Melvin Charney

B.Arch. 1958 June 1999

Well, the question of why one becomes an architect, why I became an architect, has always intrigued me. Well, just the idea of going back in time is not an easy one, but I’ll try my best to do that. I must say that I studied art to begin with and somehow headed towards architecture because my father was involved in building. And he was also a painter. And he systematically discouraged me from continuing anything in art. And I had the feeling that an architect was an artist but a respectable one who could also find a position for himself within society and simply find the way with the world to have a decent life, whereas in art, you were more bohemian, you were more struggling. And given Montreal in the forties and fifties, it wasn’t exactly evident how one could have a career as an artist. There were very few and far between. I studied at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts before taking architecture, and Lismer was very- Arthur Lismer, who taught at that time, was very encouraging, nevertheless, past that point, past simply being in a school, I did not see how I could become an artist. I saw later how to do it, but that took some time. And simply went into engineering to start with because McGill-


What year was that now?

Good question. 1958…

Probably about- ’58 yeah.

I got out at ’58 so it would have been-

So it would have been ’52

’52, 1952. ’52, one has to understand also, it was post-war and Canada really things did not pull out for a period, the next decade after, ten years after 1945. And so when I came into McGill, Montreal was still a city that was pulling out of the depression. There had not been that much construction and one came into a school where we talked about architecture but it happened somewhere else, somehow. The good architecture was not around here, within the city. It was somewhere else. I’d like to underline again the interesting thing about McGill, even though I went into architecture, my strong points were math, at that time, as well as art. And one went into engineering, basically. First two years of McGill for me, 1952, ‘53, ’54 as well, was engineering. And I adore engineering. I mean civil engineering is passionate, but nevertheless, found myself more interested in skiing at that time and was off, spent most of my weekends, including Fridays and Mondays, up in the Laurentians. I was part of a- I was in the Nordic- I was involved in the Nordic Ski Club. I was involved in competition. And after two years at McGill within engineering, where I skied an awful lot, and I sort of cruised through all the courses. I mean, architecture, we did some drawings, so on. I really didn’t get into it until third year. Third year was the key year. And it was Stuart Wilson, who in January, the second term of second year, ran the main studio course. And it was that studio course that introduced one in a very direct way, and a very profound way into what architecture could be about. One worked on a house and always had to have working drawings, he talked about design and construction and so on. But what happened to me, I was practicing for a race downhill in January just after the Christmas holidays and decided- it was one of the hills up north, and decided to take- just to see what it would be like to take a short cut through the woods, just to get a faster time on the trail. So I took the short cut and ended up and I wrapped myself around a tree basically, a tree stump. And found that- I found myself in the hospital in Sainte-Agathe a few hours later and then transferred to Montreal and the upshot was that I did not take my third year architecture. That was the key year when everything’s introduced to you, to students.


So what happened? Did you- were you invalid for the year or did you go back?

Well, what happened was that Stuart Wilson was the main teacher at that time. I found all the other courses, I did better studying on my own than sitting in class. But however, with the studio course, which was really a course where one had to just be there and make drawings and submit them, and there was also the reviews that were taking place, I came to an understanding with John Bland who ran the school and in particular with Stuart Wilson that I would do these later in the spring when I was able to get around and walk around, basically. I was on crutches for about six months, and submit them to him during the summer. We came to this understanding. Stuart at that time was working in an office near the university, so when April rolled around, I started doing my drawings and dropping in on Stuart. The reviews of the drawings were very curious because he would then take me out to some local, you know, Hungarian cafés that opened at that time. And this would go on till late in the evening. So the introduction into architecture to me was absolutely a passionate one. It was one that was widespread. I mean we talked as much about books he had read and he was very much a teacher, very giving, so it wasn’t only questions of how does one assimilate Frank Lloyd Wright as an influence when conceiving of a little house. But it was also a lot of literature reading and a lot of peripheral ideas. And I used to see him three evenings a week for about a four-month period. Basically, we had dinners and coffees together and I kept producing these drawings. And I must say it was the most fruitful third year I ever had!


You lucked out because you got more attention that the average student would have received.

Yes, yes, it was one on one attention, which was very critical. And then gradually, by August, I ended up working as his assistant, basically, in the office where he was designing and continued the following year. So for me, one of the key influences was Stuart Wilson and everything he represented, as someone whose father had emigrated from Scotland to work in Canada, who had settled Grand-Mère and worked for a corporation rather than as a practicing architect. And just was thrust into architecture in Canada in a very key way, because Stuart is very sensitive and sensible about his surroundings. He complained a lot, but his complaints were founded to me insofar as he would be very open and very frank about the problems he was having. And I as a young person I felt I was just out of Sunday school. This was an eye-opener.

I would think so, yeah.

And Stuart was also interested in drawing and art. He had an awful lot of books, which he gladly shared. And McGill to me was a magical moment.


And I did continue skiing thereafter. And there was somebody to ski with at the school, Guy Gérin-Lajoie and he encouraged me when I got back to school in fourth year to get back on the boards again. So even though there were a lot of charrettes and we worked very hard, skiing was always my mainstay at McGill and Stuart, because of this fortunate, or unfortunate accident that I had breaking my leg, spiraling the leg. But architecture to me was always a larger occupation. It had to do more with the system of ideas of how we looked at the world. And I must add to this that since the age of eleven years old, I was photographing. I was into photography very early on. And what intrigued me always was looking at the city, looking at the city as a kind of artifact, larger artifact that I could explore. And I used to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts when I was eight years old. I started at eight years old at art school. I used to wander the city, take photographs after classes and not show up at home until quite late in the afternoon. So the city as a museum of traces of human existence. And Montreal was particularly rich in the fifties, in the early fifties. It was before the main building boom, which came along with- beginning in the sixties. It culminated with Expo ’ 67, that first post-war surge in Montreal becoming a more modern metropolis.


I guess Place Ville Marie might have been a catalyst there too.

Place Ville Marie was the whole axis, the north-south axis that went in. The underground city was also, the Metro that came in. Generally, Montreal became an international city. And then fourth year, fifth year, were just- it was just- nothing stands out in my mind except the arrival of two teachers at some point. They both came from outside the country. Because I found McGill curious for various, various reasons. For example, John Bland, who directed the school, was very interested in Mies. Mies van der Rohe to him presented a kind of I would say essence, classical essence of architecture itself, post-war contemporary architecture. Basically, now in looking back, one sees it as a period of high- what’s called high modern. And Mies at that time to him represented certain eighteenth and nineteenth century values brought forward into the twentieth century. To me, it was quite different, because one of my early skiing trips when I was in second year, I was invited out to meets in Colorado. And I went with two friends and we stopped off in Chicago. And when I was there, when I stopped off there just to rest up, we drove down from Montreal so one goes to Toronto and then Chicago. And we spent the night there and I spent two days. And we were staying at the IIT campus, Illinois Institute of Technology that Mies did. And when we were there, it was for the opening of Crown Hall, the new school of architecture. So my view of Mies came from firsthand looking at his buildings and how they were put together. To me, Mies was never exposed structure. To me, Mies was illustrated structure. But to explain that at McGill was virtually heretical. And it was not perceived, it was quite fascinating. It’s quite fascinating to me now because there’s going to be a Mies exhibition in the year 2000 that Phyllis Lambert, the CCA are putting together. And Phyllis and I have had long conversations about the early Mies that we experienced in the fifties of how looking at Mies, one looked at architecture was really profoundly artificial in some ways and artifactual. He knew how to build extraordinarily well but there was a romanticism involved in his work. So at McGill, the romanticism, the verbalization of romanticism was pushed under the table because you couldn’t talk about it. Couldn’t talk about Mies as expressionist, in some ways. He expressed structures. But Mies was kind of a rationalist. He rationalized structure. But basically, that was a take that came out of photographs and an abstract grasp of what modernism was all about. The few people I could talk to about this was Stuart, even though Stuart was more into something quite else about architecture. So I found in fourth and fifth year to me a severe gap let’s say between what I experienced getting into architecture and the art of architecture I was being taught.


Hazen Sise’s courses were quite remarkable. What was wonderful about the man is he lived a lot of the- it was a course on modern architecture. He lived firsthand some of the incidents he talked about. He had met some of the architects. He knew Le Corbusier and spent years of time in Europe. So it was quite interesting listening to him. But now when I read back in my notes, the naïveté of some of that presentation was astounding. So the school itself, John Bland and one must say, in the background there was Vincent Rother, who did not teach. I worked one summer for Rother, Bland and Trudeau. I worked particularly for Charles Trudeau and Vincent Rother. And I learned there about the MARS Group in England and about MARS Group bringing forward CIAM. It’s the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, the CIAM ideas, which were Corbusier ideas about rational zoning and so on and so forth, rational zoning of the city in relation to how buildings are conceived, a kind of a strict view of how buildings are put together. Stuart Wilson was always kind of very critical, very critical of this, of what Bland had proposed from a strictly functional point of view. He saw in order to do a Mies building here, one had to clad the building as Mies did. Mies structure was superposed on top of his structure. He illustrated on the façade what went on inside the structure. It wasn’t exposed structure. And our weather did not allow it.


By fifth year, two people arrived at the school. One was Peter Collins and the other was Sandy van Ginkel. Both I found quite interesting. Peter came to McGill from Yale. And Peter was very knowledgeable about architecture. He was erudite and knew history but knew it from his point of view. And Peter also was a strong Francophile, but somehow, Quebec was somewhere else, whereas Stuart is very much involved in Quebecois culture, so it was fascinating having conversations with both of them because you felt this schizophrenic existence. You were both there and not there at the same time in relation to the immediate outside around you. And Peter introduced me to many eighteenth century ideas about architecture. I mean he was quite right that modern architecture as we know it and the whole discourse of modern architecture, particularly as it was presented to us in the 1950’s came directly out of eighteenth century theory via Le Corbusier, via Perret and the others, via France essentially, via the École des Beaux-Arts, which was a very strong influence. And on the other hand, there was Sandy van Ginkel who was Dutch who in Holland when faced with a project, faced with doing a school or a house in an area that did not allow peaked roofs, well, of course would propose a peaked roof. And then in an area where they won’t allow flat roofs, he would just reverse himself again, so there was a kind of- which is also- tells you a lot about modern architecture: seeking something new for the sake of newness; seeking to innovate for innovation’s sake; never clearly thinking through what’s innovative and what is not innovative. If it looked new therefore it was new. If it looked rational, therefore it was rational. So it occurred to me very early on at McGill that somehow the architecture that was being taught was a very simple version of the potential of architecture as a culture. And my own reading, and the fact that I did spend the good part of a year on my own, basically, reading at home and learning from books and magazines, gave me a total other view, which allowed me by the end of fifth year to shift my career somewhat, to apply to Yale, as Peter Collins had encouraged me to go to Yale, Yale University School of Architecture to do graduate work. I was ready to leave and actually finish my diploma there, but because of practice regulations here in Canada, I felt it was best I do it here.


Did you actually study under Peter? What he giving a course or did you pass that period?

He was giving a course but I did not study directly under him. He did give- he was- when I was doing my final thesis, Peter Collins was one of my critics. He was quite a severe critic, an interesting one. But, you know, the sessions would be amusing. He’d look at what I was doing and ask me if I’d seen such and such a building and if I hadn’t seen it, it was obvious, because the teaching prior to his arrival, teaching of history was very kind of, the word in French is bricolé, kind of haphazard, let’s say. But I liked the haphazardness, you see. But Peter then would simply turn his heels and leave the room and say, “Well, if you don’t know about that building, how can we discuss these things?” Which sent me off to the library, so I found that I was more and more dependent upon learning in the library, hence dependent upon oneself. I think what McGill did not offer was a certain depth of architecture. But what it did is somehow force me, encourage me to go to the library and begin to dig and find on one’s own what architecture’s about, what the culture one was living in was about and so on. And if one was curious and intelligent and bright enough and had the wherewithal and the energy to do it, and generally this is a Canadian trait, you come out of Canada like out of a cannon. And when I arrived at Yale, I was really well equipped to deal with my studies there, well equipped, much more so than other students who had come out of well-known schools: Columbia University School of Architecture and so on. I knew that I had to depend on my own wherewithal to find where I was going and be able to dialogue with people in a knowledgeable way.


Probably not every student had the same attitude unfortunately and they are where they are today. Before you leave McGill, you’re not leaving McGill yet, are you? Because there are other people that perhaps had an influence or certainly played a factor in your life at the school and that was Gordon Webber. Was he there at that time? Because- and I was just thinking of- John Bland, you talked about. I’m trying to think of some of the others that might have been there. Obviously, you’ve talked about the key influences.

You’re right about reminding me about Gordon. Gordon gave a course in drawing, if I remember. And what I appreciate mostly about his courses, and again, I have to come back to the fact that I did go to IIT before. I knew what was going on in Chicago and the new Bauhaus was kind of Chicago. From Gordon, we received a keen appreciation of what the Bauhaus, the Bauhaus approach to modernism, not so much modern- what modernism was all about. And it allowed me to react cogently to high modern, to be able to proceed. What I found astounding about McGill is that for a long time, McGill remained an institution almost fixed in its outlook towards architecture. It did not renew itself over years and years. And my discoveries at McGill even in the 1950’s had to do with the work of Percy Nobbs. And I found there was something interesting, the way he did the McGill library. There’s something interesting in the Montreal Neurological, the way he turned a corner, the appreciation of the city in terms of architecture. The idea of looking at row housing in order to put part of a building in a row house, which you could see as a row house and another one, part of an institution-like building. And the functionality of a building was then more evolved than the kind of Miesian party line that we thrived in. There it was also due to Stuart, who encouraged one to look at the place one lived in. Gordon, yes. But Gordon I felt had an awful lot of talent and did these wonderful, wonderful drawings and did communicate basically what Moholy-Nagy did, what others did. And basically, it was the Bauhaus course all over again. So I was able to get it here, which was another stroke of luck.


And I guess you had no exposure to Harold Spence-Sales. He came in towards the end of the fifties, right?

No, I knew him as well and had him as a teacher in urbanism, but unfortunately, it was kind of town planning. And town planning- it was a British idea of town planning. And Montreal is a city that’s quite different. It’s more of a, let’s say, European city rather than a British city. Cities in England are not quite urbanized. They’re conurbations, huge spreads. I mean I adore London for what it is. And I think there’s the Rasmussen book, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, the Dutch historian, he had a chapter in a book called Buildings and Cities, if I remember correctly, called A Tale of Two Cities. You have London and Paris. Montreal had a mixture of both. What was interesting about Montreal, it picked up on collective urban form that came out of both traditions in quite a unique way. It still does. But these weren’ t the things that Spence-Sales would talk about. He would talk about other matters, which I could not relate to in any way. I did not relate.


There’s an aspect to McGill I find important to underline because it really was very striking to me only years later. And that was the fact that McGill was an inner city school. We were in the city, so even though we had charrettes where we would work through the night, early in the morning, I would walk the streets and experience first hand ideas that one would be drawing. I think that was very important and one shouldn’t underestimate the significance that McGill is in Montreal and was downtown, still is downtown. And the city, well, I when I knew the city, but I did not quite know it architecturally, I must say, the course on History of Canadian Architecture was quite good. Although, it was not shown to be a strong architecture. I mean it was shown to be something, you know, the big things happened elsewhere and we kind of imported the ideas. But I kept saying to myself that there’s an indigenous architecture here- the word indigenous is wrong. I mean there’s a strong relationship people had to build things around them and the way of expressing buildings that was quite unique for North America. The example to me that was quite important was the grain elevators. I think by fourth year McGill, I started looking closer at the grain elevators. It didn’ t come through the course on history, but the history course allowed me to look at these because they talked about Le Corbusier. And I found- there were Le Corbusier photographs in Towards a New Architecture that looked just like grain elevators in Montreal. It was only later in 1963, ’ 64 where I found the photograph that Le Corbusier had used. And it was of a grain elevator in Montreal, except he didn’t know where it came from, so he called it Buenos Aires. So by that time, I started photographing the grain elevators and by 1967, I was the first to write the major revisionist essay on how one could look at the end of modern period at these grain elevators and their significance, because there was already the next generation of grain elevators in Montreal, that is the automated, large-scale elevators that followed up on the steel elevator, the masonry and the concrete elevators we have in the downtown- we have in the Port of Montreal. In fourth year, I used to hop the ships that went along the Lachine Canal before the canal- before the St. Lawrence Seaway came around. Was it fourth year or before that even? And used to ask the captain of the ship if I could come on and photograph as they went through the grain elevators in the area, grain elevators. These photographs are now all in the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Are they?

They acquired them a number of years ago.


Did you ever go to Sketching School when you were there? Do you have any memories of that as an event or-?

I’m pleased that you laugh at the question! Sure, Sketching School was interesting. The approach to Sketching School was basically recording what one saw around oneself. In the year I went, it was Stuart, if I remember, who was running it. And it was in Saint-Michel-des-Saints and it really was- it, you know, got one out of town. You could sit and look. But I used to do a lot of sketching on my own so I felt Sketching School was another school exercise somewhat. But I must say there too we never really talked about what drawing is. It was only later I was able to work that out, but the basis- what’s important to me is that it was because certain foundations were laid at McGill, I was able to do everything I could do after. Many key ideas came out of that McGill experience that I had and often, it wasn’t because of, it was despite of.


As well as the grain elevators, there was also Montreal as urban structure, Montreal as a city of streets, blocks, houses and so on. And I must say, it was due to Stuart Wilson, who kind of sent us off to the eastern part of the city as opposed to the western part of the city to the extent that in walking with him around some of the neighbourhoods, for example, the area around CBC was being ripped down then. The Quartier de Malasse was being torn down when I was at McGill. We went to look at it carefully. And Stuart took me through various areas of it. And later on, by 1968, ’69,’70, when I presented material on Montreal as a French city to the Quebec end of or of the Culture of Montreal, they were very surprised. They had never gone to look at these things. So McGill in a sense was both there and not there at the same time. On one level, the direction of the school is floating around Mies, ignoring the fact that he was a German romantic; it was the last gasp of German romanticism. You know, he was totally influenced by Schinkel. He was expressing modern buildings, not being very rational about it and doing it in an exquisite way. He was more to do with the sublime in art and architecture rather than with the rational in art and architecture on one hand. On the other hand, McGill as opposed to any other school in Quebec at that time, allowed me to look closer at the texture of Quebec architecture. It wasn’t so much the quote-unquote great buildings but it was the everyday building, which to me is significant- is a significant North American architecture of itself. And the word indigenous is not quite correct. It’s architecture; it’s the air we breathe. Therefore, you know, a few years later when I ran into Hans Hollein, an Austrian architect of the avant-garde, Austrian avant-garde architects. He came to New York and he showed me a tin- one of these aerosol things he had. He said, “ This is architecture. I’ll spray it around here. All you’ve got to do is breathe it”. So I said, “Well, I knew that. I figured that out in Montreal”. So Montreal allowed this to happen. I think it had a lot to do with the ability of McGill, the tensions within McGill being an Anglophone university in a French Canadian setting. It was the tensions of Canada, culturally. It was What’s Bred of the Bone of Robertson Davies lived; we lived it then. That came to the fore and allowed us to get a richness out of the place.


In sixth year while doing the thesis, I found simply that what I had learned in the School of Architecture was- or I had learned enough to know that I had to learn more; I had to find out what was going on. And I spoke to Peter Collins amongst others. And Peter suggested I speak to a colleague of his who was at Yale University at that time, a Canadian who was there. The name will come back; I can’t remember. So I went down to Yale and found that Louis Kahn was teaching there, Philip Johnson was teaching there. There were people out of Team X England, like James Stirling was coming around; Peter Nelson Smithson was coming around. I found it to be a centre where ideas were being talked about and it just fitted my frame of mind perfectly. So by January of my sixth year, before starting my thesis, I applied to Yale and got admitted. So I basically cruised through the thesis in hope of just picking up my education the following fall, which I then did. And the arrival to Yale was kind of, it was a bit of a shock because I came to a place where, one- they saw themselves big. Ever which you did was good. And they felt that they picked good people to be students at the place. And the people teaching there also didn’t talk down sort of. I can’t- difficult to explain. McGill is still very Canadian. We have, as someone once said, a deference to authority. Whereas in the United States, they’re Yankee go-getters. And they see themselves as what’s influencing what’s going on in the world. So if you’re part of them, you’re influencing what was going on in the world. And simply, it’s a shift of attitude I found very important. It allowed one to take ideas and to run with them and to move them. McGill gave me the basis, but the ideas came basically from my two years at Yale. And I stayed on. I stayed on because I ended up working for one of my teachers there, who was John Johansen. I continued working with him for about a two-year period after I was through school. And the period at Yale was quite striking for me because it was in the School of Art and Architecture, as architecture is not part of a school of engineering; it was part of a school of art like the old Beaux-Arts system. So one was exposed to de Kooning, who was teaching painting and a drawing course. There was Walker Evans teaching photography. There was- and the School of Architecture was in a Louis Kahn building on the top floor, fourth floor. On the other three floors, you had a major collection of Marcel Duchamp paintings; everyone had to walk through all the time. And one was immediately surrounded by and part of a cultural syndrome, which was strong, which was very strong. And you were moving somewhere.


Was Paul, sorry, was Paul Rudolph there at the time? Or he came in-

Paul Rudolph came in the year, half way through the year I arrived.


And Paul brought along with him- it was kind of high modern verging on post-modern. You didn’t quite know where you were. And also with buildings you draw, architecture is drawn through. And it was also the school seemed to be the centre of North American interest in architecture at that time, plus seeing impressive finds because everybody came to the place. So one was exposed to a larger interest and a deeper interest. And I was just taken with it, totally taken with it. And I immediately also picked up on the art end and found I was doing both. I was as much involved in the art courses, sitting in on discussions at the art school, on the difference between a drawing and a painting. There was a philosophy course being given then at the graduate school about simply, about expressionism and dealing with issues such as expressionism and art and dealing with various metaphysical questions that dealt with the art object, the architectural object. Absolutely fascinating. So one was plunged into a cultural milieu. It wasn’t simply like an extension of engineering as it was at McGill. Architecture is an extension of engineering to a great extent, which McGill gave me a grounding in. But here I could delve into the idea end of things. And the library, it was astounding. Everything was there for you. I mean you didn’t have to argue to get into the stacks as one did at McGill.


So how long did you stay in total? Then I guess, what did you do? Come back after your years at Yale? You came back to Montreal?

No, I stayed on in the United States. I simply continued to work in the United States and got back in- I was living in New York for some time, got back into my artwork as well as architecture. Worked for an architect, John Johansen, a period when he did fairly experimental work. Worked for him four days a week and worked on my own three days a week doing the more- the art end. I picked up my photography again. But the time was the beginning of the war in Vietnam and if you were working there, there was the imminent draft and so on. And it took me about three weeks at some point to get to Paris. I simply heard that I may be getting some kind of notice from the local draft board and I just took off. I took off to Paris.


I arrived in Paris coming from a French, you know, the world’s second-largest French-speaking city not speaking a word of French. One had to pick it up rather quickly. There too worked four days a week for an architect. It was Guillaume Gillet. He was out of the old school. Nevertheless, he was considered one of France’s top modern architects. There was an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that included a church he did at Royan. And it was interesting working for him because he was also a teacher at the École des Beaux-Arts. So I was immediately plunged into the École des Beaux-Arts system, because I was working for him personally and doing his projects. Nevertheless, his whole atelier from the École des Beaux-Arts were there drawing up these projects. And I was years younger. I mean I was like twenty-two, twenty-three at that point. And most of the other men in the office were in their mid-thirties, they were married, kids, or in their early forties. Simply the old Beaux-Arts system was a very slow and ponderous system of apprenticeship at that time. But the grounding there, culturally-speaking, about architecture was also very, very good. And in Paris, I applied to the Canada Council. It was created at that time for various travel grants. And I wanted to go to India. I remember I wanted to go to off to India to look at Fatehpur Sikri, look at Chandigarh, which was being planned and built at that time. It was being built. And just to look at another culture somehow, to get a perspective of Western European, hence, North American culture from another point of view. And I’ll never forget that McGill- I wrote to John Bland and others at McGill. And I was simply told that one went off to Europe and stayed in Europe. There was nothing to be seen in such exotic climes as India. That set me straight. But he did furnish a letter of reference- a letter of introduction to Peressutti from Peressutti and Rodgers in Milan. And I did meet up with them. But while living in Paris, I did meet up with some of my teachers who were there at Yale, like Jim Stirling. And Stirling sent me off to see a bunch of buildings in Europe, like the Pierre Chareau building in Paris, the house he did, Maison de Verre. And I was there long before it became a well-known place. In fact, I sent Ken Frampton to see it. Because what happened was while I was at Yale, some of my close friends, painters, were friends with a woman who was the daughter of the psychoanalyst who was the friend of the man who had this house built, Docteur Dalsace. Who’s also the analyst of Lacan.


But from Paris, I simply traveled an awful lot. I traveled for two years and earned my living basically by doing photography and selling the photos to magazines. And money did come through from the Canada Council to look at edgy kind of architecture in the Mediterranean. I did convince them to give me a grant. It was very little money, nevertheless, we made it last. During the stage in Paris and the period of travel, I got involved with a group called the Group for Mobile Architecture, again, an experimental group. And I was pushing the work I was doing in architecture much more on an edgy situation. To me I was using- and I came basically from the Yale encouragement, the encouragement at Yale. To look at architecture is a way we look at the world rather than a way simply of having a business. It was to me more cultural. And I began to do abstract projects. And after two years of travel after Paris, I had an offer to teach at Columbia University. So we borrowed money to come back and stopped off in Montreal on the way to New York, to Columbia. What happened at Columbia at that time, the appointment was pushed off for a year for various reasons, internal reasons at the school and when I arrived in Montreal, because I had lived in Paris, my French was good. And because I lived in Paris, I was also involved in various- listening in to various seminars and so on, what was going on in French thinking, philosophy at that time. And I found in Montreal, there was a rich milieu where some of these ideas were being discussed. And it happened to be a moment when there was a new school of architecture being founded at the University of Montreal. So I got involved and put off our departure to New York for about a year. And did find that it was interesting teaching here, and simply stayed on. So teaching was- I taught architecture, this began the teaching of architecture- I taught architecture for a number of years, but at the same time kept on a practice.


What year was that?

That was 1964. It was 1964. Practice to me had less to do with looking for contracts. But there were indeed- dealt more with ideas. I had ideas about the city but I tested these ideas about building. I tested these ideas, for example, in various competitions. For example, in 1969, there was a competition for an Air Force memorial and museum in Trenton, Trenton Ontario for the RCAF, the Royal Canadian Air Force. And it was the idea of, you know, war for peace and so on and so forth. But the idea I had for a building, and we had to solve the question how can you live in Montreal and take your kid to see it on Sunday if it was located in Trenton? What happened to someone in Vancouver? So I again began to think of buildings in another way, of what was there to start with, because there was no budget, either. The Department of Defense did not have a budget. So rather than simply creating, you know, some blown up idea, some grandiose idea for architectural magazines, for publications, I looked at what actually could be built, what actually could be done. And that is- I felt there was enough around us, abandoned hangars. So if they want a museum, they could get this abandoned hangar. I’m describing this project because it was an important turning point for me.


The ideas I was dealing with then were not unlike ideas that people like Cedric Price in England was dealing with and the Archigram group. I met up with them in 1964 in the United States with Archigram. It was really Rainer Banham who presented him to me. So gradually during those years, during the 1960’s, architecture to me began to overlap art. The project for, for example, you know, the Air Force Memorial and Museum was never published in a Canadian magazine. I was told it wasn’t architecture. But it did get published in Italy in an architecture magazine, in the United States in an art magazine and so on. I was no so much pushed out of the country but simply, I found that this was a place where my strength was and Montreal, living in Canada was a wonderful place to live and to do one’s work and come up with ideas, but somehow the response system, it still had that kind of dust about it as one experienced at McGill. But I was equipped to handle it. It didn’t bother me. I found it a stimulation. I just said to myself, “if they can’t understand, I have to write it better”. So I was pushed to write things and explain things clearer and pushed on to a more experimental position where I overlapped art and architecture. I simply do an art subject matter as architecture. But McGill taught me how to build and also I worked in construction during my years at McGill. So I knew how to build well. So I could use this building knowledge and experimental position to not so much build a career but do simply what I had to do. And a lot of this work is being picked up you know around the world and basically comes from being specific of where I am here in Montreal.


For example, in 1976, when I was asked to put together an exhibition of art to go with the Olympic games here in the city, I simply felt that the city should be an exhibition. I mean Sherbrooke Street is a wonderful street. Let’ s put it on exhibition, and the street itself as a place where you can see interesting things, plus underlining it with art objects here and there. But basically, it was the street that was the museum. And we managed to put different labels explaining various buildings. And I did a project called The Houses of Sherbrooke Street. And this project has been constantly on exhibition. It was a temporary piece. It was architecture. It was more of a gesture than a finished, permanent building. Nevertheless, it evoked an enormous response. It’s been published everywhere. It’s still- it’s on exhibition right now here in Montreal, Quebec City and Ancona, Italy. And it was published recently in Japan in a book on major art of the latter part of the twentieth century; it’s in the Dictionary of Twentieth Century Architecture. But what it was about, it was about Montreal. It was about my appreciation of the city. See, one of my contentions with McGill, with most Canadian institutions is we just don’t see ourselves as being big or being important. And it’s the same thing that critics, literary critics in England and the United States said about Robertson Davies. They said, “Poor Robertson Davies. Had he been living in a country that had more geo-political had a higher geo-political profile, he would be renowned and up for a Nobel Prize”. But the fact that we live in a country that sees itself small in a mirror and the mirror happens to be its culture is problematic. The only thing is, I decided to see ourselves big and using the exact same material as everyone else does. Simply looking at it as being significant. And I must say, I live the McGill experience on a day-to-day basis. Our relationship with the French community to me, as simply French. I mean, I taught at French university, I see Montreal as being a city, a unique city that way with both a French and English component that works well together, hopefully.


Hopefully, yeah. Do I dare ask you of all the project of which you’ve been involved, is there one in particular that you’re proud of, particularly proud of, more than the others? And maybe that’s not a fair question. I asked one individual this and his response was, “Well, you know, that’s like asking me what my favourite child is”


But having said that he then responded that it was the National Gallery in Ottawa.


I don’t know if there’s any one in particular.


I think you may have talked about this or you’re going to talk about it, but I think there might be some interest in the garden, the sculpture garden that you designed and built opposite the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Would you like to talk about that? Or am I putting you on the spot?

One of the unique projects I could work on and which I then created is the garden for the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Like everything else, none of these projects come easy. It was a competition. And in this competition, it was an invited competition, there were three of us, I was the only one that changed the garden. The other people kept the site, kept the garden as it was given. And I felt it was a garden of a museum of architecture, an important museum of architecture. The garden itself should be part of the museum and it should also show the history of gardens and a history of the city. And it is an important to me because I was also working with a client who knew architecture. Therefore, I could push on the ideas. I was pushed back quite often but it meant I had to come out yet stronger, explaining clearly and articulating clearly what I felt had to be done. And one of the things I felt was very important was to render visible the city we live in. Therefore, I did virtually a portrait of the place we live in. And what I find exciting is this garden in Montreal where I talk about- where I develop ideas, which come out of the city itself, is recognized around the world for what it is. That is again, I come back to the fact that if one is really specific onto one’s culture, and hence the reason I stay on in Montreal, where one comes from, where are one’s roots, and they’re transitory roots basically for most of us, these Montreal roots that we placed that one could do something that’s meaningful worldwide. And the CCA garden was a real chance to do it. And I’m pleased, delighted with the results. And I think it’ s a unique occasion given it’s an architectural museum to start with. Therefore, people go there to look at architecture and the clientele for it is a very difficult one because you have the people on the street who know nothing about a building and one had to satisfy them. They have to pick up on the images and grasp what’s going on. And then you have what I call the Third World of Scholars, who seem to know everything. And for them too there had to be rather arcane references about references too. If one looks carefully at one of the columns, one of the allegorical columns, you can see that the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem is a built axonometric. And it has a certain number of stairs that lead up to the door, which is exactly as John wrote the elders’ interpretation of Ezekiel’s dream of the temple in Jerusalem.


That’s pretty subtle.

Well, subtle enough for both of us but there are scholars who come and say, “Hey, hey, you know what we see there?” And they see it. They spot it. So both levels had to be taken care of in a way and given the circumstance of the CCA, I was very, I’m very pleased with the results, very, very pleased.


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