Charles (Chuck) Brown
(With Paula Brown)
San Diego, CA
April 20, 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson
The first part of the segment, I would like for you to talk about why you decided to become and architect and how you happened to choose McGill.
Simply put, I have ever since I was a youngster, I enjoyed the process of construction. As a kid I remember building shacks and those types of things with lumber that I pilfered from local construction sites and had a grand old time doing it. I was always interested in taking things apart and putting them back together, usually with a couple of pieces left over. But I guess it was in my roots just having a concerted interest in it. And as far as why I ended up selecting McGill, I guess unlike the States where everybody seems to go hither and yon to go to school, being in Canada, I guess when one of the most renowned schools of Architecture is in your backyard, that’s where you want to go. And so that was my wish and my desire to go to McGill.
And you mentioned to me earlier, you’re what they would refer to today as a mature student.
As a mature student, absolutely. When I graduated from high school, I was not quite seventeen because my birthday falls in November so I was a real youngster getting out of school at the age of sixteen. And my parents had gone through a divorce at the time and I just wasn’t geared for study. And so my matriculation results were not very good. And McGill standards, being as high as they were, I was unable to get into McGill. And so I ended up hunting and pecking and ended up going to school at night and working during the day proceeding towards a Bachelor of Science in Physics. And when I was a few credits short, I realized that I didn’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life. I would be an individual with a Bachelor of Science in Physics and I really didn’t like it! So I decided to at least explore the possibilities of going back to school. I was married with my lovely wife back in 1970 and it was two years after that that I ended up sitting down and posing the question to her, “How would you feel if I went back to school for four years?” And she sort of thought about it, her eyes rolled back in her head and then she said, “Well, if I say no, you’ ll hold it against me for the rest of our lives and I don’t want that. So you got my blessing. Go for it”. So I did end up going back to school for four years.
What was the year you started back at McGill?
In ’72, fall of ’72. And I remember, interestingly enough, before I actually took the plunge, I had spoken with a few people, one of which was someone that Paula’s family knew very well, an architect. I can’t remember the name of the architect that I did- I went to his office and chatted with him. Name escapes me and it’s irrelevant, but this gentleman after he showed me around his place and we talked about what an architect does and so on and so forth, he said, “ You know, it’s going to be very difficult for you at your age, the age of 28, having been out of this particular field, to get back in and hit the books and be there with the younger kids. It’s going to be quite a challenge”. And I said, “Well, I’ve always been the type of kid and the type of a person that if I really wanted to do something and I had my mind set on it, I did it”. He says, “Well then you needn’t bother staying here another second”, he said,” you’ ve made your mind up. Go for it. Give it a shot”. I interviewed with Derek Drummond, who was the-
Was he the Director-?
Was the surrogate Dean at the time because I believe it was Norbert Schoenauer and Norbert was on sabbatical. So I interviewed with Derek and history was written that I ended up being accepted into the third year of Architecture and so it went.
Now you were there all told, what, about five years?
I was there four years.
Yup. Entered ’72, graduated spring of ’76.
And do you remember any of the professors? We don’t have to talk about them in chronological order, but I mean-
Yeah, I remember them. I remember the majority of them, all very fine gentlemen in their own right. One of my favourites was Professor Baker because Professor Baker, being a mature student, and not being one of the young whippersnappers, Professor Baker was a little bit older and he was working. Even though he was a professor, he had a practice and he did a lot of things with the community and he was a very personable person. Very easy to get to know people and he sort of appreciated me for what I was, because even though I wasn’t involved in architecture per se, I was involved in the design field. I was doing electro-mechanical design drafting. And so I was in the real world actually designing things that were going to be used and not just something that was philosophical. So my approach was a little bit different from most of the students in the class where they were living in a world of theory and just dreaming things. And me, I was always concerned with cost. I was always concerned with well, if you do it this way, it’s going to be rather expensive. And so you have to always have at the back of your mind- and most of the professors, Derek among them and Bruce Anderson, Mr. McClusky, Professor McClusky, who was in my second year where we did the models and the working drawings and so on, they all said, “Dream. You’ve got to dream. You’ve got to expand your horizons”, which I did to a certain extent, but I tempered it because of the fact that I was older and I had actually been there and done that and so I could not think exactly the way they did in that box. There was a certain paradigm that I had sort of broken through and that was reality and costing. I think that Professor Baker was the only one that really appreciated that and really gave me brownie points for being able to think that way.
Was Stuart Wilson around?
Stuart Wilson was around and interestingly enough, I think Professor McClusky, it was the second year that he was teaching that year. That was Stuart Wilson’s territory and Stuart, he was his protégé, obviously. Stuart had been there forever and a day. So I got to know Stuart rather well. Crusty, crusty, crusty. Fortunately, I wasn’t a female because it was well known that Stuart was very chauvinistic and women’s places were not in architecture. Professor Anderson and I had a little bit of a tiff in our last year, because in my thesis year, which- this was very interesting. At the beginning of the year, and I had known him from the very first course and I did very well in the first course. But Professor Anderson had approached me and said, “ I know that you do a lot of work at home, but you’re going to have to be prepared to spend a lot of time in the studio because I pop in from time to time at all odd hours and it would be prudent for you to do so, to be there when I’m there. And I thought about it for a second and I said, “Well, you know, my whole life is not architecture”, I said, “that is a very important aspect, but my lovely young wife is at home of a couple of years and so I have to be home when I can to be able to if not sitting right next to her, be in the same vicinity. And so it’s very important to me that when I can, I’ll be exiting the studio and going home and doing an awful lot of work at home”. And he sort of said as a parting shot, “But I’m going to tell you, you won’t do as well if you do that”. And he proved to be right, because when I went through my- in all four years, my courses in that respect, all my design courses were almost all A’s with a couple of B’s and he gave me a D. And I remember being very upset with it and I asked for a face to face with Derek and myself and of course, he could be there, because I would like them to explain why they did this and I wanted this reviewed. And I sat in this interview and I recall that it was- Derek didn’t say very much. Derek and Bruce were quite friendly with each other and Bruce was very formidable. Maybe if Professor Schoenauer were there, it would have been a little different. So Bruce had the upper hand. And I remember him saying, “Well, I expected more out of you because you are a mature student and I know what you’ re capable of doing” . And I said, “Well, but you’ve based- I think a lot of it was based on what we had talked about at the beginning of the year”. And he says, ” Furthermore, Chuck”, he says, “you’ll do just fine. No matter what you do, you’ ll do fine”. And he said, “You’ll forget about this”. And I said, “No, it’s a black mark on my record”. Because all the way through architecture, this was the only thing, the only grade that I got below a C. I think I got a C in Sketching School one time. I said, “It’s a black mark on my record and I’ll know that it was there”. But when I received my diploma, the day that I did receive it, and Bruce was there with all the other professors, I shook his hand and smiles and figured hey, you know, let’s get on with business and get on with life. So-
How about Peter Collins? Was he around then?
Peter Collins was around and I consider myself blessed to have been a student of Peter Collins. What I remember most about Peter Collins was his fantastic memory for detail, which he shared with us the very, very first day we sat in his lecture hall. And what he began to do is he said, “ I would like everybody, if you could, to sit in your seats, in these very seats for the next three days” . And he had a little chart and what he did was he asked for everybody’s name and he filled those names in. For three days, he would, every time you answered a question or, he would just inadvertently even between questions and answers just look down at the name and look up at the student’s face. And after three days, he says, “Okay. Mix and match. You can sit anywhere you want”. And he knew everybody’s name.
And it worked for the whole year or indefinitely?
Yes. It worked. He remembered people’s names when I met him two, three years hence, he would remember. He had the world’s best collection of architectural slides, bar none. And his lovely wife was in every single one of them.
Oh, she was?
She was there for scale.
Oh, I see.
He made it clear to tell us that she was there for scale. Because he said that after showing us a handful of slides, he said, “Of course, most of you have observed that my lovely wife is in each and every one of these slides, or almost all of them, and just so that you should know, she is there for scale because when you are looking at a slide of an architectural wonder, you have no idea sometimes”.
There were a few buildings I don’t think she was in, when they would show a Doric column or something.
No, no, no. No maybe she might have been there! But, yes, I remember that. I remember his infamous slide test that ran shudders through our souls. It was flashing on those sets of slides and having to throw down on a piece of paper everything in the world that you can ever think of.
Yeah. That was the same when I was there. I mean it never changed. And you excelled because you remembered. That’s all he wanted you to do. Take the- the slide was a catalyst. Talk about everything and anything about the subject.
Absolutely. Compare similarities differences, this, that and the other. And he really provoked us to do a lot of thinking. He wanted us to think and he wanted us to break the paradigm. And he really was forcing us to do that. And I remember in my second course that I took with Peter, I remember after we did- went through the infamous slide test, I remember comparing notes with my fellow students. And as I compared notes from student to student, I became so, I would say, despondent because my answers were different from all of theirs. And, you know, you always feel that if you’re different from everybody else and if there’ s nothing that’s a match, it’s you that’s fouled up.
That’s usually the case, yeah.
He sent out a note through someone that he wanted to see me. And I remember sort of shaking in my boots the day that I went in there and I knocked on the door and he says, “Charles, come on in!” He says, with a big smile, he didn’t smile all that often, he said to me, “Charles, congratulations. You did extremely well on that test”. I said, “You’re pulling my leg!” And he says, “No, you did extremely well”. He says, “There were a number of students I was disappointed in, some in particular but,” he said, “you did very well”. And I said, “It’s interesting because I thought that, on the contrary, that I did poorly and everybody else sort of did well”. He says, “No, no that wasn’t the case”. But I really enjoyed him. He had a marvelous sense of humour and a knowledge of the architectural history that was second to none. I still have his book.
You still have the Concrete, you mean? Because he’s written a few other books.
I still have the book that he had out at the time.
Which was Concrete, I think.
Concrete and Architecture, I think, yes.
Did you- obviously you participated in Sketching School, I guess with-
No, actually, Gerry Tondino, for the years that I was there, was the professor that handled Sketching School as well as the art class, the sketching class in school. So the between-year Sketching School that we had to go to, he ran that as he did the work in the studio itself. And I really enjoyed working with him. And he was also one that believed in how you improve relative to how you did before. Self-improvement is what he seemed to stress. Because not everybody is a Picasso.
And what he would say, what he did was he had everybody do a sketch of a particular model the very first time out and he said, “What we’re going to do is we’re going to save these. And we’re going to be breaking these out in your last year and comparing them against what you’re doing, what you’ll be doing at that time”. And he said, “ Everybody will be amazed”.
To see the progress.
Everybody. And he was right. He also said that he truly believed that everybody could draw. And I remember, I proved the point. I was going- we went to Sketching School. It was in Newfoundland, I believe.
P.B.: Saint John’s.
New Brunswick, sorry.
P.B.: Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Yeah, was it Nova Scotia? Okay, well, you see, I hit all the Maritimes! And Paula was with me; she accompanied me. And I was sitting there sketching a seascape and she was struggling with something and she just threw her pad down and she says, “I can’t draw. Forget about that”. And I said, “You know something, you’re trying to do too much. Just take that little chimney, little chimney up there”. And I said, “Just try and do the chimney and just try and visualize what that is. Just take that and nothing else”. And she did it and she did a marvelous job. I don’t know what she ever did with that drawing but-
P.B.: Why, thank you!
So- but yeah, Professor Tondino was one I remember. And another person I remember, not from the School of Architecture per se, although I think he was, even though he was an engineer, Professor Selby.
Oh, David Selby, yeah.
David Selby, of all the professors, was probably one of my favourites. Because David Selby treated architects as just dumb architects. “You don’t have to be a structural engineer. You’re going to not even accept that liability so you make sure that you know just about what they’re doing, but you have to be approaching it as dumb architects. And you guys need things very simplistic and applied”. And that’s what David did is he applied things and even down to when you’re doing an exam and you’ve got your little exam booklet, he gave us a tip to cut out the actual question. He says, “Bring a pair of scissors and a glue pot. Cut out the question and a glue pot and glue it down to your exam booklet” . He said, “Why should you try and transpose the information? It takes five seconds to do it. That’s what you do”. He made sure that everybody in the class had a partner just in case they screwed up and overslept or whatever, to remind them to go. Little things like this. David Selby was taken ill for about a month during one of my years there and everybody was so despondent and missed him so much because his replacement was a Mr. Mirza and he was Mr. Theory. Remembered about him as he had six fingers on each hand.
Don’t we all!
And sometimes I wish we had! And Professor Mirza was very theory. Very theoretical and the blackboard was just cluttered with formulae and so on and so forth, which was the antithesis of the approach of David.
Fortunately, he was only around for a month or so.Yes.
Was- did John Bland teach you Canadian History then in those days?
John Bland, yes. John Bland did. We took one course with John Bland, Comparative History and it was a very interesting course. I would have liked to have known John Bland a little bit better because we had heard so many fine things about John Bland and he had sort of stepped down a few years before.
Obviously, you’ve talked about the professors, what about the students, fellow students?
As a mature student, I didn’t really relate with most of the kids, although they were fellow architectural students and we used to work together late evenings and sometimes all-night charrettes with the felt pens going crazy with the felt pens and getting things ready for the following day, working at the last minute as we always did. So there’s probably- misery loves company and commiserate with each other. A couple of students stand out, a student by the name of Douglas Heckrotte and Douglas Heckrotte was one of the few American students that were there. Interestingly enough in his background, and he shared with us that he had a very good friend whose father was high up in the military. And this person, his dad was supposed to grease the skids when Vietnam broke out and have him go to Hawaii on a- involved in a motor pool. And Doug was supposed to get orders to go to Vietnam. Somehow the orders got switched and Doug ended up at the motor pool in Hawaii and this bigwig son ended up in Vietnam and somebody’s head must have rolled because of that. So Doug really shared that with us. But he was also- a little bit younger than I, but he also was a mature student so we had something in common. A fellow by the name of Robert Heckler, who I became very friendly with, although considerably younger. As a matter of fact, Robert Heckler was a student that my wife student-taught. So he remembered my wife. And down the road, upon graduation, at least for the short time I lived in Montreal, we used to get together with Robert and his wife Susan fairly often both then and during the time that we were going to school. I remember a Japanese fellow by the name of Takashi Otsu, Tak, as he would call for short. Very interesting young man. We used to pal around with Tak. There were a couple of young ladies in the class. There was one by the name of Yaira, who was from Israel and so she had some stories to tell. I suppose that of all the students, those probably stood out the most in my recollection of the school. Do you remember-?
P.B.: There was a French- Somebody who was French.
Yeah, there was a French- a couple of French Canadian students that I remember. There was one- one year, we got a- we ended up receiving a Russian student. And he shared all kinds of stories about how things were working in the Soviet Union, or not working.
But I think the classes every year were pretty typical. There was a sort of a good cross-section of all sorts of people form around the world, even when I finished in ’62, yeah.
There were, there were.
Now what about your career subsequent to graduating? You were in Montreal for a short period of time?
Montreal. Graduated in ’76 and worked for Tolchinsky and Goodz. I was fortunate enough, the first architect I ever worked for was an architect by the name of Harry Stilllman. And Harry Stillman, I loved the man. And to this day, he’s probably one of the most honest men I have ever met, both in business and personally. When I first met Harry Stillman, I was about to enter the School of Architecture. And it was that summer, the very, very first summer that I went to ask him for a job. I told him that I had a little bit of design background but not in architecture. I was an older individual and so I was going to architecture back to school and so on and so forth. And I remember Harry asking me, he says, “Well, it’s very commendable what you are doing”. He said, “ What’ s the salary you’re looking for?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know because I’ve never done this before”. And I said, “ I suppose, what, a hundred dollars a week or so?” He says, “ Oh no,” he says, “ I’ll start you off at a hundred and twenty-five. You’re worth more than that but that’s all I can afford”. The man ended up paying me twenty-five percent more than I asked for and that is honesty personified. And he gave me a tip. He said, “ The most important that you’ll ever learn when you work with a client is how to spell their name correctly. Because if you misspell their name, it shows that you really don’t care about detail. Plus, it’s an offense to them”. So he says, “If you want to make brownie points, make sure you spell their name correctly”.
But in any event, left Montreal in 1977 after having worked at Tolchinsky’s office for approximately a year, a year and a half upon graduation.
Did you come to California right away?Came to California right away. Came to California and was very, very fortunate to work with the very first firm I worked for here for about four years was a firm by the name of Paul Thoryk. And Paul Thoryk, probably unbeknownst to most people who are going to be looking at this tape was very renowned in this part of the world. Paul Thoryk was a master of the eclectic architecture. People would look at home magazines and come walking in the door and say, “ I want a million-dollar home that looks just like this”.
So he was a homebuilder?
He was involved with homes, he was involved with shopping centres, he was involved with corporate headquarters but very, very high-dollar construction. And the interesting thing about that was that Tolchinsky, Hy Tolchinsky and Murray Goodz were a very blood and guts get your piece of property, get the setbacks, maximize your property because his clientele were geared for that. I want to maximize this. Paul was the antithesis. Paul didn’t care about it. As long as you met the code as far as setbacks, it had to look good. It didn’ t have to function well, that wasn’t as important as looking good, which was really what we don’t learn in school. We learn that, you know, form has to follow function and so on so it was a very interesting contradiction to what I had gone through. And after doing that and after working for a small firm, very, very close to partnership with that firm, for about a year, I ended up working with a local firm by the name of Wheeler Weimer, which subsequently became Wheeler, Weimer, Blackman. And George Wheeler, who is now deceased, his dad was a home architect, a local home architect for many, many, many years, and Dick’s office was one of the older firms in town, which at the time was almost fifty years old, which in the West Coast, is old. On the East Coast, it’ s a baby, but here it’s old. And I was with that firm for nine years, the last three of which as a principal. I was the Vice-President in charge of production.
This was always in San Diego.
This was always in San Diego. So since moving from Montreal, I’m positioned over here, right.
So when did you leave? You’re now with the school board?
I was with that firm for nine years and a partner for three, a junior partner for three. And the economy went sour in this neck of the woods and I found out the hard way that you can’t feed three mouths when you only have bucks for two. And since I was the junior on the block, I had to part company. And I was beating the street for a year because I was what’s known as a heavy hitter. You’ re earning a heavy salary and you’re very good at what you do and you’ve done a lot of things but when the economy is sour, there aren’t that many dollars to be able to afford to pay you. And nobody wants to take you on board for less because they know that as soon as things pick up again, you’re going to be out the door.
The only thing wrong with what you’re saying right now is that every architect has gone through- a lot of architects have gone through the same thing because that’s the way the architectural profession goes.
That’s the way it is. And now, I was very fortunate to come on board with San Diego Unified School District, which happens to be the second largest school district in the state of California and probably the eighth largest in the entire country. We have under our auspices approximately one hundred and seventy-five school sites and approximately a hundred and thirty-five thousand students, thirty-five thousand teachers and personnel. And we are just now undertaking a massive rebuilding and building programme, which is probably in terms of the size of the school district second to none in North America where we’re going to be spending in the neighbourhood of a billion and a half dollars over the next ten years.
That should keep you busy then.
It should keep me quite busy. Yes, it should keep me quite busy,
A few words to wrap up the interview.
Okay, as we were just talking about before the tape was rolling again, and I neglected to mention the reason, the main reasons why we decided to leave Montreal were the political situation that was heating up at the time. I remember at the time one of the things that was going to come into being was the language test that was going to be given to prospective architects and in order to obtain your license you had to pass it, which, even though I could probably do it mechanically, I wasn’t about to be forced to do something like that. The weather was getting to both of us. Getting those tires on and preparing for a long, hard winter and the cold cars and the driving in the snow and the slush, it was just something that added all up to let’s see if we can move on to bigger and better things.
And warmer things!
And warmer things. So coming over here, I think, I personally as an architect, I think I got the best of both worlds because my grounding was in architecture in Montreal, having to learn under freeze-thaw constructions, where the type of construction has to be first rate because if you don’t Mother Nature makes you pay for it. Whereas our weather here is so wussy and it’s so easy to deal with that windows are cheaply made, construction is as cheap as you can possibly get away with. If it wouldn’t be for earthquakes, the houses would probably be made out of paper and cardboard. But so the construction detailing is far more, let’ s say, stringent back on the East Coast where my grounding is. So I think I was in very good shape doing that, learning how to do things properly under severe conditions and then practicing that way over here.
But if you had to do it all over again, I guess you’d do the same thing over.
If I had- Yes.
Only start earlier.
Only start earlier and maybe not have kids.
That’s not a bad idea.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Why, certainly, when you have a pretty and a very supportive wife?
Why deal with the kids? You know, it just muddies the water, that’s right.
P.B.: Such a smart man!
Thank you very much.