Julia Parker

B.Arch. 1977
Edmonton, AB
January 27, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson

Well, why I decided to become an architect, I think that’s very a personal experience rather than that sort of looking around and thinking about what career might suit me. My parents had a friend who was, I think one of the first women to graduate in Architecture from the University of Manitoba, probably graduated in the late thirties, early forties. And her name was Ruth Scott and she went to practice architecture in New York, and did a lot of interesting work there, including work on the Cloisters, which is that part of the Metropolitan Museum. And we spent every summer with her at her house in an old whaling village on Long Island called Sag Harbor. And she was just a wonderful, extraordinary person and I admired her enormously and I admired the sensibility that she had towards the world around her. And I think it was really because of her that I became an architect, though she kind of warned me against it in a way, but I just, I think it was my personal admiration for her that really influenced me.


I hope you told her.

I did tell her.


I did tell her. I’m not- Well, as I say, she wasn’t- I don’t know, I think, she didn’t tell me exactly why she had reservations. I think it was a career that had suited her but perhaps, I don’t know, but she said, “well maybe…” you know.

When was that, sort of what year?

I guess it would have been- when I really decided that’s what I wanted to be I think I was sixteen, it would probably have been the late sixties, early seventies when I spoke to her about it. I think she was actually very pleased.


And then you chose McGill.

And then I chose McGill, really because it was in Montreal. And I was living at home with my family at the time and I was very happy living there and really had no interest in moving outside Montreal, so that’s why I chose McGill. And, of course, it was a school with an excellent reputation, I didn’ t feel I was sort of compromising the quality of my education going there, and I was very pleased with my choice, and I was glad that that all worked out.


So what year did you enroll at McGill? Do you remember when that was?

That would have been ’73. That would have been my first year. Well I think that one of my regrets, maybe I’ll start with a regret.


I regret that I never took a course from Norbert Schoenauer. And I took courses from probably most of the other professors. But I think that Norbert was on sabbatical one year that I was there and somehow I missed him the other years. I don’t remember why that happened, but it’s always been a regret of mine that I never did take his History of Housing course because I know that everybody who did became a great Norbert fan and follower. Fortunately I got to know Norbert even though I hadn’t been one of his students, and I did read his books and so forth, but I’m sorry I never took his course. Peter Collins, I think I took every course he taught and he was very influential on me in terms of my later career, because I went on to study Law sort of ten years after graduating and it was probably because I had taken his course in Architectural Judgment.


And he took Law too, didn’t he?

He did take Law, I don’t – he took – he did graduate work in Law, at Yale, I believe.

Yale or Harvard, that’s right, yeah.

Yeah, but there’s no question about it. I had no interest in becoming a lawyer until I had taken his Architectural Judgment seminar and it came back to haunt me some years later, and I decided to study Law. So I think in a way, I’ve been enormously influenced by Peter Collins. And as an architectural historian, he was just, of course, superb and I think inspired everyone who took his courses. And he was my thesis advisor. And that was something that I had very much hoped would happen. I approached him about it. And my thesis project was a zoo and this seemed to appeal to him. I think he had, well he did have a tremendous sense of whimsy and I think he sort of enjoyed the idea of a zoo. And he would leave me charming little notes about sort of different animals that might find themselves in the zoo including this nocturnal creature, which of course was an architectural student. So he was marvelous, a marvelous thesis advisor. And one of my fondest memories of my years at McGill was the trip to Europe that I went on. This was I think the first time that McGill organized a summer school in Europe. And about, maybe twenty of us went for two months. Peter Collins was the guide, for the lack of a better word. We spent one month at University of Manchester doing a design project, which happened to be an aviary. And that was a wonderful experience because their approach to design and the sort of studio work that they did there was very different from what we were doing at McGill. I remember having to draw details full scale and the studios closed at 9 o’ clock and we couldn’t do all-nighters also, but being McGill students, we somehow managed to smuggle things back to the dorms where we were staying and work there.


Was Peter the only professor?

Yes he was. We had a professor from the University of Manchester at that point as well as Peter Collins but from McGill, he was the only one. And then after our time at University of Manchester, we went over to Paris and, well, that was just splendid because-


With Peter Collins, they couldn’t think of anybody you’d want to be with more.

No, no. I think we went to Versailles three times during our time in Paris. And I remember one particular visit, it was a Sunday and we went to see the fountains, because I think it was just once a month that they ran the fountains because of the- I think it’s the gravity system which just carries the water down through them. And so this was a great event, because it had to be very strictly timed. We got there at a certain moment in the day and then we started at a certain place. I think Peter Collins had done this many times, I mean it was a well-known route to him. And we raced through the grounds of Versailles from fountain to fountain to see each one as it played. And oh, it was splendid! You know, he was just in his element. And that was a most wonderful day I will never forget that day at Versailles!


Did John Bland have any- did you have any courses with John Bland when you were there?

Yes, I did. I took his course on Canadian Architecture.

Same as I.

And I later went to work at the Canadian Centre for Architecture and it was interesting because I think that through John Bland I first became- I was first introduced to materials on the older buildings of Montreal and really how difficult it was to find materials on a lot of the buildings that we were researching. And so when I went to work at the CCA, at that point, there was a group of researchers there doing research on the history of greystone buildings. And I really was able to appreciate the value of what they were doing because I had had at least a little taste of this difficulty finding research materials and, you know, how- there was obviously a lot to the first-hand sources, but material that was accessible to the ordinary student was rather rare.


What about- you mentioned John Schreiber.

Well, yes. John Schreiber, I’m a great fan of John Schreiber’s and I always have been. I took his course on Landscape Design, Landscape Architecture; I forget the exact name of it. But I thought he was just marvelous. And what I really liked about John’s courses, what influenced me was his tremendous sense of observation. I don’t think a day goes by without my thinking about edges of things. And this was one of John’s great things, you know, how does the grass meet the sidewalk and how does the snow meet the path and so forth, and the juxtaposition of materials and, well, where does water go when it melts in spring. And he had just a tremendous curiosity and sense of observation about the world around him quite apart from a sort of formal architectural sense or a formal design sense. And there was a wonderful spontaneity about him and his approach to any kind of design project, which might have been sort of putting a few stones in the grass to make a little surface to put a chair on. And I later went to work for him, which was a tremendous thrill for me. I spent a couple of years in his office and we became good friends and I later rented an apartment in one of the buildings that he had renovated on St. Marc.


That’s beside the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Yes, it’s right beside Solaminiums, 1167 St. Marc. And I had an apartment there and it was wonderful. It was a very John-like apartment. There was a bookcase in it, which looked like an ordinary, beautiful bookcase, an ordinary bookcase in the sense it looked rather solid. But there was a little clasp and you just sort of manipulated it and the whole bookcase swung open and you walked through into the conference room of his office. So there were all sorts of wonderful little quirks, which made the place just a joy to live in. And I’m just a tremendous fan of John’s and his approach to architecture. He’s very original and very- he doesn’t judge, he doesn’t appear to judge his own work by reference to any particular school of architecture. He is sort of his own judge and he has his own sense of inventiveness and I’ve always admired that about him.


That’s very well said. That’s so true.

Well, I had a funny experience with Derek Drummond. I think it was my, it must have been the first week in first year. And we had to describe one of our favourite buildings in Montreal. And I think Derek must have been our Design instructor at the time. In any event, he was involved in this assignment. And I wrote about the Town of Mount Royal Library, which was built and I knew very well, had spent a lot of time in, and loved. And of course, you know we all hung our presentations up on the wall, and there were great peals of laughter, and I didn’t know why at the time, of course I didn’ t know that Derek had designed that library. So I guess I picked a kind of nice building to start off with, but it certainly was honestly chosen.


Did you do well in that particular assignment?

Well, you know, I don’t remember, but I hope I did! So that- and I must say, speaking about Derek, I really enjoyed his course on Site Usage. And that influenced me a lot in terms of a little bit of teaching that I ended up doing later on. After I graduated, I taught Architectural History at Montreal Technical College for a number of years. And the students at that school were really there to become draughtsmen and draughtswomen. And they weren’t interested in Architectural History at all. Well, I shouldn’t say that, probably a couple of them were, but generally, they weren’t there for that sort of course, but the province, I think, had mandated that they take a course in Theory and so this was a compulsory course for them. And I very much used Derek’ s approach, the one he used in the Site Usage course, which was a particular approach to analyzing a building and its site and how they use some of the materials and the function and so forth. And I thought it was a very effective, very approachable way to talk about buildings of whatever period. And the students seemed to respond to it so I certainly have Derek to thank for that. And Rad Zuk because he had his nine systems of architecture. I think he expanded it to ten after my time, I’m not sure what the tenth was, but he also had a very analytic approach which works for many people, I think, in terms of understanding buildings.


Do you have any memories of Sketching School?

Wow, my memory- yes I do. It’s kind of an embarrassing memory in a way because the Sketching School, the first one I went to was in the Maritimes and it was my first trip to the Maritimes and I’ve never been back. And when people say, “Well, have you ever been to Nova Scotia?” I say, “Well, yes, I have”. “Well, what did you think?” Well, I really didn’t see anything because for some reason about eight of us decided to go in a van. And I’m trying to think of what kind of van this could have been because it was in essence windowless. I mean there must have been a window, but there were no seats in the back, so I guess we were all sitting on a mattress and only the driver and the person in the passenger’s seat could see anything. And I guess we took turns. I didn’t drive at the time so I was occasionally in the passenger’ s seat, but you know, probably for a total of maybe six hours on the whole trip. So we drove all the way from Montreal to Halifax and then we went to PEI and then we kind of rambled back, and I honestly didn’t see a thing. So, yes, I think well I did see Halifax, because of course we were sketching, and I enjoyed that. Halifax and Dartmouth I still remember very well because of Sketching School and I think it was that experience of experiencing a place by sketching it was wonderful. And I still remain convinced that that’s in a way the best manner to absorb what you are seeing.


Photography as a second and a distant second, unless you’re an expert.

A distant second because it’s the hand-eye and the body.

Was Gerry Tondino on any of those- on that Sketching School?

Oh, yes, yeah, he was.

He’s still around and basically he hasn’t changed at all from my perspective. I know people change but I remember him thirty-odd years ago now, and I see him and he’s still the same.

Still the same.

Still the same guy and a lovely manner, a lovely man.

Well, I worked for Rad Zuk one summer, I think just for a few weeks, maybe a month or so. And that was very interesting experience for me because of the way that Rad went about analyzing the design problem. He was working on a Ukrainian church and what I was working on in the context of the project was model-making, which was never my strong point, I must say this. Models were not my favourite part of architectural studies. But, nonetheless, there I was, doing these models for Rad Zuk. Not actually models, I think we were making geometric forms and sort of standardized ones. I think we had to make a certain number of pyramids and a certain number of cubes and it seemed to me I was doing that kind of thing and then they were being assembled in different ways. But what I remember most in Rad’s office was he opened a drawer in his desk and there out of white plasticine he had, oh, I don’t know, maybe seventeen or eighteen wonderful little forms for this Ukrainian church. And it was just like a little city in a drawer, all these marvelous little white forms.


Little concepts of the design?

Yes, yes, just the external shape of the thing. But it was just the variety, the way he worked and worked and worked with the shape, the form and saved each one, or it seemed to me he was saving them. But they just were so marvelous all together. It was very sculptural. I’ve kept that image with me of…


…Rad’s drawer.


Now what happened? When did you graduate?

I graduated in ’77. And, of course, that was right after the Olympics. A lot of my classmates went to Toronto or went out West and found work elsewhere, because there wasn’t much happening in Montreal. But I did a couple of things. I worked at Arcop, I think lots of people at that stage went through Arcop, on contract, I think for a few months I don’t remember the exact amount of time but a few months. And I also took some courses in theatre design, which was a nice complement to my architectural studies. And then I went and worked for Peter Rose. And at that point he was sharing office with Peter Lanken. And I guess Peter Rose, I don’t remember how this exactly happened, but for some reason, I was loaned to Peter Lanken who was doing a project at Phyllis Lambert’ s house. And Phyllis Lambert had a couple, an architect and a designer working for her. But one of them was away, I think, on sick-leave. And Peter Lanken needed somebody to go over and be at her house everyday and supervise this project that was going on there, which was, I think, the installation of an air-conditioning or something of that sort. It wasn’t actually- it wasn’t so much an architectural project as it was an installation project with architectural ramifications because various walls had to be gone through and so forth. Anyway, because her on-staff person was away sick, I went over there, and that’s what I did for about six weeks. I just was there everyday and I got to know Phyllis and I got to know some of the people working with her, she had a research group of, oh, probably ten people at the time and another architect there. And that relationship came back and changed my life a couple of years later, because after I worked for Peter Lanken, I then and worked with John Schreiber, which was a marvelous experience, for a couple of years. Worked for Norman Slater a little bit at that time too. And then I went back and worked for Phyllis Lambert. She was just starting the Canadian Centre for Architecture at the time, and I think there were maybe three of us sort of working on the project; it was really a project at that stage. And I stayed there for four and a half years. When I left, I was the Assistant-Director for Curatorial Affairs and Study Programmes and the organization at that point I guess had a staff of about fifty. So-


So that would have been in the early eighties then, I guess ’83, ’82…

The early eighties, I left at the end of ’84. So I was there in the early years, it was a very exciting time to be there and of course it’s-

Did you see the construction finished?

No, [unclear] just before the Shaughnessy House construction started. And I left just, you know, just at that sort of that point when that was starting. And I left work to go to Law School. Then I hearken back to Peter Collins, because when I was working at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in my role as Assistant-Director, I worked a lot with lawyers on various aspects of the institution and I really enjoyed that legal work. And I remember how much I had enjoyed Peter Collins’s course on Architectural Judgment, which really involved a lot of reading of decisions of various courts and the analysis of legal thinking. And so after sort of I guess the academic exposure and then the work exposure to the sort of work that lawyers do, I decided I would go back, back to school and study Law.


Where did you study Law, in Toronto?

University of Toronto. I actually took a year in between and I lived in Iceland for a year and I went to University of Iceland and I did a programme there in Icelandic Studies, which is something that I just always had wanted to do. But then I went to the University of Toronto and studied Law there.


And you graduated in Law and you’ve been practicing law, I gather since.

Yes, practicing for the Federal Government.

…At the expense of architecture.

Well, I don’t know, I’ve kept my hand in architecture here in Edmonton in the sense I’ve been on the Board for the Edmonton Society for Urban Architecture Studies, which has organized- unfortunately it’s got sort of lapsed in the past year or so, but was very active for about ten years organizing an architectural lecture series akin to the Alcan Series. One of the problems in Edmonton is that there is no School of Architecture. So there isn’t that kind of focal point. But nonetheless, it was, you know, a wonderful group to be involved with, and I think we had a lot of support from the community and we brought in some very interesting people, including Rad Zuk. So I certainly have kept my hand in things that I’ve been able to and done some work around our own house and stuff, but I haven’t been practicing in the past few years.

But you are practicing law.

I’m practicing law, yes. Practicing law. I think of Peter Collins all the time!