Martin Bressani

B.Arch. 1980
Ottawa, ON
October 31, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson

Well, just briefly where I’m coming from, I was born in Montreal, but before I went to McGill, actually, I was in Quebec City. I lived in Montreal until I was ten years old and we moved to Quebec City. So actually going to McGill for me meant changing cities. That was part of the attraction of going to McGill for me, it was to be in Montreal, which was, in some ways, attractive in itself. Also, it was coming back to a place which was very familiar for me. And also of course, McGill in itself had a tremendous appeal because its- what word can I use? Its stately appearance. I mean there was something about McGill that was very attractive to me. And actually, more than anything else, let’s say apart from the city itself, the general environment of McGill was something that attracted me. In fact, I had no idea specifically what the School of Architecture was like in comparison to the two other schools in the province of Quebec. So for me, it was really coming to that university. Of course, then I got in the school and had to deal with all of the aspects of the school itself, which I had no idea before I came in.


What year was that when you first started?

I started in 1976 so I stayed there until 1980. So four years. Once I came to McGill, I had- my first year was with- the thing I remember most vividly in first year was the work by- directed by Bruce Anderson, which was his first-year studio. We had to go in some strange shop in Montreal and we had to do a model of that, which that for me was my kind of beginning into architecture. Up to this day, it still it haunts me in a way. I mean I found the project very difficult. Actually, I had a lot of difficulty in first year. But it was something that was extremely strange for me and very appealing, actually. And it’s a kind of mixture between going in odd parts of Montreal, having to do something in some ways which I didn’t quite understand what was asked of me and at the same time being at McGill and this kind of very British environment. All of this for me has coloured my first year tremendously. In terms of professors, Bruce Anderson comes through as a major presence at that first time, though I don’t remember he talked to me very much! And of course the other professor was Peter Collins, which I think generally for all of us was very important because of his- you know, credible personality and the specificity of his teaching was something that really- this man could create a whole aura and bring us into a kind of atmosphere, which was very much in a way I think for a lot of us what university teaching was supposed to be. So he represented for us a kind of level of scholarship, a level of- a kind of intensity that we all- or at least I expected from university. So it was something very fascinating for me. Also, I should add that I myself became very close to Peter Collins and I’ve, in my own development, though I’ve practiced after graduation, I eventually went into architectural history, which is the main thing that I’m doing now. So obviously Collins for me has something that is quite important. I kept seeing him after the university, I went to his home and I was a bit- I wasn’t too close from him in his last year, but I did see him six months before he died, so it was something, of course, that stayed with me in a major way. The other professor in my beginning years is Stuart Wilson, which again, I’m sure a lot of my classmates remember him, another fantastic, towering personality. Actually, the studio he gave me in second year, I think it was his last one ever. If it was not his last one, at least it was the second last. And it was extremely intense, extremely bizarre, very emotionally charged and very inspiring for me. And in fact, in terms of architecture, in terms of designing buildings, it’s probably what I remember most; it’s those things I've done with Stuart Wilson. I think the combination of Bruce Anderson and Stuart Wilson for me has made me aware of some kind of Bauhaus- there was something about it that I felt was quite original and in touch with some major teaching mode of the early twentieth century. And I remember doing collage and doing geometrical constructions for Stuart Wilson, of course, doing the house model. This was extremely- it was great. It was a fantastic experience. Actually, the first two years, I must say, dominates to a large degree my experience at McGill.


After that, I remember very well Vikram Bhatt in third year and Zuk. I mean, Vikram was very good to me, I remember that specifically. He was very trustful of me and it’s another kind of- after second year, it becomes something else because it becomes a moment where you start getting more control. So you gain a certain maturity so your relations to professors are not as, how could I say, not as overwhelmed. That’s more of a discussion that I logged in the first year where you’re kind of, you know, in awe. At least that’s the way it was in the late seventies. I don’t know if it’s still like that today. Anyway, I remember Vikram, I remember Rad Zuk, and of course, I remember Adrian Sheppard for my thesis year, which was all very good guidance and very important.


In terms of interesting stories, I mean there’s many little things about Peter Collins’s classes which made them amusing. I don’t know if I can remember it. I remember once, I think he probably- I don’t know if he did that every year, but I remember that he would, and I’m sure other students have said this, he would have a pornographic picture suddenly come on the screen, a naked woman which would happen to be- the background would happen to be some classical setting and he would ask questions to a male student about trying to identify what kind of capital. I don’t know if he did that every year. Probably did, I can imagine. Also, another thing that for me is not really an anecdote but it’s something that I find quite picturesque about Collins again is the way he would come on weekends to school driving his yellow- I don’t know what it was, a Mustang or some yellow sports car, and would have his corduroy jacket and would then come in the studio and talk to us about our projects in his very special ways. I think it’s unfortunate that his influence in studio was not stronger. He obviously, I imagine, deliberately didn’t want to teach studio but-


There’s also another thing. I went to a summer in France and Italy with Peter Collins and Pieter Sijpkes, which also was a very- I forgot to mention it before, it was a very interesting experience for us, for me and I have vivid memories of that. I have kind of memories with Pieter Sijpkes and rather wild parties. And I have memories of Peter Collins, of course- well, actually, there was one moment where Peter Collins actually enjoyed quite a few drinks and that became quite something because he was not supposed to do that. And it became a bit out of control at one point. I won’t go into it too much. There’s a vivid memory in Versailles. We went to Versailles many times. Peter Collins wanted us to see every corner of that building, or buildings, rather. And I have good memories of walking with Peter Collins up the central parterre and he talking to me, actually. I think it was me and someone else, I don’t remember who. And he was saying to us that he would like- this was a place he would like to live in, which was something rather odd, but it kind of made me understand something else about Peter Collins. He, I think he was really enthusiastic about modern architecture but he also had a definite nostalgia about the ancien régime and it came through in a vivid way, quite a poignant way, when he was talking to us in the gardens of Versailles themselves.


After graduation I won the Dunlop Scholarship, the traveling scholarship. My project was to go to Paris. But my -not really my wife but my girlfriend- had a job in Ottawa. And when I graduated in 1980, there were not a lot of jobs around. There was actually a recession at that time. It was very hard to find jobs in architects’ offices. But my wife had a job here in Ottawa with the federal government, which was part of a scholarship she had had when she was in university. So I went with her in Ottawa. I found an architecture office quite quickly in Ottawa. So I worked with a major firm of central Ottawa, which was Ogilvie Hogg. And I didn’t like Ottawa at all. I mean, for me it was all quite understood that I would be here only for a year, maximum two years. And, of course, I stayed on longer, since I’m still here now today after some close to twenty years. But anyway, several things happened. So I worked for Ogilvie and Hogg, which was very good for me. I started as a very, very junior position, running blueprints, essentially. Quickly, very quickly established myself in the office and in fact, I remember my first commission- I hit the office well because it was just growing at that time. It was just starting to have a lot of work. And the first- not my own commission, but the project I was in charge of as project architect where I did everything basically up ‘till site supervision, was a renovation of a bank building in Perth, an old building, nineteenth-century building, in fact, which was kind of odd because I had done some work for Peter Collins at school as a research assistant to him one summer where I had done a study of a bank building. So here I was, within I think a year and a half of graduation, I was in charge of a considerably complicated renovation, because it involved an older building, which had been, of course, modified. And it was in some ways to bring it back to its original state, at some level, though also- at least on the exterior and the interior had to be, was more, obviously modern and had to follow the Bank of Montreal regulations and standards and whatnot. It became- it was quite interesting. I think the job was quite successful. It involved dealing with Heritage Canada and all that. And the site supervision was quite something for me. I was never the type of person very- who had good construction reflexes. I’m not a practical-minded person, so for me to deal with the constructions, particularly renovation, particularly with a contractor who was quite new at this and who quickly I realized was losing quite a bit of money in that job, so became extremely nervous. And on top of everything, they kept doing mistakes. I remember driving there twice a week from Ottawa, which is about an hour drive, having to go there and often having to tell them to start work over. So they would forget wall-through flashing, for instance or ties for the bricks and things, essential things like that, which for me was a bit odd because, you know, I’m forty today; I look quite young and then I was even looking younger than that and I had to go there and tell these guys to start over. And the relationship was a bit tense. It was a kind of interesting experience but anyway, I brought it through.


What happened subsequently is I went- indeed I went to France after two years, where I spent a summer doing some research. It was quite vague and not very focused. And then I went to graduate school, so I went to MIT to do graduate studies in the history/theory criticism section. So I had taken a decision then- but again, I didn’t think it was a lifelong decision, but I decided that I would go into history and theory. So I went to MIT for two years and a half, three years. In fact, I extended my stay a bit inordinately. Normally, the Master’s is two years but I, thanks to CMHC, which was extremely generous in those days, it’s no longer the case now, they allowed me to continue at MIT for one more year. They were actually paying tuition; they were paying me as well. It was very generous, actually very comfortable. And I won some prize at MIT as well, which would make- those years, I remember as very wealthy years, where I was traveling all over the world while I was doing my studies, which was quite nice. And so I’ve done that. What happened after this is that I came- after I needed money despite everything, so I had some debts; I had some loans. I came back and the office in Ottawa took me back. So I did that for another couple of years. And then I got involved at Carleton University. Slowly, I was a sessional lecturer. I was hired by Alberto Perez-Gomez, which is now at McGill, to do lectures on the history of architecture. And subsequently, I was hired full-time position and eventually went in the stream of teaching and quite happy at it actually. In the end I recognize now that I was in some ways destined to become- to be an academic, particularly work in history, which I’m doing a lot now and am enjoying tremendously. So basically, that’s my development. To complete the story, in the early nineties, I decided to enroll in a doctoral programme. So I just completed a Doctoral degree from the University of Paris Sorbonne. I was in Paris for a year, my first sabbatical, and then completed the work, dissertation, which was filed last year- this year, actually, in March 1997. So I was just received docteur. And so I’ve followed the normal, academic path and now I’m tenured, an associate professor.


Yeah, I think the profession has changed. I mean obviously, I don’t practice. I have practiced about four years and I was involved with I would say two major projects, which I carried from beginning to end. This was in the- that would have been in the eighties, the early eighties. Now we’re in the late nineties. Maybe I’m not the best person to come in on the changing practice, but I think I might be able to comment though on what’s going on in universities. And I think there is definitely a rift between university teaching and practice. Now, I think that’s probably the case in many professions, although, I mean, obviously, if you’re, you know, going into medicine or law, there’s quite a difference between practice and- theory and practice. Though probably, they tend to be a little more integrated, particularly in medicine. But in medicine, you need to, obviously have a training in the hospital for several years and it's the same in architecture. I think architecture is- the rift is particularly great in architecture partly because it is a demanding, an extremely demanding discipline. So you need to be everything at once. You need to be someone that has a practical mind to think about constructions and these things and have a kind of, you know, vivid relationship to the built and material world.


At the same time you need to have a, you know, have some artistic talent. You need to therefore develop a kind of inner impulse. I mean that takes- itself it's demanding on people and needs a lot of concentration, needs time as well. So that is something that usually the university has seen as being their responsibility, to nurture the more artistic, imaginative side of students. And then, of course, there’s the professional, business side, which is something which is also- architects are constantly confronted with. Now, I can see where people would say, “construction has to be more rigorous”. I agree with this. Business should be more integrated in teaching. However, one has to realize that you can’t do everything and, I don’t want to make a lecture here on what architecture ought to be at the university, but I think the development of artistic talent, is obviously, a place where it could happen, or must happen in a university. Because it won’t happen in a practice because there’s no time for that. So I think it is important that university keeps that role in developing the student’s imagination and this ability to think artistically and culturally, which is something very difficult and takes a lot of time. I think construction should be definitely more integrated because it’s so integral and so much, in some ways a fun part of what architecture’s about. As far as business, I’m not so sure. I think business is something, in a way, which you learn in your training and it’s something that you- well, business is common sense in a way in large measure. I don’t think there’s a big science of business, so I don’t know if that should be treated as much. So I think the university life does, and it changes from school to school, but I think it does have a key role in developing the student’s artistic acumen and its cultural judgment, which for me is extremely important. And one is not necessarily the same as the other. I think to think culturally about the environment is something that takes a lot of time and a certain maturity and needs a certain amount of knowledge. And I would say I preach from my own- school here needs a lot of historical knowledge to be able to develop that. And I think developing artistic talent needs a lot of practice and studio is important. And construction should be somehow integrated well within these environments. I think it is- I think we have to assume that architecture has a certain distance from the profession. I think it’s something that has to be that way and it’s not necessarily bad.


I think architecture can be practiced in so many different ways now. And probably one of the things that makes the profession different from the way it was is that- well, here I’m talking but it’s difficult for me. I don’t have maybe the right expertise, but I have a sense that design becomes extremely important, design quality. There’s a rift in the profession. You become a commercial architect and do run of the mill stuff in which design is not that important. And business, of course, then predominates and your technical abilities. But there’s a whole other side to architecture, which is the one that is the more, perhaps more exclusive but the one which is more profitable, which is design-oriented, which you show yourself as being someone that has a worth in terms of your capacity to solve difficult projects or to bring about interesting buildings. I think that is a whole niche for architects, which is the one that is most properly ours. This niche might be shrinking in a way. There might be less of it, but in the end, that’ s the most important one. And it’s the most profitable one, I think.


One thing I should say is that a lot of the interesting, practicing architects are often involved in the university. I know that’s the case in Toronto, less so in Ottawa, because we don’t have a great pool of practicing architects here, but though it’s true there too. And I’m sure it is the case at McGill in Montreal where the exchange between some of the most talented and intense designers in the city would come and participate in the teaching at the universities. So there is that link. I know that that’s definitely the case in Toronto, since the University of Toronto has a lot of professionals teaching at the school, an inordinate amount, in fact. Most of the teachers there are sessionals, which are coming out of the profession, and some of the best architectural minds in Toronto teach at University of Toronto. So it’s not so pessimistic that one may think. There is an exchange, there is different grounds, there’s something that happens in the academic life, there's something that happens in the professional life. There is a symbiosis between the two, but they are different domains and they are, I think it’s normal that university retain in some ways its autonomy. I think it’s important for the profession. If it becomes just a sheer training ground for the future profession, I think that would mean the profession will lose some of its integrity. I think it’s important for the four or five or six years of university training to tell us what is the ideal architect. And then you deal with that when you are a professional. If you have to give it up, well, so be it, but maybe you can keep it up in some way or another!