Interview by Jim Donaldson
My father is an architect and he went to McGill in the late fifties. And the one thing I knew when I was growing up was that I didn’t want to be an architect, or I knew that I shouldn’t be an architect. And it was really quite strongly emphasized growing up the reasons, the disincentives to becoming an architect. Sort of the economic hardship and the insecurity and the way that unlike doctors or lawyers, repeat clients are a rare thing in architecture. And so there was really no parental pressure to go into architecture. I mean, there wasn’t heavy disincentive either, but there was stronger incentive to maybe go into other things. So really finishing high school, I don’t think I was thinking I would go into architecture. I started to think I wouldn’t become a doctor or something like that, which I think was a bit of a preconception, a parental wish, but also maybe something that I had absorbed along the way. And I remember starting university at Queens, registered for a Pre-Med course and transferring in the introductory week to Art History, which was quite a big transfer, but luckily, it was more difficult to get into Pre-Med so they allowed me to switch. And then, by the end of that first year in Art History, I started to think, there was sort of- there felt that there was an inevitability about something to do with architecture, maybe Architectural History, maybe writing about architecture or being involved in architecture academically, but I remember for whatever reason being inexorably drawn to the subject.
I was getting very tired of going to university at Kingston, Ontario so I transferred to McGill my second year into Art History. And then I started to seriously think about what school of architecture I might go into thinking I'd finish my degree and then go. And I was thinking of going to the AA in London or other schools here and I had prospectuses from all over. By the end of my second year in Art History, I was getting a bit tired of it, and I applied to McGill and I was accepted. So McGill wasn’t- it wasn’t like it was a dream to go into McGill Architecture and follow my father’s footsteps. I kind of fell into it. It was slightly convenient and luckily I had the marks to get in.
What year was that? Just to set it up. About ’82?
About ’80 I think. Anyway, so I arrived there and I remember, I can still remember the kind of trepidation and slight scariness of the first day of first year, being in this room with forty-four other people and not knowing any of them and being given the infamous mood box project, which I think is the longest-running- I think friends of mine almost still run it at McGill now, but-
Who gave- who was your professor?
My first year teachers were Bruce Anderson and David Covo first term. And it was a bit of a scary combination, especially Bruce Anderson. And I can’t say I enjoyed my first term of first year. I find it incredibly traumatic. Generally, my first six months in any situation I have difficulty with, especially then. I found it really hard going and very intimidating and it was, you know mark-wise, it was my least successful term in the school, not that that counts for much. But by the second term, second term I had Derek and Vikram and that I enjoyed more. Especially Vikram was one of the first professors at the school who I kind of- on a personal level, we really got along. And also, by second term, you’re starting to suss out your classmates and I’d already fallen in with a kind of, with a small group and I think we became a little bit, not infamous but irritants to the rest of our class. And I know all of the people, there are four of us. And then we’d sort of- it was the end of second term that we sort of found each other. And I remember an amazing trip to New York, which was the sort of traditional thing that you did at the end of the first year with Vikram and David Covo and just, you know, staying up for three or four days in New York and visiting. Vikram had some amazing friends downtown. And you know, when you find your place in your class I think that’s when you start to-
Enjoy it more probably.
You enjoy it more, but it’s also I think it’s really important. It gives you the confidence to maybe start to really explore things within the school, explore things within what’s possible in architecture. So anyway, that’s what I remember from first year. And by second year, I was feeling more confident and it’s quite different if you feel confident.
It probably showed in the results that you would have accomplished.
Well in Design, you know, in Design, especially in a class system, you know when there’s a big class-
How many would there have been at that particular time?
We had forty-odd people in our class. Although it was becoming, I think, our year was maybe the first year where it was becoming more prevalent to split the class into sub-classes so at least you would only have twenty people to a professor. But you start to find other things in the school, which can sustain you, which start to help you realize what you are interested in in architecture. And, I mean for me, the strong memories about McGill, the most amazing thing about doing architecture at McGill is the fact that you are a class all thrown together and the people you get along with, you do become really close with them. I had been in university for like two, three years previously, and if you’re taking Art History or Philosophy or whatever, you attend classes and you might have one or two people you know and then you go away. Whereas in architecture, you’re put under such enormous pressure, and being a Montreal school, or it’s a tradition at McGill, I guess, we had twenty-four-hour studios and I always worked in the studio. And there was a lot of pressure and our class were very keen, so a lot of people worked in the studio. That’s a very intense experience. I mean it could be a horrible experience if you don’t get along with anyone or if you’re kind of a prima donna who wants to keep everything to themselves. But if you’re interested in learning, it was fantastic. And that was- And you know, I’ve taught for eight years here at a really good school, but in London, it’s impossible to have twenty-four-hour studios for security reasons. Public transport doesn’t run twenty-four hours. And this year, we have quite a tight group of students and a group work in the studio, but the vast majority of students work in their flat, you know, it might be a house that they share with some other students so-
You know, that’s interesting because you’re the first person whom I’ve interviewed that’s commented on that. Not so much the twenty-four hours, but having not a buddy system, but a group that you could work with. And in a lot of other courses that you might have followed for other degrees, as you said, that wouldn’t necessarily happen.
It doesn’t exist.
It might happen a little bit in law, maybe in medicine, but I can think of a lot of other things, where you started off. And it’s a big help in studying architecture. A big help.
That was to me the most intense thing. And this November, Peter, my partner, and I did a kind of master class for the final years at McGill. It was my first time back in twelve years. And the one thing that was- two things were consistent: Almost all the professors were still there, which I found troubling, but the students still had, you know, by the final year, there was still this kind of energy amongst the good students. And because they’re together, it’s possible to assimilate things very quickly. And certainly compared to the situation now, when I was going, a kind of cross-fertilization and the possibility for being exposed to things I think were greater. I mean there were things like the Alcan lectures, and on the back of that, a group of us who were involved in the magazine, The Fifth Column, would invite Alcan lecturers for interviews which we would write in the magazine. And events like that really- it wasn’t only my class. I became very friendly with people in the class ahead of me and even two years ahead of me. And really the people I know from McGill who I keep in touch with the most are actually people one or two years ahead of me now. Two years ahead of me was a kind of famously fantastic class. And people like the people in Big City, Randy Cohen and Anne Cormier and Howard Davies were in that class and it was a really- and Mark Pimlott who is in London now, very strong group of people in design. They were always amazing in sports, which was funny. And I played hockey for Architecture. And so there was this possibility because they were in the studio, and the class between us was in the studio and a few of us were in the studio. That was really, really strong and that’s the thing I-
That’s the memory you cherish.
That’s the thing I got the most out of really. Whereas academically, we used to complain an awful lot about the kind of conservatism of the curriculum and the presumption that this- you know, we are in a faculty of Engineering and therefore we should have this kind of quite heavy, technical foundation in our first couple of years. You know, we used to complain like mad about it.
And it’s never changed.
And it’s never changed. They’re still doing Soil Mechanics and to me, that was breathtaking. You know, because it was a class that I usually missed because of hockey practice and it was taught by a terrible teacher in the Structural Engineering department, who was just probably a great researcher-
But not a teacher.
But not a teacher because that’s who they would throw at the architects, you know, because they weren’t important courses. No engineers took them.
Do you have any, and you don’t have to comment on this, but of the professors that you worked with, were there any one that might have influenced you one way or the other? For example, you didn’t talk about was there a History- I mean was Annmarie Adams there?
No, I was at a weird time in History, in the History department. Peter Collins had just…
…died. And so I didn’t have him. I was obviously really interested in History. I kind of almost got to the end of my Art History degree. And History at that time was, and I think it still is, was really central amongst the good students. We all were really interested in it. It was in the air in the early eighties. And unfortunately, the school was kind of in between at least having, what’s the word, a charismatic History professor and recovering from Peter Collins’s death. So we had- Bruce Anderson gave the first year course, and it was okay. He did it on the basis of notes that Peter Collins had left. And Ricardo Castro started my second year. And he was someone I liked a lot, and it was okay. The best History I had, actually was Eve Blau, who, I don’t know, she then went off, she was at the CCA. She gave a really good seminar course. We had some seminar courses in our final years and that was mine that was on social housing in Europe and it just was a really nice event in the week. You know, there were really good readings and everyone was very keen on the course. It also had a mix of years, which is really unusual. I mean, we teach, the school we teach at here has a unit system and our unit has fourth and fifth years, and this is so much- such an advantage of having this mix.
The two years-
Together. And we have fourth years who continue with us in fifth year. That was rather stymied within the kind of very rigid structure at McGill.
There were some design teachers, though, who I liked for different reasons. I mean, purely in design terms, Rad Zuk was I think a big influence. I sort of knew about him because he was in my father’s year. And he had a kind of very coherent methodology, this idea of the nine systems, which you kind of learned to dread in first and second year because you would see the fourth years doing these huge matrices tracing the nine systems. But for whatever reason, the year before us, and especially in our year, he mellowed a bit, and I think he maybe realized that the methodology was getting the better of- it was sort of subverting the purpose.
Yeah. And in our year, it was fantastic. And we had a- we did a big project like always, but at least, I and a few other people in the year, and in fourth year, we were split down, so there were only about sixteen people in the group, a few of us had realized that the nine systems were actually a means by which to design the building and not actually the design itself. We were a bit freer in handling them and that was fantastic. I really- there’s remnants of Rad’s method in my teaching, I think. To try and find a kind of methodology but for it to be understood that the methodology is just a model to kind of start to understand the task. So that was enjoyable.
And then another teacher who is a teacher who invited us to teach last year is Adrian Sheppard, who I always found to be a really supportive person and someone I could really talk about design with. And he was my thesis advisor. And by then, I mean we hardly even talked about architecture. But he was there and we would have good conversations and he kept me on the right track. And I have really good memories of, you know, fantastic conversations with him and him bringing people into the school who- of really trying to open up what was being talked about in the school. But the people I really learned from were the people in the years ahead of me. People like Graham Livesey, who I think teaches at Calgary now.
And Graham, I’ve tried and we’ve missed and I’ve got to go back to do an interview with him. He was an interesting person. You can get a sense on the telephone of what people are like.
Very intense, serious student, but also kind of a really nice person. And I just remember from second year going upstairs to ask him about things and to show him things and him kind of having the patience. And we were really- our year was lucky. We were like the last of a kind of a group of really good years and there was just this acceptance that it would be like that. And you’ d play sports with some of these people. Graham didn’t, but like Randy Cohen was a mad athlete and then he was coach of all our teams. The year below us, though, the year I graduated with, because I took a year out, they were like the Dark Ages. And there were a few of us who graduated with them. And I remember our final year in the studio; they wouldn’t come near us, because, you know, they were worried they would find out something they didn’t want to know. It was surreal! So it was quite different. Then there was the year below them, who were quite keen, and I knew some of them from The Fifth Column and, you know, they would come in.
Which is very rare, because in most institutions, the seniors don’t know the juniors or the sophomores or anything like that.
But they did and, you know, people like Graham and Peter Scriver and-
But that was a lot of because of you. I mean, you know them, but I don’t think everybody in your year-
Not everyone, but my friends certainly did. People like Mark Poddubiuk and-
And you’re better people because of it, probably.
And I mean it’s not a class system. You help each other.
So the sense that McGill probably, from what I see just talking to you, is certainly a product that you’re happy with, you should be happy with. There’s no way you can compare your education that you got with what you might have got somewhere else, because you, you know, you experienced McGill but you didn’t compare it to anything else. Except, I don’t want to talk about your career yet but- so the memories of McGill are reasonably positive other than it is still in the Black Ages!
But that’s serous. It is serious and McGill, I don’t know how it is now, but when I went there, there was a lot of applicants for each place. I remember people being- I mean I got accepted because I had the right, I can’t even remember what they were called, matrics, my marks in my matriculations were as they should be in Sciences mostly. And so I got accepted. And there were always sort of a few marginal figures who had a great portfolio and they’d take a chance on them and they’d get accepted in the beginning of September, you know. So there was a lot of pressure to get into the school. I think it’s relaxed from what I heard when I was there, talking to David Covo. And this kind of intransigence with respect to the curriculum I think is an incredible wasted opportunity because you have these bright students, and they’re still there. And they’re desperate to do things. And my experience teaching here, my experience in a few other schools, I must say, a lot of schools are very conservative. I mean, I’ve taught in a lot of schools now in Europe, and a lot of them are very, very conservative in the same way. But I don’t even think- the kind of, the pretense of being technically strong at McGill, I think it was a slight fiction. And I know now, you know, I know more about kind of the structure, the academic structure at McGill and actually, it wouldn’t be very difficult to change the curriculum. And it’s just not changing because nobody wants to change it.
They’re might be a few people who want to change it but they haven’t been heard yet. Let me ask you, just a couple of other people who might have been around, were there any crits that came in-
Critics that came in? And how about Sketching School? Did you go to Sketching School?
It provokes a couple of laughs!
At least that was better than Soil Materials!
Soil Mechanics. Yeah, oof! Sketching School was amazing. I remember the first year being quite traumatic. The pressure was unbelievable to produce.
Who was on that, Gerry Tondino?
Tondino and Covo. And we’d go. And the first year we went to Baie Saint-Paul, which was really far away. Fantastic though. I mean it was- I guess my class, I didn’t like everyone in my class but a good thing about my class was they were very keen. We were famous as kind of the keeners. But pathetic, really. And so we were told we had to produce X pieces of work a day and we did. And it was so tiring. And I remember Baie Saint-Paul, we were camping out a few of us. And it was raining and it was cold, because it was August and it could be two degrees in August, and it was physically pretty exhausting. But it was amazing. And, you know, we’d cook huge barbeques in the evening and it was great. The second one we went to Halifax. By the time you do your second one, you are a bit more relaxed. And I realized you didn’t have to do every media everyday. And I remember taking a risk and only doing watercolours for a week. And it was fine. It was really enjoyable.
Critics, I can’t remember that many, but good ones, I can remember a few. In third year, there was a tradition, which, I don’t know if it carried on past our year, of in the manner of, a slightly retrograde project where you would design a project in the manner of a famous architect. And it was run by John Meunier, originally from Cambridge, but he was the Dean at, I can’t remember what school.
I think he still is.
In Ohio or somewhere like that. And he came and taught- it was fantastic. It was beginning of third year and you were hoping this project would be run. And first day, he’d come in, he would introduce the project, you would have to get into groups, choose the architect and make a presentation the next day.
So you would choose the architect and your group decided to do-
Our group and so we did, I remember we did Adolf Loos. And it was rather provocative because Meunier didn’t– it was just when people were starting to look at Adolf Loos again and he didn’t know very much about him. None of the professors at McGill seemed to know him at all, and they had to read up on him. But they let us do him. And it was kind of a typical, you know, McGill thing where you were given a project one day and you had to work almost for twenty-four hours in order to make the crit the next day. But it was great. And then Meunier would go away and then he came back for the final crit. He might have come back for an intermediate crit, and then he came back for the final crit. That was a fantastic project because there was a sort of tradition of, you know, how arcane were you going to be about your choice, and then really learning. I think it is a very conservative kind of project, but you really tried to get under the skin. And if you picked the right architect, you could really do something good. It was always impossible to do Corb well or there are certain people that their kind of formal language is so known…
So unique also probably. I mean in terms of-
…that was difficult to do and not become pure pastiche. Whereas someone like Loos who was more conceptual, you could do. That was really enjoyable. And then we had Peter McLeary came for a few crits. He was very good. He was variable but he could be fantastic. I think, I can’t remember, and someone else who came that Zuk invited was Friedrich St. Florian, who was the head at [unclear] at the time. He was quite well known in the late sixties from Vienna. He was really, really good. Very provocative. We had a few people, people from- strangely the people who came from the furthest away and sometimes were in town by accident and got invited. We once had somebody from Atelier 5 in Bern, and we had just finished a housing project, and they are very well-known for housing. And he was fantastic. And I remember I had done a project with my girlfriend then, Christine, and which the professors couldn’ t stand and they were stamping on consistently for four weeks. And he came in and he thought it was great. And he turned the whole discussion on end. Obviously, it was very satisfying to hear that, but the discussion was interesting because housing, it was just a much more open discussion than the one we had been having. But the school, one felt that it was a bit insular. And I think it’s still the case.
When I graduated, the situation in Montreal was quite depressed, as usual, and it was also, I think, a time between eras. I think there weren’t too many practices that seemed very interesting to work for at the time. It was transformed five years after. I mean, there’s a lot of good, young practices there now. And I’d been to London a lot of times growing up because I used to have family here. And my year out, I spent a couple of months here and I had friends here. So there was a way if you were under twenty-seven to get a two-year visa to come to Britain and work and my girlfriend and I decided to do that for a year or two. That was the idea because this was ’86 and the economy was incredibly buoyant here and there were a lot of amazing architects to work for. So we came and I, yeah, I got- the first job I had was with Ian Ritchie, it was an amazing job. It wasn’t a disappointment. We both got really good jobs. And I guess every year you’re here there seems less reason to go back. I mean, we broke up quite a few years afterwards, but we’re both still here. And I guess, you know, one can’t plan what’s going to happen and one starts to lay roots. And the fantastic thing about being in London, and it’s very different; in some ways, it’s the antithesis to Montreal, is Montreal is quite parochial. And there’s great strength in that. I think one can make very strong work say just work in a situation that is very closely defined. But London is the opposite; it’s wide open. And there’s things about London that are infuriating but the amazing thing about it is the way it’s so open. And in the eighties, I met people from everywhere here. And it was incredibly exciting. And maybe the opposite of what one would initially think, but kind of the bigger a place is, at least in the case of London, the more opportunity there actually is. I mean, there’s- I’m sure there’s many more architects in London than there are in Canada; I mean, there’s ten schools of architecture in London; there’s forty-four schools of architecture in Britain, but there is enormous opportunity here. And I guess if you’re kind of- you pursue it intensely enough- if, yeah, whatever. If one takes advantages of the opportunities that are presented to oneself, you can really do amazing things here. And the proximity to Europe is increasingly becoming a really exciting thing. Anyway, for whatever reason, you know, I’ve stayed. As I said to you before, I’m only registered as an architect in this country. I wrote my professional exams here, so I can practice here and in any other European country. There’s no reciprocity with Canada or the US anymore, although I think it will come.
And I’ve been teaching here. And the basis upon which I teach here is a basis that isn’t available in Canada. When my partner, Peter St. John, and I started our practice, which is almost eight years ago now, we were both working for Arup Associates, which is a big practice and we left because we had a job that we were finishing and we had a very clear, quite idealistic idea about how we were going to practice. We had a building project, and we wanted to continue to have that. We wanted to do competitions, which are much more available here in Europe. And we wanted to teach. And the possibility of teaching meant that we could be more selective about the work we took on. And so that first year of our practice, we both got senior lectureships at University of North London where we’re still senior lecturers. And we took a point five appointment so we were a- we had a half position.
Oh, I see.
And that’s- the senior lectureship is a tenured position. And we were part of a kind of wave of young tutors who were taken into the school by a new head of school. And we’re all- most of us are still there eight years later and some of us aren’t so young anymore, and that’s a bit of a problem. But the school grew with us to a point where it’s really one of the best schools in the country now. And we have students from all over Europe in our school. And it’s an amazing opportunity to have two days a week teaching and be paid enough for that teaching to support yourself. You know, at a subsistence level, but it meant that we never considered taking on jobs just to make the money, just to run the practice. And it meant that we could practice in this critical way. And so we do. We’ve always had jobs, luckily, that are being built for amazing clients. We’ve taught consistently at North London but we’ ve also taught at a lot of other schools as guests. And we’ve always done competitions. And the twentieth competition, sort of five years into our practice, we won. You know, and that’s being built now.
What is that?
It’s quite a major new art gallery in the middle of England, in Walsall near Birmingham.
Good for you!
And it’s a fifteen million pound project.
Isn’t that wonderful!
And when that happened, we had to make our office bigger. And you- after practicing two or three of us for five years, one is very, very reluctant to do that, to expose oneself financially, but it seemed the right time. And, you know, things so far have worked out and very much on our own terms. And I think, if I see my friends in Montreal or in North America, I think some of them have attempted to have a very idealistic, or very critical practice. I mean, idealism- I think you can be idealistic in many situations. But it’s difficult, because, for instance, my friends in Big City, they all teach but none of them have a kind of tenured position. None of them are paid properly really. And McGill pays the worst, actually. Compared to U of M or UQAM, they’ re parsimonious. And yet, Howard Davies teaches a lot in the school and is an important person in the school. And it’s to do with- I mean, that’s something I think the school- it’s difficult for the school to deal with because you have this kind of tenured professorship thing, which I think now doesn’t exist so much, but the school has a lot of people who kind of got tenure track positions and then they’re there. And so there isn’t much flexibility. But there isn’t a tradition really in Canada of a lot of the faculty of a school practicing and teaching.
No, no. In fact, if anything, they probably frown on it. Because I remember Bruce, when he was the Director he was running a practice and it overwhelmed him I guess. And the fellow that you mentioned, I’m trying to think of what his name was. The guy, the professor who worked with you on your thesis.
Adrian. He was offered the Directorship, I guess, you know, at McGill. And what happened, after Derek left, and he asked for forty-eight hours to consider it, and declined it because part of the conditions were that he let go of part of his practice.
Yeah. Which is very different then here or very different than, say, in Germany where a professor- the kind of the significance of a professor’s practice brings prestige to the school. And a practitioner wants to be professor because it gives him access to the kind of most prestigious jobs. I mean, it’s a bit sick, but I think it’s actually mutually beneficial. And if the professor is teaching in good faith, and I can think of, you know, schools like ETH in Zurich, where they have really the best practitioners in Europe teaching and their professorship is structured in such a way that they can practice. And the students benefit enormously.
It’s discouraging at McGill. I guess what we should do is try to conclude this. I guess you don’t really have any regrets about dropping out of the History. Not Architectural History but you were taking a History course at McGill and you were also at Queens, so you’re satisfied with your life as an architect. You’ve aced it.
Yeah, but art is something, I mean I’m kind of really passionate about especially contemporary art. It’s an amazing time to be in London for that. And I’ve continued it. You know, art, I’m glad I did Art History also because it- I think it opened my eyes to different forms of practice which I think our practice relies heavily on kind of contemporary art practice as well as conventional architectural practice. I mean one has to find sustenance for one’ s practice. And if you’re not- one sustenance is to make money or to be kind of professionally or commercially successful. But if that isn’t one’s interest, I mean you have to find sustenance somewhere else.
And you’ve found yours.
Yeah, I think so!
Thank you very much.