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Witold Rybczynski

B.Arch. 1966, M.Arch. 1972, D.Sc. 2002
Philadelphia, PA
December 15, 2010



When did you decide to study architecture?

I chose to become an architect when I was in my last year of high school at Loyola. I come from a long line of professionals, so it was taken for granted that I would go to university. I was attracted to archaeology and history, but as the child of immigrants, I was under pressure to choose something practical. Engineering, my father’s profession, did not appeal to me. My mother was a lawyer, but I was looking for something more creative. I had done quite a lot of writing at Loyola, the class paper, a literary magazine, that sort of thing, but I never thought of being a writer. But I had an uncle in Paris who was an architect, and that seemed like a good compromise, although I really knew nothing about architecture at that time. It certainly wasn’t something that my Jesuit education had covered. Nor did I have any particular exposure to architecture, except for Loyola’s beautiful Jacobean Revival buildings, which were designed by Peden and McLaren in the early 1900s. Perhaps they influenced me?

How did you choose McGill?

Most of my classmates continued on to Loyola College, but it did not offer an architecture degree, so McGill was simply the closest alternative. I wasn’t really aware of the campus or the university, since my family lived in St. Johns, an hour south of Montreal.

Describe life in the School at the time.

The faculty was very small. I remember them as a cast of colorful characters: Stuart Wilson, whose office door was always open (he seemed to live there) was the resident Bohemian, a tough and wonderful presence; Peter Collins, a pedantic disciplinarian who taught us history for three years, was the only one with an international reputation, and in hindsight my best teacher; Norbert Schoenauer, a Hungarian émigré who had been trained in Denmark, was a prize-winning architect whom we greatly admired and who introduced us to housing; Gordon Webber and Gentile Tondino filled in the art side of the curriculum; and Harold Spence-Sales, a rather exotic character who was born in India during the Raj, taught what passed for town planning. Holding this improbable group together was John Bland. Bland had a gentlemanly demeanor—he reminded me of Gregory Peck, and for a long time I thought he was British, although he was actually born in Lachine but had studied in London. In fact, there were only two bona-fide Englishmen on the faculty: Collins and Jonas Lehrman. Lehrman, a young AA graduate who taught us in fourth year, was not one of our favorites. This cosmopolitan faculty was definitely Euro-centric, and taught us to look across the Atlantic rather than to America.

Who do you remember from among your classmates, among the whole School?

It was a very competitive atmosphere. I don’t know whether that came from the teachers or ourselves. The competition wasn’t secretive—we worked together in the studio, and we learnt from each other, but it did produce a sort of caste system. There were four Brahmins in my year: Andrejs Skaburskis (who had studied art and was an accomplished painter); Richard Rabnett who wasn’t only talented, but outworked everyone else; my friend Ralph Bergman, with whom I traveled to Greece after fourth year; and myself. Ray Catchpole was another classmate I remember. Like Ralph, Ray had been held up a year—there was no automatic promotion in those days—and he was a bit older than the rest of us. We later worked together on a CIDA development project in Nigeria. He sadly died of AIDS a short time later. In our third year at McGill—Wilson’s year, the boot camp year—we shared space with the final year class. We would sneak peeks at their thesis projects, and of course we listened in on their conversations. Only three years older, they seemed like fully-formed architects to us and we were in awe of them, especially Bruce Anderson (already a star) and the so-called Three Kings: Phil Bienhaker, George Challies, and Ross Hayes. The Three Kings Studio was a weaving shop near McGill where many architecture students got hand-woven ties made by the Baroness (Herta Riedl-Ursin—we later became close friends). In fourth year, Ralph and I started a school magazine called Asterisk, an ambitious venture that published essays by Paulo Soleri, Christopher Alexander, and Fumihiko Maki. At the end of fifth year came the CMHC travelling scholarship. I was lucky enough to win, and with students from the other six schools of architecture I went on a housing tour of several cities in Canada and the United States. The student from UBC was Bing Thom, and we have been good friends ever since.

Is there a particular lecture or incident in class, a particular teacher or visitor to the School, a particular classmate, that you remember as having had a significant influence on your career?

A surprisingly large number of architects came through the School to lecture or sit in on crits (Bland seemed to know everybody): Lewis Mumford, Richard Neutra, Basil Spence, Shadrach Woods, Ralph Erskine, Arthur Erickson, Moshe Safdie, Jack Diamond, Irving Grossman. I remember Woods’s lecture. He shocked us by describing a commission—I think it was for a parking garage—which he turned down because he believed it was unethical. That made an impression—no one had ever spoken to us about ethics, except perhaps to suggest that modern architecture was “good” and everything else was “bad.” A few years later, when I was in Paris, I went to Woods’s office, and he was kind enough to talk to me and show me his work. Team Ten, of which he was a member, was a big influence on me at the time (that was probably Schoenauer’s doing). I especially admired Aldo Van Eyck (much more than Kahn). I later met Erskine, another Team Tenner, when I was working with Norbert on Fermont, a new town in Labrador.

Are there particular courses that remain vivid? Sketching School?

I loved Webber’s Elements of Design class. We met once a week, and we never took it as seriously as our design studio, but I think the exercises he put us through had a big influence. Webber had trained with Moholy-Nagy in Chicago, so he was a link to the Bauhaus. And he was such a striking presence (he was a dwarf, and had a wooden leg). He broadened our design senses, literally, with the color charts, the collages, the feelie boxes, and the hanging mobiles. I recall one project that involved designing and building a musical instrument. I came up with a sort of hurdy-gurdy that plucked hair pins to make a pinging sound.

Building things by hand was a big part of the McGill curriculum: casting concrete and doing woodwork in the workshop, making charcoal sketches of life models in Tondino’s drawing class, drawing watercolors in Sketching School, and of course building architectural models, the more complicated the better. All this gave one a sense of confidence in craftsmanship, that you could try anything, whether it was carving a woodcut or framing a wall. I feel sorry for students today who spend so much of their time staring at computer screens, waiting while printers churn out the drawings, or watching laser cutters producing models.

Have you maintained contact with certain classmates or teachers?

I recently saw Richard Rabnett in Jerusalem, where he now lives. He took me around the new city of Modi’in, which he had worked on for Moshe Safdie. I’ve also kept in touch with Andrejs Skaburskis, who is a professor of city planning at Queens; I published his work in the Wharton Real Estate Review, which I co-edit. I’ve seen Ralph Bergman, who recently retired, on and off in Toronto. Since I taught at McGill for almost 20 years (from 1974 to1993), I got to know some of my teachers (Bland, Collins, Schoenauer) as colleagues. I’ve become good friends with Bruce Anderson and share his interest in traditional house design. I still see Vikram Bhatt whenever I am in town.

Did you work for an architect on graduation, travel, other?

I worked for Moshe Safdie for about four months after graduating. Habitat was under construction, and I was checking shop drawings, doing site inspections, that sort of thing. By then there were only two of us in the office—Ed Satterthwaite, an architect from Philadelphia, and I—as well as an ancient Estonian engineer who worked for the engineer August Kommendant. Ed and I decided to travel to Europe together, and we met up in Paris, and drove down to Valencia—we were both Hemingway devotees and wanted to see a bullfight. Later Ed went to Mykonos, and I stayed on in Spain, living on Formentera, one of the Balearic Islands, for four months.

What was your first major architectural commission?

I met a French sculptor on Formentera and designed a little house for him on the island. I don’t know if it was built, but it’s still one of my favorite designs (I’ve written about the Formentera experience in My Two Polish Grandfathers). The first house I built was a summer cottage for my parents in North Hero, Vermont. I used the prefab Pan-Abode system, and Ralph Bergman helped me put it together. The house is still there; it was just published in a book called House on the Water, more than 40 years-old and looks as good as new.

How would you describe your transition from university into the profession?

When I returned to Montreal I worked for Luis Villa, a Colombian architect and industrial designer (he did all the street furniture at Expo, and we converted Fuller’s Expo dome into an aviary), I also worked for Safdie again, and for Norbert Schoenauer on Fermont and on Village de l’Anse, a large housing project in Quebec City. I also spent a year or so working on my own—by then I was registered—designing interiors for Bill Sofin. The problem was that I really didn’t understand the business of architecture—McGill had not really prepared me for that. Then in 1971, I met Alvaro Ortega and returned to McGill to become his first student in the new Minimum Cost Housing Program. After receiving my masters I stayed on as a research associate, and when Ortega returned to the United Nations I took over leadership of the program. I did that for the next dozen years, carrying out research, teaching graduate students, working in India, Mexico, and Africa. Later I founded the Affordable Homes program and built the Grow Home with Avi Friedman. In 1993 I moved to the University of Pennsylvania, and I’ve been there ever since.

Was your education relevant to your practice, to what you are doing now?

I think that the practical orientation of my McGill education marked me for life. I was never very interested in theory, and in my academic work—and later in my writing—it was always the art of building that attracted me. At McGill, the studio course was called “Design and Construction,” and I was taught that the two were inseparable. And, of course, we were in the faculty of engineering, so we took our classes in concrete, steel, foundations, and so on, with the engineering students. The closest we got to architectural theory was in Peter Collins’s class. But he always approached buildings from the architect’s point of view, which set him apart from art historians such as Pevsner and Giedion. Collins always reminded us that he was trained as an architect, not a historian (he had apprenticed with Auguste Perret).

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing a book on the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, a Norman Foster-designed museum of the mid 1970s. It’s a sort of architectural biography that explores the interaction between the clients, the architects and the university, as well as the collection itself. I’ve always been fascinated by how buildings come to life, and this is an opportunity to unravel that intricate process. I’ve done this before with a book on Vizcaya, a Gilded Age villa in Miami, but that was historical research; with the Sainsbury Centre most of the main characters are still alive.

Has practice, the profession, changed in significant ways?

I think that the two major changes to the profession are the glamorization of prominent architects, and the emergence of the megafirms. Neither are necessarily good for architecture.

Has the university kept pace with a changing profession?

Schools of architecture have had a rough ride since I graduated. First there was the superficial historicism of postmodernism, then the intellectual posturing of so-called history-theory, and finally there is the seduction of the computer and all that that implies. Renzo Piano has compared the computer to the player piano: you push buttons, music comes out, and pretty soon you convince yourself that you are really a musician. It is likely that the current global recession, which has decimated architectural firms, at least in America, will bring the teaching of architecture back to earth. I hope so.

I’m glad that McGill has preserved sketching school and freehand drawing, as well as the formal study of architectural history. Such courses are increasingly rare in American schools, and McGill is wise not to have jumped on the bandwagon in this regard.

Have you visited the School recently?

In 2003, I gave a talk during a symposium on John Bland. In 1940, Bland remade McGill into one of the first modernist schools of architecture in North America, only 3 years after Gropius came to Harvard, and long before Yale, Penn, Columbia, and Princeton abandoned their Beaux-Arts curricula. But Bland was not exactly a conventional modernist, even though he adopted Mies’s construction sequence, established a Bauhaus foundation course, and promoted the modernist faith in mass housing (it’s no coincidence that Safdie came out of McGill). But by bringing in Peter Collins, Bland placed history at the core of the McGill’s curriculum (Gropius banned history from Harvard). Bland also instituted a freehand drawing class, not one but two summer sessions of sketching school, and ran what amounted to an atelier system—each studio teacher was free to teach what and how he liked. Thus McGill, at least while I was there, reflected what I believe to have been John Bland’s ambivalence towards modernism. He was moderate by temperament. He always considered architecture to be about building, and since he was a Canadian, building well meant being conservative. While he embraced modernism, he never lost sight of the two thousand year-old tradition of western architecture that preceded it. I thank him for that.