Lucien Lagrange

B.Arch. 1972
Chicago, IL
November 5, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson

Well how- the question, you know, how did I get started with architecture, yes, it’s a very long story but I left France on my own when I was eighteen years old in 1959 and came to Montreal because they would speak French, so it would make it easier to come across to see- to get on a boat with a suitcase. And I started to- I was a dropout of high school in France. And I came to Montreal, got jobs, got jobs. There are some interesting stories about that. I won’t tell you what they are. But I got jobs and at one point in life, and I’m not quite sure what made me do it, but I wanted to go into architecture. To know exactly why it came on me when I was twenty, I don’t quite understand myself why, but suddenly, I had a desire really very strong to go into architecture. But it was hard to get back to a university because I never finished my high school. So I had to finish high school by taking a night class and night courses in Montreal. And then I finally got accepted at Sherbrooke University for the first year of engineering. And Sherbrooke was a very progressive school. After my first year of engineering, then I got accepted at McGill, which was my first choice, to go- to get to McGill to learn architecture. And therefore, being born 1940, I left France in the spring of ’59 when I was eighteen and I went back to school, I was twenty-five. And I was an older student at the time because most of the students would be finished with school at that, twenty-five, twenty-six. So I was an older student and I was a student with experience being worked.


Why architecture? My father- I was raised on a farm in the South of France, in Provence. But my father was really a mason. He went back to be a mason and maybe that was, being raised in France and a mason father might have been an influence why I went into architecture. It was very thoroughly difficult to get back to school and I’d been supporting myself from the time I was eighteen, I went back and started school, so-. And then, because I worked before, I could draw, I was a draughtsman, it was easy for me to get jobs with an architect’s office. And in 1968, and this guy Derek- no, not Derek, Wilson, Stu Wilson pushed me to get a job with an architect and go to the big-time architects and get a job. And then I decided to come down to Chicago. I wanted to see Chicago.


Well Stuart Wilson was very involved with the students, talking about all the star architects. And it dawned on me that what I might do instead of getting odd jobs I should really work for the good firms. And it’s really, it’s Peter Collins. The story is interesting because it involves Peter Collins. And I did something very interesting in Peter Collins’s class and he liked what I was doing. And he gave me a book and on the book, there were three initials: S.O.M. And at the same time, I made some connections with Mies van der Rohe’s office that was doing the Westmount Square in Montreal, because we were doing some shop drawings for a curtain wall company and had the chance to meet some of the people from Mies’s office. So that spring, being told by Stu, I called the office of Mies van der Rohe and said, “ I want a job and I want it for you guys, in your office”. Well, they said, “We’re really busy but we don’t have enough work really to take a student on and we’re committed to take other students we can take from AIT in the summer, but we could help you to get a job either with C.F. Murphy or SOM. And right away, I said, well, I decided to go with SOM because there was a book published about SOM that Peter had given to me. So I went to work for- I said, “I’ll work for SOM!” And the only reason was that book that Peter had given me, so he had changed my whole life! And- but the office of Mies van der Rohe made a strong recommendation for me to get some work in the summer of ’68 with Skidmore, Owens and Merrill. And from the beginning, because I was older, because I was a very quick draughtsman, I moved up very quickly when I was a student. I could take jobs and do them so I was put as a designer right away and I started a relationship with Bruce Graham, which was a great mind, great architect.


But going back to my education, I can come back to it, so- going back to my education, the way I see it, Peter Collins was very important, absolutely important in my education. And I see three ways: Peter gave me something, the school also as a whole gave me something else, and the third part of my education, because I had to complete my education, I mean SOM gave me, and Bruce Graham, I learned how to put buildings together, the art of putting buildings together, which is not quite- it’s part of architecture but it’s not architecture. Peter Collins told me how to think about architecture and that’s really what- for the rest of my life, I will have great respect for Peter because he really- that’s what he was teaching, how we should think about architecture. He was the only one who really- and then the other part I got from McGill was, at the time, in the late sixties, early seventies, there was a great push about housing in the world, in Canada, in the States. There was Norbert Schoenauer, very involved, mostly, the most involved, teaching, learning, studying housing. And that’s something I have kept all the time. I have a great interest in it. I’m using it today in some of the major projects that I’m doing in 1997. I have a lot to do in Chicago with residential, prop-residential, multi-family residential projects; I’m talking three thousand, two thousand units. But Peter was the one who guided me to a more- the logic about thinking, working architecture.


You mentioned Stuart Wilson. Did he play a continuing role in your career, I mean, your student days?

Stuart was for all of us, Stuart was very important for all of us because he’ s the one who’d make us work hard, stay up at night. He was a slave driver. But he did teach us really what it was to work in an office, an architectural office, and more technically-oriented for the students. But I think it was more on the technical side of architecture than design. Bruce Anderson was totally at the other end of design, the design spectrum. That’s why I ended up by being- and I thought it was very important for me my summers with SOM and Bruce Graham, because that’s really how I learned how to put buildings together. And right away, I started to work with forty-storey projects. And if you know how to go about design, the process of designing a forty-storey tower, then you know how to do any other project because all the architectural systems or the structural systems to make the building are there. You have to work with that. The process of design, I learned with SOM. The thinking came from McGill.


And with Peter Collins, I was fascinated by his lectures. And Peter Collins was very, very knowledgeable about the French renaissance. And then I also read all his books, which are fascinating books too. But I was fascinated by his teaching, which really wasn’t teaching as such, but-. And he had exams, and I wasn’t doing too well on his exams at the very beginning. So in the second year, he was showing problems on slides and we had to write about the problem. And suddenly, I took my pen, I wrote everything I knew about what he was showing us. And part of it was Westmount Square. And some of the details- Peter didn’t know that Westmount Square was concrete structure. He thought it was a steel structure because it was clad in aluminum or metal. I had to tell him. And he lives a few blocks away. But I wrote everything I could, because I would read a lot about architecture. It was [unclear]. And the way Peter would grade the exam was he would take how many facts we’d give about the problem and then- and would compile all the possible facts about the problem. And let’s say there’ s ten facts, ten you can say about. Anybody who has three, four or five would have made three or four or five points. So he would grade against each other. Well, in that exam, suddenly, I jumped over everybody, I got like 85%, but the problem was everybody went down to 65. So all the big brains in school, because there’s always a few that are really more intelligent; they do better, better marks and you know. And they were really much younger so a grade to them was very important. To me, grades were totally meaningless. Knowledge of what I wanted to do was beyond grades. So suddenly, I got those high marks and everybody’s got low marks. The difference was just about twenty points. And there was almost a revolution because everybody was upset about it, how come I got high marks and he didn’t get high marks? It’s because I knew more about it. And Peter had a hard time convincing, telling everybody what I did and how I did it. I was fascinated by architecture. I would travel, read, look, analyze, which I still do, and that’s what happened. And that’s when it became a very- an issue in the school with- a lot of students went to protest to Peter that, “I should get a high mark”... They should get a high mark because, you know. And that’s really what happened with Peter.


Well, when I graduated in ’72, before I went to work, I went back to France. I was done with my schooling, my degree. And meanwhile, I managed in the first twelve years to be a draft dodger from the French government, because I didn’t want to go and fight in Algeria and shoot some Algerian with some guns and stuff. So I went back to France. I went to court and I fought the French government and I did win so I was let go, which is a vastly- it’s an interesting story. But I went back to France to fight and then I was allowed to go back to France at my will and not to be bothered by the French army. And then I came back to Montreal and I started to work with Norbert Schoenauer. He was doing a new city in Northern Quebec because of again a passion somehow for multi-family residential housing, which I think is a great- it’s a very complex issue to work. It goes beyond architecture. So I worked with Norbert for about a year. And then, my heart wasn’t in my assignment. It had always been with Chicago. Once you come to Chicago, I thought I could never get away from Chicago. So, there was a large project that SOM was commissioned to do in Montreal, which was Canadian Pacific and Bank of Montreal together. So I joined SOM one more time and went to work with them on this project. And then a year later, came back, came to Chicago, stayed a while, went back to Montreal, opened an office under my name to work on a large project where SOM again was the planner, the urban planner. And in ’76, no in ’78, we closed the office and I came to, I came to work and stay in Chicago. There’s too much excitement, there’s too much architecture. It’s always very difficult just for what I wanted to do to stay away from Chicago. I mean that’s what’s happening. It has always been an exciting city spatially. The first time I was here in ’68, ’69, the Hancock was under construction. A lot of very outstanding buildings were designed in Chicago at the time. So finally I decided in ’78 I’m going to come to Chicago and stay. And then I worked with SOM from ’78 ‘till 1985, when I decided to open my own office in ’85. Licensed in the States, member of the AIA. And the transition from school to work was very easy because, although school took me, from the first time I went back to the time I finished was seven years. I went into school at twenty-five, I took a year off in 1970, graduated in 1972. So it took me seven years to go from the beginning to the end. And then from ’72 to ’78, I worked between Montreal and Chicago. ’78, I decided to come and stay in Chicago. Worked with SOM. I did some major projects from five million square feet to forty-storey towers. I did the one- I was the designer of the building we are in. Five million square feet in LA, a building with six hundred apartments in Europe, a transportation centre, hotels, a very diversified hotel with motel, hotel, apartment building, parking structure, office building, retail.


I wanted to ask you, Lucien, what was the decision that you processed to go on your own, having worked on all that? I’m sure you could have stayed with SOM and made a nice living, but it was a-.

I could have stayed with SOM but SOM became- as I was saying, the late sixties, early seventies was an exciting time. But architecture had changed. We don’t do architecture the same way today that we did twenty, thirty years ago and ten years ago. And architects or large architectural offices are very bureaucratic; they do “jobs”. And it’s managed in a way that the architecture becomes a very small part of what we do. I don’t believe an architectural office can be a hundred people, hundred and fifty, seven hundred, seventeen hundred like RTKL. You don’t do architecture anymore. You do jobs. You get a flat fee or, you know. And the architect is beat, he doesn’t have so much time to spend in the office or on any file. So it was never my goal to make a career in a large office. But I did work in a large office to learn really about architecture. When I left in ’85, at the time I was forty-five, although I only had thirteen years of experience because I got out in ’72, I mean, from the time I finished school. So I started in ’85 just on one drafting table and sat back to- I went back to the drafting table. At SOM, I had a studio of eighty people. And slowly, starting smaller projects, I built up an organization, a team of architects, where we work together. By chance, I have them much younger than me so the age difference makes everything a lot easier since there’s no battle inside for power, which is also what large offices are. The politics of large offices are incredible and, you know, interfere; it does interfere with the architectural design. And I’m lucky today that we’re an office of about thirty people and we do some very large- not- the point is not that they’re large. They’re very interesting projects of a good size. And that’s what makes what I’ m doing exciting and more and more interesting. The diversification, which- we can do hotel, multi-family residential, townhouse, retail, tall buildings, short buildings. We can do- and in a small office, thirty is about- up to forty, I think, you can keep your hands on the project. After that, you become director of design.


The big change, several changes have happened in architecture. And we’re going through one change, and I don’t quite- I don’t think we quite understand the impact of the computer. Let me go over that, the computer. Five years ago, we had only three computers in the office. Today, well, forty of them really, everybody has to have a computer on their desk and we’re producing most of our work on computer, which means we don’t have to-. The good point, we don’t have to work late at night. We don’t use Zipatone, for those who understand what Zipatone is. Our colour drawings are printed, done on printer. For example, I’ ve come back- I’ve been spending weekends and nights in my early years putting Zipatone, doing drawing in ink. One day, we had a big presentation on a Monday. I came in the office, there was nobody in the office on Saturday, nobody on Sunday. I was getting really nervous about that presentation. We had ten boards to do. And at two o’clock on Sunday afternoon, one architect came in, plotted some numbers in a computer and the printer started to print ten boards, beautiful colour and all [snaps fingers]. And he went home because the computer was going to just print what was needed and then Monday morning, we went to a meeting. The information is the same except everything is done a lot more quickly. It’s more accurate. We can- we’ll have two architects and a manager with me working on a six-million-square-feet project. And we’ve been working for three months putting it together. So we can do a lot more, quicker, faster, more accurate with a computer. Does this- does it impact the design or does it just make it faster and quicker? Do we become better designers? You can do a lot of bad design with a computer as well. I don’t think the computer- it does facilitate our life. We can go home and see our wife and children, which, when I went to McGill, we spent nights doing drawings which can be done in ten minutes on a computer. The whole impact on all of us architects, I don’t know. Hopefully- I think for now, it’s getting better.


The other thing that has changed in the last thirty years in architecture, if you think of architecture as part of a real estate industry, the world has changed. Projects are financed in a very different way, very different way. It does impact how we work, what we do. The industry has changed. We don’t custom design everything. We use components, which are pre-designed, curtain walls, ceiling tiles. All the systems exist and we just integrate them in the architecture, which also means we can do a set of working drawings a lot faster today. It doesn’t take more than four, three months sometimes, four months, six months. Thirty years ago, when I was interviewed the first time at McGill by Professor Bland, he was working on some project for Expo ’67, and it would take a year to produce documents for construction, because everything had to be drawn and designed, like windows and doors. Today, the industry has changed. The construction industry, the supplier materials is a different world. And for that, we do work in a different way from thirty years ago and it affects us in our documentation of the design. It affects the design as well. We get a lot more input from the engineering aspect, the structure, in all the materials we use. That’s, I think that’s a big difference. And the computer, we can debate if we get better design. I’m a believer that it’s what we design not what the-. The computer is still a tool.

It’s a tool for us to be- that’s right.

It’s a tool, it’s not-. I mean you see a lot of bad design being produced, I mean ugly and whatever, and they’re all done on a computer. So it’s not- it doesn’t make a difference. But it does make a difference to our life.