Interview by Jim Donaldson
Talk about the early days, how you decided to become an architect.
It was the summer of 1964 between grade 9 and 10, which is junior to senior high school in Montreal Malcolm Campbell High School. And we had to pick which course we were going to go towards, because the programme I was in was a Latin Science. It was considered that these people would be going towards university. So I had to pick either a medical stream, a biological-chemistrical stream or a mathematical engineering stream. And my father and I sat down together in the summer, June of 1964 and decided that, by elimination, to choose architecture. I had no sort of understanding or appreciation of architecture at the time. It was something because I was artistically oriented and was good in physics and geometry and related subjects that we picked architecture by elimination. Also, my brother was already going into engineering. So I couldn’t also go into engineering. So that was another deciding factor. So that’s how it happened. Very, just out of the blue. I was fourteen years old.
At fourteen years of age you made your decision as to what career you were going to follow. And I guess was it just logical that you went to McGill because McGill was there and so forth?
Plus they had a good school.
My parents are from, you know, from the old world and they basically felt that it had to be McGill or nothing else, or rather another school outside the province, Ivy League school. So McGill, there was no question it had to be McGill. And McGill had the only school of architecture other than U of M, which is a French school. So there was no question in our mind that three sons, we all had to go to McGill. So we all did.
Talk about McGill University.
McGill for me was more than- became more than just a degree in architecture or a degree because I really was sort of floundering in high school. I didn’t know where I was going to go other than the fact that I was going to go towards architecture. I wasn’t sure about that at all. And I didn’t really like high school very much, so when I got into McGill, it was very interesting because I started to really get into something that I really enjoyed. It was more than simply just a degree. Second year was- I remember second year as being a very interesting year but it was a year that wasn’t a lot of architecture. It was more just- and I’d come from grade 12 and did second year. I had missed the first year of engineering so I didn’t know the drafting. So for me a lot of it was coming up to speed in a lot of the basic courses and so on in second year. But the courses that sort of- the year that stands out more than- the two years that stand out more than- third year really stands out the most in my mind and as being kind of a crucible year for me in terms of becoming interested in architecture. And it was a very intense year and involved Stuart Wilson, Bruce Anderson and Peter Collins all at the same time all in the same year. So it was a very intense year. But design-wise, I remember Stuart being a [unclear], well being crusty, and was also very funny and extremely interested in motivating students and making them work very hard and doing the best they could. And that training of extremely hard work, the technical aspects. We were drawing these huge details of houses on sheets of paper on the floor late at night and then the working drawings we had to do and working together in a team, groups of three, and then collected together to make this village, this art village with other students, was a very good exercise in collaboration and collaborating with other teams. So that was a great experience. And the working drawings was a tremendous experience. I found that tremendously exciting. For the first time doing a complete set of working drawings, it was a very, very exciting thing for a young kid who’s twenty years old to do, an actual set of construction documents that you can actually build from these drawings. There is something very exciting about that. And still be in great stead. Many schools don’t do that, I understand now. They don’t actually do a complete set of working drawings in the school. That to me is, I think, essential. It should be the central ingredient of every school of architecture in the world. And then the next thing that I remember very clearly was Bruce Anderson. I think Bruce and Stuart are probably the strongest memories I have of the school of architecture in terms of professors.
Because Bruce at that time was a pretty young man.
Bruce was much younger than I am now. He was thirty-six. About thirty-five or thirty-six.
He graduated I believe in what, 1964, somewhere around there or so.
Yeah, Bruce is nine years younger than me- nine years older than me. And I still remember his birthday.
Oh, you do?
January 9th was his birthday. I still remember. Bruce was also, again, like Stuart, very similar, very intense people. But I think brought out a great deal of creativity in us and I remember him being, as a student, being an extremely creative person and motivating us. And you could just come to him and discuss ideas and he was always full of tons of ideas and he’d just sort of spill out these ideas and you’d just pick up on it and run with it. And, you know, the light modulator was something that I remember very clearly, being a very important one. We made a film together after fourth year. A Time to Remember, the film, which is now lost, no longer in the archives. So they’ ve lost that film, which is- I went to ask him for it the other day, a couple of years ago and he said, “Well it’s…” He looked for it, but-
I’m not surprised.
The film, this archival film, was lost. One hundred and twenty-five years of McGill history: A Time to Remember . Anyway, that was a great experience. It almost motivated me to move towards film. It was such a powerful medium. In some ways, very similar to architecture in terms of storyboard and constructing things and three-dimensionality and so on, just those different things. It’s more of a timeline as opposed to spatial, but you know, space and time, as Einstein has proved, are similar. In fact, it involves both space and time. But anyway, it was very exciting and those were very, very, very heady times for me and very, very enjoyable and very intense.
Peter Collins was a great, great professor and he was probably, in my opinion, one of the best and clearest thinkers that McGill has ever had. And his ability to see through and to think with that degree of clarity and precision about architecture was something that still stays with me. And his book, I think Changing Ideas About Architecture was, I think, a tremendous treatise on architecture. I think that whole aspect of the movement of architecture, following architecture through an ideal is something that I think is very pertinent, which will always be pertinent. And is a very, very, I think, appropriate way to analyze architecture.
It’s interesting, my comment and some of yours about Peter Collins. In fact, all three of those people that you talked about were very intense.
Yes, very intense people.
And they knew and loved their subject. And they expressed it various forms. The interesting thing about Peter Collins, I remember going to his classes and to me that was an exciting event when we would go to his classes.
Two or three- twice a week I guess.
Other people didn’t feel that way.
And the only one that really stands out for me is one of my most beloved professors and that was the art professor, Gerry Tondino, Gentile Tondino. So Gerry was sort of literally in a class by himself in the studio.
Yeah, still is. In fact, I recently bought a painting of his. I went to his house on St. Paul and bought a painting of his, which adorns my living room, my walls, one of my walls in the living room. And I think I learned as much, sort of maybe not as much about architecture but certainly as much about the thinking theory of design and inspiration of art; that architecture and art are really one thing and how- and the relationship of art to architecture. I think that he was able to- and the thing that sticks with me the most, there’ s one sort of thing that sticks with me about what he said, was his concept of searching, which I didn’t really- hadn’t really thought of that clearly until his course, that really art is the [unclear] search. And he would come by and erase the bad parts of my drawing, for example. I thought that a great exercise because he’d leave the sort of, we’d call the jewels and from there you’d build up again. Sort of what I do with my buildings. You know, you design a building, I come by to you and I’ll erase all the bad parts, leave the good parts and keep working on it until everything comes up to the same level of-. And so I’m always reminded, often reminded of that training. And the other one that really sticks with me is the reverse technique of drawings, which I used a lot as well in my understanding. And I call it designing with light in my buildings. And the concept that he used in two-dimensionally is that you start off with charcoaling the whole sheet of paper and erasing the figure; let the figure emerge through an eraser and only in the end, you actually add charcoal. And that approach of designing with- really it’s designing with light, designing the form through, is a very interesting approach. It also gives you a kind of a holistic approach right away to the entire canvas. It makes you tackle the entire canvas, which is the right way to design a building as well, not to start with detail, because if you have- a lot of people who start art, they’re all starting with, you know, starting with the nose and so on. So you immediately blow that away and get into the whole canvas. And what I realize and how that affects me also in architecture today is that I see every building as a renovation of a city or a renovation of a context.
It’s an interesting way of looking at it.
It’s not just- no building unit that’s new is an isolated building. The canvas is always the entire context. And that to me is the right way to design. And your chance of getting a building which is appropriate or responding- even if it’s not the same. I don’t think the idea of contextual, this is- we’re getting off on a tangent, but the idea of context doesn’t mean that you copy, which is a fallacy. It means you respond intelligently. And it can be something completely different than what’s there.
But it’s interesting because you’ve now talked about four, I guess, professors on the staff and all four had a positive influence on your life.
Yeah and they stand out. There are others that stood out. John Bland stands out as being- I have tremendous respect for John Bland because of his administrative abilities and his abilities to lead and to set an example for people. John, I think, was somebody I sort of had the highest respect for in that sense as an individual because he was in control, he didn’t lose his cool, even if he was dealing with the entire school, he understood you and could talk to you at a personal level. I could always walk in his office and talk to him. And he understood the subject and the issues. And I thought he was really a great administrator. So he stood out as well.
Now did you have- and you’re talking basically now of the third and fourth year. What about the rest? Are there any other professors that-?
Well, yeah, well afterwards in fourth and, sorry, fifth year, Norbert Schoenauer certainly stands out as being a great professor and, again, as an individual, as a human being. I think he lives what he talks about and lives the architecture and the theories he talks about. And the way he approaches housing from a very, very kind of a humanistic approach and a very thorough, broad approach rather than simply stylistic. That left me with a very strong impression. And as an individual, that left me with a strong impression. I learned a lot about, you know, obviously the relationship between indigenous folk housing to today. And I’m starting, you know, you start to realize that maybe what we’re doing is really a form of folk architecture, that architecture really is a living thing and maybe what you see in magazines, all this stuff is really part of an extenuation of folk architecture. And we’ re just calling it sort of glitzy and magazine-like, but really, it’s really a folk tradition at one level. The whole world’s becoming kind of a folk- the same kind of approach of folk architecture, I think, is being applied here, or indigenous architecture.
John Schreiber stands out because his course in fourth year is very important, I think and really, really influential to me because of the professors he brought in with him to teach and to- week by week, or every two weeks, we’d have a different outside architect coming in. And one of them was Andre Vecsei, who later on became one of my mentors and employers and good, very good friends. I still am a great friend of his and a great architect in my opinion. Very underrated.
Very underrated, that’s right.
Very underrated. A very talented, old school architect.
And he’s not very well known in the architectural community.
Not at all, not at all. But a tremendously underrated architect. One of the best in the country, in my opinion, and was never sort of- been recognized that way. So John, John, I think, he was a very- that course was tremendously exciting. I have very fond memories.
Was Harold Spence-Sales around at the time you were there?
The only recollection I have of Spence-Sales was that he gave one- in second year, I think. I think either second or third year, he was brought in by either Bruce or John Bland. I think it might have been Bruce, brought him in and he did this- he did a thing on site planning. Or it might have even been John Schreiber’s course in urban design. He brought in Spence-Sales. And it was very early. Maybe it was second year. And he did this very, very large, gestural drawing with coloured chalks across this whole board. The whole board was full by the time he finished. And this guy was prancing around on the stage of A-9
Very theatrical. Prancing around the stage with his coloured chalks and going wild with this. And he showed us these schemes of suburban communities and how he designed these suburban communities, how he created these cul-de-sacs. Of course, this is before Andre Duany is to change that whole idea with the new urbanism. But it was a very creative approach and I found it very colourful.
There was, sorry if I’m interrupting, but there was a course that was given at university and I participated in it. I don’t know whether you did. Most of us didn’t feel as if it was going to [unclear]. That was called Architectural Practice. Do you remember that at all? Do you remember-?
Yeah, there was this- who was it? LeMoyne. LeMoyne? LeMoyne’s course.
Roy? I don’t know him but I had a particular one and I remember it was one of those courses that you just said, if we can go, fine. We never really paid much attention to it.
I don’t remember. I remember LeMoyne teaching Specifications perhaps. And maybe- and I think it went with it. I think Specs and Professional Practice went with it, I think.
And just how you are going to practice.
Yeah, there-s- I almost have no recollection of it.
That was way too beyond-
Unfortunately, it was done in a very minor way. And I can remember being maybe in several classes on the subject, but I have very little recollection of any training in the practice of architecture in terms of the business side of it.
Now, I’ve known you, I don’t know how many years I’ve known of you because I remember-
When we came back from-
Just talk to me a bit about that because that brings in your-.
That was in the summer of ’73? Wow.
Twenty-five years ago this summer. We would have been in August. August 20th, we would have been in Edson, Alberta.
What a memory! Who were there? There were six of you or five of you?
Seven artists and one wife. Richard White’s wife came along as the manager and bookkeeper and so on and general confidant.
And who were the other participants? I remember David Covo.
Okay, here’s how it started if you want to know how it came about.
Yeah, I think it’s an interesting anecdote.
Dave says- Dave and Rick might say that they came up with it but this is completely false. It was the fifth year after Sketching School at Mattawa, okay. And we’d come back and we were in Stuart’s- Gerry Tondino’s drawing class on Saturday morning. And at the interval, one of the intervals between- we took a break and so on. Dave Covo and Rick White came over to my easel and I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to do this all summer?” To do this sketching class we had in Mattawa all summer. And that was the beginning and that was my suggestion. That was the beginning of the whole idea that we would then go on and we actually applied for a grant. John Bland, because he had a tremendous connection with the federal government, with Trudeau, because his brother’s connection with Trudeau, got us a $12,500 government grant, this so-called Opportunities for Youth, if you remember that far back. So Opportunities for Youth funded us $12,500, which today is $30,000. And we rented a mobile home on, what’s that street’s called? The Trans-Canada and etc. I remember going into this place off the Trans-Canada and getting a mobile and choosing this-, which we called Rosebud because of the movie, The Rosebud. And we called our group Village- we actually applied like this and the government actually gave us money based on this, Village Views and Small Town Hues was what it was called, our name of our group. And there were seven of us, Dave Covo, myself, and then we started picking up other people: Dave Covo, Rick White, myself, Madeleine, who was also [unclear], a very talented artist.
Voorhees. She happened to be a girlfriend of mine at the time. And Robin, Robin, a lady, girl named Robin something. And then some other- Valasek and a redheaded kid named John… I forget his last name. John Something.
It began with an R.
And then- yeah, yeah. John… John… John…
I’ve got one of his sketches.
John Ryder. Ryder with a “y”. John Ryder and Barbara, who was at that time the wife of Richard White. And that was the group. And we started off going east at first and went to New Brunswick, Campbellton. In fact, only four of us, four of the guys went first and then we joined up with the other people. And we stayed in a fiddlehead patch. We had in advance arranged places to stay in small towns across Canada. Campbellton was one of the bigger towns, and painted our way basically a week at a time across Canada. And then we went, for example, to Rivière du Loup we stopped at Rivière du Loup, Quebec. And this is one of the paintings behind me that came out of that. We camped at the beach and had showers for free and so on. And went right across Canada. It was one of the best summers of my life, in fact. I mean, imaging being getting paid to go across Canada and sketch small towns and getting wined and dined by the local townspeople and realizing that there are different jams in every part of the country. And really, you recognize it when you go through the small towns how great a country it is and how magnificent the scenery is. So we had an over-supply, and overabundance of great geography and natural-
Which, unfortunately most Canadians never see.
A lot of them, yeah. They might go to the big cities and may travel for business to Calgary or something.
The interesting thing is that at the end of your summer, you actually mounted an exhibition at Place Ville Marie. I remember at the time, that was the fall of ’73 or maybe the spring of ’74.
Fall of ’73. We got back.
And I think Air Canada at that time bought about twenty or thirty of-
You bought four of mine.
Four of yours, there you are. So we knew talent! In any event, I think we bought about in that range a couple of dozen. And to this day, as far as I know, they’re still around.
I’d love to know where they are.
Well, I can find out for you with a little bit of luck. So I will do that.
If it’s not too much effort, it’d just be interesting to see where these things landed up. Of course, my parents got the best ones; they’re in their house.
Well, it seems to me that you’ve got one of the best ones behind you!
This is one of the- well, they didn’t pick this one. They got some of the really good ones though.
A little bit about your career after you graduated. You graduated in what year?
So after I graduated, I was offered a job with Andre Vecsei. And he said, “The best thing to do when you come out of school is not to work in a large firm working on competitions or working on”, I remember it clearly, “or working- doing stair details on a large building, but to do a building on your own, do buildings on your own with our assistance”. And he said, “That’s the opportunity that you can have with my firm”. And that was a great opportunity so I started off, I was twenty-four, I designed my first office building and did all the working drawings and got it built by the time I was twenty-five. And after that, I designed, with Andre, I designed everything in the office. And it ranged from Le Noble Condominium in Montreal to a whole bunch of other projects in architecture, which actually won a number of awards. And then when René Lévesque came in, I was actually transferred to Arcop because I wanted to get some big- some large, huge project experience. I thought it would be interesting to do that urban design experienced. So I joined Ray, he said, “Anytime you want to join my firm, you can”. So I did at the end of ’76. And unfortunately, didn’t get a chance to work on the National Art Gallery. That was already given to some people in his office. But I went on to design some very large projects for him. And then came to Quebec with this firm in 19- March 7, 1977 I arrived in Toronto. The firm here wasn’t nearly what it was in Quebec and I left shortly after. In 1979, I started my own practice.
In 1979 did you say?
Yeah. I haven’t – the thing when you arrive in Toronto, it takes a while to get started because you don’t know anybody. You’re starting really from ground zero. Nobody knows you from- you could be the worst architect in the world, you could, you know, they don’t know you.
No connection, no family-
No connection, no family connections, no nothing. So really starting from scratch. I was pretty- I guess it was kind of a little bit arrogant in hindsight to be starting at the age of 29 or 28…
You would think so, eh?
…in my own practice in a city I didn’t know anybody. I had one client and that was Royal Lepage. And we did a lot of- I did a lot of corporate interiors and got to do- the first opportunity I had was really to do a house for a guy named Myron Gottlieb, who has since fallen out of- who has recently fallen out of favour with Livent.
Yeah. I think so.
Interesting lot. That was 1980. And that house went on. It was put on hold because he was buying up Cineplex at the time. It was put on hold ‘til 1986 and it was finished in ’87 and one the Best House Ontario Award in 1989, the Ontario Association of Architects’ award.
Since then, I guess my first big break was a renovation of a project which was in North York for a glass manufacturer, which went on to win the highest award in North York. And from there, the mayor asked us to work for the city of North York. And since then, we’ve won Governor General’s Awards for buildings both in North York and elsewhere. So we’ve- and at the moment, our practice is extremely varied. I’ve never wanted to say we only do houses or we only do apartment buildings. Some architects have done very well specializing. But my practice is varied and it basically covers four areas: residential, both low-rise, high-rise, single-family and mid-rise; commercial, which includes everything from offices to government offices to interior offices, corporate interiors run by my- the corporate interior group is run by my wife and partner, Gail. We do a lot of institutional work, like Royal Bank is our client; Bell Canada is a big client of ours. Air Canada, not yet, neither McGill.
But maybe one day that will change. We love working in institutional environments because we’re extremely meticulous with our work and I think we bring a level of design, sort of, quality and innovation that is really appreciated by these kinds of clients. And the other is industrial and industrial-related. So there’s four sort of main areas. We don’t spec- we don’ t do- we haven’t done hospitals or prisons and those kinds of buildings, but generally, those are the four areas which we’ve worked on. Recently, the last couple of years, and she’s no longer the head of Pakistan, but- Pakistan, a country where I was born, Benazir Bhutto found out about me through the embassy here and invited me, because of the fiftieth anniversary of the celebration, invited me to submit a design for a huge complex in Islamabad beside the- near the parliament buildings on an [unclear] wall, we designed that. And then as soon as we finished designing it, she got turfed out. And it was a very interesting project. And we were taking off on the whole concept of the freedom of the country and the fact that the [unclear] was a bird sanctuary. And the building became a sort of a sequence of birds landing as sort of the arms of the roof structures. And combine that with sort of more traditional Islamic sort of minarets and towers and so on.
Was that some sort of a competition or she just-?
It was a competition, which we thought, you know, that this was a- that they really liked our submission. And we heard back that it was very favourable and so on. And momentarily, like months after, there was a big crisis in her government and she was-. So that’s- some of the other bigger projects we’re working on, we do some very large urban design projects, in fact railway lands for Canada Lands Corporation. We’ve just- the last year, we’ve completed the urban design for the entire railway lands downtown. We’re working on the same kind of lands with Downsview, a large urban design site many people know about. We’re consulting them in designing the research park, which is a three-million-square-foot research park.
So you’re diversified, which is the ideal situation.
Yeah, well, it seems to be ideal. It seems to have carried us through the bad times and now we’re actually, you know- it takes a while to get known and get to the point where you’re getting- where you’re constantly- not constantly but you’re- it would be nice to be constantly. But you’re often being asked by clients to do a project out of the blue. You’re being called up and say, “Would you give us, you know, a proposal for this project?” And that’s something, that’ s a position you want to be in.
The next telephone call could possibly be a project. I mean it’s nice to feel the expectation if that happens.
But if you had to do it all over again, would you do what you did in terms of going through arch-? Everybody can change things, but would you basically do what you did, become an architect?
I would definitely become an architect. I’m not sure I’d do it in Canada. My feeling is that Canadians don’t apprec-. Generally, there’s no real appreciation of creativity here. And they also don’t understand that the best can be in Canada. There’s still a colonialist mentality in Canada. Like, for example, we’re a colony of Britain, in fact, and after the war, in my opinion we became a colony of the States. By and large, intellectually we did and continue to do so. And there’s a perception that you can’t be the best in the world. For example, last year, Bronwen Ledger, I told her, the building actually won, made the cover- she put it on the cover of a magazine but when I told her we invented a tripartite structure for a building, concrete, steel and wood, she said, “That can’t happen in Canada. Somebody must have done it in England or in the States”. So what I think I would- I think if I- in hindsight, maybe I would go to California, would have studied in California and practiced in California or somewhere else in the States where I think there’s probably a lot more opportunities than Canada.
There’s more opportunities and there’s more recognition of talent in architecture. In Canada, if somebody were to stop you in the street, nine and half people out of ten wouldn’t know an architect and the ones that might, either they’d be a personal friend, or- and the people who are in the know probably know two architects in Canada: one of them is Moshe Safdie and the other is Arthur Erickson.
That’s it. There’s a tremendous amount of talent in Canada.
Right. But the perception in the States is that if you say you have talent, they think that you must be the best. There’s a sense that why can’t you be the best? There’s a perception in the States that Americans are the best. That’s kind of a- that’s an ethos, that’s a way the country thinks. Canada doesn’t think that way and because of that, we put talent down and we tend to hire other people. Like, we can’t be- how could we possibly be the best? You know, this is something that I find I’m struggling with all the time. So that the creativity is stemmed because there’re just saying there’s a limit to the creativity and beyond that, you can’t go beyond that. Whereas in the States, they want you to flourish, they want you to do great things. They want you to do things better than anybody in the world. And if you go there, I think, there’ s a sense I have that if you have a lot of talent, they want you to springboard and do greater and greater things. That’s not the sense I have here.
Because firms and clients in the United States hire architects because of their talent. They just, I mean, there’s so many of these projects and you can see right away who the architect is they identify to be great. I mean this goes back to the day when Tom Watts with IBM when he used to hire Noyes, Eliot Noyes is it? I mean there’s that interest that just doesn’t exist in Canada. And you figure, we’re less than thirty million people, which is less than the state of California. Interesting-
It’s a very conservative and retardaire approach in my opinion in Canada still today. Although, it’s changing but very slowly. It’ll probably start changing because of the rate we are changing and becoming Americanized typically, generally. At that same rate we’re changing.