Boak Alexander

B.Arch. 1962
Vancouver, BC
April 17, 1996
Interview by Jim Donaldson

It came down to a reputation of UBC being a party school and not very academic and not particularly highly thought of in those days, at least from our viewpoint in the School of Architecture. Manitoba, which was excellent, they had a very good reputation. I visited the school the year before and it was sort of seven miles out of Winnipeg on the Pembina Highway, and it was sort of fairly remote from the urban area such as it was of Winnipeg. And the other choice being the very exciting, urban, downtown and cultural location of Montreal, so it was really no choice. I went off to McGill in the fall of ’ 56 and spent the first year living with relatives and walking to the campus and then the next five years living at the top of University Street, very close to the School of Architecture, actually.


Life in school at that time:

That’s a fairly broad topic. Life at the school… I think probably university life is the most exciting time of your life for a lot of us. Seventeen years old, in the city of Montreal, away from home, it was an incredible experience, both the basic experience of being away, of course, being in a university that was so multicultural that it was fascinating. You start off, of course, with only, I think about seven thousand students at McGill in those days, full-time students, and so a relatively small campus. And we started in with the big School of Engineering. That was pretty awful, actually. We spent a lot of time taking Spherical Trigonometry and all kind of courses, which we deemed to be totally useless. Some, like Calculus, were a nightmare for some of us; taught you how to think, they said. But we survived. The really interesting part of the School of Architecture for me began in third year. That’s when they cut the class really into its size, which in our case ended up at nineteen students in graduation. But then you had four years at that time, no intermediate degree, and life really began in the School of Architecture. You immediately went from the huge classes of 360 in an auditorium to working in a studio. Initially, I started at McGill in a little building where the McConnell Engineering Building is now; there was a small house there. We subsequently moved across the campus to another small house on Metcalfe Street [sic: McTavish], and then eventually back into the new McConnell Engineering Building. The experiences in the small houses of course were just great because they were studio environment, and you throw a bed in the corner, and whatever, and the all-night projects, and that environment. School, you obviously became very close to your classmates, you worked hard with them. We were blessed with having probably fifty percent of the classmates with an incredible sense of humour so that we could survive the turmoils. And so it was a very exciting time, an exciting time to be in Montreal. It was the era of Duplessis and the whole thing about Quebec. Personally, I sort of tried to take on some other activities, but with the School of Architecture, that’s pretty hard. So I did a few of the sports and played basketball for the McGill intermediate team and a few things but – tried to ski a little in the winter, etc., but it was pretty impossible at the school of course, because you spent so much time there, both in the daytime and the evenings. You had become quite disciplined, you went through a variety of courses, and I’ll talk about that in a little while.


Classmates… As I said, there were nineteen at graduation, and there’s only seventeen now. We’ve had two class reunions organized by Morty Wellen and Jim Donaldson and they were fun. At 25 years and 30 years. And we had a very good turn out. I think we had thirteen people that came from all over the world from Hong Kong to wherever. We’ve, as you might expect, spread all over the world, because of our varying backgrounds. But that was part of McGill. My roommate for three of the six years was born in Sao Paolo, Brazil. So my best friends at - I was actually resident in a fraternity house - were from England and Europe and all over the place. So that was really fascinating, as well as lots of people, of course from the province of Quebec and other parts of Canada and China.


Classmates who you see now.

Probably Jim Donaldson and Derek Drummond I see most often recently, other than the two class reunions. Professors at McGill that probably influenced me the most and that - probably starting in third year with Stuart Wilson. Stuart Wilson was a character, he was exciting, he stimulated most of the people there. He used to yell at you a lot, and if he didn’t like what you were doing, he suggested that you probably should take dentistry, which was a favourite line of his. But he was good. He did come around when you started to work hard and produce for him. He did acknowledge the work that you put into it. So he was very stimulating in third year. Peter Collins arrived at McGill when we were there and literally started in that era. He developed, of course, an incredible programme in the History of Architecture and got us all going so that we were learning many things about the history of architecture, primarily in Europe, interestingly enough, not North America, or Asia or South America, or wherever, it was European Architecture. But, of course, Peter was incredible in his research into things that he taught us about the history to the point where I eventually did a tour of Europe. I appreciated it because we visited a lot of cathedrals and other really neat buildings in Europe. Gordon Webber, of course, did the Sketching School, which we’ll talk about it in a minute, but Gordon had a great sensitivity. I remember taking the photography courses from Gordon too and working with light, and that sort of thing. John Bland, of course, we only took a couple of courses with John in the later years. Harold Spence-Sales, of course, gave the Town Planning course, which was always interesting, he made it very stimulating. And I don’t think a great emphasis was placed on Town Planning but it was very interesting. Doug Shadbolt was my mentor and in my later years helped with a thesis. And I found Doug to be very, very helpful to my growth as an architect and some success, of course, upon graduation with my thesis and a scholarship. And he was very helpful. He stimulated me in the last two years in particular, and helped me and encouraged me to develop alternate ways of thinking as an architect. And that was really what it was all about, thinking about space and function and form and all of the delight in all of the great things that we studied during that period. And I owe a lot to Doug for that time. So that was good.


Particular lecture or incident in class…

I mean, there’s classic lectures with Peter. The slideshows that went on and on which were in the McConnell Engineering Building, of course, with the lack of ventilation, some of us nodded off in the dark room. But some of the great times – well, you have lots of great times…

I thought one of the incidents that struck in your mind, because you used to talk about it a lot, was the fact that, when we were doing this live modeling class, the girl at the front of the class had a cramp in her leg and she asked for somebody to come up and help and you were the first one to volunteer!

Sure! We went through the Sketching Schools, the live, of course, nude classes but, some of the famous incidents, of course at McGill, with regard to the outside courses were the Sketching School, Sketching School and Survey School. Sketching School, the two that I went to were fantastic. Both near Quebec, one on Île d’Orléans, which was traipsing around all over the Island of Orléans sketching seventeenth century churches and old barns and whatever. And then latterly at Montmorency Falls at the monastery there, and we’d go into the bowels of Quebec, underneath the ramparts there, in the back lanes and sketch laundry and old buildings and whatever. I think that - we were with Stuart Wilson who was made for the job of doing that kind of thing. Very - lots of fun, and we had our seminars at night and review of all the things, and tore all our sketches apart, of course, criticized one another’s work.


Survey School was another thing. Survey School, of course, was the whole Engineering School, and we were a very small part of that huge group. When I went, I was at a little town in Quebec called Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon. And it was incredible. It was held in the spring. You can’t imagine five hundred engineers who had not seen – had a lot of dates, let’s put it, in the last two months, studying for exams along with the architects. And it was rumoured that the local priest of course, encouraged the families to have their daughters sent away to other venues during that period there. It was a really funny time.


After graduation… I graduated in 1962, class of nineteen, as I said. Very exciting time, of course, going through, managing to get a scholarship. Married a wonderful girl form Montreal who had taken some courses at McGill. Left everything behind, jumped on a boat, we sailed to Europe, went to London. A very, very much different time then, relative to obtaining employment. I think both, even in Quebec, and certainly in England, there were a number of jobs. I had five interviews lined up and I went to the first one and they offered me an incredible opportunity. Actually, I went and saw Dennis Lasden and Basil Spence’ s office, which were - James Stirling, there were some very, very talented people working in England at the time. But the important thing is that a young architect with just a few summers’ experience in architectural offices was able to get a job. That first job is always the toughest to get. And so I was fortunate to get a really exciting opportunity with the London County Council. Their Schools Division was planning a new School of Architecture, Engineering, Management, together with student housing for the city of London in an urban site, and, in conjunction with their housing department, they wanted a, I can’t remember, a two hundred-unit housing – an apartment building. We got a site across on Marylebone Road in London, across from Madame Tussaud’s, of 3.3 acres or something or other. I had an opportunity as a young architect to work with one man at the London County Council who was a great guy who gave me total freedom, and I started doing the programming and I went all over the Midlands and all over other schools and put together the entire programme for this facility. And he did all the administrative work and got it approved and got it through all the approval process, and then we built up a design team and I was able to lead the planning and design, and design development over a period of a year and a half of this huge project.


How long did you stay working in the LCC there?

It was almost a year and nine months and we had a great time. I worked very hard. And it was exciting because we built models, I mean, we did all the right things. We studied things backwards and forwards and we created something that was really very good, actually. The interesting part of it is after I left, they were just starting into construction documents, and they built it. And so it stands there today, across the street on Marylebone Road. So it’s fun, I’ve been back a couple of times, it’s never quite the way you wanted it, but it was a very stimulating time for me.


When we returned from England, complete with first son, in 1963, late ’63 I guess it was, they were putting letter bombs in post boxes in Quebec and it was a difficult time for employment and it was a very uncertain time. We hadn’ t settled on where we wanted to live in Canada, except we wanted to live in Canada. And Toronto, of course, was an option, along with Montreal, Calgary where I grew up and perhaps the West Coast. So, prior to Christmas, we headed out West, and left our two-month-old son with my parents in Alberta and came out to Vancouver, and thought we’d look around to see whether we could find employment and whether we – we really knew hardly anybody out here at all. In one week, I managed to meet Ned Pratt and Bob Berwick from Thompson, Berwick, Pratt. Ned was an old mentor of Ron Thom’s and many people through that - almost like a School of Architecture in the West Coast. Ned and Bob Berwick offered me a job that day, and suggested some exciting things that they might have that I could work on. Before we left five days later, we’d found a place to live in a new, what they call a garden apartment in the North Shore of Vancouver here. And 'came back after Christmas in January of ‘64, and we’ve been here ever since. Probably, if I’d gone as a career move in Architecture to Toronto, I would have made a lot more money and whatever, but Toronto is still perceived as very much an American city, and certainly not graced with the geographic opportunity that we have here on the West Coast.


Very interesting times at Thompson, Berwick, Pratt. I worked my way through – they gave me small projects to do that I could do right from beginning to end, which is every young architect’s dream. So that you did the design, design development, did the working drawings and the specification, and the supervision, and learned about contract management. So as I progressed through, after a couple of years of that, I started into healthcare work for Thompson, Berwick, Pratt and eventually, four years later, became one of the two senior project architects for healthcare facilities for TB and P. And we had the majority of work for the entire Province of British Columbia. We were doing the master planning for the development of different hospitals and I personally was doing the community hospitals on the coast, the Pitt River Terrace and Kitimat and we had some good years, seven years at Thompson, Berwick, Pratt. And then I was approached by Arthur Erickson. At that time, Erickson and Massey, a famous firm, had decided to dissolve their partnership and both of them, Geoff and Arthur, set up their own practices individually. And Arthur came to me and asked whether I would manage his firm. So in the early seventies, ’72-’73, I joined Arthur as managing director of Arthur Erickson Architects, a good firm. And shortly thereafter, we were - because of the provincial election, a new political party came into power and decided that they were not going to build a 55-storey office building for the provincial government in downtown Vancouver, but they would hire Arthur Erickson to design a three-block area, about a quarter of a million square feet of offices for the provincial government, half a million square feet of provincial courthouse and tie that all in for a town planning scheme for the existing courthouse. Very exciting time. There were eleven of us at Arthur Erickson Architects, including Arthur and I and the secretary and receptionist. And a few people who were primarily cleaning up other jobs. In three years, three and a half years after I left, there were ninety-two people in that practice, of which the majority were architects or architectural students, who we selected from across Canada from [Puns] and from UBC – anybody who was bright. And when you got a practice that’s humming along like that, and it’s got so much exciting work and excellent, excellent people, you attract excellent people, so we were very fortunate to get first-class people from all over the place. So it was a great time. We, partially because of my background, managed to obtain a commission at Arthur Erickson Architects for the development of a huge medical complex here. So, I hired somebody who was very experienced in developing hospitals and so we had twenty people out of the ninety-odd working in the development of a huge medical centre here, which was subsequently built. So that was a very interesting time at Arthur’s office. There was some consideration as to whether I might also try to assist in the management of the Toronto office, which was then going up and down and had a few commissions, but more exciting to Arthur at that time was the development of the work in the Middle East. And I had discussed that with a few of the people, being managing director, and the complexities of the administrative side of working in the Middle East were incredible, cash flow not being the least of our worries. So, with that I decided that I would not pursue that and live out of a suitcase basically, and go back and forth to Toronto and the Middle East and whatever, with a young family, kids 6, or 8 and 10 at that time. And I decided to go out on my own, which I did, started with small housing projects, and I’ve been in practice for twenty years.


My own practice started off with some housing projects, developed sort of a wide variety of corporate institutional work, I had worked in a number of institutional things at Thompson, Berwick, Pratt. So I had quite a varied background. I made a decision fairly early on not to do multiple housing. I didn’t really enjoy the aspects of working with developers and nickel-and-diming fees and getting into all that nonsense. And thought, and I think quite rightly, you are either in that game or you are not. If you are in it, you have to be very, very efficient and unfortunately cut a lot of corners. So I practice in a number of areas. One of the - the early eighties, of course, ’82 in particular, was a real recession here in the West Coast. There was hardly any work. And coming out of that recession was the political decision to have Expo ’86. Expo ’86 was a real shot in the arm for this town, which as Bill McKay called it, the “Village of Vancouver”, and it’s grown up. And I think that was really one of the key turning places. Vancouver is a very exciting city to live in, because of the urban design and the geography and the multicultural aspects of it, but the city has not been raped by freeways, such as the North American cities and Toronto, in particular, and Montreal with Expo there. We were very fortunate to have a very exciting run at Expo, so in ’84 and ’85, leading right up to May of ’86, we had five architectural projects on the Expo site. We undertook the Air Canada pavilion, which was working with a very exciting audio-visual presentation, live plane in the theatre, creating something that was pretty special, although these are temporary buildings, but it was a really very special working relationship with those kind of people. We also did a - worked with [Garavetta] Engineering of Switzerland in a very high-tech thing of a gondola ride in the Western part of the site, which was exciting. I mean, working with Swiss engineers! I mean, it’s just a totally different experience that you don’t normally get. We did the Telecom Canada pavilion. We were interviewed for it and we were very fortunate to win out that commission with a lot of competition from other firms. But we presented, I guess, a good case, and I got the commission to do that. The building was a remake of what was done by the Bell Phone pavilion in Montreal, but again it was redesigned and the new technology, we were working with Walt Disney in California from sound to light to whatever. Plus, exhibit designers, which – a whole different group of exhibit designers for the back ten thousand feet of that building. We also, one of the craziest things we did is work with Site in New York in the development of something called Highway 86, which is probably one of the largest urban sculptures that’s ever been built, it’s the length of two football fields.

Is it still there?

No. It represented a highway. The theme of Expo was transportation, transportation since the Second World War. And this became a generic symbol of the highways across North America. So it was an undulating piece of concrete, four or five lanes wide, coming out of the salt chuck, out of the ocean that ended up going right across the Expo site. On that were about two hundred and fifty artifacts. The whole thing was monochromed in a light grey. And we had artifacts of the area, from sailboats to submarines to litter-rovers to running shoes to airplanes, whatever. A very exciting time, working with a very talented group of people in New York, so there was a lot of back and forth to New York. And we were the architects of record for the project, who took the squiggly sketches that came over a fax machine and turned it into a very exciting piece of sculpture. It was very highly photographed, in film and production by, actually, a number of European companies.


So that took us through the Expo era. Since then, my practice has primarily been focused on corporate work. I do a lot of work with the larger corporations, especially corporations that have head offices in Eastern Canada so they can have a representative here or act on their behalf, corporations, such as Air Canada and the Royal Bank of Canada, in particular. So it’s been exciting, I have scaled down the size of my practice. When I left Arthur and ninety-three people I vowed I was not going to get back up into a large practice again, I had had enough of that, thank you very much! And I wanted to maintain a practice as a sole proprietor for probably a maximum of ten people. And that’s what my practice has been. It’s varied for – I think probably the most we had six or seven at one time, and now have three people. So, we’re working for the corporations primarily now.


In conclusion, what an exciting time in your life! Off from Alberta to McGill, Montreal, the era it was, what a variety of people! Working in a school situation, of course, with a small number of people and getting to know them very well, working your heart out, learning some very exciting things. McGill had lots of what we called “dumb courses”; they were primarily the Engineering courses, which we couldn’t figure out how it was assisting us. There was lots of things, actually, as we got towards graduation which we recommended, changes in the curriculum which, I think were implemented, some of them, where we focused more on other things.


McGill is a great experience, an exciting time. I certainly don’t regret it, ‘don’t regret practicing architecture. We all, of course, could have made a lot more money doing some other profession, but if I had to do it all over again, I would have selected McGill during that period. I’m sure there’s lots of different schools now. But it was a great choice for me, and I was very fortunate that I made the selection to go to Montreal and to McGill and I’ve never regretted it. An exciting time.