June 28, 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson
So I guess the first thing we would like to know is why you decided to become an architect and why McGill.
I guess I decided to become an architect on my own because my parents sure as hell thought it was a lousy idea. But when they look back at a couple of decisions they made at my birth, I guess it was predetermined. My two godfathers, one was Dick Bolton and the other a Mr. Nesbitt, were both architects. And my godmother was the wife of Harold Fetherstonhaugh, the architect of the Chateau Apartments and the St. Andrew’s and St. Paul’s Church and a very distinguished architect in Montreal. So the fact that my three godparents, one was the wife of an architect and the two others architects, meant that I guess very quietly and subtly they pushed me in that direction during my youth. I also, my first job before entering architecture school was actually to work for my uncle, and Ken Nesbitt worked in that office as well, was to work for him just as the office boy. And so I had this chance to see how an architect- they had a large- it was called I guess at that time Fetherstonhaugh, Durnford, Bolton and Chadwick, a very large, successful firm in the city. And so that gave me an idea of what it was all about and got me enthusiastic. So when I applied to go to university, I chose architecture.
You didn’t have too much trouble getting in, I guess?
No, in those days, all you had to do is have a faint pulse and they accepted you. Everyone who came through that door was greeted with great delight because-
What year was that?
And when you say, “Why did I choose McGill?” I literally was just going to university in my own city. I guess I never applied to another university, never considered going to another university.
At that age, it was almost the natural thing to do.
I think in the English-speaking community here in the city, virtually all my friends went to McGill. It was sort of the thing to do. My closest friend was Gavin Scott, who was our classmate. And he had come to McGill the year before and we had been roommates at boarding school. And everything just naturally pointed me towards McGill. Of course, in those days, we did engineering in the first year. There was no architecture. And in the second year, we took a history of architecture course and a drawing course and the rest was still engineering. So it was easing into the School of Architecture as opposed to today.
And then it was, including that first year in engineering, was, what, a total of five years?
Six years, okay.
Six years, yeah.
What we would like you to do is talk a little bit about your days at McGill, the professors, primarily, the courses that influenced you, the ones that you liked the most or perhaps the ones you didn’t like, and then maybe a little bit about some of the classmates.
Well, excluding the interviewer here! I guess the- let’s talk for a minute about where the School of Architecture was, because that was interesting in itself. When we started off, the School of Architecture was in an old house on University at the Milton Street gate. And the very first courses I took, which would have been the History of Architecture course taught by Peter Collins. And I think that was probably Peter Collins’s first year there, although I’m not entirely certain, but if it wasn’t his first, it was his second year teaching at McGill. And it was in an old, I guess the old living room-dining room of the house there. There was that-
Was that on McTavish?
No, this was on University.
And it was torn down at the end of that year to build a new Engineering building, the McConnell Engineering Building. At that point- and so Peter was our first teacher and John Schreiber tried to teach us some spherical geometry and all those funny things that we never understood! I later tried to teach the same course myself but since I didn’t understand it as a student, I sure as hell couldn’t teach it as a professor. But the next year, we started, really started off in what we called third year that was our first year, where we moved to McTavish Street. The building still exists today. They were in old houses interconnected. I guess what I remember about it most was the studio and Stuart Wilson, because if you were in third year, you were in Stuart Wilson’s course. Any other course that happened to happen that year was something that he told you to go and listen and come back right away in the studio. So your whole third year was absolutely dominated by Stuart, which was fine and interesting and challenging and tiring.
It seemed to me that Stuart also taught going back in McConnell, when we moved back there.
Yes he did as well. Sure, we- because [tape glitch] and we moved in the middle of the year. So he taught us the first half of the year in the old house and then we moved into the new building. And of course Gordon Webber was a huge force in the school in those days. We used to do our Webberisms and try to take it seriously and then sometimes could and sometimes couldn’t. But it was a wonderful experience, the idea of combining the design, which was far more building-oriented. There was none of this literary illusions or things that go on today. It was straight designing houses, designing small schools, designing pavilions in parks. I think I can remember them all if I stretch my memory, every project we did for those years. But there’s no question that the design course totally dominated our lives, with I guess the exception of Gordie’s course and Peter Collins’s history course, which was always a very strong and dominant course that really did interest us. And his lectures were superb and well-prepared. The rest is sort of a blur, those engineering courses that we had to take. Wonderful characters like Dave Selby and people that taught us from the Faculty of Engineering, Joe de Stein. They were wonderful characters who put up with us.
There was Balharrie there two.
Watson Balharrie taught us Professional Practice. He used to fly his plane down from Ottawa every Wednesday morning or whatever it was, to teach us Professional Practice.
And then I think he was replaced by a Professor Valentine or was it? Remember the-?
That’s right, Hugh Valentine. He was past his prime. And it was a bit of a test that. But Watson Balharrie was a wonderful architect and very interested in building and building science. Guy Desbarats used to teach us. And we used to go over, and it always amazed me, we used to go over some place east of Saint-Denis Street to a lab and build mock-ups of construction details. And Guy Desbarats, who was a partner in Arcop at the time, was probably, arguably, the busiest and most influential firm in Montreal, used to sit there in a lab with us for half a day. I never quite understood what he got out of that. Well, he ended up being the Director of the School of Architecture at University of Montreal. That’s perhaps the price you have to pay.
It seemed to me that of the years we spent together there were some visiting crits too. I remember Ray used to come and-
Ray, very regularly and-
Fred Lebensold, he-
Fred Lebensold, on occasion. We didn’t like his visits. He was tough. Ray was always nice. Ray always- and very thoughtful in all his positive- and if he was going to say something negative, he did it so subtly it didn’t hurt. But Fred didn’t waste time with the positive and sure laid it on them if he didn’ t like it. Martin? Oh and Victor Prus, on occasion. These sort of people. Actually, you know, if you look back on it, a very interesting group of visiting critics came through the school. John Bland was very well known in really in the world of architecture in, I guess, particularly in England and the United States and so was able to attract a number of very interesting people. I can remember it was a very small school so you can remember in our, I guess, next to final year, we were in the same studio as the final year. And so we used to be able to listen to their crits, which usually took place in the studio. And some of the most, you know, influential people would come and review, particularly Moshe’s work, because it fascinated so many people. So we were always blessed by that. And Montreal also was in the beginnings. By that time, 1962 when we graduated, it was- a lot of the work for Expo was well underway even though it was five years ahead. And so there were a lot of architects coming to Montreal. It was a place- it was beginning to be a place to practice architecture. Montreal really was booming. In our final two or three years, you know, Place Ville Marie was built, the towers of CIBC, the CIL towers, all those were built. What a lab we were working in, because it was extraordinary, not only the architects coming to town but the actual things we could see being built and conceived. It was wonderful, as far as that was concerned.
As we worked up to the school, we haven’t mentioned Gerry Tondino and our sketching, everything from Sketching School. Originally, Gordie Webber and Stuart Wilson ran Sketching School and Gerry Tondino was nothing to do with it. And in fact, that was the case for the Sketching Schools as I remember that I went to. They were- Stuart was Sketching School and Gordie. And it was the strangest combination of two people you could- you couldn’t imagine two more different people, but yet they got along very well as far as running the Sketching School, Gordie as the consummate critic and Stuart who just sat out there on the streets, along the riverfronts and drew with us and painted with us. I still, I have three of his paintings hanging in my house to this day that he did on Sketching School with us. One of which he gave us- two of which he gave to Anne and I on our wedding. And so Sketching School was a lot of fun.
Another thing that was a lot of fun, shifting back, was we used to have to go for a month to Survey School up to Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon. Well that could be torture but it was also a lot of fun. For one month, we lived together, and that was in, as I remember, second year. So it was a very good bonding experience for the class.
If I remember correctly, it was in about the month of April just as the-
Oh it was awful weather! It was just on the switch of the seasons. It was right after exams. We were tired, we were ready to party and that’s what we did for a month, occasionally going out and doing some surveying. Of course, that doesn’t exist anymore. They do, you know, during the term they do some work on the campus and maybe up on Fletcher’s Field. But it was a great experience and it, as I say, brought us together very closely as a class earlier on. Sketching School was an extension of that because we went off together to different places. We went to Quebec City and to Magog. Those were the two Sketching Schools we went to. No, they weren’t the most exotic places. Quebec City was, but they’ve been to more interesting places since than Magog. But nevertheless, we had a good time.
And the drawing classes, though, were taught by Gerry Tondino in our last drawing class. Our first drawing class, it was just the changeover, because I can remember we used to actually go to drawing class at the museum. And Arthur Lismer would wander into the class in his rubbers and with those pockets full of charcoal. He would sketch on your drawing. He was a wonderful man. And we had [tape glitch] they were sort of between teachers. And so we had sort of a combination. And the next year, Gerry Tondino took over and he’ s taught the course ever since. He just retired this year. So retiring in 1999, I think he probably started that in about nineteen- well, before ’69. So he did over thirty years as the drawing instructor. And he teaches a very original course. It’s not your typical fine arts drawing course. It’s a very different course and a wonderful course by a wonderful person. Who is very inspiring. I found that through his inspiration, working with him in my role later as the director of the school, that he inspired me to go back to drawing in the late eighties. He kept asking me if my brushes were wet. And he persuaded me to even come back to his class, to take Saturday morning drawing and I would drop in regularly and paint, usually doing watercolours. And subsequently, now I paint all the time. And I’ll be forever thankful to him for doing that for me.
Surely, it must be a great way to relax.
Yeah, it is, exactly. It takes your mind- it focuses your mind on something other than the usual junk you’re worrying about. And also takes you to some interesting places so that was important. Of course, right through the years, design was important, and we both remember John Schreiber taught us in fourth year, Doug Shadbolt taught us in fifth year and sixth year was the thesis. But the first term of sixth year was when Harold Spence-Sales gave us a course in design, a planning exercise, as it was our chance to think as a planner. And his course was nothing more than Harold Spence-Sales; he was a course in himself, one of the great characters we’ll ever meet in our lives. Wonderfully articulate, delightfully naughty, misbehaving but wonderfully alert. I don’t know a man to this day who is more sensitive to his environment in all senses of the word environment, that really is, is extremely interested in everything around him. A sculptor, an artist, a planner and his drawings just for his planning drawings, you just don’t see things like that anymore, wonderfully hand-drawn documents that-
His present home, I guess, out in Vancouver pretty well reflects Harold. I mean it’s a…
… chocolate factory.
It was an old chocolate factory or something like that. It ‘s a factory and on the roof, he realized that it rains all the time in Vancouver so he decided to investigate different surfaces that would create different patterns with raindrops falling on it. So to that, he altered the depth of the water, the materials, and he has a rain garden. I don’t know of another rain garden! And I’ ve been there when the shower occurs and it is spectacular the different surfaces and the different light patterns that are created on this roof. So here’s a man that adapted to his climate and created something very beautiful. But he always wanted to create beautiful things.
He built a little sort of a platform, like a little caboose on top so he could sit there and look around and look out.
Absolutely. It’s very akin to the widow’s walks in Maine on the coast, where apparently the wives used to go up and watch for the sailors coming back. And it’s just a tiny little structure; you could sit and look over the water garden towards the downtown Vancouver. The skyline is really quite spectacular. And while you’re up there of course, you’re served copious amounts of drink, all of them fiery, his drink of course being Dubonnet and gin.
I wanted to ask you, Doug Shadbolt had quite an influence on your career, I guess. Did he not?
I guess as an architect and as a designer, Doug Shadbolt had the [tape glitch]. He taught me to- we used to call it programming in those days but a better word for it is problem-solving. He taught me a very systematic, structured way to solve problems. And I’ve used that in whether it’s in architecture or planning or in ordinary problems that I face to this day on how to clearly and correctly state what the problem is before you try and solve it, to analyze it in relatively good detail and to build a design from the bottom up rather than totally by intuitive design. Yet he wasn’t afraid of intuitive design as well. So it was a combination of the two, but always your deep understanding of the programmatic needs of your client was what he taught us. And a very structured course. And I just enjoyed it tremendously.
One of the people with whom we worked as a student and also stayed on during your career was Maureen, Maureen Anderson. Quite a few people have commented about her role in the university.
Well her role was extraordinary. She was- I can remember, I guess, I first met Maureen in the McTavish Street building and I think that’s where she started to work so that would have been in 1957. She came to work in the school and she was, I guess, relatively young at that time. The only person- no I guess there was one other woman on the staff, but there was never more than two in the- and it wasn’t long before she was running the school. And she ran it for the rest of her career, which spanned up until the early nineties. My association with Maureen was we were wonderfully friendly as students. We all had tremendous respect for her and there wasn’t a question she couldn’t answer or couldn’t find any answer very fast. She was wonderfully generous to foreign students. I don’t think our graduate programme would have ever survived without Maureen in its infant stages because every student became like a daughter or a son to her. And she looked after them way beyond the call of duty. You know, she’d have them to her home for dinners and she would make sure they had a place to stay. I’m quite sure she lent them money and things she should never have done, but a wonderfully generous human being. I, of course, worked with her for close to seventeen years as Director of the School of Architecture, so I got to know her extremely well. And she was the sole reason that I could teach a full load of courses and be director of the school because she directed the school and I taught my courses. She really was an extraordinary efficient and wonderfully literate person. She would take all that garbage I used to write for papers and for the press or for magazines and she turned it into stuff that I’d be proud to look at. All because she- well, in her degree. She was a very educated woman and her degree was in literature. And she was a wonderful writer. Very careful and Norbert Schoenauer’s books, other people’s books. You know, many of our colleagues, or they’re colleagues now but teachers then, were from different countries all around the world and English was not their first language. And so Maureen played an incredibly important role in turning what they were talking about into English or writing about into English.
I think when she retired, did the school, the staff of the school not propose a scholarship in her honour?
That’s right, that’s right, yeah.
So do you have any other memories of the university other than the staff? How about some of the-?
I guess most of my memories revolve around the studio and the life that we had in the studio and the extremely good friendships that were created between yourselves and your classmates, because after all, we were there hours and hours and hours together solving the same problems, apparently in a competitive situation but never really that competitive. Always willing to help one another. When someone finished a project a little earlier, they would go and help the other person. We’d save people’s scalps by quickly helping them as we approached the deadline. The all-nighters. There isn’t a student, I guess, that ever goes through the School of Architecture who doesn’ t remember the all-nighters. The terrible fatigue that you’d feel the next day trying to sit through a Peter Collins Lecture when you haven’t slept the night before. It was agony. Those were the memories. But I guess it was the fun we had with our classmates. While I was at the school, though, I had a very definite life outside the school. I didn’t concentrate, as some of my classmates did, solely on the School of Architecture, as you had a different life as you were married and had kids. My life was based around my athletic abilities and my ability to play squash. And so I was playing squash in tournaments and it was a very important part of my life. I was good at it and playing in teams and, you know, winning tournaments and things like that. And so it kept me more or less a balanced life, which I’m thankful to this day that I- because a lot of the friendships I have today are not only with my architectural classmates and my colleagues but they are equally with the people I played squash with in those days and met in that other side of my life at that time. I think that’s most important when people are in schools of architecture that they don’t get swallowed up by the school.
It too easily happens.
Oh, it happens all the time and it leads to some very serious difficulties in some cases. So the anecdotes that one can think of within the School of Architecture usually revolve around funny incidents and incidents that happened in the studio, most of them which we forget.
Or we don’t want to talk about.
Or to protect the innocent we don’t necessarily talk about. But we misbehaved on occasions and we had- I would say there was one general thing in our class, with our classmates, we laughed a lot. There were a lot of people with good senses of humour and there were lots of people who were wonderful butts for most of our jokes, whether they were staff members or fellow classmates. But we did, certainly a relatively good group of us spent an awful lot of time having a good time. Our trips at lunch to the greasy on Milton or over to the Mansfield Tavern to see Red and the waiter and have those tables full of draught beer and that awful food. But oh my God, we had a good time! But also, you know, producing, you know, some good work and being proud of what we were doing.
I guess that was our reward for all the hours we were putting into the school. We had to have some form of relief.
So you graduated in 196-?
So I graduated in 1962. I worked upon graduation for the firm I had worked in the summers Durnford, Bolton, Chadwick and Ellwood. And then, as the interviewer knows, we formed a firm called Donaldson, Drummond, Sankey in 1964. Now, one would say today, “How can you form a firm two years after you leave school, which was literally on the day we got our license to practice. We hung out our shingles, so to speak. But one has to remember that was probably the biggest boom period in the history of Montreal. There was a shortage of architects. There was a tremendous amount of work to be done on Expo ’67, and the three of us realized that the market share we could get as an architectural firm was to not try and get any work from Expo ’67 but to concentrate on the companies that needed architectural services whose architects had abandoned them for the good-paying jobs and the interesting work at expo. So our initial clients were the Bank of Montreal and the Bell Telephone Company, which incidentally stayed with the firm for many, many years and formed the basis of a very solid practice very quickly. Eventually, of course, we did Expo work, which was interesting, although not necessarily highly profitable. And we did schools, we did libraries, we did a whole series of jobs. Never any very large jobs in today’s standards like a fifteen- or twenty-storey building but we did lots of what I thought were jobs that we could certainly handle. When one looks back at it, we didn’t have a whole lot of experience in terms of some of our competitors and I don’ t think our competitors could understand why we were getting the work and they weren’t. But I guess we had a way of turning out good products, some good buildings and I’m proud. I still visit some of the buildings that we did, the Town of Mount Royal Library and a couple of the schools and things like that.
Father Colford’s church.
Yeah. And really they are buildings that still look as good today as they did then. So I’m proud of them.
So then, around, what was it, 1971, that you left and went off-?
Actually, in the same year, 1964, I was hired to teach at McGill. The same year as- in the fall of the year we started the firm. We started the firm in June, as I remember, early summer. And that fall, I was asked by Stuart Wilson. And again, you, Jim, have a role to play here. We were sitting in the Mansfield Tavern after work one day. Stuart comes in and joins us and he said, “John Bland has just said that I can hire someone to help me in third year this year because we are going to have thirty-four students”, or forty students or something. More than he had had the year before. He had a little money to hire someone and he asked you if you were interested. And you said, no you weren’t interested but you said, “Derek would be interested, maybe”. So he turned to me and over a few draught beers, he asked me if I would do it and I said, “Yes, I would love to do it”.
So after your career started in 1964. I’d forgotten that.
So I started in 1964 as his assistant in third year. And by the- I guess by 1965 or ’66, I’m not sure which second year course needed a teacher. John Schreiber I think went off to Harvard to study landscape architecture or something like that, and John Bland had asked me if I would teach the second year course, which is interesting because I never understood what John Schreiber taught. In fact, I’d failed the course! So I asked him, I said, “My academic record isn’t superb in this area”. And he said, “No, no, I don’t want it taught that way”. And he explained he wanted a different type course, so I started teaching that course on my own. And I taught that, which is now the first year course, for, ooh count ‘em up, thirty-five years, thirty-four years, something like that. And so it sort of became my specialty design-wise was teaching the initial design course.
And then, of course, some time in that period, you became the director of the school.
Yes, I left Donaldson, Drummond, Sankey in the late sixties I think it was to join- at that time, the university was bubbling up. There was a lot of unrest; there was a lot of pressure. Salaries were increasing so that they could now pay you a decent salary. When I first started, they paid me $3500 a year. So now they were beginning to pay a decent salary. And John Bland asked me if I would come and work, giving me more responsibilities and more responsibilities. It wasn’t long before I became the Assistant Director of the school. And then John Bland retired in, probably 1973, somewhere around there. And Norbert Schoenauer took over as Director of the school. And he was never particularly comfortable with that. He asked me to become the Associate Director of the school and I was with Norbert. But he was never really comfortable being the Director of the school. He didn’t like the administration, he didn’t like the pressure. And then he was offered a job by CMHC to go to Ottawa. And so he resigned after only a couple of years as the director and then I was appointed Director in 1975 and I served as the Director for two terms until 1985. And the university rule is you can only serve two consecutive terms so I stepped down at the end of 1985 and went on to just straight teaching. And then in 1980- 1990, the faculty asked me to become Director again.
So that was for another five years?
So another five-year term. And then in 1995, that was renewed for another five years and I said the only thing that I insisted on is that I’ve had enough of this but I will stop on December 31, 1999. I said, “I’m not going to be the Director into the next millennium, someone else should be”. And that was my contract. Well, the new Principal of McGill, Bernard Shapiro, intervened in nineteen- I guess it was1996 and asked me to become the Vice-Principal of the university. And so I left the School of Architecture Directorship to become Vice-Principal. I still teach in the school one course each term, but basically my job is as Vice-Principal.
Did you- for many, many years [unclear] an association because of Leacock Luncheons. I guess, did you take over from David Farley? Did he used to do them originally?
No, Donald McSween. Donald McSween did the Leacock Lunch for twenty years. And then I took over and I’ve done it ever since as the moderator of the Leacock Lunch.
How many years has that been?
And then you’ve also-
I think it’s nine or ten years.
And now there’s a Leacock Lunch in other cities.
We do it now, we do it in Toronto and Vancouver as well. So there are a lot more Leacock Lunches now. I guess I’ve done fifteen, sixteen, seventeen Leacock Lunches. They’re lots of fun. I traveled while I was Director of the School of Architecture, the alumni association asked me to travel a lot to the various branches and speak, not in a humorous fashion necessarily, but just talk about- actually, I talked about my work. I talked about the history of the university. I gave a lecture for years, What Ever Happened to the Mansfield Tavern? which was just a snappy title for the history of McGill College Avenue and how it was built. And I talked, as I say, you know, all over Canada, much of the United States to alumni groups. This is one of the reasons, of course, I became-
You’re a natural-
For the Vice-Principal’s job later on.
When I became Director in 1975 it really was an extraordinary situation for me. I had only graduated thirteen years before. And so much of the staff were the staff that taught me as a student in the School of Architecture. So someone as distinguished as John Bland, as Peter Collins, as Harold Spence-Sales all suddenly were reporting to me as the Director of the School of Architecture. Now that’s really quite an unusual position to be in and I will be forever thankful to them in the way they handled it in that they treated me as though I was the Director of the School of Architecture. There was never any hint that I was their former student, that I was not a colleague, that this was an unusual situation. In fact, they were all from the old school, who considered that who is ever in charge is in charge. And they don’t ask questions and they do what they’re told. So as a result, although we had some very interesting situations developed over time, people like Peter Collins were extremely faithful and basically would do whatever I ask him to do and not question it much. Now, I was never short of advice at times, but I was careful about that to make sure that I listened to all people. Slowly but surely, in the course of seventeen years, I built, should we say a staff of my own in that by the time I left, most of the people there were people I hired. And as I travel today, I realize, with some degree of humility, the amount of influence you’ve had on so many people. Because I go to places like Hong Kong; we had a wonderful dinner there this spring where we had thirty-two graduates of the School of Architecture came to dinner in Hong Kong! And David Covo, the present Director of the school, was there. And we gave a couple of speeches and we entertained them with the history of the school and the school today and things that have happened in Montreal. It was a wonderful evening. But I couldn’t help but think, with the exception of about three or four, and I was the oldest graduate there, at that meeting, so they were all young, almost every one of them I taught. And so wherever I go now, it tends that the architects come to the events, although they’re not just for architects; that was a rare one where it was just for architects. Wherever I go, architects come and they’re all my ex-students. And there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. The damage I’ve done across this country and around the world is extraordinary!
Is it difficult to remember them? I mean, you can’t possibly remember all the people that you’ve taught.
You can’t remember- actually, you end up remembering more than you think you’ re going to. I always take the precaution of getting a list of those people that have signed up for the event, I must admit, and I prepare myself. So I look to see who from the School of Architecture is there. But it’s on very rare occasion that I don’t recognize the face. And of course, if I’ve seen the name before, I know the name. And I love those nametags and we print them big! But by and large, I will remember virtually all the students. It’s just because, the secret of being director was I taught first year design. And I’ ll always say that every director should teach first year design because I knew the students from the day they walked in, and I would be involved in the thesis at the end and I taught my two lecture courses in the middle. I was always hands-on in contact with them throughout their time virtually always. And so you get to know them. And it’s a small school still. And we still only have forty, forty-five students per year. You get to know their names. We even take photographs of them every year and I still have my loose-leaf book with the photographs of the students for the last twenty years. And I can look at them and remind myself as to who-
The irony of that statement, of course, is the fact that you are not in our yearbook, the year you graduated.
Oh, that’s right!
In case you forgot that one.
I was very careful. I didn’t go and get my picture taken!