January 27, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson
I guess to tell you a little bit about when I decided to study architecture, I grew up in Montreal, but we’re originally from Eastern Europe, my family. And architecture has always been part of the influences in our family. My dad’ s an engineer, I have cousins who are architects and engineers. And I guess fairly early on, my parents suggested that architecture would be an interesting thing to study. And I recall early in high school, perhaps in grade 7 that somebody was coming around talking about different potential careers, and by grade 8 or grade 9 it seemed that I had pretty well made up my mind that architecture was what I was going to study. In fact, I recall those aptitude tests that they used to give you, the counselors at high school, you know. And I used to pride myself on being able to make them come out to say that architecture is what I should do, because I could wiggle the results, you see, by answering the questions in a certain manner. So I managed to convince all my guidance counselors that this is, of course, what I ought to be studying and it seemed to make as much sense to them as it did to me. I didn’t know a tremendous amount about architectural practice but I did- yeah, I had an interest in architecture and I would go to the library and pull out books and look at different things, and it seemed like an interesting thing to do.
I was in Montreal, as I said, I grew up there, and I guess McGill was the obvious school to go to. I had, at one point, wanted to go to the States, go down to MIT or Harvard, but my parents suggested that I was far too young to be heading out of town just yet, and perhaps I would best stay put and stay at McGill for a few years and get at least an undergraduate degree, and then “we would see”, was the comment. So McGill it was, I think, as much by default as by anything else.
So I started at McGill, actually in CEGEP, in Engineering CEGEP. We were the last class of CEGEP students at McGill before the Quebec government insisted that everybody go to another school for CEGEP. So I started at McGill in ’72 and did two years of Engineering CEGEP. And we were ten girls and two hundred guys in the first year of Engineering, the first two years, I guess, of Engineering. And those were pretty exciting times. It was fun to be amongst the university crowd and the Engineering School was a pretty interesting place to be at that time. I got quite involved in and got to know quite a lot of people in the Engineering faculty and became quite interested in Engineering as well as Architecture. In fact, I was rather torn and decided that I really wanted to do an Engineering degree as well as an Architectural degree. So I really tried to do both simultaneously, which almost happened, it didn’t quite, but almost did. So I did those first two years of CEGEP and then applied to the School of Architecture and was accepted. There was an influx of new people. So we had been with the same group of people for those first two years of CEGEP, and then in the first year of Architecture, there was an influx of new people, who had been to other CEGEPs. Class was quite an interesting mix. I think we were about, oh, forty-five-odd students starting out and a few of us who were from the Engineering CEGEP were in of a core group, in a way, who knew one another, who stuck together at first, and then new people kind of added themselves to the team. Probably the person I remember the best from that time is Frances Bronet, who is now teaching architecture at RPI down in Troy. I still keep in touch with Fran, but she’s the one person who I remember who was with us from the CEGEP all the way through Architecture School. Other people I remember who I’ve bumped into more recently or kept in touch with more recently include Andrea Hajdo, who was in my class who is now in Vancouver, Allan and Bonnie Maples, who are now in Vancouver, who I’ve seen more recently, and Fred and Diane Sly, who are also in Vancouver, so those are some of the classmates that come to mind, of the people who started with us.
I certainly remember, you know, first year, first studio or first project was, Bruce Anderson was teaching a first year class, and our first assignment was to find an interesting place in Montreal and build a perspective model of it. And we, of course, had no idea how to build a model at all, much less a perspective one, and I didn’t really know what Bruce meant by “an interesting place”. So off we went tiddling through downtown Montreal and on, up and down St. Lawrence Street and down by the river, down by the waterfront, trying to find something that had character, that was interesting. The first thing we came up with was a place on St. Lawrence Street where they carve monuments for, you know, for graveyards. This seemed quite intriguing to us, I think it was Frances, myself, and one or two other people who were in that group, and we were quite taken with this place. We thought it was sort of an indoor-outdoor space, and here were these people building these gravestones and we were rather taken by it. But we went back and reported our findings, and Bruce decided that this was morbid and that this was really not appropriate and we ought not to choose this project. So our first lesson in architecture was that what we found interesting wasn’t necessarily what anybody else thought was acceptable. And we were rather disheartened, but off we went again to search out a more interesting place that was perhaps less morbid. And at last, after many long hours of walking through Old Montreal, we came upon a barbershop on the waterfront, and it was a great old barbershop, it had a little front counter, I can still see it in my mind’s eye, a little front counter where they sold chips and then a back part where the sailors went to get their hair cut. And it was very much a place of the waterfront. And it had a huge mirror across the back wall of the room. So I remember that we finally decided that this was going to be the spot, we were out photographing it, and Bruce agreed that this was okay, this was not morbid, this was quite acceptable so we could carry on and build our perspective model. And in that project, we had our first taste of all-nighters. We were all proud of ourselves, ‘cause we had stayed up all night, built this crazy perspective model. And we ended up building the room and then, we couldn’t get the mirror to work, so we decided we had to build the space behind the mirror as a reflected space, because we couldn’t get the mirror to actually work as a mirror. And so that was quite an intriguing exercise. And then we had to photograph this model using a four by five camera, so that was a whole experience in and of itself as well.
That first year studio was full of anecdotes, I could probably go on all day here telling you about the trials and tribulations of that first year. We certainly put in a lot of crazy hours and struggled to balance the workload and try to find ways to get everything down that was expected. And it was a year! But we survived in some way, and actually decided to stay in Architecture. It was close for a while there!
You are blessed with a good memory. It makes it very helpful.
Well, I could carry on for many hours and tell you far more detail. We did an animated film that year. It was a plasticine-animated film, what they call nowadays clay-mation. But, of course, we didn’t have any technology to do this with. This was simply the animation stand in the photo studio at McGill and we had to do the storyboard and we did, it was myself and a woman named Donna Tolmatch, who is in Montreal now. And we did a film on the Birth of Venus. That was our story. And we had these clay figures that kept melting under the hot lights of the animation stand. That was another one, a whole set of all-nighters, trying to get that film to work. And many more stories from that first years, but anyways, you don’t want to hear too much more about the first year!
Some of the other- did you encounter any other professors in that first year? Was Derek teaching at that time? Or David Covo?
No, David came later. He was not teaching yet. I knew Dave Covo at that time, but maybe he was a teaching assistant or something, because I knew him, but he wasn’t teaching per se. I primarily remember Bruce Anderson the first year, and I don’t know if Derek taught us in second semester.
Was Stuart around then?
Stuart taught us in second year. Yes, so I can regale you with all those stories from second year. But that was- Stuart was second year. So-
So let’s talk about Stuart, then.
Let’s talk about him, okay! Well, yeah, okay. Interesting. A lot of things that were challenging in that year. I think we had to do a lot of group projects. And, actually one of the things that I really remember McGill for, and one of the things that I’ve really noticed in practice over the years, is that at McGill, we did everything in groups. And none of the other schools of architecture seem to do that. And yet, that’s been probably the most important and the most useful set of skills was the fight and the struggle and the turmoil of actually trying to get a group to work together, has probably been the most, in fact, one of the strongest influences in my practice and a skill set that I find graduates from other architectural schools don’t have. I mean, we end up having to teach them in the office how to work as a group. And that’s much more difficult to do than to teach them in school. Certainly, in Stuart’s year, we were doing- so we did one project on a house on a hexagonal grid and then all the houses on the hexagonal grid all fit on a big site plan together. And, let me see, what else did we do. Oh, we did a project, a report. We started writing reports, that’s right. Stuart was insistent that we not only know how to draw but that we know how to write. And again, very important, you know, I find myself having that struggle with some of my young staff members who just don’t know how to write, can’t put a report together. And it’s so important in practice to be able to do that. So, that certainly sticks with me. And I also remember Stuart wandering into the studio at three in the morning saying, “Where is so and so? Why aren’t they here? What is the problem here?” So he was rather a taskmaster. And he was known to be critical without particularly feeling obliged to give you reasons for the criticism, and that was always hard on us as students, but he was wise and he was, you know, his criticism was probably always well taken, although we didn’t always think so at the time.
I also remember Stuart from Sketching School. I did one Sketching School in Quebec City and one in Toronto. And I particularly remember struggling in Toronto with that Sketching School, because Toronto is such an overwhelming city to try to grab a hold of and to find a little corner to draw in. And I remember Stuart sitting on the park bench as if he just belonged there and looking every bit the part and just drawing. It just didn’t seem to faze him at all that we were struggling with all of this. But it was difficult to find any place. Finally, I found Kensington Market, and parked myself in Kensington Market and said, “Okay”. At least there was some place I could draw and if I got really frustrated, I could go get something to eat and it made me feel better! So, Sketching School was, yeah, it was a challenge.
Alright, so second year, yes, was Stuart Wilson, and then third year, I remember Rad Zuk very clearly, and certainly have kept in touch, somewhat distantly, but certainly still bump into Rad every once and awhile. He was here in Edmonton giving a lecture a few years ago and I remember chatting with him then and when I get back to Montreal once and awhile I’ve seen him. I think the thing that I remember the most about what he taught was his systems approach and the ten systems, or nine systems, or ten systems depending on the year, something that has stuck with me as a way to organize thinking architecturally. So that was a useful model. I think the second half of third year, we had an assortment of professors, John Bland was teaching, and a variety… I don’t have any really strong recollections of that second half of third year.
Who was teaching History at that time?
Oh, Peter Collins, of course. And I certainly have recollections of Peter Collins. P.C.’s History class, I’m afraid I slept through a lot of those! But P.C. and I had an interesting kind of an ongoing dialogue. I found it somewhat interesting, although I felt personally that the History piece for me ought to have been taught later and some of the other topics that we covered later, like Building Technology and Structures and the more technical bits, for me might have done better earlier. So I found that when we were doing History it wasn’t really what I wanted to learn about. And so I had some interest in it but not a huge interest in History. My background was always a bit more on the math/science end of things and so I was quite interested in building and the design of buildings. But we’ve made our peace, Peter Collins and I and we did all right. I learned some things despite myself, I think, during that time.
Was there a course Architectural Practice in those years or in your senior years?
Later, yeah. Yeah, there was a Practice course although it was- I guess there was a Law course and a Practice course. They were not hugely remarkable, or memorable courses. I do remember some, in third year I think, a Building Science course that was a little bit more interesting, but again, not truly memorable or remarkable. I guess it was either in third year or fourth year that I had Wit Rybczynski as a prof. And I remember we did a project around some solar energy office building of some sort. And Wit was another one who had- he was a demanding professor and he had his own personal interests, I’m not sure whether they coincided with any of the things that [unclear] with the rest of us were doing, but he was certainly an interesting character in the school.
After third year, I took a year off. I actually came out to Edmonton on a summer job initially. I was working with a cost consulting company called Hanscombes and I had worked for them one summer in Montreal and the following summer they said I could have a job in Edmonton if I wanted one. So I came out here, and saw that the economy was booming and the construction industry was booming. So I thought it would be a good time to take a year off. And I decided that what I’d like to do is to have a project or a job where I could be on site, because I felt that that was sort of the gap in where I saw my education, was I really needed to be on site more and get a better understanding of how construction went together to be able to practice and to design. So I thought, well, if ever there was a time that a young woman graduate architect without much experience could ever hope to get a job full-time on a construction site, this had to be the time and this had to be the place. Certainly I couldn’t imagine that ever happening in Montreal.
What year was that in?
This was the summer of ’77. So, this was after the Olympics in Montreal, there was no work in Montreal at all. Certainly, there was very little construction going on at that time and the architects’ offices were very quiet. There was really, you know, very little happening. So I though it would be interesting to see if I could manage snag a job here for a while and take a year off. So I started applying to various and sundry openings that appeared in the newspapers and finally ended up with a position working for Transport Canada onsite, full-time at the Edmonton International Airport. They were building a new building, which is called the Air Operation Centre. And it was their practice to have a team onsite full-time doing inspections. I was the architectural inspector, and later the architectural and structural inspector, and there was an electrical inspector, a mechanical inspector, a project engineer, so there was a whole team of us out on the site. So I spent a year, a year and a half as it finally turned out to learn what there was to know about field-
Construction, or as much as you could at that period of time.
That’s right. Everything from shop drawings to changeovers to contract administration, I had the whole thing. This project was one that had actually been designed in house in Transport Canada in Ottawa by their own in house architectural department. So there was nobody else, there was no consulting architect involved in the project. So I had to basically do everything onsite. That was an interesting experience and a good way to learn. And then I decided I’d better get on with getting back to school and finishing my degree and doing my final year and my thesis. So I went back in January of ’ 79, I guess. No, ’ 78. And I did one semester, then I came back out to Edmonton for a summer and then I did the following semester and I finished in, I finished in ’79 so I have my years tangled up in some fashion. But my thesis project was actually the Edmonton City Hall. And it was at a time when that was a competition that was happening here in the city and the city had decided that they wanted to tear down the old city hall and replace it, which is in fact what ultimately happened. But at that time, I felt strongly, as did others, I think, across the country that in fact the old city hall ought not to be torn down, because it was actually quite an interesting fifties modern building, and the new city hall ought to be designed to attach to or wrap around or in some way connect to the pre-existing city hall. And, of course, you know, as we sit here in the late 1990’s that’s exactly what would be done. But in the energy of the seventies, the city was bound and determined to destroy the old building, so ultimately they did. But my thesis project was actually an Edmonton City Hall project based around keeping the old city hall and developing something around it. When I graduated, then, I came back to Edmonton, and decided it was time to get to work in an architect’ s office.
Well, I forgot to mention some of the visiting critics we had over the years. And certainly the one that stands out in my mind, as a critic, was Ray Affleck. I remember him being the one critic who came to the school who seemed to be the most up to date, who had the most sort of current architectural language that the students were interested in. And he was the most sensitive critic, you know, he always found something positive to say before he said anything negative. And that was always appreciated. There were far too few critics who ever did that. Another guest who came to the school was Arthur Erickson. And I remember him commenting that it wasn’t his practice to give lectures to architecture schools, but because it was McGill and because Stuart Wilson asked him to come, he would come and do a lecture. And I remember him talking about the quality of light, how light was different on the Coast and on the Prairies and in Montreal. And it was the first time that I had ever thought that light could be different in different places. So I remember that being a fairly sort of seminal observation. So other people I remember from school, certainly I remember sketching, Drawing classes, Tondino’s Drawing classes, gesture sketches, hundreds and hundreds of them. It was memorable. Good practice.
He’s still there. He’s still teaching. It’s unbelievable.
Wow. That’s amazing.
In my eyes, he really hasn’t changed at all since I was a student. And no doubt he has, the same way-
That’s incredible. Well, you know, that’s- one of the things that I’ve noticed, I’ve had very few McGill graduates come here and work in our office, mainly because we’re rather far away and there’s not that many who are from here or that interested, but the odd ones who have been here, I’ve noticed that there’s a certain consistency at McGill, you know, there are things that haven’t changed too much. The school seems to have remained on course, in a way. And I don’t know if that’s true of other schools or not, that they don’t change that much over time, but my observation is that McGill hasn’t changed that much over the years.
So after I finished school, I moved back to Edmonton and got a job with a firm called Bell Spotowski Architects at that time. And that firm was doing health care projects and we were at that time working on the renovations to the Misericordia Hospital. I was interested in doing health facilities. My mom is a physician so I had grown up hanging around hospitals and found health facilities quite intriguing and wanted to do some work in that area. It was boom times in Alberta in the late 1970’s and I was given tremendous opportunities in that office to basically run with major renovations to this hospital. I was involved with half a dozen different projects that were happening within that one facility. There was the placement of the building envelope and there was a new emergency department and new laboratories and all sorts of different projects within the hospital. And I had a great deal of latitude and I had a, actually, rather large team of people in the office working on that particular assignment. So it was a tremendous learning experience, because it was so busy here at that time, you really did get thrown in the deep end. If you could even remotely swim, you were in charge.
And that was a tremendous time of growth and learning. It was also at that time that I started to be exposed to the whole end of practice which relates to where the work comes from and writing proposals and getting work and meeting with clients and identifying their requirements and so on. And that started to be a part of what I was asked to do in that office in early years. And in the process of writing proposals, I was able to see that, you know, there were some fascinating bits to that exercise of actually securing work. But I could also see that things were a little slowing down in Alberta right around then in the early 1980’s, it was starting to slow down. It also happened at that time that I decided to do a Master’s in Business here at the University of Alberta and I started that programme and found that quite intriguing. I was doing that part-time in the evenings. And of course, being young and fresh out of Architecture school, I was perfectly capable of working around the clock, so it was no problem to work full-time and go to school full-time and study and so on. Those things that we can’t seem to do anymore were not so difficult then.
So I spent those early eighties working at Bell Spotowski and was offered an opportunity to work for the Edmonton Public School Board as Assistant-Director of Design Construction, looking after new school projects from a client’s perspective. And I was intrigued with this opportunity, because by this point, I had been writing these proposals and I was dying to see what everybody else’s proposals looked like. And I thought that this was the way that I was going to find out. By working for the client, I could get in there and see how this process worked from the other side. I was debating whether it was a good time to move into the public sector or not, but it did seem that things were slowing down a little bit on the practice side. I decided to pursue that opportunity and joined Edmonton Public Schools as the Assistant-Director of Design Construction. That was an amazing experience in terms of being a part of a large organization. I’d never worked in a bureaucratic environment before and it was a learning curve in and of itself, just to understand the politics of that sort of organization when one is young and innocent was very valuable and was interesting because when I was interviewed for the position, I wasn’t, as I said, after the interview, I wasn’t certain whether this was a good idea or not. And it happened that the school board had invited the then President of the Alberta Association of Architects to sit in on the interviews, because they wanted to make sure that whoever they hired would be acceptable to the architectural community to work with as a client representative. And I then met with this fellow, whose name is Norm Crowell and asked him what he thought I should do, you know, should I take this position if it were offered. And he said, “Well, take it, but don’t stay more than two years, because you’ll get spoiled otherwise if you stay too long”. And so I thought that was good fatherly advice, and took that advice, and took the opportunity. And sure enough, when I arrived at the school board, I got exactly what I wanted, a desk covered in proposals!
So after working at the school board for a number of years, I traveled for a year and came back to Edmonton, spent a little bit of time up North in the Territories and came back and started a practice here in conjunction with some people form Yellowknife. My practice here really was focused on the things that I had a particular interest in, being healthcare, educational facilities, and I was particularly fascinated with working in remote Northern communities, First Nations communities. And the practice has evolved in some very interesting ways. We’ve grown here in Edmonton over the past decade to about sixteen people and growing yet. We’ve grown through some very slow times, actually. ‘Have worked across the Territories, and across Alberta, a little bit in Saskatchewan, a little bit in Manitoba, a lot of work in First Nations communities, educational facilities. We’ve got some schools that we’ re very proud of. We have some health facilities; we’ve done some renovations and some new construction in the health care area here in Alberta. I’ve chaired the Architecture for Health Committee, or Architecture for Health Council as we all now call it, of the RAIC for a number of years and have been quite involved with other RAIC activities over the past decade. And I think the practice has flourished because of a belief in collaboration, because of a belief in working as a team with our clients. We’ve developed a fairly sophisticated method of involving clients in the design process, holding big community workshops, getting everybody engaged in design, and that’s worked extremely well for us over the years and continues to work for us in many of the communities that we work in. We’re working continuously across, say, Northern Alberta. Right now we have a hospital in Northern Saskatchewan that’s in design. We have a major school project in Central Manitoba that’s underway. And many of these projects have been award-winning projects. In fact, this summer, I was honored with the Governor General’s Award for a project that we worked in collaboration with a Calgary firm on in Whitehorse in the Yukon. So we’ve had a great run of lots of exciting projects, some extremely interesting architectural opportunities and some fascinating clients to work with over the last number of years. I’ve got a great team of people here in my office, and I’d say we’re constantly growing and I’m very proud of the teamwork, of the nature of the group, of the kind of strategies that we can develop. We’re also involved in doing a number of high-tech and research facilities, both medical facilities, laboratory facilities, pharmaceuticals, those kinds of facilities, electronics, and so on. And we’re seeing that as an area that’s developing here in the city and we’re growing with that as well.
And you know how to make- prepare proposals now right?
Well, I had better do at this stage. In fact, I also now teach that subject. We, I and a number of colleagues here in the city a couple of years ago formed a group called the Innovative Practice Group in Architecture and we are a group of the University of Calgary School of Architecture.
Is Len Rodrigues involved in that?
Yes, that’s right. And Len and Barry Johns and myself and a few others and we formed this group for the purpose of teaching Professional Practice to architectural students. We really believe that there’s a growing gap between theory and practice, or between what’s happening in the Academy and what’s happening in the world of practice. And we took it upon ourselves to start to bridge that gap. That came out of an assignment I had on behalf of the RAIC to chair the round table on innovative practice. And in that assignment, I gathered some of my colleagues together and asked what we ought to do with this problem and we decided that we wanted to form this group and we’ve all been appointed as Adjunct Professors at the University of Calgary. And we teach the programme here in Edmonton, as a matter of fact. We get groups of students coming up for a one-week block course. This was modeled on Harvard’s case study method. And we’ve decided that we use actual case studies of real projects that are going on in Edmonton to enable us to teach specific aspects of professional practice. So we have a series of four block courses which we’ ve developed. Two of them have already been delivered, one of them twice. They’ve been very successful. And we’re continuing. The next course is coming up in March and the next one after that will be in the fall. And so there’s a group of ten of us here who believe very strongly that there’s a need to teach professional practice as part of the academic curriculum. And part of that belief stems from a sense that what schools of architecture often do is they tend to crush some of the more sensitive students who perhaps have the people skills, have the communication skills that are so much needed in practice. And the students who survive the studio system tend to be very tough but often they don’t tend to have the strongest communication skills. Sometimes we do end up with perhaps the best designers but we don’t end up with perhaps the strongest all-around architects. And it’s our feeling as professionals that this is something we need to do something about. So we decided that we would do it in our own way and we developed these block courses. University of Calgary has always had this method whereby they have a block in the centre of every semester to allow for these block courses. So it gave us a perfect format to develop something that we could do in a condensed method and have the students come up here. We teach these classes in our offices. We rotate around various offices around the city. And the students have been remarkably enthusiastic about these courses that we’ ve offered. They’ve been extremely well received. And we do role-playing, we teach them about writing proposals, we teach them about doing interviews and all kinds of interesting bits and pieces of skills that we think are very important. I think that certainly the thing that I would see schools of architecture do and it’s not just McGill, I think all schools need to be doing more of that, not just teaching Professional Practice as contract law, but teaching Professional Practice as- well, we’ve divided it into four courses, and perhaps schools can do it in different ways, but we teach one module that’s sort of an introduction to professional practice. We teach one, which is Project Management, which deals with more the construction side and different methods of construction project delivery and the architect’s role in those different methods. We teach one that’s called Practice Management, where we talk about how to actually run an architectural practice, everything from the people side to the money side to the business planning and strategic planning, and so on, marketing. And the fourth course, which I think is the most interesting and the one that probably will be the most interesting, it hasn’t been delivered yet, is called Body Politic, and it talks about the architect’s role in society and leadership roles and positions of leadership and being involved in community and the sense that architecture is a political act. And I think that’s something which I think the schools can go a lot further in developing and exploring, an area that certainly needs to be better understood by the graduates that we see coming out. I think that, as I said, we haven’t had a lot of McGill graduates come through our office because we are so far away, but interestingly, we tend to have a lot of graduates from TUNS. For some reason, there’s an Edmonton-TUNS connection. People who are from Edmonton seem to go to TUNS and come back to Edmonton, so we seem to have TUNS graduates and we have some Manitoba graduates. And I think, as I said, McGill’s great strength remains group work, teamwork, and I certainly would like to see a lot more of that happening at some of the other schools.