December 1, 1997
Interview by Jim Donaldson
Ok, well I guess I was one of those people who in school was always pretty good in everything that I did and I never had a strong sense of where I was headed. You know after you get over being someone who chases after fires, or whatever, you start looking for a career and for me there was nothing strong in the sense that I could do math, I could do science, I was interested in social history, I was interested in geography, a whole variety of things and nothing really grabbed me. I was a keen competitive swimmer in my younger days and I had a swim coach who was a trained architect, a refugee from Poland, who came over here and wasn’t allowed to practice architecture. But he was always interested in it and I guess that kind of rubbed off on me, over the years working with him as my swim coach and I began to be interested in architecture as a possible career. I identified it as something that dealt with a lot of different topics, where I could be a kind of Renaissance man and still have a career. And so that was, I think, pretty much what headed me in that direction. I applied to a number of different schools. I think the three that I kind of had on my final list were MIT, Toronto and McGill. I was attracted to McGill because of the cultural situation of Quebec at that time. I was really interested in the French community there. I was interested in the history of that part of the world, and McGill’s history as a very old university in Canada. And I went to a couple of the places to look at, I had been to MIT and I had been to Toronto, I hadn’t been to Montreal. And as it turned out, I was accepted by all three, I had scholarships from all three and pretty much the last day I had to make up my mind, I chose McGill, mainly because of Montreal. And that’s where I went.
I remember my first days at McGill, I went because of my fascination with Montreal, I must have spent my first month there exploring the city rather than enjoying the school. I found the school kind of intimidating because everybody there seemed to be in second year, as I was, but it was my first year there, coming from the West, and I was very unsure about where I stood in the class, and what was going on, I didn’t enjoy any of the subjects I was taking particularly, and I just was kind of uneasy. What I found that settled my mind and that I enjoyed was the city itself and the opportunity to explore, to see new things, to see old things, to run into all kinds of people that I would never have met in Western Canada.
That was in, what, the mid-sixties, the early sixties?
’63, when they were blowing up mailboxes and all that kind of thing!
Then you have the Expo ’67
Yeah, and so it was an exciting time in the city and there was just a kind of an enthusiasm and a life to the city that I hadn’t seen in other cities that I had been in I found out that was really what held me there and kept me fascinated for the first little while until I had a sense of who I was in this place and how I was going to succeed or not. I remember very early on we were sitting in one of our Architecture classes and the professor, unfortunately I can’t remember who it was, asked us to look to each side of ourselves and recognize that in 3rd year, neither of those two people would be there, there would be only one of us left and then suggested that if we look down the whole row we were sitting in that there would probably be only one of those left at graduation time and he was pretty much right! But it was a pretty scary concept for somebody coming from so far away to university and sitting there in class for the first couple of days. I think that first year went by me in pretty much of a blur that way and it wasn’t until my second year and third year in the school that I kind of got my feet on the ground and felt I knew why I was there and what I was setting out to accomplish. The things that I guess that I enjoyed most, you know I’m always reminded of my own daughter now in retrospect her first day at school, came home, she was going to a private school in the country here, and for the first few days that she came back from school we questioned her about what wonderful things she learned in school and she was always keen to talk about the bus ride to school that was the most exciting thing in her day because of the people that she rode with and the stories that they told her and the things that she saw along the road and my sense of being at McGill in those early years was pretty much like that, it was not so much the core curriculum of the school as it was the survey school, the sketching school and the opportunity to be out with other students from different parts of the country that I never met before and do things that I had never done before. So that was the unique experience for me in the early days at McGill, just the opportunity and the freedom and the magnificent city where there was all of this sort of thing available.
I suppose that gradually changed soon as you went into the upper years and you probably had to become a bit more serious.
Well, you know I was serious from the start, and I did reasonably well from the start but I just kind of described what it was that attracted me and kept me interested. The courses, of course, I guess once you get into architecture and start to learn that you can do this, you become very fascinated by the simple act of creating something out of nothing, as you do as an architect, so that became a draw I think after I got through my second year and it was exciting just to go into the studio and to be able to work on a problem, to find a way, to find an answer, to find something that would satisfy.
Even in those formative years, do you remember anyone of the professors that sort of encouraged you, not that you needed or required any encouragement, who might have influenced you at all or was it the History or was it Stuart Wilson or Tondino?
You know I think that Stuart Wilson was a very different sort professor, very intimidating in the beginning, but very loving later on. He was really interested in the students but he had a gruff exterior. I can remember the first studio that we presented in, something that I never did as a professor afterward, so what I learned from the situation is “don’t do this”, but he walked in, everybody had their work up on the wall, and he went around and tore about 60% of it off and said all he was interested in talking about what was left. So if you one of the students whose work was lying on the floor, you were simply ignored for that first round and that was really distressing for somebody whose work was all gone. I was one of the ones who fortunately had a few pieces still left on the wall. He was gruff in that way and I think not very thoughtful about the feelings that his students might have. But, on the other hand he had a lot to say and I think that over a few studios with him, most students finally came to the grudging conclusion that they learned a lot from this man, even though he wasn’t all that approachable, he was approachable out of class, in the bar, wherever.
Do you remember Peter Collins at all?
Peter Collins was probably the most significant professor that I had while I was at McGill. He was always very interested in what I was doing in later years. In the early, early years, he was clearly a person who was a scholar and knew his own field and was making a contribution to it and that attracted me. I guess he was operating in a plane that I was interested in and that I knew something about, not that I was a scholar, but I was familiar with that side of how you learned and the values that were placed on it. The sculptural and the drawing and the studio work and so on was all so new to me so I didn’ t feel that comfortable with it initially. But Peter Collins was working in an area that I was attracted to. History of Architecture was something that brought me to McGill in the first place. And he was clearly very good at what he was doing. He was respected by other faculty members in universities across the country. And he was a creative and controversial kind of guy. One of the strongest memories I have of him is during some of the student unrest on the campus, they were set up right across from his office, with a loud speaker system and everything and he went out with a pair of scissors and cut the cord because it was making too much noise in his room! And he just seemed to be the kind of guy who would intervene in a situation if he thought it was appropriate – he wasn’t afraid.
My memory of Peter was not dissimilar to yours because I think if anybody at McGill, he was the biggest influence because I had, I won’t go into my background now, but he was the one who when there was a bit of wavering on my part, he was the one who encouraged me to continue and I still think of him as the ideal professor because you think of him as just that real academic and he knew his subject, was respected and he taught in a manner that most people would have a sense of history and logic from architecture. He was really good at his profession.
I think the thing that really I found wonderful about him is that he wasn’t above encouraging his students. Lot of faculty members are kind of interested in their own work, if you get it, fine, if you don’t, too bad. Peter Collins was very thoughtful in the way he looked at what students were doing, and saw their strengths, approached them, told them that he noticed, and encouraged them. I found that to be really powerful influence during the time I was there. He was the faculty member at McGill who encouraged me to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship and that was, of course, a wonderful follow-through to my years at McGill.
I am going to have to ask you about that, that’s something I didn’t know about. What about any of the others, Gerry Tondino, do you remember him? Was he in charge of the sketching school in those years?
The sketching school while I was there seemed to be kind of a mélange of different faculty members. There were lots of people who went, and Tondino was kind of nominally in charge, but Stuart Wilson was always there and there were other kind of major players who appeared and I guess the thing that I enjoyed about sketching school was that the faculty members actually sketched and you could kind of go and see what kind of work that they did and you could do your work and they talked to you and you talked to them. It kind of was done on a level where you could approach these people whereas the classroom at McGill, in the early years at least, you weren’t in a very approachable situation with many of the faculty members.
What about John Bland? He was teaching a course, I think, when you were there, was he not teaching?
Yeah, he taught the Canadian History course and he seemed to be a steadying influence on the school. The thing that I found exciting about McGill, in comparison with Yale or even some of the other Canadian Schools, was that it didn’t have a party line. Each of the faculty members sort of went off in his own direction. And I can remember one faculty member giving a lecture in a particular area and right away somebody else would be there that afternoon to give the counter lecture why you shouldn’t believe what so and so said! And although this was kind of confusing for a lot of students, it was very stimulating and it made a student aware that there were other possibilities, that there wasn’t just one way of looking at architecture. I think that’s probably the strongest thing that I took away from McGill and something that I would have felt very badly about had I gone to one of the other big schools in North America at that time which were very, looking back on them, seemed to be very much brain-washing camps where you finally graduated when you finally believed all of the stuff that they were trying to teach and students graduated from each of those schools came away doing buildings that looked as though they were all done by the same person.
Were there any of your classmates that you remember particularly well or that you perhaps keep in touch with today?
Most of them have dropped off over the years, but I have kept in touch with a few, Bill Haulm and I both went away the same year on scholarships and we’ve stayed in touch.
He’s in Calgary now, isn’t he?
I’m not sure whether he’s here now or not, but we’ve run into each other every four or five years and kind of renew our acquaintance. Tim Grosvenor, I traveled with a bit in Europe after school was over and he was always a good friend while we were at McGill. Ross Winter I think is probably the one that I’ ve stayed closes in touch with over the years. We traveled to Europe together while we were at McGill and then while I was in England, he was over there working, and we got in touch with each other once and awhile. We made a trip together to Morocco and then we’ve been in touch with each other, again, not regularly but every few years, one or the other of us will pop up in the other’ s life and we’ll do something together.
The interview must find your mind racing everywhere!
You know, one of the things that I found really interesting at McGill, because I went there with the idea that architecture was about people, and it was about how people related to the environment, how the environment affected them, and when I got to McGill, I discovered that architecture was about how you put bricks on top of each other, and how you worked in an office and did all this sort of stuff and the notion of people being a part of it seemed to disappear for a few years. But there was one professor at McGill that I found really kind of brought you back to think about your work in a sense that went beyond just the architectural magazine look and that was Gordon Webber. He seemed to have a fresh angle on architecture every time he turned around and I think that diversity of view that he had about what architecture was about was really attractive to me and your activities with Gordon while I was there ranged anywhere from drawing and laying out colour wheels to putting on black leotards and doing modern dance to taking a whole lot of rubber balloons and filling them up with plaster of Paris to see what kind of thing you’d be left with when they all exploded. And on the surface of it, none of this had much to do with architecture. But on the other hand, I think mainly in retrospect, I look back on the days in Gordon’s classes, and they were a powerful influence on how I operated later on as an architect. Some of the things that I’ve abstracted from his classes and gone on to teach as a professor, I’ve done completely differently, but the idea is essentially there. His notion of exploring space in a modern dance sense is something I think that every architect has to do, you have to be able to get off the piece of paper and see what the space is, feel what the space is, know what it means to you and I’ve tried to do that with students as a professor in later years by getting them to more methodically draw a space, find the same space somewhere in a large complex of buildings, measure and make sure that it was the identical space, and say something about it and find some others that are also the same space, see what it is about them that make them different from the first one. So that notion of exploring space with your body and with your mind as opposed to just with your pencil I think was an important carry over from what I learned in Gordon’s classes. A pretty unique experience!
Tell me, you mentioned earlier Peter Collins and the influence he had on you and the Rhodes Scholarship. How did that actually materialize?
As a high school student, I had heard about Rhodes Scholars and I think I even saw a programme once on television when I was 14 or something, these people in wooly sweaters sitting on the banks of the camp looking very grand. When I went into architecture, I never imagined you could be a Rhodes Scholar, because in my mind Rhodes Scholars were always lawyers or politicians or whatever. And one day, I can’t remember what I was working on, but Peter Collins came by and he said “I just saw the sign went up for Rhodes Scholarship applications – they’re over in the hall across the way. I think you should go and get one.” And so I sort of looked at him as if to say what do you mean? But anyway, he shooed me out of the classroom and told me where to go and get this thing and I came back with it, and he went over it with me, and was kind enough to write one of the references for me. And I filled this thing in and sent it away and not too long after that I heard that they were interested in interviewing me. And I hummed and hawed about that because the interview was in Edmonton and I was in Montreal and that was a long way to go in the middle of the term on a speculation. I was not the sort of student who had a few hundred dollars sitting in my bank account waiting for me to fly off somewhere! As it happened my grandmother died almost exactly in the same period of time that this interview was to occur and I felt that I needed to go home to be there with my parents for that situation. Almost as a second thought I thought I could also go up to Edmonton and do this interview, which I did, and heard right away that I had been selected. I remember going and sitting there in a group of people who were exactly as I had imagined Rhodes Scholars ought to be. They were lawyers from Harvard or they were somebody else from somewhere else. I don’t know I guess I must have broadsided the committee with the thought that an architect could actually do this. I think when I was selected, I was probably the first Canadian architect to win a Rhodes Scholarship.
Probably the last!
No, actually, there have been others from McGill since then so I may have actually set a bit of a precedent for them. They found that this was possible or perhaps Peter just kept on encouraging when he saw that it was a likely candidate but it was certainly something that I would never had thought of doing had Peter Collins not given me the encouragement.
What was the basis of your study at Oxford in terms of the Rhodes Scholarship? It took two years or close to two years there?
It was three years. I think I mentioned before that I felt I came to McGill thinking that architecture was about people. And I studied away at McGill and never really ran across another person the whole time I was there in the sense of actually knowing who it was I was designing for in some detail. People were very much cardboard cut outs that we were designing for. And so I felt strongly after I graduated that I needed to do something else before I inflicted myself on society. And I groped around, I was applying to Berkeley, and to Harvard and a few other places like that thinking I would go to graduate school. But the Rhodes Scholarship allowed me to really go back to the thing that I was initially interested in which was the relationship between people and architecture, and gave me an opportunity to do that and it was one that really fulfilling in terms of the thoughts that I had had about architecture beforehand, and it allowed me to capitalize on what I learned at McGill. I had a lot of the things that I needed to know and may not have been interested in to study, were things that I learned at McGill and I could now handle that side of it and go on and think about why I was doing this or who I was working for, what sort of role I was playing. It was an interesting time while I was at Oxford, I went the same year with Bill Clinton and we were colleagues together at Oxford and my wife actually is from Arkansas, so we have a kind of double connection to the Clintons. And I’ve met them a number of times over the years and had dinner with them once or twice while he’s been president. But the opportunity that Oxford presented was more of an eye-opening experience where I was exposed to a different way of thinking, exposed to a different culture again, and I think mainly because of my experience at McGill I felt comfortable at handling that kind of transition and being able to identify and get out of the situation what I wanted and yet be able to let what that situation offered that I didn’t see initially sink in and change me as a person.
I came back from England and became a professor at the University of Calgary teaching architecture and that was a nice change to be out in the work-a-day world but I was still not practicing as an architect. I found it was a great opportunity for me to clarify my own thinking about architecture and to begin to think about what I wanted to do in the field of architecture. At the same time, I think I was able to convey a lot of the immediacy of what I had learned in England, what I had learned at McGill to the students here at the University of Calgary. It was an exciting time because the school was new. It was a school that had been created about two years before I got there and they were anxious to have a foundation, to have a kind of view of architecture, but a view of architecture that encompassed a broader spectrum of the world as well. And I found that approach very attractive at the time and I found that I had learned enough at McGill and at Oxford and at Cambridge where I studied after Oxford to be able to teach quite effectively in a number of different areas. I taught in the human behaviour area, the relationship between people and buildings, the reason that I went to Oxford in the first place, and became kind of an expert in that field. I remember going to a conference very early on where there were about a dozen of us from around the world who were in that area, we were the only people who knew enough about that area to be called to a conference together. We met in Scotland and it was really an odd sensation to be in a field so new and so underdeveloped that there were literally twelve people from around the world that made up the entire sum of the world’s knowledge of this field. But anyway, I taught in that area, I taught in the field of architectural programming and I taught several faculty-wide courses, the faculty at that time consisted of architecture, urbanism and environmental science. There was an effort to try and get professionals from those three disciplines to work together on some of the larger projects. I found the knowledge base that I had was quite effective at being able to bring those kind of people together and get them to think about some of the broader issues behind their own narrow professional view of what they were doing. I also while I was at the university as a professor got involved a bit in the Alberta Association of Architects and was involved in some of their accreditation programmes, I got involved very early on in some of their disciplinary professional review committees. And in the mid-1970s, Calgary was at the start of such a huge boom at that point that I also began to do some small commissions as an architect as well. Slowly over several years, that kind of diverted me from my interest in being a professional or being a professor at the university and so when the opportunity arose, roughly I guess about 1980, I moved to more or less full time into professional practice. I left my university teaching career behind, except on an occasional basis. I still teach very occasionally now at the university.
Was it a general practice of architecture or was it a specific field that you went after for your involvement?
Well, when I went out into the wild world of professional practice in Calgary at that time, there was such a huge boom on, we had more cranes operating in Calgary at that time than in any other city in the world, and the dollar value of construction in Alberta was higher than in any other location in the world, including places like Houston, New York and Los Angeles. So it was a remarkable brief few years, that period between about 1979 and 1981 or 82. A very exciting time, but it was also a time when architects were interested in big commissions and could get very big commissions and had trouble finding enough other people to bring together into a team to handle big commissions for building cities and whole groups of office buildings rather than just one building at a time. That meant that there was a whole spectrum of building that was simply not covered. Architects were too busy and were not interested in doing smaller institutional buildings. These buildings were ones that I had found were kind of peculiar in that office buildings, houses and things like that were buildings that were built in a mass-market situation. If the person or the corporation who built or had built one of those kind of properties decided after a few years they didn’t like it, they simply moved on, built a new building, or moved into a different building if they were in an office and could change their accommodation in that way to satisfy their new needs. People who were being left behind were people in institutions where they typically would receive a government grant or have to do fundraising to create a new building, and those new buildings then had to serve that organization for a period of forty, fifty years because they simply would have no future opportunities to raise that kind of money again. The second feature about a lot of the early commissions that I had was that nobody really knew what these places were like in the first place. A shelter for battered women was a new idea, nobody knew whether it should look like a house, how it should operate, how many staff members they needed, how many clients you could reasonably handle, how you dealt with the other spouse who was prepared to ram the side of the building with a pick-up truck or whatever to get at the one who was there with the kids. So it was a new field altogether, and to try to invent buildings like that from scratch was something that I was really interested in. It was an unstudied field and it was a field where you had to know a lot about people and their relationship to the physical environment. You had to know a lot about organizations, how you could design a building so that people could afford to run it. There were horror stories about that time of people who had designed libraries for library boards and all of a sudden they needed ten new staff members in order to simply man the facility that was created. They hadn’t expected that. They assumed that the library was going to be as it was before; same staff people could carry on. They hadn’t realized that there was going to be another million dollars needed in their budget to fund the staff people that this new building demanded that the old one didn’t. So there was a great emphasis at that time on trying to understand what the organization was that was working behind the building that was really what you were providing for, and trying to accommodate it in its present form or in a form that the organization was prepared to support rather than to create a building that was unsupportable where the board or the group of people who was running this facility had no sense that what you were proposing as an architect was right for that organization.
So there was enough of a market for this type of…
Yeah. A new architect could move in, I was new at that point, untried, and there was a void. None of the firms that were practicing architecture in Calgary at that time were interested in those kinds of commissions because they took a lot of time, effort, special knowledge, and at the end of the day the commission was not commensurate with the kind of work that you would have to put in to do that in a regular firm. It happened that I came out of the university with the knowledge ready at hand and I could handle that scale of commission, most of them were smaller, and do reasonably well at it.
And did you stay in that up until recently, the same type of discipline?
Yeah, although, you know, there have been… I mean, I could remember some of my early commissions, you would go before a board and the board would decide whether you were to be their architect. Sometimes, I was the only one who applied. Later on, after the oil boom collapsed, all of a sudden there were thirty or forty architects applying for the same little commission that I had effectively had a monopoly on in years before. And so the field became more competitive and so the opportunity to do strictly that kind of work faded. Also, governments became poorer. They stayed wealthy longer than the private sector did, or they stayed flush, I should say, longer than the private sector did, and the Alberta government continued building hospitals and schools, facilities for the mentally handicapped and so on for three or four years after the oil boom had destroyed the private sector, the oil bust, but the government coffers also became depleted in the mid-1980’s and of course that meant that there wasn’t funding for a lot of the kind of work that I was specifically interested in. And that meant that I had to get out and do some other kinds of commissions as well where I wasn’t necessarily as interested from a research point of view, but it was still architecture.
Bruce Anderson really was not a powerful influence on me, but he presented me with a wonderful opportunity. I had just won a traveling scholarship, and everybody at that time was more or less expected to go to Europe and do sketches. And I decided that where the action was, was in the U.S. And I went down there with my camera and took pictures instead. But I arrived in Los Angeles; I was staying in this very seedy room at the YMCA there. I think my window, which was only about 2 1/2 feet square, looked out on an elevator shaft, and every once and awhile, the elevator would trundle by. But while I was there, I had a message to call Bruce Anderson, so I called Bruce Anderson. He was in Los Angeles at that time. He said “Sorry, I can’t see you, I can’t do anything with you. I’m leaving. But if you want, you can have my apartment. And so I was able to move out of my elevator shaft room over to Bruce’s rather luxurious apartment, he had been teaching there a summer course or something, and it presented me with a week or a week and a half in Los Angeles where I could divert my funds from paying for the lousy room, to doing some traveling and seeing some things that I never would have been able to see before. And he left behind a list of things that I ought to see while I was in Los Angeles.
He’s that sort of person.
He’s just a wonderful guy and he presented me with an opportunity and I never really had much of a chance to thank him or to learn anything else from him. I wish I had.
Well, I’ll be sure that he knows that you have now!
The other sort of strangers to the faculty that I enjoyed, one that I’m sure a lot of people were influenced by, was Ray Affleck. A wonderful guy, a really powerful influence for architecture I think, not just a specific brand of architecture, but the notion that architecture was something worth doing, and worth doing well. And he was a critic in several of my studios and I learned a great deal from him, just from his manner and the kinds of things that he paid attention to and the kinds of thoughts that he expressed about architecture. Really a powerful person in that field.
The other fellow that I found very intriguing was John Parkin, who was only in one of our studios. But he seemed to be a very laid back sort of guy, looked like he had made his fortune and so why worry? He was very well manicured, I remember noticing his fingernails were just polished within an inch of your lives. He had a wonderful suntan in the middle of winter. But he came into our studio and was prepared to grovel there on the floor with us over problems. And he was a unique sort of character in that he could see a drawing on the wall, look at it just for a few seconds, and identify all of the things that we had devoted hours to try to conceal. Nobody would see this flaw in your design; he saw it instantly. But he could talk about it in a way that made you feel good about it rather than bad about it. He would help you out of the situation.
That was his forte.
Yeah, he had a great skill, just a wonderful sort of personality and I think seeing him in that situation was an opportunity to see what kind of person it takes to make a great firm.
There are a couple of things that happened at McGill that kind of foretold a bit of the future I think and they are still relevant. One, again, probably the same anonymous professor that talked to us about how many of us would survive this experience, said to us that you’re going to spend about half of your career practicing architecture and the other half you’ll spend driving a cab. The other one was Ray Affleck. And he said that you’re not any good as an architect until you are in your forties so you only have a few good years, you better make sure that you are ready to take advantage of ‘em when you got ‘em. I think both of those are really powerful and accurate sentiments of how architecture was then and how it continues to be now. I think there has been some movement, so that there is a bit of a steadying effect on the building climate in Canada but I presume that it will always be a very up and down situation. You will always have either too much work or not enough work and that seems to be the nature of the business. It’s something that I think a lot more students should be made aware of before they get into the field. It is a field where you have to love what you are doing because it’s not a field that is rewarding all the time, either financially or in any other sense.
Thank you very much.