buildings in my life as a consultant than I could as an architect. And that’s exactly what’s happened. You know, I would have worked on far fewer buildings.
I’m interested because most people, I think, when you talk of acoustics, you think of theatres primarily. Is that the largest part of your work?
Not in this part of the world because we’re not building a lot of theatres, although I’ve worked on about five of them here, some simply doing the acoustics and some doing acoustics and theatre consulting, which I’ve gotten into.
What would be another area of your expertise?
Well, a lot of work in academic buildings. Just finished two, actually. One is the Sobey Business Building at Saint Mary’s and then there’s the Faculty of Computer Science Building at Dalhousie. We’re working on the new Faculty of Arts and Science Building, which is just going up now. Rather, it’s in the ground. It hasn’t come up out of the ground yet. We worked on all kinds of buildings, the new Coast Guard College. We did a new school of music at Memorial University in Newfoundland; hospitals, hotels, a world trade and convention centre, major arenas, you name it.
It’s an interesting field that you’re in but it’s a field that’s not very familiar to the public. I mean, if you asked, or if somebody asked you at a cocktail party what you were doing for a living, and you’d probably say that you are an architect and if you’re prodded on further that you specialize in acoustics, and they probably wouldn’t know what to ask after that.
People always- like I just think of theatres, but it’s a lot more expansive than that.
Yeah. Architects in this part of the world don’t routinely use acoustical consultants but one partic- federal government projects use acoustical consultants more. But, what can I say, if an architect is required to use an acoustical consultant, he will, or if it’s a project of such magnitude or stature, one which it’s so obvious that you need an acoustical consultant, we’ ll work on that one. So we’ve tended to work on a lot of large projects and sort of, you know, interesting buildings.
So you basically work on your own?
Yes. Fundamentally, yeah. I have a- I normally have a student working with me and I support the co-op programme at TUNS. The students are required as part of their education to work. And from time to time, I’ll associate with other consultants with very particular types of expertise which I may not be quite as experienced in. So we just bring the best expertise that we can.
You never told me why you decided to come to Halifax.
Well, that’s interesting. Halifax, I’d visited Halifax a few times and I rather liked it. Although Boston is on the ocean, it doesn’t have the same sense of being on the ocean as Halifax does. I had always been fond of sailing, which virtually everybody does here. Certainly, pretty well all the architects here do, some very well indeed. While I was in Boston, I taught at the Boston Architectural Center School of Architecture for about six or seven years and thoroughly enjoyed it. And there was an opportunity to come and teach at the technical university, which was at that time the only university in Canada which had what you would call an environment lab. It had a lot of measurement equipment for acoustics and it had a wind tunnel. You know, so that I’d- and I’ d always enjoyed teaching anyway so I thought that what I would do is go into full-time teaching for a while. This opportunity presented itself, and the opportunity to return to Canada. What it also represented was an opportunity to be in acoustics in a sense much more self- reliant because there wasn’t all of the expertise surrounding me or all of the colleagues surrounding me. You know, the absence of colleagues is not necessarily an advantage but it allows you to grow in various ways, which you wouldn’t otherwise.
And you’re compensated for that by association with the university and other things like that.
Yeah, and simply by studying, reading, taking courses, you know, professionally developing, you know, myself.
You’ve seemed to have done all of the things in life that most people would want to do! Have you any second thoughts at all about the career that you chose?
The only- the thing that I would have loved to have done, of course, would have been to have- got a teaching job at McGill and return to Montreal but it never quite panned out that way.
I think you’re better off here!
I was short-listed for a while. And then Peter Collins died, and they really needed an architectural historian, or somebody with somewhat different qualifications than I had.
You know, it’s interesting; acoustics by some has always been thought of as some kind of engineering specialty or something like that. The fact of the matter is that everybody who ran the big projects at BBN, and I was very, very lucky to actually run a number of them, some major art centres. And what happened at BBN was essentially the people who directed these projects, pulled everything together and did a lot of the acoustics as well, of course, all tended to be architects. And most of the colleagues in the same role that I was had at least two degrees in architecture and various further specialized education, were often registered in one or more states or provinces or whatever. So at BBN, acoustics was very much considered a part of architecture and I really considered it part of architecture as well, too. We tend to probably draw a lot more than most acoustical consultants do and it’s wonderful working with architects because you speak the same language. When you’re trying to help them solve problems, you know what kind of- you know what language they’ re speaking. You know, you understand the concepts, you understand what the parti is, and you of course understand construction very well, so it’s not something esoteric.
And you’re also shaping the environment, as we all know. One of the things that I might as well ask you on camera is that I often listen to the Boston Pops. And I was told that where they perform is like a shoebox.
Yes, that’s right.
And I said to myself, “That can’t be right”. And the last time I saw it was a shoebox. I had not been there myself. And the shoebox to me never made a lot of sense in terms of- when I think of Place des Arts or I think of a lot of theatres…
…how does a shoebox work that well?
Actually, a shoebox works extremely well. What the shoebox first of all does, and you got to understand, it’s not a shoebox on the flat; it’s a shoebox that’ s resting on one of it’s edges. So it’s very high and not very wide. So it’s not a flat shoebox, which really wouldn’t work well. One of the characteristics of the shoebox is it has quite a large volume. And that’s very important to achieve the amount of reverberation that you want to achieve, which certainly enhances music. The second thing that the shoebox does is it brings in earlier flections, which are very, very important for the sense of envelopment in music so that some of the most famous halls, and the most respected one, such as Symphony Hall in Boston and Musikverein in Vienna, traditionally have been shoebox halls. Now, once that you arrive at the point where you’re designing multi-purpose auditoriums or you are trying to achieve a hall which is much more intimate which brings people closer, you get away from the shoebox. Salle Wilfred Pelletier is not a shoebox. It has a huge volume under that- the effect of that plaster screen in effect, right. I mean there’s about a third of the room at least which is above there. I worked on a number of major concert hall, which were really somewhat influenced by the old Massey Hall in Toronto. And there was a whole generation of halls that we worked on at that time: The Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore, the concert hall in the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne, Australia, Davis Hall in San Francisco. And they were all kind of a family. None of them were shoeboxes. One of the things that also happened, largely as a result of Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie in Berlin, which they refer to as von Karajan’s circus because it sort of has a tent-shaped ceiling, but it surrounds the orchestra with terraces of audience. And when I say, “surround”, the audience even goes behind the orchestra, which is kind of interesting. And this was a very successful hall and a very influential hall. So what we’re seeing in a number of the new, purpose-built concert halls, in fact, the seating does go around and it does end up also going behind the orchestra, which gives you a different perspective. A great place for music students to sit, but also a great place for somebody who would like to watch the conductor and, you know, observe the musicians closer. Every seat in the concert hall, of course, sounds different. But this- the small hall at the University of Victoria is a nice example too of a hall of that period.
And I guess anyone in your profession, after you’ve done all the design and everything’s built, you wait for the first concert or play or whatever…
Butterflies, eh! And then you wait and see- you know pretty well- I guess when that happens, you probably walk around the theatre to get the different sounds but then you always wait, because especially I guess in musical- well, in symphonies and so forth, the critics will come out and make some comments good or bad.
Well, you know, it’s interesting. I’ve also done a number of smaller halls. Maurice Pollack Concert Hall at McGill, for example is one of mine. And Jacob Siskin was not overly impressed but McLean was, you know.
Eric McLean. The rumour was that Siskin had failed piano at McGill years ago and absolutely hated McGill, right! Those were the days when Helmut Blume was the dean. So- and the small halls, actually, are very, very tricky to do because you haven’t got this enormous volume. You’ve got quite high levels of sound and it’s interesting to control but what you- what we do nowadays, and have been doing, actually, for decades, is to have the hall which is actually adjustable so you can change the acoustics for a couple of reasons. One is because different kinds of music may demand a different acoustic. But the second thing is that often you cannot support a hall on symphony concerts alone. It’s going to end up being used for concerts of popular music and what have you. So you’d have to be able to change the characteristics. And this is often done by having fabric banners, which drop down the sides, as we have at the Pollack Hall, for example, or having sections of shell wall which actually move in, as we also have in the Pollack Hall. They have these rolling elements, which come in.
Well listen, thank you very, very much. It’s been very appreciated.
Well, I really enjoyed it.