Interview by Jim Donaldson
The first thing perhaps that we should talk about is how you decided to become an architect.
Yeah. Well, I think I was lucky, and I’ll tell you why. It’s that I was quite young, thirteen, fourteen, when I started expressing, you know, desire for architecture to my parents. You know, sort of saying that would be something that would really, really interest me and thinking more and more about it. At a very young age. And it’s strange because I read an article recently about the same sort of thing. A fellow saying that to his parents and his parents having the same reaction, “You know, think about this twice because you’re not going to make a living out of this sort of thing.” That’s exactly what happened. You know, I’m still to this day not quite sure why that was their reaction. And they’re trying to say, “Well, you know you’re good in numbers and things like that. Maybe you should think of going that way”. And I just couldn’t see myself, you know, in numbers everyday. So eventually, they sort of- my insistence that this is really what I want to do no matter what, you know, no matter what the living, it wasn’t important. It’s just a question of doing what you like. It was to me, it was the most important thing and I think that’s what everyone should try to do in life. So eventually, I passed a test with someone that was competent in that sort of thing and the result must have been good because they eventually let me pursue that avenue of letting me go into architecture.
Just thinking it was what, when you were in high school or earlier than that?
In high school. You know, thirteen, fourteen. I was good at drawing when I was a kid and when I was young, the playthings were more always in construction-type of- you know, Lego things sort of amusements. So, you know, intellectually, that I guess, everything goes together in that sense, three-dimensional thinking and so forth and so on. To me, it was a natural thing to do. And finally, they said, “Sure. Go.” I was so insistent. And it was more important to do what I liked doing rather than pick something that-
It’s a big decision when you are at that age in your life.
Extremely big. And I say I was lucky to be able to find out what I wanted to do at that age because I find that most young people really don’t know what they want to be doing, you know. It’s always a problem. My recommendation to them is to say well, find something that you’re going to like doing. Don’t go like I’ve had a lot of young people saying, “I want to be an architect like you” sort of thing. I don’t think that you should pick, you know, a profession because you see someone else that maybe is successful or is doing good at it. It’s deeper than that.
It’s deeper than that. The interesting thing is some of those things. Kids have difficulty deciding what they like. Never mind what they want to do for a career, when you ask them, “What do you like?” And they say, “Well, I really don’t know”. So you just have to wait until you find something you like and then pursue it.
Exactly, exactly. You know, I have a daughter that discovered that she was good in drawing in her twenties. And she eventually, you know, like it was a discovery for everyone that she had this sort of a talent that was never expressed before and she started pursuing that avenue. So that’s how I came into architecture.
So you went to McGill. Was there any reason? Were there other schools of architecture that you could have gone to at the time?
I could have gone, there was the Beaux-Arts, it wasn’t called the school of architecture, if I remember correctly, but the architectural course was given at the Beaux-Arts school. It was a provincial legislation school. And having studied up to seventh grade in French and then switching in English, to me it was more natural to me to carry on studying in English and my mind was set to go to McGill. And an interesting thing happened. At the time, my parents had a woman friend that was working at the administration at the Beaux-Arts. You know, and when they’d meet, you know they’d say I was going into architecture and she kept on saying, “Well, you know, you should come to see the- to visit and to make an appointment and see the director of the school before he makes his decision”, his last decision of picking the school that he wants me to go at. So eventually I did that and I met with the director of the school at the time. And I don’t think- I can’t remember if I had met already with Professor Bland at McGill or at the same time, because I was studying at Loyola as I mentioned before and I wanted to see how I could get into architecture without having to go and finish my B.Sc. at Loyola if it was possible. Anyway, I eventually met with this director of the School of Architecture at the Beaux-Arts. And I had a session that must have lasted for an hour at least. And he, you know, told me all about what they were teaching and what you needed as qualification and so forth and so on. And when I came out from the interview, I was a bit dismayed about what my feeling came of that interview. He was of the old school, of the Beaux-Arts school of Paris still and frankly, the way he was putting it, you know, you’d have to be a Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo in order to go into architecture. So my reaction was, “Boy, that’s not for me”, as far as that is concerned.
That’s why I’m saying that I went to McGill at the same time to see, to get information as to how to get in the school. And it was the complete opposite when I went to the- I don’t know if you remember the old faculty up on University. It looked like a frat house there, right across from- in the same building as the bookstore. And the atmosphere in that building was absolutely fantastic. And going there and seeing all the models of the projects of the students and so on. And I said, “This is where I want to go. This is where I want to be”. And my first contact with Professor Bland was extraordinary. You know, immediately he called the registrar to see, you know, stating what my position was, what year I was and so forth and so on and what I needed. He made a rendezvous for me to go there and pick up all of the information. So it was an extremely positive first reaction.
So as it turned out, eventually, during our studies, I think it was in fourth year, Guy Desbarats was in charge of this class whereby we were doing work at the trade school in Montreal. I don’t know if you went through that. And the fellows from the School of Architecture of the University of Mont- well, it wasn’t the University of Montreal at the time, but let’s say- let’s use that as a term, from the Beaux-Arts. You know, we were in the same group, class, so we got to know one another quite well. And a remark was at one point, you know after awhile that we had made friends with some of the fellows there and they said, “Well, you know, you guys at McGill, you’re more engineers than architects, and you know…” So, you know, I didn’t- I just thought, “Oh yeah, so?” But that was the sort of-
That was the difference between-
That was the difference, well, that was the perception I think from them because we were part of the Faculty of Engineering. We were a branch of the Faculty of Engineering and we were taking, as you remember at that time, and I think it’s something that really to me was very important as it turned out in my career. For instance, the studying of structural engineers with the fellows from civil engineering. The same classes, the same courses, the same exams, the same projects. Remember designing the steel bridge and so forth and so on? And to me it was a fantastic asset to have all that. I think I’m influenced extremely, you know, extremely strongly in the way I proceeded to do architecture afterwards having all this background in structure, which all of the students had at that time. But I understand that eventually they sort of became diluted I think.
Slightly diluted. I think there’s less so now but there’s still very much an influence of Engineering.
Well, at McGill, yeah, I think that has carried on, but I know, as an example, I’m sort of diverting, but my son studied at Polytechnique, civil engineering and structure, majoring in structure, and I remember when he was making exchange or working with students in architecture at the University of Montreal, sort of working with them to give them a hand with their structure, he’d come up to me and say, “My God! They have absolutely no idea what a structure is!” It was sad, I thought. They sort of had absolutely no notion. And I think that that’s a big- it’s a lack. I think it’s like someone who would be studying medicine without studying the anatomy or the bone structure.
It’s interesting because I, like you, enjoyed it.
I realized the significance of it but I also enjoyed it. And the courses were a challenge too.
Yeah, with Joe de Stein? Did you have-?
Yeah, we had Joe de Stein. Even calculus I enjoyed.
Absolutely, yeah, same here. It was sort of a game, you know?
That’s right. So you entered school in what, 1950 or ’49?
I must have entered- you see, I graduated in ’55 and I entered four years earlier than that. So it must have been ’51.
Do you remember any of the professors?
My first year in third year was Stuart Wilson that I enjoyed thoroughly. He was a fantastic teacher, teacher and person and so it was a great, great first impression. And also Gordon Webber, at that time, my first contact, and of course, John Bland was always a tremendous teacher.
Stuart Wilson was a bit of a tyrant at times and he was tough on people and a lot of people never survived that. If you were overly sensitive, you had to develop a very thick skin because either you were very good or he would say, “Well, you should be drawing with butter. It looks like you draw with butter”.
Yeah, he wasn’t mincing his words. He wasn’t there to tap your back. But I think you sort of told me a reaction of one of my classmates towards his teacher. My reaction is well, in life, that’s the way it is. It would be, I think, a false service, or a bad service to give you- to, you know, to pamper you and say, “You’re doing just fine”. Because once you’re out of there, the real life is-
The real life is there.
No more imagination.
Exactly! Waiting for you!
So John Bland, he was probably teaching you history, eh?
Absolutely, yeah. John Bland was teaching history. World architecture. Hazen Sise was teaching modern architecture, contemporary architecture. Very good at it.
And then the other members of that firm, Arcop, Ray Affleck. Guy Desbarats was there. And also Fred Lebensold was there.
Fred Lebensold was there. I had Fred in-.
Do you have any memories of Fred Lebensold?
Oh yeah, yeah.
Positive or negative. It doesn’t make any difference.
Well, positive, positive. Let me say something about the school and the way I’ ve always felt. There are classes in school that are different from others and I attribute that to maybe the teachers and the students that are part of the class. One fellow in our class that you probably know very well who happened to have passed away recently is Dimmy Dimakopoulos, Dimitri Dimakopoulos. And Dimmy had a fantastic talent for design and drawing. You know, I mean his touch in drawing I don’t know where he picked it up. I guess he had been working with architects a few years earlier and he had learned all these ways of really drawing in a fantastic way, with pencil drawing and all that. And the rest of the class, you know, would look towards him. He sort of brought the bar up a bit by his input. And that’s a big plus, you know in the class, because he was sort of sending the quality of things, you know, we would look towards him. You know, we were always anxious to see his drawings. So it sort of elevates the whole thing. And we were a small group, so I guess we were lucky to have that. I’ve always felt very, very lucky to-
As a matter of fact, I think Dimmy when he graduated didn’t form Affleck, Desbarats… he became part of the design for the theatre.
Absolutely, absolutely, for a theatre in Vancouver.
The Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver.
Yeah, yeah, and that’s exactly how they got together, Arcop. So in fifth year with Fred it became comical. Because, you know, Dimmy could do no wrong sort of and the rest of us, we were just there! But that was part of the whole thing. And it didn’t bother me personally at all because, you know, I kept doing whatever I sort of felt like doing. I was in my sort of Frank Lloyd Wright period of copying all his stuff. And Fred would say, “I don’t know this language. I wouldn’t know where to start”. And you know, he would pick the drawings and throw them on the floor sort of. And when you work on a project, you know, for days and you put all your soul and [unclear] and everything into it and a professor picks it up and says what he says and throws literally the drawings on the floor, sort of, I mean I’m sure some of the guys felt pretty bad about all this, but you know, we got to turn it into a big joke. So, but I think that’s the way not exactly the way it is in life, but that’s what you have to face.
Except the difference is, is you’re very young and you’re vulnerable and impressionable and it scares you that-.
Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. But that’s-. My own reaction towards that was that it’s good, it’s good, you know, it’s- and you got to, you know, you have to- not necessarily fight but you have to go after what you want if you want to-
Louis, did they have Sketching School?
Absolutely, yes, Sketching School.
Was Gordon and Stuart or-?
We had the two of them so-! I got- I have- as a matter of fact, that thing there, that was done in Quebec City in ’53. Oh yeah, those were lovely, lovely two weeks, one week per year. And I remember one year was in Deschambeault and the other one was in Kingston. And lovely souvenirs of that. Because you get to know- Stuart was there and Gordon. So you begin, you know, and you had had them as teachers, now you became friends with them, actually, you would have a beer together. And it was a very good exchange not just for- the drawing period was fine but it’s the contact with these men that had so much experience. So you could really exchange and-. So I have extremely good souvenirs of sketching.
I find myself lucky to have been at McGill at that time because you know the quality of the teachers to me was outstanding. And half of them were even in practice or were starting to practice and they had won competitions and they were at a state of their career, in a very positive state. Thinking of how Arcop came about. You know, Hazen Sise was a teacher, Fred Lebensold, Guy Desbarats. Dimmy, my classmate, became a partner in the firm.
Then Michaud ended up-
Michaud I didn’t know. I got to know Michaud afterwards, after.
He ended up being at Laval, eh, the dean at one time, wasn’t he?
No, Guy Desbarats became the dean. Yeah, well, Michaud worked in Laval.
Yeah. But I got to know Jean Michaud; we had a project in Vaudreuil called La cité des jeunes de Vaudreuil. And this was right as the Ministry of Education was formed in Quebec. Paul Gérin-Lajoie was the minister who happened to be a cousin of mine and my partner. That helped a bit, I have to say. But this ministry of education was new and they wanted to be doing great things and they wanted to be doing these cities. And the word out in Quebec by- I don’t know where it came from, but someone came along and said, “Well, we want the best of architects. And if we have to go to the States, we will. And there was a mention of TAC from Boston, so we said, “Look, we’re as good”. We were a bit pretentious but “You know, you have talents here. And as a matter of fact, you know for general planning and all that,” we said, “you know, there’ s John Bland here who is our teacher. I mean you can’t beat him”. As a matter of fact, that’ s how he got involved in that project by our saying, “Don’t go and look-you know the grass is always greener somewhere else sort of affair”. But look in your own backyard here and I’m sure you’ll find all the people that you-. So that was a good experience. And that’s how I got to know Jean Michaud, because he had one of the buildings to do in that project.
So you actually started your firm, I guess it would be about 1957 then.
Exactly, exactly. I graduated in ’55 and it was required to have three years of practice in an architectural office before you could start your own. And I guess it was a trend in those days that you, you know, everyone would start to try to do their own work as I think as opposed to today that most young architects go in larger firms and sort of try to blend in to a larger firm, because it isn’t easy, obviously to start your own. You have to have clients and so forth and so on. The same story.
So tell me a little bit about your career. Your firm lasted for a great number of years.
It lasted for, well, not that long, but in the time while it lasted with my- well, I’ve been practicing for a long time, but the firm that started in ’57 with Guy Gérin-Lajoie and Michel Leblanc, the three of us started a firm with hardly anything: balconies and façades and what have you, just as long as you’ re doing it yourself. That’s the whole idea. So you budget yourself to the minimum and eventually things start to grow a bit and you know, you put all your time and-.
What of all the many, many buildings that you designed and have built, are there any that you’re particularly proud of? I guess the highlights of your career.
Well, let’s say, as you mention here, what was your first major project? And I think the first major project as far as our firm is concerned I think was the metro station at Peel. And we must have been commissioned to do that in ’ 61, if I recall, or late ’61. And to us, that was a major project in our firm, of course. Although for- and this was the first line of the metro. And the way it was done after the stations were done by the city of Montreal themselves, by their own department of engineering, and there was only five or six or seven stations that were given out to architectural offices. Well, the other offices, I won’t mention their names because I don’t recall them all, but my impression was that some of those firms to them this was just a whole in the ground! To us that were just doing little houses and things like that, it was a major project. Just imagine. And we took it very seriously. I personally was in charge of the design of that and I designed most of it myself. But I think one of the interesting experiences of that project was the fact that we took it so seriously and we developed a way of attacking, let’s say, concepts at that point, which I think most architects do nowadays, that you- we have the opportunity, I said that to other people, that we can go in the world and see examples of what you’re doing full-scale. Like, we went- the first thing we did we went to Toronto. But that, you know, took us maybe an hour and a half to assess that because at the time, it was, you know all the same coloured stations. Architecture was not the thing at that time. And Boston and New York were very ordinary as far as the subway is concerned. And our engineer, because we- the city had grouped us with some engineers, and one of them one day said, “One of the fellows in the office just went through Stockholm and he says ‘Wow, it’s fantastic. You should go and see this’”. So, why not? So we asked the city, “You know, we plan to do this. Are you going to pay our travel expense?” And they said, “No. That’s not part of our budget”. We said, “We’ll go anyway. It doesn’t matter”. But by doing that, we sort of, me and Guy Gérin-Lajoie, we said, “Well, if we’re going to go in Europe, we won’t go for a day. We’ll go for a couple of weeks and go and visit everything that is pertinent to subways. So we’ll first plan to go to Stockholm, of course to see it”. So going through Paris, we went to see the Paris metro. At the time, you know, you go into these white tile stations and all you’d see on the wall, you know, are these signage of Cinzano, Cinzano, Cinzano and Ziganne, Ziganne. You know, it was treated like a hole in the ground. Not a place for humans to go. It was quite inhuman.
And I guess that’s what a lot of people don’t realize or remember is that the Montreal metro line is quite unique because all the stations were designed by different architects.
It wasn’t done by the city of Montreal.
Exactly, exactly. And this was a trial. And this was pushed by Robitaille. I don’t know if you remember Robitaille was the town planner. He was quite an extraordinary man, very aesthetically inclined in everything he did. Anyway, to come back, so by going to Europe, by seeing- and I remember exactly when it was because this was exactly during the famous Cuban crisis. So it was in ’ 62, October of ’62. So of course we didn’t go and bother to try to go to Russia! That was out of our plan. So we did go to Stockholm. And I remember on the way, we had a stopover in Copenhagen. For a half an hour, the plane stopped and so we walked out of the plane into the airport and then we came to the airport and I said, “Wow! All this design!” I said, “We have to come back and see this”. So as it turned out, to go to Sweden, and see what they had done- it was a sort of mixture, the metro there, it was a mixture. And it was the stations that had been done in these satellite cities that were architecturally very interesting. But it didn’t really apply. But nevertheless, I mean you know travel educates and we got that. And while we were there, the Milan metro was being built. And we happened to have a client from Milan in Montreal so they arranged for us to go and see what they were doing there. And we ended up in Rome, where no one knew there was a metro, but there was a line between – in Mussolini’s time that was built, a subway line from the Colosseum to one of his cities that he had built. So we visited that. So you come back and you have a baggage of information that is quite imposing, is quite, you know, you’ve got all this that you have seen. So as it turns out in front of this committee that I was presenting the station, there were these two French engineers from the Paris metro that were consulting, but as it turned out, I eventually had seen more metros than all of this large committee, you know, of the city that were overseeing this metro. So whenever in the design when I was presenting and they’ d say, “Well, that isn’t going to work”. And I’d say, “Yes, I’ve seen it at this place and it works”. You know, that became so helpful, this baggage, this groundwork, this education, this research that you have to do before you work. And that same principle I’ve applied all the time to any major work that you do.
One of the projects that I was aware of was Mirabel. Forgetting about the politics of it and so forth, were you happy about that as a building?
Yeah, oh yeah.
Because that was quite unique, the movers of the passengers out to the airplanes. I think the only one prior to that was Dulles.
They do it in Europe but it’s a different-
It’s accepted all over Europe.
Yeah, well at the time we were doing- before Mirabel, exactly in Europe, every time we would go in Europe, I would say that, you know, like eighty percent of the time you would come off a plane and you’d go on a bus, an ordinary little bus and they’d bring you into the airport because the airports were overloaded. You know, and that was before the time of the loading gates and so forth and so on. And that was their way of coping with this. But it’s not- you wouldn’t plan an airport on that principle. The way we arrived at Mirabel to do this concept, and we had gone through, you know a whole slew of concepts that you can think of. But there are two criteria of design that was given to us by Transport Canada, the Ministry of Transport at the time. It’s that on departure, you- the passenger would- maximum walking distance would be three hundred feet from curb to the airplane and on arrival, the term wheel stop, from wheel stop to the curb, it shouldn’t take more than a half an hour. Those are the only two design criteria that- you know. But nevertheless, this takes care of everything finally, because, you know, we went through concepts where we had modular airports like say a little Quebec airport type of- you know you walk in and your plane is there and you have twenty of those tied together. And that, we really believed in that principle. It’s a simple, simple way of doing things. But then something had to- we thought our only client was Transport Canada but as it turned out, we had another client. It was Immigration and Immigration is as powerful, if not more so than Transport. They have their own say. So the people in Immigration they said, “No way we’re going to have people running around to all these modules, so we dropped that idea. So eventually, you know, the concept that you come up to, commit with, you feel good because it meets their requirements and it meets the budget. So, you know, at the end, we had six mixtures of concepts and the one that was built eventually was the one that made more sense in all sorts of ways. I know there’s a lot of criticism about the transporters and all sorts of things, but-
But of course, it was developed for a certain function and when you start changing the function, sometimes, it impacts on the design, I mean after it’s up and running.
The people that you meet is extraordinary. It just so happened that just recently, Mayor Jean Drapeau passed away. And it sort of brought back memories, very, very positive memories, because you know everyone was eulogizing him, “He’ s this and that and that”. I was fortunate to have had personal contact with him with the metro, because when I was doing the metro, as I said, to me it was a major project. I mean it was the big project at the time in our office. And so, you know, and what I had seen in Europe and the signage and so forth and so on. And Jean-Paul Mousseau, the artist, was working with us on all sorts of other things in our office. So I had this idea of saying, “You know, metros should be maybe, rather than having this signage of whatever, they had these places where backlit signs were going to be there. To me, architecturally, it sort of kills the space. I was trying to think maybe the city could sort of reproduce artwork. That was an idea, anyway. But my own way of integrating art, it wasn’t asked by the city, is that I had Jean-Paul and said, “Look, you and Claude Vermette are good friends, I know, with the ceramics. Let’s do something. We did this- all ceramic and let’s try to introduce something colourful”. So Jean-Paul came up with an idea it was all bands. I said, “That doesn’t really fit”. I’m relating this very quickly. I said, “If you can come up with circles, I mean a circle is a perfect figure. I can really fit that easily in the metro. We can really have some fun. So he came-
Were you talking specifically of one station then or-?
Peel, Peel. So eventually, as it turned out, we had these large one-quarter scale of all these corridors and the whole station, which were immense with these circles in them. So I had the people from the city, the group that usually were overseeing the station. I said, “Can you come to my office? I can’ t, you know, with these models. You have to come”. So they came and they were coming for half an hour and they stayed for a few hours because I gave out all these ideas of artwork and so forth and so on. So they said, “The mayor, the mayor is going to like this idea, I’m sure”. So they said, “We’ll arrange for you to meet him with all your models”. I said, “Sure, anytime”. And then, as it turns out, I said, “Anyway he could come?” You know, I knew it was an impossible thing. They said, “We’ll try to arrange it”. And he came over. You know, he was very curious and he [unclear]. And as it so happened at the time, we had won the Quebec pavilion…
…Expo competition. So we were working on that at the office. And there was a part that we were doing on the models for the interiors and so forth and so on. And I had three of these large circles that eventually went into the station but they were there as samples in my office, done by Mousseau and Claude Vermette. And one of them we had taken, we had made a table out of. As we were walking by to see the models, you know, the mayor says, “Boy, I wouldn’t mind having one of those!” So he left and the next week, I had one put up. I had it sent to his own, private office at the- not at city hall but at his civic centre office, whatever. Anyway, I’m saying this because he had seen the models that we were doing for the Quebec pavilion and we did the first TV, colour TV and then colour TV studio on Expo. And I was invited by the mayor to present our models. But as it turned out, many years later, I did a project with some other architects for a building in town and we presented this. This was in ’81 I think it was. And it was Place Laurentienne, but it was never built. It wasn’ t the one that was built on René Lévesque. And in this reception room of city hall, he walked in the room and he comes to me, you know, in front of everyone and he whispers in my ears, he says, “I still have your table”. I didn’t know what the hell he was doing! What’s he saying? So to me, you know, people have been saying, you know how you remember things, and it’s true. So I liked him very much.
So in terms of your career, I guess you’re one person whose dreams are realized, way back when you were fourteen, fifteen and decided to become an architect.
No real regrets.
Oh no, no.
Very satisfying. Rewarding, well, that’s always questionable, but rewarding emotionally and so forth.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have my own feeling towards looking back and saying how could you improve teaching, and this is an article I’ve read and I’ve been thinking is to give young architects more courses in the business sense of-.
You know, it’s interesting. I said the same thing to one professor who’s a young professor and he said it wouldn’t make any difference. At that stage, nobody would be interested. And you and I remember, they had a business practice, professional practice. And everybody sort of went to it. It was an hour a week or an hour and a half and that’s the one deficiency that most of us had when we went into the business.
Exactly, exactly. In hindsight, we were sort of saying, “My, we should have had more and we should have paid more attention to it”. And, you know, they should force it down our throat, because we were so naïve towards a lot of things. But the article I was reading is this young architect like his father was telling him, “You’re not going into architecture because it’s not a business sort of thing”. But as it’s turning out, his father now, who happened to have run a business maybe fifteen, twenty years, he’s become involved in an architectural office to run it as a business. So I guess it’s a good example of the change of thinking that-
It’s probably one of the few deficiencies. I guess there are many, but overall, on the balance, it’s a pretty happy and successful life.
Oh yeah, yeah.
Well, thank you very much.