May 15, 1996
Interview by Jim Donaldson
Maybe, Raymond, you could just talk about why you decided to go to McGill and how long you were there and who were some of your professors.
Well, I went to McGill for my Master’s. I graduated from University of Toronto with a Bachelor and I received a scholarship to go to McGill for my Master’s and therefore I was there. And, of course, I wanted to go to McGill and live in Montreal.
What time- when was that?
Well, it was 1954. And I received my Master’s in ’57.
And some of the people whom you- not necessarily the other students but some of the professors, like you mentioned earlier Harold Spence-Sales.
Well, I remember Harold Spence-Sales vividly and enjoyed him immensely. I think I would have stopped going to school if it wasn’t for him. Enjoyed him immensely. The classmates, it was a small class of, you know, Master’s course, and basically, non-architects. And I found it rather boring and as a result, I used to go to other courses, like psychology and art courses and sociology, which were not part of the curriculum but an area I was very much interested in. So it gave me a kind of an access to all of the things I had wanted to do but I didn’t do until then.
Do you remember any of the other people who were on staff at the time at McGill?
Well, at the time, there was very little contact with the architectural professors. But being a graduate architect, I loved being in the architectural sort of a studio, so I used to go there a lot. And I used to enjoy speaking to a lot of the professors. And I guess one of my favourites was Ray Affleck. We became fast friends and we continued our association, well, until recently.
Could you just talk about the influence McGill had on you after you left?
McGill had a great influence. First of all, I guess I’m one of those sort of maybe strange, or fortunate ones, who decided to become an architect at age four and a half. So my path was very clear. At age 9, my father took me on a train from Vancouver, where I was born, to New Westminster. And it was one of those big, rattly, old wooden-type trains and as it rattled out of the terminal and onto Main Street, the adjacent scenes were changing. Turned a corner, Main and Hasting, there’s a library and I thought oh look, there’ s a library. Then we were going through Chinatown and then out to the field and so on. And looking back out the back window, you could see the twin peaks, you know, across Burrard Inlet. I thought, you know, someone’s got to be thinking about how cities are shaped. And, you know, talking to my father, he said “Well”, well, he wanted to be an engineer so he knew a little bit about this area so he said, “Well, those people who plan cities are called town planners or urban designers”. So I said, “Oh yeah, I’m going to be one of those too!”
So McGill was a natural follow-through after University of Toronto. I found that through Harold Spence-Sales, I started to get interested in other areas. And I guess if I wanted to cut through everything, you know, as I said, I went to psychology classes, psychology experiments, applied psychology, sociology and all that, because I felt that architecture and town planning has to involve the human spirit. And what McGill really taught me, anyway, after I peel off all the onion, you know, layers of onion skin, at the core I think it was all about maybe two things: about learning, that life is a constant state of learning, that things are going to change. It was very clear then that the world was going to change so rapidly that, you know, it boggled anybody’s mind. And even in those days, I guess I talked about a computer. And the other thing was about pride in oneself, about self-esteem and that architecture and town planning, urban design, had to move in that direction. It’s not about statistics and about traffic of vehicles. It was about human beings, moving people, not only physically but about the heart and the spirit. So what McGill gave me was a chance to learn to learn.
And as most people who have been following my career will tell you that it has been about learning, about learning to be more democratic, learning to be- to learn. And the Ontario Science Centre was about a new way of learning through the hands-on. And in many ways, it’s based on a very old idea that, you know, when you sort of hear, you forget. When you see, maybe you remember a little bit, but when you touch and do, it becomes part of you. And so, the whole hands-on idea came about. And we really did fight to get those ideas in the mainstream. I used to go to museum conferences and really be confronted by old-fashioned curators who just accused us of being Coney Island and just being sort of a, you know, way off and stupid, you know. And at one conference, I was even accused as a communist about destroying our society, you know, on this side of the ocean. And of course, you know, they said, “It’ s Walt Disney!” And I used to defend Walt Disney in those days. It’s not that long ago. You know, it’s in the sixties. So I really credit not only University of Toronto, but I guess McGill as a place that gave me time and freedom to explore other areas that make up people.
Well, I mentioned two things. One was learning to learn, and you know, as a result of that, you know, we have a policy in our office, which we talk about the three L’s. The first L is to listen. Listen very hard to, you know, any thoughts, ideas that the public thought, because I believe that, you know, one has to breathe in before one breathes out. And the second L is for learning. You listen, you learn. And the third L- which leads to the third L, and that’s to take leadership in design. And I guess part of the learning, well earlier I talked about self-esteem; let me talk about that. During the war, the last war, well, as most people know, Japanese Canadians were incarcerated by the Canadian government. And what I learned the most there was the- that, aside from the fact that democracy is very fragile, that one has to defend democracy, not for only oneself but for the others. And the second thing was the fact all about self-esteem. And part of it is that in the institution that is- not by malice but by shear insensitivity, could create a loss for a community, a family, a city, the country, the whole world. So the whole idea of the individual, sort of a sense of satisfaction, the need to be recognized was essential. But maybe at the core of it, is the whole idea of self-esteem. And during the time I was in the camp, I used to spend time in my treehouse thinking about things like self-esteem: why am I feeling this way?
And more recently, we have been working with the First Nation people. And with this particular First Nation group, the Rama, I started to do a lot of research into their background. And I was amazed at how gentle they were and their sense of generosity. And when you look at and study the history, you know, what the RCMP then do well, the churches did really extremely well, at knocking, you know, really the guts out of the sort of the self-esteem, pride in oneself. And I felt that architecture, you know, if it’s to do anything, maybe it has to look for another direction. And architecture has to look for another direction right now anyway because the old practice of architecture is absolutely dead and, you know, self-indulgent. That architecture is dead, you know, the creativity should be going towards much more a sense of humanity and service rather than to be self-indulgent in design. And so, in this particular case, we set up- you know, we challenged the chief and council to do an art wall. We’ll reduce the cost of the building if, and of course, this is when there is no artist, a known artist in the group, to create a coalition of artists and we’ll do an art wall nearly fifteen hundred feet long. And we’ll create a canvas. That will simplify the design of the, you know, the architecture, but it gives a base for the whole community to participate with the artists to generate a study of the past, the history, the heritage that went, you know, way before the settlement. And this is the process that, you know, that they’ve you know accepted now and the whole process has been, you know, wonderful. In many ways, I’d like to think that what I learned in some of those sociology classes in McGill, not necessarily architecture but sociology courses, have taught me and I have learned from that and stuck in my head, you know, as part of architecture, as part of urban design. There are underlying sort of forces that should be shaping the architecture more than, you know, one’s material sort of thought about the form, you know. And, well, so, I feel very much indebted to McGill for having given me this kind of a time, space to be- to discover. And life is all about discovery and that’s the challenge that excites me. And at this moment, I decidedly enjoy architecture perhaps more than any other time in my life. It keeps opening up all kinds of possibilities. And I feel very depressed when old friends, some architect friends and others, and other architects asking me you know, “How can I survive two years?” Or “What do I do?” Well, if you have to ask the question, maybe it’s too late.
Which in itself is quite depressing.
Which in itself is quite a depressing admission.
It’s a depressing thing. I think, you know, architects created the problems that we’re in. You know, the whole world was changing and you know all we did was look for work. It’s really not looking for work that mattered. Looking for ideas to open up and to encourage that change is what should have been happening but people were looking for work. And, you know, working for hourly wages, those kind of days are gone.
How do you feel about the education for the students today? You alluded to the fact that it has to change its place.
I think it’s obsolete myself. I think what one should be teaching is that to deal with change, to deal with- to become learned is to become obsolete. Learned people should be in a process of learning all the time and that’s-
So there is a society in Canada, which is called The Learned Society. So I guess in a sense it’s obsolete. It should be The Learning Society!
Exactly. A learned society is to deal with the dinosaurs now. And, you know, in that- it’s been said that- by many people that by 19- or 2005, ninety percent of what we know today will be obsolete. That’s only eight, nine years away.
I was just thinking, when you were a young architect, you made a decision obviously to live in Toronto. And in a business side or aspect, and somehow or another, you’ve succeeded in having an interesting career and are noted for good design, which I think any architect would like to be. And the money is secondly. And I guess you just had a well-balanced career. But there must have been times when it wasn’t all that easy, when you were first starting out.
Oh well, it’s true. It may sound absolutely ridiculous, but my wife was pregnant with our third child, and between the two of us, we had $392. That’s how we started. But I think the wonderful thing is to have a wonderful wife, who said, “Well, the worst thing that could happen to you is you go back and work for somebody else”. And that, you know, with encouragement like that, you take a risk and money is secondary.
It’s interesting just as a comment because I’ve talked to a lot of interesting, successful architects and it always struck me that the same- architecture was fortunate to have these people in that career path because so many of them could have gone into other careers. For example, you probably would have made a good doctor; you might have made a good lawyer. I mean, somehow or another, I guess your father inspired you in the idea of the city planning and so forth. But I’ve talked to Moshe Safdie and Ray Affleck over the years and I know Arthur Erickson and so many people like yourself who could have one way or the other chosen another career. You followed sort of what you really wanted to do, which is a blessing. You’ve succeeded at it and it helped all of us in the meantime.
Well, my parents wanted me to be a doctor, you know. And so-
And mine wanted me to be a priest! I didn’t succeed in that and I don’t think I would have in any case.
Well, it’s very interesting because my father at one point wanted to become a priest. So-
Well, one of the things that you said to me is when you were a young boy and you were in your treehouse I guess and you were thinking about self-esteem and so forth. And that in itself is rather remarkable because children don’t necessarily think of that. Maybe that in itself, when you’re affected-
There was a good reason. We were incarcerated, you know, up in the Rockies. And, well, the reason why I decided to become an architect at a young age is because I nearly died of a bad burn and I was still healing when the war broke out. And so in the camp there were two sort of public baths and there were no other baths so I used to go, you know, try going. And people, you know, even older people said, “Oh, you know, you look diseased”. And, that, you know, I almost started to feel that the whole world was an enemy. You know, the government turns its back on its own citizens and my own community is telling me I’m diseased, so I used to go to the river to take a bath until it got really cold. And the treehouse started off as a lookout point to see if people were coming, you see. Then I started to build this and it was a wonderful place to learn about nature. And I used to watch how the rain falls on leaves and you know, how the river and how the, you know, trickle of water runs down the hillside. And we learned about the gophers and started to hear the sound of- you know, in the whole valley, the echo and started to learn about the stars. And that’s when I really started to realize that, you know, that nature became a solace for me. And when the society, the human sort of a built element of life starts to crumble, nature is a wonderful sort of a leaning post. And what I found was nature was absolutely sort of fair and even. And people talk about the wonderful and beautiful sunset, sunrise and they talk about terrible thunderstorms. Well, I started to realize that, you know, a man-centered world, or a woman-centered world, is a distorted one. The sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Well, that’s not the reality, you see. And once I started to see it that way, you know, the whole natural system became wondrous and it was something that I could rely on. And that’s when I became I guess a natural ecologist. And Ray Affleck and a bunch of us, you know, thought to chant and we used to fight for- to preserve nature. And it was a very simple concept of just simply saying, “let’s be- respect”. It’s a simple idea of respect and it takes a technological society a long time to learn this.
It’s interesting because all architects were influenced in their lives way back in the history of architecture, Christopher Wren and all the buildings he did after the London fire. And I remember after I graduated, like a lot of others, I went to London and I went down to St. Charles Cathedral and I saw for myself If you seek my mon- because he was buried there and his epitaph said, If you seek my monument, look about you. And I suspect yours would be Listen and learn and lead or something. Never stop listening, never stop learning and never stop- and leadership certainly will come out of that.
And it’s a kind of a different leadership. You know, like a lot of architects think they’re a knight on a white charger or you know, they think they’re the sun. Well, you know, that’s pretty heavy stuff. I’d prefer to be the moon. And the moon is wonderful because you see the input from the sun and the moon turns back another kind of a more gentle light. You know, it’s a different kind of leadership. And I find it much more sort of a human and much more comfortable way to sort of deliver leadership.
It’s interesting, Raymond, because most architects, you can understand this, I talk to, inevitably want to talk about their successes in terms of buildings and what they’ve done and the awards that they’ve one. And I guess they feel that that’s what life is all about. Certainly talking to you, you’ ve mentioned only one building. And that I think says a lot. You’ve talked about your whole approach and interest in life and what else can I say?
Well, you know, it’s an interesting point because I’ve said to a group of students recently that perhaps the most important things, the most important thing an architect can do is to stop a project that would do damage either to an ecological situation or social- you know, some project that is socially detrimental.
This tape, as you know, will be seen over the yeas by a lot of people, including a lot of the young students. Is there any advice on this, what is this, May 15, 1996, that you might want to give a young man or a lady, a young lady who is thinking of going into architecture as a career?
Well, I think it’s as simple as keep learning throughout your life. Accept change as a wonderful thing, as an opportunity. Don’t resist it. I just find that architecture is a wonderful career. You can go into any sort of another career from architecture. Because I think what it does is make you a generalist, not a specialist. I think sometimes one thinks, you know, architecture is a specializing area. I think that’s, to me, in my opinion, it’ s the wrong thing to do. I think the future belongs to a generalist and a team player.
Well, thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed this and I’m sure other people over the years will enjoy this conversation.
Well, I don’t know. They may look at it in five years and say, “Oh, well this is totally obsolete!”
Thank you very much.