Theodore (Ted) Davidson

B.Arch. 1972
Toronto, ON
March 12, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson

Well one of the things that, I guess, any of us who went to McGill would look back on is what really generated the interest in the university. And for me, having grown up in Montreal, I guess one of the things that I never really considered was going anywhere else but McGill. We assumed that, our high school in particular, I went to Outremont High in Montreal, that if you had the marks and you could get into the university, that was the place to go. In fact, from our graduating class, I don’t think very many people went outside the province let alone outside the country. The vast majority of them, actually, ended up at McGill.


My goal or my intention at the time I entered McGill was to be, in fact, an engineer, a chemical engineer no less. And it wasn’t in fact until I guess the second year when I was there, after having a discussion with a friend of mine who I had gone through high school with, who had also entered engineering in the first year. We were sitting down and we started discussing, “What are your plans for next year?” And I said, “Oh, I think I’ ve made a major mistake. I really don’t think I’m cut out to be an engineer”. I hadn’t done very well, first of all, in my first year in engineering and secondly, it just didn’t seem to be the right career path for me. And he said, “Well, you know, I’m going into architecture”. I said, “What? Architecture? What is that? What’s it about?” I really didn’t have much of an idea what-


None of us did. You know, when you were very young like that, none of us did.

I mean in sort of looking at it further, I said, “Sure, architects design buildings. I know that”. And I said, “Well, sure, yeah. I actually like to draw. In fact, I’ve drawn all my life”. As far back as I could remember, I was always drawing either objects, things, sketching whenever I had a free moment to do that. And he said, “Yeah, you know that is one of the prerequisites. They want to see how well you could draw”. So I said, “Sure, yeah, maybe I should give this a shot” in my second year and that’s precisely what the both of us did. In fact, we enrolled and it was fairly easy at that time because the School of Architecture was part of the Faculty of Engineering. And we just registered for our second year in architecture. And this was before the days when you had to write an aptitude test. I don’t know whether either of us would have gotten into the programme if we’d had to. So from second year on, that was it. I was both intrigued and also it took a little while, quite frankly, to get into the entire aspect of what an architect did, how you went about designing buildings. It wasn’t something that came naturally to me during those initial years. And quite frankly, I don’t think I really got seriously involved in the whole nature of architecture and the role of the architect probably until my fifth year. This was when the programme was still a six-year programme.


How are your memories of the earlier years? I guess from the second year on, which was basically more architecture than engineering. What I’d like you to talk about is some of the professors and some of the courses that you took that you might remember better than others and what were the influences and who were the influences good or bad.

Well, I think the first two or three years were probably dominated by Stuart Wilson, Derek Drummond, certainly during that period, and Bruce Anderson as well. I mean those were the three professors that we probably had the most contact with during that period. Of course, during those initial years, you’ re still trying to feel your way through the programme, trying to understand what’ s required of you, what the role again of an architect is in society and in fact your particular role within the profession or how it might evolve. During those years, those three people were probably the ones that we had the most contact with in terms of being able to start the process of architecture and beginning to understand what it was we were supposed to do as far as designing buildings and environments were concerned. There are many instances, of course, of relationships between the students and those individuals. I think that Stuart Wilson, of course, as we talked about just earlier, invoked a fairly strong reaction from most students. Most of us disliked in some ways his approach too, because it was very critical, in fact, overly critical in most cases. In retrospect, you could probably look back and say, “Yeah, he probably had a point and was in fact trying to stretch your ability beyond where you had actually arrived.


Well another professor, one that I guess a lot of people will recall who was there during that period, in fact was a very strong character, was Peter Collins. And Peter, of course, taught a course in the history of architecture and everyone who was in the programme at that time had to take that course. And we found in particular in working through that particular course that we got a sense of that person’s, that professor’s intellect. I think that was one of the things that really impressed us about his ability was not only could he give you a real sense of history but also give you a relationship to the present. And of course, he was someone who was an author, had written books on the subject and was in fact very, very interesting just as a person and we got to know him fairly well during that period because we took a particular interest, both Elizabeth and I, in the history of architecture.


In the subject that he was teaching, basically, the history of architecture.

And we had visited Europe during that period while we were still at university and again got a sense of what he was talking about by looking at the urban environment, about the kinds of buildings that were created during those periods, both Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece and then later on during Renaissance as well. So these were subjects, which became alive for us as a result of both our travels and our relationship with Peter Collins.


Bruce Anderson was someone who, again, was an interesting character for us because he obviously had a particular approach to the way he taught his courses and they were somewhat ancillary to the process of architecture but still items and projects which he put on the table which ultimately gave you a much better sense of the overall context in which architecture was practiced. But again, we really didn’t appreciate that, I think, at the time. We, again, probably looked at him more as a personality rather than what he was teaching and it wasn’t always in the most positive light during that period. So those are the people at the beginning of the school experience that we really, I think, related to most. John Bland was the director of the school at that time and we had relatively little contact with him other than an administrative level.


Didn’t he teach the History of Canadian- Architecture History? Did he not give a course in it?

Not at that time, no. I guess when we were there he had already relinquished essentially his teaching duties but was involved in design crits from time to time. But that was essentially his role. I actually have to thank John because at one point, I think it was after, I guess my third or fourth year. I guess it was after my third year. I hadn’t done particularly well that year. And there was some question about whether I should return to the programme the following year. And I launched an appeal. I went directly to John Bland and I said, “John- Professor Bland”, at that time, not John, “could you give me one more chance? I really think that I really didn’t concentrate very well in the programme last- this past year. I really don’t think I did as well as I could, that I really didn’t show my true capability” . And Ultimately, he said, “Yes, we’ll give you another shot. What you should do is prepare another design for another building of your choosing during the summer and present it to us. And if the results of that project are satisfactory, we’ll let you continue on with the programme”.


That was, what, between the third and fourth year?

I think it was between the third and fourth. Now this was a bit of a crisis period because Elizabeth and I were about to get married. So if I wouldn’t have been allowed back, I don’t know what I would have done at that point. My whole career path had been basically-.

But was Liz a year behind you?

She was a year behind me at that time.

So she almost caught up.

Exactly. So as a result, and this was also fortunate. I happened to be working in the office of Moshe Safdie that summer. I’d been able to get a summer job. And I must tell you that my skills improved dramatically by having worked in an architectural office over the course of that summer. So when I prepared that project, I mean, I had the presentation skills down pat. I put together a project, which I guess even in retrospect, was reasonably good for that period in my studies and presented it to Professor Bland and I guess whoever else was involved at that time. And as it turned out, they let me continue. And ultimately again, I think that was kind of a turning point for me, ‘cause it could very well have- my path could have diverged quite dramatically.


You might have gone back to engineering.

Exactly, or who knows what else at that point. And then in later years, I think the professor who probably had the greatest impact on me was Rad Zuk. Although, Norbert Schoenauer, who was very well known at that point, particularly because of his housing work, was there in the university. I didn’ t really have a great affinity for that type of architectural practice and I didn’t really get that much involved with his programme, with the courses that he was teaching. So I stayed basically with Rad Zuk through my fifth and sixth years. And it was really through that period where I think I developed a better appreciation again of the skills necessary to both design buildings and understand the context in which architecture is practiced. And I have to say that my ability improved quite dramatically during those two years and again I felt somewhat more confident as a result of the projects that were prepared during those years and because of Rad’s tutelage during that period to feel that I was in fact heading in the right direction after graduation.


Do you remember somebody by the name of Gerry Tondino?

Yes, very well.

Do you remember Sketching School?

Very well, in fact.

Because I think he participated in most of them with one of the professors from the school. I think that varied from time to time. Stuart Wilson used to participate and others. So do you have any memories of Sketching School at all?

Very much, I mean Gerry Tondino and Stuart Wilson of course were involved in the Sketching Schools when I was there. And we went to two that I recall. One was in Rivière-du-Loup and another one in Belleville. Elizabeth and I were married at that time when we went to Belleville. In fact, it was immediately following our honeymoon. And we ended up in a hotel in Belleville and the person who had the room next to us was Stuart Wilson. And the reason this became kind of a standing joke was that we didn’t actually show up that often for group activities because we were busy back at the hotel, having just been married. So as a result of that, Stuart was forever kidding us whenever we showed up, saying, “Well, it’s nice to see you, finally”. You know? And then Gerry, of course, because of his Sketching School role and also because of the life drawing that we did on Saturday mornings, I mean, that was still a part of our curriculum, which I think everyone remembers. It was just part of the overall understanding of the kinds of things that you had to know and be able to do to again kind of free yourself up as an architect both from a thought point of view.


Always with the subjects being ladies rather than male models, eh?

So it seemed during that period. I don’t know how the women in the class really took to it. But actually, we had the occasional male model as well, as I recall.

What did you do for your thesis and who sort of was- who worked with you on your thesis?

Actually, this was interesting because it kind of led to where my professional career started. In my final year, I had Tom Blood, who was a practicing architect in Montreal, as my advisor. And we did a project together. I think it was a hotel in Antigua, if I recall correctly. And I think Tom liked the way things were working out in terms of the project, kind of liked the approach I had taken, we got to know each other fairly well during that period, and he actually asked me to join his office after graduation. So I thought well, this is a breeze. I mean you just leave school, you get offered a job and you go to work. I mean, that’s all there is to it, right? And that’s it for the rest of your life. And it actually turned out to be a very good relationship. I think he ran a great office at that time. Some interesting characters, of course, as most architectural offices have. But again, Tom’s influence during that period was really as a mentor during that final year. And I really appreciated his help in particular, because I think again it was one thing that really led me to again really pursue the career aspect even more so than I had considered during my university years. He was just somebody who really, really I caught on to very easily and again seemed to be someone if he was an architect and that’s the way he practiced, I thought, yeah, this is kind of the way I would like to practice in this business as well.


Do you ever remember Maureen Anderson?

Yes, yeah, well, Maureen of course was secretary or administrative assistant to the director during that entire period when we were there. And I think everyone’ s recollection of her was as someone who was always helping out. I mean she would always help you if you had a problem, if you needed someone to talk to, if something was going wrong, just go and see Maureen and she would fix it for you.

She always gave you a sympathetic ear, she never felt you were infringing on her sort of work ethic or anything else. But she just recently, well, about two years ago, retired. And they set up a scholarship, I guess, for her and so forth.


I keep in touch with her because I enjoy talking to sort of positive people like that. And she works now with John Bland’s wife in helping older people out.

Oh, is that right?


Well, I guess you know, the whole question of being in an architectural school is of course, you get to know the people you’re studying with very well because you tend to spend an awful lot of time with them during that period. And I guess that one of the things that I recall was the fact that we would spend so much time in the studio that we’d get completely punch drunk after a while. I mean it would just be completely nuts. And I remember, there was another fellow, Bernard Lefebvre and I, Bernard, I guess, is still in Montreal although I haven’t seen him in many years. And we’d just say, “We need a breath of fresh air”. And we’d go outside. And both of us happened to have cars at that time. And we said, “Okay, I’ll race you around the campus”. This would be at about three o’clock in the morning, snow on the ground, and we’d take off from in front of the architecture building, we’d cut up in front of the Arts Building, around Leacock, down towards the Roddick Gates, back up around the chemistry building and back in front of the architecture building. And of course, we were timing each other, or at least somebody else was timing us to see who was fastest around the circuit. So we got really good at this, but you know we never at any point considered that the McGill security people might be out on the road at about that same time. But quite frankly, at three o’clock in the morning, there wasn’t anybody on the McGill campus during that time. And the other things that I guess were of some significance during that period was the fact that this was quite a militant period in terms of university students’ activities, which I guess in rather stark contrast to what we’ve seen in recent years. There aren’t very many issues in which students get really excited about anymore. Well, there were a number of them during the time that I was there. And one of the things that both Elizabeth and I remember quite clearly was the fact that there was a student strike. And this was related to a professor at that time.


This was related only to the School of Architecture, though.

That’s right. It was quite central to the school and quite specifically related to the school because there was a professor, John Schreiber, who was there at the time. He was teaching landscape architecture.

Was he replacing somebody? I’m trying to remember. Was he replacing somebody else?

Harold Spence-Sales, I think, was there for a while and I don’t know whether he was replacing him or whether in fact they were both there at the same time. But the students struck over what they perceived to be a major issue and that was John Schreiber’s continuing activities as a professor at the school. And there were a number of really militant people in the upper years. Well, I was still quite early on, probably second or third year at that point. But I got to know a lot of these people as a result of it because I was really taken by the whole process and getting involved with it. And ultimately, of course, the school was shut down for a period of time. Negotiations continued and then ultimately, of course, it was resolved. But it was resolved by John Schreiber actually leaving the school at that time. So it showed us in fact that the students when put in the position where an issue is perhaps strong enough, where they feel strongly enough about it that they can have an impact. Of course, and they did quite strongly.


Another thing, which was actually quite interesting as well, being a part of it only in the sense that we felt kind of entrapped by it, was Elizabeth and I and another student were up in the studio in the McConnell Building during what was called the McGill Français march. And this was a time in which again there was a lot of political activity in Montreal, in Quebec, of course, and there was a march to ostensively for the reason of turning McGill into a French-speaking institution.


I’m trying to- refresh my memory. What year would that be approximately?

That was probably about 1970-ish, in that period again where a lot of things were going on which culminated in the crisis, the October Crisis. And again we were in the university at the time. We were upstairs and we said, “Well, what are we going to do? Are we going to go downstairs? Are we going to try and join in or are we going to leave? Are we going to take the back door?” Ultimately, the march continued through the campus. A lot of noise, as you could imagine. We were wondering whether they were going to try to break down the doors or they were going to try and come in this building. And we just stayed put until the marchers went by and ultimately we left the campus a good time after everyone had sort of cleared off. So those were two events which actually again in terms of both the political context in which McGill was operating at that time and I guess still continues to operate, plus the fact the School of Architecture had its own kind of politicized structure. It was a period I think where again, we felt quite taken by the whole question of being at the university at that particular point in time.


Well, Jim, after, as I mentioned, leaving McGill, I worked first of all with Tom Blood. And he was partner with John Houghton so the firm was Blood and Houghton at that time. And he had very nice people to work with, great office, real characters. And I stayed with them for a period of probably about a year or so after graduating in ’72. In ’73, an opportunity came up at Webb Zarafa Menkes Housden in their Montreal office. And I was intrigued by it because they were doing a lot of large-scale, high-rise work, primarily office buildings but also some residential work as well. And that kind of appealed to me. So I decided to leave Tom’s office and go and work at Webb Zarafa during that period. And again very interesting work and again being quite young, of course, still only a year or so after graduation, I was given pretty dramatic responsibility, which I found rather intriguing as well simply because I didn’t think architecture worked like that. I thought I’d be very junior to somebody and working that way for many years while I was still trying to learn the ropes. Well, they gave me responsibility for a downtown high-rise office building, a mixed-use building with subway access. And I mean that was an incredible learning experience to be able to work through that process of designing that building with a variety of different constraints and also getting to understand what the development business was about during that period as well.


Did that building ever get constructed?

As it turned out, no. That particular building that I designed for First Quebec Corporation, Gene Reisman, didn’t get built at that time. Subsequently, and I think quite a few years later, a building was built, this was at the corner of Peel and de Maisonneuve, which, in fact, does have a subway connection. So there is a building there but it wasn’t the building that I did. They also had a number of hotel projects at that time in the office. Again, very interesting work and again of a large scale. What it also pointed out to me was that you didn’t need a particularly large office to be able to do fairly large work. And these were quite sizable projects during that period. In fact, the projects I was working on probably only had a team of three or four people. And those three or four people were basically doing twenty and twenty-five-million-dollar buildings in 1973 dollars. And that today would be a much, much larger project. What I suspect as well is that they were highly profitable during that period given the amount they were paying us as young, starting-out architects. I worked with Webb Zarafa through ‘till about ’75 or so. Yeah, it would have been ’75. And then because Elizabeth had already graduated at that point and had recently in ’75 joined the people who were involved in the consulting work for the Montreal Summer Olympic Games in ’76. I thought that was a fantastic opportunity and decided because they had an opening at that time for another architect to join that team, I decided to join that consulting firm at that time. And from ’75 through to the completion of the Games in ’76, I was the construction manager for one of the Olympic sites. Since then, of course, we’ve all been defending the fact that we weren’t responsible for the billions of dollars that were spent on the Olympic Stadium and the Velodrome and the swimming pool and that all our sites came in on budget and on time, often to deaf ears because everyone just remembers the debacle associated with the stadium itself. But again, a tremendous learning experience where again it was very formative. I mean we were still only at that point three or four years out of school with great responsibility, getting a project done on time. I had the responsibility for the basketball venue for the Games, which was later turned into the Centre Etienne Desmarteau, which is, I guess, still used today for gym and hockey purposes. But again, these were great projects to be involved with at such an early stage in my career.


After the ’76 Games, we decided essentially because of political reasons more than anything else and the fact that we realized that it would impact quite dramatically on the business climate in Quebec, to leave Montreal. And we left in ’77 finally and moved here to Toronto, because Elizabeth was originally from Toronto and of course had family here. So we moved here in ’77 and reestablished ourselves here in Toronto at that time. Elizabeth joined one firm at that time, Lloyd Sankey’s firm. And Lloyd, of course, is a McGill graduate as well of some probably thirty-five or so years now.


Close to that, I guess.

I guess about that. And she worked there from ’77 on. I joined a firm, a local firm here in Toronto, Dunlop Farrow, who were a fairly good-sized firm even at that time, became much bigger in the later years but were involved in a lot of educational facilities and hospitals primarily in their practice. I didn’t particularly enjoy the people there that much and in fact, I found that the work really wasn’t to my liking and decided after about a year or so to leave that office. Because we had gotten to know a number of people during the course of the time we had been in Toronto, I formed my own practice in 1978 and for a couple of years practiced here on my own doing small-scale projects, residential, commercial projects. And finally in 1980, because Elizabeth was pregnant at that point, an opportunity came up at Ontario Hydro. And we both looked at each other and said, “Well, gee, a corporate architecture position? I’ m not so sure about this”. But in thinking about it we said, “Well, gee, this is, you know, something that we really can’t really think of in architectural terms. It’s a secure job”. And because we were expecting a child at the time, we said, “Look. Maybe you should give this a try”. And I said, “Yeah, why not? I’ll go in and see the people and see if we like each other, if the work is what I would be interested in”. As it turned out, I was hired for the job in 1980 and remained in the architectural department, rising through a number of positions from the design architect through to being the head of design at Ontario Hydro in I guess about 1985, ‘86 or so and really enjoyed the work. It was a very fast-paced environment. There was a tremendous amount of building activity required within the corporation at that particular time and a wide variety of work as well. There was an assumption, of course, when I’d tell someone I was working for Ontario Hydro, “Well, what are you designing? I mean, what kind of buildings do you do?”


It’s the same thing saying you’re working for Air Canada.

Exactly. You know, in a corporate position, people don’t assume that there was a significant amount of construction work involved. So I was involved with a variety of different buildings types: administrative as well as, obviously, the kinds of buildings that a major electrical utility requires for its operations. I remained in the architectural group for a period of about close to eight or nine years. And then another opportunity came up internally within the corporate real estate group. And I decided because of interests that I had acquired during the time I was at Hydro to switch over to the corporate real estate division. I became the manager of planning and development for corporate real estate at Ontario Hydro and stayed in that position for a couple of years. Another opportunity came up internally and that was to manage, project-manage a huge, joint-venture real estate development that Ontario Hydro had embarked on with Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, CIBC. And it was a five-hundred-million-dollar project. It was going to be a mixed-use, primarily commercial, office building complex in North York, part of Toronto. The project was called 5000 Yonge St. And the project was put together as a joint venture with Hydro owning the land and CIBC acting as the development company through their development arm, CIBC Development Corporation. So I was retained to, internally within the company, to act as the project manager. As things worked out, during the course of that project, the real estate climate within the Toronto area and Canada in general began to deteriorate and the plug was pulled on the project in, I guess it was 1992. At that time, in sort of analyzing my prospects within the company, I thought, “Well-“. Hydro was at that time offering a buy-out for all their staff. I said, “This may be an opportune time to take the buy-out and embark once again on a consulting career. And that’s what I did. In 1993, I left Ontario Hydro at that time and then started first of all a real estate consulting or advisory practice and project management practice, which we still operate today from this office. And then a couple of years after that, I joined Elizabeth in the architectural practice at Davidson Langley Architects. And that’s where we’ve been ever since. And at this point, we’re doing some interesting work, both residentially and commercially within the architecture firm.