Brett Cane

B.Arch. 1970
Montreal, QC
November 17, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson

I spent seven of the best years of my life (tape glitch) …seven notches. And I was told the reason why we have seven notches is because, although the official course in those days from 1963 to ’70 was six years, it usually took us seven years to get through it. And indeed, I took a year out from 1968 to ’ 69 to get money and extra experience. I really enjoyed those years at McGill in the School of Architecture, even though I’m not an architect now, which I’ ll explain why. I wanted to be an architect ever since the age of seven. I had been convinced that I was going to be an architect from the age of seven. And I was always looking at buildings and interested in buildings. I come from a family of builders and contractors and artists and so on. So it just fit right in. I’d always wanted to be an architect. I chose McGill, of course, it was the best university there is and it was- I grew up on the South Shore having come from England at the age of ten. A lot of my friends were going to McGill. McGill’s reputation for the School of Architecture was very good, so it was just a natural thing to go to McGill. And I am so pleased that I did, because not only did I receive an excellent education, and again, you might say, “Well, if you are not an architect now”, obviously, “why was it an excellent education?” I’ll tell you in a minute. But it was also at McGill that my faith was revived and actually, I was very convinced after having had my faith renewed in the second year through the McGill Christian Fellowship that I’d be a strong Christian architect and I was very convinced that I- I was very keen to apply my faith in my profession. And what happened later to change, I’ll tell you in a minute.


Some of the memorable times, my first year was absolutely abysmal. It was the first year Engineering and I was just very uninspired. But the second year when we were together as students was just very inspiring. And one of the most exciting courses I’ve ever taken in my entire life, well, all the way through Architecture were the History of Architecture courses with Peter Collins. And he was a real inspiration to me. He did things like catch me up on my language and my way of writing and got me to read Lord Macaulay’s lectures or speeches. And I was very, very impressed with Peter Collins and deeply distressed when he died. And I had the privilege- in a sense now you might say that I’m the Honorary Chaplain of the School of Architecture. I have taken three memorial services and just this past fall, 1998, October, I had the privilege of marrying recent graduates who had seen me at one of the memorial services and wanted me to marry them. So I’ve had sad times and happy times in connection with the school since.


During my time in Architecture, I should mention one interesting factor. In second year, of course, we only had a couple of Architectural courses, but we also had a lot of Engineering courses. And one of the Engineering courses was with the Civils and

Professor David Selby, he’s an absolutely fabulous professor, one of the best in the faculty, and I really appreciated him. And it’s very interesting that he now in retirement attends our Wednesday evening services here at St. George’s. So it’s very nice to kind have to have come the full circle and to be ministering to him now as he did to me.


I remember those- Stuart Wilson was another character. He would come across with his cigarette. And we’d been working all night and working very hard on these magnificent drawings and he would come with his cigarette with its inch-long ash right over our drawings and say, “Oh, what’s this? What’s this?” And of course we’d- and then brush his ash all over the drawings and so on. A real character and a delightful person. I remember of course those long nights of slaving over these drawings and working on our projects.


Another highlight would be at Sketching School. For some reason, it was really difficult to try to get myself, to actually sit down and sketch. But when I did, I was really pleased, actually, with the results. And I remember going to Rivière-du-Loup and can’t quite remember exactly where the other one was now. But they were really good times. But Survey School, now of course that’s in common with the engineers, that was a real momentous occasion. In those days, the entire faculty of- I guess it was second year, went up to Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon. And I remember some memorable occasions, such as one of our Architectural students, he had pushed his transept and- his transit, I’m thinking religiously now, he pushed his transit over and it went- it was about to go and he grabbed it, and then slid down the hill on his back holding the transit above his head, protecting the instrument. I thought that was a great example of sacrifice. Another famous incident was we were in the, I forget, the Hotel Bellevue, I think it was. And one of our chaps was up taking a shower, and I guess he hadn’t put the curtain in the right way, and the water was pouring into the lobby and the concierge went up and rammed on the door of the shower room and said, “Stop the shower! Stop the shower!” And he was coming out with his towel and so on. This, I have some of those memorable moments of Survey School.


I remember also going with Professor Schoenauer on a trip to Boston. And we were piled into his car. And it was a little late at night when we arrived in Boston. And when we were coming up the expressway into Boston, dear Professor Schreiber, sorry, Professor Schreiber fell asleep at the wheel and as we came around the exit, he just kept on going straight into the field. So that was- there were no injuries, but it was a very momentous occasion. So some of those are some of the things that I remember.


You mentioned Peter Collins before. I guess you did well with his course very much. You enjoyed it very much, didn’t you?

Yes, I got hundreds a number of times! It was a combination of history and visual, and architecture. So those are- history and architecture combined are two of my great loves. So I just excelled at that. It was great.

And Stuart Wilson, you talked about. Was John Bland- did he teach you?

John Bland was the Director. He taught us, I guess, one or two courses I guess around fifth year or so.

But at one time he was teaching, I guess, History of Canadian Architecture. I guess he-

We only had his for a short while. He didn’t give us an extended course on that, no. But he was there. Maureen Anderson, of course, very important person in the school, kept us all together. And then, of course, with Professor Schreiber and Schoenauer, and Radoslav Zuk in sixth year.


Oh yeah. Did you work with- you said with Rad in sixth year, I guess, and you worked with Norbert, I guess from time to time too then, eh?

In fifth year, yes. And then John Schreiber in fourth and then Stuart Wilson in third.

And how about Bruce? Was he, Bruce Anderson, around?

Bruce Anderson had just graduated. And the model of his final project was on display; it was a magnificent display, in the lobby of the former School of Architecture. And it’s very interesting. Bruce had just graduated the year before, and he is now our architect here at St. George’s. So we’ve come full circle!

And was Derek around? Was he the Director of the school?

Derek Drummond had also just graduated. He’d just been graduated a year or two and now Derek is a member of our Parish here. And he’s been Chair of the side persons for the last few years. So it’s interesting that you kind of have revisitations of people should you-


Brett, do you remember any of your colleagues at the time and have you kept in touch with any of them or did any of them-?

Some of them, yes. Bruce Allen, I see him because he lives right across from one of our key volunteers in one of the projects that I’m involved in. And Allan Wiseman, I’ve kept in touch with him a little bit. It’s interesting that in our year, I believe, well, my first year, which would have graduated in ’69, I actually graduated in 1970, but in the class of ’69, there were originally, of the original members of the class of ’69, there were three of us, there are three of us, I believe, who are now in ordained Christian ministry, which shows you that Architecture is a good preparation for the Christian ministry.


It’s not always a good preparation to practice architecture!


Any other memories of McGill when you were there, either in extra-curricular activities or in, you know, something to do with the school? Christmas parties or-?

Well, I was very involved in the Christian Fellowship at McGill, and so that really was a major issue, a major involvement for me. I was also involved in my first year in the English department drama and I was involved in two of their productions. So in terms of the extra-curricular activities for the School of Architecture, nothing strikes me as being memorable, apart from just those extra trips that we had an so on. I remember going- the Acoustics class, absolutely outstanding. And that was one of the best classes just because of, if I can remember-

It was Leslie Doelle, was it? Was it Leslie Doelle?

Yes, Leslie Doelle.

His wife was the librarian.

That’s right, yeah. And Leslie was absolutely fantastic. And I remember going on the trip to Quebec City and we stopped off at Casavant Frères and looked at the organs, and so on. After the bus having an accident, again, going around the exit too fast this time, and it kind of slammed into the embankment. But we were all right. We just got out, got a fresh bus and kept on our trip. But I remember that was a very helpful, just Leslie’s way of representing his material was just a treat. So I really enjoyed that.


And of course the Sketching School. Was Gerry Tondino involved?

Oh, yes! Yes, that was great! And of course, all the Life classes, all the Life Sketching classes. People would never miss those, with our special models, of course, everybody was very eager! But they handled it very nicely and very respectfully. But people didn’t miss those classes too often.


Another very memorable class, which I believe was probably either in second year or third year, was with Gordon Webber. And this was our, I even forget what it was called now, but he had us do all kinds of shapes and so on to try and develop our spatial awareness. But in those days, one of the things that we had to do to develop our spatial awareness was to take modern dance. And for this we had to go down to Royal Victoria College, which was then a women’ s residence, and we would get changed into our black tights and black turtleneck tops on the ground floor of RVC, and then we would kind of open the door, see if anybody was looking, and rush up the stairs and into the gym at RVC. And there was this delightful lady there in a long black dress and very dignified, and she would run us through our paces, you see. So- now not architects are that graceful physically, and it was quite a sight to see us with hula-hoops experimenting and spatial awareness, and then we would go across the gym and I remember her saying, “Run, run, jump! Run, run, jump!” And seeing my colleagues, some of whom were not that graceful, run, run, jumping across the gym. Now that was a real treat!


But also, I believe in fourth year when we did a cinematographic survey of an area, a neighbourhood in Montreal, we did Maisonneuve with all its lovely little- well little, yes, they’re little but classical public buildings before it went broke in the early 1920’s. And I always go past there and take people back to there. I actually now, my main connection with architecture, besides this magnificent building in which I work, is with taking people on tours of Montreal, Quebec City and anywhere else that I am familiar with. But in Montreal, this area of Maisonneuve, we did this cinematographic survey, and it was very interesting. I must say our technique was a little weak, the zooming in and zooming out and panning of the area were a little- left a lot to be desired. But that was a very memorable project in which we were involved.


So you graduated in what year? 1970.

I graduated 1970, yes, after taking a year out. So I actually have knowledge of two classes, two graduating classes.

What did you do immediately after graduating? Did you travel or-?

Well, it was very interesting that in the year between fifth and sixth year, which I took out, during that year, I became involved again with a group that I had been involved with in high school, and this was the Interschool Christian Fellowship, which was the high school level of the McGill Christian Fellowship. And in my involvement with the teenagers, all of a sudden, I realized that I had gifts with young people in this area. And during my final year, I was asked if I would do this full time upon graduation. Of course,

this created a crisis for me because here I had been training for six years to be an architect. And was I going to throw it all away? So I remember being at Divinity Hall Chapel and having had a [unclear] time, and of course, that was very close to the School of Architecture, as it was in those days. And just reading stories from the Book of Revelation and just saying, “Lord, the end is coming. Who is going to reach people?” And I realized well, why not me? And I had some big arguments with God about why I shouldn’t do it, and I gave Him a lot of reasons. One of the reasons was, well, am I getting out of architecture because I don’t like it or because I’m no good? Big question. Well, it was very interesting. I didn’t do outstandingly in my final year, but I got a half-decent mark and that was helpful to me. And then, I’d actually worked in interior design all my years, most of my summers with the Royal Trust Company and I do appreciate their putting me through university. So I was asked by a friend to design a travel agency office for his father. And it was very interesting. I designed it and it actually won an award. So that helped me, and my friends realized that I wasn’t getting out of architecture because I didn’t like it or I wasn’t good at it.


But it was very interesting. You might say, “Well now, how could architecture possibly prepare you for Christian ministry?” Well, I’ve explained this a lot of times to people. Architecture gets you to look at the big picture. It gets you to see all the various parameters, the requirements, the limitations of the site, of the situation, resources, financial and otherwise, the requirements of the client. And you put all those together and you use your creativity to come up with a solution, unlike the engineer, who is focused on a smaller area and focuses upon that. It’s the architect who fits that all in. Well, it’s like that in the Christian ministry, that you have the great vision, which God has given you, of reaching the world with His love, and you have various programmes and ideas, and you see the needs, the parameters and so on, and you use your God-given creativity to then work out programmes and ways of carrying out the mission to which He has called you. So I would say that architectural training is excellent. It’s helped me see the big picture, and then to fit all the details in. So it was a way of thinking which I- a way of working, which I received through the McGill School of Architecture that is one of the bases of my ministry today. And I am very pleased and very grateful for it.


Okay, so 1970 you graduated. Did you immediately go into the ministry?

I went right into Christian work with high school students, and then I ended up being ordained a couple of years later and eventually going to study at Oxford, which was of course an architect’s dream. And I studied Theology there. And so I also have a tour of Oxford, if anybody’s interested.

And you would be the tour guide, right?



I should mention that I actually have one building, which has been built. And that is the dining hall at Quebec Lodge. My final project was this grandiose camp, because I had been working as a volunteer with the high school students. I had this grandiose camp scheme on the shores of Lake Memphremagog. Well, it was scaled down into a very modest building at Quebec Lodge and the contractor or the person in charge of the work actually ended up reducing the height of the dining hall by one foot, so it looks very low and also the scissor trusses weren’t constructed correctly so there are tie beams, or tie bars across the dining hall. But, it functions more or less. So that’s my one building.


It’s interesting that the two churches that I’ve had as parishes, one was St. Stephen’s in Chambly, which is an outstanding example. Oh, by the way, of course, I have genned up on ecclesiastical architecture and know the reasons behind it and all kinds of stuff. So that’s been a favourite hobby of mine. But St. Stephen’s in Chambly is one of the rare parishes, which has hardly been- rare church buildings hardly touched by the great ecclesiological revolution in the last century when all the Anglican churches ended up putting choirs up front and so on. And it’s an absolutely magnificent classical gem, and it’s a combination of English colonial and French Canadian architecture. And it was just a delight to be there for my two and a half years. It was a real treat. And the house I lived in was the former schoolhouse where Sir Alexander Galt and other notables had been educated. And the walls were three foot thick and so on. I don’t think I’ll ever live in a nicer house. Well now here I am at St. George’s church, which is one of the most magnificent churches in the city. The woodcarving’s excellent and outstanding and the windows, but it has a magnificent double hammer beam roof. And of course, I got this on the map in terms of explaining what this is. We had to get the Office de la langue française to translate it properly, un toit à double blochet, and I believe we are one of the largest in the world. I checked in Bannister Fletcher and although Westminster Hall, it’ s only a single hammer beam, it’s only five feet wide. So I think we must be one of the largest in the world. But it’s very interesting that our church itself, the nave is virtually free of columns, it’s built in the English hall style of the late Middle Ages, but our chancel, and also our transepts have polygonal endings in the style of the French Medieval churches. So I say, again, at the heart of our beautiful, bilingual city, we have a bicultural church. So I feel very good about that. I have been guilty of taking out a few pews and rearranging the insides of the church a little bit, and we have a lovely platform in the front of the church, which serves the purpose without destroying the architectural integrity. So I have been involved a little bit in architecture in terms of churches.


But you also kept your association with McGill, because I believe you are sort of considered the Chaplain of the School of Architecture.

Yeah, I do have the privilege of working- Derek Drummond has a real gift of working in these situations in terms of death and so on. And we worked together on a number of occasions, with Nancy Lebreros, who was killed tragically. She was an exchange student from Colombia and she was killed in the plane crash over Colombia at Christmastime. And then Stuart Wilson and Peter Collins. So it was a real privilege to officiate at the memorial services, and as I mentioned, with the wedding of two of the recent graduates this past fall.


I should mention, we’re surrounded by buildings here at St. George’s, and some of my favourite buildings, one is right next to me, which is the IBM building. And it’s an outstanding example of a kind of a Frank Lloyd Wright or Art Deco revival and I really like that kind of building. Plus the National Gallery in Ottawa, that’s another one of my favourite buildings. And one of my other favourite buildings is down on McGill Street, at the bottom of McGill Street, the old customs building. And I think that’s an outstanding building. I like the new building that- the extensions to Dawson College, outstandingly done by one of our own parishioners, David Wigglesworth, who used to be with Arcop. I’m just thrilled with the direction that architecture is taking. I haven’t, I must admit, kept up on all the latest developments, but I certainly like what I see in many quarters.


Yes, in terms of some final words, I think one of the things that I got out of McGill, and especially out of Peter Collins’s classes, was the analysis of history, and to just look at trends and the way people thought, and of course what happened in architecture was paralleled of course in literature and so on, and also in spiritual circles as well. So that’s helped me in my current profession. What’s also interesting is that from those classes, the idea of integrity, architectural integrity, which of course applies to other professions as well. But that really hit deeply, you know, that you have to represent in the structure in the building what the structure behind it and the purpose to which it is going to be put. So those are kind of two key things. And I just appreciated- the only things that I didn’t appreciate were things like- which I couldn’t see much purpose in, like Algebra, and Matrices and so on.


Yeah, Calculus. I couldn’t quite see the purpose of that. And I don’t know, maybe they have gone the way of the dodo in the current course lineup, especially with the first two years being in CEGEP. But I would say that I had a most enjoyable time in the School of Architecture. I learned a lot, gained a lot. I’m not working as an architect now, but I feel that it contributed immensely to me. I’m very pleased that I had that experience and very grateful to all those who contributed to it.

Thanks very much.