December 2, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson
Architecture was not something that came very clear to me. The only thing is I remember in high school I was in grade 11 or so and then some engineers and architects came to give us a bit of a briefing on what to do. And at school, at high school, I was always- school always came easy to me, you know. So I was sort of a [unclear] type of a student, you know I didn’t- chasing girls. Maybe my hormones were-
So I wasn’t thinking career very seriously at the time. So then- but I remember very clearly those architects and engineers came in in high school and then said- the engineers spoke about themselves and then the architect came in and he says- well, I didn’t know anything about architecture, so he says, “well, we do buildings, but we’re the master seer. We do the artistry around the buildings and we compose the buildings before the engineering gets in there and then it starts putting in the structure for it”. So that left my- just a passing comment like this. And then I was in the Air Force for a couple of years after high school. I wanted to see some adventure. I wanted to see the country and so I went up and I was in Winnipeg and Ontario. I stayed for a couple of years out in Montreal. Then I was disillusioned with the military system so I came back to Montreal and I wasn’t going to- I was just going to- I didn’t know where I was at the time.
So then I remember a guy working for me, with me, at Canadian Petrofina in sort of an accounting desk. And then he said, “Well, I take courses at night, you know”. “What do you do?” He says, “I take drafting, you know”. I said, “What do you take drafting for?” “Oh, because I want to get myself a career, see?” So that was a couple of years after so maybe I should think about a career. What is a career, you know, what do you do in life, you know? So I remember very clearly in high school. I used to be very good at- then I started analysing myself. What am I? Who am I? What am I going to do? I said- so I used to be very, very good at drawings, you know, and sketches. And I used to draw the high school drawings and I used to draw the elementary school posters for the big occasions. And even in- it was all in French school at the time, you know, so we had all these Catholic things and all that. So I used to do the- I used to draw the bishop and you know, all these- the Holy Mary. But I took that for granted, you see. So then I said- so I started to say, “Well, what am I good at?” See? So then I started to re-think about what I should be, you know, and maybe I should be an artist, maybe I should be- go after the stuff that I know that I took for granted. So I- and my dad was a carpenter so I always liked buildings. You know I always worked in his shop. I did a bunch of stuff, carpentry and I had a very, what do you call, I think a very good childhood. You know, I was always left to my own and I was searching for my own, my own interest and my own-. I was always very interested in nature and then in things where you- discovery, trips and go in the bush and do your own thing. I was always adventurous, and that’s probably why the Air Force. You know, I got out there and I always wondered why am I here? You know, why am I doing this? Always self-conscious of what am I doing here? You know, and then I’d go back and so then I’d say, “Well, this time, I’m going to do the things that I want to do. I mean, I’m going to go and I’m going to dream over there and come back in two years”. So that’s where architecture came in as a very well thought out plan for me. You know, so then I figured well, maybe I should do- I’m good mentally, I’ve got a brain, I got a- I’m smart at school so maybe I should apply it in an artistic way, you see. So then I really thought I would be [unclear]. For a while, it sort of converged and converged, it became very obsession that I want to be an architect, you see, about two, three-. So I applied at U of Montreal and McGill. And then McGill came back, because I remember reading the paper and all that stuff. McGill was an established institution and I applied there and then obviously, I had good marks in junior high school, so I was well accepted right away, so-
What year was that?
In 1968. And then- and naturally, you had to go first year in engineering, you know, so I had to struggle through all that. I really got disparate for a while, and all that I’m not sure that I can do all these academics. But then I really buckled in and then first and second year, second year came to be more of interest and third year was really good and fourth year, I really was in my own thing I think, still always doubting very much ‘till you get an accolade, you know. You don’t know who you are until someone tells you who you are, you see. But when I came out of school, I felt pretty good. You know, I was nominated for the Pilkington, and then I won all kinds of prizes and through the years I was- and I wanted to make sure I knew where I was, you see. After third year, I told my wife that if I was going to be in the right place, I would go to medicine. You know, I just want to make sure I could succeed. And that’s why I was- I put a lot in at McGill, you see. And at McGill the things that I was most- see, from a Francophone, you go into an English institution, you have a higher- it’s a mystery to one. So- and I really- because I was very serious about succeeding, about becoming a good student, about finding myself through school, then I really thought very highly of all the professors, you see. They [unclear] back at school, I find you’re very sort of infantile in a way, but now that you are thirty years in the business you know- but at the time, I thought those professors, all of them, you know, I really thought they were all great. I mean I really had a great time at school. I really thought all the profs, like Peter Collins and the Rad Zuks and the John Schreibers and the Bruce Andersons, and the Ray- and all the guest lecturers, I thought they were so like major stars you know of the school. They were like pillars, you know. And I’d [unclear] myself, “If I was as good as they are. You know, one day, I wish I would be…” One thing I was going to say, I was talking at the centennial. I gave a lecture, a centennial lecture you know, for the McGill grad- our year. And I said to the students, “You know, I hope that you get out as much out of school as I got out of school”. You see, because it marked me as a- because I didn’t know where I was and I wanted recognition, you see. Because I didn’t know before- I wasn’t possessed and obsessed about something, you know? And when I saw those profs at McGill so possessed and so obsessed about perfection, you know? And John Schreiber with his brick lintels and you know, Stuart Wilson and all his framework and Tondino was sketching. And these were all, I thought they were, they were very excellent artists, you know, they were pure men in their own profession. And I said to myself, “I wish one day, I would be as possessed, as obsessed as these guys are”.
You actually thought that at those years of your life. You were thinking that way even then.
Oh yeah. So ever since then I graduated, that’s what I’ve been trying to do! You see, when I first designed my first home, I was saying, “I wonder what Peter Collins would say about this?” You know? And “I wonder what McGill would say about that?” You see? And that, the higher ideal of the upper echelon of architecture was always with me, you know, to sort of keep above the nitty-gritty of money and stuff but kind of carry an upper level, a more noble look at architecture and a more normal servant to society. And that kept me pretty well intact. And obviously, you got the jobs, the work, the crassness of capitalism and all that tends to affect you, but you’ve got to have an upper level enthusiasm for doing the great thing and doing the noble thing and being above the sort of daily-
Which is difficult to do. Well, what year did you finish at McGill? 1973?
Oh, you finished in ’68?
Yeah, oh, excuse me. That’s right. ‘Finished in ’68. I got in in 1962. I’m sorry, I got-. I started in 1962 at McGill, yeah.
So you finished in ’68 and what did you do then?
Well, I was working in 196-. My life is basically, I always call it, like I told the students, it’s like a series of incidents, you know? And I think if I can do that, that’s what I was telling them, anyone can do that. To me, if you are- if you want to live your life and you want to give it all you’ve got, the future will look after itself. You see, and that’s what I- my life is the result of luck, incidents, opportunities-
But a lot of hard work, too.
Oh, well, for sure, hard work, hard work, basically hard work. I’m saying if a guy says, “Well, I didn’t have the breaks so I didn’t have this, I didn’t have that”. I think if you look- if you have the attitude and you know yourself, and you do what you do best, in any career, and you look here not over there, the over there will look after itself, see? So- because I never had any thoughts of going to Calgary here in this cowboy country and you know being a Francophone here, I’m the ultimate sort of, what do you call, example of what not to do, in a way, and how to succeed. And it worked. And I feel very satisfied with what I’ ve done. I don’t have expectations to be a Moshe Safdie or- but the idea is that you have to be happy with the things you do and that happiness has to be inwards so you can still keep your general, everyday broad look at architecture as a noble profession, you see.
But I was trying to pin you down in 1968. Did you stay in Montreal for a short period of time?
Well, I, like I said, in 1967, I was working for Morris Charney at Lahaie and Robert in Montreal. I had a good job in the summertime. He brought me in and then when I had a very good thesis result, it was published in The Star and so he called me up, “You’ve got to work for us at Lahaie”. And I worked with the Complexe Desjardins in Montreal. I did the urban design with Morris there. And we worked for a good six months doing these big high-rises and it was very interesting. But then the work kind of petered out. And then I- the same old thing. Ever since then, as soon as I graduated, eh, I’ve had this urgency button that I hit that the race is on, man! You’ve got to make it by the time you’re forty! You know, I mean that kind of stuff. So I looked at that and I said, “Well, Morris”. So at the time when I was in school, there was a guy in Calgary here, this is the incidents I was talking about, okay? I had done a thesis in Montreal, a very nice- I mean I think it was a good piece. It’s housing in east central Montreal by Jacques-Cartier Bridge, all the slums. And this is what I was doing. I’m going to fix up all their mess, you see. So Jack Long, who’s an architect in Calgary here was doing his Master’s at McGill. So he came, attended all those classes and so he interviewed me to come down to Calgary to go work for him. And I talked to him; I wasn’t very serious. And so I just said, “Fine, fine, fine”. But then after Charney’s work was kind of over and then I’d done everything I had to do then in Montreal, things after ’68, it was very kind of slow. So Jack gives me a call. He says, “Hey, what are you doing in Montreal? You’re supposed to be here! I’ve got ten jobs for you here!” So I said, “Holy shit”. So I said, “Maybe I should come down. So I mean maybe it’s time if we want to explore the world”. So I said, “Well, we’ll go and give it a couple of years out there”. And at the time, there was all kinds of students, in fact, same classmates of mine, who were looking at coming here. There were two or three guys already here. Mike Grey, he was at TD Bank, Des Senior was here and Jim Waugh was here. There were quite a few guys already in Calgary because “Go West, young man. The work is out in Edmonton and Calgary”. So, you know, a Francophone doesn’t pull out of Quebec just like that, you see! So I was really homesick and I didn’t know if I was going to do that, you know. But I figured, well, again-.
So when I arrived here, Jack had given me a job so I arrived in Calgary and then I felt really kind of not at ease too much but he was very good. So he enjoyed the thesis. He was a very good- for me, he was a very good mentor. I worked for him for a couple of years but the one thing that we did is that the first thing we did was we built my thesis, ‘cause he said, “We’ve got this guy, this developer from Edmonton and Mountain Real Estate. They’ve got a piece of land out in Edmonton and ta-da-da, so why don’t you just develop your ideas and bring it over there? So I did a make-up shift of what the hell we would do there, except instead of having some poor guys in there, they’d end up being intellectuals and rich guys, but- much like Habitat in Montreal. And then it worked. They built it. And I got the first design architect award in 1969 with the project that Jack had done. So then I became a member of the association and then the year after then I decided well, I’ll start on my own, because I felt that I had more offers than I was getting at Jack’s office. So basically, my career is basically a self-learned career. I wasn’t-
So you started on your own around 1971 then.
Yeah, ’71, yeah. So a couple of clients came up with a bunch of townhouses to do and then I decided to do that. I had this urgency to survive and make it happen in Calgary. So all my learning of what is good or bad architecture had to be done internally, had to be done away from the capitalist forces and say, “What are we doing here? What have I-?” So I had to- I wasn’t trained in a Webb Zarafa Menkes firm for ten, fifteen years or an Affleck. Because before, before I get there, I was going to say, I forgot to mention, at McGill, the two guys that really influenced me as outside guests were Ray Affleck, as one of the- I have to say is one of the main ones, because he was my crit on quite a few projects and I really think he is one of the idols that I always had, his comments, his exuberance and then and also Victor Prus. Victor Prus came to me in fourth year arch school. He says, you know, “This is a two by four. “ You know, “Learn to know about a two by four”. The basic issues of basically architecture that sticks with you all the way through life. I think these two guys stand out as-
Ray Affleck and Victor Prus.
Victor Prus and Ray Affleck, yeah, were the sort of guys that you looked- the successful pictures in Montreal in images and did the great work and emotional work and the kind of stuff that I related to so I thought that was very good.
If you started work in 1971 on your own without a partner, you just started up an office.
You were new to the area.
It’s not as if you were born in Calgary out west. That must have been difficult.
Oh yeah, it was, but the housing expertise that I learned at school with Norbert Schoenauer and then the influence of Jack Long’s office, through him, I was able to move into- I had a skill, you see. I could do housing in sort of a relatively easily fashion so I moved into a variety of housing projects and eventually I did zillions of housing projects and some interesting ones and then eventually in 1978, we got our first crack at government jobs in Edmonton. We banged on their doors quite a few times and we did their Drumheller Courthouse for the government of Alberta. Then I really laid it on, I really went flat out there in terms of what we should have done, what we should do- Department of Justice, you know. And then this is where I started to think about what I call the spirit of architecture, you see. What do I sell now? I sell the spirit of architecture. Architecture of the spirit too, you know. There is sort of- and that’s what I’ve been- this is what I was talking about in Montreal. See, my- the housing thesis that I had done in Montreal, and you can ask Bruce Anderson. He was very- he was really engrossed with that. It was- the idea is a housing project was going to be a reflection of people’s aspirations. It was not an aesthetic solution but more of an emotional solution to the love for the location, the love for the place and the love for the people that you have around you to survive as a group, as a collective group, to move forward. So all those ideas are staying behind me and I always want to do- you know, you always say, “What kind of architecture do I do, you know? What is architecture that-? Is it Rudolph stuff? Is it Safdie stuff? Is it post-modern? Is it-?” Whatever. So I eventually made it a Leblond architecture, you see? You know what I mean? And then to me, that’s the same sort of thing that you don’t- I always figure that if you- when chips are down and you got a loss on your head, you better have a Leblond architecture because you can’t say, “I did it because of this guy, this guy, this guy”. It’s what- “Mr. Leblond why did you do this for? “ So it became what do I really want to do as a solution for society and what can I contribute as a person? And ever since then, it’s been a selling job for me to convince my staff to do the right thing, okay. And the right thing, it was not- it was very foggy at the beginning, you know, and it evolved over twenty years, you see, and it takes about twenty- for me, it took twenty years and I’m still looking for another solution, as to what to do as opposed to how to do it, you know. So I was always more concerned with the what to do, you know, and I always put people to test and say, “How do you know that’ s right? How do you know this? How do you know that’s right?”
So the Drumheller Courthouse became first grab at what is justice? You know, can we reflect justice in a building? Can we make it happen? Can people see themselves? Can the juvenile courts be more informal than a senior court? And ta-da-da. So then on the inside, how do you feel? How do you see your maker? How do you-? So the spirit of justice became the big thing. So we, anyway, we did all this and we almost lost the commission because the chief, the deputy-minister of public works, said, “Listen, Robert, we don’t do these white elephant architectural statements, to be an architect”, because he saw it as an architectural statement. “We do little houses with the flags on top, you know, and two steps in the front”. But I said, “Well, we’ve done all this with your people. They’re in agreement with this. It’s our project. It’s ready to go, so if we change the attitude about this, then it’s a whole redraw and it’s double the fees and everything else”. So anyway, I don’t know what happened, but behind all this, they finally decided to go with it, so it’ s built. And then the chief justice of Alberta thought it was one of the- it’ s in the Courthouses of America, the book, and it’s one of the better courthouses in Alberta and a major statement from-.
And that led to eventually- that was in 1978. That led to, for the government, to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, you know, which they said, “Well, you know, the courthouse is so great, you see”. But then they say- you had to stand on the table and keep your integrity there, see, and then sell out my soul and say, “Well, it’s okay if you change anything you want”, you know? So when the museum came in, we didn’t know but we got selected to be the architect, you see. And that was the sort of the second phase of our- that was a survival project as I mentioned in the paper, because that was 1982, after the crash, but up to then, you see, up to- ’70 to ’82, we were doing what I call commercial architecture. We were doing high-rises. We did the Pan-Canadian tower downtown. But they just kind of- they were solutions to a need. But they weren’t too spirited, you know? I mean except- because the limitations are so great. But that’s sort of a- but that- the reason why we got the Pan-Canadian is because when I was working for Jack, you see, there was a draughtsman there that was there and he liked what I was doing. And he did a lot of housing for me at night, you know. And he became a major player with Marathon. So 1972 to 1976 now, we’re four years, I’m doing all this housing stuff and all over the North, Fort McMurray, you know. We have a staff of about maybe fifteen people or something. And we’re working on Auclair with- and we got involved with the Auclair project, a four-hundred-million-dollar project with Skidmore Owens and Merrill out in New York. So we’re flying New York-Calgary, you know, all of it.
This is the- down on the Bow, you mean?
Yeah. So we were- because of the housing I was doing, see people- don’t underestimate the clients, you see. So I’m doing this little housing stuff with little guys like New West Development Corporation and Qualico, all these kind of- it would be like Belcor in Montreal. But these little Belcors become big Belcors after a while and they build a high-rise downtown for their offices. But the architects I was working for at the time didn’t see this future. So I was doing this and all of a sudden, they become involved in Auclair, you know. They need a housing guy so they bring New West in as a major third- thirty percent shareholder in development. So they say, “We need an architect that understands housing, you see”. So they said, “Hey”. So I went to see him. I said, “Listen, Charlie, you need a guy that knows you, understands you. I’m the guy. You see, I did all this work and ta-da-da”. I gave him a snow job but basically, I didn’t have any high-rise experience before. So I’m in right away, in 1976, I’m a third partner with Skidmore Owens and Merrill in New York and Wesley in Edmonton, Jim Wesley Architects. So we’re involved with this for four years there, to redevelop, to rezone and reclassify the land where Auclair is now. And while we’re doing this, you see, then I had enough credibility to say to the Marathon people, “Yeah, we can handle the tower. You see, I mean, look, we’re doing this stuff at Skidmore”. So it was all kind of up hype a little bit, but anyway. So this fellow who I worked for, he vouched for me, like, big time. So we started preliminary plans and preliminary plans and preliminary plans. And then eventually, great, we’re in the doorway, we go to the city, we’ ve got a permit. Cripe, they would say, “How the hell does this Leblond guy do these big buildings downtown?” You know, we’re the first guy, the local little guy that does- we’re one of the first buildings that’s done out of Toronto, that’ s not done in Toronto, that’s done in Calgary by a local Calgary firm, eh? And then I remember the comments that were from Sinclair, Ian Sinclair of CPR: “Who is this Leblond guy?” You know, with a big cigar. And you know, he says. “Well,” the guy says, “Well, don’t worry, he’s a very good guy, ta-da-da” . So anyway, we slid right through so we had to do the job. So that was a major feat for us from 1978 to ’82.
And then we got this on the ground and done and that helped us out establish our credibility. But here’s another instance, so I go from McGill to Jack Long’ s office, to a draughtsman in Jack Long’s office to a Marathon tower, eh. And then here I am, while we’re doing the Marathon tower, this CPR guy says, “Hey, in Banff they’re doing some projects. The hotels, they want to do some reclassification and tourists are getting more and more and more and more-
Stronger and stronger so we need some housing in Banff. “Well, we’ll bring the old man from Banff Springs. He’s going to come down here tomorrow. Why don’t you give him a nice quick sketch? And we don’t want to be bothered because there’s no money in housing. We’re into big buildings and stuff like that”. So that’s in 19- probably ’78-80, somewhere around there. So anyway, I said, “Fine” . So he comes in. So I meet this guy for a supposed to be a couple of hours and draw him a sketch. And we did draw him a nice little sketch for some staff housing that he wanted to do for his hotel in Banff, you see. But again, we go down there, we loved the land, we loved the site and do the best job we can, you know, for free this time. It’s just kind of a free deal, eh. Because, you know, we’re great architects. We’re doing the towers and you know, I said, “We can afford to do all this”. So that’s 1980-81. So we do this and we gave him- so we hope to hell that something’s going to come out of it, you know. 1986, six years later, we’re doing the museum, the Head-Smashed-In Museum. Everything is coming out to stride, you know. The museum opened up in ’87 so he calls back. This guy from- and here we were, this was depression time here. It was low. Everyone was pessimistic. You know, what we were going to do next. You know, but we had the museum. At least we worked around that and it was going very good and then we had this thing about the way it’s going to come. But this guy called me up and he says, “Robert Leblond?” he says, this is- he was a Ukrainian- Czechoslovakian guy. “ Remember me? Ivor Petrak”. He says, “1982”. “Yeah, yeah”. “Remember the sketch you did for us?” “Yeah”. See? He says, “That was the best sketch out of all the sketches we’ve seen”. And they had, because they had other firms going, proposals and builders to do this. So we thought we were just out of the race, you know, it’s not-. But this guy had gone to Europe and Florida and everywhere. So anyway, six years later, he calls back, “ I want to meet with you tomorrow morning and I want to sit down and go over this plan of yours and ta-da-da-da and see how we can-. And I’m going to keep you busy forever”. He says, “We’ve got plans down there for big time”. So we go down there and we meet and then sure enough, we did the first staff housing in Banff for them, about a fifteen-million-dollar job. And it evolved and evolved and we’ ve been involved at CPR, CP Hotels ever since. So it shows you the progress from-
Just a little token meeting, and it’s because, all of a sudden, if you do it well, you never know how valuable-.
You see, you put a seed in the ground and it becomes a nice flower. So that was the sort of from a business standpoint. So it shows you an example there. And then we got involved in Banff and we got involved in Chateau Lake Louise and we got involved in Jasper Park Lodge and we could never do good enough for them and I’ve been involved in the Rockies for them for sixteen years.
I always say life is great. Anyway, you have to be happy with the results that you- even if they’re minuscule, they’re stepping-stones too, to the next one and to the next one. And everyday is a new day. And I always say to the kids in my office, to tell them that, “Make sure the next day is a better day for you. Make sure you don’t take yesterday as given and you move a step forward”. We always have to surpass ourselves. The greatest challenge in life is for everyone, whatever you did yesterday, you should do better tomorrow. You should never, because if you go- I always say, if you stand still, you’re going backwards. You have to move against the current. And to me, whether it’ s an involvement of your psychological balance or whether it’s a smarter way of looking at things, or a more- it all has to do with a personal development. And I always feel in our day of computerization, in our days of- most everybody today could be an architect, I mean, you can sell architectural programmes on the computer, everybody’s an architect. But what differentiates between I always say between an architect and a real architect is I call is a spirit of architecture. And that comes through your, I feel, through your own energy. You put your energy back into your work. Architecture to me is a metamorphosis of an idea. So you have to have an idea. Without ideas, there’s no architecture, you see. So without ideas, architecture for me is only materiality. It’s only assembling of blocks. And then so to me, architecture in the future is architecture of the spirit, where you take- where you go in the intellectual realm of what is architecture? And that’s- it’s all very- it’s above the materials. It’s above the- it’s whatever- it opens up a brand new horizon. Because I always figure that guys who play with bricks and steel and- there’s only so many ways you can do that. After awhile, you lose interest. But if you have a higher goal, a more noble creed to reach for it, and it’s so high you can’t reach it so you keep struggling towards that, and that’s what I, as a firm, I’ ve been trying to do. So I say to my staff to at least attempt to develop as you start, from the very first day out of school, is to develop a voice. What is good? What is not so good? What do you feel about this particular work? That particular work? Develop an attitude about what architecture is about. So if you work towards that, eventually, you’re going to get there. You might not get there first year. Some guys take their whole career. Some guys take two years, some guys, and they stay there. Some guys grow, grow, grow, grow, and keep growing forever, see? And that’s the beauty about, to me, architecture, it has a forever field of interest that is so exciting to me. So if I don’t discover anything- and I run a very transparent firm, eh? I mean, today, I look a little bit dressed up here, but generally, I run an atelier. We discuss things; I get my hands in every project. I draw everything. I sketch everything. I mean I push everyone to do- to do. You know, and I find the exuberance or the enthusiasm or the possessiveness not as existing, not as present as it used to be, you know. I’ve got to say, I have never met yet a guy that can-
That meets- that has met my expectations in terms of a willingness or a love for life, you know? And architecture, that’s what it is: it’s a love for life, love of people. And you’ve got to love people, love their situation to say- to want to improve it. Because if you don’t like it, well, you can only be indifferent. And then also, the other part of our work that I’ve been- very hard, because of my artistic background, and that’s part of, I call it the spirit, is to create environments that the people, even the small person, the citizen, the ordinary guy can feel, can sense, can say, “I like that” you see? So when you get a guy saying, a little, uneducated person saying, “ I like that” , then that means that you’ve done something in that space that dialogues with him, that tells him, “Hey, I look after you. I’ve been looking after your interest”. Or, “I create excitement for you”. And that kind of dialogue, that’s what we- I think if you can reach the emotions of society, to me that’s where we’re at. And that’s why we’re struggling very hard to get that, because this is where we feel our assets are, is to reach the emotions of society. If you can do that, I think we’ve gone a long way, you see.