Stanford Downey

B.Arch. 1969
Toronto, ON
May 16, 1996
Interview by Jim Donaldson

I probably decided to study architecture in about my second year of high school. I’d always been quite interested in drafting and in art. And I had a brother that was also very interested in it and when I was in grade 9, he was already at McGill in the School of Architecture so it kind of ran in the family. I also had another brother that was a McGill student, though in the Faculty of Arts. So it came very early in the family. Being from the Prairies, we always thought that there was only one really good school in the whole country and that was McGill. So we always said, “Boy, if we could ever go to the school of our choice, that’s where we would go. And my two brothers and I were all lucky enough to be McConnell Scholars and were able to go to this wonderful school. When I came to Montreal I was 17, and went into the second year at McGill and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I moved from Regina, Saskatchewan to Montreal. It was so pleasurable to be in a city of that ilk. And I must say, in my early years, my life at school was as much augmented by the fact that I was in a terrific city at a terrific time, from ’ 63 to ’67. It’s very interesting seeing the students now and comparing to the time that we were students at McGill how different it was. For example, we never thought of going to school in anything except shirt and tie and a jacket. We were very formally dressed most of the time. And that was for a double reason, not just because that was the norm. It was also because after school hours, we spent an awful lot of time in the nightclubs of Montreal. So we’d work late in the studio and then we always ended every night by going out and having a beer before we went home. So we always had to be well dressed. The discotheques and things at the time were all places where you had to have a shirt and time and it was just the style. Towards the end of the sixties, with the Vietnam War having its effect on Canadian students, the dress got a lot more casual and we weren’t quite as formal as we were but it certainly would look like a different place in those days than it would look today for sure.


I had made a lot of friends at McGill over my years there and of course I remember a great number of the professors, most of them very fondly. I think all of us who were students of Peter Collins recognized a tremendous influence he had in teaching us history, to the point where a lot of us could visit cities in Europe, for example, and never need a map to find our way around. We’ d recognize the landmarks so well just from the way he engrained all that understanding of history and recognizing historical buildings. Norbert Schoenauer, a very gentle and kind person as well as a very good teacher, especially in the field of housing, became a very good friend over the years, and of course, is still teaching at McGill along with Bruce Anderson, a very close personal friend of mine, and Bruce and I also taught together at McGill, so he is a very, very good friend who I remember always with great fondness and Bruce and I keep in good touch with each other. I just wanted to mention one quite funny incident that people from my class remember with great humour, and it comes up just about every time we get back together again. I think when we were in third year, Gordon Webber decided that he would start a little sub-course to his design course called Motion in Space, which involved getting all of us great lumbering ex-football players, or trying to get us, into tights to perform a kind of modern ballet on a regular week. Well, we weren’t exactly the best students in this department and we used to warm up for it by going down to the Mansfield Tavern and quaffing down a table full of ale before we got on the floor. However, there were one or two students in our class that decided that they would go along with this idea and appeared in tights and it probably put most of us off sex for a year or two because the guys that chose to dress that way were probably the last guys in the world that should have done it. Anyways, we understand that the course met its rightful death and I’m not sure that they had carried it on past one more year after. We were the initiates, so to speak.


I graduated in 1969 from McGill and I was very fortunate to be the Pilkington Scholar that year. That, of course, is a prize that no longer exists but at that time, it was a very prestigious award, which, after graduation, opened many, many doors. This was a prize, which was based on a competition between all the schools of architecture in Canada and they took the two top theses from each school and had a juried competition and the winner won the Pilkington Travel Award. Having won that, Bruce Anderson asked me if I would take the following year and give him a hand for one year at the School of Architecture, so I decided to do that and spent one year as a lecturer for 1969 and ’70. It’s one of the reasons why so many of the people at the school have remained such good friends with both myself and my wife.


After 1970, I probably could have stayed in the academic world, but I really felt that my interest lay more in the actual practice of architecture. And I’ d also been living in the centre of Montreal and it was becoming quite political, as we all are aware, and my wife and I just decided we needed to get out of the big city for a while. So we went back to the Prairies, ostensibly for a summer, and changed form having twenty restaurants outside our doors and all the conveniences of Montreal to living in a place where we had to fetch our own water and outdoor facilities, etc. It was a tremendous change but very interesting. And I got a very good job, my first job outside of teaching, with Gordon Arnett, a well-known architect from Saskatchewan. Interestingly as we do this interview, Gordon passed away just last week, a very, very good friend of mine, and well known in Canadian architectural circles. He’s infamous to me because he is the only guy that ever laid me off, and he had to; work was very short in the Prairies. And within a day, he and another one of his associates had arranged for me to move to another firm of architects in Regina who were struggling with a very large commission for the University of Regina. And that was being directed by Jack Lung, who was a graduate student from the planning school at McGill. Jack at that time was the design advisor for the Wascana Centre Authority in Regina who’d looked after this very large tract of very well developed area around the parliament buildings and the university. So I got as a kind of first commission, and I was only about 26 years old, I got a mixed-use project for the university and I became the senior designer on that project. So I – it was a fascinating building, one of the first mixed-use buildings for a university with classrooms and residences and restaurants, etc. all in the same complex. And my training at McGill in the last few years had all been oriented to working on those type of multi-use buildings, so it was right down my alley and I enjoyed it very much. In those days, that was about 1971, that was a five million dollar project. That would be a fifty million dollar project today, just to get a kind of comparison in its value. So it was a pretty big piece of work for a young kid. But the Pilkington really had helped me open those kind of doors.


So I stayed in Saskatchewan to finish that and then after I was done the design, while it was being completed, while the working drawings were being completed, I actually took my Pilkington Scholarship and used it and went to Europe for a few months. I came back to help that building kind of get into the ground and by the end of that summer, I realized that I really needed to get back to a big city again and get back more into the mainstream of the architectural profession. By complete coincidence, one of the fellows I was working with had gone to school with one of the partners of Webb Zarafa. And this partner was flying out to Vancouver working on something in Coal Harbour, I think, for Izzy Sharp of Four Seasons and he just stopped into Saskatchewan to visit his friend and asked him if he knew anybody that had some design capability that was interested in moving to Toronto because Webb Zarafa was absolutely blooming in those days. And he said, “I know just the guy”. And just to make a long story short, it wasn’t more than a couple of months but I was down in Toronto. So that was in the spring of, in May of1972. At the end of 1972, I was asked to become a partner of Webb Zarafa and I did that and stayed there for five years until 1977. In 1977, two of the other designers from Webb Zarafa and myself started a new firm in Toronto and that firm is now just starting its twentieth year.


There are a tremendous number of things that I am very pleased about in the education that I received at McGill. I think some of the things that I started off with first I’m using now more in the latter part of my career and I’ll touch on that in just half a second. One of the things that was terrifically useful was that at the time that I was there in the sixties with Expo going on and the subway going on and Montreal being really at the forefront of developing large scale projects on transportation nodes, especially ones of a multi-use variety, it became almost a specialty for me. And that was the role that I took over both in my first commission, which I referred to earlier today, and also that was my role at Webb Zarafa, I was the designer for many of the large mixed-use projects that they were working on at that time.


But in the years which have followed that real boon time of the seventies, the practice has changed very, very substantially and to this point today where we really don’t find a lot of the work that kept a lot of us alive in those days being that prominent. I mean, the last hotel I did was in1990 and we were known as a hotel firm. The last office building I did, of a major variety, was finished in the early nineties. And you know, that kind of work isn’t out there. What people have had to do is have to adjust rapidly to the area of high tech where there is a tremendous amount of work going on. So we moved in the early eighties into the field of computer centers and developed a lot of technology and learned some of the technology associated with that. We also went into the field of bio-science and pharmaceutical science, another high tech field with a tremendous amount of engineering input, and of course, that field today is a field where there is a lot of work and it takes a tremendous amount of skill and it takes a lot of engineering knowledge. I often remember our old Structural professor, who we all loved so dearly, that there were a lot of Frank Lloyd Wrights that got lost in the Engineering courses at McGill.


I’m very pleased that we came from an era when we had those courses, because you’ll have heard over the years a lot of complaints about people that were from McGill with its very heavy emphasis on engineering, it has been a tremendous boon for me, and I had, just because I had a good backing in knowing how to speak with people that are involved in high technical fields. Today, I am able to walk into a room full of engineers on a major pharmaceutical project and I can understand most of the things that they are talking about. And I have to be able to do it because the architecture still is the really creative part of the process and you have to have that background in order to be able to work with these people. We’ve also now moved very heavily into the airport - field of international airport design, again, a field that has a lot of technology associated with it.


I suppose in conjunction, of course, with the nature of the way that buildings are changing and becoming so highly technical. We also have the fact that our practice has changed from a technical standpoint. We were one of the earlier firms in Ontario to move heavily into full computerization. Though a lot of new graduates don’t like to hear it, it is here and it’s here to stay. A practice like mine fifteen years ago would be probably a firm of forty people. Today we’ re able to do that with much fewer. It’s not a good thing to say about the employment scene but it’s a very good thing to say to young students who may think that all of these things are not so important in their careers. They’re tremendously important to the point that most firms today wouldn’t consider taking anybody in as an employee unless they were fully computer-literate. It’s the only way of working. We have tremendous pressures put on us from a time standpoint. In the old days, when you had to erase a drawing, you could tell the guy you couldn’t have it for two weeks. Today, you have to turn that drawing out overnight. It’s got to be on somebody’s desk the next morning. The computer has absolutely revolutionized the practice of architecture and it continues to do so. As you know, we are now doing a tremendous amount of modeling using the computer where we produce three-dimensional images. In fact, we’re producing video images of schemes; letting people walk through them, travel through them, etc. These things were all unheard of probably fifteen years ago. The change has been dramatic and rapid. So I would say, if there are any areas which really needed to be concentrated on in universities today is to not shirk the technical responsibility and the technical teaching as well as the artistic and all of those things that we all love to talk about as architects. Those are very important. And also to absolutely make sure that the students are getting well versed in the techniques, which are the techniques we use in an office today. I think most McGill graduates form the past will tell you that we were useful in an office the day we got out of McGill. And that really was the truth. We were well versed, we all knew how to draw, we certainly all knew how to work because we had to work very hard when we were students. Today, if you wanted to do the comparative thing, if we just had our old McGill education, today we would not be a useful person immediately into an office because we simply wouldn’t have the tools that you need to practice architecture today. It may sound like a bit of a harsh comment, but I think it’ s a real comment and those of use who have survived some very tough times in the last few years in this profession in this country have done so because we have been able to adapt and make adjustments to a very new world very rapidly.