Barbara Cordeau Hopewell
May 16, 1996
Interviewed by Jim Donaldson
Well, you’re asking me a number of very difficult questions: When did I decide to go to the school to study architecture? I have to admit that that is probably well over twenty years ago. And I don’t recollect exactly why I chose to study architecture. But one thing that happened at about that time was Expo ’67, which I think made everybody want to become an architect. So that was obviously a very key influence in my decision to go into architecture. And why did I choose McGill? Well, actually, I thought about two universities. I wanted to go to McGill or to the University of Montreal; I thought it would be useful to study in French. However, I thought really it would be much better to go to the better university and I felt that McGill was considerably more reputable than University of Montreal. So I chose to do it in English and go there.
Describe life in the school at that time.
Well, I think we thought we were working really hard. We thought twenty-hour days were definitely a major contribution to the force. And I guess when you get out of school you find that you work hard out of school also. In some cases, you have less fun but I suppose – no that’s not true. In all cases, working hard can be a lot of fun. And it was fun in the School of Architecture and its fun in the “real world”. I guess I don’t think the School of Architecture was in any way “the real world”.
Talking about woman and architecture, our year, I think, was the first year where there was a significant number of women in the school. We were about ten and this was a shock to the school. Prior to our year, there was probably only one or two scattered throughout the history of the school. We came in in force, we were ten of us, and the school really didn’t know how to deal with us. Crits would come and I think professors were a little hesitant to ask us to respond, to present our work or even to question us. And so the ten of us sort of went through on the sidelines, at least with respect to the professors. Not so with the students. I think we mixed quite well with the students, worked well on the teams, or fought as hard as anybody else did on the various teams. But the professors really didn’t know how to quite react to us. I think they were afraid we might burst out crying and I don’t think anybody ever did – it would have been too embarrassing for anybody.
In terms of who do I remember – oh good heavens! I remember Pieter Sijpkes. I remember his snow castle and I remember his concrete structures, I remember the whole class working on them. I remember Stuart Wilson, I think, getting quite upset about one of the snow sculptures that was built right in the middle of the public area, I think there was some consideration of liability. I remember a garbage bag tent that he created within his own little environment, his own little world within our studio, and this created some concern among the various professors. I remember David Covo, oh I think I remember most of our class. We got to know everybody very well. We worked, or played, very late in the evenings. Other questions?
Did you have Peter Collins with you at the time?
Oh, yes. I remember Peter Collins. And he had just came back from – was it Harvard where he studied Law? So architecture took on a very legalistic attitude. Jurisprudence and words like that kept coming into the vocabulary. It wasn’t liability; it wasn’t a concern about liability that you hear with architectural organizations. He was far more a student of Law and we became students of Law.
Was there any particular professor that might have influenced your, when you think back, your career more than any of the others, that you have particularly fond memories of in terms of maybe some decisions that you made later on in life?
No, but I think they all had impact in some way in my architectural career. I think John Schreiber was very helpful in terms of starting a career off. When I came to Toronto newly-graduated, it was quite difficult to get a job but I had a lot of practical experience with him. We had done some projects that were very practical, and I was able to walk into an office and demonstrate that I could produce what they needed to produce at the time. So that was very useful.
I think the most interesting project that I’ve worked on is the project that we just completed in Baltimore, the Columbus Center of Marine Biotechnology. It’s out on a very prominent site on the inner harbour. It’s in an interesting site because there’s been very significant and very successful rehabilitation, re-adaptation of the waterfront in Baltimore. Prior to doing the Columbus Center, I’ve spent many, many years, six years, involved in the Marathon Railway Lands in Toronto. And the difference between Baltimore’s inner harbour and Toronto’s inner harbour are very significant. Baltimore has an awful lot of advantages that unfortunately Toronto doesn’t have. Toronto has, of course the rail corridor that separates the financial district from the waterfront, whereas Baltimore doesn’t have that disadvantage. The other great advantage of Baltimore is that the financial district is very, very close to the waterfront, and, of course, there is no Gardiner Expressway. It was very interesting for me to work many years on Marathon’s Railway Lands, trying so very hard to turn it into a successful waterfront/financial district type of place and then to go to Baltimore and not have the problems and see how a successful waterfront could really arise out of what was once a very derelict and abandoned area of the city, and in fact a very dangerous area of the city. The project was also interesting because it had two very distinct characters. There was the research component, state of the art, leading edge, had to be very, very functional. That part of the building that housed the University of Maryland’s research facilities was, of course, very functional. The other part of the building, in fact, is a major tourist attraction. Again, it’s situated in the inner harbour, which is a tourist destination. So the exhibit component is fairly frivolous. And we designed a fabric roof and it’s very open, transparent, trying to draw the crowds to this project. Quite different to the research scientists who try and work in a very closed environment, don’t want anybody to see what they are doing. We had to integrate the two. It was a real challenge and I think it’s the most interesting project that I’ve worked on. And unfortunately, it’s been very recently. In fact, right now, I’m doing some more work on the project. The project opened about a year ago and we’re having a new tenant, FDA, move into the building and so we have to redesign parts of the building to accommodate this. And at this particular point in time, the exhibit is just under construction. So, I think in terms of my career, that’s my most interesting project.
What about the days from - you left McGill - you’ve been practicing as an architect now for what, over 23 years?
Yeah, about that, twenty years.
Did you have any other firms or were you in practice on your own or did you work for [undecipherable]?
I was in practice on my own. When I had children, I wanted to stay at home and I practiced from my house. At that time, I had entered the Edmonton City Hall competition where I happened to come second, which was, I think, very instrumental in my career and very helpful. After that, Rod Robbie asked me to work for him because he was hoping to enter the competition for Skydome. Because of the success of Edmonton City Hall, I went and I got the opportunity to work with Rod, which was a lot of fun and quite a challenge. None of us had ever been to a baseball game, none of us knew anything about football, nobody had designed a stadium, nobody had designed a retractable roof. That certainly was the most challenging…
I would think so!
… and scary, period in my life. I remember with Rod, I took a dollar bill – we were out – we traveled around North America looking at stadiums and trying to find out what sports was all about. And I took a dollar and I gave half to him and I said: “I bet you a dollar that your roof will never work”. I owe him a dollar!
Well, as everybody knows right now, we are going through a very bad phase for architecture. And for probably the first time in my life, architecture isn’t fun. I think this will change, I think it really is temporary; I think that it will pass. I don’t think there is huge fundamental needs for architecture to change. I think it’s really the state of the economy that is making the profession not the greatest place to be at this particular point in history. I think most people tend to really enjoy practicing architecture. And it’s one of the few careers where you can really have fun and going to work can be interesting. And everyday, there’s a new challenge. I suppose one area I do see a change is that there’s a tremendous demand for people that have had exactly the same experience. When you go and try and get a job, you find that the clients want to know exactly what projects of identical, similar nature that you have done. And so firms are becoming more and more specialized. And I think that does take a lot of the challenge and interest out of architecture, just to produce, you know, you do schools so you do one hundred schools, or you do labs… . Last week we were meeting with a client who wanted to hire architects to do a lab, and it wasn’t just a question of having lab experience, he wanted to have an architect who had had DNA forensic science experience. Well, that really, I think, makes architecture a much less interesting place and I don’t really know how we can stop this. I think there is a perception that architects should be practicing only in projects that they have experience in. And I don’t think my concern is that, well, how are you ever going to get experience in it, my concern is that it does make architecture a far more boring place to be rather than the exciting business that it has been for me. I’ve done many, many different types of projects, you know, one hotel, one office building, one retail development, one residential, a laboratory etc., etc., etc. And this is what makes it so fun. I learn about so many different things, I’m always learning in the field. And when you take that away from the field, it does become a much less interesting profession. So that one is a scary one, and I don’t really think there’s an answer that I have for it, but I think we should perhaps try and think about how we can get around that part.
Could I ask you one question…
… in terms of the computer discipline. One of the people with whom I talked to said that the influence – that he wouldn’t hire anybody today who didn’t have a great background in that. In other words, you don’t want somebody to draft. And he maintained that the drafting per se as we knew it way back in school had sort of because obsolete. Do you use computers a lot in the business that you are in your [undecipherable] practice?
Yes, and I hear what you are saying and it is scary because just three or four years ago, the really talented designers in this firm didn’t know how to use the computer. There was perhaps only one. It was the technocrats that could use the computer. Now I think every designer in the office can use the computer, can use CAD, a lot of them are doing 3D CAD. There’s probably one holdout designer, and it doesn’t bode well for those who don’t use the computer. It does seem to be a very much simpler way of communicating one’s ideas to the client. And so very, very talented people without those computer skills are getting left out of the profession. So, it’s an unfortunate situation. You don’ t necessarily find the same type of talent. Somebody who is very, very technically inclined may not have the creative energy needed to come up with very interesting and original concepts. So to marry the two is where the profession is definitely going.
Thank you very much.