Peter Oberlander

B.Arch. 1945
(With Cornelia Oberlander)
Vancouver, BC
February 19, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson

So I guess the first thing we’d like to talk about is how you decided to go to McGill.

Well, it’s relatively easy. I came to Montreal under very special circumstances. I went to- I was anxious to continue my architectural education started in England. And I went up to McGill on a given Thursday afternoon and met John Bland in his office. And the reason I went to McGill is because he accepted me without any supporting documents. I couldn’t prove who I was or what I had done. And not only accept me as a late entrance, it was November and I entered that year. In addition, he trusted me to the point where he gave me advanced standing. So I entered second year in November of ’ 41. And John did the supreme achievement. He accepted my say-so, and because he trusted me, that’ s why I got into McGill. He taught me a fundamental lesson that I’ve never forgotten in all the years that I had students: to trust students and to accept them at face value. That’s John’s legacy and that’s why I went to McGill.


So then you were there in 1941.

Till ’45.

Till ’45.

That’s right.

And do you remember some of the people that you were there with?

Very well.

Perhaps you could talk about those and talk about some of the professors at the time.

We had a small class. We had three women, which was amazing for those days: Blanche Lemco, Barbara Fergusson, Sylvia Chaplain. And on the boy’s side, we had Alvaro Ortega, Rolf Duschenes, Yeoman, Frank Yeoman and oh yes, Jacques David, but he was a year actually behind us, and Jean Michaud. That’s it.


So the class wasn’t very large at that time.

No, that’s it.

It was probably, what a dozen or so?

Yeah, actually, less than that. So it was- and it was a very small group and therefore we had a lot of fun because we did a great number of things together besides go to school. One of my cherished memories is going skiing with everybody up the Maple Leaf Trail. We would take the train up-

To Saint-Sauveur?

To Saint-Sauveur or Sainte-Agathe and then ski down Hill 69 back to Saint-Sauveur and pick up the train and go home.

We’re still skiing on Hill 69 in Saint-Sauveur!

Well, that was like fifty-five years ago!


What were the courses? I’m intrigued to hear what you learned.

The courses were actually quite fascinating. John Bland, of course, was the main teacher in many ways, in more ways than purely academic sense. We had Frederick B. Taylor as our drafting and drawing instructor. We had in due course Arthur Lismer, who then brought in Gordy Webber and that was a great experience. We had a whole lot of visiting, practicing architects who would come into the studio and help with design examples. But basically, John Bland carried the school both in terms of design; of course his subject was specifically the history of modern architecture. And we had quite a lot of local practitioners.


I remember Gordon Webber too. Was he very active at the time you were there?

Gordon was very active. He just came in my third year, I think, from Chicago. And of course, he brought with him the whole Bauhaus tradition red hot out of Mies and Chicago. And that was very important. Lismer brought him to the school and between Lismer and Gordy Webber, we had a first-class grounding not just in drawing and these other elements but in basic design. The whole colour course, the structure course in design terms was Gordy Webber’s. And Freddy Taylor kept on teaching us how to draw from plaster casts, for God’s sake. But I still had Percy Nobbs teaching heraldry!

I don’t think they’re teaching that anymore!

No I have very, very fond memories of my instructors and teachers. Obviously, the most important one was John Bland. And beyond that, we had Gordy Webber, Arthur Lismer, Freddy B. Taylor and many of the practicing architects in town, who would come out and contribute their time and talent. But in addition, I think it is important to remember that we all learned from each other. Alvar Ortega was a great influence. Al had already done quite a lot of work in France. He had in fact worked with Le Corbusier, so he was a great impact on us who were much younger. In fact, I’ll never forget the fact that at one point, I tried to borrow a pen from him and he wouldn’t let me have it. And I said, “What’s wrong?” And he said, “Well, because the master had it in his hand and I won’t let anyone touch it”. That was a pen that Le Corbusier had used. And so in many ways, we learned from each other and from the class just ahead of us. After all, the people ahead of us were quite important: John Porter, Bob Esdale, McNabb, Kay Wisnicki. And these were all ahead of us and had some real influence on us.


Those people who were in your class, did you keep in touch with any of them after you graduated?

Yes, yes, I still am very much in touch with Blanche, with Sylvia. We meet every five years. That usually works out somewhere in Montreal. Rolf Duschenes usually organizes that. And we just had a reunion about three years ago.

Is David still alive?

No, no, David is gone. Jean Mar- Marchaud is gone. Yeoman is gone.

Michaud, Jean Michaud.

Jean Michaud is gone. And so we are down really to Rolf Duschenes, the three women and myself.


So is there any particular memory that you have of McGill? They all seem very positive. Is there anything that if somebody said, “Do you have one memory that is really very prominent in your mind about McGill?”

Well, McGill restored my life, so I have not only fond memories but I’m very much in debt both to John Bland himself personally and those four years at McGill were a very healing process. I came out of the inferno of Europe and I was in a very uncertain, ambivalent state. So McGill and the School of Architecture and Bland really restored my faith both in perhaps myself and in the opportunity of living in this country. So I owe them a great deal. And that, by the way, includes Fay, whom I knew almost before they got married. Fay had worked at the National Film Board in those days and she was a very lively spirit who contributed a lot to us.


Well, I think your life has confirmed their faith in you.

Well, I was very lucky, but I do want you to know, and I’m happy to record this, that McGill was more than a place to study architecture and it was a place that allowed me to in a sense regain my balance, my own strength, my own trust in myself and encouraged me to go on. So I’m very lucky and McGill had an impact well beyond its main mere training.


Just to go back a moment because you raised the question of whom do I remember well in terms of instructors. Harry Mayerovitch was certainly a very important influence. He used to be around usually on the weekends and he would give us a great deal of real advice and instructions. The other one was Fetherstonhaugh. Now, Fether, as we used to know him, was my ultimate thesis advisor. And I had a bit of a tug of war with him because the question was whether my thesis project would actually qualify for the function of a thesis. I dared to choose not a building. In those days, you did a school or a hospital or a church and that was a significant building type. I chose to do housing as a generic subject and produced a scheme to redevelop the blocks between McGill and Bleury, student housing. And Fether was very upset by this. In fact, he recommended that I not be granted a degree because I persisted in doing this. And he denied me the nomination to the RESE medal. But John Bland intervened, fortunately, and said, “Housing is a perfectly legitimate subject for an architect”. And it was due to John that I was able to graduate.

Thank God!

So in a sense, it is an interesting comment on the times when we still built typical types of buildings: hospitals and churches and office blocks and shops, and the notion of designing housing in the social-cultural sense was not accepted as architecture. Fether was a wonderful guy and he helped me a great deal in many ways. But that was a point of debate between him and I. So Fetherstonhaugh was another great teacher of the day.


You mentioned something about some of the other architects who graduated around the same years that you did, like, I guess I was thinking primarily the people who went to Arcop, either Ray Affleck or Fred Lebensold. I don’t think Fred was a graduate. Do you have any comments about some of those people?

Well, that’s right. Just as we kept on looking up to John Porter and Bob Esdale and Dippy, Henry Di Pierro, these were all our demi-gods. Those guys behind us looked towards us. And among them, Guy Desbarats, Affleck, Brahm Wiseman and these were all very close colleagues. Alla Damas, another great friend of ours, she was just two years behind us. And Alla is still amongst my many friends. So you’re quite right. This was a closely-knit group of people who had sort of gone through together because they were some ahead of us, some behind us and the school was very small in total numbers. And John Bland kept all of us in a sense in the same group.


I was wondering if you would like to talk a little bit about what happened to you-

After I finished!

After you finished. Have a synopsis of your career because you’ve had a fascinating career.

Well, it was actually an interesting connection because I mentioned Al Ortega. And Al Ortega graduated a year ahead of me. And he went to Harvard and I followed in his footsteps. It was he who really wrote back and said, “Listen, that’s what’s happening. Walter Gropius is here, Martin Wagner, Marcel Breuer. You better come down here”. I always wanted to go on and continue education and Al was really the spirit who pointed me in the right direction.

That was quite a decision. That was about in 1946?

That’s right. So in fact I got a scholarship in those days from National Research Council, where I had worked during the war, and I went to Harvard in the fall of 1945. Al had just finished. So I spent the next two years at Harvard in city planning. Fortunately, the school and the building had two other departments, one was architecture and one was landscape architecture. And since landscape architecture had the most interesting girls, it turned out that one of them fascinated me at an early stage and the rest is history.


And who might that be?

Cornelia, my wife of forty-five years was the girl upstairs and I was the boy downstairs.

C.O.: No that’s not true. I was next door!

And we met at Walden Pond.

At Walden Pond!

So there you are. That’s the next step.

C.O.: At the school picnic.

Harvard, planning, planning degree. From there I went on to England and I worked for quite some time there. Came back, worked for CMHC, who had just been created. And out of CMHC came my first opportunity of talking about planning education. I was very lucky in that regard. It was again, to some degree, serendipity. CMHC didn’t quite know what to do with me. I was the first planner they had hired. And since I had a degree from Harvard, I was a certified planner. But in fact, they weren’t quite sure what I could do for them. So I did first of all a survey of thirty-six thousand veterans’ housing from coast to coast because at that point, they were thinking of remodeling or rehabbing or selling, and ultimately they sold them. But in between, there was an extraordinary event. And one day, the vice-president of the corporation phoned me up and said, “Come on, I want to talk to you”. We’ve been asked to make a submission to something called the Royal Commission on the Arts, Letters and Sciences, a commission, which was headed by Vincent Massey. And since I didn’t have much to do, he said, “You go and write the brief for us”. He wasn’t quite sure why we should submit a brief, but he was told to do that so he unrolled the job on me. I wrote the brief. By this time, they had hired a second planner, Humphrey Carver. So between Humph and I, we wrote the brief on what to do about city planning in the context of arts, letters and sciences. And our argument was very simple: if you really want to improve the arts in Canada, you have to improve the place where the arts happen. And the only place where it happens is the city. That’s where you have to have a place for music, for drama, for the exhibition of the arts. And in addition, it is the city by its very nature that creates the opportunity for creativity. So we put this into a little report, which ended up by saying, “If you are serious about the arts, you have to be serious about improving the cities. And if that’s what you want to do, you’ve got to create in Canada opportunity for training city planners” because by this time, if you wanted to go into planning, you had to go abroad. Go to London or to the US. So the argument was very simple: better cities would create the opportunities for the arts in Canada but they required Canadians to be city planners and they’re to be trained at the universities. We made that submission. Within two days, I had a phone call at the office and somebody called McKenzie left a note saying he wants to talk to me. I picked up that note and Larry McKenzie said, “Would you have breakfast with me?” And we made a deal that I would go and see him at the Chateau Laurier. Now Larry McKenzie was on the commission. I didn’t realize that; I hadn’t recognized him. I didn’ t know who he was. But in the job off the commission, he was president of UBC. And he interviewed me together with another academic and they both said, “Look, you’re idea is great. Would you like to come out to UBC and try it?” Well, then it took two years for them to negotiate with CMHC, because CMHC didn’t want to let me go. And I came to UBC on a leave of absence from CMHC with enough money to start what is now the School of Community Regional Planning.


Just to continue, yes, I started the programme in city and community planning, which then became a school of community and regional planning. And I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve produced over the years a remarkable collection of students. If anything, those forty-five years since we graduated our first four students have produced the bulk of those who have made up the profession. So apart from starting the School of Community Regional Planning, I’m proud to say that that school really contributed the profession to the Canadian horizon. We have some very significant members of our graduating classes. They’ve gone from the Canadian House of Parliament, including the commons and the senate to the provincial parliament. I’m happy to say that the present Premier of British Columbia is a graduate of the School of Planning. And beyond that, we have staffed just about every office across this country in one form or another. And in that sense, I’m very proud of the students who have made the profession what it is.


Now, in my own case, I have done a couple of other things, which might interest McGill. From the early fifties, I’ve been interested in work abroad. And I was very fortunate in being able to do a number of things for the United Nations in Africa and in Asia. Perhaps the most interesting thing was that we again started a school of planning this time in Kumasi, in Ghana. Brahm Wiseman, who was a year or two behind me at McGill, helped me in many, many ways. As you know, I brought him to UBC; he then followed me as director of the school and above all, he went with me to Ghana to start the School of Community Planning in Kumasi. During that period, we brought African students to UBC for training. They went back home and now they run their own show. So basically, working abroad, working for the UN in particular, has always been part of the planning school tradition at UBC. In fact, we’ve had a great number of Canadians going abroad on behalf of the UN and a lot of foreign or overseas students coming to UBC for training. So that’s been an important part of our life.


So you’ve been doing that for quite a number of years then.

We’ve done this from the days of Colombo Plan, if you remember those days, which was the beginning of all Canada’s commitment to the developing world. In fact, since 1970, we’ve had a very strong relationship with Asia and Africa in this regard. The other element that might be worthwhile, and John Bland will remember it very well, was that in 1970, the federal government decided to establish at the federal level a Ministry of State for Urban Affairs. It was clear by this time that the federal government had an enormous impact on the Canadian cities well beyond its constitutional prerogative. And for that reason it was important to create a ministry that will pull together something like a hundred programmes that were dispersed amongst many, many departments and begin to coordinate the impact on the Canadian city and at the same time create a voice for the Canadian cities in cabinet. I was very lucky that I was asked to come to Ottawa and start that new Ministry of State for Urban Affairs. Trudeau was committed to this notion and during his first administration, I went to Ottawa and spent four years establishing that ministry and running it in order to give the cities a voice at the federal table and at the same time coordinate and integrate the many programmes. At the same time, we had the mandate to relate urban issues to the international community. And that was the beginning of the relationship with the UN in 1970-71, culminating in ’72 when Morris Strong established the first international conference on the environment and human elements. That was followed in ’76 with Habitat I, which was the conference on human settlements in Vancouver. And that was another link both for us at UBC and my own personal life.


So in conclusion, it was McGill who got me started, it was John Bland who continued to encourage me to do all the many things that I’ve done. And I’m very happy and very proud of that connection. McGill has always been the place where you could get the latest, the best, and above all, a willing audience.

Well, you’ve had an interesting life. But of course, a lot of it is your own doing. And you’ve created your good fortune because I guess because of your efforts and your intelligence and all the rest of it. And I think it’s rather unique also that I’m sitting here with both of you and both of you got the Order of Canada. And I don’t think – Are there any other couples that we know of that have that honour? I doubt it.

Not very many, you’re quire right.

C.O.: There’s the Ostrys. Bernard and Sylvia Ostry. But they’re in economics.

I’m not only very happy but very proud on my wife’s achievements. And they also in a sense started with John Bland because he, above all, recognized in Cornelia already, going back more than- almost more than a half a century…

C.O.: Fifty years!

…that there was talent and there was devotion.


Where did Cornelia- where did you meet John Bland? Because you only met Cornelia at Harvard.

C.O.: Well no. I met Peter at Harvard. And it was a school picnic at Walden Pond. And Peter said that we had to go one day to meet John Bland. Now, who was John Bland? And Peter told the story of how what a wonderful man he was and how he took him in. And so we traveled up to Montreal. And I went to Bellevue to meet Fay and John. It was Bel- yeah, Sainte-Claire

Ste. Anne’s.

C.O.: Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, excuse me, to meet John and Fay. And I was very impressed by this professor of Peter’s.

That was ’46, ’47.

C.O.: That was, no, yeah, ’48, I think.

Well, we won’t worry too much about whether it’s ’47 or ’48.

But anyway…

But you’ve made obviously the right decision because you’ve been partners in just about everything for the rest of your life. And the synergy in your professions is interesting too, because you do run into situations where you have two architects. But this is very interesting because you are more related to the work that your husband than you would- I don’t think I can phrase this properly, than an architect, because of the planning aspect and so forth. And now I know a lot about your career so at least I can educate others.

It’s complementary.

C.O.: Well, we did work together on quite a few things, like we did a whole analysis of the area between Kona in Hawaii and the City of Refuge. And we worked on that together. That’s a huge area of land of some three hundred thousand acres. And then we worked on Banff together, the town plan that isn’ t implemented yet, namely to close Banff Avenue. And then in recent times, we’ ve worked together on the university college at the Caribou, which is in Kamloops. And Peter arranged for the buildings to be around a ring road, which was also the fire road, and that gave me the chance to do the interior as a commons. So we worked together on that.


Very complementary.

C.O.: Yeah. And people always ask, “How can you work with your husband?” It’s the greatest challenge. That’s the only time I shut up!

Let me just add one thing for the record because it may be of some real historic interest. Yes, as you said, I’ve achieved the Order of Canada and the citation is very clear that I have received it as the first professor of city planning in this country and my role in planning education is the basis of that award. Now, in the next three months, I look forward to one more unit. And that is that I’ve been given an honorary doctorate at UBC. And that is because of the forty-odd years that I taught at UBC. And this is accepted on behalf of the many, many students that we had in city planning and also amongst the architects because for the first ten years, between 1950 and 1960, I taught planning to architects thanks to the then director of the school, Fred Lasserre. And of course, Fred Lasserre was my thesis supervisor in the last year at McGill. So when Fred came to UBC in ’47-48, and then I came in 1950, I came to a very good friend who helped us substantively and substantially to establish the School of Planning. So in a sense, the connection with McGill is through the people that I encountered at the time who then moved from Montreal to Vancouver and that closes the circle.


Do you often both consider the fact that it would be wonderful if there was a lot more time to do things?

C.O.: Yes.

You’re right. In fact, we are running out of time but we’re never running out of things to do.

Well, thank you very much. Now I know a lot about you so I can go out and be an apostle.

Well, you’ve been a very patient and a very effective interviewer and we thank you for it.