October 30, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson
How did you decide to go to McGill and study architecture?
Well, I had a few people that influenced the decision. I had always liked drawing and I liked math and my brother, who was two years older than me, decided he was going to go into architecture and I thought about that and I said, “Well, he’s going to go into architecture. I think I could probably do at least as good a job as he is”. And it’s a subject that interested me so I followed in his footsteps. To choose McGill, he also was at McGill and my father had graduated in engineering at McGill so it was I guess a natural step for me to look at McGill first. And it was in Montreal where I lived.
Do you remember your first impressions when you started architecture, what the life at the school was like then coming in as a rookie?
Yes, I remember masses of people lining up everywhere to get into their courses that they had to take. It just seemed just hugely overwhelming in terms of numbers of people. And the architects were at the time part of the engineering stream so we were few women in a large group of men that were mostly going into engineering. And it was really only the second year and later on that we started going into our studios and meeting the other architects more.
I guess it’s changed now. There are an awful lot- I would think the classes are probably fifty percent both sexes now, in terms of male-female. Probably, if anything, the women outnumber the men.
Well, it was definitely the opposite. Well, more than the opposite. Yeah, there were maybe-
Really a lot of people feel it’s now going in the right direction.
No, I think there maybe were twelve women when I started and a lot moved on somewhere else or dropped out so in the end, there weren’t that many. Maybe four.
Who do you remember amongst your classmates? Do you remember any that had an influence on your career at all?
I think, yes, the classmates that I remember the most were the group that finished their last year, or their pre-last year because the last two years, we joined forces, in the community design workshops, which were Joe Baker’s- was the professor, Joe Baker was the professor then. And we got to know each other very well. We worked together on projects and we worked with the community. And it had a very strong influence on a lot of people’s philosophy and it represented it for us where we were actually doing something for the community, in the community rather than make-believe design projects in studio. That for me was significant because after being at McGill for six years, I was looking for something more real.
Would you say then that Joe Baker then was one of the influences in the class, was one of the influences on your life in terms of architecture?
Yes, although I didn’t go into community design afterwards. I worked in a more standard architectural office, but outside of the office, I worked with a group that were involved in helping in the community, actually, that I started in the community design workshop. So it did influence me and I felt that it was probably most significant in terms of what I was doing. There were people there that came out to our last reunion in September and most of them were for the community design workshop, so I think it probably showed that they were equally influenced. And Joe Baker was there too.
Was there any other professor that might have influenced your career as well? I mean, I’m thinking at the time there was, I guess, Peter Collins. Who were some of the other professors, do you recall?
Well, I do remember Peter Collins and I enjoyed his classes. I found they were very stimulating. A lot of people at that time felt that history was not of architectural interest at all. I enjoyed the classes and did quite well in them. But other people used to fall asleep in his class because the slides would come on and the lights would go down and the snoring would start. But I really did enjoy his classes and he went on to another course after which wasn’ t history. It was more like a philosophy course, which was interesting, debating with the other students.
So you talked about Joe Baker, Peter Collins. Was Norbert Schoenauer there teaching at the time or-?
He wasn’t. I think he had taken a leave of absence when I was at the year he would have been teaching.
So would there be any others that you might have remembered? Obviously, if you had remembered them, they would come to your mind right away.
Well, I think I remember all of them. There’s Derek Drummond. That was our first-year projects. I can remember doing an art exhibit kind of presentation with him. And he was there all through the school. And he was director. When you go back, he remembers you and you can talk with him about all the details of life at McGill. There was Stuart Wilson. I think that Stuart was a very- such a strong personality that a lot of people were traumatized by his aggressive nature, but he also had a lot to teach and he was interested in his students.
Do you remember Sketching School?
Oh, I loved Sketching School! That was my favourite time. Tondino was somebody I had known before. I had taken sketching at the Museum of Fine Arts. He was teaching there so I knew him quite well. And to go to sketching classes, I can remember now, in the school, they had the models come in and the guys were all really anxious to go to that class because there were nude models. But that was- I really enjoyed that. It was fun.
Sandra, I just wanted to ask you if you recall the transition from school to the workplace.
Yes, I remember. I was working for the community design workshop for a while. And then I worked for Green Spaces, which was another community organization. And when their funding ran out, I got a job with an architectural firm in Ville Saint-Laurent, Gagnier, Bazinet, Gagnon, who did a lot of school design. And I worked most of the time when I was with them in school design.
So you worked in Montreal for a while and I guess eventually, you moved to Ottawa.
I didn’t move to Ottawa until quite recently. I stopped working when I had my first son and I only went back to work maybe seven years ago now. Maybe longer, I can’t- time flies fast! But I moved up to Ottawa about five years ago. I’m working for CMHC.[7:19:10]
So from what you’ve told me, I don’t think you experienced any traumatization going from university to work. It seemed to flow naturally even though jobs are not always that easy to come by.
Oh, I think it was traumatic because you never know what you are going to get and as I went through a few jobs at the beginning that weren’t too stable because of funding. It was based on government funding, I guess, at the time. Yes, so you always wondered where you were going to end up. My first job, I was working in French. I can remember the interview and I was quite nervous about that. I spoke French but I didn’t use it everyday. But when I working in the office, I had to use it everyday. My French improved very quickly, although I still make all my errors that I used to make. I do speak French fairly well.
One of the design workshops was on Park Avenue. And there was a protest in the community about the building of the big complex on Park Avenue.
City Concordia. And we had been involved with the community group and they said, “Well, there’s this big meeting and we’re going to go and talk to the developer and try to convince them that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing”. And there were a group of us standing there on the street and all of a sudden, the police arrived, swarmed everywhere, went up onto a balcony and yelled something at everybody. And then the police started hauling everybody off to cells. So we spent the night in jail. I mean, people with babies and kids. You know, this was not a violent demonstration. We were just there. There was this- a protest. And so it was quite interesting to see. I mean, we’ re talking about being inside of a cell, that, yes, I experienced that at McGill too.
Without sort of getting involved in any of the lawsuits, could you- do you remember any of the details about the strike that occurred? I guess it was around 1970 or’71. Because you were a student then, weren’t you?
Yeah, I was a student. Actually, I was president of my year at that time. And that was the year we had John Schreiber as our professor. And I think that there was dissatisfaction in general with the curriculum being too abstract, not concrete, not concrete projects, not enough- not close enough to real life, I think. And the year before us, the previous years that were basically leading the strike felt that there should be changes and they wanted to see changes in the curriculum, who the professors were. It was a very traumatic time. I think a lot of professors were hurt. John Bland was the director at that time. I think he was very hurt too. It was not a happy time in terms of McGill. And I’m not sure that things changed afterwards because I believe that professors that were there before came back again. And I don’t know how the curriculum changed afterwards because I wasn’t there.
What actually happened?
We walked out.
Did you refuse to go to class?
Yeah, we walked out.
The whole student body in terms of the School of Architecture?
At least the last years. I’m not sure if the whole school went out. Now I can’ t remember, but I believe the whole school went out.
And how long did the strike endure? Do you recall? Was it a week or two?
It might have been a week or two.
And you feel that the courses weren’t changed or the curriculum wasn’t changed dramatically as a result of your efforts.
I don’t think that- they may have made some changes. I know that for a while, Schreiber did not come back to the school and then he did come back teaching landscape architecture, I believe.
Do you remember any of the other-? John Bland was there, of course, and I guess was there any professor who gave you support of putting on the-. I’m only interested because certainly, of all the staff, there must have been somebody who actually strongly supported what you were doing. Do you remember anybody in particular or were they all sort of-?
Yes, I do, but I think you can ask the staff about that.
They should respond there.
I asked you the question whether there were any professors, who helped you, helped the cause or at least were in sympathy to the strike. And I think you indicated that there were a few, including Bruce Anderson. Well, Bruce, of course, is still that way today in university. He always feels that the curriculum is sort of ten years behind where it should be. Maybe less so now. And of all the people who I think that are presently on staff, he is certainly the most progressive in terms of wanting to shake up the school and change it and progress all the time. And I think at one time, you indicated that he- I guess, there was a battle always for your time as a student because one professor had to- well, anyhow.
Stuart Wilson and Bruce Anderson in our third-year class were always putting on more and more projects and competing for our time I believe. I guess they felt that they wanted to make sure that we worked really hard and that we knew what architecture was with nighttime work and lots of struggles at the last minute to get things finished. And there was a big struggle in terms of students being able to-
To reach- to make- meet the expectations.
To achieve what was expected of them, I think. And I think that was a turning point for a lot of people, third year, probably. There was a big drop out rate after that, people just not wanting to go through that.
Did you consider yourself a good student in terms of-?
Yes, I did well all through my years. I didn’t like the late-night studio work-in. Some people really did. They enjoyed it. They would stay there all night and they would have good times together. So that was a different type of person, I guess.
But generally you felt, comparing yourself to your peer, that you were certainly as good as, maybe even slightly better than the others. I’m not trying to flatter you because I don’t know you, but at least I get the impression that you enjoyed what you were doing and you worked hard at it.
Yeah, yeah, I enjoyed it. There were some courses I didn’t like, like Linear Algebra. I could never figure out why we took that course. I think they just had to have one more engineering subject in there and they chose that.
I think we all paid that- we all had courses- I guess that’s the way in any sort of profession. I just wanted to ask you about the practice of architecture and how it’s evolved and the way- I can’t ask you to comment necessarily about what’s happening at the school, but how do you feel about architecture today compared to what it was twenty-nine years ago? Twenty-five years ago?
Well, as I said, I stayed out of the profession for a number of years when I was raising my kids and I only went back- first I started back getting involved in architecture again with the Order of Architects in their technical transfer professional courses. I became involved in the committee that was working on them because I thought, well, I should be taking courses to get back in there and so I had a real interest in making sure that they were courses that I felt were useful. And that- when I got back, I thought that things hadn’t changed very much, in fact. I guess the big boom of the Expo ’67 had petered out and there wasn’t as much construction going on in Montreal. And things I felt had not changed as much except perhaps now, computers were starting to come into offices, computer-assisted design. I had to take a course on that. I can remember that was for me a big step to do a design on computers. I hadn’t used a computer before. But I managed to get back into architecture. And later, I came to CMHC in research, which is looking more at technology; improve technology in housing. That is another step as well for me that taking one step farther in improving the design. It is not directly the social aspects that I was looking at with Joe Baker, which I do regret, too, that I’m not involved in that area. But certainly, it’ s very interesting an area.
The people with whom you work, are they all- I guess it’s rhetorical, but are they all computer literate?
In terms of actually doing drawings on computer? No. We all have computers in our office. We don’t really have a secretary anymore to type letters. We do our own. So in that sense, we have to use computers. But most of the people here are not architects and don’t do computer drafting, although there have been some in the past. And CMHC is downsizing now so we will be getting more people from outside.
Because one of the architects that I interviewed, the name escapes me, said that he would- his firm today would never hire anybody who wasn’t completely literate. And I mean, they do a lot of drawings of buildings and so forth, completely capable of working with all the computer drawing systems.
He wouldn’t hire anybody unless he had-
Unless they had that ability. I guess that’s a good basic- because if you don’t have that, most firms haven’t got the time to sort of train you. It’s too expensive in terms of time.
No, it’s a long time to get up to speed. You can’t just sit down and start drafting with the computer, as you had to take, what, how many years to learn it at McGill? I mean it’s a whole different technique.
I just was curious now that we’ve had this little chat, if somebody were to ask you, “Would you do it all over again?” what sort of response would you give them?
My response is that I would do it again. I would make changes in the way I did it. I think that life is an experience that you learn and hopefully, I’ve learned a lot now that if I went back, it would be done differently. I think the fact that some people left after third year and Stuart Wilson was probably good for their own growth and development. And I would see that as an advantage that you’d go out in the middle of your experience in architecture, or you’d alternate the co-op programmes that a lot of schools have now, where you go out, work in the industry and come back. You have a lot more understanding of where you are going and therefore, a lot more incentive to go there or decide that you don’t want to go there at all. The way it is when I was there, you went through six years and then you got out. Well, if you were lucky, you got a job in the summertime with an architect, but I think it wasn’t guaranteed and you didn’t get a full range of work when you were working for a summer job.