Interview by Jim Donaldson
I thought about architecture when I was in grade 7 and we had- I grew up in Dorval, excellent teachers. One of my teachers was Jacques Benoit who taught us functions in grade 11 and he prompted a lot of students to go into Science in university. And we were a group of five that ended up going to Harvard, MIT in the end. But a lot of us went to Marianopolis. There we also had really good teachers. And the structure of education in Quebec, as we all know, is such that you go there and then you decide what you’re going to do. When I left, when I was thinking what to do after Marianopolis, after going through the Pure and Applied Health, it was either- it ended up for me as choices of either Medicine because it seemed a lot of my peers were, in consensus, were into that, or go to MIT. And I had that choice. And at the interview with McGill I was like, “Okay, what would you do if you got into MIT?” And he said, “Well, I’ d probably go”. So there I found myself on this track to go to the States. I thought that was a privilege to get into that place. So I came down to Boston, and found myself, you know, with all these new people. And I got quite a lot of transfer credit in Biology and so I found myself going into that stream. But I had really enjoyed Calculus, and Math and sort of ended up taking those courses. But the thing is, at MIT, you really have to be committed to a particular discipline. And it’s very similar, in a way, with McGill, because McGill requires people to make a- almost a career choice by the second year or third with their discipline inside of Microbiology, Biology, Physiology. And MIT’s in some respects, with Undergraduates, the same way. I think MIT is stronger in the Graduate because people should be committed by the time they get to Graduate School. But as an Undergraduate, where you really want to discover other things, I found myself looking and almost ruling out other possible career things. You know, computers: I’m not going to spend all my time in front of a computer screen.
And it was only when I got back to Montreal after MIT working at the Neuro that I, you know, I think in the comfort of home, that I made the decision that finally that what I was thinking about in grade 7, though high school. And as long as I can remember, I had always been drawing Christmas cards, birthday cards, things at home, and I felt that architecture for me would be a challenge for whatever abilities that I had. I felt that that was the best promise that I could imagine. And I spent almost a whole three months working on the portfolios when I applied to Waterloo, Toronto and McGill. And I got into Toronto first, and had an interview with Waterloo and I came to McGill, and I talked to, I sort of talked to Derek, Derek Drummond and to David Covo and sort of asked them, “well, is it possible to get some word on where my application was going?” And so here, you know, a few minutes later, David Covo came down and said that everything is fine and I’d get the letter. So I always remember David Covo as a sort of bearer of good news for me because it was really a transition for me, that I was definitely committed by that point in my life. I was twenty-four. And so I chose McGill because I was at home and because it seemed like for me it was sort of taking advantage of not going away anymore. I spent four years at MIT. In a way, I was a little unhappy because, I have a twin brother. So that was the first kind of crisis, you know, a year apart. And so I got to McGill.
I just wanted to ask you, when you were at MIT, did you get a degree, when you were at MIT initially, before you went back to McGill?
I left before I completely finished. And that was the other thing that I really had to decide for myself and for my parents that Architecture would be the good thing. So I could have returned to MIT and finished everything off, but I think for me, the best choice was to be in Montreal. And even though I was a commuting student, I’d be able to definitely concentrate on Architecture.
Well, I think I found myself in the class, I was in the first class that graduated from the new Macdonald-Harrington, I think is one way of putting it. My first year, it was understood, that it would be at the old sort of Civil Engineering building near the old James. So I remember really McGill as sort of these two memories, one in the old building and one in the new, and the consequence I think of moving. You know, first it was going to be the second year, then the third, and finally, it was our last year. So I remember, you know, Professor Zuk in his office at the old building, I remember him at the new building. And one of the consequences of moving was that, you know, Miss Anderson all of a sudden was in a different context, Miss Campoli was in a different context, Derek Drummond had an office, Bruce Anderson had something completely new. It was almost like moving into a bigger house, you know, almost like a kid where you go from a bungalow to a two-storey building. We had a place all for ourselves and I was in the class, of course, the last year, the U4 students, and we ended up being placed on the top floor. And I guess, my classmates, being creative, realized that one of the things to do with the steel structure was to put a swing in, and that carried through the whole year and people swung on the swing, and faculty came up and confiscated the cord. But it carried into the banquet, we had a banquet, and used this Fragonard painting called The Swing. And so that was the theme of our year, that, you know, here we were in the place with- you know, presumably serious, but also we had the swing and it was kind of therapeutic.
Those were the two studios, I guess, at the top, eh? The whole floor.
Yeah. So for us it was a- you know, we moved into a huge building with large exhibition space, facilities like computers, which we hadn’t had before and also for me the- I have some really great memories of McGill though. Professor Zuk, I think, for me was one to really boost my confidence. I did, I think, very well in his class. I remember that-
What was he teaching you at the time?
He taught me studio in second year. And I was at that time looking at modernists, I was looking at Corb, I was looking at Meier, and for me, I felt that he gave me the sort of the privilege or the ability to concentrate on the, let’s say the modernists without having- I always felt that I had to come back to some sort of more classical form. And I went ahead and sort of did work in that vein and felt that I was being promoted and encouraged. And so for me, that was one way, for me that was sort of the route that I took when I was at McGill. And of course, I went to- after, I ended up working at Richard’s but I think it was really through Professor Zuk’s encouragement that I was able to do that.
You said Richard’s? You were working at Richard’s?
At Richard Meier in New York.
It was for seven years.
Was that for the summer months or after you graduated?
Well, I went between my third and fourth years, the summer, I went there as an intern. And then I went back, when I graduated in September of ’88, a few months after I graduated. But I also remember other people. I would say, Studio was really the one thing that carried me. And Harvard is a design-based school, and so I think, McGill for me, I was definitely trying to make that- ‘cause I think the studio is really where all the courses come together. And Harvard calls them support classes, McGill, they’re the Engineering courses, which all have their value, but it’s really how you put all these things together in the studio. And Bruce Anderson, I must thank a lot for the first semester that he was Chair, where he brought in faculty and critics from outside. It was called the American Studio. And I had Professor Friedrich St. Florian from RISD as my first, sort of first module half-semester professor. And I think looking back, there were other things that really pushed me to consider landscape architecture. But Professor St. Florian with his theme of architecture evolution where I took it as meaning that you could prepare someone almost physiologically for, you know, how to move through your space, that you could create a sense where, let’s say the opening, the entrance to your space is all very bright and white, and that is the greatest physiological response for the eye because the eye gets constricted and the pupils get constricted. So when you introduce them to a dark room, that illusion of like if you want to make the space feel really big, nothing’s better to have almost like the person, you know, at a disadvantage for coming into that space, where it’s really the major black spots, sort of [unclear] black is the element that you read and gradually your eyes accustom to the space that you read all the details that you’ve kind of, sort of played into this. Professor St. Florian was really the one, I think, who pushed me to that. I think that is something that architecture really for the most part does not have. I feel that I had to go into Landscape Architecture to be able to somehow be able to carry that through. I also want to mention Julia Gersovitz, who as my thesis director, but she was also the second professor in that studio. She was one of the outside critics brought in for that, for Bruce Anderson’s initial studio. So those are the critics, I think, that I mentioned that I remember the most.
Do you remember a person called Gerry Tondino?
Gerry, one of your questions that I’m very happy that you segregated, almost put that in a class by itself, because the Sketching School was something that all of us really remember very, very much.
It’s an enduring type of memory of sort of a- it’s not a base camp, it’s more of a relaxing period.
It’s a base camp, it’s sort of boot camp, but at the same time, for a lot of us who went to the school, to McGill, it was a really the holiday that we had over the summer and it was a way for you to enjoy this sort of the ten days away from everything else. And in a way, introduced drawing as something that you should enjoy doing. We were held to producing work, but at the same time, it was supposed to be fun. I remember the first one, which was at La Malbaie, with Quebec City. That one, I think Professor Tondino couldn’t find a better place to have the Sketching School. I’m really happy it was the first one. La Malbaie is this place, somehow, for some reason, it’s subject to all these climatic changes that you could have grey clouds and rain come in for an hour, and then it will go into sunshine. You could have clouds that will go by at forty miles an hour. And you could be sitting across the river or across a valley, whatever, looking at hills. And you can- in the space of a half an hour, whatever time you’re there, the clouds will help you read what you are looking at. It will show the shadows of one hill against the other, one group of trees against the other, and then you don’t have a drawing reduced to just a simple form. That you realize that there is something about what you are looking at, there’s something about the shadows going across the landscape, that there’s more to drawing that than just the outline. And Professor Tondino stressed that, I think it was more than anything, that you are really not drawing an edge of a table, not drawing a table as an edge but you’re really drawing a table as a series of values. And I think bringing us to a spot like that was one of the most valuable pieces of instruction.
Who, Raphael, who was your sort of, who did you work with on your thesis? Did you have a particular professor associated with you?
I had Julia Gersovitz and Adrian Sheppard who were my thesis advisors. And I mean the last year was also a little different, not only did we move into a separate building, but we also had to find all these kind of relationships, almost these sort of landmarks that we had developed in the other building, we had to carry over to the new one. And there were things that were not completely finished, but Julia Gersovitz, I think, for me, had carried over from the second year. Both she and I were extremely delighted to have each other as sort of thesis student and teacher.
So you graduated, what, 1988?
I graduated in ’88, finally, with the B.Arch.
So I left McGill and for me, I was still able to come back for holidays to Montreal, but I found myself leaving McGill and Montreal. In a way, it was kind of healthy because I was in a new phase, and I found myself completely concentrating on work. But I went to New York and worked for Richard Meier for, in the end, it was seven years, almost eight years, but somehow the climate was very similar to what it was in school. And I found myself, you know, in a new office that had just gotten any number of commissions, and whether it was five or six, we had competitions to work on. So from the first day, it felt like a design partner in the office, whether it was Richard or Tom Pfeiffer, was really like the Studio critic. And we were asked to do different things and we had extremely long hours. For the first two years, I lived on [unclear]. And I would get in at seven o’clock and I would leave maybe at two o’clock. Not all that regularly, but there were many, many weekends I didn’t have a weekend day off ‘till Thanksgiving. From September- So September, October, November were spent essentially at the office. But I felt that I was privileged to be in an office where we had commissions. We had commissions at Cornell, we had commissions in Barcelona, commissions in Paris, we had commissions, the Getty. Later we had a house in Dallas and there was a company headquarters in Holland. So in a way, it was an education not only in what you had to sort of continue from your schooling, but you were exposed to, sort of the Spanish of Spain, we had an influx of French students, or French architects for Canal Plus in Paris, which I worked on for two years. And that was really one of the more prominent sort of works that I was involved in. And so I felt that, coming from McGill in a way, we had students from the US, we had students from other places, but it was really the strength that it was a Montreal-based school, prominent in Canada, but it wasn’t really open to sort of international projects, international scope. And I felt that being in New York, I was extremely lucky. I probably ended up speaking more French in New York, because of this French project than I would have in Montreal, working in Montreal. So here I found myself in New York and so I think the transition from McGill to work was really good for me.
I wanted to mention this before, that the studio terminology at McGill is called Design and Construction and I think that was very valuable that I had a sense of how these things got put together. And I ended up working a lot in some sense presentation drawings at Richard’s but also in working drawings. I think I got a good balance by the time I left I got a good balance, but there was no, I think, mistake that a lot of people who come into Richard’s feel that there are strengths that they have that are definitely capitalized on. And some people do models for a full year before they get to do anything else. And I ended up doing a lot of site plans in my first year because of all these projects. But over time, I think, sort of my patience, I benefited from it that finally, by the time I left, I was given more responsibilities. And that’s when this other house came in, this house in Dallas, the Rachofsky House came in. And so I was pretty lucky, that not only was I exposed to projects that I couldn’t imagine being exposed to in other offices, but also, I was there when the range of projects was such that, my first one, this French one, allowed me to work on different phases and finally when I- in later years, I worked on a project that I was able to get involved in sort of more responsibilities, working with consultants and working on- and having more things to deal with.
So did you go from Richard’s office to Harvard?
Yeah. The other thing, the other consequence is that 1988, the economy was very good. Richard knew that and all his commissions came in and he wanted to keep the office at a certain size, but I came in, there was about forty-five people, most of them right out of school, hardly anybody over the age of forty. So it was- you know people out of Cornell, out of Harvard, out of Yale, out of Princeton. So I was exposed to them as well, which is really, I think, very lucky. But the other thing about projects that come into an office like that, were Richard wanted to keep things small, that he really didn’t take on any other huge projects afterwards. So these projects went from schematics, conceptual, competition sort of scale, through design development, finally through construction drawings, through shop drawings. So we ended up sort of being in the office almost like on a wave where the first few years were schematics, and we saw how projects- but we saw not only one project, we would go from one to the other, but really four or five. And these projects carried all the way through the time I left. But the result of this is that we saw other small projects and we had you know, schematics going on every once and awhile, but we also saw sort of these phases change and we saw where our commitment, our time commitment varied quite a bit. By the time we got to shop drawings, construction drawings, we really couldn’t take more than nine, ten hours of making revisions, red lining, things like that. So we ended up having- you know, those of us who were there from the start working twelve, fourteen or more hours per day, we found ourselves with, let’s say, considerable more free time. And because we had all come out of a design-based kind of education, we felt that we had to spend our time, you know, doodling and drawing. And a lot of us ended up doing smaller competitions on the side. And somehow, whether it was the ones that were available or the ones I was attracted to, but a lot of them that I ended up working on were ones that had landscape component. And I think it’s through that that I realized that there’s more for me to a building than just sort of the fact that it’s an object, but really it’s the relationship that there can be an active [unclear] interpretation of the site rather than a passive one. Richard’s was a good office for, I think also being introduced to landscape in the sense that he was very- the site was always sacred and he was able to interpret then where the views were and that there was a strong sense of perspective that from the inside, you had to be able to look out and there had to be something about the outside that you want to look at. So houses like this one that’s in Connecticut, you were directed in the orthogonal but as soon as you go through the front door, you’re on a diagonal. And that diagonal leads through the house, so there’s a fireplace on the right side and leads you through the diagonal through views of the coast and the ocean. And I think that for me was a good preparation but it was really these competitions that somehow made me feel that it was something that I really should look at carefully and it’s something that I really could dabble on, dabble at, you know, in an office in a few hours in the evening, but really, I think I had to spend two years of my life really getting into.
And for me the make-or-break thing that finally convinced me was coming here for a summer course. It was just a one-week, it was one week of my vacation, some of that four, and it wasn’t [unclear], which would have been a six-week commitment, it was just a one-week commitment with a bus, a landscape architect and a faculty member here. And it was called Garden Workshop and it was looking at projects in Boston and also designing or, you know, trying to address a site. And for me who was coming in as an architect- you know, there are letters that you write home, whether it’s from school in the first few days, but I remember the first one that I wrote the day before I came for this workshop and I knew that, you know, I said to my brother, whatever, “this could be a glorious waste of time but it’s only a week”. But by the time I finished that course, a faculty member said, “you should come back, do a Master’s”. I got so much encouragement from them that-
So then you actually came back.
So then I went back to New York and I knew that I had to produce a portfolio. And so from September through February, until almost the last few days until it was due, I did some new projects, I entered a competition and I formatted this portfolio and submitted it and you know, finally had this opportunity to come to Harvard, which was a dream for me from the days when I was a kid. It was also, it was in something that I really felt very confident that it was going to be worthwhile. So that’s how I got to Harvard for Landscape.
Well, I think this next phase now, thinking about how the school prepared me and what, I think, the changes that might have occurred in the last few years, coming to Richard’s, and I’ll just go back to this for a moment, and I think it might be a [unclear], that I think in every office, there’s a tendency for the person hiring to fill a need or whole that they’ve got open. And I think very often, students don’t find that they get the full breadth of the experiences unless they’re there for a while and convince someone or another that there’s room to change and grow. These days, I think with the advent of AutoCAD and computerization of offices, that distinction between the server and the served, I think, is being such that people are asked whether they have AutoCAD training and that becomes really the means by which a student enters an office, I think at the detriment to some of the design skills that they might have. I think there are schools that may have a strong design sense, and I think McGill has one. I think Harvard does as well. And I think it’s unfortunate for offices to sort of place students, kind of determine their sort of need in those kind of terms, whether it’s computer competence. Things that I- but all of this is really, you know, kind of, I think, a side issue, because we all enter the profession at some point. The thing with McGill I think that they should try to consider is, a lot of students come in very early and at a young age in comparison to American schools where here invariably you can be with an Undergraduate degree and you’ ve got this core, core background, whether it’s in Literature, Histories… That because you’re so young that I think you need to have the exposure to what the profession could be, that you don’t have the years before you or behind you having worked as an intern one summer or other. And there might be something, I think it would be a great thing, let’s say, going to Arcop for a visit, going to see what the profession really is before you actually graduate. I felt here that going on exchange with the school in Versailles was very helpful. Not only do you see projects in France sort of first hand, but you also go into the context where these things were actually done. You know, what kind of school, what kind of scenario, what kind of setting actually generates the landscape projects in France. So I would suggest going- there might be, you know, any number of things that could be done, whether it’s through the Internet or visits, there are visits to New York and Chicago. And I’m gong to bring in one thing that I was real sad about, that I was there for seven years and I was always hoping that David Covo would come with a class; I’d get a call and be able to give them a tour. ‘Cause I think I lived there for a long time and I think I got to know New York pretty well. But I think there’s also something that there’s always so much you can do in a few days that, you know, you can’t bring students to an office and might be in a position. And that might be more of a- the Canadian character that you really shouldn’t impose on people but I think McGill should take advantage, look at the alumni’s resources, not only in Montreal but elsewhere. You know, you can consider a trip to London, I bet you can have, you know, Mark Pimlott or Tom Garepis host a few students or find places for them to stay really inexpensively. So that’s one thing that I think is extremely valuable, sort of to really see projects in the true- not just in books but in real life.
The other thing that I really want to talk about is that maybe there’s something about McGill looking at a longer-term programme. It was six years then it was five now it’s four. There may be some benefit to having maybe an extra semester or two.
It’s the four and two now I guess.
Yeah. Oh, it’s four two now.
Yeah. I’m not quite sure whether that’s- anyhow I don’t want to-
One other suggestion I want to make, and this is with a little bit of reservation, because I think one thing about McGill is that landscape architecture doesn’t really exist as a profession in Quebec. But there has been faculty teaching at McGill who have been landscape architects and architects at the same time. But I would suggest students consider landscape architecture, that there’s a whole- it’s, you know, it’s kind of a sideline, it’s a little different from architecture but it’s something that a lot of architects I think are going into. There are several faculty here at Harvard who are architects who went into landscape architecture. I would suggest to McGill that there could be in the History sequences a look at landscape projects, that if you look at French 17th century architecture, if you look at any number of things at that time, you look at Le Nôtre, you look at projects like Vaux-le-Vicomte, you look at Versailles, but more things like Vaux-le-Vicomte, which for- when you go there you realize that there’s a piece of architecture but there’s also a gigantic amount of landscape architecture, which talks about- this is where landscape architecture departs, I think, from architecture, it’s that there and France [unclear] here, more than anywhere else, but France, 17th century, Vaux-le-Vicomte represented everything that was known about science. That there were pools through channels of water that talk about [unclear] skies really how do you get some understanding of what there is out there.
And I think landscape architecture departs from architecture in that there are a lot of these dreams, these kind of irrational things that you dream about that can be points of departure for projects. And that’s the strength, I think, that you can dream in a way that doesn’t commit you to materials as we know them, that there’s I think a greater sense of things that can be done. Sort of using things that are really not thought about, that you can- the palette is gigantic. It can be anything from architecture to blank materials. So I would suggest to McGill somehow to introduce landscape architecture in some form, whether it’s through History or maybe there’s a Studio, maybe there’s someone from one’s firm, a landscape architect. You know, I would maybe even recommend Bridget Shim coming in for a review because she and her husband, Howard Sutcliffe, have a strong practice where the two of them, these two disciplines are integrated into one approach to projects. So that’s really what I wanted to say. Thank you very much.