May 14, 1996
Interview by Jim Donaldson
Well, when I was a high school student, I was reasonably good at mathematics. I also loved historical buildings, I drew reasonably well, so everything pointed and suggested to me that I become an architect. So this is how I became an architect. Then how I chose acoustics, I was working- I graduated in Hungary in 1936. For the first ten years, I worked in regular architectural design. Then communism came, everybody became a government employee run under government- within government institutions and architectural work was very depressing. I asked- transferred to the so-called building research station, where my boss told me I could do anything I want. I can make a research of anything I want but it should be profitable to the architectural profession. I did something, which was profitable to the architectural profession because I noticed that schools of architecture don’t take care of the requirements of residents or people who live in buildings because modern buildings, due to modern building materials, building techniques, building constructions, prefabricated concrete, glass, smooth finishes, everything was extremely reverberating, very loud, very noisy. The use of mechanical equipment increased in buildings. Outdoor traffic increased. Inside, people were suffering because of the noise. So I thought something has to be done. But there was nothing to be done and there was nobody in my old country, which was Hungary, who could take care of acoustical conditions. So in the research institute, I ordered books from England, US, Germany, and started studying, learning acoustics. In four months time, I was able to handle projects. And the communistic government, which built a large amount of so-called cultural halls, not because of culture but in order to spread the communistic dogma, they were all sent to me to make recommendations how to handle them. These requests were piling up on my desk. I could not handle them after four or five months that I studied these books. And I felt I am rather useful in this field, but requests were coming in and I was unable to do the job properly. So the minister of building affairs did something, which he has done only once in his lifetime: he issued a permit for me in order to be able to open a private consulting practice. I was the very only one person in Hungary who had this permit. I was called all over the country the Tsar of Acoustics. So this is what happened. Then I felt comfortable to handle these things. And this is when I decided to become somehow, in one way or another, an acoustics consultant.
What year was that, when you became the Tsar in Hungary?
That was about 1959, 1960 and the forthcoming years until we fled Hungary and came to Canada.
And then how did you become a lecturer- or how did you get involved with McGill? You became a lecturer eventually in architectural acoustics at McGill School of Architecture plus, I guess, the University of Montreal and other places as well.
How did that all happen?
When we arrived in Canada, I got a job as an architectural draughtsman within a couple of days and did just ordinary drafting jobs. But more importantly, my wife got a job at McGill’s art and architectural library, which I had an occasion to visit often, to see and meet students of the School of Architecture and professors of the school. And then I talked to them and they told me there was no such thing as a proper course in acoustics. So I decided I will try to do something about it. Then, suddenly, my acoustical consulting work and practice increased fantastically. How this developed, I will probably have the chance to talk about it later, so in order to get closer to the School of Architecture, I enrolled at McGill as a post-graduate student. And a Professor [McGill] gave me the permission that in my thesis, I am entitled to write anything about architectural acoustics. That was in 1964. Then I graduated as a Master’s of Architecture, handed in my thesis and the National Research Council in Ottawa appreciated my thesis to such an extent that they published it in fifteen hundred copies and sold it out within a couple of weeks. Then they reprinted it two more times, all together close to five thousand copies. Everything was sold out, so I saw that there is a need for acoustics. And that was, of course, fantastic promotion for me because everybody knew my name. So this is how I-. And then when I handed in my thesis and everything happened as I mentioned, Professor Bland invited me in the year of 1964 to start teaching at McGill. What I visualized before, what dream I had before, became reality. Nineteen-sixty-four, September, I started my lectures at McGill. And also in the meantime, I was invited by the University of Montreal’s reorganized École d’ architecture to lecture there so I started at both universities.
And while you were teaching at the universities, I gather you carried on a private practice.
Correct. From private practice doing jobs for an architect’s office in Montreal, the Arcop, and Guy Desbarats was in charge of those jobs. And Guy Desbarats happened to be appointed to the new director of the reorganized school of architecture of University of Montreal. And has he later told me, as soon as he was appointed, the first thing he did, he called me on the phone to be sure that I will be ready to lecture in acoustics. This is how I got to the University of Montreal.
So then you taught from 1964, I guess, at McGill and also at University of Montreal. For how many years did you teach the course in acoustics?
At McGill, I was teaching for twenty-two years. In 1981, we moved to Toronto, but McGill asked me to teach as long as I can and it was my particular pleasure and some sort of a family trip with my wife to go to Montreal after ’ 81. In ’ 82, ’83, ’84 and so on, I still continued to lecture until I felt a little bit uncomfortable with this traveling, taking things with me. But it was a most enjoyable experience.
Do you have any memories at all of some of the professors with whom you worked or any students who took your courses? Are there any significant memories or incidents that might have happened?
I have very good memories because both students and professors were extremely kind to me and very helpful. And, of course, my clients in my consulting acoustical practice were those people, architects’ offices, city planners, large corporations’ architectural offices, government architects’ offices who were potential employers for my students who graduated from McGill. And in many cases when I was asked to help a certain project and I came for a meeting with that client, I met my previous students. And my first request was whenever we talk about anything, whenever I have a chance to give my proposals, my previous students should be attending that meeting because I was sure that there’d be at least one person who understands perfectly the mysterious acoustical vocabulary. So I remember well them very nicely. And also, during my lecturing at McGill, many design professors several times, quite often invited me to come and attend those meetings during which time they have evaluated the students’ projects. And I was given always questions how I feel about the acoustical conditions, what proposals I could make for the students. And that gave me the very wonderful feeling that acoustics finally arrived at McGill University. It was accepted.
Are the acoustic courses being given at McGill today, do you know?
Yes, given there. First of all, somebody- after I resigned, there was somebody who gave a course who was my previous student. Now another previous student, graduated architects, they give the same course. I don’t know in what ways it is authored because since twelve years, I am retired.
Another question I wanted to ask you, you were involved in your profession in a lot of buildings for, I guess, some of the more prominent architects in Montreal, like Affleck Desbarats’s office. Was there any one building that they did that you can recall, which was a big challenge to you?
Well, I had several commissions, which were really considered as a fine challenge and several theatres. It was first of all, the theatre in Montreal called La comédie canadienne. And then in Lennoxville, there was a theatre, which is a festival theatre near Sherbrooke. And then the Markham Theatre here North of Toronto, and of course, a lot of university auditoriums and lecture halls for McGill, the U of M, Laval University, Bishop’s University, the University of Ottawa and the Hautes Études Commerciales in Montreal. And so I was working for all the universities. Then, of course, I had other very, most interesting projects, which were high schools. Especially in the province of Quebec, the high school construction was extremely extensive. And many of the high schools had beautifully equipped music departments. I knew that music was nowhere in Canada taught and favoured as much in high schools than it was in the province of Quebec. I had, during my work, I had about fifty high school commissions and many of them included, of course, the music departments in addition to the classrooms, gymnasiums, auditoriums, lecture halls and so on. So these were the school constructions. And then, of course, there were hotels, the Regency Hyatt in Montreal and there were cinemas, Versailles Cinema, Maisonneuve Cinema, Dorval, and so on.
So you did a variety of building types.
Quite a variety. All kinds of churches for all denominations.
I was just curious about your first major commission in Canada in the acoustic area. Could you talk a little bit about that?
My first major commission was my very first commission. I already had a certain idea of acoustical requirements but I had no jobs here. I was just working as an architectural draughtsman. In the paper, I read that the leading brewery contributed a very large amount of money in order to build a live theatre in Montreal in order to meet the requirements of the very prestigious group, La comédie canadienne. And the article mentioned the architect is André Blouin. I phoned Mr. Blouin and offered him my services. Mr. Blouin replied, “I am fully aware of the needs for an acoustics consultant but I can not exploit anybody because I have no money left at all to pay your fee”. My response was, “Mr. Blouin, forget about my fee, I assume full responsibility for the job with supervision and you forget about the fee. You don’t pay me a cent”. We had to bargain for a few minutes. Eventually, Mr. Blouin said, “Come and see me”. In order to make a long story short, I finished the job, and the dedication ceremony, the first presentation of the theatre, was coming. It was a full success. The next day, Eric MacLean, the prestigious theatre critic of Montreal and in whole Canada was telling about the fabulous performance. And then in his report he said, I almost quote, “As far as the listening conditions were concerned, never in North America have I witnessed such fantastic acoustics. Even from the second balcony, I could hear every whisper that was generated on the stage”. That was in his report. That changed my complete situation in Canada, this report. First of all, the director of the group, Gratien Gélinas, phoned me and asked, “Is that true that you didn’t get any money for your fantastic services?” And I said, “Please forget about this. It was my pleasure to do that”. But he sent me a cheque, which was a generous compensation for what I have not received before. Mr. Blouin phoned me. He said, “Leslie, I have to employ a new receptionist just to answer the telephone calls of architects from all over Canada, particularly Eastern Canada, who are asking, ‘Who is your acoustics consultant?’” So this changed completely my life and then jobs, commissions were practically pouring in. So then soon after that, of course, I had to quit my job as an architectural draughtsman and centered my work and concentrated only on acoustical commissions. I made of them close to six hundreds in Canada and the United States until I retired. But this very first commission was the most memorable one in my life.
Leslie, if I may, I would like you to describe the relationship between teaching at McGill and your private consulting work afterwards or during.
Teaching at McGill and at practically the other university and my private practice were closely interrelated. Whatever I learned, whatever I did in my private practice was quickly channeled into my course. And for this reason, students had the feeling that my course is practice oriented. This is about life, what happens, what comes up in all architectural design commissions. What kind of problems come up. So they had this feeling and they appreciated it highly, my course. Every student attended every of my lectures, unless sickness or some other serious reason prevented them. I had several students every year from the Department of Music of McGill University, the Conservatory of Music, because they realized that whenever they play on any musical instrument, they have to look around and watch and find out the acoustical conditions in that room in which they perform and adjust their musical performance according to the prevailing acoustical conditions. Every year, and I had also students from the Department of Engineering. I had medical students also attending, because at that time, McGill gave credit to all of them whenever they attended my course. So it was very closely related.
I guess you were the forerunner of all the acoustics in that part of- certainly, one of the ones in Canada because previously, it was not taught at university and you were the first one teaching.
And you made all architects aware of the need to understand and consider acoustics in any type of building design. Was there anybody that followed in your footsteps and got into the same type of work that you were doing, anyone of your students? Or did they just keep the information and retain consultants?
After I retired, then one student took over at the School of Architecture of McGill. He was my previous student and after I graduated, he became also my partner because I knew that there is at least a knowledgeable person to some extent who can help me. He took care of it for a few years and then another previous student of mine, they took over from him and as I understand, he’s now in charge of lecturing. But since I retired, I am not much informed of what is going on.
One of the questions I wanted to ask you was whether your post-graduate degree was relevant to the professional practice that subsequently followed.
It was most relevant to my professional practice because after I started lecturing at McGill, then in about four, five years, I had so many commissions already that I felt that, in addition to my thesis, which was published by the National Research Council, it is time to write a proper textbook. So I prepared all the necessary things in order to do that and with the extremely fine recommendations of the three directors of architecture of McGill, Professor Bland, University of Montreal, Guy Desbarats, and the director of Laval University, where I also used to teach, I went down to the McGraw-Hill Publishing Company in New York to make a proposal for them. The receptionist told me, “I am sorry. I can’t let you into the chief editor because you have no appointment. He is booked up”. I told him, “But I have excellent recommendations and I have a suggestion which will be very profitable for McGraw-Hill. So she went in, came back and said, “Mr. Salo has five minutes for you”. I made my proposal to Mr. Salo. He said, “Look. When are you flying back to Montreal?” Because I flew to New York. “When are you flying back?” I said, “Anytime during the evening”. He said, “At 3:30, please come up. Until then, I establish a committee which will decide and establish the importance and the necessity of your suggestion, of your book”. I came back and Mr. Salo told me, “The report is extremely favourable. The committee said that there is no thing, no book yet published in acoustics by an architect and there is an enormous market for it. For this reason, I offer you not only the regular royalty but double the royalty”. And that’s what they paid me. Then my book was published by the McGraw-Hill Book Company in 1972, entitled Environmental Acoustics, subsequently translated into Japanese and not too long ago to the Indonesian language. So this was a very important sequence and McGraw-Hill Company sold close to twenty-five thousand copies of my book and they also told me after it was published in ’72, after three or four years, they wrote me a letter, they “have to congratulate me because of the Japanese translation. Japan has translated an American technical book since the end of the second world war”, which was ’45, “until now”, which was about ’75, “only four times. Your book is the fifth that will be translated into the Japanese language”. So it was really very satisfactory to me and very enjoyable news and so I’m really quite happy what happened after I entered McGill, after I used to teach there, and the sequence when my acoustical practice really mushroomed, I might say.
You have been involved in a lot of buildings for various architects across Canada and the United States and no doubt the world. Can you think of any one that gave you- I know you mentioned your first building in Montreal, the theatre. Is there any one other building or buildings that gave you a great degree of pride and satisfaction?
I had a couple of commissions in Florida, in Fort Lauderdale, Sunrise Lakes and others, Coral Springs, and I got a special award for my acoustical work from the government of Florida. They were so happy with all my suggestions. These were large auditoriums, music halls. These were designed by architects who immigrated to the United States, to Florida, and they knew me from my previous practice. This is- was- I am very proud of. And then, of course, the most interesting project was the Bank of Montreal branch on Wall Street in New York and the Governor General’s residence in Quebec City, the noise control of that building, which was absolutely lacking in noise control, noise reduction. A very memorable experience was my noise reduction job for Air Canada building, where I had the very good fortune to meet you, Jim.
I was going to ask you a couple of other questions. One of them was: is there a type of building today where- acoustics have made a great headway over the time that you’ve been involved with it. As I said, you were in the vanguard. But is there a quality of building today that acoustics are still ignored? I’m thinking primarily of high-rise buildings, office buildings. Does acoustics play much of a role in those buildings today? Or is that a fair question?
Actually, what happened architects became quite aware of the acoustical requirements and if they designed just thick, sufficiently thick and heavy constructions, that already helps a lot in noise control, of course. Then in room acoustics, what we’re calling auditorium acoustics or theatre acoustics, the practice is also very, very improved, enormously improved. Whatever layout has been developed, the section of the building and the distribution of the listeners takes already into consideration good acoustical results. So therefore, and also I might mention in my book, Environmental Acoustics, I describe in detail what an architect has to do. Many people who read the book told me, “Are you not afraid that people will learn too much and are not going to use acoustic suggestions, acoustical consultants?” I told them, “By the time they will read my book and this will go through, I will be long retired so I just don’t care about these things”. But from a professional point of view, I think this is the right thing. Architects became aware of the acoustical, basic acoustical requirements. Whenever it comes to a sensitive job, like really a studio, a TV studio, or a recording or sound studio, or an auditorium or a theatre, or any hall, which is above a certain capacity, architecture will never miss the services of an acoustics consultant.
I guess I had one other question, which maybe is sort of off the wall, but I am a person very sensitive to noise. And I sleep peacefully because the noise in my neighbourhood is reduced. But has anybody ever attempted- I guess this would be more noise control, the noise that you have on the streets and so forth. There’s ways of controlling that in certain areas, not only by toning down, but by trees and planting and so forth. Is that a subject that you would want to have a few comments on?
The most important recommendation I could make at the moment is that whenever you need tranquility and quiet in a home, in your house, in your office, the most important thing is to have a properly sound-insulating window. The wall is already more than good for acoustical reasons, for noise control reasons. It is always the window construction, how it is built in, the thickness, the layers of the glass; this is the most important thing. Of course, if you improve your house by replacing your windows, the situation doesn’t change in your garden or outdoors. But if the noise is excessive in the environment, there is not much that you can do by acoustical means. What can be done is to control traffic. But this is, of course, beyond the responsibilities of an acoustics consultant.
Just before we call it a day, is there any advice that you might want to give to any young person starting off in their career in terms of the career that you followed. Is that a fair question?
Well, the fact is I am retired since twelve years. As much as I was devoted and enthusiastic about my subject, since my retirement, I don’t feel too much interest, I don’t show too much interest about these situations because this wonderful world in which we live offers so many other opportunities that I have to say, I just have no time anymore for acoustics.
Well, I’d like to thank you because you’ve certainly made all our lives a lot more peaceful and restful and hopefully, we’ll all live a long, happy life and enjoy all those things that we can do and we never had time to do when we were working. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Jim.
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May 14, 1996
Interview by Jim Donaldson
This is, of course, for those of you who don’t recognize this lovely lady in front of me, this is Eva Doelle and she worked at McGill University, a librarian in the Blackader Library, I guess it was. How long- what were the years that you worked there?
Well, I worked from ’57 to ’81, which is twenty-four years, quite a thing! And I enjoyed every moment of it. It’s funny; I remember well, way back, I almost remember every single student who came to the library. And most of them were really nice. I liked them. I liked to help them. There were some who were a little bit on the cheeky side, but that’s part of the job. And I remember, for instance, Moshe Safdie. He was one year before graduation when I came there. And I recall when he made his final thesis and made a model of Habitat and he put it up on his roof of the house where he lived, and took pictures as if it would be a freestanding building. And came and showed it to me and I really liked it. It was something completely new. I don’ t know whether he will recall it, but I vividly recall it. Later, when I saw it in real life and he- but I remember those who didn’t get such a big name as Safdie. I remember every one of them by name and I can remember their faces too. I remember Derek as a student, also always cold, blown in by the wind from outside.
He hasn’t changed very much.
No! Always smiling, always in a good mood.
Well, I’d say that’s pretty well a description of him today.
Do you remember any of the professors who were there at the time?
All of them!
Gordon Webber! I have a very funny recollection, I don’t know whether you were there, you were not in the class. In one year, he decided that architecture students should take a ballet course. And at the Christmas celebration, they were performing for us, not in tutus but in leotards, prancing around. It was one of the funniest times!
Was this at the annual Christmas party?
Because some people obviously have bad memories of that because when you give a present to somebody, even though it’s done in jest, they don’t always receive it in the same vein.
I know, I know.
But do you remember Peter Collins or Doug Shadbolt?
Certainly! Certainly, Peter Collins. He was a very strange person from the beginning. He liked me, for some strange reason, he liked me very much. And I kind of respected him. I was a little bit afraid of him at the beginning when I first came to McGill, not later on. And I’m kind of sorry that he’s not around anymore because maybe he would have mellowed as the years went by. And I remember, naturally, John Bland, who was a gentleman to the core. From the first moment on, he tried to make my life easier. He realized that I’m a stranger and unused to that. And he tried to make it as smooth as possible. Maureen Anderson was the best friend I had at McGill.
She, as you know, she just retired last year.
Yeah, I know, we spoke on the phone.
And she looks as- I talk to her, I would say, probably every two months or so and she’s still as lovely as ever.
Yeah, she was really a delight.
Do you remember Professor Spence-Sales at all? Do you have any memory of him?
Yes, I remember. He didn’t come to the library that often, but I remember him. I remember Professor Wilson. I remember, Professor, well, he was Mr. Wheeler, who brought every time he prepared a model of an ancient building, he brought it to me to show it to me and I said really nice things. I tried to do my best, but then I just finished. I didn’t know what else. And he was still looking at me expectantly and I repeated myself over and over again. But he was a lovely person, really. I remember all of them. Well, naturally Norbert, who came maybe one or two years later than I did. I remember John Bland brought him to the library. He was so shy!
I think so.
Yeah, but you know-.
He’s had a profound influence on the school.
Yeah, I would imagine.
A lovely man and his lecture today that he gives, the engineers, the civil engineers and all engineering at McGill, they have to take one course in architecture, one annual course for credit, full credit. And they all come to Norbert’s class.
Yeah, I could imagine.
He talks about housing. And it’s fascinating. He gets classes with three hundred students.
My God! He has a lot to give, really. And it seems even after all these years that he still enjoys teaching because he has something to say.