Los Angeles, CA
April 19, 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson
So the question is why I became an architect. Well, let’s think. I didn’t want to work in an office, I wanted to be outside. I wanted to draw, I wanted to basically not work in an office, I wanted to be outside. So I thought what could you do? And something that had some professionalism to it and that was an architect. My interest was always in things three-dimensional, creating things, and there was no film school in Montreal at the time so architecture was the route that I traveled. And that’s probably why I ended up here in Los Angeles, because eventually, all things lead to the screen. And, you know, it could be a building you design, it could be who knows what. The reason I chose McGill, I actually did not start in architecture, I started in psychology because of a teacher that I had when I went to the United States for one year of high school in Buffalo. And he was a mentor and an adult figure that I respected and he was a psychologist so I went into psychology. And then I came back to Montreal, I mean to- as I finished psychology, I had always been interested in Architecture and there was a professor who lived up the street from me, David Covo. And I went to his house. He had in his house, which was just up the street from me, his younger brother and I used to make go-karts and things like that. But he had these very cool three-dimensional shapes and forms in his sunroom and I thought this is fabulous. I mean this is what the guy does in school? And this was well before I went into psychology. I was probably twelve or thirteen years old when I saw this. And I remember I had my electric guitar, and his brother, Bruce, played my electric guitar and got paint all over it and I was really upset. But anyway, so Dave had these very interesting three-dimensional forms, which I guess he did in first year architecture. He was probably, I don’ t know, whatever you are in first year, eighteen, nineteen years old. And so I saw that, all right, here is something that looks interesting. It looks fun and I really don’t want to work in an office all day long. And David said, “No, you don’t have to work in an office all day long” and so I became an architect as a result of that. I mean it was probably a lot more complicated for sure but those were the simple steps to becoming an architect and the reason I chose McGill. And you know, I shouldn’ t slight my choice of McGill. I wanted to go to a Canadian university. I wanted to go to a good Canadian university and I loved the campus. I thought if it did well for someone that I knew that it would do well for me. And I was naïve like a lot of people I think that don’t set out necessarily to be an architect, naïve to what architecture and architecture school was and felt that I couldn’t go wrong at McGill because of the heritage, the history, and there were some good people that had graduated from there and done good things. So that in addition to the fact that a guy up the street went, I went to McGill.
Now tell us a little bit about your days at McGill, some of your professors and some of the courses.
Oh, okay, yeah.
First of all, just to get the picture in time, what year did you enter McGill?
Well, I was one of the lifers there. My student number was 7514236, so that means that I started in ’75 and left in ’83 because at the time, there was really no work for architects or anyone in that matter. It was during the English-French transition. And so most of my friends, including myself, stayed in school. Actually, that was one of the other reasons that I became an architect because it was a good profession and I needed something to do for four years because there was no work. So the timeframe is I actually formally entered architecture at the advice of David, and the council; I believe Derek Drummond at the time as well, “Finish your psychology degree, fourth year. Take some courses, do well, you’ll probably have a good chance of getting in”. And I think that was ’78 or ’79 that I started my first courses. ’80, ’81, ‘2, ’83 is when I finally graduated.
Some of the professors there. I mean, David. I’m not going to speak anymore about David. I’ve said enough right now. There was Bruce Anderson, certainly. I really got a charge out of him and his instructional techniques and just the way he carried himself. And I thought it was very interesting. Actually, this is interesting for our discussion here, Jim. I thought it was very interesting the way that Bruce and David at one time, I guess, had a partnership. And they did a school and so it was fabulous to see the fact that these guys were teaching a bunch of, you know, young adults, and running a practice and doing architecture. So you could see you could actually make a living doing this. And that was enlightening at the time. Some of the civil engineering- Selby.
Yeah, great, great guy. He told us that McGill had the best civil engineering school in the world and I quote that everyday when anyone will listen. Some of the other professors…
Was Peter Collins around then?
Peter Collins, yes, yes. I’ll give you a little story, which was interesting. A school chum and I sat beside each other in that dark room and it was crazy. You had to know those slides by heart. And it just so happened that the answer on my page was the exact same answer on my neighbour’s page.
Just a coincidence.
A Coincident. And unfortunately they were both the wrong answer. It was something laughable how one could mistake, oh, I don’t know, Chandigarh for, I don’t know, the Taj Mahal. I mean, it was one of those terrible mistakes and that terrible mistake was replicated on the person’s paper next to me. And we got called upstairs and it was absolutely humiliating and embarrassing. And you know, I don’t know how the story ended other than it was, you know, certainly not the only thing I remember about Collins but it was one of the things that first comes to mind. I really, I dug that class. That was great. I think that absolutely was an excellent foundation for architecture students and he was a lot of fun. I really enjoy him.
[7:34:15]I think that Sijpkes comes to mind, you know, this eccentric, stainless steel wizard. I remember all of his alternate use of materials. And, you know, look at Gehry, look at everything that’s done now with deconstructivism, I mean Sijpkes was right there. Who else?
Was Stuart Wilson still around at the time?
Stuart Wilson was never a professor of mine but I really dug Stuart Wilson as well because, again, Covo, the bad influence, said that he designed the tavern on Ste. Catherine Street, the St. Regis, and that was my cathedral and still is. I go back to Montreal, whenever I go to Montreal, I stop in at the tavern; I meet my brother. And we now have a history and tradition of Christmas Eve, we go, and this is an Anderson influence as well, truly an Anderson influence is that he got me involved in photography, which is my other trade: I’m a photographer. And we will take our cameras and a roll of film and we have one hour to shoot thirty-six exposures on Christmas Eve and we choose the best photograph every year. And we’re supposed to be Christmas shopping. We never get our Christmas shopping done and we end up at the St. Regis tavern. So it’s a nice Montreal story. And unfortunately, the last couple of years, I haven’t been able to go back to Montreal to do that, but the St. Regis, designed by Stuart Wilson, is one of our hangouts. Boy, first year-
Norbert- was Norbert Schoenauer around?
Never. Not one of my profs.
How about Derek?
Derek, yeah, absolutely. I had him, boy, what was the course? I can’t remember- Derek. It was- you know, maybe I didn’t. You know what? I had him as a critic in one of the years and he assisted me in one of the design classes, as I remember. Boy, the last year, a gentleman, he had little glasses and I can’t remember his name.
It wasn’t John Schreiber and it wasn’t-.
No, he was bald and he had little round glasses and I did a high-rise and he was my…
Isn’t that interesting, I don’t remember his name.
… prof. And I can’t think of the gentleman’s name either. I really dug him because he actually was an influence, and his name may come to me in a second here, he knows who he is, he influenced me in writing. And one of the other things I do as well is I write. I work for Disney and a lot of the things I do for Disney, it’s all based on story and our buildings are based on story and you have to write the story in conjunction with the creative member of the team and the design and production of the show and ride people and so that writing skill was honed in the thesis we had to do. It was called the Metropolis Centre. We had to spend a lot of time doing research, formalize our thoughts, put a story together and tell the story of the Metropolis Centre, which was my thesis and then throw the drawings, which were not an afterthought but certainly as difficult as putting the text together that accompanied the drawings and boy, if I could remember that guy’s name. Because he said to me, he goes, “You really like writing and you should write” . And it was- you remember these little things. Anyway.
So the writing was one of your strengths and of course photography-
Writing, photography, architecture. What else came out of it from- Sijpkes found materials. Boy, if I was better prepared I would-
You’re certainly well prepared. I wanted to ask you. Was Maureen there, I guess, at the time? Maureen Anderson? Do you remember her?
Oh yeah. She’s so nice. Boy, she was just great, yeah.
I think everybody said the same thing about her. It’s interesting how- and some people say more because of the influence that she was always there and sort of helped people when there was a need.
How about John Bland? Was he teaching you at all?
John Bland was not but I believe John lived on Lakeshore Road in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue…
… where my parents live. And we went there one time with the architecture school, I believe, and there was a get-together outside of his house and it was really nice. Yeah, but I was never in his courses.
So you are from Montreal and you worked in the summers when you were at McGill, I guess?
Let’s see, well, I’m originally from Montana and we grew up in Montreal and that’s how I’m able to come back and work in the United States because I have the American passport and citizenship. In the summer, oh, in the summer, what I did in ‘82, which was related to all this, John Theodosopoulos, Charles-André Brunet and myself, three guys in the same architecture class, with my partner, we had a construction company. And we would build decks and additions and I remember going- I go back to some of those additions and I thank God that they’ re still standing, because I would- I actually talked to David Covo I think once, not to implicate him if there’s any liability here, don’t misunderstand me, I showed him that we did some masonry wall not on a stone or steel lintel, but it was on a timber lintel. And I said, “Yeah, they did this in the Middle Ages. We needed to use timber”. And it’s still standing. The house is still standing. But I remember, the guy said, “Well take down the stone wall and build a foyer because it’s too cold in the house” . And so we thought, Geez, we’ ll go get a jackhammer. We took this big wall down and then built an extension on this guy’s house. It was frightening. But we finally got the hang of it after about six feet and the thing went up all right. So. Actually, I used that for the summer study course. The summer study course, you had to document something you had done or something, yeah. So my summers weren’t necessarily filled with architecture or construction. I worked on the farm at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, you know, I sold ice cream, I worked and-
Just like a lot of us, I guess, in the same time.
Do you remember Sketching School at all?
Oh yes. Sketching School. That was actually a great experience and made good friends with a guy, Bob Hamilton, who’s had-. I went back to Montreal not too long ago for his vernissage, at, I guess it was at the Engineering building, the new one, the new Architecture building. Yeah, that’s right. I actually sold the sketches there, at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue.
You actually sold your sketches.
Yeah, there was three up and they were all sold. I mean it wasn’t, you know, great shakes, but that was stunning to do that.
The interesting thing is quite often, Stuart Wilson used to be one of the mentors of the sketching. But did he go on any one of you-
No. It was Tondino.
Oh, Gerry Tondino.
Gerry Tondino, yeah. He was- well, of course the drawing classes were great.
Yeah, they certainly were!
Yeah that was really a trip. And I remember, I played basketball. I was just sharing a story with a guy here because it’s very difficult when you’re designing and you’re trying to be sensitive and creative in a design sense and then you have to go in the construction arena and deal with, you know, the bruisers out there. And so I likened that to when I was- I just shared this with a guy the other day because I had a tough time transitioning between one project I’m doing and the project- another project, which is more hard-nosed construction here. Anyway, I likened it to when I was in architecture and was playing football at McGill. And we’d be in these design crits with whomever; Peter Rose comes to mind. And we’d be up all night and we’d have to be intellectual and we’d be going back and forth with concepts. And I’d have to go up to Molson Stadium and play football. I remember, I was a punt returner and that ball came once and I was so tired and I was thinking of something, I think I remember Peter Rose saying, “Just draw it”. And I said, “Well, you know it looks like a-“. He kept saying, “Just draw it”. Maybe I was battling over that but I was trying to also play football. That ball came down and hit me in the head and bounced like about five hundred feet in the air. I just can’t do this anymore. So, but you know, that doesn’t leave you because you have to always transition between that design awareness and sensitivity and the reality of getting hit on the head with a football or a two by four or a subcontractor.
Did you actually play for the Redmen?
No, I didn’t actually play. I practiced a lot! I played one game, I played one game.
That was unusual because most architects didn’t play [unclear].
No. And that was a carry-over from my psychology years. Those four years were great because I got a chance to really experience Montreal and I remember some of it. And then also- but then as I got into architecture, I did play basketball and football but then I had to drop them. It was just too much. It was just too much. And I couldn’t devote the time to it. You were just too exhausted. I was- I mean if I was a better football player, I probably wouldn’ t have to have practiced as hard or a better architect, I wouldn’t have to work as hard. But, you know, I had to balance somewhere in there. Just I had no more time. Plus, I wanted to go out and see Montreal, which was half the fun of living there.
So the days after McGill. I think it was April, May. The day that I finished my work at McGill, I remember it was two days afterwards, I left. I left Canada. I mean there’s a side-story to it. My father had just died and- well, he had died earlier. I remember I was finishing my thesis and it was December. So I had this hellish five, four months of work and then trying to sort everything out at home. And I was just so exhausted from this last year and everything in my family. I remember the day it was over, I packed up, just about the day it was over, packed up and left. And I went to this wild and wonderful experience in Newport, Rhode Island with the Canadian team of the America’s Cup Challenge, which was just fabulous. And I got a chance to work with Bruce Kirby doing some of the grunt design work on the hull and the ship. And my job was to design and fabricate different components with a couple of the guys and I knew nothing, but-
Had you any experience?
No, I had no experience, but this kind of goes along the lines of you asked what some of my summer jobs were. I worked in the brewery at Labatt’s, which was a great job because you could get beer and, you know, that’s why you worked there. But my brother Bill, who worked there, said, “You know what you do, when you go and work at the brewery, tell them that you can drive a forklift. It’s the best job at the brewery”. So, lesson learned there, which has helped me actually in my career- sure I can design that. I’ll do that job- is when I went to the America’s Cup Challenge, my friend Brooke, who was in the construction company with Charles-André Brunet and John Theodosopoulos he said, “Just tell them you know what you’re doing and just keep your mouth shut. Just follow me”. And I did that and I stayed on for about a year and a half. And that’s when the Australians won the cup and the Canadians were mischievously involved with the whole Keelgate episode of which I was at ground zero with that. And I think that’s the other reason that Dave maybe remembered me in this because he really dug that story, so-
He’s a sailor.
He’s a big sailor, yeah. So then I left and it was the big boom time in the Southwest and I wanted to explore the American Southwest because of my interest in love there started to work in Arizona. Those were the days when the developers said you would take a dart and you would throw it at a map of Phoenix and wherever it landed, you could develop the property and make a profit. And so times were big, money was big and all the firms grew and then blew up. I actually started my firm at that time because there was so much work and had my own practice in Phoenix. And then left that practice, came back to Montreal sometime near, you know, the end of the eighties, and worked in Toronto with another McGill grad, Julian Jacobs, as a matter of fact.
Oh yeah, Julian Jacobs. I’ve interviewed him.
Yeah. And he probably doesn’t remember. It was such a short pass through town, two ships in the night. And it was a- he had a very tight practice, as I remember. He had a very tight set of drawings and I remember my lettering was not that good. And I did keep a set of the drawings because they were just so beautiful. He did such a fine set of drawings and the building I thought was wonderful as well, so. Anyway, then I missed very much the Southwest, moved back and started a partnership and we did residential and small commercial and I mean that’s where the story gets boring.
This was back in Arizona.
Yeah, so I mean that’s, you know, I just led the life of an architect and then coursed out on my own again. Went overseas and worked in Guam. That’s when the Japanese were investing heavily in that part of the American protectorate, I guess it is called. And did some work there. I wanted some Asian-Pacific rim experience. And then came back and again started my own firm, but more project management and left architecture. And actually, left the practice. I was absolutely disillusioned with the way architects were mistreated and the poor salaries and everything else that every architect complains about. And I just said, you know, “To hell with this. I’m going to exercise my talents in other areas”, and became more of a project manager. And as a result of that, started my own project management firm where we employ architects, engineers, general, well, people that have general contracting experience but are more construction managers.
Was this in Arizona?
That’s here. That’s in California. And I came to California at the absolute worst time when there was no work and I remember I went for an interview. This is a funny story. Actually, I came over here to write. I came over here to write and also see what the architecture field was. So I was taking some courses at UCLA and, I mean I was, you know, a middle-aged adult here and I was disillusioned with architecture so I was drifting. But in the drifting, I remember I found myself to pursue a portion of my photography interest at a baby photographer’s studio. And it was one of these things where they scam you into taking photographs of your child when it’s a newborn and they come to your house and try to sell you more photographs. I think I was more interested in the drama in the store than I was the work, but what was really funny is when I’ m in there, so this guy is sitting behind this terrible desk in this terrible suit and he looks at me and he goes, “You’re an architect. We have a lot of architects working for us”! I tell you, that lobby of people going to be baby photographers was something out of a movie. So of course, you know, I tried to write a script on that. But all the while, I was still working, still designing but not making a full-time living out of it. And by chance, as I decided to change my direction and work more as an owner’s representative versus an architect, although I would still do homes for people, I got hooked up with Disney and that’s where I am today.
And what do you do at Disney?
I am right now the project manager over the Happiest Place on Earth: Disneyland. All of the attractions and large capital of improvements that are designed and built by Imagineering is what I manage and also still do commercial architecture with the master planning and pre-development entitlement team and that’s everything that is on the streets and more of a commercial nature. So I keep my hand in both pots, the creative Imagineering and then also the development.
And you said earlier that you are doing some writing too.
I still do writing, yeah. I still do- I just haven’t had a lot of time. You can see, I said that I would say this: I’m very tired. It’s been a very tough two weeks.
By the way, it doesn’t show.
Doesn’t it? All right. Good. Well, you know, I don’t get a chance to do that as much as I’d really like to. We have to write at Disney because it’s story-based, as everything is story-based. I mean every building is a story in not so many words if you will. But at Disney specifically, there is a story with each component of a development and you have to be able to verbalize that and then pen that and that serves as the basis. It’s called the scope. And your scope document talks about all things facilities, show and ride and anything else, film, that’s a part of it. So you get a chance as a project manager there to really be involved with film production, with writing, although it’s more strictly a creative end versus a project management end, but you get to have your fingers in all those pots. So it’s absolutely a great job for someone who really didn’t mean to get into architecture and wanted something so that he would not have to work in an office all day so it seems to have just worked out. The harder you work, I guess, the luckier you get.
That’s what Stephen Leacock said, and I guess a lot of us believe it. So you’ve more or less found the idea job, at least in context of your time in life right now. It seems to be.
I think that it’s the idea job in context of the time in Southern California, the place I choose to live and my life, because it sure is a hell of a lot better than not working and being a baby photographer, I’ll tell you that! And so in that respect, it’s great. And I still get a chance to actually design. I still do homes. I’m doing a home for a buddy in New York, so I get a chance to go and, you know he still changes everything. I mean that never- you can’t trust him. You’ve got to trick him!
You were asking me about the speaking stills and the presentation about being a sales person. At Disney or any entertainment development entity, you have to constantly be selling your ideas because there is a huge pot of dough and everyone is vying for that pot of dough and you have to tell the best story to get your particular portion built, if you will. If you were to liken it to the film industry, let’s say, a project manager in my field is more like the producer or the executive producer of a film where you are the guardian of that corporate pot of dough and you have to continue to pitch it to the real money people that may live out east or something. So a project manager for that company is very different. But, you know, it seems to work well for me. It fills most of my needs, anyway. The one need that it doesn’t fill is that no matter how hard you work at Imagineering, you can’t fabricate time! There’ s just not enough time in the day. And that’s really the drag, really. Especially with these freeways, you know!
Just on an average week, do you work for five or six days a week? Or you try and-?
This is maybe not as interesting to the people watching this as it is to us in California, but you are- it is very difficult to get a job under regular circumstances and in a regular employment situation where you’re an employee. You have to have a contract in most cases. And so to get a job at Disney, I have contracted with them and out of that, I had to grow a company. So now I not only do my job at Imagineering as a project manager, but I run a company of ten people. So it’s massively time-consuming. I’m trying to get out of that. You know, they’ve created a monster!
Are all these people working with you on Disney?
They all work at Walt Disney Imagineering in one capacity or another and they’ re all great guys and we’re just all professionals trying to make a living in Southern California and we’ve made lemonade out of these lemons. And it seems to work well for all of us. And once that gets put aside, we just do our job and it’s a great living right now.