Bissera Anderson

B.Arch. 1971 Montreal, QC July 1999

Well, I made a list of all the possible professions that I knew of and I thought about each one and listed the positive and negative aspects. And I came up with architecture and it seemed to be the best because it was artistic and it had a lot of the math and sciences, which I was good at and that was the decision.

And what year did you enter McGill? Why did you choose McGill, because-?

Well, that was- being an immigrant, I had just come in to Canada a couple of years before I entered McGill and I went to Montreal High School, which was across the street from McGill, the present FACE school. And I thought McGill was really neat. And I basically didn’t know anything else. McGill also is the best in Canada and that’s where I was going into architecture.

So you entered, what, in 1965?

’65, graduated ‘71. It was the old six-year course.

Six years. Now we want to know a little bit about some of your memories of McGill. The professors, not necessarily in any order, the ones that strike- had probably the most influence on you, the courses that you enjoyed the most.

Well, rather obvious, the one that had the best, the biggest influence is Bruce Anderson, whom I married!

That’s right!

And after him, I guess it would be Stuart Wilson. He was always helpful. He was always-. I always learned from him, even after I finished school, because I was always around the school going to lectures and picking up Bruce and always met him and I always loved to go into his office and spend time looking at all the books he was reading. And he read every kind of book he could lay his hands on. He was just wonderful. And all the paintings he did. He was always drawing.


When you said he was reading books, books of various subjects or-?

Books of any subject. I think he was the most widely read person I’ve ever met. He loved going to the second-hand bookstores all along the Main and various other places in Notre-Dame and he would come in with boxes of books on everything and anything. And I think that’s how he got interested in that- he was giving a course after I graduated on Geometry. He had read some fascinating book and thought that it was relevant to architecture. But he was fascinating. And the paintings he did! I have quite a few of them. The ones that were ready and the ones that he was just working on and just designing, I treasure them. They’re all in one room, hanging in one room in my house, each one of them.


There are not many people in Montreal, I would imagine, knew Stuart Wilson painted. Very few but not-.

There was an exhibit at the school a few years, about ten years ago? No, he was still alive at the time. And it was quite extraordinary because he painted in various mediums. He worked with Bruce on some silk-screening probably in the seventies, whereby the designs he did would be transferred onto the various colour separations and they’re quite, quite interesting. But watercolours. Actually, his gift to Bruce and me for our wedding was a watercolour of the parliament buildings in Ottawa, the Peace Tower. So that’ s-

Was it realistic or-?

Oh that is the only one that is realistic that I have.

I see.

And I have- the other person that comes to mind, a teacher, Gerry Tondino, Freehand Drawing. When I first started Freehand Drawing, I couldn’t draw. And he just persevered and taught me for three years.


He was giving the Freehand Drawing classes plus, I guess, he was involved in the Sketching School too.

He was involved in Sketching School. We had at that time two Sketching Schools, two summers. And one was in Pembroke, Ontario and the other one, the year after that was, I believe it was fifth year, after fifth year, was in Rivière-du-Loup. And I decided that the only way I can improve is to tag behind Stuart. So in the morning when he packs his paintings out, I asked him if I could join him. And we’d go and sketch by the river and the farm. And look at him how he drew it and how he mixed the colours and tried to copy it. It never turned out quite right, but-!


Did they used to have crits in the evening of the various sort of students’ works? It seemed to me that they did something after at the end of the day.

They did, they did. We also were required to have a certain number of watercolours, landscapes, a certain number of line drawings, a certain number of people studies, which, of course, were done in all the bars in the little towns we were at. It was the only place you could see strange people. And we had crits, probably not every night, but it was Gerry Tondino who was with us usually and Stuart Wilson that did the Sketching Schools and they were great.


And how about some of the other professors? Was Peter Collins teaching when you were there?

Peter Collins was teaching when I was there.

What sort of an impact did his course have on you?

Oh, Peter Collins gave a great course. He was a great lecturer. I learned a lot. But Peter Collins as a human being made my life fairly miserable. And if I had listened to Peter Collins, I wouldn’t have been an architect because when I was at school, the six-year course, the first year was basically engineering and science subjects. And the second year, we were part of the School of Architecture and that’s when we started History of Architecture. And Peter Collins used to always have special meetings arranged with the students whereby their name and their appointed time for seeing him appeared on the board. And my name appeared on the board and I went to see what it was about and Peter Collins thought that being a girl in architecture was not a good idea. That certainly would mess up my social life because there is no time to go out on dates and have fun. And girls usually, even if they graduated from architecture would just go and become a housewife and mind the kids after and never practice and take the place of a boy. And I was dumbfounded at this and I couldn’t even answer back, at which point he reached for the phone and he offered to pick up the phone and call his friends in Arts, in the Faculty of Arts and have me transferred in a jiffy. And I was shocked.


Of course, you were much younger and of course you’re always influenced. I mean this is a difficult thing to listen to.

Well, in my class at that time, I believe when we were in second year, I think it was sixty-eight in the class, students. I believe there was eight girls at the time out of the sixty-eight. As it turned out, only two graduated of that class.

And you were one of them.

Sandra Marshall and I. The others either went away, quit architecture, transferred to another school. A few transferred to University of Toronto, a lot of kids after third year. So-.

So you sort of had the impression, I heard this before, that he was tough on the females.

What was interesting is I, well, as I say, I was quite flabbergasted at that interview. The only thing I could say is that I thought I was at the best place to picking- having a wonderful time because there are four hundred engineers and there’s eight of us girls. Take your pick! But what was extraordinary was as the days went by, the girls, the eight of us, realized that each one had an interview with him for the same subject and the same topic.

And the outcome was pretty much-

The outcome was the same. All eight of us stayed in architecture. But he did definitely try his best to discourage women in architecture.


Today that, of course…

That today would never happen

…wouldn’t be tolerated. That’s right, yeah. But nonetheless, the course, once you got over that, the course itself you enjoyed, the history course.

Oh, the course was extraordinary!

He was very competent in that area.

Unfortunately later on, when I was I believe in fifth year, he took a sabbatical and got a degree, was it UCLA? And then he started teaching the course on jurisprudence in relation to the history of architecture, which was apparently a very interesting course, but I never took that. He basically taught us renaissance architecture. It was a great course. Of course, it was hard to follow the lectures the first years because I didn’t speak English very well. I remember specifically a lecture that Stuart was giving in the third year, which was the famous house and do the working drawing for a house and specifically the framing drawings. And he spent the whole lecture talking about roof framing and rafters. And I couldn’t find the word “rafters” in my dictionary so I didn’t know what he was talking about until the hour was finished and somebody explained to me what’s a rafter!


Now how about other professors? Did John Bland or Harold Spence-Sales or any other-?

John Bland taught me History of Quebec Architecture. And I worked with John one summer as a summer job at the School of Architecture. He was writing a book on a comparative analysis of Quebec churches. And my job was to find all the drawings, plans and sections, of each church that he had selected and redraw them so they were all to the same scale. And they were- it was fascinating because he had some very rare drawings, books from folios’ pages. So I learned how to draw that summer. I’m not even sure if that book ever got published, but we had an exhibit of all the drawings. They were mounted. And basically you had the plan, two elevations and a section of each church at the same scale, from the littlest one to the biggest one.


Now today, I guess, with the computer technology, you could do it [unclear].

Well, that would be probably, well, you would probably have to scan it. But in those days, it was just tracing, drawing, enlarging. So that was another summer job.

I’m trying to think of the other professors that were around at the time. Was Norbert then around?

Norbert was at the school. Norbert never taught me because he taught only, I believe, some planning course in fifth year and that’s when he took a sabbatical. So I never had him. We had- McGill had brought in a Professor Warren chalk from England, and he taught us studio with- I’m trying to remember now. There was a large studio. And also, Harold Spence-Sales was teaching us planning in fifth year. I think- yeah, we were his last class at McGill because he left for-


Yeah. He left for Victoria.

And places West.

And places West.

Did you enjoy or did you learn anything from Harold Spence-Sales?

Oh, the gingko tree!

Oh yes! Everybody remember the gingko tree!

The gingko tree and his free furniture.

But in terms of his course itself, do you have any comments on the course? Do you remember it at all? It was a planning course, wasn’t it?

It was a planning course. In retrospect, I suppose it could have been better. But it was interesting. He did his monologues on his great travels through India and the world, so that was fascinating. But it was hard to apply what he was teaching us in terms of the design projects that we were given because they were on such a small scale.


He was very eloquent and very sort of theatrical and he was performing in front of a crowd.

Well, it was basically essay-type with a little bit of sketching rather than a real planning project because it was basically cityscape, city planning rather than the general overall urban design.

Was John Schreiber there when you were there?

Yes, John was there. He was supposed to teach us in fourth year and he did, I believe, for a few weeks. And then the whole restless, sixties, student movement hit the School of Architecture. Well, they hit universities all over, I guess, North America.

You know, we’d like to hear a little bit about that because it was rather an unusual time in the School of Architecture, the sedate School of Architecture. What happened? Can you just talk a little about that?

It basically had to do with, strangely enough, we wanted to be taught more, not less. And we weren’t quite given the guidance we needed for our design project. There was a visiting professor that was sent in in place of John Schreiber to teach us, Andre Vecsei, and he was sort of there and sort of not there, and there were no lectures given and we were on our own and we were trying to get-.

What year was this, Bissera?

Fourth year.

Fourth year, okay.

Fourth year, the fall of fourth year, first term. And we ran to the fifth year guys to help us and we ran to the sixth year guys to help us: “How do you do it? What do you do?” And then we decided that we wanted more and a few of us got together and then some other upper year students joined us, fifth year, sixth year. And everybody seemed to have a beef about something. What we wanted to see more of in the school, less of in the school. One of the things was the way the design course was taught. The other, which became apparent was a major problem at the school at the time was that it took six years to get a Bachelor of Architecture with no intermediate acknowledgement of any time spent in architecture, or in university for that matter. And what had happened to a lot of students was that after they went through- third year was sort of the weeding ground because it was the hardest. Strength of Materials wiped out just about half the class. And if people tried- decided that architecture was not their vocation, now that they knew what it was all about, they didn’t want to continue, they had no way of transferring them to another discipline or another school and be given credit for three or four or five years of university. And that was a problem. So what happened was that we decided that maybe an intermediate, some sort of degree would be a good idea to give a chance- or if somebody wanted to take two or three years off, study, travel, whatever, or you would change disciplines, to have some sort of basic degree. And that was the long or short of it is that eventually, it was- the Bachelor of Science (Architecture) appeared.


How did you carry your feelings forward to the head of the university? I guess it was John Bland at the School of Architecture.

We basically, I think we had a list of demands. We worked closely with the six-year students. And we basically made a list of demands and they were given to, I believe, John Bland and not much materialized. And after that, we dealt with the dean of engineering directly. And we sort of cleared up from the school and we went on strike.

The students went on strike?


That must have been-

And that would be ’68, the fall of ’68.

That must have been a very difficult time.

It was difficult but it was, I guess, prevalent in the whole university. Student unrest was happening here and there and everywhere and students were demanding. And we did get certain things done.


What did you do? Just walk out of classes? You didn’t attend classes?

Oh, we had an arrangement with all the years. We had representatives from each year that we just weren’t going to go to school the next day. And it went back and forth, but it didn’t last very long. And then there were promises made, of course. The Bachelor of Science degree took almost two years, I believe before it was- I think it went through senate and so on and so forth. And I received it. I think it was just sent in the mail when I was, I think it was at the end of fifth year or the beginning of sixth year. It was not- There was no convocation, no anything. It was just a little roll, a little tube arrived in the mail at home and there it was. But that was not the professional degree, so, it was an intermediate degree.


But at least you were somewhat successful because it’s improved since.

Yes, and it-

Did the teaching at all improve, I mean, in terms of having more presence of professors?

Well, our fourth-year design was taught- Bruce had to take over and we required basically more input from- because it was such a large class, he had two assistants. One of them was Brian McCloskey and the other one was Witold Rybczynski.

So things did improve.

How did things improve! And you had three people walking around the desks that you could ask questions from and help arrived. And it was a great course, our design course in fourth year. And, of course the most fascinating course was the C.B.A. course that Bruce taught for, I think it was taken two years. It was given two years, third and fourth year, which was designing- the first project we had to do was design a kite, which I thought was very easy until we read the requirements and it wasn’t that easy. Not only did we have to design it and build it, we had to go and fly it. So you got marks whether it flew or it didn’ t fly. We went to Fletcher’s Field. There was every imaginable kite and one of them was actually made out of Styrofoam. Needless to say, it didn’t fly!


I hope that wasn’t yours!

No, no. It was blue Styrofoam! And we had incredible-. We had the light modulator project and we had the colour matrix project and, of course, the photography class, which Bruce was teaching photography. And also we had to make a film, a ten-minute- ours was black and white. Only one person did a colour film, but that was very expensive and his was an animation, Jan Davis. And it was a cartoon. It was funny! But it was a short one because it cost so much. Our film was on a survey of the Main between basically St. Catherine and Dorchester. And nightlife, day life, and we developed a scenario, a model of the film in still photographs and then we had to go with a big Bolex camera in the middle of winter and take pictures. And it was so cold, the film kept on snapping in the camera. And then, of course, we had to show the nightlife so we went to a strip club and trying to hide the Bolex. It was a big thing and when the motor would go, it would be really noisy. So, that was the footage from the Main!


You were a persona non grata I’m sure in the strip clubs.

Yeah, yeah. But the main darkrooms, which Bruce had designed and they were built and started, unfortunately, I was still at the school but I was in- I think they were opened when I was in fifth or sixth year. By that time, we didn’ t have any photography courses or C.B.A. classes. I used them to do my thesis. The presentation for my thesis was done there because I did a photographic presentation of all my drawings whereby you take a four by five negative, grid negative with dots, and project it on photo-sensitive paper and then you have the board made. I used them extensively for my presentation for my thesis.


Talk about Surveying School.

Survey School? Survey School was, I believe, almost a month. And that was the-

Where was it held? At Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon?

Yeah, Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon. It was after second year.

Second year, yeah.

After second year, because after third year was Sketching School and after fourth year. And it was- if you survived Survey School, you could survive anything in life, basically. It was like boot camp but worse. And we were sent with the civil engineers and it was April and it was cold. And we lived in this motel, which was owned by- I think Professor Arcand’s family owned half the city, the town, including the store that sold all the drafting supplies. And we weren’t told that we were going to do a drawing project but that appeared to be true the very first day. So the only way to draw was to take the door off the room, the hotel room, and put it on the bed. And my friend Anita and I, we shared the room, had drawing tape, my drawings on one side of the door and hers were on the other. And we’d alternate and would flip the door either side to draw at night. And we’d go to sleep with no door. And the pool outside was frozen! And everybody got sick. And it was I believe six days a week. Yes, and we had roll call at six or seven in the morning.


You worked every day except Sunday, I believe.

Except Sunday.

And a lot of people went home Saturday afternoon, I think.

Well, it was very far to drive. I drove back to Montreal because it was the opening night of Expo ’67 and I had tickets. And I drove back to Montreal and went to the Expo site and walked it and then I drove back and I think I was ready for roll call at six or seven o’clock in the morning with no sleep. And it was tough. And it was physically demanding. However, it taught us how to use a transit, how to do levels, what is cut and fill, and I think I can read landscape drawings.

And I believe that they used to work in teams too, didn’t they?

It was in groups of four.

And didn’t we- didn’t you used to have to complete a circuit?

Oh, the traverse.

The traverse.

And after you’d compete one, then of course each benchmark that you had to go and establish always seemed to be in a boggy area or on a steep hill. It was never on a flat. And we surveyed the whole mountain until we wisened up and figured out one of the instructors, who were I think the graduate students in civil engineering were our instructors in the field, and they were checking the field book. I still have my field book in which you had to write with either- it was either a 4H or a 6H pencil. It’s like scratching with a nail. And everything was measured to four decimal points, if I remember correctly. And we had no calculators, we had slide-rules only and one of these- I guess it was the predecessor to the calculator, the calculating machines that would go clickity-clickity if you put the right number in, it would go on for the day. So you had to do the calculations. Then one day, one of them told us that our measurements looked okay because we were supposed to have a certain percentage of error, .4 of a percent, when you closed the traverse, which, of course told us that we could work it backwards and do the math and not measure!


Short cuts to everything!

And there were also- oh yes, there was the caution money that you had to pay twenty-five dollars in case you lost, broke an instrument. And if everything was fine, in the end, you got your twenty-five dollars. But nobody got all the twenty-five dollars back. I had a five-dollar fine because I was caught falling asleep on a transit.

Not surprising.

I was waiting for somebody to climb the hill and I leaned on it. And I hadn’t slept all night because I was drawing on the door. And my caution money went for sleeping on the transit! That was a memory! I have some pictures, very few, unfortunately, of Sketching School- of, I mean, of Survey School. But that kind of bonded everybody and I always thought one of the greatest things about the School of Architecture was that it was like a family because we spent days and nights, slept on the window sill in the old McConnell Building, our studios, which had very wide window sills!


Do you have any other memories of McGill in terms of either Christmas parties, anecdotes or fistfights or brawls or anything like that that went on when you were there? You were there, what, six years, eh, total?

Six years, yes. Five spent in the School of Architecture, of course. Memories, I remember the banquets, the student banquets in the spring for the graduating class and the rings, and the slideshows and all the funnies. It was quite extraordinary the first one.

Are they still having that?

They have it but it’s not quite the same. I haven’t attended. I used to attend each one and I haven’t gone for a few years. But it’s not- I was asking if it was a slideshow but it’s not anymore. It’s obviously changed. I believe they still have rings, the architect’s ring.


We were the first year to start it.

Oh, really?

Because I remember when I was at Loyola, we had an architect’s- a philosopher’s banquet. And it was sort of a party. And at that time, at Loyola, we were all boys, so there used to be bun throwing and everything else going on. And I remember a fellow, subsequent to one of the banquets, we got a letter from an architect by the name of Ted Macdonald reprimanding us. As future architects, we should be more serious and we shouldn’t be involved in frivolous situations like this! But it was a case of letting our hair down. We used to have it in the old Berkeley Hotel. I don’t know where- that was- but it was a fun event. It was something that everybody looked forward to and it was a must-attend.

Oh yes, that I remember. We had a few parties, a couple of Christmas parties I remember in the old- well, what’s the School of Architecture now, the old Chemistry building at the time. They were fun, but as I say, there was not much time for partying, I’m afraid.


A little bit about what happened after you left McGill in 1971.

Well, what happened actually had to do with the sixth year, the thesis year. And you had the choice. Most people opted for having a thesis a group project and I detested group projects! And there was an option if you wanted to do an individual project. And Frank McGrath and I, my friend, we decided each to do an individual project. He did an airport design and I did, at that time, the very controversial project on- Windsor Station was almost slated for demolition. Canadian Pacific was thinking of doing it and they had a proposed development for the whole two-, three-block area downtown. So I decided to take their programme and instead of demolishing Windsor Station, see if it can be reused and incorporated into a major urban centre, which was fairly controversial to the point where CBC was quite interested in my thesis. And after my presentation at school, they brought in all the cameras and it was on television. And then I had to do a presentation to the board of Canadian Pacific. But since I was doing an individual project, we had to have a professor assigned as an advisor, and my advisor was Tom Blood, for my thesis. As it turned out, I was offered a job in his office upon graduation. So I was one of the lucky ones where I graduated and then started work.


So you worked for Tom. Was it Korman and Blood at the time?

It was Korman and Blood at the time. But that didn’t last. Actually, Frank McGrath and I, he was both our advisor. We were working and the office was at Place Ville Marie. But then, didn’t last very long, about a year and they hit hard times and it was time to look for another job. And everybody that- every graduate from McGill, I think, ended up working for Arcop, so I ended up working at Arcop too. And I was hired by Ramesh Khosla but ended up working with Ray Affleck for eight years. And I think I learned a lot. There was a lot of McGill graduates that went through Arcop. Every summer, we had students from just about every university in Canada, but you could pick out the McGill graduates because they were the best. And I have very fond memories of Ray. I worked with him on a number of projects, large projects.


Including the project in Ottawa, I guess.

Well there was the Terrasses de la Chaudière in Ottawa, the Winnipeg Square in Winnipeg, Market Square, Saint-John New Brunswick. But the first project I worked on was the World Trade Center in New York. We were doing the underground shopping area and the connections through the various metro networks and also the sky lobbies of the World Trade Center. And that’s when I realized that the training McGill gave you, of all the engineering subjects that we complained about and we thought were useless were actually very, very helpful, because when you have a group of engineers and architects and then a consultant sitting together at a conference and everybody’s talking and everybody’s sketching and everybody has drawings, you could understand what they were talking about. You could suggest the things, you could ask intelligent questions and it didn’t take long before I realized that as soon as you started asking the questions, especially structural, the engineers would say, “Oh, you must be a McGill graduate!” Like, “Why can’t you do this instead of that?” And there was that respect that I noticed in people’s eyes for McGill graduates. And as I say, I did complain when I was a student about all the Strength of Materials and Soil Mechanics that we did, and later on, I thank my lucky stars that I knew it. And it really is very, very helpful.


You then worked- ‘till what year did you work at Arcop?

I worked at Arcop until 1980 because my second daughter was born.

Of course you married Bruce Anderson.

I married Bruce Anderson and I worked and I had one daughter and five months later, I went right back to work because my project was waiting for me. And when the second daughter was born, I couldn’t convince my mother to take care of two, so I decided to stay home and take care of the girls. And I stayed home until my daughter went to kindergarten, at which point, Bruce and I opened our own office, called Anderson Architects. And I started full-time work again.

That would have been, what ’86?

That was ’85, ’84, fall of ’84. So I was really away from architecture for about four, four and a half years.

And then when you came back, you and Bruce opened your firm together, but then you did something, I think, did you not go back and take a course in finance?

I took a course; it’s called the Canadian Securities Course, because I thought one needed a little bit of a background in order to run the office. And I had asked around what’s a good thing to do and I was told to take this course. And I registered and I only then did I realize it was the course that stockbrokers take, it’s an investment course, which I completed. It took about six months and wrote the exam. And I got my honours diploma, which is hanging next to my Bachelor of Architecture degree and I’ve very proud of. And it’s been invaluable for running the business. So I can talk to my accountants the same way I can talk to my engineers.

And your architects.

And the architects. And it’s been very good and I think anybody going into business should take it.


One of the deficiencies, of course, in architecture, when you graduate, no architect knows anything about business, very little about business. And it’s the school of hard knocks because it can put you out of business, not knowing enough about what to do when the money comes in and so forth. Everything is [unclear].

Absolutely. Well, that’s the whole issue of tax about-. The very interesting thing I learned all about insurance, specifically professional liability insurance. We took seminars, whereby at that time, it was not run through the Order of Architects. It was private, whereby if you took the seminars and passed the test, you could get a reduction on your premium by, I believe it was five or ten percent depending on what subject it was about. So you learned a lot.


So are you practicing architecture per se today or are you pretty well running the office?

I am practicing some architecture. I’m running the office. I’m…

Which is almost a full-time job.

…busy with, believe it or not, my girls still, even though they’re big. I believe this is going to be a first whereby I’m married to an architect and my daughter has just been accepted into first-year architecture at McGill starting September.

So three out of the four Andersons are going to be architects or are architects.

So there will be three in the family.

Yeah, that is unusual.

It is, I don’t know if there’s another precedent but-.

Obviously, she was influenced by your life, so she probably considered you people have had a good life so she would like to follow in your footsteps.

Well, we always talked at home about what’s well designed, everything we bought, all the museums we took the girls to. Everything we did, we talked about design. And

she also was given from the time she was two, the Strathmore watercolour paper and sable hair brushes and good watercolours and pens and paper and Pentels and she drew and she cut and she pasted and she built models and she played with Play Doh. And it was the whole- the visual aspects of architecture. She’s presently very into- very interested in photography. She’ s using my Nikon that I had when I was at the School of Architecture, which is about almost twenty-eight years old.


So you didn’t have to influence her other than to keep her-

No, she actually started- her intension after CEGEP was to go into psychology. And after six months into psychology, she discovered that it wasn’ t what she thought it would be and she wasn’t interested in it and could she switch to architecture. And it took about a year to make up all the science subjects. She took last fall the History of Architecture with Norbert’s class. I believe it was the last time he gave that lecture.

That was a well-attended lecture.

Oh yes. She enjoyed it tremendously. She also took Freehand Drawing with Gerry Tondino the first year. And it was given through the Faculty of Education and last year it was given through the School of Architecture with the new teacher, Joanna. And she also did a photography course. She was a T.A. this summer for the photography course that’s taught by Rick Kerrigan. And we do have the future architect, I believe.



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