Nora Hanessian

B.Sc.(Arch.) 1986
June 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson

I didn’t grow up knowing any architects. I didn’t exactly even know, this is going to sound awful, what a two by four was, I mean, in the real sense of the word. I, you know, I knew it was a construction term. So I kind of came from a very science-oriented background, family and all that. But I always liked houses and I always had a certain- you know, on family trips, I was fortunate, we traveled a lot. My father, being a professor, we took a sabbatical in Europe. So I appreciated the surroundings and houses and buildings and textures and I guess, the bottom line of that was design, was architecture. So the story actually, I was telling a friend this last night, that it was the last day of registration. And I had thought about architecture but I didn’t really know what it was. And I had done career days and all that. But I also was involved in sports. So McGill, the school that I was looking at, didn’t have a sports- I didn’t want to be a phys. ed. teacher, I wanted to study movement in sports. So I guess the design of sports. So sort of biology I was thinking of. Anyway, the last day I was there with my mom, came from the West Island and you know distance downtown. And she was waiting for me and I was just flipping through the book and Architecture, what do I do? You know, this was my life you were talking about, let alone not knowing that things would change and it’s not all cast in stone. But she finally said, “I’m going to just go down to the car. I mean I’m leaving in ten minutes. If you don’ t just put something down on that application form, I’m out of here!” So I went to the desk, and the lady had seen me for some time and said, “What is the problem? What are you trying to apply for?” And I said, “Well, I’m thinking of architecture but also biology” . And she said, “Oh, architecture”, she says, “that’s really hard. They don’t take too many. You won’t get in”. So I said, “Oh, okay. Number one choice”. Anyway, it was a mixture of some interest but just, you know, trying to get into an all-encompassing education not really knowing where I was going to go after that.


What year was that approximately? 19-?

’83, I started.

’83. And did you just get accepted like that? I mean you put your application in and you got accepted?


It’s as simple as that.


Good. And McGill only because, I guess, it was convenient. It was at home.

Yeah, I mean, I think, I look back and I think I was young. You know, I know a lot of kids go away, but maybe in Quebec that doesn’t happen as much as in the States. So it worked for me. I mean I was still involved in swimming and coaching and the base here of home and roots and all that. So it made sense just to go- I mean, McGill has a wonderful name and a beautiful campus and all that and it was in a way, it was sort of going away from home because I grew up away from the downtown core, so it was nice to have that balance at that time.


So, you got into architecture, and you don’t have to do this in a chronological order but are there any classes or professors that you remember that had an influence on your life or otherwise either negatively or positively?

I think the first day probably stands out. Drummond, Derek Drummond was the dean at the time and, you know, first day of university is overwhelming as it is. So I think we were about fifty at the time. And he actually gathered us all. What stands out from Derek, and it’s weird at this time being ten years later to call him Derek, but Professor Drummond, is he told us that getting into architecture- how did he put it? He said there was- getting into architecture, we were all basically- in order that we got in, we were all at a certain percentage, and you know, that’s why we were chosen. So let’s say we were in the top, whatever, ten, fifteen percent grades-wise. And he says, “But you have to realize that there will be a number one and a number fifty. And keep that in mind because that can be a difficult thing to remember because you were all at a certain point in terms of academics”. So I remember those words stayed with me for the three, four years because it was important to remember that you weren’t going to be just where you were coming in.


Because eventually, the classes get, I guess they get boiled down, to use a colloquialism. I mean, in the sense, you don’t have the same fifty people who graduated in the same year as you that joined you in the beginning.

Well, some people dropped after one year, but I guess the point is that not everybody can be number one.


And that was something just to feel and to remember and not to take it personally because, you know, it’s a tough programme. And it’s a tough programme in that it’s a very subjective thing to some degree. You’re up there and the way it was at McGill at least, you know, you’re really sort of working, working, working around the clock and then there goes your work and it’s judged, you know. So I think that’s one thing that’s stayed with me also and maybe set the pace for gaining a little bit of confidence at a time when you’re still growing, you know, in your early twenties and all that. So I think Drummond had a knack to sort of touch down to the students at that level. I think he had a nice quality to relate to young people.


Did he ever teach you while you were there?

Yeah, I had him. Yeah, he had a lot of humour and that. And Covo, you know, what a character!

Was David teaching you at one time too?

I had David Covo.


I think first year, yeah. And John Schreiber stands out also. I studied, I went into Master’s in Landscape Architecture after and that was, I think, influenced by John Schreiber and the way he talked about sort of understanding the whole site and the land and not just the building, which made sense to me. Although I didn’t complete the Master’s, other things happened and I didn’t complete it, but I did practice in landscape architecture a little bit and I think now I’m more in interiors. And so that, I think came out as a result of early days at McGill where we studied the building but then there was an appreciation for what goes beyond and then what goes inside and I think the whole things makes sense. So those two stand out.


How about- do you remember Sketching School? Did you ever have to go to Sketching School?

Oh yeah!

You obviously have memories of it. Who, I guess, which professors was it?

It was Tondino.

Gerry Tondino.

Covo went. Yeah, I mean, Tondino, I don’t know if he’s still there even.

I think he’s retired now. He’s sick.

Retired. Yeah, what a guy. Yeah, Sketching School, at the time, you know, it was sort of oh gosh, Sketching School. You have to get to school early and you sort of break up your summer. But once everybody was there, you know it was a great experience really unique to the school. A lot of rain.

A lot of rain. That’s your memory of Sketching School!

A lot of rain.

Who taught you history in those years? Was it Annmarie or-? Not Annmarie Adams.

No. Schoenauer.

Oh Schoenauer, Norbert, okay.

Norbert Schoenauer. Yeah, sure, gosh, an expert there. And Castro, maybe?

Oh yeah, okay.


Yeah. They’re both still there, although Norbert now is retired. He’s emeritus, I guess, professor. He teaches one course there now. So I’m just trying to think of some of the others that might have influenced you. You mentioned earlier that some of the Engineering professors were-.

Yeah, I think that’s it. There was a nice balance because at the time we were still in the Engineering building. So one teacher really, I think stood out. And I think she was only there for a term was Frances Bromet. And she was a teacher at Vanier. And I’d heard that actually from other friends now who said that it was because of her at Vanier that they went into architecture and went to McGill. She just, gosh, had a lot, a lot of energy and conviction and just a lot of spark.


Was she one of the professors in the engineering aspect of architecture?

I don’t remember. It was Strength of Materials or something. She just made it easy because a lot of those courses were, you know, a little intimidating at first. And of course David Selby. I think he- yeah, keep it simple stupid! He’ s great.

He almost could have a programme on television. I mean you could just see him because he’s got that sort of odd personality. I mean, he’s sort of almost a natural comedian in some ways.

Doesn’t even know it I think but yeah.

No, I don’t think he knows it. I would almost say he had sort of an agricultural sort of sense too because you could picture him- he’d be more comfortable on a farm. However, I guess everybody’s memory of him is quite positive. I’m trying to think, John Bland wasn’t there, of course, at the time.

He had already retired.

Yeah, yeah.

Yeah, he had already retired. You know, I see it as a little unfortunate. I don’ t know if whether at the time had I maybe pushed a bit because I know that there were certain profs there who maybe geared the projects in different directions. I didn’t have Anderson and Peter Rose. And at the time, I was kind of happy because I heard that they were pretty tough. But, you know, looking back, I think that would have added a little bit more balance to what I was doing because I really, I was sort of on a- all my projects, I think, were residentially-based. And that just sort of was coincidence that it fell. I had Hanganu…

Oh yeah, Dan Hanganu, yeah.

… which was nice because he’s...


Was he a good professor? Was he helpful to you in terms of-? I guess he taught you, what, design or was he involved in-?

Yeah. He was I think our design prof in third year I had him. Yeah, yeah. He lended another aspect to things because he was really much more in the practical world. You know, he was out there practicing. So-

And he had a reputation for quality design, which is not always the case with some of the architects. I’m trying to- Go ahead.

Yeah, no, I was just thinking, ‘cause I did got to- I started this Master’s at Penn after and I think what struck me most was that there was a real balance and mixture in the States of profs from all areas. And at the time, that wasn’t the case at McGill. I know now it’s changed. So that probably adds just a little more flavour.


I think the problem is money. Because they don’t have that problem to the same degree because they have some endowments. A lot of the universities in the US sort of can bring in professors who are also practicing architecture. But McGill is having a dilemma because of course the government has cut back so much of the funding that in fact, they are losing professors.

I see.

That’s unfortunate. Out of all those four, five years- was it five? It was longer than that at the time-

Four years.

Four years. Is there any memory that you have other than the general memories or any particular course or event that occurred while you were there?

Well, actually, you know, you speak of this and the event was actually a very negative event because it was a very sad event. So I mean, unfortunately, when there’s something that traumatic that happens, that’s what stands out but a classmate passed away actually in second year. So when I think of McGill and I try to think of an event, that’s probably where all of us go was that. And that was very sudden. Anyway, so it kind of also brought everybody together. I guess, as a graduating class, we had been through something together with the teachers. So you get outside of the classroom and we, you know, bussed it to Ottawa for the funeral and there was a lot shared there between all of us and we kind of came back with a maybe a tighter-knit feel, which is good, I mean, because a lot of the times in architecture, I think it ends up a little-

In cliques.

Cliques. Segregated and that’s difficult to take on. But so obviously, that’s something that stays there. But I guess just positive, overall is, because you spend so much time together, there are some relationships developed even between professors and students. And, you know, students and I’ve maintained them and they’ve become- some of the kids become best friends, which, you know, sometimes doesn’t happen later in years because we develop friendships earlier in life, those really tight-knit friends. But I would say that a couple of my best friends are from school.


How about a little- a few words on your career subsequent to McGill.

Subsequent to McGill, I went and taught swimming! No I-

That makes sense!

Yeah, you know, I really- balance is key. And I think a lot of the professors showed me that, because Covo was a huge sailor and that also that was nice to see as an example. He was teaching but the sailing was really important to him. So I kept up with my swimming and I felt that that was encouraged by some of the professors also. So I had an opportunity when I graduated, actually, I wrote my exams early, and I went to teach the national synchronized swimming team in Holland, because I had been a synchronized swimmer and I kept up coaching when I was at McGill. So that was actually great because a lot of the, you know, History of Architecture sketches that we had drawn so meticulously, I saw them upon graduation but in the context of being in a sports team, which is nice. I didn’t have to do the backpack thing necessarily. I got to sort of see Europe through a sports team. So I did that for six months. And I had a little bit of a conflict because I had worked in architecture throughout the summers with Dimakopoulos and I had some nice experiences there. But then I was torn because then I had the opportunity to coach in Holland for the Olympics but I wanted to get this architecture thing going and try to get some experience. So I kind of did it back and forth for a few years. Went, came back, consulted, practiced here. There was work at the time. And I guess for about five years, I kind of did that. Spent more and more time here.


This was more or less in the late eighties?

Late eighties, yes. And then in ’91, I was working with a local firm here doing all these big curtain wall buildings that you see one after the other and everything stopped. So there was basically no more work. I had freelance jobs and I still do. I mean, there’s one there that I have to get to some time. But I had starting taking business courses and I liked the idea of business. I had coordinated the job with this last firm instead of just sitting behind the drafting table the whole time. And I had realized that I had some strength in terms of dealing with the people maybe organization of a project. So I kind of explored some jobs maybe relating to design and creativity but business, sales, you know, with that experience I had in coaching of trying to get a product you know or a goal met by a certain amount time. And now I’m still involved in the industry but sort of on the other side of the table with architects and designers consulting with interior space for an office furniture company, a very big office environment company out of the States. And it’s going well.


Are you still making costume jewelry?

My jewelry! Yeah, that was really cool, that. You see, again, that goes back to some of the profs at McGill. I remember in first year, Norm Slater-

Oh yeah, Norm Slater.

Gosh, I thought I was going to- yeah. And I think he was only there also very short-lived, but he said a few things in first-year design, which can be pretty influential. You know, you get in there and that’s where the seeds are laid. He talked about a spoon and he said how, you know, if you can design a spoon, you can design a building. So of course, anyway, I mean, I kind of took it with a grain of salt but I understood now. I mean it takes years sometimes to understand things. And yeah, it’s just I think about seeing things and understanding and appreciating design. So when I was working in architecture, all the little samples that we all throw out, I kind of grabbed because they related to, I guess, a deeper sense. When I was a little girl, I used to collect things, anything. Never use them but just collect them. And I started making brooches and just wore them to the office and had some nice feedback and then people said, “Well, can I buy one for my mother or-?’ And I started selling them at museum boutiques and that’s what I did, actually, when architecture kind of came to a crashing halt in Montreal. I continued with my school, some business courses, my freelance, and instead of just trying to get another job, because I wasn’t convinced, actually, that I wanted just to draw behind a drafting table, the, you know, the tiles upon tiles of a washroom of a twenty-one storey building. The jewelry opened a few doors into some nice sales opportunities and jobs relating to people and design. So I do that upon request, yeah.


So now you’re, I understand, you’re going back and taking an MBA.

Yeah, that MBA. That dreaded MBA. It’s scary.

You’ll feel a lot better when you’re through it then I’m sure.

Yeah, yeah, I’m going to do that. I think it will make a nice- if anything, I mean, I like learning. So, I’d like to just learn more and I think it will add a nice balance to the architecture. Mind you, the programme I find, if anything, when I tell people what I’m doing now and they say, “Oh, but that’s not architecture. You’re not using your degree”, I say, “Well, absolutely I am” . Because the school, you learn about everything from, you know, science to art to sociology to psychology. It covers everything. So I just think it’s a great education whether you use it to design buildings or not. You know, some of those professors there are prime examples. And Witold Rybczynski also taught, but I mean, he went on to write books. And I have a book in progress now with photography and that that I’ve taken through some of the travels from swimming and you know, so it’s all related. So the MBA is just a way maybe to…

Part of the relationships.

… continue my story.