April 17, 1996
Interview by Jim Donaldson
Hello, my name is Brahm Wiesman. I became interested in architecture in the early nineteen-forties when I was curious about how the city was built, who was responsible for its infrastructure, and because I was a model-builder. I liked to build model aircraft and other models. And I think this directed my career choice towards architecture. I lived in Montreal and there was really no question about which school of architecture I should apply to. And I think it was a very fortunate choice that I attended McGill University. That has had a very profound impact on my career and professional life. The school at that time was very small. It has just come out of the Beaux-Arts era. John Bland was still fairly new and Kay Chard was still around, who was the first woman admitted to the Faculty of Engineering. And I’m just delighted that in her married name, Catherine Wisnicki, she will be receiving an honorary, a much-deserved honorary degree, because I knew Catherine in her role as a professor at the University of British Columbia.
I was intimidated by my classmates in my own class and particularly in the upper years because I was not a very good architectural students and my pears were people like Ray Affleck, Arthur Erickson, Doug Shadbolt, Charlie Trudeau, Rolf Duschenes and others who appeared to me to really know what they were doing while I was struggling. And I think I didn’t produce anything worthwhile until the final project, which was of doubtful quality, but nevertheless, passable. I was strongly impressed by John Bland’s History of Architecture course and his cumbersome glass slides. And this has subsequent impact on my career as a university teacher because I took up a very strong interest in the history of urban planning and directed some of the doctoral dissertations on this subject that is seminal work in this field in Canada. So John had a very profound impact on me in that regard. I suppose the other thing I remember about the faculty is all of them were extremely generous or in my view, extremely generous to the students. Because I’ve indicated, I wasn’t a good student and I think I was encouraged and I was treated very gently. And I have an idea the faculty saw potential in all students.
What year was that approximately?
This was between 1943 and ’48. The school was very small. It was like a family in many respects and a very comfortable, although challenging, environment. To digress slightly, I understand that in some schools of architecture today, students’ work is denigrated and students are made to feel inadequate. And there was totally the opposite environment at McGill. And in my view later as a faculty member, it’s something that I tried to apply in my- quite successfully in my view, in my practice as a planning-school teacher. Well, because I wasn’t terribly good at architecture, and as I indicated earlier, was interested in how cities got built, I was attracted to the idea of entering the new city planning programme that Harold Spence-Sales had initiated. And I was in the second class that graduated from that programme. And Harold and John Bland had done consulting work across the country and they were instrumental in helping me get my first job as a city planner, which was to be the assistant director of planning in the city of Edmonton. I went there virtually the weekend that I deposited my thesis with the school and found myself sitting at a drawing board preparing neighbourhood unit designs, which was way above my competence, but I did it anyway and they got constructed for better or for worse.
Getting back to the school, you’ve asked about Sketching School, and this was very important experience. Being with Arthur Lismer and Gordon Webber has had a profound impact on my visual literacy. To be a little bit critical, the school did not do enough to make the students sensitive to architecture as space but it certainly did a lot in terms of basic design, juxtapositions of shapes, colours and so on that Gordon Webber introduced us to that has become an essential of my knowledge.
And your interests, of course, too.
And I suppose it’s represented in this house we are in right now, which is a very complex spatial arrangement in a very, very small volume. So John Bland and Sketching School were very, very important.
I’ve not maintained contact with classmates, most of whom are practicing architecture rather than city planning. Some of the planning classmates who have had important careers in Canada, such as Leonard Gertler and Harry Lash, are people with whom I’ve maintained contact. And I’ve been very fortunate to live in the same city where Harold Spence-Sales has decided to retire and over many years, we were in very frequent contact, although less so at the present time. And I’m privileged to have one of Mary Filer’s glass sculptures on permanent loan in my house.
After graduation, as I indicated, I started work as a city planner in Western Canada, in Edmonton. And from Edmonton, I took of the challenge of being the first director of a new metropolitan planning agency for Victoria and stayed there for seven or eight years producing a regional plan that has had some influence on the development of the city. From an architectural perspective, Doug Shadbolt and Arthur Erickson were then on the west coast, and they prepared- or I employed them, to prepare some quote-unquote city beautification schemes that did have an impact on Victoria. For those of you, for those people who know the city, the inner harbour was redesigned, and that idea was generated by Arthur, who I employed to do this. And the old town has been conserved and some of the first ideas for that conservation were developed by Doug, by sketches that Doug had prepared. Of course, Doug came from- Doug’s home was in Victoria.
Well, some of my ideas for neighbourhood design in fact came out of working with Harold. Harold produced several very important books that had a significant influence on physical planning in Canada. One of them was How to Subdivide. And I was employed by Harold to do the illustrations and to prepare a model that appears in that book. And I’ll never forget meeting deadlines for Harold, which I think has always been a problem!
Did you work with him in Montreal as well when you were a student?
No, I never worked with Harold in his professional practice. It was only in his academic work, which was largely funded by CMHC and the close connections that Harold and John Bland had with Humphrey Carver, who was responsible for the research activities at CMHC.
My transition, as I indicated, from university to profession was really a big shock because I was asked to take on major responsibilities that, quite frankly, in retrospect, was a boy scout doing a mature adult’s work. And part of the reason that I left the city of Edmonton is I was becoming increasingly concerned about the quality of the work that we were doing and I wanted it to be more thoughtful without being quite sure where that deeper thought would lead. And in fact, before I left, I went to see the mayor and I said, “Mr. Mayor, what we are doing, what we are- to use the language I would use today, we are trivializing the planning process by doing rapid physical designs without thinking deeply about the implications and we ought to be putting more thought into what we are doing. And he said, “Thank you very much. Please stay on”. And I said, “Thank you very much. I’m going”. Well, Bill Hawrelak, for those who know Canadian politics, ended up in jail.
Ah yes. The ex-mayor of Edmonton, that’s right.
But he was a dynamic leader and he urged me to stay on. And who knows what my career may have been had I stayed on.
And then you went to Victoria, which-
I went to Victoria. And I suppose underlying all this is, at this early stage in my career, planning was still a very technocratic process detached from the public, applying professional values which I don’t think were very- which weren’ t sufficiently deep at that time or at least in my view, they weren’t.
I don’t think Harold would disagree with you on that point. I was just going to ask you, after you were into Victoria, where did you go? Did you come to Vancouver?
Well, I left Victoria for another challenge as the assistant director of planning for the city of Vancouver. I was interested in more sophisticated land use; transportation modeling that was being done in the city. Transportation modeling that I had previously done was with a Jiffy marker. And here these guys were using the very earliest versions of the computer, which were still a vacuum tube machine. And this fascinated me and I thought that maybe there’s a new way of approaching city planning with this new technology. But believe me, it has its grave limitations. And I found out about those. So I went to the city of Vancouver, where my relationships or my work involved strong inter-departmental relationships. A lot of time- this was the first big, really big bureaucracy I worked in and I got really distressed by the amount of time that the planners took speaking to each other and with other bureaucrats. But I was often put on stage to represent the planning department before the city council, and I suppose I began to play a somewhat overt political role in this process and was criticized from time to time by the mayor, who said, “Look. You’ re not a politician. Stick to planning”. But you can’t separate them! So I suppose I may have honed my public presentation skills in that process. Without denigrating the politicians, you got to be succinct and you got to know what it is you’re going to tell them. And I gained a reputation for making clear presentations to the council. And I think that led me to believe I may have some potential as a teacher. Peter Oberlander, who also spent some time at McGill, was the director of the School of Planning at UBC, which was very small, but had received a development grant from the Mellon foundation and the faculty was being expanded and having someone with good professional experience was of some importance to Peter and I somehow was fortunate in being appointed to the UBC faculty.
Part of the push out of the city of Vancouver was all the time I spent speaking to other bureaucrats. So that last thing I wanted was another administrative job. But Peter, God bless him, two or three years after I joined the faculty at UBC, decided to join the new Ministry of State for Urban Affairs, where he was the initial secretary. Something I believe he arranged by personal relationships with Pierre Trudeau. In any event, I was then asked to be acting director of the school and then the director of the school, which is how I spent most of time at UBC, but I didn’t allow this to reduce the amount of time I spent teaching and in particular supervising student theses. Towards the end of my career at UBC, which I think was the most important part of my professional career. I believe I may have made a contribution to the personal development of a lot of people who have gone on to do something quite significant with their lives.
Towards the end of my career at UBC, I had an opportunity to find a way of realizing my long-term interest in the third world. And we developed several projects with CIDA assistance. Well, we applied for grants to CIDA for programmes that they had to establish. And we established a programme in Thailand and subsequently in China through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. And my deep interest over the last five or six years, really has been in Asia. After Thailand, it was Vietnam, which it still is, and China, which it is very, very strongly. Now, one of the difficulties in working in China is that I don’t speak Chinese. And there are huge problems in translation. Concepts, words, meanings break down across this linguistic and cultural barrier. So it’s very, very difficult. Nevertheless, many of my works have been translated and an increasingly small, elite group of recent graduates, graduate students and recent graduates, are fairly fluent in English. So I’ve had good contact with them.
My particular interest at the moment is the transformation of planning education in China. And I’ve attended several meetings on this subject, prepared several papers on this subject and I hope that, in due course, I will have opened up some possibilities in this area for the Chinese to think about. The last thing I believe I or others like me ought to be doing is recommending to the Chinese what they should do. And I hope I’m not being- deceiving myself in believing that I don’t have a hidden agenda. Yes, I do have a hidden agenda. The agenda is to make them aware of the choices that they face. And I try to do this as honestly as possible. But even when I make them aware of the choices that are available, I am making some choices. I am deciding what to present, how to present it and when I say I don’t believe we should be making recommendations, we can’t help but have some kind of influence, although I try to guard against it. The Chinese for their part are always- take the opposite view: “You’re supposed to know. Tell us what to do!” Now whether they will do it or not is another matter. So we’re constantly having a battle in this regard. So I am in some sense- because of the linguistic barrier, this is a frustrating experience. Trying to understand Chinese society is an impossibility, even for great Chinese scholars. Although I have spent a lot of time reading and speaking and meeting, I don’t claim to be that knowledgeable, although I do have some insights. So it’s been a long way from Jeanne-Mance and Fairmount to Beijing. But somehow or other, McGill opened up those opportunities. I suppose I’ve been a Sinophile. I’ve been interested in China for a long, long time. And I suppose I have an opportunity through my professional knowledge, my teaching experience, of realizing some of those interests in a very tangible, very tangible way. I feel- everyone knows that to accomplish anything in China takes some time and very strong interpersonal relationships. So sitting right where I’m sitting right now have been the leading academics and professionals. They’ve been to my house, I’ve been to their house and this is a way that communication is enhanced and there is a greater possibility that you’ll be taken seriously in this work.
So what else can I tell you, Jim? McGill has been a great experience, getting back to the beginning. It was great because here was a young, very immature person of very limited capability who had an experience at McGill that allowed him to, at least in my view, blossom very late in his career. But I’m quite convinced that without the experience at McGill, well, the connection may be tenuous that blossoming would have never occurred. Those horizons were latent. They were there. They were implied by high standards at McGill, although, the student who had poor standards, like myself, was not discouraged. And they were implied by my perception of an elite group of students who were around me, who have clearly made a mark: Arthur and Doug, van Ginkel and then Blanche Lemco and a host of others, who seemed to be very mature and knowledgeable in this field and clearly were based on their subsequent career. So all and all, I have a very, very fond memory of this experience.