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For a man who opted out of his career as an architect more than 30 years ago, Gerald Sheff (BArch'64) can't quite stop building. Last week, the announcement of Sheff's million-dollar endowment to McGill's School of Architecture laid the cornerstone, a historic new phase in the school's history. The Gerard Sheff Visiting Professorship in Architecture will fund a new faculty position focused on stimulating innovation and professional excellence through teaching, public speaking and research.
The gift will be used to attract world-renowned architectural leaders, giving students the chance to study under professionals who are at the very cutting edge of the industry. "These people are known to our students through lectures and publications - their reputations precede them," says David Covo, Director of the School of Architecture. "The endowment allows us to promote opportunities for their direct engagement with the students."
When Sheff talks about architecture, his passion is obvious. "The legacies of the world's great architects stand among the most powerful connections to our past and to the ways in which other generations lived, worked and thought," he says. "I am pleased to have an opportunity to support the learning of current and future architects, to provide opportunities for them to bring their vision to the public, private and commercial spaces that reflect our lives and time."
Surprisingly, Sheff harboured doubts about himself as an architect, even before he became one. "I always had reservations, even while I was at McGill. My time at the School of Architecture developed in me a great appreciation for design and creativity, but I began to realize that perhaps I wasn't all that creative myself."
Still, he graduated and practised for five years in both London, England and back home in Montreal during Expo '67, a heady time for any young architect.
Soon after, however, he went through what he laughingly calls "an early mid-life crisis." Quitting the industry, he began a career in real estate and went on to do an MBA at Harvard in 1971. He put his MBA to good use, co-founding the investment management firm of Gluskin Sheff and Associates in 1984 where today he serves as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. The firm has long supported the School of Architecture, funding the Gluskin Sheff Traveling Scholarships in Architecture, which give high-achieving undergraduates the chance to study abroad.
On the surface it would seem that the successful, mature, self-assured Sheff has very little in common with the young architectural undergrad unsure of what path his life would take. But scratch that surface and you'll find that, in fact, his years at McGill were formative ones. "It was at McGill that I learned to love aesthetics and design," he says. "That's where I began to understand that we should always want to capture people's attention, whether it's with a letterhead, a living space, a power point presentation or a newspaper ad. It's the way we present ourselves, the way the world sees us. Architecture is a very short step away from design."
Some might find it surprising that Sheff, a great aesthete, didn't ask that his gift be put toward a building or renovations, that he chose, instead, to build a living monument, as it were. "The thing I really like about the program is that it will attract the top minds in the field who, in turn, will seed the school with new ideas," says Sheff. "When I was an undergrad, I had a teacher named Gordon Weber. A fascinating man, very provocative. He challenged us and made everyone see the world in a new light. My hope is that this endowment will give other students that same experience."