March 10, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson
Tell me how you decided to become an architect.
I guess with me the desire to become an architect runs very deep. My father is a civil engineer and we had a lot of architects and engineers around the house when I was growing up in Bucharest in Romania, as well as a lot of journals. My father was an architect - no, an engineer - who was very interested in architecture. So I remember - I still have, sort of, very vividly in my mind - images of Frank Lloyd Wright houses in magazines, and they had such a powerful impact that they made me want to design my own house and then design houses and whatnot for other people. I guess the other driving force in my own background that led me to this was the house where we lived. My grandfather had gone to University of Zurich at ETH during the First World War, and studied, in fact, reinforced concrete which was very novel at the time, then he practiced in Milan and he came back to Romania with a lot of ideas about architecture and had a house designed by a leading architect at the time. There was a cross between an Adolf Loos house and a Corb house, if that is possible. It has sort of Corb features with Adolf Loos’ material. So that had been, in a sense, an education itself: living in that house and being part of that house. So between those two things it led me to want to do that as I grew up. Now when I came to Canada I started university almost immediately, so it was a shock.
That would be when, mid-60s?
Oh no no no, I should be angry at this question. You’re making me sound much older than I am.
Age is required to come in at this situation.
Mid-70’s. Well not quite mid-70s: ‘73. And I was 18 years old and I had just arrived and I remember going around to look at universities, and the moment I saw McGill, I said, this is where I want to be, there is no choice, there is no competition. Although part of my family in Montreal is French Canadian and, in fact, my cousin’s father was at the time the Director of University of Montreal, so you know, quite committed to education in French and to French universities. And I applied to Université de Montréal as well, but in my mind, there was no doubt, as soon as I saw the Roddick Gates and the buildings and the Arts Building and the whole setup, I thought it looks so romantic and wonderful, and I was just…so it was totally aesthetic, it had nothing to do with reputation. I mean, I’m sorry to have to say that, although I suppose I’m lying, because in Romania, the only university we knew of was McGill. We didn’t know of Toronto, and as a faculty member now at Toronto, I shouldn’t even admit to that. But the reputation of McGill was much wider. At least in those years. I don’t know what it is like now.
The first person I met at the School of Architecture was Derek Drummond, and I went to see him to know whether I could be admitted, and he looked at my transcripts, and I think he was quite impressed but he felt that I needed to do something in Canada to sort of prepare myself for the school, and I did second half of second year of CEGEP or something like that at Dawson and then I applied at Architecture and Engineering and was accepted to both, but since Engineering was not my first choice, I didn’t go there. The person I worked with in first year was Bruce Anderson. I don’t quite recall the name of the person who assisted him in the studio, but he was working with ARCOP.
Could it have been Stan Downey or…
I wouldn’t remember, either. It probably wasn’t a sort of principal player at the university, he was just a…
I think he was enough. I just can’t think of his name right now. I think Pieter Sijpkes was there at the time and working with Derek in the second semester. I had a hard time getting adjusted. It was a very novel experience for me, especially the collegiality amongst the students, which was practically non-existent, at least in the first year. It was quite driven, quite competitive, and perhaps not all that welcoming in some ways. And in that sense I did not have such a good year. Derek was wonderful, very warm and approachable and kind, and in a sense, he sort of allowed me to see my way through staying there. Because I just found it such a foreign experience, but the real hero of my entire stay at McGill and of studying in first year was Peter Collins, who made an amazing appearance. I remember him arriving in his robes as if we were at Oxford or something like that. And delivering his lectures: I always thought they were magnificent. Nowadays I guess I’m Peter Collins myself at University of Toronto. I play that role and I always think with great admiration of the way he was able to structure those lectures he had. They would start in a way you wouldn’t know where he was going and you had to sort of hang on to his lips and he sort of grew to a climax and at the last minute, the whole thing fell into place. It was just amazing. I thought he was spectacular. He was tough, though.
Did he continue to influence you? Did you have him in other years too?
Oh yeah, I took everything he offered, everything he offered. He was not a very approachable man, at least not to me. I don’t know how he was with other people. I know I was one of his very best students the entire time I was there. But he was not a chatty, sort of personal guy. I think he was quite shy. I’m not sure, but perhaps I was shy too, and we just were hemmed in by mutual shyness. So I didn’t have a real personal relationship, but his book, I mean it’s still a classic and generations of my students have read that.
Which one are you referring to? Concrete? Or the other one?
The other one, the principles.
The principles. There’s one to do with law?
The best one, the concrete one, was not superseded for a very long time, and he made - there’s a book now that works that may supersede it but the principles hasn’t been superseded, and I don’t think will, it’s an amazing book. So, in a sense, the friends I made were the ones who like me were sort of enraptured by Peter, and those of us who had a more academic interest in the field as well tended to be in the same classes and follow him around which, in a sense, also opened up to me the rest of the university, because I went and started taking courses in fine art which was an opportunity to be in another building. Now let me tell you, perhaps you remember, but the building where the school of architecture was then was not exactly…
McConnell Engineering Building…
That’s right. The engineers were right next door and we took a lot of courses with them. And I remember a few of the engineering profs, especially Selby. Do you remember him? I liked him. He was a character.
He was a character. I believe he’s still alive because I saw him quoted recently. I’m sure it was David, it was David Selby.
David was his name?
He was very good. I liked the way he presented. We had a structures course with him, and it was an intelligent way to talk about structures as an idea, rather than try and make you fill out tables and work out beams, which is what people tried to make us do later, which was a total loss. I mean, we would not go to classes for the whole term and then read the thing at the end for one evening and then get an A in the course, so it was a bit of a joke. But the interest I developed in history of architecture and theory led me to fine art which was an opportunity to see this amazing building and sort of be in the building which is the sort of core of the campus. And of course I didn’t use that opportunity as much as I should have because, tired from studio, I would most of the time fall asleep as they were showing wonderful slides in fine art.
Because I suspect that you still got in on a charrette, like a lot of working overnight and so forth. They don’t let you get away from it today. They don’t get away from that.
That’s part of the thing. I think in a way, that’s what binds, you know, it’s the glue for the students.
Do you remember - I don’t think Stuart Wilson had any influence on your career…
No, I never took a course with him. He was making that A-frame house, and the people who were making that house with him had a kind of subterranean existence. I don’t know where they lived, and I know he was a kind of weird bird but I never said boo to him and he never said boo to me and it was just fine by both of us.
Was Gordon Webber around then or - ?
No, not a name I know.
And John Bland was still the Director of the school, I guess, or was it Derek?
Derek was, most of the time I was there, and Norbert Schoenauer, as well. John Bland, this is my one regret, I have to say, never having taken his course in History of Canadian Architecture. I think he would have done much for me, especially my more historical direction I’ve taken now. So I missed that course. But I took Schoenauer’s course in housing which was a merit course. The design courses were interesting. When I look back at them I have mixed feelings about them. The design studios that I took, which were Derek, Bruce, and Bruce again for my thesis year, Rad Zuk, McClosky - did you know him?
Brian McClosky. Who else did I have - Vikram? Is he still there?
Yeah, Vikram, he’s still there.
Anyway, and I think Derek again, maybe a couple of times. It was a very peculiar moment in the sort of later 70’s - I graduated in ’77 - so if you think back to what’s happened since then and what happened just before that, there was a kind of cusp for a change in direction and in the way we were making architecture, thinking about it, and I think, our professors too were confused, and so were we. And I think it was a very difficult time to be a student then.
So were you there then, during the strike, the student strike? Wasn’t there a strike – a walk-out on the part of the students – well, I guess that was before you went to university.
Yeah, might have been.
Yeah, okay, because they were endeavoring to change the curriculum.
Yeah, I don’t know about that. I don’t think that the students, when I was there, knew much. Even the journals, it was all, you know, you had on the one hand early Charles Moore stuff coming up, and on the other hand, very hi-tech, sort of Olivetti buildings being built. And you know, this whole sort of Japanese traditional Kenzo Tania, those kinds of guys. So there was that sort of late modernist, big muscle macho architecture on the one hand, and there was this other side that was just beginning to rise. And I guess as a student I had more affinity with that side that was beginning to rise, so my drawings were watercolour, and they were hand-drafted - there were not so heavy markers and strong lines and that kind of thing. And that didn’t always go down well at crits, but I was part of a group that sort of enjoyed that aspect, as we did in Gerry Tondino’s sketching classes. And for a long time I thought there was something wrong with me, and afterwards I realized there was nothing wrong with me, it was something wrong with the others. Because in some way history proved us right, not that my work was spectacular - I don’t suppose it was - it was just that, what we wanted to be doing was a little different than maybe what our professor felt or had been used to doing or what their own affinities led them to. It was an interesting moment. Now as a historian, I’m very glad that I went through that time because I experienced first hand that transition from what we called modernism to what we call post-modernism on my own skin, and I know how it happened, but in a professional world, it was a difficult moment.
You mentioned somebody was there when I was there, which is quite a few years ago, and who just retired, that was Maureen Anderson. I think, everybody, in some way or other, she had an influence on so many, whether it was a calming and pacifying influence on so many students at the time…
Yes, she was lovely. And the thing that was so amazing about her is that she remembered us all, which made you feel like you were, you know, you mattered to somebody. And now as a professor, I know that I don’t forget students. I may forget temporarily their names, but when they call me up or send me a postcard, it gives me great joy. Of course, when you’re a student you think you’re invisible.
You’re anonymous, yes. But she had that ability to seem to care, and she did indeed care, and occasionally I talked to her on the phone for references or whatever I needed, you know, when I was doing my PhD, and she was always so warm and so helpful. So I think she sort of translated perhaps a side of the school that the men - because it was all men…
Yeah, it was, and it still is basically all men…
Well, except for Annmarie Adams.
Annmarie Adams, that’s right. And there’s a few temporary, part-time professors.
Well, it’s the same in Toronto. I was the only female faculty - permanent faculty - they had. And in the end, I moved to the Fine Art department, so you know…
I wanted to ask you, because you just sort of en-passant mentioned Gerry Tondino. Gerry is still active, he is still giving. You have any memories of Sketching School?
Absolutely. One of them, which was a terrific one, actually, was in the Maritimes. We went to Nova Scotia, and a bunch of us camped together, and it was just one of those amazing things where it rained absolutely all the time and we were cold, sketching, and wet and damp, and then when we got into our tents we were still damp and cold. It was just awful, but it was one of the nicest memories.
Which you’re probably not prepared to do today?
Well, I’d be a fool if I did. It was wonderful to see. It was a wonderful part of Canada which I haven’t seen since.
Let me ask you one of the things that I’m always interested in hearing, but a lot of people don’t talk about it, but of your classmates, do you keep in touch with any of them, or do you see any of them on a regular basis?
No, only one, who was and still is my best friend, and after whom I named my daughter Julia. That’s Julia Parker. We met at the first party that was given for entering the School of Architecture and we’ve stayed close ever since and sometimes we don’t see each other for years but the moment we see each other, it’s as if we picked up where we left off. One of the trips - talking of trips, and sort of going to Nova Scotia - that marked my future career was a trip we took with Peter Rose to Yale, going through or along the Hudson River and into Connecticut, Newport and other places along the way. I remember we went to Olana, Frederic Church’s house on the Hudson River, and it was an amazing trip. Peter didn’t teach at the School of Architecture but he was young and keen and offered us - I think we were in the fourth year at the time - to take us on a sort of self-sponsored trip to show us some of the American vernacular architecture. He was fresh from lectures by Scully and, you know, a great admirer of Charles Moore, when Charles Moore was just about to publish his book on the place of houses, and I went on that trip and Alan Orton went on that trip. He became the sort of glue of my year. He’s the one who keeps us in touch such as we are. Julia Parker went, Bonnie Maples went, a whole bunch of people went. We were two cars, I think, so it wasn’t extraordinarily large but it was an extraordinary moment, I think, for all of us, to encounter another way of looking at things. Because back at the studio we were still in that sort of post-Place Bonaventure mentality of big, powerful buildings and expressing structure. If I hear that word one more time, I’m going to throw up. It was so amazing to see that kind of whimsicality that people were allowing themselves to do at Yale, for instance, or in the houses that Peter took us to. So it was a great antidote. It came perhaps a bit late or perhaps we weren’t able to assimilate it at the time. It took a while to digest all that stuff, and in my own work it took me a while and in some ways led me to be more interested in history than building and sort of understand how we came to be the way we were. But it was a very important thing and it was a wonderful memory.
You have any comments about the university or the program of teaching in retrospect? You have experience at the University of Toronto and there are things that you see that should perhaps change or maybe have changed at McGill now?
Well, I think - and this might not be a very popular statement to make - but I think what they have at Toronto, which if excessive can be a problem too, is they have a lot more transient faculty. And that is good because people get a lot more options or angles to look at things. We tended to have a very stable faculty. I think they were all tenured or tenure-track or something. And there wasn’t enough room to rejuvenate, and I think even for the faculty that is there a long time, it is good to have new blood in, just to update themselves and keep them into other things. So I think that is the difference, and perhaps McGill must be doing it too now. I don’t know. I haven’t been back there for a while.
They’re bringing in a lot of casuals and assistant professors. They’re also continuing to bring in, I guess, visiting critics, which you probably remember when you were at McGill too?
Yes, and I do so many of them nowadays.
Do you remember any of the people - I know we’re jumping around in subject matter - but do you remember any of the people who were at your crits at McGill from outside - Ray Affleck?
Ray Affleck I remember, and I remember, at the time, that someone told us we were going on, don’t worry about your colours, you can’t tell one from the other, and in fact he was sitting with a green sock and a blue sock. Who else was there? I don’t remember the names, actually. Perhaps they weren’t names that have stood the test of 20 years or whatever it is. They were frightening and I think still frightening, and I try my best to be kind but you get carried away with the fun of the moment. So I do remember very well what it is was like for me when I do crits, and I’ve done crits here, at Waterloo, and in the States, and it’s fun for the critic but it is sometimes a horrific experience for the other side.
The other aspect that has changed somewhat since the years when I was at McGill, and it’s more significant at Toronto, I think, is the teaching of architectural history and theory and connecting architecture to the other - to the sort of culture of various disciplines around, which brings me to what I did afterwards. For a while I practiced, and I practiced for about 10 years with various offices in the city: known people, Peter Hamilton, Gordon Ridley, Tony Kemp, I worked for Let Smith, who designed the theatre…
Les Smith, did you say?
No, Let Smith, he did the Festival Theatre at Shaw and so forth. And I enjoyed that, but there came a moment when I realized that I wanted a little more. Because the more successful you become in this profession - perhaps you’ve experienced that too - the more you get away unfortunately from what you previously liked to do best, which is design. Meeting with clients, meeting with the city, dealing with contractors and so on, which is fun for a while, but in the end I thought I needed a bit more than that and that’s what turned me towards academics. And I did my PhD at University of Toronto but in the department of Fine Art because I had already done architecture, so I wanted another angle into visual culture. Then I taught in the States.
Whereabouts in the States did you teach?
I taught at Oberlin College.
I don’t know that college.
It’s a private college in Ohio. It’s a very famous one, one of the sort of “top” private colleges in the States, in the Art department, and that was a lovely experience. And University of Toronto had a job – a cross-appointment – between the School of Architecture and Fine Art, and that’s the job I applied for and had, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
How many years has that been?
Well, I’m on sabbatical, so that makes it six or seven years.
Just very briefly, tell us, your sabbatical is taking you to Rome?
My sabbatical is taking me to many places. Right now, in two days, I’m leaving for Rome for a month, and then I return and I go to L.A. for a board meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians. I’m on the board of that, and then almost as soon as I get back, I go to Berlin to give a paper in Potsdam – this new forum, this Einstein forum. I’ve never been to Berlin, so I’m looking forward to seeing it.
So you really now are doing things you like to do, even though they are not necessarily design, but you’re very close to architecture...
Well, I am. And I do it by proxy nowadays. Because I do a lot of crits, both at the School of Architecture here and at Waterloo and abroad. So I enjoy that very much and I have a lot of architect friends and I do private crits on their buildings, and I guess the last building I built was about ten years ago. So, you know, it’s not that far away.
So if I had to sum up the whole story of your career today, you’d probably have some regrets, but overall it’s been a happy experience?
No, I have no regrets.
No, I was happy as a clam.