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Julia Gersovitz

B.Arch. 1975
Montreal, QC
June 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson

I guess the first question I would like to ask you is how you decided to become an architect and why McGill?

Well, how I decided to become an architect I think is that my father, quite frankly, felt that architecture be the best combination of my talents. I was very strong in science; I was very good in mathematics. I can draw and paint. And my mother is an artist and my father is an engineer. To some extent that, for most people, says it all.


And then you decided to attend McGill.

McGill, it was really- you know, Montreal- I graduated from high school in 1969, and if you were academically good enough to get early acceptance at McGill, there wasn’t really the idea that there is today that you would go away. Certainly not the whole idea that flourishes still in the States that you have to go away to college as some sort of rite of passage. And in Montreal in 1969, if you could get into McGill and it had the programmes you wanted, that’s where you went.


So you entered in, what, about 1970 in the fall?

Well, I was the first year to go into CEGEP. But at that time, McGill had to have a transitional CEGEP there or they would have been sitting there for two years with no students waiting for the first CEGEP class to come in. So McGill set up a CEGEP system for that transition period of two years and I went into Engineering CEGEP for two years and then I went into Architecture in ‘71.


Which would- when you entered in ’71. I guess what we would like to talk about are some of the professors that tried or didn’t- or were successful in teaching you. And also some of your memories of the classes or the courses that were influential in your career, either on the positive or negative side. We like a little of both of those.

I suppose. I must say that the professors who taught me who I remember the most fondly are certainly Peter Collins and John Bland and Gerry Tondino. I don’t think that I remember- and a man named Salomon who taught our Engineering Law course, which was a very good course. Most of the other courses I don’t remember as being necessarily seminal in my life. I mean, there were some good professors; there were some professors that continue to still to be teaching and are, you know, good, but the people who were galvanizing, I think, were John Bland and Peter Collins.


Did Peter, I digress here for a moment, but did Peter have an influence on your particular career?

He was very, he was a very strange teacher, in that to some extent, for one thing, you have to understand that in the early 1970’s when we were taking our course, we did not have any history before 1750. P.C. set this arbitrary date that he was interested in post-1750 and we had no courses in Architectural History that predated that. So we arrived kind of and were plunked into this soil and he started lecturing us at this rather difficult level. He also chose favourites and he could be very mean to people he didn’t like and very, very kind and nurturing to people he did like and he was very fond of me.


Okay, you answered my next question! I guess we’re kindred spirits because he was very fond of me too. And it worked out well. It was very encouraging when you succeed in a course that you really like and you do well.

Right, right. And he, you know, he would give you a sense that you were of value. But that’s counterpointed by the fact that some students, without much reason, did not receive that kind of treatment, and received the opposite end of the pendulum.

That seems to be consistent throughout his career.



How about John Bland? He must have taught you Canadian Architecture.

He taught me Canadian Architecture, History of Canadian Architecture, which I took over from John Bland about ten years ago and have been teaching ever since. He also taught me Design Studio. And that was quite wonderful. You know, there are moments in your life when you say- when you suddenly- somebody says something to you and there is a big change in your life. It happened to me in grade six and it happened to me with John Bland when he suddenly said to me in one course or studio or crit, “Boy, you really can design in three dimensions. You have an extremely good grasp of three dimensions, of plan and section”. And that was sort of like, “I do?”


You weren’t aware of it and he just, he was.

I don’t think I was necessarily aware but he pointed it out to me and somehow that became important.

You ever heard that compliment again?


I guess you live with it, right.

I guess I live with it.

Tell me, you also were exposed to some degree to Stuart Wilson. How did that work out?

I don’t remember Stuart Wilson’s class with any joy. In fact, it remains when people get together sort of a discussion point that’s a bit raw. And in fact, I’ ll table this for the end of this point, but he taught me- the way I have taught for twenty years is the antithesis, I hope, of what Stuart Wilson taught. Stuart Wilson was bone-mean to our class. He terrorized his students. He gave us wacky assignments that had an enormous amount of effort put into them for to this day, I don’t see the point. He was a terrible sexist, which you could put down to his age and training, but if you counterpoint it to John Bland, for example, you can’t say it was a universal symptom of the age. He would come in and, you know, I remember distinctly him coming into one student who had pasted down his paper with raw edges of the cheap velum. And he looked at it, and this kid had spent hours on this drawing. Whatever it was, he had spent a long time. And Stuart Wilson went over to him and said, “You know, edges like this, torn off like this, they could rip”. And he then tore the drawing in two and threw it into the garbage. And there was another time in which he would lean over your drawings with this cigarette ash that would become longer and longer and longer, and then on one kid’s drawing, he just let the ash drop and said, “oh, sorry” and rubbed it ‘till the drawing was a mess and had to be destroyed, so that he terrorized students for something that I don’t think of as a learning experience. I don’t think you have to coddle the students and tell them everything they do is wonderful. You have to maintain a critical eye. But I don’t think that there is any way that you have the right to use your position as a professor to destroy the students.


I suspect he was of an age that nothing could have really been done about that. You know, I don’t think Bland could have- he was just hoping that he would eventually retire.

I don’t know.

How about, was Norbert there?

Norbert was a very good teacher and he taught us for studio and he taught us for History of Housing and I did enjoy Norbert’s courses. You know, a very gentle way of teaching with his wonderful voice and that pouch he always wore on his belt. I, you know, when I mentioned the teachers at the beginning, I should have talked about Norbert, I didn’t. Derek gave us History of Civic Design and he also taught us studio and you know he was quite a counterpoint to Stuart Wilson.


Did Bruce have any [unclear]-?

Bruce didn’t- yeah, we were the first year that got this mood box project. And one of my memories of Bruce was he was much younger than- we were, you know, just out of CEGEP and I remember one of the kids, Ken London actually saying, “So, can we call you Bruce?” And Bruce just looked at him as if that was the most incomprehensible thing to him in the world. And I guess Ken London had come out of either Dawson or Vanier, which in those days pretty well was, you know, quite loose. And he expected that this would be continued on and Bruce made it clear to him that that wasn’t going to happen.


One of the people you mentioned earlier is Gerry Tondino. I guess he was there at the school until a couple of years ago. I guess he’s been a bit ill and he’s sort of retired now. But he, I guess was in…

He’s a marvelous teacher

…not only Sketching School but in the Freehand Drawing and so forth. Great man, great.

An excellent teacher. And you know, recently, I’ve had the opportunity to go back and take some life drawing classes now in my forties with a different kind of sense of maturity. And I still can’t get the whole figure on the drawing, which I remember was a problem with me with Gerry, but in all truth, you know, I have only to think back to how good a teacher he was and how he also- it seems to me that one of the things about teaching, as John Bland did in his studio courses, is to try to see what’s the best thing about each student’s work and pull that out of them. Not to denigrate them as others might have done but really to say, “Here’s a strength. Let’s work on that”. And work on what the student sees the value in and try to strengthen that rather than, you know, there is a tendency sometimes to have the students execute your own design work. And that’s pointless as a project.


Was John Schreiber there at all?

He didn’t teach me at all. I don’t think he was there when I was there. There was a period in which there was some sort of kafuffle…


…and he wasn’t there.

How about- do you have any recollection of visiting critiques or critics?

A lot of our professors- the visiting profs that we had were mostly practitioners in the city. Tom Blood was my thesis advisor and I really enjoyed working with him. You know, this was twenty-five years ago and he was a very good thesis critic for me. Joe Baker was still as the class so he wasn’ t a visiting professor. Wit was hardly there at all. He was still in minimum-cost housing and he hadn’t developed the larger vision, shall we say, that he developed in the last twenty years. Wit of all the profs that I can remember he had the most radical change in himself from being this kind of dour guy who, you know, spent a lot of time talking about five-gallon flush toilets to suddenly embracing this kind of sense of home and house. Vecsei was there as a visiting critic.

That was Eva?



Andre. But aside from that, I don’t really remember that. There wasn’t the- nowadays, the students are exposed to a lot more visiting profs from out of town. I don’t remember that as being something that we had. I mean, obviously profs were from the city.


Can you talk a little bit about your career subsequent to university? You graduated in what year did you say?

I graduated in ’75 and I went to work first for Arcop, then for Tom Blood. Then I made the decision to go to graduated school and I went to Columbia and did a Masters in Historic Preservation from ’78 to ’80. And I came back to Montreal. And I had been offered some jobs in Boston and in New York City. But I really wanted to come back to Montreal. My family was here and I really felt an enormously strong connection to the city. My thesis had been on the Square Mile. You know, I had spent two years researching Montreal’s nineteenth century architecture and I really wanted to come back. Anyway, I went into see- visit Arcop, which, as you know from your own experience, it was pretty well an open door. Anyway, I walked in and Art Nicholson in his slow, gravelly, tall voice, he said, “Well, you know, we’re going to announce this project tomorrow, Julia, and it sounds like you’d be good for it’s because it involves some old buildings”. And it was Alcan. And simultaneous to that, Pieter Sijpkes and Derek, I think, had been instrumental in getting me some teaching position, an adjunct position at McGill, which I’ve continued to this day, almost twenty years of adjunct professorship. And the combination of coming back to the city I wanted to come back to, working on this project called Alcan, which, of course, grew into Maison Alcan and became a very important project in the country, and teaching was sort of irresistible. So I came back in the summer of ’80 and I worked at Alcan until it opened. I was in charge of the historic buildings and design and the preservation aspects of the historic buildings. And at the end of it, I went to see Ray and I said to him that- I was earning ten dollars an hour and I wanted eleven, and Ray said- and the project was a big success, and the work that I did, you know, was really- everybody was very pleased with it.


It was so successful that all sorts of people took credit for it, as you well know.

And Ray was very generous about giving me credit for the historic buildings. And I asked for this extra dollar and he said no and I said, “ Well, then I’m going to go”. And I left and I started my own office. And really, I must admit to you, not by any large game plan of the universe but I guess, you know, because they didn’t give me the extra dollar. And that was in ’83. And I’ve continued since then in private practice with now two partners, one of whom was in my class at McGill, Alain Fournier and the other, Rosanne Moss, who I had been working with since 1983 and I’ll talk in a minute about the office. But aside form that, I’ve also continued to teach at McGill and I teach as well at the U of M a Master’s programme in Conservation. I’ve sat on one provincial cultural properties commission and two municipal cultural properties commissions, which I still sit on today, the Jacques Viger commission. And I’m very involved, as I have been since the seventies, with Heritage Montreal. So I cover sort of the activist and the municipal structured issues [unclear]


With your education, particularly as a result of Columbia, was probably quite unique in Montreal.

It was at the time. One of my students from McGill, Julie Boivin went about ten years after me and she did exactly the same course. She’s now working for the city in charge of their monuments and does restoration of the monuments in the parks. She’s excellent.

Do you find that you- the experience and the teaching that you’ve acquired, the knowledge that you acquired at Columbia, do you use that at all on a day-to-day basis?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, admittedly, after twenty years one hopes one refreshes it, but the basis is really there. I think it was essential to have gone and done that Master’s. And the thing that I find most rewarding, I must admit, is the combination of practice and teaching. Because often, as you know from your experience in practice, you get inundated by the day-to-day paperwork and administration and discussions with clients and your intellectual challenges sometimes get second. And school and the students push that back towards your forefront. So you have a kind of balance that occasionally, if you don’t have that, I think that it would be hard to maintain that. One of the things that I do in my lecture courses, and I think this is a valid thing to do, is I don’t have carousels set aside that says “Masonry Conservation”, “Intro to Historic Preservation”, whatever it is. Each year that I give the course, I reassemble the slides completely from start again. And it’s true that there’s a bones to the structure, but it also allows me to have spent another year thinking about an issue and maybe changing something about the technology, changing the examples to the extent that I think the course is fresher for that.


Do you ever run out of time?

Ah, time! Somebody asked me how I manage all of this, because I now have two children. I have a husband and I have two children who are at this moment seven and nine who are the greatest [unclear] of my life. You know, last night I was honoured at this banquet as a distinguished woman in Montreal. And a variety of women came up to me and said, “How do you balance all this?” And they wanted some pearls of wisdom and I sad, “You know, in a sort of way, anything that I have is a middle-class cushion”. I have a car, I have a phone in my car, I have care for the children that is very reliable. I have my parents, I have my in-laws and I have a practice where if there is an emergency, I can leave it because I’m the boss. I have a very understanding and supportive husband. So I have a very middle-class support system. The real question is if you turn to somebody who is, say, you know, a cashier at Wal-Mart, is a single mother and has no car and has to take the bus and you ask her how she copes. I think we can cope, partially yes, I cope with a lot of things that I suppose maybe women might find daunting. I don’t know. I think I know of what I’m doing and therefore it’s easy enough for me to do it. But it’s a thin line and if something falls off that line and disturbs your balance, you fall off the high wire for a bit and you climb back up. But I must admit to you, you know, that it is a sort of- we’re middle-class people and we have middle-class cushions.


So we’d like to hear a little bit about your office that you’re presently running and the type of work that you do and any other thoughts that you have on architecture.

Well, our office has three sort of distinct, not always separate, but three distinct volets. Tracks, I suppose would be the word, although that sort of doesn’t sound very nice. One is historic preservation, or conservation, as we tend to call it more in Canada. And that leads us into a lot of different work. Because, you know, there are a lot of offices that specialize in commercial and they do only the same kind of building over and over again or industrial. What we do is because we’re dealing with either historic buildings or buildings that have some historic context to them or sites that have some sort of historic context. We’ve done banks; we’ve done hotels. We’ re working on the west block of Parliament Hill with Arcop in joint venture. We’re working on the Harbour Commissioner’s building for a man named Daniel Langlois in Montreal. It will be a vast range of things that are inserted into historic buildings. We did a shelter for women in a converted garage, a building. So that anytime there’s an existing building, we are often called into work with that building. So it can be quite exciting because it’s not- you don’t fall into the track of doing the same kind of work over and over again and it’s not formulaic in consequence.


The second aspect and reason that it has no real consonance with the historic preservation work is work in the far North that Alain takes care of. So we are doing a lot of work for the Cree and the Inuit in what’s called le Grand Nord. And obviously there, there are no buildings that can be conserved as historic. It’s a new land, in effect. There are some Hudson’s Bay posts, I understand that could be on the verge of historic, but there aren’t the collection of buildings that you might get in Dawson City, for example, where there would be settlement in the North but not in the far North. And then the third one is residential housing, mostly renovations, sometimes new construction.


And you’ve done a fair amount of that, too.


Now you’re doing work at McGill right now, are you not?

Yes, we’re do-

Is it the students?

No, what we’re doing right now is work on the historic buildings, roofing and masonry repairs, largely to try to catch up with the deferred maintenance programme that, you know, was a very unfortunate consequence of not having- getting money. And for the last year and this year, we’ve been working on trying to repair buildings that have been brought to their knees.


It’s a lot of catching up to do and it’s quite depressing, I’m sure. It is for me, I’m sure that it must be for you, when you walk through a lot of those buildings. I go through, because I live on Pine Avenue, frequently, in the winter, I go up through the McIntyre building there. And I see- it’s almost- you almost wish the students would get involved together and dedicate a day or two to try- I mean, it’s just the dirt.

Well, you know, what I feel is interesting fallout of this, is that you come to realize that the buildings that were built in the nineteenth century, and these are buildings that were built by the wealthiest men in the country so that they had access to the best craftsmen, to the best architects of the day, although it does turn out as a sidebar that some of their details wasn’t really perfect for Quebec climates, but these buildings have been almost brought to their knees in terms of no maintenance. And yet they’re in better shape than some of the buildings built in the fifties and sixties where there’ s quite substantial failure. And of course, since these buildings don’t- the nineteenth century buildings don’t rely on the kinds of systems to keep them going that many of the buildings that were built in the sixties and are hermetically sealed, you don’t get that kind of- you know, the windows still open therefore, the building’s still in effect, air-conditioned. And because the way they’re built, it’s true that there’s unit masonry, but it’s not a problem with a repetitive anchor failure as there is on the curtain walls where you get one anchor failing and they all start to fail and the wall’s falling down.


I suspect that is the problem on the McIntyre building. Because they redid the whole curtain wall.

Yes, they did.

I think Gavin Affleck was a consultant.

And he was working with J.P.L. on that, yeah.

I guess it’s inevitable that I’ll get around to asking you, but would you do it all over again?

I don’t think there’s another profession that is so demanding of a principal in an office to be a psychologist, an architect, in understanding a space, a colourist, a lawyer in understanding what to do on a site when the contractor begins to act up, dealing with the zoning regulations, understanding your maneuverability within current regulations and your responsibility to the public. And your responsibility to society on the whole. I don’t think a lawyer ever does that. I don’t think other professions have to hand-operate on so many different levels. That being said, I do think it is a wonderful profession. I don’t think it’s recognized. I think it has a sex appeal still left over from the days of Paul Newman and Towering Inferno. It’s still a sexy profession, right? If a movie wants to paint somebody as being somehow interesting, they’re an architect. But I think that the reality is a lot harsher. It’s a lot harsher for the young and for most architects who kind of grind out a life. I mean, when you think, Jim, that a real estate agent gets five percent to sell a building and you might get that five percent to design and be responsible for that building, and be in bed with some contractor that you’ve never met before and who might be the slipperiest devil on earth, tell me who is a fool. You know, there is something that is decidedly wrong.


It’s interesting because I concur with everything that you’ve said. I guess the two big disappointments: the architect, having heard your description of the sort of the lifestyle of an architect you would expect, to compensate, your salary would have to be in the, you know, the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, which it never is for ninety-nine percent of the architects. And that is one of the ultimate realities of the practice. The other thing is, of course, the difficulty in getting work.

Yes, although, I’d hate to be an engineer or a landscape architect, who are even further down the totem pole. But yes, there is this aspect of getting work.

You in having created in a sense a niche, because of the training that you had and the degree of education that you got, you developed that and that will always be an anchor in the business.

I think you might reasonably ask me why I’m a partner in an office and I’m a woman. And I think that of the hundred people that you’re interviewing, few are probably in that position as women. And I think it is because I went into this which, to some extent, certainly when I began practice, wasn’t considered to be- you know, it was considered to be “okay, fine”.


One of the great powers of Derek’s directorship was that he was able to marshal a group with very different points of view. And some of them, you know, not- can you imagine being in a room with Stuart Wilson and Peter Collins and Joe Baker? You know, men who we perceived of having radically different points of view and radically different positions on even social behaviour in a kind of way and social responsibility, and maneuvering them towards a course of actions so that the school had a coherence. That was John Bland’s, one of John Bland’s, great strengths, which we didn’t really see as students, but I understood very vigorously when I was teaching. And it was certainly true of Derek as well. He was able to get, you now, academics are supposed to be in many ways the least cohesive of groups and he got them to all work together. And that was a tremendous aspect of his directorship.


When you think of it, there are some similarities other than what you’ve spoken about, between John and Derek in many ways. Did you have anything, other comments you might want to make about the directors?

Well, you know, there was a lot of talk when I was a student, and that talk continued on when I was teaching, because you got- you did get the sense that nothing ever- that the arguments from the students didn’t really change. I mean, their clothes might change and their haircuts might change but the conversations didn’t really change. And one of the discussions was, you know, that John Bland didn’t give a very forceful direction to the school, that it wasn’t like Princeton under Michael Graves or it wasn’t like Columbia under whoever, and that that was somehow perceived of as a weakness. I actually feel it was a great strength to the school, because in each design studio, you were really shown a very radically different point of view. The way John Bland ran his studio and what he put on- what he emphasized was radically different from Joe Baker’s design studio or even from Rad Zuk’s or from Derek’ s. And I think that as a student, you came out more rounded than you would have had you gone into a studio where everything, everybody subscribed to a single doctrine and you were in fact indoctrinated. And when I got to Columbia, although I wasn’t in the School of Architecture exactly because I was already in my Master’s in Conservation so I was tangential to the school, I could experience that and it was kind of creepy. And I think that that, despite the fact that the students all said, “We need direction! We need direction!”, they really got what they should have had under both Derek and John. Norbert’s probably continued that as well, and I don’t mean that he promoted a different point of view, but as I say, he wasn’t really- if he was the director then, and I’m beginning to believe he was for one year that I was there, it was the year that I was already flexing my wings and leaving, it wasn’t my seminal years. I think I was there for five or six years and that’s a long time. By the fifth and sixth year, you were sort of feeling that you were already on the way out the door.


The other thing that I remember very distinctly from John Bland was his tremendous generosity as a teacher. You know, often, you do encounter individuals in any walk of life who have knowledge and guard it from you or use the fact that they have the knowledge to in some way control you. John Bland was always, if it was historic research or if it was design, he was tremendously giving of that. You know, and he treated you as an equal. Here you were, you were twenty years old; he was I don’t know, what, certainly over- in his fifties and sixties, and yet he felt that if you were interested in something he was interested in, he was going to listen to you and take your observations and work with them and build on them. And you suddenly became part of a group of scholars and that was exciting, very, very exciting.


And he seemed to always be available towards the students. He would always make it a point to see them whether it was for good news or bad news.

You know, Professor Collins did that as well and he was also in his funny, you know, he’d sort of sit there in this very imposing office with a flag behind you and humph in a way. And it was harder to get that feeling that you were of value, but he did share with you, as I say, perhaps only to the people that he thought of as having value, not as universally as John Bland did, but he was also terrifically motivating. And certainly John Bland was that to the core.

One of the people or the professors that was there when I was there, I’m just wondering whether he was still there, was Harold Spence-Sales.

No, he wasn’t there.

Oh, okay. So you don’t have any comment to make on Harold!

No, except I heard his name. That’s all.

Thank you.