November 6, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson
How did you decided to become an architect.
Well, my father was a house builder. And at the age of about twelve, I helped him with the designs on paper and that’s how I got my interest in buildings.
And then you decided, I guess, to follow- become an architect just to sort of make the job of designing buildings a little simpler?
What year did you go to McGill, do you recall?
I graduated in 1933.
1933. Do you remember any of the classmates or any of the professors or any of the courses that you enjoyed in particular?
Well, I remember the head of the department, who was Ramsay Traquair, a nice old boy. And Percy Nobbs, of course.
Ramsay Traquair’s book on the old architecture of Quebec was republished last year, or in 1996. Were you aware of that? And we actually put it out as a limited circulation and we were able to get some money because the book was out of print and it merely wasn’t available. Nobody- now it’s back- it is available and some of the stores are selling it.
So you- can you tell me a little bit about Ramsay Traquair because most people that I talk to of course, don’t recall or have never met him.
He was a nice, old gentleman. And those words describe him completely.
And he had come over, what, from Scotland, eh?
So he was there during the course of your studies. And you also mentioned Percy Nobbs. Do you remember, have any recollection of him?
Oh yes. One could not go to McGill without having a recollection of Percy!
Percy would come look over your shoulder at your drawing and he would start talking about something in connection with that particular drawing. And he would get carried away and he would go on talking for hours. We were listening politely, of course. Most of it was beyond our comprehension. We were just young undergraduates. Our education was ahead of us, in the future.
Were the classes small at that time? Very many students in architecture?
I remember distinctly my class had six members in it. And I’d been given a Buick sedan by my father and it just fit six people. So I drove them all around and acted as a guide to architecture for those who knew nothing about it, which constituted the majority of people.
That was quite a luxury driving around in a Buick sedan in those years!
Were there any other professors on the staff other than the two that you mentioned?
Nobbs and Traquair were the most important because they were operating professionals, actually teaching. And I learned a lot from them.
How long, John, was the course then? Was it four, five years?
Five years, okay. And do you remember any of your classmates or did you ever keep in touch with any of them?
I occasionally meet someone. Only last week I ran into Milton Eliasoph.
Who was a classmate of mine in architecture. Fortunately I graduated as an architect. And I learned a lot from Percy Nobbs, who would come to your desk where you were working and ask you to continue working while he would have a conversation with you, a rather one-sided conversation. He was a really knowledgeable man and given to exposing that knowledge to the world. And they were always noticed. I was really proud of Percy.
Did you keep in touch with any of those people, professors, after you graduated?
Well, we were never close to the professors, of course because they were our instructors and there was that barrier which always exists between the instructor and the instructed. But I learned a lot from him. All you had to do was to start the subject, any subject, and he would talk for an hour. Fascinating.
So if you started in 1933, then I guess you graduated in, what, ’38?
No, I graduated in ’33.
Oh, you graduated in ’33, my apologies. So upon graduation, did you travel? I guess in those days, did the graduates travel from time to time?
I traveled a lot because I was born in London, England.
And I have an Irish mother. And we got together frequently in London. So I spent a lot of time on ships. People traveled by ship in those days to cross the Atlantic. Nobody had yet flown and life was very interesting for an architect.
I suspect even today it’s probably interesting for a young architect before they get into the concerns of making a livelihood.
Yes, as a matter of fact, you have hit upon the sustenance of the whole business, in the sense that you are making a book, which was not great for a young graduate architect.
So did you eventually settle and open up a practice in Montreal?
I wouldn’t say I opened up a practice. I was available to anybody who needed an architect. Lots of them did, but I turned down a lot of offers because I was too busy with other things, particularly architecture. That’s a difficult question to answer.
Well, and I guess- I know you were- I would like you to talk a bit about what happened- I mean, I don’t want to jump periods of your life, but I remember, of course you were in the war, and then in the Navy show and so forth. And that’s an interesting part of your career. How did that come about?
The Navy show?
Oh, it’s rather hazy, as a matter of fact, like most of these things in a man’ s life. It just seems that you’re not one day and you are the next day. And so I was not an architect one day and I was an architect the next day. I found it a fascinating profession, particularly with a professor like Nobbs who’d been everywhere and done everything and he remembered everything that he had done. He was very loquacious. And I loved listening to him talk. He’d come to your desk to look at your drawing and he’d gradually drift into a discussion of rattlesnakes or armoured cars or anything of that unexpected nature.
Well, I suspect that as you got older, that sort of was part of your life too. You probably had obviously many interests and you could probably talk of a lot of interests that most architects could not.
Well, I always had a general interest in life and also in architecture.
The war broke out in 1939?
And did you join the Navy originally?
And the Navy show was part of, I guess, part of your career in the Navy that you developed with other people.
Yes, I was fortunate in having something as close to my heart as theatre in the Navy.
Did you do the show in various part of the world to entertain the troops or-?
Actually, I performed from Berlin to Vancouver I’d guess you’d say.
Well, that’s quite an area! Did you ever keep in- sort of-? Could you tell us a little bit about the show itself? Was it a revue or a musical or a combination?
It was a musical revue.
I’ve really never thought of it in those terms. It was just a show to us. But we have fascinating memories, those of us who participated.
And had a lot of fun in the process.
And I gather that- what was your role in the show?
I was a comedian.
With the architects that we both know, that was certainly an odd- I mean, it’s a compliment to you to have been a comedian because that’s not a trait that a lot of architects manifest, is it?
No! You are absolutely right. You have struck a nerve!
Well, I guess today, they don’t have an awful lot- too many people take their lives too seriously and through their own doing.
You’re right again.
So this- so you entertained all sorts of people all around the world. I mean, I guess during the wartime, it was the troops. But then you carried on the show after the war, didn’t you?
Well, we built a reputation as performers, comedians, dramatists, etc. during the early days of the war, which continued to support us during the actual warfare. And we never knew that we were being brave or anything of that nature. We just had a job to do and we did it. And it was a fascinating job.
And when the war ended, 1944 and ’45, did you come back to Montreal?
And you carried on the show, if I remember, for a while.
And then you got into other things. You did have an architectural practice but then you got into politics, too. If I remember correctly, you were- I don’t want to even mention the word, but you were involved in one of the major federal parties.
Yes, I was involved in politics and as you say, one of the major parties. I played a large part in that.
I guess that would have been in the fifties and afterwards.
Uh, I’m not too good on dates these days.
Well, neither am I, for that matter. It’s a sign of something or other. I guess, it’s a sign of getting older but what the hell, the choice of not getting older is not something that we want to consider.
It’s an automatic reflex.
Did you actually ever set- and this is a- I plead ignorance on this, but did you ever actually set up a practice or work as an architect or did you just continue in various other roles? Like, I know you did those buildings. That was under your own name, I guess, eh?
Well, I had to make a choice between being a builder, which my father was and from whom I had learned a lot about building. And I ended up far more interested in the bricks and mortar side of it than in the paper, pen and ink side of it, which was a good thing. It’s a difficult subject to discuss because it’s so ethereal, so hard to pin down in its various aspects. But I enjoyed it and I think my professors enjoyed it too.
Did you- I guess I’m trying to think in terms of- what years- and I guess it’s unfair to ask you what years anymore as it is fair to ask me, but you served as mayor of Dorval for quite a period of time, didn’t you?
Yes, I joined the council as an alderman. And then the progress was up continuously, if you’d like. Entered in council and then finally I was mayor.
And I’m just trying to think. Did you ever keep in touch with any of your old-? Did you know some of the people like Ray Affleck and so forth? I think you indicated earlier that you-
Yes, I knew Ray Affleck, better than most architects. And I cherish those memories. They were all a very intelligent, interesting group of people.
That generation were, I think, eh? I mean I know a lot of architects are but the ones that impressed me most were the ones about Ray’s generation. I guess if Ray were alive today he’d probably be in his, what, mid-seventies?
I guess he’s about my age. That’s about right.
And did- I guess, I was just wondering about- did you ever officially retire? Or you’re probably not officially retired yet, are you?
Architects don’t retire. They just stop sending their information into the newspapers.
I see! I’m just trying to think of some of the other things I remember about your career. Have you always lived out in this part of the country around Dorval? It seems I’ve always associated your name with the Dorval sort of vicinity.
Yeah, I guess I would be most closely associated with Dorval as a place to live and practice. But I didn’t pay much attention to the practice side of it. I had other things like I became interested in the theatre because of my experiences in the wartime. And I suppose I have to admit that it had a great deal to do with the wonderful reception I received from audiences everywhere. They seemed to think I had talent and they seemed to enjoy my work, which encouraged me to continue as a comedian. And I became more of a comedian than an architect, I guess. It’s a silly thing to say, but-
Well I think it’s a wonderful thing to say. Do you remember- I mean, is it a fair question to ask you what sort of a routine that you had. Or was it varied or was it a stand-up role or was it song and dance?
It was whatever came into my mind that night as I stepped through the curtains. People found it hard to believe that it was as ad-lib as that. But in all honesty, that’s exactly what it was.
It was mostly- it was ad-libbing?
I had a great deal of experience, first as an undergraduate architect and secondly as an undergraduate performer, actor. And it was a term, which is quite common. I enjoyed performing.
When you ad-lib, of course, the assumption is that you have to be sort of up-to-date on what’s going on in the world because you have to be able to ad-lib about something. Most people who are either talk show hosts on television or comedians are very well versed on what’s going on in the world, whether it’s show business or world affairs or politics, because those are the things that people laugh at. And still do today, of course.
Well, I’ve always found architecture to be a great source of information and humour.
What I wanted to ask you are a lot of these- there’s art around the wall and so forth. Are some of these your sketches, watercolours and so forth? Were you a painter too?
Not too good.
Maybe modesty is taking over.
Well, I have a great deal to be modest about, as Winston Churchill once said.
I guess as you look back, as we all do, you probably- I can’t prejudice your thinking but is there any part of your life that you’ve enjoyed the most or is it everyday?
Everyday. God has been good to me. He’s given me not only work opportunities but play opportunities, which the majority of people don’t share. He’s helped me to be an ad-lib comedian.
Do you have any interest in the comedy today that you see on television or any of the programmes, talk programmes?
I watch as many as I can. I don’t know whether it sinks in to my brain or become a part of me.
Do you ever watch Seinfeld?
Yeah. There are a lot of those programmes that are I guess situation comedies and so forth.
It’s funny that you should mention Seinfeld, because that’s an ancestral name of mine, of my ancestors. Seinfeld.
My recollection of watching television, comedies, it’s always difficult to enjoy a comedy through a box in your living room. I mean you usually want to be participating in the laughter in response to whoever is performing. But there are programmes, like the Cheers programme, like M*A*S*H, like Seinfeld, like Mary Tyler Moore, the- you know, half an hour of good writing and good actors. And the comedy makes you laugh, which of course, we all need. I guess you must have got a great degree of satisfaction making people laugh.
You know the interesting thing? And you know this, and here I am, I’m not being interviewed, but I keep telling people who like to laugh and the people who make people laugh are the ones that live the longest. And I think of Jackie-
What’s the what?
Well the people who are the comedians, the people who make people laugh, whether it’s Red Skelton or Milton Berle or Burns, what was his name? George Burns, Jackie Gleason, it just goes on and on, Bob Hope. All these people have lived into their eighties and nineties. And of course you read articles periodically saying that the reason that they’ve been able to live so long is they benefited I guess from laughing a lot. So it’s good medicine.
You’re absolutely right. I’ve seen people who are deathly ill recover quickly in the shadow of laughter. Laughter’s a great medicine.
It’s not prescribed enough.
I don’t think it’s ever prescribed. It should be.
It should be, that’s right.
And I’d become a doctor!
Did you ever sort of keep in touch or go back to the School of Architecture for any reason after? Did you ever go back to teach?
I guess you didn’t, I guess.
I never considered myself that good or a memory that long. You need a prodigious memory if you are going to teach. And I think that is the subject, which is most missing in practicing architects is the memory.
It’s interesting because earlier on in our conversation you said that Percy Nobbs and Ramsay Traquair were both practicing architects.
And that is not- I won’t say it’s frowned upon to some degree at McGill, but I think that combination of teaching and having a practice is the ideal for somebody who is trying to influence students.
Yes. That applies to medicine too.
Have you got any thoughts for young architects? Take up comedy!
Quit while you’re ahead!