Robert Libman

B.Arch. 1985
Montreal, QC
Interview by Jim Donaldson

What we would like to talk about is how you decided to become an architect and why McGill.

I, for the longest time, since I’m a kid, ten, eleven, twelve years old, always talked about being an architect. I used to love to draw, I used to love math and for me that seemed to be the most logical destiny. In fact, I was very quiet in those days. When I was a youngster, politics was the last thing that anyone would have predicted that I would fall into. And I loved to draw, loved sketching buildings on a piece of paper and thought that architecture was for me. McGill being right here, of course, in Montreal was my first choice. And when I was accepted to McGill, I felt I had it made. This was the early eighties where my whole life was right before me. I was all excited, accepted into the McGill School of Architecture, visions of tall buildings and buildings, designing schools and public institutions in this naïve, bright, brave new world that I was about to enter into and I even framed my letter of acceptance from McGill when I got it in the mail in the early eighties. And there I was. There was such a sense that my future is now set, I know now what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life: designing buildings.


How old were you at that age? Probably about nineteen or eighteen or nineteen.

I was about nineteen, twenty years old.

So tell us about your days at McGill. As much as you can remember.

Well, McGill, I think the first thing that most people of my generation at McGill think of is the mood box. The mood box was a first-year project that we had to do. Bruce Anderson and David Covo were our teachers. We had to- we were each assigned in groups of four a place, a location, a space in Montreal and we had to represent that space or that place in a box, in a small box, which was about 18 x24. So it combined a number of things. It forced us into a team with three other strangers and going through the whole design creative process with three other people, which was something that none of us had really been comfortable with. So that was first, learning to compromise and debate and discuss different creative issues, fight with our colleagues creatively. That in itself was an experience. And then I think that combined with the rude awakening of having our work out on display for others to hack away at, to pick at, was itself very much a learning experience and an opportunity to grow and mature somewhat. And some of us found that very difficult at the beginning. I also noticed that here I was, finishing high school and CEGEP, I had always been considered a good artist, I had always been top of my class in mathematics, and here I was flung into a group of forty people who all were excellent artists, they were all- had a scientific disposition to them and all of a sudden, you were thrown into the middle of the larger pond somehow, and that in itself was an adaptation that I had to make as well.


Now, how about some of the professors, not necessarily in chronological order? Or some of the ones that you have better memories or influenced sort of your own career, which is rather unusual.

Well, I think in the beginning, Bruce Anderson was very much a prominent, intimidating presence at the beginning, whether it was his physical appearance with his menacing eyebrows or just because of his manner and his stern disposition, which was very intimidating for people to the point where in that first year, during a crit, we were absolutely petrified of him. Covo, Professor Covo was the softy and Anderson was the toughie. And we were always very scared of Mr. Anderson. But this was all part of, you know the combination of teachers that we had, interestingly enough, being so diverse prepared us to adapt to different situations. With Mr. Anderson, it was a tough crowd out there. With Mr. Covo, it was more of a congeniality. We tried to appeal in a more friendly, social way. Just the different characters taught us to deal with different projects, present different projects, handle ourselves very differently. And it was a learning process. The crits in the first year were very much an influence on me, very much something that I can even point to as having somewhat of an impact on my future career in politics, where you had to get up in front of a group of people, defend yourself, present an opinion as articulately as possible, make a case for yourself, debate the merits and then stand there in a hail of bullets as everyone fired back and attacked or criticized. A thick skin was very important to develop in those days and of course a thick skin is an absolute necessity when one is in the wonderful world of politics.


What about some of the other people who were on staff? Was Norbert one of your professors at anytime?

Norbert Schoenauer was our professor. He didn’t teach- I never had him for design but he, of course, gave a number of courses on housing. A very, very- for me it was very exciting. I wanted to be an architect since I was a kid and I remember those first years sitting there, looking around at my classmates, looking at the teacher at the front of the class discussing architecture, whether it was the history of architecture, whether it was how to design a building, whether it was how to analyze function, the functioning of a building or project, whether it was Norbert teaching us about housing or Derek Drummond speaking to us about civic spaces. I just sat there marveling about the fact that for years I had this notion of being an architect when I got older and here I was actually having professors teaching me about it, discussing it. I was very much caught up in that and swept up in that and I became quite, I guess, the keener, which was the term in those days. I worked very hard. I was not at the top of the class as far as artistic ability was concerned, despite what I had been used to in high school, but I made up for it in very, very hard work and eventually I did well because of that but I was so enthusiastic because of the fact that this was something that I wanted to do for a long time and here I was actually being immersed in something that I so enjoyed.


So there weren't really any disappointments. Was it five years then or six years at that time?

It was four.

Four years, okay.

It was a four-year programme, the first three for the B. Sc. (Arch) and the last year was the Bachelor of Architecture programme. And I was very shy and intimidated at the beginning but as I became more comfortable and more caught up in it, I became a bit of a social butterfly in the class. In fact, I co-founded what was known as the Richard-Robert lounge with another colleague of mine, Richard Jaeger. We founded this lounge, which became the communal space of our class and he and I were called upon to host baking competitions in the form of buildings or pumpkin sculpting competitions. And we became somewhat of a duo, somewhat of the social ambassadors for our class. And even that had, in certain ways, an influence on me in becoming more extroverted, outgoing to the point where, later on- another necessity of politics is the opportunity, ability to mingle with others and to joke around on occasion and the throw some lighter moments into very serious issues. And these were all the opportunities that were afforded to me as I became more and more comfortable with the class and as I founded this Richard-Robert lounge with my confrere.


Did you- was Stuart Wilson or Peter Collins there at the time you were there at all?

No, Peter Collins had passed on the year before I arrived at McGill. Stuart Wilson, I took for a couple of elective classes. And I spoke earlier about the cast of characters. He was another one of those cast of characters that shaped each of us, or left an indelible mark on each of us in a very distinct way. And that is very much the shaping of a graduate architect from McGill has so much to do with the cast of teachers that we go through for those four years, whether it's a Pieter Sijpkes and his style or Rad Zuk and the way he tries to create a certain rigor in our thinking or Ricardo Castro who was there or Julia Gersovitz, just the way she was with us. And as I mentioned, Anderson and Covo and Drummond. And all these professors, by virtue of their own distinctiveness, shaped each of us in a certain way or modified our way of thinking or helped guide our way of thinking in a very unique way. It's such an eclectic mix and that has a lot to do with the way we became- I think from McGill, the graduates from McGill don't graduate, or at least in my time didn't graduate with a specific orientation or architectural discipline, but very much approaching things in an eclectic way because of how different the staff was through our four years.


Do you remember any events, anecdotes, or even talking about Sketching School, which might sort of bring forward a few other thoughts of your good times at McGill?

Well, I'd rather not get into some of the midnight escapades that a number of us became involved in at some of our Sketching Schools. We had a lot of fun, needless to say, as any group of students in their young, early twenties would have. We had a lot of fun. Our class was a great class. We hung together very, very well and some of us are still in touch. There were, of course, so many moments that stand out, whether it was building the ice structure in second year and the phenomenon of building that ice arch, that Pieter Sijpkes I'm sure still talks about fifteen years later. Our trips to New York or Chicago or Boston. There's something very special about a group of forty very individual people with a lot of enthusiasm and energy and bursting at the creative seams to do things different and break new ground. There's something special to be said about forcing forty of us to live together in the studio for four years. It forges very important bonds and a very special relationship between us. And there are so many moments that one remembers, particularly the overnights and the way different people reacted to the stresses and the strains of that and I have to say, my four years in the School of Architecture were very, very special. I have very, very fond memories. Whenever I think back to any of those times, it puts a smile on my face. And it's a time that seems so far back now, but when our classes had the opportunity, as we have on occasion, to get together and have reunions, it's wonderful reminiscences and it's something that is special and that other faculties do not benefit from. It's because of the stress and the pressure of working together in that studio, having our own special space in that studio, working and having the creative juices flowing and the [unclear]. I guess it's easier to talk about when it's in the past than having to go through it, but it was a great time, a great, great time.


It was tough at the time. In retrospect, it seems like a wonderful period of your life.

No question.

Was there any one event or any particular course that might have influenced you more than the others? Or perhaps one that you enjoyed more than any of the others?

Well, I think what had the most profound impact on me is having to- you know, you invest a lot of emotional time and energy and commitment into a design project. Having to get up and defend your design project in front of a lot of people, having to present it, having to sell it and then having to withstand the criticism of it or the constructive or not constructive itself was for me, I would say, the most influential aspect of McGill. It's that aspect: design, presentation, defending it and then learning to deal with the reaction, for me had very much to do with my ability to speak in public afterwards and to develop a thick skin and a sense of confidence, building one's own self-confidence and self-esteem. All that had a lot to do with development. And it builds character, that process. And I think as masochistic as it seems at times, I think that is so crucial to the development of an architect, having to be forced to go through that process as we all did at McGill.


And unfortunately, a lot of people do drop out. They can't persevere and the drop out of the process, out of the system. And some come back and some don't.

A little while after graduating McGill, I actually went on a trip to Europe with a co-graduate of mine. We took our notes from Bruce Anderson's History of Architecture classes. So in our travels through Italy and England and France, we sought out the buildings that Bruce Anderson had discussed and we sat right there in the middle of those buildings with our notes out and we read through our notes and we looked around and lo and behold, Bruce Anderson's lectures had come to life! When I returned from Europe, I got a wonderful job working for Jacques Béïque and Associates. I worked on a couple of very interesting projects for Béïque. And it was very- that transition from the theoretical world of McGill and thesis and designing wonderful projects, my thesis was twin skyscrapers for Montreal, the two tallest buildings in the city. So you go from that and all of a sudden, you're into the work environment and a real architectural office working on mundane details. So that is a first transition that I had to get used to. But I was lucky to be- or to have graduated in a time where construction was really taking off in Montreal, the mid-eighties. I was working on some interesting projects at Jacques Béïque's office. The old POM bakery building, for example, was being transformed into Les Tours du Parc Westmount, the luxury condo project, which I worked with. And then shortly after that, I got a job with Tolchinsky and Goodz. And Tolchinsky and Goodz in the late eighties was really the place to be for a young graduate. There were so many projects that we had, in particular downtown high-rise buildings, and they were so busy that they had to throw a lot of responsibility at the young architects. And I had a great opportunity during those years to handle bigger projects and in fact, Tolchinsky and Goodz was almost like a reunion of my class at McGill. There were a number of people from my class and the year ahead of me that were working there so it was almost like we displaced some of the fun of the studio at McGill into Tolchinsky and Goodz's office, but this was for real. And we had a great opportunity during a very, very busy time in Montreal, during the construction boom, to work and then sink our teeth into real, exciting projects that we actually got to see built, which was very, very exciting for me at the time.


Now, in a strange way, I graduated from McGill in '85, rode the crest of the construction boom, and just before I guess construction went over the cliff was when I was elected to the National Assembly. And it emanated or my career as a politician began in a boardroom at Tolchinsky and Goodz. After hours was where I started convening a few friends of mine to discuss the possibility of creating a new political party and that literally is where the Equality Party was born. The Equality Party I founded in the late eighties because of the sense that the English-speaking community was not being represented in the Quebec National Assembly. And I called friends together in the boardroom there. And sometimes we had small meetings and sometimes we had bigger meetings. And as the momentum began to develop as political circumstances evolved, we had to move to my father's office, who had a bigger boardroom. And you know, I don't want to go through the whole history of how the Equality Party was founded, but after the dust settled, in the election of 1989, I was elected to the National Assembly with three colleagues and it became very much the election story. And then I guess at the beginning, this was quite a novelty and the journalists started digging into the past and they had interviewed some of my professors at McGill, such as Covo and Drummond, to see if they had seen back then when I was in McGill any signs of my future political career. And Covo made some comments about some of the things that I had mentioned earlier. So here I was in the middle of the National Assembly, thrust into the limelight as a politician with very, very little political background. And one of the most disappointing things for me at the beginning was the realization that architecture, or the profession as an architect, which is something that I had wanted to do since I was ten, twelve years old, was going to have to take a back seat, that I would not be able to practice architecture for the next number of years. Who knew how long this political adventure of mine would last. And that was somewhat of a disappointment, but politics is exciting as well. And the nineties was a very difficult time to be an architect, so in certain ways, it was very fortunate that I should fall into a profession such as politics, which in the early nineties was going through a very exciting period with the whole constitutional debate. I guess we can say that every decade but we were going through an exciting period in Quebec politics. But I had the opportunity to sit on important parliamentary commissions and deal with some of the major issues affecting the future of Quebec and Canada. And that type of profession started to become very exciting as well. And it lasted, of course, until 1994.


After the election of '94, it was not the most compelling time to try and make a re-entry into architecture. There wasn't enough exciting work and I was given a wonderful offer to work at the human rights agency that I mentioned. And then a few years later, this past year, 1998, the opportunity presented itself to run for mayor of Côte-Saint-Luc. The incumbent who was here for twenty-two years had decided to retire. And ironically enough, years ago, I had looked at municipal politics as something being more in line with my background. Municipal politics deals with a lot of issues such as urban planning and building construction and public works and environment. And this is something that, when I looked at the prospect of running for mayor of Côte-Saint-Luc, I saw as an almost perfect marriage between my background as an architect on the one hand and my five years as a politician, as a member of the National Assembly. And since I've been the mayor of Côte-Saint-Luc, I've very much enjoyed the elements that deal with building and construction and architecture. I'm an ex-officio member of the town planning commission and the planning advisory committee. I'm involved in every discussion on granting of building permits for projects and I very much participate in the debates at the town planning commission level as far as minor derogations are concerned, as far as zoning changes are concerned on any building project and I feel almost as if I've come home in that I'm getting an opportunity by being the mayor of Côte-Saint-Luc to involve myself very closely, very intimately in some of the projects and some architecture and some construction, which is something that I so missed for the past eight to nine years. And I cannot see a more ideal way to combine what have become my two passions, than being mayor of Côte-Saint-Luc.


Is your job today a full time job here?

I'm still very much involved with B'nai Brith Canada, the human rights agency, but my job here as mayor is taking up more and more time and I've scaled back my participation with B'nai Brith to give more time and effort to the job here in Côte-Saint-Luc. And there are so many issues that I've put on our agenda for the council to look at future development in Côte-Saint-Luc, developing certain planning guidelines for Côte-Saint-Luc for new construction. We're hoping that the CP rail yards relocate out of Côte-Saint-Luc. In fact, a third of Côte-Saint-Luc territory is occupied by CP rail yards. If CP can be encouraged to leave in the next ten years and the land be developed, it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to really become involved in the urban planning process and zoning this area. And I work very closely with our town-planning department, our engineering department. As I said, I couldn't be happier right now at having found what I really feel completes my sort of background in those two vocations.


And at a very young age.

At a relatively young age. I don't always feel very young. It's a demanding job. Believe me, anyone that's been involved in politics and has had to deal with the media, has had to deal with the various complaints. Municipal politics is very different from provincial politics. Provincial politics is very theoretical. Municipal politics deals with the nitty-gritty, the bread and butter, my backyard, your backyard, my fence, your fence, speed bump, "I want a speed bump in front of my house" or "I want a speed bump on my street because the cars drive too fast". And then someone says "I don't want a speed bump next to my house because it's too loud when the cars hit it". Everything is so conflictual. And I guess the powers of negotiation and persuasion are every much as part of this job as anything else.


Any final thoughts?

You know, I look at what I'm doing now or I look at my political background and you know, upon reflection, I can see the School of Architecture very much being the launching pad for that. You know, being an architect or learning to be an architect, you have to present yourself a certain way. You have to be able to express your ideas clearly. You have to be able to develop a thick skin, as I've mentioned earlier, but you have to have a creative way of looking at things. You have to be open. Your horizons have to open outwards instead of straight ahead. And to be a successful politician, it involves consensus building. You've got to be able to deal with people, talk to people, bring a lot of people together under a tent. You have to be able to explain things, debate, express yourselves as clearly and concisely as possible. You have to withstand, you have to be able to take things. You have to let things roll off your back. You have to be able to be a rounded person and you have to see all around you. And there are so many comparisons. When you look at it in that way, there are so many comparisons that you can draw from my background or learning to be an architect that prepared me for that. I would never have been able to, in my view, be elected to the National Assembly, be able to stand up in the National Assembly with any degree of confidence or self-esteem to make a point, to argue, to debate, to point my finger at the government minister and make a point, if I hadn't been prepared for that at the McGill School of Architecture. McGill School of Architecture stiffens your spine, or it forces you to have a stiff spine and a thick skin and to be able to be ready to meet the world with your eyes wide open. I never would have been able to- I wouldn't be sitting here as the mayor of Côte-Saint-Luc today if it weren't for that grounding that I was forced to endure at the McGill School of Architecture. And this is, I guess, in an implicit way, one of the reasons too that I have such fond memories of the school and I very much enjoy going back on occasion and seeing some of the professors.


It certainly was character-building. One last question. Being young in a job like this, I know the energy level is much higher than if you were twenty or thirty years older, but is there any disadvantages being a young mayor? I'm sure you're one of the youngest right now that ever existed probably around this- in the province.

Well, sometimes I walk into a meeting; there was a meeting recently of a group of residents on one side and a community, a rabbi and a group of his parishioners who want to build a synagogue on a special site. They want the city to bring about a zoning change but the residents in the neighbourhood are absolutely, ferociously against any zoning change to allow an institutional building, 'cause the rabbi wants to build a synagogue, to allow an institutional building in their residential neighbourhood. So finally, after a lot of arm-twisting and many phone calls, I got the two groups together, the representatives from the two groups, and they're sitting at the two sides of this long board room and then I walk in and I sit down at the meeting at the head of the table and I hear one woman off in the distance say, "He looks younger than my grandchild!" You know, so I guess the question of respect, you know, when you look young or when you are young in a milieu where everyone is much older, I guess respect or exerting authority is sometimes a bit of a challenge, but I always hope that once you get into a discussion and once you can make your case convincingly, people's preconceived biases, perhaps, fall by the wayside and they accept you for your ideas or your thinking as opposed to your appearance. But I guess in twenty, thirty years from now, I'll be glad that- I hope I'll still look younger than my age.

Good. Well, thank you very much. I've thoroughly enjoyed that.