Interview by Jim Donaldson
I’m curious as to how you decided to become and architect.
Well I wanted to be an architect ever since I was about ten. And I had- let’s see, in fact it was my mother who first mentioned the word “architect”. She said I was always drawing pictures when I was a little kid. I drew pictures of horses, mostly, and things like that. And I guess a neighbour came over, saw me drawing all these horses all the time and other things: cowboys, rocks, trees, and said, “Look at that boy drawing! Maybe he’ll be an architect when he grows up”. So I asked my mother, “What’s an architect?” And she said, “Well, an architect is a person who draws pictures of houses”. So I said, “Well, I don’t want to draw pictures of houses. I want to draw pictures of horses!” And I remember that conversation very well. I was a little kid in Toronto. But then I’ d heard about architects and then I found out about it. And during high school we had, you know, guidance counselors so I went to see an architect. In fact, it was A. Leslie Perry, was the architect that I went to see.
Oh yeah. Leslie Perry.
Yeah. And I made a great mistake when I went to visit him. There was a- on his wall, was a photograph of a church, which is in fact our church now. It’s Cedar Park United Church in Pointe Claire. And we were kind of looking around his office, which had all sorts of impressive things and here was a photograph on very grainy paper. I’d never seen a photograph on very grainy paper before. And I said, “Oh, Mr. Perry, that drawing looks almost like a photograph”. And he said, “That is a photograph. It’s just on very grainy paper”. So that was my first gaffe as-
You’ve probably made a few since, right?
Yeah, yeah, that’s right, that’s right. It didn’t stop. But he was a very nice guy and he told us honestly about architecture, there were two or three students from our school. He said we wouldn’t make any money. He was right. But he said that it was a very enjoyable profession. And then many years later, we moved to Pointe Claire and that turned out to be our church. And it had just been a drawing, well, a photograph at that time.
So what year did you go into McGill?
I started in ’58 right out of high school. I had been in Monklands High School and then I went into first year at McGill. It was a six-year undergraduate programme at that time and somebody, some professor told us that it was the longest undergraduate programme in the history of the world, that it was a real challenge and that it would be extremely difficult for us but that it was our duty to work hard and eventually prevail. And now it’s only four years, which is child’s play.
Child’s play, yeah. So how about some memories from McGill? The professors that you remember, that influenced you or otherwise.
Well, I think the professors were extremely interesting people and very different. And one of the great things about McGill was being able to meet these people with entirely different backgrounds, entirely different views of life, views of the profession, completely different philosophies. And the- I think the most- well, it’s hard not to mention all of them but Professor Stuart Wilson was an amazing formative experience for all of us. He frightened us all to death. We didn’t know what to make of him. He was constantly speaking in riddles, which we’d only understand years later, but which we appreciated. Professor Webber, Gordon Webber, who was the most sensitive person I’ve ever met, who would- once I remember visiting him in his office and he called me down to speak to me but he didn’t notice when I walked in. And he was arranging two coloured squares on his window. And he did that for about five minutes, just moving two coloured squares around, squares of acetate, on his window. It sort of stuck to the glass and he’d put them here and then put them there. And it wouldn’t be quite right here and then he’d move it a tiny bit until finally, he was satisfied and he turned around and he said, “Oh Williams, what do you think?” So he was prepared to move it again, I’m sure. But he was a wonderful teacher. And, you know, we learned about art and design, form, colour. Just, you know, he could talk about these things all day and he was such a relaxed person that he never made us feel that we were doing anything wrong or that we could make a mistake. It was all just a question of expression and that was a very healthy thing.
It’s unfortunate, though, because he met us and worked with us in a very formative year. And if we were, say, ten years older, we probably would have appreciated his input into our career a lot more. Obviously, you appreciated it at the time but a lot of people didn’t.
Well, I had always drawn and I’d always liked art so maybe I was ready for that. I think people who followed us also a few years later, since he died very young, many people missed him. You know, they never had that experience. Other professors, Peter Collins, a unique, scholarly, just scholarly with a capital S, he gave us an understanding of history. And in fact, now I teach at the University of Montreal, I teach the introductory course, History of Landscape Architecture. I’ve taught it for, oh, seventeen years. And I base my course on his approach and what I learned from Peter Collins in those three years that we studied History of Architecture. It was just terrific. He put things in perspective.
He had a lot of influence on a lot of graduates. Some of them didn’t understand what he was attempting to do and didn’t have too much interest in the history. But it certainly changed my life.
Well I guess history was not popular then. We were in the period of modern design à outrance and we didn’t want to look back at anything older than Mies van der Rohe, I guess. And I’m sure it was the same in your class, that the last thing you could do is anything that had the slightest historical precedent or historical form in it. If you did that, you were completely out to lunch. There was a time then later, well, I guess during the post-modern period, if you didn’t have historical references all over the place, then again, you’d dropped the ball.
I’d like to come back to that subject about historical references and sources in terms of your own career subsequently, but maybe we can bring that subject up later.
Okay, I just- I wanted to mention also Professor Bland. And I think that Professor Bland was a very quiet, subtle person. He was the person who permitted all that variety to happen. He created a kind of an overall stable structure and acted as the diplomat and the lubricant between these personalities, who could be rather overbearing and perhaps intolerant of each other, but he was tolerant of all of them and put them all out front to meet us and gave us the chance to think things out for ourselves, take our own positions, measure these totally different philosophies against each other. And I think that’s what the university should be doing in architecture or any field. It’s- I think it’s inappropriate for the university to try to propagandize students or tell them how they should think. I think it’s important that the university should give them a lot of points of view, the important points of view, perhaps, or the predominant points of view of the time should be presented and the points of view which are completely out of style. I would say that Professor Collins’s point of view at just that moment was completely out of style, but was nonetheless relevant long-term.
John Schreiber was also a very important influence. His tremendous technical skill was just, you know, a pleasure to see. And he was extremely demanding of us. We had to do shadows of crow-stepped gables on cylindrical towers and it was interesting to see that we could actually do that.
Yeah! But I eventually worked with John for many years. As you know, we were partners and we did a lot of really interesting projects.
John Schreiber had a talent that wasn’t always appreciated. I mean that’s my sort of observation. Obviously, you worked with him closer than I would ever hope to but he was a very unusual person and a very-. When I was graduating, my father-in-law at the time was going to build a house in the Town of Mount Royal. I don’t know whether you remember the story, but what happened is that I went to Ray Affleck, since he wasn’t on staff, and asked him if he would do it. And he was too busy at the time. I think Place Ville Marie and all the rest of it. So he said, “Why don’t you use John Schreiber?” So of course I did. And the house turned out as a magnificent house, although my father-in-law had sort of a run-in with John and that was the end of that. But the house still stands today and I’ve been in it within the last year and they’ve made a lot of changes, but-. And I was accused of paying my way out of university- graduate. Because Derek Drummond, of course, said, “One way of ensuring you’re going to graduate, get a pass from John Schreiber!” But we remained friends for all the time. Nice man, lovely man.
Is that the Sura house?
Yes, oh, I know that house. It’s a fantastic house. And so original, you know?
Yeah, it was so original. It was almost too original for my father-in-law. Because he was an immigrant and- but he loved it. He absolutely loved it. And then I think it’s the Simard family, somebody in that family bought it. And I don’t know what it’s- I mean, I said I was in the year; it’s probably closer to six or seven years ago. Interesting house. And it conformed to sort of the realities of the Town of Mount Royal externally and have it accepted by the council is something else, however.
Yeah, it fits in pretty well. It’s on one of the main- Laird Boulevard is it?
Laird Boulevard, that’s right.
Yes, right. It fits in well, I think.
Sorry, I’m digressing. Was Harold Spence-Sales there at the time?
Yes. He taught us I think just a few years before he went out west. He had established the planning school a number of years before and we had him for Civic Design in fifth year. And that was a very interesting course. In fact, our firm, we’re landscape architects basically, we’ve been involved in a great many projects, which one would have to call civic design. And we think it’s a very important field of endeavor, the design of public spaces and the planning of buildings in relationship to exterior spaces, these are some of the things that we do in our practice and which Harold Spence-Sales introduced me to personally. And that was-
You probably at that time had no expectations that’s where your career would- the path your career would take, did you?
Not really, no. I was completely oriented towards architecture at that time. I was interested, in fact, in big buildings, in skyscrapers and you know major projects. If one had told me when I graduated that I’d end up spending most of my career doing landscape work, I would have been surprised. But that was a transition that happened in the five or six years after I graduated when- what would have caused it? I guess the landscape profession was exploding at that time. It was just expanding tremendously rapidly. Expo ’67 had a lot to do with it.
That was the catalyst.
It was the catalyst, yeah. I think it influenced me. Certainly, working with John. John had gone- John Schreiber had gone to Harvard to study landscape architecture with Hideo Sasaki. Came back to Montreal and established one of the first really modern landscape offices in the city. And when I started working for him in 1966, we were doing some residential work, some educational projects and a number of landscape projects, including projects for Expo. So I got involved in that type of project. And I was able to see the drawings and the specs from Place Bonaventure, which was just in the process of being completed. And that was a masterpiece of landscape architecture.
The- I believe Arcop used- they didn’t use John Schreiber on that. They used an American-.
Oh well, John was the local consultant.
In fact I think maybe John brought in the American consultants, who were the office of Sasaki: Sasaki, Dawson, DeMay. Masao Kinoshita was the partner in charge. He spent a lot of time in Montreal and was a great friend of John’s. And John as the local consultant had a lot to do with the specific choice of materials and the supervision of work on the site. I think he was, you know, of course involved in the design but basically, his job was to translate the design work done by the Sasaki office into the reality on the ground.
Interesting building because in reality, it never really got the recognition it probably merited. It was a very complicated design problem and the solution I think was quite genius. And for anybody who has ever stayed in that hotel, which I guess is a Hilton now, isn’t it, the Bonaventure Hilton?
I guess so now. It’s changed a couple of times.
But I remember somebody in there and the guy who had traveled all over the world, he said, “This is the most interesting urban hotel I’ve ever been in in my life”. He said, “You think you’re not in the city anymore”.
Yeah, it’s brilliantly designed. And I do believe that whether Montreal is attracting a lot of tourists or not too many tourists, year in, year out, it’ s full.
Yeah, that’s right.
That hotel’s always full.
Always full, yeah, yeah. I wanted to ask you, do you remember Gerry? If you were interested in drawing, of course, Gerry Tondino probably was sort of an interesting professor for you to work with.
Oh yeah. His courses were terrific. I guess we must have had Gerry Tondino’s class three years in a row. And it was- and then we went to- He was one of our professors at Sketching School on one occasion. And Stuart Wilson was professor I think both times. That was a unique experience. But just drawing with Gerry Tondino, he didn’t say much, you know? He’d just say simple things like “Draw big. Use the whole sheet”.
Use the whole sheet, yes!
And you know those are the important things.
People would start drawing down in the corner and then “the whole sheet”. That’ s right.
That’s right. And, “Draw the whole figure all at once. Don’t start with the ear.” Just things like that, you know, you got the feeling of how a drawing should work. And we still teach drawing the same way. We used simple objects. And studio drawing, we get the students to really just focus on overall proportions and using- we don’t use live models but we use objects simple and complex in a controlled situation to help the students develop. And we think that still it’s essential for students in the design professions to learn to draw just for the pleasure of drawing. And then they can draw buildings or landscapes or cities or whatever.
I wonder if that will change now because so much design, I’m sure even the work that you do, is done on CAD systems. But I guess the ability to draw really- I noticed you still draw going from the indication of your invitation and so forth. But it’s a great facility and it’s a great way to relax too, even if you’ re doing it in terms of your profession. So I guess what we’d like to do is probably talk a little bit about what you did after you graduated.
Okay, well, after completing in ’64, I was lucky enough to win one of the scholarships. It was the Amy Dunlop Memorial Traveling Scholarship. There were three or four scholarships offered to the graduating students. And I think it was fifteen hundred dollars, which was a lot of money at that time. And with that money I was able to live in Europe for about eight months. A couple of months were spent traveling and about six months, I was studying at the University of Paris at the Sorbonne. They have a very interesting course there called Cours de civilization française. It’s a course in French civilization and culture for foreigners, or strangers, as we call ourselves. There were people from all over the world: US, Canada, Germany, many European countries, Far East. And it was a wonderful course, excellent lecturers and professors. We had a lot of grammar and a lot of composition and subject matter courses as well. So I was glad to get away from architecture for a while, since six-years undergraduate, full-time, day and night, weekends, Christmas Eve, the whole works, that was perhaps just a little too stimulating and so it was nice to do some other stuff. I also met my wife at that time. She was a fellow student at the Sorbonne. And we were married later in England.
She wasn’t an architect, though. It was the coincidence of her being there.
That’s right, yes. She was doing- she was from University of California. She was doing a kind of a junior year abroad as a French major. She was in fact in the more advanced class than me. But it was a terrific course and I really, really enjoyed it. And although I never planned it that way, that course certainly enabled me to be able to eventually teach at the University of Montreal and be able to express myself in written and spoken French in a reasonably competent manner. One of the great advantages of France was that nobody speaks English there so one is encouraged to speak French all the time, whereas at that time in Montreal, there was a common tendency to slip into English all the time and not make the effort. So I very much enjoyed my studies there. And when I ran out of money, I went along with Phil Beinhaker, who was- he and I were sharing an apartment in Paris. We went over to England and worked in London for some time. At that time, several of our classmates were working in London: Ross Hayes, Gerry Sheff, Douglas Gill. There were, gee, a couple of other people. It was a very busy time in London. Lots of things were happening. They were desperate for architects. They had a labour shortage. I worked for the London County Council; it had just changed its name in fact to Greater London Council, on the schools division. And we were doing basically all the schools in London. It was a very big office. Fred Palmer was there. He was in planning one floor up from me. Dick Follet arrived later and so there was a contingent of us from McGill, just in that one gigantic office, which no longer exists. It was entirely destroyed by Margaret Thatcher because I suppose it was a rival power centre or something like that. Anyway, it was an excellent public office and I learned a lot from them.
Then what did you do? Eventually, you came back to, I guess, Montreal, after you left London?
Yes. So after two years in Europe, came back to Montreal. Things were still booming just before Expo and so I started to work with John Schreiber at that time as an employee. And we were doing a couple of projects at Expo as well as some residential work. And I got interested in landscape at that time because John had studied landscape at Harvard and had really opened a joint architecture and landscape architecture office. So I became more and more interested in landscape. And then wanted to go back to school, which I did in 1970. Both my wife and I went back to the University of California. And she finished her degree in French while I did a Master’s in landscape architecture. And that was also a great opportunity. Lots of things were happening at Berkeley. It was a very lively place. A great deal of intellectual ferment. There was kind of everything from the top nuclear engineers in the United States to crazy hippies. We were somewhere in between at the School of Landscape Architecture. Well, we also had some good professors.
It was an interesting time to be in that Bay Area. It was the Bay Area?
Yeah, the Bay Area.
Very exciting. It’s one of the most interesting, cosmopolitan areas of the US, certainly for everything to do with architecture, landscape architecture, city planning, it’s one of the top places. Berkeley was an outstanding university. The campus itself is a beautiful place too. So it was just a pleasure to be there. We had to work real hard again. By the time I came back, I was ready to get involved as a partner with John Schreiber. We started working together on a number of projects, including Mirabel Airport, which was a difficult project and a number of projects in Quebec City, which- some of which what we called Jardin Grande Allée. Now it’s the Parc de la Francophonie, It was really one of John’s masterpieces. I did a lot on the working drawings but it was really John’s design. That’s the little park just behind the parliament buildings.
Where there’s a little pigeon house and a kind of a hollow that’s like an amphitheatre. Really a nice project. So it was great to work on that.
I had also started before going to California teaching a little bit just as a junior, junior atelier assistant at McGill. And working a little bit on a research project also with some young McGill students. And so when we came back from California, I continued doing that on an occasional basis both at McGill and at the new School of Landscape Architecture that had just started at the University of Montreal. So gradually, my focus became stronger and stronger on landscape architecture. And when I wanted to go into full-time teaching, which was about in 1976, I decided or I suppose that they needed me more at University of Montreal. They were kind of desperate to find experienced landscape architects who spoke French who could teach, who knew something about Quebec, so it was kind of a unique opportunity. These things come along once in a while and I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. And so I started there and rapidly became a regular professor and then the school needed a director and I was about the only person that was willing to put up with all the meetings and bureaucracy and so-.
What you aren’t saying is that you were the most qualified person for the job.
Well, there were- I think we had a number of people who were very good. My predecessor as director, Peter Jacobs, had actually done the job for six years and I think he was- he had found that to be very demanding and he moved up to vice-dean. And so I took over as director for six years at that time. And it was an extremely interesting period because landscape architecture was exploding. It was really Expo ’67 that gave visibility to landscape architecture and gave an impetus to the creation of the school in ’68. And there was a tremendous demand for landscape architects, largely in the public sector at that time. So much of our- many of our early graduates, a few went into private sector and many of those people now have large, prominent offices. But a lot of the graduates went into CMHC, the National Capital Commission in Ottawa, the Ministry of Transport in Quebec City, and Parks Canada, the Quebec park people and I guess that was the ministry of Terres et Forêts at that time, I think. So there was just a huge demand for our graduates. In a sense, we couldn’t turn them out fast enough. Every one of our graduates was getting a job in the field almost all the time from the first graduating class in ’72 up until about 1989. There was a brief exception in ’81-’82 when there was an economic downturn. I guess we had that- interest rates of twenty percent and so on. So that was a bad year. But aside from that, our graduates were able to really fill a social need I think very, very well.
Is it still that way today?
Actually, we were badly hurt by the recession. I guess in about 1989, private works started to dry up. And it was rather- there was still a fair amount of public work, things like the ’92 Montreal anniversary, the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary, that was pretty much memorialized with open space projects. The island park, the beach park was done just before that, Place Berri, the refurbishing of Mount Royal, there were an awful lot- the Biodome, there were an awful lot of important public landscape architecture projects for a few years there that kind of masked the recession that was going on. But after ’92 when governments at all levels started cutting back and trying to balance budgets, among the first things to be cut are open space projects, parks and so on. And so it was a very difficult period from about ’93 to ’97. And just in the last couple of years, things are coming back. It looks like there’s a lot more demand for landscape architecture services now and our graduates are moving into mostly private sector at the present time and all sorts of new and different types of projects. Our graduates are involved in such things as the design of equestrian equipment or facilities. One of our grads, Robert Jolicoeur, designed the- all of the horse competition grounds at the Atlanta Olympics for example.
Well, after working with John and after being director at the school, I worked pretty strongly in private enterprise for a number of years as a partner with our firm here. This is our office, Williams, Asselin, Ackaoui and Associates. There are four partners, my wife Sachi, Vincent Asselin and Malaka Ackaoui. It’ s really a multi-disciplinary firm, but our focus is landscape architecture. I would say that the projects that I’m personally the most proud of are the beach park on Île Notre-Dame. That was a very demanding, difficult project with very lofty goals. Our idea was to create a natural beach with recycling of water using plants. And in ’89-90, when we did this project with a great deal of support from the city, from the Botanical Gardens, from Jean Doré, who was mayor and Pierre Bourque, who was the head of Botanical Gardens at the time. It was a great team effort and it worked very, very well. And it was a success I think from the first day. It’s basically for Montrealers. It’s not a tourist project. And in fact, the whole idea was to create right downtown accessible by metro a kind of environment that, let’s say, a lot of people are able to go and enjoy in the Laurentians or in other holiday destinations but this is for people who live right down in the inner-city. They can go there with their kids, capacity of five thousand people a day. We go there every year a couple of times and they’ve kept it up very well and it’s really a pleasure to see that working so well.
Another project that I think was a very strong asset for Montreal is the Biodome. Our firm was involved along with the landscape architects from the city and a terrific landscape architect from Florida named Bob Hartwig and on a team effort, it was kind of a public-private joint venture, and at one time, we had twenty-three landscape architects working on that project. It was fast-track and, again, extremely complex. We had all the problems of building a roof garden because it’s all on slab; an interior garden, different climates, animals living in the environment, and again it was a multi-disciplinary project with a lot of intensity and it worked very well. So we worked I guess for two and a half years on the Biodome. And it’s again a project that is very public-oriented. It’s at the same time a recreational project but with a very strong educational input. Its purpose is to give people a feeling for the environment and a respect for ecology while at the same time having a lot of fun. And it’s worked very well. We had a great team and people weren’t sure that it was going to work but in fact when they turned everything on, everything worked.
And what surprises me today is that I have a couple of grandchildren and lo and behold they went down there and their mother and father took them there on their own initiative. ‘Cause there’s not a lot of publicity all the time because they don’t need it. But they are getting a lot of tourists as well as local people go there frequently.
Yeah. I think that it’s something like a million people a year. They were hoping to get half a million and I think that they’re getting generally a million visitors a year. Again, they’re taking very good care of it and they’ re continuing to keep everything up. That’s important.
Just before you hang up on your career aspect of it, could you give us a couple of comments about the Tropiques du Nord?
Which is a very interesting project.
Actually, Tropics North was in a sense for us a precursor to the Biodome and we learned things on Tropics North, which we were able to use in the Biodome: How to do a large interior garden; how to get it built; the different problems that one would meet; how to handle the water systems, which are very complex; unusual materials, such as artificial rock. Artificial rock is the basic skeleton of everything at the Tropics North condominium project as well as in the Biodome.
The reason for that is, what, just weight?
Yeah. It does- let’s see. It’s a lightweight material and you can make it whatever form you want. It’s usually three to five inches-thick. And it’s a real art. It’s somewhere between heavy concrete construction and fine art. The people who do it are extremely skillful artists.
‘Cause I doubt very much that even people who live there know that it’s not real rock.
Probably not. The illusion is almost perfect. At first we weren’t sure about this funny material that seems sort of Disneylandish and in fact, there’s a lot of it at Disneyland. Yet, it’s an extremely high-tech material. We had to learn all about the new concretes, new technologies, new reinforcing methods using polypropylene fibres and the super-plastifiers and all the other up-to-date materials to do this. The developer of Tropics North, Jean de Brabant, was a real visionary, a brilliant guy who just took on this very demanding project and carried it through and it was a lot of fun working with him. Perhaps another project that I wanted to mention is the Place Saint-Roch in Quebec City. Place Saint-Roch is a public garden in an old section of the city, where there’s-
It’s in the Lower Town?
Lower Town. In fact, it’s almost a bridge between Upper Town and Lower Town. Half of it goes up the hill towards Upper Town and the other half is on the lower plateau of the Saint-Charles River valley. And we tried to create a real garden just full of plants and colour and vivacity and water and waterfalls and movement to serve as the centerpiece of what is going to be essentially a whole new neighbourhood in downtown Quebec. And the idea of the mayor of Quebec and his team, with a lot of cooperation from the provincial government, I should add, is to use this part as the catalyst to attract public and private investment. It’s not the first time that that’s been done. It’s a strategy that worked very well in Toronto in the seventies, and I guess in Paris in the sixteen hundreds with Place des Vosges and so on, but it’s a proven technique and it does seem to be working. So that whole sector of Quebec City, which was kind of devastated for many years when the university moved out, when the big department stores set up at St. Foy and so on. So that whole-
You mean the Lower Town.
About your career, now. Have you any thoughts about whether it would happen differently or would you want to change anything?
Well, it’s a difficult question because many of the decisions that my wife and I made were based on opportunities that presented themselves and that we felt were the right thing to do at the time. Had a few things happened differently, then, you know, we could have gone in completely different directions. We were very fortunate in being able to stay in Montreal through this whole period. This is where we wanted to live and there was always enough work for our office to stay alive and I really enjoyed teaching at the University of Montreal, so we were very fortunate in having those opportunities. At times I’ve thought that maybe I should have been doing skyscrapers or something like that but there are probably enough skyscrapers around. And in landscape, I feel that I personally and our office and our school have really been able to make a difference.
And that’s quite an achievement and the fact that you acknowledge it and other people. I’m thinking as I’m sitting here listening to you- what a fortunate decision you’ve made because you’re the type of a practice that is so unique because- it’s not as unique as it once was but you certainly, if you would tell somebody you’re a landscape architect, it’s hard enough to explain what an architect is, a landscape architect, you know, they’d say “a gardener” or something like that and would insult you. But I see the results of your work and your peers’ work all around the city and it’s really changed a lot. And you can see the mountain, which as I mentioned to you, and what they’ve done to the mountain and some of the changes they’ve made up there. And a lot of people were against any improvements, but I think what they’ve done is to better the mountain.
The graduates of our school and Peter Jacobs, a fellow professor at the University of Montreal were basically the people who put that whole refurbishing of the mountain together. It was-
Yeah, a very, very, very good job.
Well, thanks very much. It’s much appreciated.
Oh, well it’s a pleasure, Jim. It’s very kind of you to come and put me on television like this.
It’s a pleasure.