Guy Desbarats

B.Arch. 1948 Georgeville, QC November 11, 1998

Well, becoming an architect was a funny thing. I started renovating our own house and neighbours’ houses in Beaurepaire near Sainte Anne de Bellevue when I guess I was about fourteen. And it was really a reflection on the later days of the depression. We were in a summer cottage that was not in good shape that was quite uncomfortable, no foundations practically. And I looked for better housing. And with my mother who was of the same mind, but Dad was having business problems, and so I spent a lot of time drawing and renovating houses and reading books about this, on the subject. But that led nowhere. I was- eventually, for various reasons, decided to go to McGill in Engineering, in Civil Engineering. I think mainly because Dad used to say all his architect friends during the depression were selling refrigerators. And he had absolutely no faith in art or in architecture. And I had wanted desperately to go to the Beaux Arts and become an artist. And this terrified him, I think. There were a number of people who were quite good artists in the family, an aunt, one of my father’s sisters and so on. And so I continued drawing and I continued doing a bit of sculpture and that sort of stuff and started in Engineering at McGill after a very patchy education. I had been to College Sainte-Marie Classical College and was withdrawn rather speedily by Dad after four years there when we were asked to do a fascist salute to Franco in a particular movie about Franco. And also, I think Dad had run out of money, this was 1935 I’m talking about. No, later than that, it was ’38. And I went to a village school in Pointe Claire for a year and a half, couldn’ t stand it. Then had the most wonderful year of my life studying on the beach at home, on Lake Saint Louis all by myself. I rigged up a Junior Matric programme at the age of fifteen, and with Drawing and Geography and all the easy subjects and I got in- I passed my Junior Matric that way, quite handily. And then went to Catholic High, took Senior Matric, and was the only one who passed out of a class of sixteen. And then we all tried to get into the Navy. It was 1941. And then I had to decide what I was going to do. And it seemed as though the only sensible thing was to go into Civil Engineering, for various reasons. I had also wanted to be a ship designer, and I tried to get- I wanted to be a naval architect. And that was an architectural thing, I suppose. But I drew yachts and I built a small one with my older brother, Jean. But Dad said there was no way he could afford it. In fact, he was quite mortified that I should dare to ask, I think. And so I started in Civil Engineering at McGill.


What year was that, what, 194-?



’42. And I had a pretty good first year, made a lot of good friends who are still friends and whose names all start with D or C, we were all seated that way in the giant, in the big, to me at the time giant drafting room. But then we had Survey School in Montebello. And I had a few friends, these friends in Engineering and that was fine, but I met the gang of architects who were taking the same Survey School. [Ewi Haff​ide] whose beautiful painting of plum blossoms is behind you, and he’s a super artist. He’s still alive in Ottawa. And he was in Architecture in a year ahead or two, a year ahead of me. And Ray was there and several others who became my lifelong friends, in effect. And then I went back after military camp and all that, back into second year Civil. And somehow or other, the war was going very badly, really very badly. I can’t remember, I guess it was in ’41, I remember passing by the McGill Roddick gates, and I just found out that the Hood had been sunk. And I was a fan of naval ships and I knew them all. And I was weeping. It was just awful and it was a very depressing time. My brother had disappeared in the Air Force in Northern Ireland or some place. He wasn’t killed, he just didn’t have any translators for his letters in French, believe it or not, and the censors were holding them back without warning my parents. It was awful. It was a terrible autumn. And between the COTC to midnight and the train back to Beaurepaire and so on, and up at six thirty or so, I was gradually coming unravelled. By Christmastime, I knew I’d failed no matter what. I just couldn’ t make it. And I was quite sick. I was sick for six months after that. It wasn’t a nervous breakdown; it was, I don’t know, some other strange diagnosis. But anyway, I couldn’t go back to work.


And I had to decide, “what the hell do I do next?” I was just terrified to go back into Engineering. I knew my Maths from my strange previous education were just not strong enough. I’d done okay in Senior Matric, I’d done fine in first year. And then at McGill in Calculus in second year Engineering, we had Jillson, Professor Jillson. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him. He left McGill that year to become President of University of Manitoba. I called him Old Horseface. He was extraordinary. He was brilliant. He couldn’t tolerate ordinary students. And he tried to teach us Calculus and it was just beyond me. I just couldn’t understand a word. And then Electricity did me in totally. I asked questions that nobody could answer and that I’ve since realized can’t be answered. They were fundamental questions about the nature of electricity and, of course, I could never remember the formula. So I thought, well, I started drawing again a lot. And I decided- I had been painting a bit while I was in Engineering, mad abstractions and so on. And I thought my problem is that I can’ t stand Engineering, really. But as I found out later, it was very valuable stuff. And I, well, I decided on Architecture then and there. And I told Dad I was going in, and he said, “You’re on your own. You’re on your own. I can’t help you anymore”. And I said, “Fine”. And I managed with scholarships, with bursaries, you know, odd summer jobs and so on. And I never, never looked back.


Were the classes- what size were the classes in those years?

Well, when I started it was a very interesting situation. I tried to get into the- what was then the second year I think, or third year. There were two programmes running parallel. Ray and Bob Cripps and co. were in the older programme and so were my future classmates, particularly people like Nubby Robertson, Marilyn Robertson, Nan Luke, several others. And they had the old five-year programme. I walked in with John Bland’s sort of- at John Bland’s best, as he really wanted me in the new programme because it was a half-Engineering programme. We took a lot of Structure, Concrete Structures, Bridge Design, Shaft Design, and I actually liked it and I managed quite well. We were only four of us, Manny Lararovitz, Martin Sterlin, Arnold Shrier and myself. And we had a grand time. We took all these new courses, but all the rest, our studios and so on, were with the rest of second year. This was second year I got into, so it must have been third year I was trying to get into, but John said, “No, no, no, no”. And he was quite right, I think. So from there on in, it was glory day. I was right in my own field. I did extremely well right away. I could draw all day and other things: the library. The best thing to me about my four years as a student at McGill in Architecture was the McLennan Room. I don’t know if you remember it. In the old library, it was a real gentleman’s clubroom with nice big fat leather seats, books all around you, an excellent architectural library, and the only rights of any undergrad students, to my knowledge, to use the whole stack. So-


That building is still there.

The old McLennan.

The old McLennan, yeah.

The old building, the old library, you know, with the great, beautiful Gothic hall and so on. It was in the stacks, the glass-floored stacks. Do you remember those?

Oh yeah, sure, yeah.

Beautiful, beautiful. And so we would study everything, you know, art, religion, sex, psychology, you name it. It gave me an absolutely forever-undying love of libraries. And when I became a Dean at the University of Montreal, the first thing I did was hired a super librarian and really zipped up, zapped up the library completely. And so they have quite a good library now. So I felt I learned an awful lot through the library to start with. But then, I think, through the other students. And we had a lot of fun. I mean, Doug Shadbolt and I drew giant Picass-


So Doug was part of the class at that time, too?

He just started, I think, in ’46 or ’47. I’d been there a year. You know, I’ ll garble all this up, but I don’t think the timing matters a damn. This is an impressionist view of the whole situation. But mostly, I felt I had a hell of a lot of fun. And I don’t know that I learned that much. I had a great fondness for John Bland, his history courses. And I don’t know if you’ve read the tribute to John Bland at 80.


I think I was on the murals for the junior prom with Doug Shadbolt and this must have been ‘’46 I would think. Anyway, we blew up some beautiful Le Corbusier drawings into giant murals and we had a marvellous time the two of us doing this. And Doug became one of my best friends. And we correspond still and we’ve, you know, he’s sent me drafts and so on of the Ron Thom book and we comment on each other. But his present illness has me quite worried and I’ve been hoping to go there this fall to see him and review my various writings, present-day writings with him, but a number of family pressures and so on and others, some work, have kept me from doing it this fall. But I hope to do it soon. So anyway, we had a very good feel. The school was quite small. When I started, believe it or not, there were thirty-five students in the whole school.


In the whole school?

Yeah. So there were four in my year and eight in the other half of the second year. And it was a very good gang, but I palled around mainly with the guys, the people in third year and even in fourth year. People like Bob Cripps, I was telling you earlier, who had the carriage house near the art gallery, and they were kind enough to put me up when I missed my train after evenings of work gone late on the drawing board and that sort of thing. So among the professors, they were quite interesting and quite different. Enrico de Pierro, of course, people must have talked about. He was really an enormous enthusiast. And people don’t realize now the state of mind we were in. The modern movement was a discovery. The modern movement was an enormous excitement for us. It was a real cleansing of a whole lot of confusions. And I’m still a staunch modernist in the work I’ve done recently and so on, with perhaps an enrichment of more history and so on. But I still believe in form follows function, believe it or not. But Dippy gave us an enormous lift in terms of- he was a gentle guy.


Dippy is Enrico?

Enrico. Yeah, we called him Dippy. Everybody called him Dippy.

I interviewed him in June.

You’re going to interview him?

I’ve already interviewed him.

In London?


Oh excellent!

I’ll tell you more about that after this.

Oh, I’d love to hear more about him. Well, another influence I forgot to mention, while I was ill that steered me to architecture, I hope you don’t mind, I’ll hop a little back and forth, was an architect by the name of Dick Eve. His father had been a physicist at McGill, the famous Mendelhall, Eve and Keys physics books that I think we probably all had. And Dick was an architect, knew John Bland well. And he built a house, built- he remodelled a house in Beaurepaire during the late depression in the late thirties, and we became, our family became very good friends of his. He was trying to make, you know, making a sort of a living as a sort of estimator and property evaluator for the Royal Trust. That was the sort of thing architects had to do. There was no work for them to design. But he had enormous good taste. He was married to a very interesting English woman, and he had the most beautiful furniture. He had a collection of Aalto’s bent wood furniture. This was in 1939, ’40, ’41,’42. And a mix of very beautiful old British furniture. Carved oak sideboards and things like that. But he had dug his own foundation, he had only one lung and he was not well and so on. So it was a real depression kind of situation but with some marvellous cultural counterpoints to the whole thing. And while I was ill as I mentioned earlier, he loaned me a lot of books. And I literally went crazy about Henry Moore and the various British artists of that time, the lady whose name is escaping me at the moment, but anyway, and a lot of architectural books. And that, I think, was probably the strongest influence I had in my decision to go into architecture. And then added to that, the meeting with the fellows and girls. And he- I went and I was delighted, and not many years, about a year before he died, I met him again in London, he’d become a professor at the AA. And I was able to tell him what an influence he’d had on me at that time. Well, he’ d been extremely generous to me. I learned there, and I’ll- later on, it may not be part of this conversation, but the importance of mentors to young people. An absolutely immense importance and I carried this idea into my work in my faculty in school at University of Montreal.


So the other professors, to get back to them, were a pretty extraordinary crew. John Bland himself, well, I’ve written about in that book a tribute to him, which I won’t repeat myself. But I considered- some people didn’t consider him a good History professor, but I found him- had an absolute magic in bringing the history, or historical derivations of the buildings right around you in Montreal and turning them- turning you into a more knowledgeable person about the broader history. In other words, he could proceed from the immediately available material and steer you to the much broader interest. So I had a natural, maybe, interest ‘cause of my father’s interest in history. My daughter now is a History professor at McGill. So there’s a stream of that in the family. So John had a strong influence on me there. Although at times, he could be disconcerting, because he laughed when he couldn’t answer a question. And for young people, this could be mortifying, but we loved him just the same, considerably. And others, well, there was Fred Lasserre. Poor Fred Lasserre who had a lot of difficulty with his fingers and his hands, explaining things and it was a bit twisted. But he was a good technician. He knew good detailing and so on. And then he left in my last year. I think he left for UBC. And who else was there at the time? Well, Gordon Webber, of course. And Gordon became a great friend and we kept up with him. And I travelled; I toured Europe. I got a car at one point while I was in Ottawa, around in ’51 and Arthur Erickson, Gordon and I toured Europe for three months together.

Interesting, yeah.

We had a whale of a time. My only problem was that I had to do all the driving because, of course, Gordon couldn’t drive with his infirmities, and Arthur, I tried to let him drive, but I feared for my life and for my car. But we had a great trip. Anyway, that was part of it.


You know, I often think about some of the students. You know, you get very friendly, very fond with some of them, and then, of course, you never see them again. There are some I see still quite frequently, for instance, Blanche van Ginkel, we meet quite regularly. She’s had a bit of an academic career as well as myself, so we’d have met over the whole academic business, and as friends. She was a very good friend of my wife’s, of Aileen’s, ‘cause Aileen took two Master’s degree at McGill at the time, Planning, Geography and so on. And I think of Alla Mendelson, for instance, who used to be in New York. I don’t know what’s happened to Alla, but she was a wonderful person. And, who else? There were so many! Well, in my own class, for goodness sake, Hanka Rosten, I’ve seen once or twice since. She’s practicing in New York, or was until the last time I met her a few years back. And, goodness, I wish I’d thought of more, I don’t want to miss- well, there’s Lionel Loshak, of course. Lionel, I think was in my year, or one year behind or flunked some exams and ended up one year after. But we see them regularly. He was in Ottawa and our careers, our career paths crossed a bit occasionally. I was able to help him get out of England. He’d had a terrible sickness. His eye, one eye- he nearly lost his sight, some infection and so on. And he came to work in Ottawa, Central Mortgage, in the days when it was called Central Mortgage, Canada Mortgage and Housing. And so we’ve maintained contact. We see them every time we go to England. I have a son who lives in England and has lived there for a long time, so we visit the Loshaks every time. He’s retired quite a few years ago. And, oh, who the heck else? Well, Paul Schoeler in Ottawa is the Godfather of our daughter. He’s a bit of a character, but there we are. We’re very fond of him too. So we have lots of friends.


What you’re telling me is unusual, because a lot of the people with whom I’ve talked have few connections with the people in their class.


It might have been because the classes more recently have been larger and they’ re probably-

Maybe. We really knew each other. And we just about lived in the school, as you know, it was an all night affair quite often. The other one, of course, that I’ ve mentioned before, and whom I think about a lot these days is Doug Shadbolt because our careers were incredibly intertwined. We kept either helping or hindering, I’m not sure, but I think mainly helping each other’s careers. Doug was responsible for my last main move, the one to become Assistance Deputy Minister in Ottawa in Public Works, when I became ADM Design and Construction. And that, he’d kind of engineered with the policy planner there. They were desperate. They had some bad problems, so they invited me, and I decided I’d done my time at the university. But I also interfered with his life by recommending him several times. I was on committees to found schools of architecture in Nova Scotia Tech, and at Carleton and so on. And I recommended him with monotonous regularity, and he got those jobs and then latterly, as part of my academic [tape glitch] UBC and suggest that it was high time they invited him back to British Columbia, and of course, he got the job right away. And I’d been offered Carleton and McGill, believe it or not at one time or another, but having done the deanship, I’d had, I think, some quite exciting years at University of Montreal, I wasn’t about to start all over again, particularly on the smaller scale. Because that- after graduation, I had an interesting time. Of course, I had about eighteen years-


Just before, Guy, I wanted to ask you, you mentioned Ray earlier. But was Ray part of your class at McGill in the School of Architecture?

He was a year ahead of me.

Oh, a year ahead, okay.


So he had already graduated when you graduated.

He graduated and then he went to, first to Yugoslavia, I think, and then worked on the railroad, and then he worked in Switzerland for a year or two, I think. Then he came back to Montreal and worked for Cecil McDougal. And I worked, I went to work almost right away after graduation with Watson Balharrie in Ottawa. I was only interested in getting a good modernist office. And it was either Parkin’s in Toronto or Watson. And I knew Watson well and he accepted me right away. And Ottawa, I had a lot of relatives in Ottawa, I still have.


So what year would that have been, 194-?


’48, okay.

’48. I graduated in ’48.

So did you stay in Ottawa for a while?

Five years.

Five years.

Five years with Balharrie, yeah.

And then you-

And then John Bland kind of suggested I might be interested, I guess I must have told him, we would meet fairly often, told him that I had had enough of Ottawa, or the firm had had enough of me, I’m not sure which it was. I was told at one point over a glass of scotch that there was no room for a French Canadian Catholic in the office of Abra, Balharrie and Shore! So I accepted the scotch and got the hint and rearranged my career. In fact, I’d had Ottawa by then. I had five great years there. It was not bad at all. No Ron Brand, did you know Ron?


The name is familiar.

Another very good friend. He died just a few years ago. They’re all dead, God damn it! And here I am still jumping around!

Let’s keep it that way!

All my partners are gone, every one of them.

I’m digressing for a second, but there was a fellow by the name of, a friend of somebody you’re going to mention perhaps later, Jim Strutt. He was an architect.

Jim, I see, and I phone him once and awhile.

Yeah. He wasn’t from McGill, of course but-

No, but he knew- he was really Bill Dawson’s architect.

So then you came back after then.

So I came back after then, having had in Ottawa, thanks to John Bland, a most wonderful relationship with Donald Buchanan. Donald had become in his later years Associate Director of the National Gallery. And he really became my mentor in Ottawa, introduced me to interesting clients. I did Davidson Dunton’ s house in Ottawa at that point. He was head of CBC. And introduced me to all kinds of interesting people. And got me used to government. Donald was a sort of protégé of C.D. Howe’s at some point, and he founded the Industrial Design Council. Well, I’ve always had a great flaw in my understanding of architecture or something, but people of Harold Spence-Sales, whom I hadn’t mentioned yet, helped me understand the continuity of design from landscape to house to architecture to furniture to interiors to graphics, you name it. He could be a most difficult man and a very arbitrary and unfair person, but, boy, he was talented, don’t make any mistake, very talented. And one got these things from them. And I had the good fortune then of being involved with Donald in the founding of the Industrial Design Council of Canada. So I did the first display of Canadian industrial products for the first industrial design show ever in Canada, in Toronto. So by the end of that time, and that was an introduction John Bland had given me. So then again John Bland, who, I guess had more of an influence on my career than I can say, he’d also, by the way, introduced me at the National Research Council to, oh, the old so-and-so, Colonel Legget, who hated architects. John Bland and I went in there and we couldn’t quite understand why we were evacuated as quickly as we were. But I found out later that Legget had absolutely no respect for architects. Which, again, is going to be a thread in my career. I want to say right away before we get further, that what started in me, I realize now, at McGill was a deep interest in the knowledge systems of architecture and by extension, of the construction industry. And if people think my career was weird, I’ll counter by saying it had one enormous constant in it, which was to try to understand why we had so little credibility as architects and how our knowledge systems related to the knowledge systems of other more successful professions, engineers and so on. And I jump forward a bit, but it’s going to explain better some things I’m going to try to tell you if I have time. That I became extremely concerned by the death of knowledge in the architectural profession induced- brought about by the Depression and by the war. If Arcop was lucky, it was because we suddenly brought together a fairly strong group and rapidly grew to the point where we could develop. For instance, we had three spec writers for quite awhile. And the spec writers, and now the Association of- the Canadian Spec Writers Association, are in my mind the keepers of the knowledge system for a good deal of architecture and the construction industry. So it became a late motif in my life that I was always poking beyond the edges of the job itself. And I did spend an awful lot of time, sometimes, I think, at the annoyance of my partners, expanding.


Was that theory more or less thinking in terms of Canadian architecture or worldwide? Because certainly-

Oh, it’s a worldwide phenomenon. It’s a worldwide- having been, you know, immersed in engineering for a year and a half, and then for the remaining four years, very close to civil engineers because of the course programme, and also because of family. There were a lot of engineers in my mother’s family. One of them was very much involved in the Quebec bridge. Mother’s oldest brother had been a hydrographer for Canadian Hydrographic Survey. And a brother-in-law was a well-known Math professor and hydrographer at Laval University and so on. And in Dad’s family, the most successful of Dad’s brothers was a chemical engineer. He was head of the atomic energy at- up the river, Chalk River. So I had an engineering- I realize now, you know, you don’ t realize it at the time, it’s only when you start thinking and writing about it after you retire I think, that you see where you come from. So I had a strong sense that architecture was not doing the right things. But I did feel, and I certainly say in this tribute to John Bland, what I felt John was doing right in his whole programme and even in the new programme that I entered into, and I go so far now as to really feel that architects should be an awful lot closer to engineering. So I’m jumping ahead. But in terms of career, then when I came back from Ottawa, I had a year of- at McGill with Spence-Sales and John Bland, on a fellowship or whatever it was called, a sort of grant from Central Mortgage and Housing to study the impact of legislation, of the earlier legislation on housing in Canada, in Montreal in particular. I studied 27,000 duplexes and triplexes; it was multiple housing, in Montreal and improved them, just as I’d always done as a kid. And the one and only report, because this was before fax machines, copy machines or anything, is in the McGill Library. And I still think it’s interesting. Every time I look at a duplex, I think I know the plan. I know it backwards. But that got done. And I met Aileen there. She was working with Spence-Sales on a planning, with hilariously funny stories of going on and on. And apparently, I was supposed to have come back from Ottawa after a sad love affair and so on. And I apparently I swiped cigarettes from people because I had stopped smoking and so on. Oh, we had a great time. And I fell in love with Aileen because I was defending here against Spence-Sales. So that was a great help from a great man. I remember pouring tea for her trying to calm her irritation at some injustice he’d perpetrated again. We were a very tightly-knit group of friends and we’re mainly still friends, the group that met in that context.



So that was a good year. And by then, Ray and I were meeting once in awhile. And suddenly, Jean Michaud, whom I hadn’t talked about, who was a friend of ours, he’d been two, three years ahead of us and a very pleasant man, incredible humorous- really quite amusing. Not enormously talented, but he needed help. Mostly lacking in self-conf​idence, rich family and maybe a little spoiled, but a dear friend, a very good friend. And he had acquired through good political contacts, his father was a sort of a bagman of the Liberal Party, got hold of the job for the Mount Royal, Town of Mount Royal post office. And he asked Ray to do it with him. And Ray asked me then, and he said, “Well, you know, we’ve been talking enough about starting an office. Maybe we should try”. I had a few jobs coming in, a factory in St. Andrews East, and some houses and so on, on my own. And I had done the National Gallery competition all by myself and Ray had done it with Rother, Bland, Trudeau. He seemed to be with them for a bit. And so we started- decided to rent a little apartment, a basement, a very nice basement apartment on the corner of Kensington and Sherbrooke, and started to- working together on a loose, not a partnership, just an expense-sharing sort of arrangement. And Ray and Jean started doing the post office, and had all kinds of little problems. And I pinched hit to help with detailing and so on. And then a little later, Hazen Sise had been looming. He was teaching History at McGill and we had known him vaguely for one reason or another. I kept going back there giving the odd lecture. I didn’t say I was- John had me in with Howard Fisher. That was another enormous influence on my life. Crazy, Chicago architect, crazy brilliant. A wonderful man. And we ran a three-month construction programme, very much like Avi Friedman’s thing. We built a house. We built a lovely house. And I taught for six years, one day a week for McGill and the Beaux-Arts. I founded this laboratory, with, again, federal money, after the way I was taught by Howard Fisher.


So this was going on concurrently with your practice.

Oh, it’s all at the same time, all at the same time. So Hazen then brought- started to try to get a job for a parks pavilion on the mountain, the Beaver Lake Pavilion. So that was my first big job. And Hazen and I did it, well, Hazen brought it in but he had to have me, because he needed a French name.

And that would have been, Guy, probably, what ’54, ’55?

’54, ’55. Yeah.

I remember that.

I couldn’t give you the exact dates but who cares?

Who cares? It’s not relevant now.

So, well I did it lock, stock and barrel. Poor old Hazen, it cost me many bottles of bourbon to keep him happy while I was doing it, but he was an enormously talented critic. He was quite an intellectual. Good historian, he knew all the greats. He knew Philip Johnson, he knew Le Corbusier and so on. So he was a kind of, well, not a mentor, because we were as much his mentors as he was ours. He had never practiced, he had never practiced. He’d traveled and so on. So, well, I worked like a dog on that, and the building is still there, and it’s being protected as a historic monument at the moment, which makes me feel great.


Did you do the freeform lake? Was that part of your project?

Not the lake, but the terraces.

The terraces, okay. I’ve spent all of my life on the mountain, because I’ ve lived right downtown. And ever since I’ve been twenty years of age, I used to take my kids up on the mountain. I love it. We’re very fortunate, yeah.

Well, the pavilion’s fairly popular.

Still is.

It began another stream in my career. I might as well introduce them. I was determined to be a regionalist. And believe it or not, that building, the plan and the structure and so on, not the structure but the way it sits and the massing, were inspired by a good French Canadian farmhouse I knew back near Mirabel, built a bit on a hillside with verandas. It’s a basic French Canadian farmhouse type. But I’m not a regionalist in a historicism kind of- with a historicism orientation. I think that if I may say, and I’m not going to toot my own horn too much on this, but I had roots in Quebec and in Canada that few of my partners shared. Ray was from BC; Dimmy was from Greece. Hazen shared them. Hazen shared them. I could talk to Hazen about these things. Fred, of course, was from somewhere else again. And so I produced a series of buildings in my career, which someday I might get together, but in the writings I’m doing, I try to trace this, all the way from the Beaver Lake Pavilion through the Drummondville old folks home, which you’ve never probably seen, but it’s a real village of buildings but in very modern technology.


Plus the church that you did in Saint-Jean.

The church in Saint-Jean. Well, that’s as much, I owe as much to Aalto as to anybody in that one. Because Aalto quickly became my hero, and still is. I think Canada misses the boat completely by not sharing the modesty and the inventiveness and the simplicity of Scandinavian architecture. It’s my sorrow that somebody like Moshe, who’s very talented, who has all kinds of things, went for power architecture rather than a Scandinavian sort of thing for the National Gallery. Canada reminds me of Lafontaine’s fable of the frog that would be an ox. We’re forever blowing ourselves up out of scale. And so I try to maintain the sense of scale through my practice.


The scale is probably due to the size of the country as opposed to the number of people.

Well, we’re torn between thinking we’re big, and really being fairly small. We’ re smallish regionally. And you can’t be pompous in a climate as difficult as ours. You’re forever having to dress yourself in undignified ways and so on. You can’t go around pretending you’re a New York power man.


But I’m interested, because you started talking about your formation of Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos and I can see it coming. Now we’re around fifty- you had the Beaver Lake Pavilion. And then what happened-?

And then the competitions started. And we entered them individually or in teams of two. And we forever won second and third prizes. And one day Fred and I did the Home ’53. And I had a lot of fun with that, because I beat out my partners and Victor Proust.

Now, Home ’53?

Home ’53. Chatelaine, I think.

Oh yeah, okay, right, right, yeah.

And I had done a doodle, a plan, and Fred looked at it. He was teaching at McGill and for some reason, his office was nearly opposite ours on Sherbrooke. And I said, “”Look, I’ve got a plan”. And he said, “ Come on! Draw it up!” And being Fred, he cracked the whip, and sat me down. I was always a little, maybe less self-conf​ident. I was younger than my other partners. So he made me draw it up. And he, you know, mailed it and did all the necessary things. And we won it. And Ray, I think, came third and Victor came second or something. It was really our gang. And then one day, we met, and said- because Ray and I had done the competition for the Ottawa police station, I think, or justice building. It was a combination police station and court, local court, municipal court. Well, we won second prize and Peter Dickinson won the first prize. So we met, we’d meet for lunch or walks on Sherbrooke Street in Westmount. And we thought, “What the hell, why don’t we get together for this damn Vancouver competition. Maybe if we get all our second prizes together, we’ll come out with a first. And that was really the beginning of Arcop. Dimmy had the competition requirements, and was doing it and had pretty much finished his thesis when he’ d- he’d been working for Fred to make money.


He was at McGill?

He was finishing at McGill. He was in his final year then. And John was very annoyed with him for doing that. I guess he figured he was getting help from us. But the reality was the reverse. We were using Dimmy. He was delighted to be in on it. And we altered his scheme somewhat. But anyway, we analyzed things with our beginnings of our groupthink, our simulation technique. And this is the most important part of the Arcop history. I’ve written quite a lot about it. Someday, it’s going to get out of here if I ever finish typing it. I’m word-processing the whole thing with some difficulty.


Tell us, talk a little bit about that.

Yeah. Well, it’s what, I think, made Arcop famous, and people don’t know why. We then started winning competitions in earnest, and we went all the way through to even winning the big Fathers of the Confederation Building, which I think was probably the most important building we ever did. And another thing that I feel strongly about is giving Dimmy his due. I don’t think history in Montreal has given Dimmy his due. His later works have been criticized a lot, as Arthur Erickson’s, and they were produced alone. Whereas the earlier works were produced- concepts were individual, always have to be, but they were adopted by the group and processed in a sense, refined by the group. And the whole- Arcop had some enormous ideals, ideals that were not finally able to stand the attacks or the assaults of publicity. Time Magazine and Macleans pretty much ruined Arcop, because partners began, particularly some of them, and I won’t name them for this charming interview. I’ll keep it for a later, more damaging and dangerous set of writings.


The power of Arcop was a power of analysis and a long, drawn out programming and simulation situations, where we were really able to think of what we were doing. Arcop spent usually about half its fees during the design period, not during the working drawing periods. Most architects were 10 to 90 practically. We were almost 50/50. And we were heavily into engineering fees because we didn’ t decorate. We exposed structure and you know what that did to fees. So we were not a moneymaking machine, but we did all right. We did fine. But as we got busier, winning competitions and doing the buildings after competitions was a lot easier than dealing with major clients later on, won through individual approaches. When you win a competition, you have a leg up on the client. It’s tough to say. Most governments in North America hate competitions because it gives the architect too much power. And I don’t think associations realize that this is the problem with competitions. That once you’ve won a competition, it’s very hard for the client to alter what you’ve done. You have a legal right that’ s very strong. So Arcop was most successful doing- building buildings that it won in competition. And gradually, as that faded out, we got so busy. We never stopped work. The work poured in. We were in the heyday of the fifties and sixties. We didn’t know how lucky we were. And gradually, we got work from the reputation we’d gained. And when we got that work, we still were a very undisciplined bunch. We were a terribly undisciplined bunch. The clients usually had to face the six of us first. We had a terrible difficulty deciding who would be partner in charge of anything. With competitions, it was easier somehow. Not that easy, but some of us, for instance, Fred, was usually in on the tail end of building construction works, because he was a very good construction expert. He’d been head of British Army construction in Germany in the immediate post-war period. And he was older than we were, and very experienced in construction. And he was quite a good designer too. And all around, my favourite scoundrel, I’ve always called him.


It’s interesting as I sit here and listen to you, I was in the unique position of not only having worked with Arcop, but I also worked on projects with you on a project, [unclear] Church.

Dominion Gallery.

Dominion Gallery, that’s right, with Dr. Stern.


I worked more frequently with Ray. I worked with Dimmy on a project, which he had a great distaste for, it was the Canadian Bronze Powder Works in Valleyfield, which might have been after you had left. And I worked with Fred, of course, one of the first jobs I had was the Vanier Library at Loyola.

At Loyola. Oh, you worked on that, yeah. That was my job, but I wasn’t sure enough that I got on well with the Jesuits.

And the other thing, of course, I worked on Summerlea, which was a competition that you won, the Summerlea Golf Club.

Which one?

The Summerlea Golf Club.

Oh, God, yeah. That Dimmy and I designed.

And nobody could understand, the contractor, to this day I don’t think quite understood what he was building, because the columns, they had to build a model, if you recall, with reveals at the edges and-


The column was such construction work.

Well, we gave it to Ray to take over, but, well, that’s a whole other story I won’t go into. But it wasn’t quite the building Dimmy and I had designed, ‘cause Dimmy and I did all the designing on that.


It stood the test of time extremely well. I was out there recently and they’ve done their own-

People seem to like it.

Yeah, they’ve done their own modifications to it, but it’s still extremely powerful.

The only thing I found happened to it, it got squashed. It was a little more brisk in its early form. Anyway, the sort of problem that I was alluding to in terms of- because people always ask me why did Arcop blow up in 1970. I’ve been asked that by so many people. And it was, as I say two things. It was the search for personal satisfaction, different orientations fundamentally between different architects, different partners, and the whole publicity business. There were pictures put up as to which partner really had done things. I won’t even say which partner or where the picture was put up, but it was ten times life-size at the opening night. And other partners, who had really done the design, were very, very hurt.


The interesting thing, Guy, and I’m sorry for interjecting, but somebody who knew all of you realized that you could never stay together, because you were all very powerful individuals. I mean that’s very interesting, [unclear]

Well, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think five of us could have stayed together, and one not. And I won’t name names, no pack-drill, etc. Not for this, delightful in memoriam! It was, of course, difficulties of that sort. But you can add to that the fall of work and of economics in Montreal right after Expo. That’s when the damage started. And I decided, I had written a paper on the future of Arcop. We had very good meetings, you know, in hotels, in the modern manner, to discuss our future. And I had written a paper. I had to make up my mind whether I was going to have another term as Dean, because I was working like a one-armed paper hanger. I founded the school, I founded the faculty. I was doing millions and millions of dollars of work in Arcop. I was planning Expo with Fred and Édouard Fiset. We did the master plan after van Ginkel got kicked out. It was thanks to van Ginkel’s early work, but still, we had to finish it. I was doing the theme pavilions, the Japanese pavilions as an associate architect, all kinds of work. I had never had so much work. And yet, I was full-time in two jobs, building a house in Outremont, raising a family, and all the rest. I survived, I don’t know why! But it was an extremely after that an extremely tough period economically. And that’s why I’d written this paper. And I said some tough things. I’d become more and more interested in management and in knowledge management, a word I’ve coined and I’ve written a fair bit about and published. But, well, one partner in particular, turned his back on me and wouldn’t even talk about it. So I thought, “this is going to be difficult. I have to make a choice here. I’m not going to… And I had health problems, mainly allergic, which I’ve mastered completely since, but they were tough at that time, very tough. And they related to sulfites in foods and additives and preservatives. And I thought “God, this is going to kill me if I stay here to fight for the rest of my life. I have other things to do. I’ve discovered I do like management. I’m a designer. I love designing, but I’m going to get out of here while the going is good. And I was the first of the four strong partners to leave. By then, Jean Michaud and Hazen, we’d retired for reasons too complicated to describe here.


So that was, what year did you leave?

That was December ’69, January ’70. And that really was the first and the beginning of the end for Arcop. Dimmy and Ray and Fred founded a new partnership, Lebensold, Affleck, Dimakopoulos, get the reverse from the alphabetical order, and that had enormous tensions in it and which blew up in one year with legal problems and all. I walked out fairly clean. I was able to talk to all of them. But I did one thing, which I bless the Lord for, is I insisted that all documents of any importance should go to the Quebec Archives, so that we could consult them at leisure, each of us, without having to pay obeisance to each other. That led us to some very interesting things later on.


Okay, we were talking about Arcop and some of the difficulties in it and some of the triumphs of all kinds. Certainly we were, I think, for a while the biggest firm in Canada, in pure architects, not architect and engineer. And I’ d founded, with my partners, but one area- I founded a lot of things like the interior design group and did some planning. Dimmy did some quite remarkable planning out West. And I tried to get the partners interested in research. I felt there was going to be a field of potential work there as other kinds of work disappeared. In my career, I became more and more interested in the building performance business. And that will explain why I did some things later that I couldn’t do at Arcop, because the partners were not supportive. I’ d brought up form Tennessee and old friend of mine, Julius Lukasiewicz, a brilliant Polish engineer who had been with National Research Council. And he studied for me the nature of architects’ capacity to do research. And I laugh like hell when I think about it, because he said, “Architects do research all the time. They do all sorts of useful stuff. They never record it, they don’t put down their premises, they don’t do anything that a normal scientist does. And then, of course, they never go back to their buildings to see if they’ve worked. So they do new research, but they don’t pin it down and they don’t publish, so nobody knows about it. And you don’t know the calamities and you don’t know the successes. So anyway, that’s one of the Arcop stories.


So after I decided to leave Arcop for all sorts of reasons, including the fact I really enjoyed the development or the idea of giving French Canada a faculty and Schools of Architecture and Planning and others in the French language in university. Because, as you probably all know, the teaching in French Canada was with the Beaux-Arts School. So when I was invited to do that, I couldn’t refuse. I was invited mainly by a Boston architect, Jean-Paul Carlhian, who was on the- he was with Shepley Bulfinch, and still is, as far as I know, in Boston. And he was interested in what Arcop had done. So we had a long, three-hour period over drinks in the Queen Elizabeth one day, and I didn’t know why, but within a few months, I had accepted to take on the job at the university part-time. And I had six years of that, from ’64 to ’70. And these were very hard-working years but I had a lot of fun. And I did get a very large School of Architecture, and finally, a faculty that is still going strong at University of Montreal, which- And I launched a Doctoral programme many, many years ago, and a Master’s programme, all of which are working out very well. Very popular with Europeans, French Students, and Americans, even. I had an interesting staff problem. I got rid of half the staff from the old Beaux-Arts in one fell swoop once, the first summer in ’64 and hired a lot of Montrealers. Good friends of mine, like Len Warshaw, who’d been- he was the first guy I hired. A super professor, who all spoke a smattering of French and very quickly learned more than a smattering. And a lot of people form Philadelphia, because I happened to have a few contacts, an old childhood friend who was at the Wharton School of Finance down there who helped me do- he was the son of an old friend of my mother’s as a matter of fact. He’d been a childhood friend of mine. So I was able to renew the staff on a much higher academic level. And the faculty rolled right along. And I had three terms. And then, frankly, I felt I’ d done it all and wanted to see if the thing could fly by itself or was I sustaining it too much.


And so when the offer came to go to Ottawa, as I mentioned earlier, Doug Shadbolt had had a hand in doing that to me. A lot of laughing by friends and acquaintances, “Why the hell are you going to Ottawa? What are you going to do there?” Well, my secret weapon was my knowledge management notion. I decided instead of going to MIT to the Sloane School for a year, which had been an alternative, I would try it out; I would just do it, which I did. And I was very much interested in the management of knowledge and professionals in the government. And I’ve done a bit of writing about that and I still think that governments haven’t quite recognized yet why they need this sort of information. I ended up drawing up concepts and policies for professionals in government, particularly construction industry people, but I could talk on that for hours so I’ll cut it short, but it’s really related to the whole knowledge management business. And professionals take an awful beating in government; they still do. I haven’t succeeded in altering that difficulty.


So that really is the- from then on, I retired after ten years and started a firm with an engineer friend, again, related to knowledge, a construction information firm, which we sold after a few years to Southams. And then I became an architect again. Did a lot of little houses, and now I’m doing mainly bathrooms and kitchens for my children and friends. My fees, which started- first house I did, I got a pen and pencil for, a big house in Ottawa, and now the best fee I’ve had in the last few years has been a case of wine…

Isn’t that interesting!

…which is very welcome. So that’s the story.


Well, it’s an interesting story. Do you have any thoughts as we sort of wrap this up about architecture today? I guess it’s too broad a subject-

A few words about architecture today! Oof! Read Martin Pauley’s book, Terminal Architecture. I have a lot of sympathy for the things he says. Some of them are perfectly stupid.

We were just talking about architecture.

Yeah, and its future and its present state and all that. Well, I was always a partisan of the whole notion that architecture was a very good general education and specialization should enter into it. And that one should be a lot more involved in research. That the staff should be much more clearly and definitely trained in specific areas of knowledge, whether building construction or programming, building types, in one direction of the matrix, and in specific knowledge subjects in the other direction. I felt that it was essential as universities were accepting more and more students that they should be able to understand that there were many, many more careers open to them and I defined a matrix with, I can’t remember, a hundred and twenty-seven different career paths that were possible. It was published slightly garbled in the Canadian Architect many years ago. The only happy thing I see at the moment is that the younger generation is talking a lot more about specialization. I know a lot of people, particularly in the professional associations, hate this. They think the architect is the great generalist and the number one dog and so on. And he just ain’t anymore. It’s just too tough a business. It’s a team business. I’m also still very worried about architecture as fashion, architecture as hero worship. And magazines love it. That, as I mentioned earlier, was part of the damage to Arcop, that they constantly want to know who really did it. You know, impossible that you should have all done it. I’m a great believer in the Hollywood credit lines for architectural projects. And I really feel that the kind of publicity hounds like Hannah Hadid, or whatever her name is, and Gehry and so on are fundamentally damaging to architecture. They create an expectation. It’ s showbiz and as Martin Pauley, or whatever his name is, says, it’s really like the fashion industry, like the clothing industry. And I think that’s sad. Construction is a much more serious game than that. Involves pain or happiness for millions of people at quite a different level than whether the skirts are long or short this year.


So I really believe that architecture needs to work a heck of a lot more at the structure of its knowledge system, at the content, the discrete parts of the content. I believe firmly that there should be a lot more conferencing between professors of the same subjects, more meetings. In other words, they should do like pharmacology, they should do like engineering, they should do like medicine. They should get into the orthodox systems of knowledge building. And I cannot repeat that with enough emphasis. Architects keep thinking they can do it their way. Their way is amateurish. The other ways, there are other ways, which are far more serious and far more successful of building knowledge in the world. I’ve exchanged with a brother-in-law of mine, for instance, who is head of research for Organon in Holland. And I’ve described to him my knowledge management approaches and so on. And I’ve compared knowledge systems with many other disciplines and industries, in effect. And architecture, and the whole construction industry is in its infancy. People, on the other hand, like Paul Fazio at Concordia is doing a remarkable job with his research centre. I’ve not always agreed on everything with Paul, but I think it’s the kind of direction that is needed in the construction industry and architects should take much more interest in what’s going on there, right in Montreal. We have to span an incredible breadth of knowledge, as medicine does. We have to feed ourselves on basic sciences. We have to understand them and have catchers’ mitts ready to apply them all the way from philosophy to electrical engineering. You know, through the whole bin. My models of knowledge systems are scanning systems in effect. And I won’ t go on in this, my family would fall asleep if I did, and maybe you would too, Jim! But the problem really with architects is their level of credibility and the confusion between who is credible, who makes a building stand up, who keeps it from burning you to a crisp. You know, how do you get up and down in it, and so on. And are we only really the cosmetic people? Are we pushing ourselves into a sort of thin skin cosmetic role in the whole thing? Very sad if we do.

Interesting. Thank you very much.

Amen, I therefore say to you!


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