December 4, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson
I became an architect because my uncle was an architect. And he was the older brother of my father and his wife was the older sister of my mother. And they didn’t have any children. So they were practically like our parents because my father died when I was a very young boy. And I studied in Budapest, after 1940, when Northern Transylvania was given back to Hungary. And from there, in 1944, December the eighth, I was taken to a camp. From there, the Red Cross in April took me to Denmark and I lived in Denmark for six years. I must say Denmark had an incredible influence upon my architectural career because first I worked there for four years, then I went to the university there and graduated. And in 1951, I came to Canada.
I was willing to sign a contract to work on a farm, but they didn’t accept me because they looked at my hands and they said, “They are too fine. You’ve never worked a day in your life. And we want workers in Canada. We don’t want executives; we have enough of them. Well, so they rejected me. But a friend of mine with much bigger hands signed a contract, came to Canada. He was also an architect; I studied with him, he was a classmate. And then he sponsored me. I arrived in 1951 in the spring and we had an apartment on Mountain Street. At that time, there was no de Maisonneuve. It was one block from Ste. Catherine to Sherbrooke. And they had an apartment next to- I think it’s called Porto Fino, that Italian restaurant at that level in an apartment building. And they were very generous, my friends; there were two of them. And they instructed me how to look for a job. Finally, I got one with Fetherstonhaugh, who asked me where do I come from and I told him I came from Denmark, which was the truth. So he said, “So you like housing?” And I said, “Yeah. Everybody does.” So he says, “Not quite”, something to that extent. And then he said, “We have this problem. We have to design housing for workers in Arvida. We got the commission now the plans we are doing but, you know, could you take on these housing designs?” So I was very pleased and I got the job. They gave me about four weeks to prepare drawings and I did. After four weeks, the chief draughtsman whose name was Rae, Mr. Rae was from Scotland. He came into the room and he said, he looked at the drawings and he said, “Well, I’m surprised at you. How come you designed barns? We asked you to design houses.” Well, I came from Denmark, I designed Scandinavian houses and he called them barns, eh? And then he took sketch paper and started to redraw one of the façades with a very wide, French Canadian-type chimney. And I said, “Yeah, but there’s a bathroom behind”. And he said, “It doesn’t matter. We can put a window between the two flues”. And I look at him and I said, “Is this true?” I mean I could hardly speak English. And then he said, “Yes, but by the way, on the way out for lunch, you can pick up your cheque” and they fired me. Well, this was the beginning, eh. I understand that subsequently, when I left, they also hired Victor Prus and he also designed barn-like houses and he was fired too.
But then I got a job with a man called Manny Mendelson. And he did a lot of work for builders. And I think that’s when I got my practical education and a sense of building. And it was a very good set up; I worked for him for about four years, because I was the sole employee, so I had to do everything. And he was very patient; he was very nice. He told me how to do wood construction, I mean, not only two by four-type of stuff, but also plank-frame construction. And we did a lot of buildings. That was terrific. Then after four years, I was hired by A. Campbell Wood, and I worked there for a while. And my- their office was in an old Victorian house, I presume in one of the bedrooms and there were two drafting tables and in the next drafting table was Alvin Boyarsky. So we became very good friends. And Alvin Boyarsky kept on needling me that, “Norbert, do you want to stay a draughtsman all your life?” And I was protesting, of course. And he said, “Yeah but if you don’t get a degree in Canada, you’re going to be there”. So I said, “Well, I already studied. I am an architect.” He says, “Yeah, but if you get your McGill degree, for example, then you have right away three degrees. And I said, “How come?” He said, “Because then they will recognize the other ones too”. So he went to Cornell to study. And the same year, I decided I would get my Master’s here. Since I didn’ t go to McGill, it was easier for me. Since he was a graduate of McGill, he didn’t want to have his Master’s here. So he went to Cornell. But I enrolled and I came to the School of Architecture and took my Master’s in Town Planning with Harold Spence-Sales.
What year was that, Norbert?
I enrolled in 1957. Because I came in ’51. Four years I worked with Manny Mendelson and then a couple of years.
So you spent, what, a whole year taking your Master’s with-?
And I came to the school, I did my Master’s, my coursework and then I worked for Harold Spence-Sales when I was doing my thesis. And then Harold Spence-Sales’s office, I met Moshe Safdie and William Perks, David Farley, Jeanne Wolft.
So obviously, Harold Spence was busy in those days.
Yeah, he did a new town, he was just finishing up a town called Oromocto, and he was commencing to do urban renewal studies for Moncton and Sydney, Nova Scotia. I was working on those. Actually, I spent a couple of weeks going from house to house and looking at buildings in Moncton and writing a report.
Do you mind me asking you how you enjoyed working- what Harold was like to work with?
Well, you know, Harold was an autocrat. But I think it was an eye-opener for me that Harold pointed out that architecture alone cannot be sustainable unless it is supported with other considerations, like, for example, planning and landscape architecture. He had a green thumb, for example. He made me aware that architecture is not in isolation, you know? And that was, it was very good. I think Harold helped me also with respect to my writing. He insisted that I write a thesis in English, of course, and he had a very flowery language, you know, and he was raised in or studied in Great Britain so he prided himself that he had a very good command of the language and expected that from all his students. And in retrospect, I must say I am very grateful because I would never have thought that I would write anything in English. But because he forced me to do my thesis, that was already in a sense a book, you know? And after that, I started to write…
But then after you graduated with your Master’s degree, did you go on and continue in town planning or did you go into architectural practice?
Well, you know, people always say that a person is shaped by nature and nurture, which is true, but there is a third aspect to it too. And that is fortune. And I had the good fortune as when I took my Master’s degree, I was in my late thirties and I had experience in architecture both in Canada and in Europe. So when Doug Shadbolt was offered to start the new School of Architecture in Halifax and he asked John Bland whether he would allow him to break his contract, John Bland answered him, “Yeah, you can do that provided that you find a replacement”. And I met Doug as a graduate student and he suggested that I should do it. In the meantime, there was another candidate, whose name was Jonas Lehrman. He was also a graduate student. He took the course one year after me but his supervisor was John Bland so John Bland knew him very well. And at one point, John Bland suggested, “Well, would you two like to teach and share the salary of Doug Shadbolt? And we agreed, because in the meantime, Doug Shadbolt’s salary was increased from assistant professorship to associate professorship, but he was leaving. So in the budget, there was an associate professorship salary. Of course, today, this would be impossible to do. But in those days, before the student revolutions and the counter-culture and all that, before that, a man’s position was decided by the Dean and the Director of the School of Architecture who went to lunch at the Faculty Club. Today, of course, you have to prepare a portfolio, you have to submit it in four copies of it, there is a whole jury from inside, outside, faculty, you know, to decide whether they should promote you or not. At that time, it was very simple.
So then you came- what year did you start with Jonas?
I started in 1960. See, we were lucky in those days. When we started in 1960, that was also the beginning of the Quiet Revolution, which meant that a lot of money that was deposited in escrow for the school, for McGill University because Duplessis refused to accept it because he felt it was an interference, education was a provincial matter. Suddenly, when Lesage came in, they saw these millions in the bank and they accepted it. And rightfully and generously I suppose, or all of it or most of it, I don’t know exactly the amount, but that was spent on education. This was also- some of the money was used for the introduction of CEGEP. So that meant also that the salaries of teachers was increased. So I want to make clear we didn’t starve sharing salaries. Also, John Bland encouraged, because he himself was practicing. During the summertime, one did something, you know? Well, I did enter two competitions. And the first one, I won second prize with Bill Schecter. Then Affleck asked me to enter with them and with them I won two first prizes.
Was one of those the Fathers of Confederation?
Yeah, one of them was the Fathers of Confederation.
Of course, my main occupation was during the academic year to teach. And that I must say was also the introduction by Doug Shadbolt. When Doug Shadbolt was hired, he was I think the first design teacher that he was always available for the students in the studios because Doug didn’t have a job. His predecessors, he replaced Ray Affleck, for example, and Ray Affleck replaced, I think, Fred Lebensold. They had all offices so they would have an office and they would come to teach on certain afternoons. But Doug Shadbolt was here everyday. And following his model, both Jonas Lehrman and myself were active here all the time. I think when I was teaching studio, at that time fifth year studio, the second last and Jonas Lehrman was teaching fourth year. And Stuart Wilson was teaching third year. So the three of us, we got together and we were concerned that there was a separation between design and building construction. And it was the three of us who went to John Bland and asked that the courses should be no longer called only Design but D&C standing for Design and Construction 1, 2, 3, 4. And he agreed provided we also give a lecture course in construction. So we could do the design studio work but then we had to complement it with a lecture course, which I think was very good because it also framed in a way or gave a framework for the design assignments, you know, because in fifth year we had complex constructions. I had to start to give lectures on rain screen principles and all that because they’re already in major buildings. Whereas in third year, it was purely wood construction, you know. So Stuart gave his wood construction lectures and I gave more complex and Jonas everything, masonry construction primarily.
At the beginning, I started out the first year I had about fifteen students, something like that. And the second year, it jumped to twenty-seven. And after a while, it was obvious that we needed help, you know, in our courses. And that was the time when I met Joe Baker and I brought in Joe Baker as an assistant. And he started the community workshop, which was really consulting future tenants or future building owners, usually in working-class districts, how to improve their living environment. See, in- a very important event in my life was that I used to live for a while in a rooming house on Dorchester, Dorchester West in Westmount. And there was a little park called Prospect Park where on Sundays, I would go down and I would sun myself. There were a row of beautiful Victorian houses there facing the [CPAL]. So in 1962, after two years teaching at McGill, I bought one of those houses. McGill in those days gave you a one percent rebate on the mortgage and they would carry the mortgage. I mean I paid the mortgage but they would insure it or lend the money. And because Westmount had different ideas with that particular area, they wanted to develop it as high-rise development and expropriate us. But you see, as a graduate student, I knew all about urban renewal. I knew that you cannot just willy-nilly expropriate a person; you have to prove that an area is slum. So I knew that these conditions didn’t exist, which was, first of all, the building had to be dilapidated, secondly, they had to be overcrowded or their use would be classified non-conforming use. In other words, a building designed for housing was used for manufacturing something. These conditions didn’t exist so they had no leg to stand on. And I was fighting and a couple of years after I bought the building, Joe Baker came, moved down there. And then with other people, several architects actually moved into that area subsequently and then we fought city hall. And I think his whole community workshop thing came about, was influenced surely, by his experiences, you know, that we were subjected to. Because, okay, eventually we won that case, because not only didn’t they demolish our buildings but we were successful in establishing a beautiful park, which is today called Steiner Park. It was a stone-dust softball area, a former schoolyard. And so- but I know I’m departing from the school, but everything was sort of interlinked because actually, I met Joe Baker primarily because of being a neighbour of his on Greene Avenue. I mean I knew him before, but-.
I wanted to ask you, Norbert, I know you can’t talk about specific students, but surely in your career at McGill, which I guess now is, what, over thirty years?
More than that.
More than that. What would you consider the highlights of your life here at McGill? Rather than every day of the week, which I’m sure is a highlight. But are there any specific memories that you have, be the professors or students? Nobody will feel slighted, it’s just that I know you’ve met an awful lot of people and some interesting things have happened to you. Are there any highlights if somebody was to ask you, which I’m now doing? I’m not trying to put you on the spot but you lived through that.
It’s a very, very difficult question to answer because my immediate reaction to that would be that I had a great fortune that I was hired to teach, but I was learning, I had to learn to be able to teach. And then I would actually be paid for it. So it’s like what the students actually demand: free education! But not only was it free education but I lived from it. So I can’t pinpoint any even, actually. I suppose the most traumatic experience at the school was during the counter-culture revolution when the students boycotted classes. And they asked different teachers to resign. And in a way, one was dragged in into that affair. I never enticed students to rebel. Quite contrary, I tried to calm them down. And later on when John Bland resigned and they suggested I should be the director, I didn’t want to be the director. In fact one reason, one consideration was that if I would become a member of the committee, selection committee, I could not become the director and I was a member of the selection committee. But after several months of deliberation, one day at a meeting, Dean John Dombrain had me to leave the room and half an hour later, he phoned me up in my office and then I come upstairs and he said, “You’re the new director”. I didn’t want to. Honestly, that was never my objective. I liked to study, I liked to teach but administration was really not for me. And also I found, one reason was that I was too much- too committed to one field, namely housing. And I thought that the ideal director would be not a person who has a commitment to one field of architecture but a more broad perspective, which I didn’t have. Now, you see- then you say, “Well, why did you pick housing?” Well, again, a series of circumstances. In Manny Mendelson’s office, I was doing housing. But also, after a while, I realized that the likelihood for me to get a commission from the Catholic or Protestant school board to design schools was minimal. On the other hand, housing was really a field where anybody could make a go at it. In fact, you can see that many immigrants specialized in that field.
So when you heard the announcement that you were now the director of the school, your reaction, I think you’ve already- how long did that last? How long were you the director?
Well, I was appointed for a full term, which was about five years. But I was not very fond of being director, so after four, I think, let me see, it was either two and a half or three and a half years, Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation was looking for somebody. Actually, they offered the job first to the former director of the Université de Montréal. And for reasons unknown to me, they didn’t get him. And then Ian McLennan asked me whether I would be willing to come. And I said, “Only if I could retain my position as a teacher at McGill, that if they give me a sabbatical leave”. And he said, “But for one year is not enough”. And so he negotiated with McGill and McGill said, “Oh, he can leave for two years”. I continually got my salary from McGill but worked in Ottawa at CMHC. That was an embarrassing position then my directorship salary at McGill was less than a former student of mine who at that time worked at CMHC and not in an executive position. But then they resolved it by paying my expenses for a second home because my wife stayed here.
Tell us a little about your writing. You’ve written an awful lot of books. And also tell us about after that perhaps I understand now that you have one of the largest attended classes which you’re giving each semester. Am I right?
For a while, I used to have the largest class.
And what was the subject of your teaching? Housing?
It was History of Housing. And it came about because when a committee came to visit the Faculty of Engineering, they- which is called an accreditation board. This committee suggested that the engineers had a very one-sided education. They would be very well educated in their field but they had no knowledge about culture or arts. And so they insisted, the committee suggested to the faculty that they should introduce, make it mandatory that every engineer has to accumulate three credits in a subject given outside the faculty itself and should entail either history, culture, art and things like that. So they discovered that I gave a course called History of Housing, which really started from the most simple food gatherers, how they lived. Then to the skilled hunters like the Inuit in the Far North and then to the rudimentary agriculturalists and surplus agricultural societies and through the ages up ‘till today. So they found this course interesting because they could relate to it. And there were always also references to the Canadian situation in a sense because if you spoke about the Inuit, I mean they knew about the Inuit. Or about the West Coast long houses or the Haida culture or the Kwakiutl or-.
Are you still giving the course today?
Actually, the day before yesterday was the last time I gave History of Housing, yes.
That’s too bad.
Oh, you have to have- actually Pieter Sijpkes will continue to give History of Housing, but you know there comes a time when you have to more or less phase out.
Move on, as they say.
Yeah. And they also liked, I suppose I was lucky that so many people took my course but they also found it convenient that I had a textbook. And the textbook was called History of Housing. So they were not at a loss, you know. If they would only rely on their notes to a final exam, that for an engineer is more difficult. But if there’s a textbook, then it is easier. And the textbook was an interesting situation. I taught architects History of Housing. I had a course for many years. And one day, I decided to write a book and I wrote one volume, I showed it to different people and nobody was interested in printing it. And I finally decided to go down to New York, checked into a hotel, took the Yellow Pages, found a publisher on Madison Avenue, phoned them up and told them who I was. And he said, “But you don’t have an appointment”. And I said, “No, but I only need fifteen minutes of your time”. And he told me I should come down at eleven. I met him at eleven, he looked at the book, he looked at my drawings. At twelve thirty, I had lunch with the president. At two o’clock the contracts were signed and I came back. And that was all about the book that people in Canada were not interested in it. I was refused by our own publishing, McGill.
That’s too often the story of things in Canada.
And the interesting thing was also- I mean the Americans are very smart. When he looked at the book and on it and he said, “Well, what is the title of the book?’” So I said, “Well, it’s written there. It’s called History of Housing” . He said, “Nobody would want to read a book on history of housing. Tell me a little bit about it. What did you do?” So I started to talk that I start from the very beginning how people lived in very simple structures and by and large, the evolution of urban housing over six thousand years”. So he says, “Stop”. So I said, “Why?” He said, “You just gave it a title. Let’s call it 6,000 Years of Housing. People like big numbers, especially in the thousands” .
I thought they might have called it From Cave to Condo, or something!
Yeah! So that’s what the title became. And Garland Press printed the book in three volumes and they translated it into Spanish and into Japanese.
In all the years that you’ve worked here, have you any memory of- I’m sure you have, of some of your colleagues that you worked with? This would be an opportunity because we don’t have an awful lot of information on a lot of your colleagues.
Yeah, well, yeah, obviously I think the person who I’m perhaps the most grateful to is John Bland because after all he hired me and because of him, I had a very interesting life. The other thing that I very much appreciated from John Bland was that he never interfered. I mean, he gave you the assignment to look after fifth year, I never had to check with him whether my assignments are acceptable or not. You had free reign and the same with Lecture courses. So he was very understanding and very helpful. I suppose the person who was more difficult was Peter Collins because in Peter Collins’s mind, housing was not architecture and he said so! Now, here was a person like myself who was dedicated to housing and one of your colleagues says, “Well, that’s not architecture”. But then eventually I think Peter came around, because there were several books published, like Rudolfsky The Anonymous Architecture and several of his colleagues devoted more and more time to the so-called vernacular. So towards the end it was acceptable.
Stuart I liked very much. I was fond of Stuart. He was a difficult guy. As a person, he was very critical but extremely well read and very wise and talented. I liked Stuart. Now, one of the problems with Stuart was that I, jokingly, I commented since he bought only old books and refused to buy new books, he was always a couple of years behind times.
He was a great artist too, wasn’t he?
Oh yeah, great artist, great artist, fantastic. I liked Stuart a little bit. And the rest, many of them, I knew as a student or as a co-worker. When Derek Drummond did his thesis, I was his supervisor. Adrian Sheppard worked for Maurice Desnoyers’s firm and later became a partner. Bruce Anderson was a student of mine. Vikram was a graduate student of mine, Vikram Bhatt. Avi Friedman was a student of mine; Pieter Sijpkes, David Covo, they were all students. Rad Zuk was not. Rad Zuk replaced Jonas Lehrman. When Jonas went to Manitoba, he came over here. Did I leave anybody out?
I’m just trying to remember. I don’t think so. If you had sort of a few comments to make in terms of your whole career here, mostly working at McGill and also in private practice, could you sum up your life? You’re obviously very happy, you’d probably want to do it all over again. I know you’ve indicated that you’ve been very content and it’s obvious, what, your life. Any special memories about McGill other than everyday?
Well, you know, I suppose I’m most grateful that McGill was home to me and also Montreal. I consider Montreal my hometown in a sense because I spent most of my time in Montreal and most of my life was spent at McGill so obviously, they’re very important facets in my life.
So really not too many complaints.
No, no, not at all. I always felt home and I must say to you that it was an incredible surprise, first of all, that they wanted me to teach. I never applied to teach. And I would never have, I couldn’t- I didn’t even expect that I as an immigrant would be teaching, nor did I expect that they want me at CMHC to help them with the new housing policy, and then- but then also the idea did strike that when they asked me to represent Canada at the UN ECE conference in Budapest, did they really realize that I was Hungarian and I was actually going over, going behind the Iron Curtain to represent Canada?
But you see, this type of naïveté in a sense is a beautiful aspect of Canada, you know. Because it only shows that they are idealists and they are not wrapped up in this murky, mudraking- muckraking thing, you know.
Norbert, I wanted to ask you, have you officially retired now? You said you stopped teaching this particular class. Are you going to keep associating with the school?
Since age 65, I live off my pension primarily. But I do teach and I got a- and I’m paid for some of my teaching and my costs. I’m still giving a course in housing theory. And because they named me an emeritus professor, I have an office at the School of Architecture, which I’m very grateful. I mean by and large, I’m a lucky guy!
I guess your wife probably appreciates the fact that you have an office at McGill too!
I’m sure, yeah. I would be a difficult guy to have-.
Well, thank you very much. It’s always a pleasure to talk to an old friend, especially one that’s had such a success. And you never were overwhelmed with your success. You’re the same sort of very natural person as you were way back when. Thank you very much.