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Paul Zajfen

B.Arch. 1970
Los Angeles, CA
April 20, 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson


I guess the first part of the interview, we would like to know about how you decided to become an architect.

Actually, I started off thinking I was going to be an engineer. In high school, I was really good at math and couldn’t speak English very well. I don’ t know if I can any better now, but-. And so I entered school doing the first year of engineering. And then I remember basically, I always used to like to draw and doodle, and I remember there was a guy in my English class saying to me, “Why are you going into engineering? All you do is doodle? Why don’t you become an architect?” And I thought, you know, that sounds really much more interesting to me. And I remember my parents really- you know, my parents always wanted me to become a doctor. And they always counseled me. They were worried about what the profession of architecture was like. They said, you know, “It’s a tough profession. Don’t do it”. And being young and arrogant, I thought, well, I’ll be successful and I really didn’t think much at all about the sort of- you know, what the profession was like and how difficult it might be.

[1:18:18]

Where was all this growing up? Was this Montreal?

This is Montreal, yeah. I grew up in Montreal. We immigrated to Canada when I was about four years old and so grew up in Montreal. And really that explains- I mean, my parents were immigrants and I really never thought about going to any other school other than a university in Montreal. It wasn’t in the cards financially. And it wasn’t also in the kind of psyche as it is now. You know, I have children and they go to college. And when we were thinking about college, we were looking all over the United States, ‘cause everybody-. And both kids did move away from home for college but in our case, it really wasn’t sort of in the cards. And so McGill was the best university anyway in Montreal and, you know, as far as I’m concerned, probably the best university in the country, in Canada. So if I could go there, I went there.

[2:14:09]

What year did you enter McGill in the school?

I entered McGill in 1964 and then graduated in 1970. And our year was an interesting year in the sense that after us, everybody got a Master’s and a Bachelor’s [sic. B.Sc. Arch and B.Arch]. And prior to us, everybody got just a Bachelor of Architecture. In our year, they gave two Bachelors’, a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Architecture, which is kind of irritating to us, especially at this time. I mean I have a friend, a classmate of mine who is now the campus architect at Yale University. I don’t know if you’re meeting with him. It’s Arch Currie.

I know the name, yeah.

For somebody like that, working in the university system, it makes a big difference to him whether or not he has a Master’s or a Bachelor’s. So he’s- I’ ve spoken to him and he’s kind of very irritated about that particularly. But anyway, so that’s- I graduated in 1970.

[3:08:23]

So in ’64 you entered. Tell us a little bit about some of the professors, not necessarily in chronological order but any of the professors that might have influenced you, that you enjoyed.

Yeah, I had a- there’s nobody sort of- well, that’s not true. Norbert Schoenauer was a really positive influence. I mean he was a fabulous professor. He really was a kind of a humanist. He really knew how to deal with students and sort of, I think, get the best out of students. I particularly remember having problems with Stuart Wilson at the time.

I thought you’d mention Stuart!

Well, I remember, you know, I was a young student. I did well in high school. I did well in the first year. All engineering subjects I used to do pretty well. And so my first- there was a summer course that you had to do prior to entering the architecture school. And I decided to do it on Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome. I think at the time he- no- yeah, at the time, he was doing something for Expo.

[4:21:29]

Yeah, he was doing, that’s right, something for Expo. He was doing the American pavilion.

Pavilion, right. And I had- I think I had worked for John B. Parkin in Montreal. It was my first summer job and I think it was- I can’t recall if it was the year after first year or after second year. It was very close. A friend of mine, a close friend of mine was working for Moshe Safdie and he still is Moshe Safdie’s partner.

Franco?

Franco. Isaac.

Isaac Franco, yeah. I interviewed him.

And Isaac, and because of Isaac working for an architect, I decided, well, I was going to try and get a job no matter what. And so I went to Parkin because they were the biggest firm at the time in Montreal and actually did get a job, sort of offered my services. I couldn’t get past the secretary, but then I decided I was going to offer my services for nothing. I realized, you know, I wasn’t worth anything to anybody. So just an internship. So she took pity on me and got me to meet, I think his name was MacMillan.

[5:23:08]

Yeah, Hugh. Was it Hugh MacMillan?

Hugh MacMillan, a wonderful guy. And he interviewed me and decided to give me a job and said, “Well, we’ll pay you”. So it was really smashing because from then on in, it was, you know, it was easy for me to get jobs in architecture. But I think they were doing some work at Expo and I got some access to this Buckminster Fuller stuff. And I worked my- I mean I really worked hard. I did these wonderful acetate overlay drawings and stuff. Looking back, I mean I have been a guest critic at a bunch of universities. I mean, you know, the thing I produced was really kind of nice. But I think Stuart Wilson thought it was way too ambitious and cocky as it were, and I think I got like thirty-one percent or something. It was just like abysmal. I was really pissed off.

[6:21:06]

Yeah, he made people feel that way from time to time.

And he thought it was presumptuous, I’m sure. And so he told me to write on what I was doing for the summer. And at that time, I was working for my father, who was the manager of a meat market, NDG meat market. So I’d been working in the butcher shop so I wrote about beef. And he passed me for that. I mean and Stuart, Stuart Wilson in my experience when I was in third-year architecture school, I always had a problem with Stuart. I mean I had- even doing architecture. I was fairly frenetic. I was always changing designs. I mean, I was a young architect, you know, really grasping for stuff. And somebody like Isaac, who was a much more mature person as an architect than I was as a young man, he would just sort of take a design and really develop it and his work was very mature as a young man. I was always trying all kinds of stuff. And Stuart really- I also had this attitude that he really was determined that I should not be an architect. And I was a very arrogant person when I was younger, you know, self-confident. And I thought nobody is going to tell me that I’m not going to be an architect. So it really didn’t have much of an impact on me.

[7:39:17]

Strangely enough, the next year, I had John Schreiber. Schreiber? Yeah, that’ s his name. And he also, I had sort of problems with during McGill. I’ll never forget- God, you know it’s funny, thinking about these things in the context of a professor with a student, because as I said, I do lots of guest crits and work with a lot of people in our office and I’m at the other end. And I’m very conscious, I think as a result of the kinds of things that I was exposed to as a student, the crits that I had, how I interact with younger people. And I remember sort of- I can’t recall specifically, I remember, the thing that I remember about John Schreiber was telling me that I could never have two walls that intersected at ninety degrees and went through each other because you couldn’t frame it that way. That’s what kind of- I mean, that’s the momentous thing that I remember about the guy. And I remember also there was a really nice guy, Vecsei…

Oh yeah.

… who was a guest critic. And he would sort of be on my side, sort of saying, “You know, John, give this kid a break”.

Andre Vecsei.

Andre Vecsei, yeah. Nice, nice, man.

His wife is an architect as he is, Eva Vecsei.

Yeah, we worked together. When I graduated, I worked for Dimakopoulos for a while and she was there with- at the time. I think she was there.

Yeah, she was because that was at Arcop’s, Affleck, Desbarats’s office, eh?

Right.

And she worked there for a long time.

And then, I mean, the great contrast between Schreiber and then in fifth year, I had Norbert Schoenauer. So you know that whole progression of professors. And you know, Schoenauer was a beacon. I mean he was a wonderful humanist. I mean he was a terrific guy. You know, he’s the guy who sort of spun my plate as it were a little bit more and I managed to sort of go-. And I did very well with Schoenauer. In fact, I won a scholarship to go study at Fontainebleau. There were two scholarships given for Canadians. I represented McGill and there was another chap from University of Manitoba. It was like the penultimate year, like the Pilkington thing. And I think this was the first year they did it. And I represented McGill and got this scholarship to go there, which was wonderful. So I mean, you know, my record at McGill was kind of like a sine wave. And then the third year- yeah, the final year was Radoslav Zuk. And most of the year, obviously, was devoted to the thesis and I did that in concert with Isaac Franco and a guy by the name of Victor Bengozi. Isaac and Victor are still good friends and I see them all the time and we travel together. And so, you know, that was kind of uneventful, the whole thesis project. It was pretty good and I don’t have any lasting memories of it.

[10:38:15]

Do you remember Professor Collins? Peter Collins?

Oh yeah. Peter Collins was a wonderful man. And I loved Peter’s course. And probably Peter’s course is probably the most memorable course and it’s had the most lasting effect in terms of how one sees buildings. And I even have, you know, tried to look up some of his stuff afterwards, his book. In fact, I was looking for- I remember when I was in school, he did go to Yale to do a course on jurisprudence and stuff. I have a son who’s at Stanford Law School right now and is very conversant with architecture because of, you know, growing up with me and traveling and looking at architecture through an architect’s eyes. And I was telling him about Peter, that Peter had done a law course and the relationship of jurisprudence to architecture. Never could find the book and it’ s-

[11:33:06]

Well, if you’re interested, I can try and find out where you can get a copy, if you want.

Yeah.

Because I know a number of people that I’ve talked to are aware- have talked about this book. In fact, I talked to one person who went from I guess Wyoming to McGill and took his Master’s degree and he worked with Peter Collins on a particular- I don’t know what- it was a historical thesis that he was working on. But he worked with Peter and he spent his whole period that you are talking now, he spent his whole time speaking about Peter Collins. Interesting. But I know where there are copies of the book so I’ll get back to you.

Okay. And the thing that I remember also that was fabulous about Peter was his exams, the two slides with no questions. I mean I loved those, even though I couldn’t write! I mean my skills in writing have developed as a result of professional life and having to- I do a lot of marketing, marketing in the sense of interviews for jobs and you know a lot of writing. And so you- those are very, very important skills as an architect, which you obviously can’t learn in architecture school. Really, you probably should have learned that, writing, in high school.

[12:43:29]

Except when you look back, with hindsight it’s 20/20, but there was never really an awful lot of time to do these things or the interest wasn’t there. There was always other things competing with that.

Right.

But I can also remember the slides. A lot of people talk about that, Peter Collins’s slide show or slide examination. You were supposed to write as much as you could, just keep writing until the next slide was apparent.

Right.

And I can remember in my case, in one exam, I think, they used to hand out these little copies, these little books that you write in. And I must have filled about two or three books. And I got a tremendous mark. And one particular individual got a very low mark, and Peter Collins called him in and he said, “Well, here’s what the high mark wrote and here’s what you wrote” . So I guess- and that fellow ended up being somebody, by the way, that you might want to connect with. He’s the VP of design construction of Federated Stores. You know the-?

Oh really?

Yeah, we talked at length about that. Anyhow, was- I guess I’m trying to think. Was Gordon Webber there when you were there or had he died?

No, he had died, so he wasn’t there. And there was Gordon Spence. But I don’t recall- I think he wasn’t teaching or he had died.

Oh, Harold Spence.

Harold Spence.

Harold Spence-Sales. That’s right.

Yeah, Harold Spence-Sales.

He taught Town Planning. He’s still alive but just. Because I talked to him a few years ago out in Vancouver. And of course, Maureen Anderson was always there.

Yes.

Everybody’s big sister. And did John Bland at all teach you Canadian History?

Yeah, he did and, gosh, I was just thinking. And I remember Derek-

Drummond.

Drummond did our first year design, a minimal shelter. And I remember the design to this day was a fabulous- my little minimal shelter were these two- in plan it was like two semi-circles offset and with a sloped roof. But it’s funny because it’s a form that’s now kind of- you sort of see that in buildings these days and in fact, it’s on a building that I’m doing now. It’s something that I’ m using and I keep thinking about that little project. And I thought that was a- you know, it was in a little sketchbook. It was wonderful because it was the first project we did. We really didn’t know of what constraints were and it allowed you to really to kind of think freely. It’s interesting, I mean, the more or more you did in architecture school, the more or more you had these kinds of constraints imposed upon you.

[15:09:27]

Exactly.

And so you kind of tended to do certain things in a certain way. And, you know, schools like, I don’t know if you know about SCI-Arc. I was just at the AIA convention in Monterey this weekend and Thom Mayne of Morphosis was talking. And it’s interesting how people evolve as a result of their schooling. I mean clearly, you know, his work is much more frenetic and freestyle and stuff. That kind of stuff I don’t think could have- I mean it could have come after school but not as a result of sort of McGill University.

[15:43:18]

How about, maybe you could make a couple of final comments about- do you remember Sketching School at all?

Yeah, Sketching School, Sketching School for me was an interesting thing. I’m a fairly decent sketcher, not great. But I remember a couple of things. You know, I’d luck out and I’d get these really nice sketches. And I think now as you’re older and you develop a certain style, you know, personally, I know I can do sketches in a certain medium and not every medium. So I’ve kind of developed that and I’ve actually taken classes. But I remember because Isaac and I were friends. And Isaac is a fabulous painter and he had painted since he’s been a kid. And we would go to this venue, you know, this landscape and we’d sit. And he’d do this thing and I’d do this thing and I’d look at his painting and I’d say, “Where do you see all those colours, man? I can’t even see this stuff that you’re painting. It’s driving me crazy!” And then, I, of course, had Stuart Wilson for that and Stuart and I were like this [knocks fists together]. And I never- I was just happy to pass Sketching School when I was dealing with Stuart. And it was- so I kind of remember that. And then I remember also now that I’m thinking of it, Survey School.

Oh yeah.

Survey School, where we’d do these contours and I would, you know, really precisely draw these contours forever. It was just kind of worthless.

[17:13:16]

It seemed to me also that we used to do a circuit with the- and the whole building would come around and meet at the end. They kept us very busy of course in [unclear] hall in the evenings. Because I guess most of the people would be out on the town drinking or playing around with the ladies and so forth. But in retrospect, all of those things, in spite of the problems at the time, were all fun. You know, when you think back, they were all basically a lot of fun.

So when I graduated McGill, I worked, immediately I worked for John Bland’s firm on the airport and some other projects for about a year. And then I left to England. I went to England and I worked with Terry Farrell and Nicholas Grimshaw, both of whom are pretty kind of well known now. And the firm was called Farrell Grimshaw. Worked there for about, in between traveling and living in London, for about three years. And after that I ended up going back to Montreal and working for Dimakopoulos. And then I started working with a fellow by the name of Phil Beinhaker, IBI Group, and became a partner. Actually, I wasn’t a partner then. They decided they were going to start an office in California and so I was selected to come to Southern California to start that practice. And they had done a lot of housing at the time. And we managed- I used to commute. It took about seven months. We managed to get enough work.

[18:39:07]

Was that around, what, ’76?

No that was about- yeah, ’77. So yeah, I graduated ’70, worked in England. About ’77, decided to do this thing. In ’78, had enough work to justify moving. So I moved and started this office, IBI Group, in Southern California, South of LA. And actually became very well known. I mean, in terms of Orange County, I got more design awards than any architect there. I’ m sort of fairly well respected in Orange County. Through the housing, managed to get university work. I did a faculty housing project for the University of California Santa Barbara and through that, developed a relationship with the universities and then got to do a bunch of different university work. One of the interesting things was I managed to get a project with James Stirling in England. And he and I did a large science library at Irvine, a twenty-five million-dollar building. And I was the executive architect. And that was a wonderful experience. I mean I became good friends with Michael Wilford, his partner who is now carrying on the practice. And in fact, Jim died. After his last lecture in LA, he came here. The building was just coming out of the ground and he went back to England. He had an operation and died as a result of post-operative complications in the operation. It’s kind of sad because we had developed a really good relationship and were going after all kinds of work. So did that until about ’ 96. So I’d been running the IBI show-

[20:20:12]

Actually, Phil is one of the principals and founders of the firm.

Oh yeah. And actually as a result of sort of a falling-out between Phil and another partner, I decided to retire from IBI Group in ’96. And then stayed on my own for about a couple of years doing work. I was very busy. And I knew the guy who was the managing partner of Anshen Allen in LA from my days in England. In England I worked with- he’s an Englishman, we worked together at Nick Grimshaw’s office.

Yeah, okay.

And we’d been talking about sort of joining up for some time. And so last year, I decided- they wanted me to come as a partner here. I had actually, as a result of doing library work, I had gotten- and when I was on my own, I teamed up with Anshen Allen and we actually got a fifteen-million-dollar library together for the Santa Monica College and we were going to do that as Anshen Allen / Paul Zajfen. That project, strangely enough, went into hiatus for a while and I’m now actually doing this project. And so I joined them in November of ’98 as a partner and it’s a really fabulous office. I’ve gotten a bunch of work subsequent to being here.

[21:45:18]

Is your work, actually, cover a broad-?

Yeah, it’s mostly institutional work that I do. I mean I totally got out of the housing thing because I didn’t want to do sort of merchant-built housing. We were doing work for The Irv- and I still have a very good relationship with The Irvine Company and do certain kinds of projects for them. Not really housing. Like I’ve designed a cell tower prototype for these cell phones, this kind of triangle out of Cor-ten steel that’s going to be built. And most of the work that we do now is kind of university stuff. I just got a high school, which is kindergarten through twelve. A lot of city work: I did a major downtown renovation of a street for the city of Hermosa Beach. We just kind of transformed the whole area. I’m doing a library for Santa Monica College. The firm does a lot of university work for universities across the country. I’m now short-listed for a big medical library for the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And that’s-

[22:56:18]

And one of the difficulties, of course, you know that better than I do being a successful architect, is getting the work.

Yeah.

It’s something you don’t learn at university and you learn through the school of hard knocks and some people never win at that game.

Exactly.

Too many of them don’t, unfortunately.

Yeah.

Do you have any regrets at all in terms of your career or anything you might-?

No, I mean I’ve been very successful in terms of the role that I can play as a- I mean, I quite like being the person that goes and interviews for work and being responsible for it. I like designing. I’ve been recognized in terms of the work that I do, so I really like that. I’ve been fortunate enough with Phil Beinhaker to make money out of this profession. And we’re trying to make money out of this office. I think we’re going to be successful. But you know candidly, when I had kids, I decided- I told them- you know, I realized, you know, this is an office of fifty people. I mean, IBI was an office, well, all over the place, there were two hundred or so. And there were very few partners to people that work there. And I’ve always been fortunate enough to be there. And it’s a tough road for a young architect. And so I decided that I’d encourage my kids to do things differently. And my daughter’s-

Like law, for example.

Like law, yeah. And my daughter’s- actually, my daughter’s doing environmental science so I don’t know what she’s going to end up doing.

Well thank you very much.

My pleasure!

[24:23:02]

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