December 1, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson
It’s not romantic at all because when I was in high school, and this may be part of the problem that the system previous to CEGEP in Quebec was all about, because I was merely 16 finishing high school. So, I made a decision that - I wanted to be an architect I think since grade 8 or grade 7, sometime in there. Exactly why, I think it probably had to do more with a fascination with buildings of all kinds. But I ended up going to McGill because it happened to be in my hometown, I mean I grew up in Montreal, so it didn’t seem logical to go anywhere else. To give you a measure of the naïveté involved, I never applied to any other university. Most people would cast their net pretty wide you know, figuring “well, if I don’t end up here, well I’ll end up anywhere else”. I never made another application. I made one application to McGill University and I don’t know what the hell would have happened if that hadn’t panned out! But as it turned out, I got accepted, and so I started my first year of Engineering and then I think Maureen Anderson probably got really sick and tired of seeing me poking my face into the place, because I was there every moment that I didn’t in fact have something to do in first year Engineering. So the second year, I started in Architecture, and that was that, and it just went on from there.
Ok, now let’s talk about your days at McGill.
You have license to say anything!
Those were really interesting times, by any measure. I mean it was the late sixties, I started in - my first year was the fall of 1968. This was the era or the latter part of the era of the hippies and the whole sixties thing, although I wouldn’t count myself among that, I was a pretty straight-laced kid from the suburbs that ended up as part of this organism, part of McGill at the time. But the whole experience was a wonderful and interesting time. I mean, I was fascinated with university; I really enjoyed my time there. I found the work difficult and, I mean, I wasn’t one of the kids who could sort of skip off and party all night, and then come in and actually find myself lucid enough to say anything the next day. I mean, I had to work at it! So, I wasn’t so much the partying type but I really enjoyed it when I ended up there. And it was just a fascinating, interesting, complex time with lots of changes going on, lots of sort of – a kind of pregnancy in the air about changing society, and kind of a changing circumstance, a new paradigm of what the world might be like and so forth. So I wouldn’t have traded that for anything I don’t think. It was a wonderful time to be in university.
That was the period when Architecture was five years.
That’s right. Actually it was six and became five the year after I entered, where they had changed the structure, and in fact, some of the things in – I remember I never took Mechanical Services, for example.
That’s right I should consider myself lucky! They had to sort of make an exemption for a few of us because of the way that the programme worked out; we ended up not having the subject available to be taken in the timeframe that we were actually in school, so we kind of got exempted from it. And I keep mentioning that to mechanical engineers that I work with now and sort of preface everything with saying “you realize that I know absolutely nothing about what you guys are doing other than what I’ve learned over the years. But we’ll keep you straight because the one thing I’ve learned is that none of you guys can think three-dimensionally so-”…
Which is true.
Which is true! “… so we’ll take it from there”. So it was really, really, it was a lot of fun, a lot of changes, just an incredibly intense time.
How about some of the professors? Do you have any good memories or otherwise of some of the teaching staff?
Oh yeah, both! You probably have a universal reaction to Stuart Wilson!
There are lots I think, at McGill, who come out of the experience saying “Stuart was really a good experience for me, in spite of the hardship, in spite of that kind of thing”. I am not one of those people. I kind of see the whole process of learning and of teaching as a really positive kind of prospect and not one that is taught under duress. And I found most of what was taught by Stuart was an experience under duress. And to this day, I don’t find that there’ s much use in that. In spite of the obvious intelligence of the man and artistry of the man, whatever axe he was grinding in life, really didn’t need to be ground there. And it’s unfortunate that that was there, and I think that the school would’ve been better off not having. However, that’s part of the life.
Ok, there we go.
So, that’s the comment on Stuart. Other really fond memories: I have a real soft spot for Peter Collins. I really enjoyed Peter’s course. And I often felt like I was a character out of an Adams cartoon. Because…- Remember that cartoon?
New York Times? New Yorker!
Yeah! It was New Yorker. …Because it had an audience, a picture of an audience just filled with people who were absolutely just droll and lifeless and there’s one guy in the middle of the pack laughing himself silly. And that was how I kind of… - Peter’s lectures were full of double-entendres and plays on words and constant kinds of really dry wit. And maybe it was - it was early in the morning and I was never one to really be on time for classes but I was always on time for Peter’s class. I always sort of kind of chocked it up to people were asleep or something like this.
The comments that you just made about Peter, were those comments that you experienced at the time or is it just in revision, thinking back?
Oh no, that was what I experienced at the time. I mean, I was sitting there kind of listening to this guy and I’d constantly be chuckling because all these sorts of little bits of wit were constantly being thrown out there, but I’m not sure that everyone picked them up… there was that sort of thing! And I did enjoy the courses, you know. Peter was so eccentric and so formal and that was always sort of a – you always felt uncomfortable with him. But, I would sort of sit in A9 and listen to those lectures, and I really was transported someplace else. I mean, you know, the lights would dim and the slides would come up and you were no longer sitting in A9 on McGill’s campus in the old engineering, or in that Engineering building at that time.
I think that if you ever had any doubt about being an architect, certainly, he galvanized your thinking and may have convinced you that it was a great profession or a great career to go into.
Yeah, it was a great discipline, as well.
How about some of the others? I guess I’m thinking - was Gordon Webber there at that time?
No? Was John Bland? Yes.
John Bland was. I remember John well, although I never took any design courses from him.
He taught Canadian History, I guess, didn’t he?
History courses. Norbert Schoenauer. My final year, final semester in design, I actually worked on a large-scale housing project with Norbert leading the studio. And that was always special. I was working with – you know we used to team up with people, and after a short period of time, it became very clear that there were a few people that you liked to work with, and you would repeatedly work with them. Well, the person I worked with was Dina Goldstein. And Dina was from Caracas, Venezuela and I have no idea where Dina happens to be anymore. But I really enjoyed those years working together. And I remember enjoying that particular project particularly because it was incredibly intense; we spent a great deal of time. But there was never any of the kind of angst that comes with struggling through a design problem. This one was – we’d sit down and we’d have an hour-long chat with Norbert and the first ten minutes was spent on the project and the next forty minutes was spent on gossip in general! And it was really quite wonderful. It was sort of colleague-to-colleague as opposed to student to professor. And we learned a lot form the process but I think it was at a point in our training that we actually had a handle on what we were doing and it became clear that we had a handle on what we were doing and that it came off extremely well and it was a really lovely building when it was finished. And I remember we had been up all night putting together the final touches on the seventeen panels that we had to explain the scheme. And we had them all up on the wall, and the crit went beautifully. I mean, it wasn’t one of those circumstances when you got shot all to hell and had to be kind of drawn on a stretcher! It was wonderful too that the people who came in as visiting critics had all sorts of positive things to say about the project and it was a wonderful way to finish at the school at that time. So that was a nice memory.
Do you remember Sketching School at all?
Very much. Sketching School I have mixed feelings for, because it was at one of the Sketching Schools I ended up getting mono! It was in a beautiful setting, it was in Fredericton, as I recall. And I’d flown from Montreal to Fredericton and really looking forward to it, because it’s the only vacation most students ever got because they would be working flat out until virtually school started and then you’d be right into it immediately, and it was a really nice break for two weeks. And I was really looking forward to Fredericton, and I flew out, and arrived in Fredericton and I remember distinctly being on the airplane and the closer I got to Fredericton, the worse I felt and I didn’t know why, figured it maybe was just the flu. Turns out, I ended up in the hospital the next morning. I ended up finishing Sketching School and doing all of my drawings and all the rest of it, but when I got back to McGill, the doctor at the infirmary said “hasn’t anybody seen a case of mononucleosis before?” They couldn’t believe when they looked at the report that they diagnosed it as a strep throat, which it wasn’t. It knocked me flat for the next several months.
Was Sketching School in at the end of the term or at the beginning of the new term?
It was right the last couple of weeks in August, just before the September start. And soon as I got back to school I ended up following up on this medical report and then I got the bad news and I never felt right. I was working at that time at [Sankey] Associates part time, and I had to stop that because there was no way I could handle the…
So I finished that semester, it was actually my final half semester. There were no design courses that I had. That’s the reason that I thought I could actually be out working part-time. So I finished at Christmas time in 1973.
That’s when you graduated?
Yeah. The degree was given to me in ’74. Graduation took place and so forth.
… Talking about Peter Collins?
That’s right. This was the first major exam that we had in this whole format of putting up two slides and discussing the two slides. And the whole concept was really intimidating. What the hell am I going to say about two slides, no question being asked here. So we went in to the room, to A9, and there went the slides, the room kind of dimmed, and we went through the whole process, and at the other end of it, we’d come out, and there were always people coming out and say “what’d you get for number one?” right, remember those days? “What’d you get for number five?” “Well, I did this, and I did that.” And I listened to these discussions and it was just like nothing even remotely similar to anything I had written down. So I really got depressed, I really got – I said, “I’ve really blown this exam. This is just going to be horrendous”. So about three or four days later, I was walking through the - you know, between Maureen Anderson’s office and heading out the door and I heard this voice behind me saying “Mr. Rodrigues, can I have a word with you?” And I remember my blood pressure leaping up just right up beyond anything I could certainly have experienced up to that point because that voice was Peter Collins calling me from behind, from just out of his office door as it opened up into A9 – or not A9 but the crit space, yeah. And so I really sheepishly went into his office. And of course he said nothing, he kind of strolls in the fashion that he kind of walks into his office and he kind of takes up position behind that – whatever he had on the wall. And you’re in this intimidating circumstance and I sit down, and by this time I must have been sweating. And he looks at me and he says, “I’d like to thank you”. And I said “For what?” He said “Well”, he said, “the exam was incredible”. And I said, “What do you mean?” And he told me that I was a clear 20% ahead of everybody else so he gave me 100. And the next closest mark was 80! So this is of going through the process of the exam and coming out at the other end of it not even thinking that I had anything even remotely like it. But it turned out to be very different.
Because when I was there, he used to put up a slide every five minutes. Did he only put up two slides and you had to talk about what the synergy was of the two slides?
Whatever you could extract from what these two slides might mean is what he expected you to discuss. So, you know, you could identify what the slides were and then you could begin to talk about how that sort of fell into theory and so forth. But, I mean, what turned out to be a really intimidating process, I never thought I would end up at the top of the bloody class as a result. So much for that!
So, when I finished at McGill, it was I guess the fall, or winter, of 1973, and Montreal was I think in the grips of quite a fair recession at the time. So finding work as an architect working for another architect wasn’t particularly easy to do. And so I spent a few months kind of poking around not doing anything because offices weren’t very busy in Montreal at the time. But I did get connected, through McGill, by the way, because it turned out that someone at Canadian Pacific called McGill and asked them to send a recent graduate down their way because they were interested in getting somebody on. So I got a call from Maureen Anderson and said, “you should talk to this guy”. And I went down and I spoke to a fellow named Gordon Gedda at Canadian Pacific and what that led to was incredible because, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I took on this job helping out in interior design for CP corporate premises. So all of their office spaces everywhere needed to be designed, it was done in house, and I ended up being one of the designers in house. What I didn’t know was that underneath the tracks at Windsor Station there were 35 people, most of them from SOM Chicago, working on a 365-million dollar scheme for a new head office building for CP, jointly with Bank of Montreal.
That’s right. Right where Windsor Station sat, by the way. And the scheme, I’ d seen the model of this thing, would have resulted in the total demolition of that building.
I’m amazed that the CP would have done that at the time.
But that is what was being worked on. I remember, I mean, there were all sorts of people from SOM Chicago there being put up at CP’s expense in Montreal. And they would all come to work in this project office, which they had outfitted particularly for this task. Webster [A…menkes] was involved because there was a hotel component was at the top of the Ziggurat that this building was. And I remember it; it was a terraced scheme against Dominion Square. And at the corner of Dorchester and Peel was the main branch of Bank of Montreal, which was - I remember they brought a model in from Chicago. The model cost about $36,000 back then, which was like unheard of, a lot of money for a model. But it was a marvelous model that was coloured, and it had all the lights on in the interior and it was quite at a large scale, probably about an eighth. And it was a huge, huge model. And, I mean to this kid just out of school this was pretty impressive stuff, you know, even though one might have been appalled at the destruction of Windsor Station.
Were you appalled at the time when you heard about the possible demolition of Windsor Station?
Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
As a student you would be.
Yeah, I was thoroughly appalled, but I did not – I mean - and fascinated at the same time because one of the things that I did not understand was how decisions got made. And one of the interesting things about what fell out of this is that there was a falling out between Bank of Montreal and Canadian Pacific. And it wasn’t a personality clash or anything of the sort. My understanding of it, was that it was in fact a circumstance around a financial deal between Olympia New York and Bank of Montreal about First Canadian Place in Toronto. And I think the bank actually thought that the Reitmans might default. I mean, this is me saying this, I don’t know what the ins and outs of it were but I think that they were concerned enough about the financial stability of the deal that they backed out of their involvement in the head office building project for Canadian Pacific, and left Canadian Pacific holding the architectural fees at that point, which were approximately two million dollars! And it freaked out the guy in charge of the project, who was a wonderful, wonderful man, he was a railway engineer, and he never understood what the hell two million dollars bought you in architectural fees for [undecipherable] drawings. This just didn’ t add up. But what it did is it opened up an incredible opportunity because Gordon Gedda and I ended up working in that project office by ourselves, all those guys form Chicago went home and the whole space was left, just an empty studio space. And he and I put together single handedly a scheme for the renovation of Windsor Station and the building of a new office tower at the corner of Peel and Dorchester. So let me fill you in, you may not realize this, on what happened to the old hotel that was there. Remember the building… ?
The Laurentian Hotel.
The Laurentian Hotel was the trade-off to get Windsor Station renovated. And I’ ll never forget Joe Baker picketing in front of the Laurentian Hotel, and Michael Fish, who was part of the group that was interested in preserving the Laurentian Hotel. And the papers reported when they had announced that Windsor Station was going to be renovated about a year later, or eight months later, had announced that Windsor Station would be renovated: “It was a shame that we lost the Laurentian Hotel. If we had worked harder, we could have gotten it”. And I thought and now I won’t ever believe anything that I read in the papers because they don’t understand what happened. Laurentian Hotel was simply the argument to make Windsor Station happen. And the reason that happened was because we found out when we did the internal calculations that Windsor station had exactly the right square footage to be the head office building for CP Rail, which it always has been. And the people who had the identity crisis was CP Limited because they were always called the railway, ok, and they didn’t want to be the railway. They wanted to be Canadian Pacific Limited. After all, they were Canada’s largest corporation and they’ve got to be still near the top if not still there. So the argument was “Alright, we’ll build you a new building and we’ll build you this building on the only piece of land that really was available to build a building which was where the Laurentian Hotel was, provided, as part of that whole strategy, Windsor Station is renovated”. And that was the essential cusp of the argument and Gordon was brilliant in putting together exactly how it was done. In fact, he went so far, knowing that the board had to come through the La Gauchetière entrance, alright. Knowing that, he renovated the bloody entrance. And he put in new doors, new directory boards, we designed a whole new carpet, we restored the chandelier that was there using the internal workshops of Canadian Pacific. And rebuilt this damn thing, did new lighting, refurbished all the elevators, did it all out of internal budgetary sort of movements of building maintenance funds. I mean, it had to be done anyway, so we kind of advanced it and focused it on one point: They had to go through this space to get to the damn board room. And he basically set up a board meeting, which I wasn’t at, I would have loved to have been there, he said “Well, if you like that, we can do the rest of the building”.
So I guess he got his way.
And he got his way. And Windsor Station continued on a renovation, restoration track and of course, economies and the times changed and the Laurentian Hotel –
You’d be interested, I don’t know whether you’ve seen it in the last – it’ s just finished now; they’ve just finished a major renovation.
No I haven’t seen it.
Yeah, and it’s not functioning as a station, the main hall anymore, because the tracks end behind the new Molson Centre. So there’s quite a few critical comments in the newspaper. Ok, now we leave CP, what happened after that?
Oh, I went to graduate school. I was at CP while I was there but this whole fascination with large-scale design and so forth led me to Kevin Lynch. So I ended up a student of his and others at MIT. I did two degrees there, a Master of Architecture Advanced Studies and a Master of City Planning as a dual-degree student for three years and had a blast. I really enjoyed myself. I got to know Kevin quite well and his sort of tenacity of trying to clearly understand how cities work was something that I was totally fascinated with so I ended up doing my thesis on major forces that change cities. I mean, I had a look at what the decision-making, who was really making the decisions behind the CP scheme and the path it took, and it was a fascinating study how decisions were actually made and how cities actually got changed. And so, my case study in my thesis was the whole transformation of Montreal’s economic centre from St. James Street to essentially the area around Dorchester and Peel and why that happened. It was a fascinating kind of exposure
Did you identify the catalyst in that instance as Place Ville Marie, I mean, was that the first?
Yeah, the catalyst behind it was Place Ville Marie and one man in particular William Zuckendorf and the kind of – I mean, we were looking at it more in terms of the forces that Zuckendorf kind of brought to bear, which were experimented with and sort of honed a little bit in New York and so on, and now they were being applied to Montreal and they were in fact applied to every major city you could think of throughout that period of time. And how that kind of worked at making those kinds of major changes. They are not changes that architects make, I mean, architects simply write. And I in fact had the chance to sit down and chat with Henry Cobb over a beer on Madison Avenue in New York, and talk about this, you know, and he had some very lucid and interesting recollections of that process, as he was a young architect involved in the process at the time. So I did graduate school around this kind of fascination hence the City Planning degree and so forth.
And then you came back to Montreal after that?
No, I didn’t actually come back to Montreal. I, at the end of that, my wife at the time decided that we should come back to Western Canada and I came back here and ended up working for an architect in Edmonton for awhile and then came down to Calgary to work on the downtown plan, to sort of exercise some of that city design stuff. And I worked here for three years and ended up head of urban design for the city of Calgary. And for personal reasons, reasons that had to do with family more than anything else, I ended up returning to Edmonton in 1981 and I ended up being an architect primarily in Edmonton. With my first substantive project working with someone who kind of needed the help at the time, it was a small office, and he actually had a high school for 1200 students. And I worked on that high school uninterrupted, it was like my building, I put it together! And it’s J. Percy Page High School in Edmonton, and it has won a number of awards and the architect I was working with was Dennis Christiansen at the time.
Was that difficult to do, after being in charge of the planning here for Calgary to go back to sort of just –?
Actually not, no. I kind of welcomed it because architecture, I mean, a planner, I’ve often said this to other planners across the street who I know quite well here in Calgary, is that you have to have the time sense of a bloody geologist. Things change with kind of glacial speed at a city level, although when the conditions are right, like Zuckendorf’s some dramatic kind of changes can occur. But that’s not usually the rule. The rule is that the change tends to be somewhat different. In spite of at the time the downtown plan was being done, there was enormous change going on in Calgary, very substantive and very dramatic. But things for planners, policy documents and those sorts of things, don’t have the immediacy that architecture has. You know, you put a building together and it can be realized within a reasonable timeframe. For example, a lot of the stuff that we did in the downtown plan back in 1979-1980, you can actually see in the city now that you walk around, but now it’s 1997! You know, it took –
It took some time - I’m a hell of a lot greyer than I was then - to actually see those things come to fruition and it’s nice to see them. And in fact, one of the planners across the street when I moved back here in June said to me “Well, what do you think of your handy work?” And I said, “What the hell are you talking about?” And he said “Well, a lot of what you guys put in the plan as urban designers is here!” It’s in the fabric of what Calgary does now, the [Auclair] Marketplace and the whole sense of that waterfront feel, and the 3rd Street mall that connects things to 8th Avenue, the sort of sense of buildings being a lot more active and present on the street and a lot of that is policy that has been repeated time and time again and actually has found itself in what’s going on in the city and the city has changed dramatically since I-
The elevated walkways, of course, is a good link. It keeps people moving constantly from building to building and across the street and so forth. Is that unique? I mean this is a -
Well, I think its completeness is unique. I don’t think the idea is unique. The idea’s been repeated in many places and in fact I think this place borrowed from other places in terms of that.
But its completeness is fairly -
But it’s very complete in the city where you won’t find it that way in many other centres that have tried it. It remains an in place policy and there is a direct kind of connection. Calgary has been very successful from the planning point of view, I think in spite of even knowing it. In terms of putting in, like our cash in lieu programme for parking, of instead of building parking anyplace downtown, you build it where it makes sense to the infrastructure. And if you are building a building outside of that zone, you pay into a fund. I mean, that was all part of the discussion back then in the planning process. And you can see how the infrastructure has a logic in this city whereas you see it as being much more happenstance in trying to knit together things in other places taking initiatives that may be at odds with one another. You don’t find that that is as much applicable here. It has been pretty successful in consolidating some of those policies. And as a result, I think the city has grown very nicely.
You just said that architecture is a strange profession, right? It’s a difficult profession. There is great risk, I think, financially to many people who pursue a practice, a private practice. It can be extremely rewarding and it can be devastating when things don’t go right. We’ve been through some really crazy ups and downs in this business. In 1982 after the National Energy Programme, Calgary came to a crashing halt, everything in Alberta came to a crashing halt and I mean, I saw many friends go out of business. I wasn’t in the position personally to be there. But everything since then, until very recently, has been a major struggle. I mean, we’ve done very well, I can’t argue that we haven’t done well but at the same time, I have to underline that it has been a tremendous struggle I think for everyone in this profession in this part of the world. And partly, we do it to ourselves, you know. We have people bidding fees down to practically zero, which took all these years of training in this great profession, in this great discipline, and reduce them to getting us the seal on a drawing and through an approval process, and you have no one to blame but other architects, but yourself, I mean, you’re looking at a mirror about this process. And I remember one young person who came into our office looking for work saying to me “Well, I don’t care what I get paid or what I make in this profession as long as I enjoy it”. And I said, “You know, I really don’t like that attitude. I understand where it comes from and I understand it’s well meaning, but I want you to walk out of your final year in university saying I’m worth a pile of dough because what I do is important, what I do is worth something, it adds value to what people do. Because I’ve seen bad architecture, I’ve seen bad planning, and it doesn’t help a project at all on the financial side mostly, if it’s badly executed. So what we bring to the process is really important. And you need to walk into the circumstance of life believing that you are worth that much, because if you don’ t believe it, who the hell should? And we’ve had this attitude that, if I’m enjoying myself, it doesn’t matter what I get paid. Well, I’d like you to value what you are doing and I’d like you to say to everybody that it’s worth four hundred and fifty bucks an hour, thank you very much!” No, it’s not a process of –
Where do you see [undecipherable] successfully doing that?
But exactly! What that’s done it has... to my mind, there was a huge gap between what the academy teaches you about architecture and what the profession out there really is. And to that end, eight of us out here, Barry Johns, myself, Vivian Manasc, who is also from McGill, a landscape architect named Doug Carlisle, a wonderful architectural photographer by the name of Jimmy Tao, and David Murray and a few others have gotten together and formed what we call The Innovative Practice Group in Architecture. And the whole idea of it is to bridge the gap between the academy and practice. So they’ve all made us sort of – University of Calgary has made us adjunct-professors, which is kind of a nice title, you know, they don’t have to pay us anything until we actually get to a court! And we’ve involved ourselves in teaching professional practice to the architecture students at U of C. We’re going to actually be expanding it a little bit. We have four courses and the more senior courses deal with practice, that deal with the skills of business and profile, marketing, and all of those sorts of issues that they never teach you in school and that people trip through and fall flat on their face or succeed depending on some of their own natural abilities, you know, in life. So we’re kind of trying to grapple with that. We have some syllabus students who are interested in taking the course and so on. And it’s really our attempt to try and say “there are huge changes going on, not just changes of getting out in this business and having a T-square and a setsquare to start a business at one point. You can’t do that now without all sorts of computers and software and so on, which is a major investment. But that in terms of what we do, we gave away so much, somehow. We used to do project management, we used to do building technology, we used to do all of these things, and we find these little niche specialties sort of eroding. And what it is, is everybody got totally heady about the cult of the designer, you know, “don’t bother me, I’m an artist”. And architecture is a complex and interesting business and it seems really important to me that we not give those things up, and that we understand what they are and that we integrate that to do the sorts of jobs that we’ve done so bloody well.