September 28, 1995
Interview by Annmarie Adams and David Covo
D.C.: Today is the 28th of September. The year is 1995. We are in the Faculty Club of McGill University. This is the second in a series of recorded interviews with graduates of the school. We are talking with Harry Mayerovitch, Class of 1933 this afternoon. You may remember Harry from the first tape. All right Harry, how would you like to start?
Well, to be asked to be involved in the celebration of a school’s centennial is in some ways pretty shocking, because you have to realize that some time has passed since you were involved there, I was involved. And although, I must acknowledge that I have not been involved for a hundred years, it’s getting to be very close. Actually, the involvement started in about 1928, I believe, when I became a student of first year of Architecture. And looking back, I realize that many, many things have happened since then, that the world of 1928 and ’30 is somewhat different than the world of 1995. I think that to begin with, the school was based on a certain premise, I think it was the notion that what came out of the Scottish tradition in Architecture, which had been brought her by people like Professor Nobbs and Traquair, that that world was a very special one, which if you look at it from today’s point of view seems very remote. And indeed, I can think of one of the first design problems that we were set, which was to design a gate lodge for a large estate, which would be a problem which would come up, I think, very rarely in today’s context. So that we did – we were, perhaps, indoctrinated with an attitude toward architecture which had to do with very good materials, fine textures, in every way rather sensitive in artistic outlook combined with a somewhat romantic view, I think of what architecture was, basing ourselves on the things like Scottish castles and turrets and things of this kind which became part of our vocabulary. I think there was also an element of craftsmanship, which was extremely important. And no doubt this reflected the influence of people like William Morris and people of that sort. So that quality was an important factor in the work that we were asked to design.
As far as the student life was concerned, I note in the – when I go through the drafting rooms today, that there are such things as jeans, of course, jeans. Well, we used to wear smocks, we always wore suits and we always wore smocks to prevent soiling our suits and white shirts. So in a way, this has some meaning. I think we always felt that Architecture was preparing us for a kind of a gentleman’s profession. And so I think there was an appropriate kind of behaviour that was expected of us and there was certainly less informality than one would normally meet today. I recall that we used to draw from the model in the fifth year, but before that, we would draw form plaster casts in the old Beaux-Arts tradition. And the question of how to draw and how accurately, you know, was well expressed, I think, one day when one of my – well, our drawing teacher was Edmond Dionet, who was then secretary of the Royal Canadian Academy, and who was, I would say, a typically Beaux-Arts type of teacher, I mean, the Beaux-Arts of Paris. And I was drawing form the model one day and he came up behind me and examined the drawing and he said, “Mayerovitch, there is something wrong here”, he says, “You are fully one quarter of an inch out. Either you have made a mistake, or there is something wrong with the model”. So, we had this concern about accuracy and formality. Although, I think our students, our fellow students, were capable of pretty riotous behaviour. I think they stopped more than one streetcar on the street by pulling the thing off the wire, and they could also be met at the Pig and Whistle, a tavern down the street on McGill College Avenue. So while we were, in one aspect of our lives, aiming to become gentlemen, we were also quite capable of pretty riotous behaviour. I recall one of the social incidents for which we prepared was a costume ball, rather interestingly named the Flora Dora Frolic for which event our year at any rate, that time the fourth year, prepared mural decorations, I think, of some worth. And I suppose what this represents is that we had a pretty wide and pretty broad cultural background instilled in us.
D.C.: Would you trace your interest in drawing and painting now over the last bunch of decades?
Ok, I will go and do that now, ok. I was very lucky. My favourite professor, I believe, was Professor Nobbs. And when I look back on it, I believe the reason was that he rang a bell with me, which had to do with the fact that he was a man of very broad interests. He Canadian Fencing Champion, he was an expert in fisheries, and actually became a consultant to the federal government on the subject of fisheries. He was a painter; he was a sculptor. And from him, I developed the awareness that architecture, while a great and noble art, was simply one way of looking at the world, and the rules and the governing factors which control that medium were very much the same that would control any other art or in fact the conduct of your life. And I got this indirectly, if you like, I wasn’t aware of this fully at that time, but I knew that what he taught us was something that appealed to me or answered questions which I perhaps wasn’ t vocal about, but sensed had to be answered. So in later years, I realized that it was the all-embracing character of his teaching and his attitude which was meaningful to me, and which resulted in my own interest in painting and writing and whatnot, aside from the architectural aspect. I believe that architecture is, because of its very nature, because it does concern itself with so many aspects, it is rather more of a general attitude, represents more of a general attitude toward knowledge than many other disciplines, which very often have become highly specialized and in that way sometimes divorced from the totality of life. So this is one thing that I valued very much in the teaching at McGill, and particularly the teaching of Professor Nobbs. However, I can’t deny that other professors made some contribution to that as well. Professor Traquair, who was interested in many of the local crafts, silverware and woodwork and carpentry and mill ware, whatnot, of the province. And I think he did some very important work in collecting and studying these local crafts. I think he did make quite a contribution to the history, the cultural history of the province particularly.
D.C.: Yeah. What were they like? Were they similarly influenced? Is this something we should talk about, do you think?
A.A.: Well, who are your classmates, Harry?
Yes, well, I can talk about that.
A.A.: How many were there? Not very many?
We had at that time, we had the largest class in the School of Architecture. There were nine of us. I don’t know that I recall the names of all of them. There was, of course, John Bland, Jimmy Woollven, myself, Jack Remmer, Cyril Taylor, Norman Freeman Fox MacGregor III, and one or two others. We all came from different backgrounds, and one of the things that was interesting about that is that, during one of the summers when we were hopefully going to be employed in architects’ offices as part of our training, we also were in the middle of a depression, so there were very few architectural offices doing much work, in fact in some ways very much like the situation today. So one of the events that took place, I think it was Jimmy Woollven who came up with the notion of setting up something, which eventually got called, well, it was called at that time the Iron Cat. Four of us, Jimmy Woollven, John Bland, myself, Norman MacGregor, and Cyril Taylor, I believe, rented a house in Saint-Anne’s opposite MacDonald College. And we rented the use of a blacksmith’ s shop in Dorval, where we went every morning, and made objects like foot scrapers and lamps and chandeliers and anything you could think of in wrought iron and we sold them, hopefully to passing tourists. And this was the occasion for a rather intimate relationship on the part of four or five of us, and it did exemplify and made fascinating for us the fact that we all came from different backgrounds. And I remember, for instance, having heated discussions particularly with Norman McGregor, who was a Bahá’i and we had, I wouldn’t say - they were discussions but they were also pretty horrendous at times, on the universalism in life and topics of that kind. It was interesting that that experience, which in a way may very well have been inspired by the interest in these things displayed by, taught to us by Traquair. It was interesting that this as a craft arising out of our architectural training, became, in the case of Jimmy Wolven and Harold Devitt, yes, I forgot Harold’s name, their lifelong career. And they did develop a highly successful and highly respected operation in Montreal where they did interiors largely, for usually very fine homes. So I suppose this is one example of the nature of the training we had and its implications in our later lives.
When I graduated, I was lucky enough to be able to spend a year traveling in Europe. And it was at a period, in 1933 to be precise, when the world was beginning to be turned upside down. So that – I remember very well beginning to realize during my stay that there were such people as Le Corbusier and people of that kind who were beginning to set new rules and bring new ideas into the vocabulary of architecture. My first experience, that was in Sweden, in Stockholm where I went to see Ragnar Östberg, the architect of the Stockholm City Hall. And I remember, for instance, that he asked me what I was planning to do on this- details of the scholarship that I was lucky enough to win. And I said well, we were obliged to do measured drawings of buildings among other things. And he held up his hands and said, “Don’t do that. Just go and do beautiful watercolours and have a good time”, he says, “You will have plenty of time to do measured drawings”. Which is kind of cute! But I do recall that seeing the Stockholm City Hall was to me an eye-opener. I suppose it was a culmination of all the notions I had about architecture. Here was this great, romantic building fitted right into the tradition and which our school at the time had been brought up in. And it was, I must say, and still remains one of the most exciting buildings that I have experienced because it did combine, I think, not only a kind of vision, there was this fantasy, there was this respect for beautiful materials and textures, and when I look back on it, I realize that a lot of that has gone out of architecture for, it could be said maybe good and sufficient reasons, but certainly this was a kind of a model which has never entirely left me. Stepping up from that, in a way, that is bringing it closer to the present day, might have been my experience with Ivar Tengbom, who did the concert hall there which was, I suppose in terms of its attitude would have brought Swedish architecture closer to the modern era than Östberg had done. And even more so, I think, was the effect of my meeting with Asplund, who was involved in many of the very innovative housing projects and large scale planning efforts so that even with that triumvirate, I was able to get in a short time some feeling of the way, the direction in which architecture seemed to be moving. This feeling was intensified finally, when I did get to France and in light of my interests, which went beyond architecture, two things were happening. One was that we were in the middle of the beginning of Hitler’s threat to the whole way of Western Civilization, I believe. So that I became interested in the politics of the time. And I couldn’t help it. There were people whom I had met who were refugees from, early refugees from Germany, including one charming young lady who was a children’s book illustrator and who wanted me badly to take her back to Canada with me. The other, of course, that in itself is a very long story outside the realm of the architectural experience. But I came very close to the Le Corbusier influence, because one of the things I had become interested in doing aside from the architecture was painting, so I enrolled in a course, a drawing course with Amédée Ozenfant, who was I think, he and Le Corbusier were the founders of the school of Purism, I think they called it. And in fact, we worked in one of – and Le Corbusier was his brother-in-law, I believe, and Le Corbusier had designed this studio in which Ozenfant worked. So I worked in a very early Le Corbusier house, and this had its astonishing effects on me, of course, because it’s sort of an inter-domestic interior, which I had never experienced and never could have visualized it. But this was tied up with a rather romantic attitude which that school in a way, what that experience represented for we were put to work, a class of about ten or twelve, in this studio, and what we had to do was one single drawing over a period of thirty days, three hours a day, from the same model in the same pose. And at every morning at 11 o’clock, Ozenfant would come down a circular staircase in the middle of this space, dressed in a silk dressing gown and a white foulard and parade about the room and giving us the benefit of his knowledge. This experience was possibly one of the greatest single experiences I have ever had in that, while I had been able to do rather fast little watercolour sketches, this taught me that the implications of doing a painting or a drawing went far beyond that. It really involved the consideration of every square millimetre of experience that had to be assembled finally into a cogent whole. And it was an experience, which I never forgot, and made me realize that probably every experience in life, to be fully savoured had to be plumbed to the depths, otherwise one could end up with a rather superficial view of what life was about.
I would like to go back a moment because my experience in Europe did have something to do with a previous experience I had. During the summer of 1931 or 2, Professor Nobbs was writing a book on design. And I guess because of my drawing ability, which became apparent only when I entered the school, he asked me to spend the summer with him to help him with his book. So I did a lot of typing and I did some illustrations. And in general then, I was subjected to his particular outlook for a period of a couple of months, which in a way prepared me, I think, for the variety of experiences which I had in Europe and was prepared to absorb.
My experience in Europe was pretty broad because from England I would do Finland to the USSR to Turkey to Greece to Italy and subsequently to France. And as I said earlier, the political climate at that time was explosive, so that not only was I subjected to new architectural ideas, but new social ideas and I guess it intensified my feelings that architecture was not simply related to the expression of the individual needs of a client but it had also to do with the broadest interests and requirements of an entire society. And to see how that was reflected in different countries under different conditions gave me, I think, a bit of an idea of the breadth of architecture and also the social responsibility involved in its practice. The one thing that became apparent, and I shouldn’t say “became apparent”, it was something that took an awfully long time to gel in one’s mind, was that the whole new outlook on architecture had to do with two things: one, the new technical advances, and two, the sort of the social responsibility that was involved in its practice. That is to say, while the earlier architectural periods, I think, could have concentrated largely on the requirements of a single wealthy client or a single great institution, like the Church or the State, that in the new era, I think there was a beginning of the realization that architecture had also to do with the requirements of the average man, where public housing, public education, public health, all these things were of paramount importance and architects had to accept their responsibility for contributing to the solving of those problems in terms of the buildings which all these things implied. So I developed the feeling that all these things had to be a preoccupation. What I suppose was particularly evident that there was a new vocabulary coming into use in architecture, which had to do with the development technologically, largely the development of the use of concrete and the use of steel, and it was those two elements, I think, which created the vocabulary which ended up with people like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe and so on. So that what we had learned, I think, in the school, had to be considerably modified by what was happening in the – another aspect, in the engineering aspect. And I was very lucky, in a way, when a certain period when Professor Peter Collins, who had been taking a course- was giving a course to the civil engineers at McGill, which he called Philosophy of Structures, asked me to replace him, he was busy with other things it seemed and he wanted me to take this course over from him. I took the course including the rather pretentious, its pretentious name and had a little trouble living up to that in my lectures. But what I realized at that time is what architects at that time perhaps had not been trained to introduce into their work in a serious way, that is the new vocabulary brought in by steel and concrete, that the engineers, on the other hand, were learning the use of these materials but they themselves were not made aware of the design and social implications of the development of these materials. So that in this course, I tried to subject them, if you like, to the challenge of a rather poetic imagination. I was quite interested to realize that these engineers, while we as architects used to put down in a way as being plumbers, had within them, like everybody else, poetic, artistic impulses. And I tried in that course to bring those out. So I had them do what I thought were rather imaginative things, like designing a bridge to Shangri La for defunct engineers or how to design a house for a claustrophobic dachshund, or how to design a spider web to catch flies that could only fly upwards. And I was amazed at the imagination that came out of these presumably straight guys, and I felt that perhaps I did make an interesting contribution to them. Certainly I know that a number of engineers whom I have met in recent years have somehow remembered this course and seem to have valued it. But, I suppose, this was simply one expression of what I had been gradually learning to believe, that it was that life was not a matter of tying yourself to a specialty, that life had much broader implication that which it would be of anyone’s– to anyone’s benefit to explore.
When I got back from Europe, there was no work. And I seemed to have concentrated then in drawing and painting and sitting around coffee houses and discussing how the world’s problems were to be solved until one day, my subsequent partner, Al Bernstein, who was a year or so behind me at the University, announced that someone wanted to have some architecture done. It turned out to be having a flat divided into two flats. So on the basis of this we formed a partnership. As an aside, I would like to tell you that this partnership was in – continued until ten years ago. We, I think, I’m sure we are the oldest architectural partnership in the country. And I think the reason for that, was that although I know that architects are considered to be prima donnas and any two designing architects who form an office are doomed, but my partner was interested in one aspect of the firm, that is the construction and the specification supervision end, and I was interested in the design end. And for, our guess is close to sixty years, we were able to get along very, very well indeed, unlike the experience of so many other offices. I suppose this teaches one something, but I’m not sure what the lesson is. At any rate, we did this job, and I remember that including the supervision and whatnot, we got seventy-five dollars. On the basis of this, we continued, and had the occasional duplex that dribbled into the office and jobs of that kind. Our practice was never a very large practice; we never did have more than half a dozen people or so associated with us, and that not always – not all the time. And I suppose it could be regarded as a more or less typical practice, certainly not a distinguished practice in terms of the importance of the buildings themselves. The odd building that we have done, I’ m satisfied with. There are many others that I am not satisfied with, for reasons perhaps partly of the limitations of the terms of reference, partly to the limitations of the budget, partly to the fact that one is never satisfied anyway. But it was, I would say, it was a modest practice, typical perhaps of many practices in the country and perhaps there are only half a dozen jobs that I have done that I would really care very much to see again.
A.A.: Where was your actual office, Harry?
I beg your pardon?
A.A.: Where was the office, itself?
It’s in Montreal.
A.A.: Well, I know where it is now. Where was it then?
Oh, I think our first office was on top of the Imperial Bank building on Bleury at Ste. Catherine. And we moved from one place to another, eventually ending up on Victoria Avenue in Westmount.
Of course our practice, as was the case for many offices, our practice was seriously interrupted when the war broke out and most building except wartime- those required by the war, came to a sudden halt. I started to do more painting at that time, and interestingly enough, this led to a very interesting experience in my life. I had done a painting, which I called Warfront. Home Front, which had to do with the reaction, or the non-reaction, of a population to the coming danger in Europe. We had already been in a war when there was a, I don’t know what it was called, the “Quiet War”, the – anyway, it was the term having to do with the fact that nothing was really happening, and there was a kind of a stagnation in the attitude in this country, as is many other countries, toward the impending danger. So this painting was exhibited at the Spring Show, an annual show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the critic, the art critic at the time, Robert Ayer, had this painting of mine reproduced in his weekly column and he remarked- his remarks about it was that it was probably one of the strongest war paintings he had ever seen, which filled me, of course, with a great deal of pleasure, but none so great as a phone call I got two weeks or so after the appearance of this photograph in the paper from Ottawa, and the voice at the other end said, “This is John Grierson speaking”. And he had seen my painting and he would like to talk to me about it and would I come up to Ottawa. Which I did. And an hour and a half later, I was appointed the art director for the stills division of the National Film Board. And what is fascinating about that is that I had never done a poster, which would be one of the things that I would be required to do. And this was quite an explosive moment for me, but evidently, it was not untypical of John Grierson. Because what he had done previously, was to pick people out of seemingly out of nowhere to do sort of unexpected jobs. He had been at the Film Board for a short time. He had set up the National Film Board appointed by Mackenzie King to make it an instrument for the prosecution of the war and other things. So what Grierson – the talent that Grierson had in this area, was that he was able to pick people not so much for a particular expertise that they may or may not have had, but for the fact that they had an attitude, in this case toward the war, which would, in his belief, guarantee that something good would come out of it. In a way, I suppose, he figured that the technical aspects could be bought, could be obtained, but the thinking process that he required had to come from an already existing attitude in a person. The way he put it to me that first day, he says, “You know, you can not sell the war effort as though it were Corn Flakes”. The point was that most of the propaganda was in the hands of the advertising agencies, who were very well equipped with experience and with people who could turn out a job for any particular purpose and it would be adequate and sophisticated and so on. But obviously what Grierson wanted was someone who would display some passion about what was involved. And, okay, in this case, he thought that he would find that in me insofar as this particular aspect of the work was concerned. I’m glad to say that his faith was justified since some of my posters were awarded prizes as the best posters, war posters turned out in the country. And this gave me the opportunity to see what was happening elsewhere. I had to go down to Washington once or twice and New York and see what the Americans were doing in the period. So it did broaden my outlook in this particular field. But what was also interesting was that at a later stage, when the war was - they were anticipating the end of the war and the preparation of a new world for the returning soldiers, that because of my architectural experience, Grierson asked me to write an article, a booklet for the Wartime Information Board of which he had become the head, giving the returning veterans some notion of the kind of a world they could expect here. So I wrote this pamphlet, which I think it was called In Army Ease: Homes Wanted, Soldiers, for the Use of. So I was able during that experience of two years in Ottawa, to combine my interest in painting and the graphic arts and my painting in architecture and planning.
Some years after I was in practice, I was invited to become a member of the Architectural and Planning Commission of the City of Westmount. Although, come to think of it, prior to that, I had done some work in this field doing a survey of St. James St., as I recall, with some proposals for its betterment. I had been involved with the Montreal Citizens Committee where, among other projects, we were considering ways of saving Mount Royal from what we feared would be depredation. And this sort of culminated, those experiences culminating in my becoming a member of the Architectural Commission. This was a fascinating experience, which lasted some fourteen, fifteen years, during two of which I was chairman of the commission. And that also gave me, certainly, a broader view of the implications of any architectural effort with, I think, you learned a certain modesty too, by virtue of the fact that so many architects were coming in with so many ideas which you wished you had thought of first. So that it was an experience, which I valued very much, and which gave me, I think, helped give me an insight into the situation for architecture today, because I feel that, while we do develop a profession, a science gradually, sometimes it’s pretty hard to keep up with all the implications of any new development and make appropriate adjustments to your outlook and to your professional equipment. I think, for instance, and I think this has been said by many people, that what is happening now is that there’s been a failure on the part of many of us to recognize that architecture is no longer what it used to be. As a student, of course, I felt that architecture was a nice, genteel, gentlemanly profession. And all the work that one did fitted very neatly into that slot. But architecture seems to have become, as a result of technical developments and also as a result of the changing economic world we live in and the speed at which changes take place, architecture, I think, has had to look at, perhaps not always to a full extent, has had to look at changes that it would be necessary to make in its own set up and its own outlook. One thing, I think, building as we used to understand it, that is, as something that should be built to last forever, is no longer the case. I think that so many buildings today are put up on the basis of their lasting twenty or thirty years, that is the length of the mortgage, after which it would be appropriate in view of changing needs to be able to tear that down and rebuild according to a new formula, larger and with new equipment, and so on. This has meant that the control of architecture no longer rests largely with the architect. It rests with people who have other concerns, have financial concerns, who have to think that architecture is a sort of a temporary commodity rather than as something that is meant for eternity. That is meant that their architect has had to look at problems like mortgage, like rental possibilities, like a variety of business concerns, building concerns, construction concerns that he had not been concerned about, to the same extent, in the past. And I believe that today architecture – the adjustment to that world, which requires the architect to know a great deal more about many more things than he did have to worry about, that that concern at times, I think, is overwhelming us. And I don’t think the adjustment is taking place necessarily as quickly or as effectively as it might. The result, I think is evident to many of us that the architect, as I said earlier, does not have the same element of control over a project. It is now the know-how that a new building developed today requires, he no longer possesses except in a very small degree. So I feel that, looking back at a hundred years of an architectural experience like the McGill School of Architecture, which has undergone many fine changes, I think probably, and this should be nothing new to it, has to look at other changes, perhaps some of a very profound nature, if the architectural profession is to, I wouldn’t say retain, I think it has to regain, the stature and the importance, which it once had.
I think change, of course, is of the very nature of things. And looking back on, not a hundred years but sixty-odd years of experience with the school, and knowing a little bit about its history and its flexibility, I have no doubt that under the leadership of people like Nobbs and Traquair and Bland and Drummond, and so on, that these changes will take place and that McGill will continue to be, I think, a leader insofar as architectural education is concerned. And I look forward to the next hundred years. I may not be here for that entire period, but I’ll do my best!