Stuart A. Wilson

1912 - 1991

Stuart Wilson was for many years in charge of both semesters of our third year studio, the equivalent of today’s second year. A good number of people in the chapel today probably remember very well those days - full-size corner isometrics, a complete set of working drawings, with details, of a small wood-frame house, rendered perspectives, and the framing model...the framing model... Schemes were designed and then re-designed. Those drawings and that model occupied our every waking and sleeping minute for the better part of half a year, although the waking minutes far outnumbered the sleeping. I have never forgotten the manufacturer’s name and model number of the damper in the one and only fireplace detail I’ve ever drawn...

The late sixties and early seventies were interesting years on this campus, and on campuses around the world. We recall the regular demonstrations outside the administration building, which was visible from the windows of the studio - many cards were burned in those days, draft cards, McGill ID cards, gym cards; I seem to remember an occasion when someone tried to push a car through the plate glass doors of the Engineering Building and another time, late, late one night when someone lobbed a small bomb into the university greenhouse. We heard these things, classmates often called us to the windows to look, but we never actually had the time to look for ourselves. Stuart might appear at any time and revolution was no excuse for a sloppy section; by this time, we were used to leaving our tables late in the evening and returning early the next morning, only to find comments, presumably Stu’s, on our originals. These comments were often non-verbal - an unusually high window in a gable wall, for example, was an opportunity for the surprise appearance of a curious giraffe.

There was a rigour and a discipline under Stuart that left indelible marks and shaped, often not so indirectly, a number of careers both in and out of architecture. He introduced us to the concept of design methodology, to the consideration of architecture in relation to the process and product of building, and to the significance of the words design and construction in the name of a design course. Long after he retired from active design teaching, he continued to function as an animated and outspoken critic of our own design studios and was for many students, as recently as this semester, an unofficial but most valued advisor.

Stu’s attitude to, and ideas about, technology were interesting, to say the least. He never drove an automobile - although he was often a passenger - I’ll show you the burn marks. I never saw him use a 35mm slide - I offered once, when I was his teaching assistant, to convert material that he used in the epidiascope (or opaque projector) into slide form. Stu reacted: SPOONFEEDING. The epidiascope may have strained a few necks but the idea, he said, was to strain their minds as well. I never saw him use a phone either, although I am told by others that he did. He certainly never used a computer, but, once again, I think he understood this technology and its impact on thinking and the human spirit better than most. When one of the first word processors in the school was installed in our main reception office, he did a characteristic double-take by the door, saying ‘what’s that?’ A word processor, we replied. What does it do? Well, it stores words. Where? In the basement of Burnside hall, in the mainframe. How many? Millions - more than we can put in. Well, he said after a pause of a few seconds, who gets to decide which words stay in and which words stay out?

More about language. Stu was, as we know, extremely articulate, both graphically and verbally. He even used body language with considerable eloquence (his body language alone provided a base for more than one inspired impersonation - just imagine a selection of the more gifted of his mimics from over forty years of architecture classes wandering around here now, pulling drawings off the wall and spilling ash over practically everything). But he used words as carefully and with the same sense of style that he used pencil and brush. Expressions like FAT CATS, MOVING TOO FAST, DOG’S BREAKFAST, and FUNKY have become part of the language of the school. His three level view of confidentiality was a classic and remains a model for the university and society in general. First he was FRANK. Then he was BLUNT. And then he would ask you to KEEP IT UNDER YOUR HAT.

His view of architecture, of the world, was highly structured. Everything and everyone had a label and place in his scheme of things, which meant, of course, that everything was in some way connected to something. How often were we lured into Stuart’s office with his quiet and optimistic  ‘Got a minute?’ Stu used these sessions to ‘run things by us’ - theories explaining these connections between people and events, reactions to a new exhibition, the draft of an article, ideas for new, or improved, courses. The minutes often turned into hours, and we cherish the memory of each and every one of them.

In 1929, Alfred North Whitehead, in The Aims of Education, wrote  ‘The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning.’

We’ll remember Stuart Wilson.

STU: Witold Rybczynski on his student days at McGill and Stuart Wilson (5 August 2013)

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