An Incorrigible Optimist

Let’s start with Romania and a question that my students ask every time you visit our first-year studio. When did you decide to become an architect?

It was an accident. I was expected to join the military. It was a family tradition. But a couple of months before my exams, my mother’s cousin came to visit us. She was an architect and when she started talking about architecture, I decided to switch careers. I didn’t know what architecture was, but I liked to draw and I was good in math, so I decided that this was for me.

And then you wrote the entrance exams for the school now known as “Ion Mincu” University of Architecture and Urbanism in Bucharest?

Yes, in 1955. The exams included math, drawing, chemistry, and even Russian language and Marxism-Leninism. There were eight of us competing for one seat in the program. Once admitted, we had no choice but to learn. If you failed one subject, you would repeat the whole year. If you failed a second time, you’d be expelled and likely sent to pick potatoes. I belonged to a generation that had a very short basic education. At the university, architectural history ended with the Second World War. At that time, the school was influenced by Socialist Realism–which called for the creation of a New Man, a Renaissance Man in Soviet clothes. Our classical program was so strong that I still know by heart all the Greek and Roman orders. An American critic once said to me that he detected a strong classical education behind my work and he was right–it stays with you. I finished the six-year program and became an architect at around the age of 21.

How did you spend the first few years out of school?

I alternated working as a full-time architect in a government-affiliated firm and working part-time as an assistant at the School of Architecture. It was the custom that after two years of employment with an organization they would ask you to become a member of the Communist Party. Saying again and again that I was going to switch jobs, I managed to avoid them until they said, “Comrade Hanganu, that doesn’t work.” So I left Romania for Paris. It was the second of January, 1970.

Did you just lock your apartment door and walk away?

More or less. Although I prepared my departure for two years, I told my parents two days in advance. With Anca, my wife, I went from Romania to Yugoslavia and from Yugoslavia, we crossed the border into Austria, then into Germany and finally to France. We never told any of our friends about it because we didn’t want them to be in the position of being collaborators had the event turned out badly for us.

Were many of your classmates leaving the country in those days?

About 60 percent. Most of my friends eventually left Romania to work in France, England, Italy, Switzerland, the United States, and so on.

Have any returned?

Permanently? I don’t know. None that I know of, but some go back periodically, like I do. I continue to work on some projects in Romania.

How long did you stay in Paris?

Almost one year, while I attended courses at the cole des Beaux-Arts. After Paris, I moved to Toronto and worked for Bregman + Hamann, but after another year–it was not easy living in Toronto after Paris–I moved to Montreal. When I told Sidney Bregman that I wanted to move to Montreal, he said, “Dan, there is no future in Montreal, but if you ever want to come back, you are always welcome.”

You finally arrived in Montreal in 1971. When you and I first met in 1975 or ’76, you were working with Eva Vecsei on the Concordia project. What did you do when you first came to Montreal?

I worked with Victor Prus. He had no work at the time, but he liked my stuff and hired me. I worked on the Molson House, the Langelier metro station and a competition for the National Gallery in Ottawa. Victor was a very good architect, well cultured but with an unhappy Slavic character. I asked him one day, “Why are you so unhappy? You radiate such tension. I am the same, although I am Latin.” His answer was, “If you are like me, why don’t you understand me?” We were too much alike, and I eventually left.

Then I went and worked for Dimitri Dimakopoulos until 1974. During the ’70s, ARCOP had been working on the Concordia Project, and, when Ray Affleck resigned, Dimakopoulos took over. Soon after, he also resigned, turning it over to Eva Vecsei, who ran with it and invited me to join her. So I did. Dimakopoulos had asked me to be his associate but I declined. He didn’t talk to me for 10 years.

What happened after the Concordia Project?

I formed a partnership with Eva in 1975 when she left Dimakopoulos, and we stayed together for four years. Although I had been working on small projects on my own since 1974, it wasn’t until 1979 that I started my own office with a housing project on Nuns’ Island where I played the roles of architect, builder and developer. Since then, I’ve built other projects on the Island.

One of the housing projects on Nuns’ Island–Habitations Rue de Gasp, where you still live–was recognized by the OAQ (Quebec Order of Architects) in 1981 with your first major award in Canada, and between 1981 and 1991, you received 10 more awards, all celebrating your work in housing. Housing projects were very important to you in this first period of your practice.

Yes, because I learned so much about building. Years ago, I was lucky to work for one of Romania’s best architects–Nicolae Porumbescu. He was a talented architect who could also talk to plumbers, masons and electricians, and he knew construction better than anyone. Years later in Canada, I asked a mason to do a certain type of joint. He said that it couldn’t be done. I said, “Give me your trowel! You do it like this!” All of this comes from Porumbescu.

You’ve also written and spoken about what you once described as “the natural behaviour of building materials…”

That I learned from Prus. Every material has its own way of expressing itself. Metal, wood, concrete: “the obedient concrete,” he used to say. Masonry is all about gravity and history. Metal is volatile, granite imposing and arrogant! Wood works according to its own set of rules: compression, no tension, and so on. In my first years, this was my obsession. I used to build with the Italians 10 hours a day. I learned how to work with them and to see where you needed room to nail, or place a pipe. Doing, demolishing and doing it again.

You enjoy surprising people with the materials that you use, like the corrugated metal columns in the Gelber Library at McGill and the chipboard in the School of Business Administration at the Universit de Montral.

There was a period of time when I used a lot of chipboard in my projects. It is such a beautiful material. Once you stain it, add colour and light, it becomes a noble material–you make something out of nothing–arte povera, which prepares the background for the final, precious intervention.

My only regret is that I haven’t been able to complete my buildings with that “special thing” that would make people even more aware of the so-called poor materials. That “special thing,” which is supposed to be the icing on the cake, seldom appears because clients never seem to have the money or any understanding of it. Sometimes I try to do this intervention myself. For example, the canopy of the Hotel Godin, the ceiling at le Thatre du Nouveau Monde, and a few others. Sometimes I think that I don’t have a single “finished” building in Montreal.

Some of your projects are marked in interesting ways by your relationships with your clients–friendships that outlast the design and construction process.

This was certainly the case with Stephen Toope, former Dean of McGill’s Faculty of Law and the client for McGill’s Law Library. Toope wa
s such an articulate man. He knew so much about architecture. He was well informed and so taken by architecture and its real meaning. It was such a pleasure to talk to him.

Was that also the case with the Benedictine monks in St-Benoit-du-Lac?

With the monks, it became a personal relationship. The commission was a result of a competition that I won. As a Greek Orthodox, I told them that I would observe them from the outside. I even stayed with them at the monastery for a few days. At first, they wanted a contemporary building but as the scheme evolved, they began to demand a more traditional religious architecture. I told them, “I cannot do that.” It has to be a contemporary gesture, as well as a continuation of the work of Dom Bello and Dom Cot– the previous architects.

At the end of construction, Pre Garneau, the Abbot at the time, drove an hour and a half into Montreal to tell me, “Today I prayed and I thanked God for He gave you the force to say no to us.” And later: “We are very pleased. You have brought a certain Byzantine mystique to the design of our church.” I was shocked. I had been so keen to create a Catholic gesture. I studied Catholic essentials, Vatican II for example. I went to Italy, Spain, France and Germany in order to understand and learn. In the end, this is what I achieved.

We carry deep down within our subconscious the traditions that we are a part of and the unsayable that stays within us. We have remained such good friends ever since. Our office started working on the monastery in 1989 and finished it in 1994. I spent five years on the project, going there every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. At the time, our office was also working on Pointe–Callire which opened in 1992.

Do you see these two projects, executed almost simultaneously, as having shaped your practice in some way?

Each of them explores the same idea, which is related to Aldo Rossi’s “the presence of the past.” They are about architecture as a cultural phenomenon, about history, knowledge of the past, continuity and especially the skillful and humble insertions of “who we were” into the demanding present, while hoping for a bright future. I think this is the essence of our profession.

You have said that Pointe–Callire stands out as your most successful project. Why is it so important to you?

It was the most complex. We had to respect the site’s environment, its history. In the end, we had to copy–like a phantom–the silhouette of the old building. On many levels–social, philosophical, contextual–we had to manipulate and balance the challenges. The building refers to the architectural legacy of the French and shows how you build on top of older civilizations while managing to achieve continuity. In the end, I felt good about it. In the early stages of the project during the public hearings, it was called “a scar on Montreal’s cheek,” but after 16 years it still passes quite well the test of time.

Is there anything about Pointe–Callire that you would change?

I would complete it. There is still, literally, an empty niche to fill with a “precious intervention.”

Let’s talk about the office. You once said that you started some projects with a weekend charrette at your country place. Do you still do that? How do you manage your projects as a sole practitioner?

We used to do that primarily for competitions because you are away from the phone and fax. But we don’t do that so much anymore. As for the process, I may be the boss, but I have Nathan Godlovitch and Gilles Prud’homme. They are my right hands. Nathan has been with me for 25 years, ever since he left school. Gilles joined us in 1985 or so. We do a lot of design development together but for site supervision we rely on Olivier Grenier, who used to work with us but now has his own firm. Guillaume Delorimer and Tom Schweitzer, who were also with me for many years, have moved on. I also have some young people in the office–about a dozen. And I have satellites too–people who used to work here and who now have their own practices. They provide support with design development, detailing and site supervision.

Do you still spend a lot of time on the site yourself?

Yes, I do still go on site–to make noise and problems! I love the smell of wood and concrete. It is important to verify your ideas from the early stages, to verify whether you are right or wrong.

You spend a lot more time on airplanes these days. You are working all over the world, in India, China and of course, Romania. Does this international experience change the way you approach your work here?

When I return I sometimes feel a little uneasy, because I sense that something has changed. Look at Eastern Europe, which includes Hungary, Romania, Russia, etc. Look at India and China. When Arthur Erickson returned from China some years ago, he described it as a society that doesn’t plan for tomorrow or the day after, but is instead concerned about the years ahead. In these countries we discover ambition, desire and a determination to define their place in a world which has been neglecting them for so long. But have our own attitudes changed? Have we lost the ambition to be excellent, the desire to make a difference?

Are we, as a society, complacent?

In Canada–but not only here–we assist in a strong polarization towards two extremes. On one hand, you have the developers, obsessed with commercial success and the eternal game of power. On the other hand, we have the self-proclaimed “crusaders,” defending us against doomsday scenarios that are based on mostly fabricated, amplified fears. They present a subjective and negative perception of natural progress, often based on a lack of historical knowledge and their perception of the complexity of the contemporary horizon. Bad projects are aborted for bad reasons and good projects, unfortunately, experience the same fate, for the same bad reasons. Architects are caught in between, and we say nothing on the public stage.

Ruskin is often cited as having said, “There is nothing in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and those who buy on price alone are this man’s lawful prey.” But it’s not just about money, is it? It’s about values and how we define them.

Architecture is like any other contemporary phenomenon: it is character- ized by a natural relationship with the taste of the masses and calls for a set of laws different from those associated with the individual.

Jean-Franois Revel refers to the “sweet tyranny of public opinion.” This public opinion is based on what people see and think they can easily judge: the physical aspects of architecture. We are witnessing today, in a market-driven culture, the continuous development of two tendencies: on one hand, the lowest common denominator or what we could call the vulgar expression of advanced mediocrity, and on the other, the courageous leap forward of an illuminated minority obsessed with technological supremacy in all aspects of life.

In order to secure consensus, complex issues are reduced to unidimensional thinking, making a debate obsessed only with the height of buildings and a servile attitude vis–vis “thy neighbour,” as if we contemporaries have nothing else to say. Absent is the discourse about architectural qualities, about creating spaces and producing emotions–the discourse about architecture as a cultural phenomenon. Have we forgotten what happens when we explore proportion and volumetric harmony, colour and transparency, the notion of surprise and the subtle manipulation of light?

Isn’t this something that we can fix?

I’m not sure that we can fix it. Attitudes have changed; culture and expectations have changed; the individual has changed. There is a strong and constant shift of interests in the balance between “us” and “me,” an almost unstoppable adulation o
f oneself in the mirror. The combination of our self-doubt, constant and destructive self-criticism, and rejection of any invention that does not fit “Procrustes’ bed” is going to leave a strong imprint on our present production.

I was once called to order in Quebec City when I said that democracy is not necessarily the best friend of architecture. What we once admired through history was built by the strong and the strong-willed. You cannot glorify that now because it is outdated and politically incorrect; but somebody has to remind us when the emperor has no clothes.

Do you remember when Alan Balfour came to Montreal a few years ago and shared the stage with Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman? Balfour said that the history of architecture has three epochs, defined by the Athlete, the Mime and Acrobat. The Athlete is Modernism. The Mime is Postmodernism. To which Frank Gehry said, “The Acrobat is us?” And he said, “Yes sir, both of you.”

But the Acrobats are so few in number. Are they so dangerous?

I don’t think that they are dangerous, but I question their place, in the long run, in the history of architecture. I think that they are making noise for a period of time and will eventually lose their spark. It’s very interesting that they share certain common qualities: they all talk very well, they are charming. Give the Acrobats an audience and they will be happy.

And what about the architecture in between? Aren’t we starting to think more constructively about cities, paying more attention to the public realm? When we look to cities like Barcelona, Prague, Singapore, Helsinki–it’s a very long list–will we not find models that restore value to the idea of place-making?

Some, but there seems to be such a cacophony in almost everything that we do. We have to be more careful. We need to pay attention, to focus on what we do best as architects. At the end of the day, we also have to deal with new kinds of issues–deadlines, profits and market forces, and all the other things that, in the real world, make capitalism successful. What happened to the pleasure that we used to take in drawing and building? Where once we had builders, now we have legislators. We used to be very much interested in the end result, but now we are mesmerized by the process itself and its morphology. Success has a different colour.

And yet, over a period of almost 50 years, you have managed to design and build a body of work that is consistent in its exuberance, inventiveness and optimism about the future. How is it that your work is so full of light but your present outlook so dark?

Deep down, I am an incorrigible optimist, but that does not prevent me from noticing the negative forces that influence our profession today. I used to say people are not so much interested in architecture, they are interested in construction.

Who are some of the architects who inspire you?

Rafael Moneo, Toyo Ito, Renzo Piano. There are some young Japanese who are very strong. Jean Nouvel, although lately he seems to have a weak spot for the Acrobats. Why? He was such a Cartesian! The technology has taken off and there is a generation of people in our offices who know how to manipulate the machine. But the machine has the seductive ability to hide the lack of depth and essential knowledge of the user. They manage to reach the emotions and satisfy the joy of ownership with images that are simply beautiful. There is nothing else: they are beautiful. They stand out. They are impressive. But sometimes, when it comes to the essentials of space-building, there is not so much beyond the image itself. And there is also the basic attitude that informs everything we do– perception versus reality. Reality doesn’t seem to matter; it is the perception of reality which seduces us all. Remember that “today, all experiences must be reproduced in order to be real.”

Are the sophisticated and increasingly accessible computer applications that make it so easy for all of us–not just the Acrobats– to model our buildings and cities an issue here? Richard Sennett has written about the “abuse of CAD” and observed that sometimes the machines seem to learn more quickly than the people using them.

The technology has taken off and there is a generation of people in our offices who know how to manipulate the machine. But the machine has the seductive ability to hide the lack of depth and essential knowledge of the user. They managed to readh the emotions and satisfy the joy of ownership with images that are simply beautiful. There is nothing else: they are beautiful. They stand out. They are impressive. But sometimes, when it comes to the essentials of space-building, there is not so much beyond hte image itself. And there is also the basic attitude that informs everything we do – perception versus reality which seduces us all. Remember that “today, all experiences must be reproduced in order to be real.”

Perhaps we are only seeing the beginnings of this technology– what the future will reveal as the lowest expression of the power of the computer to explore architectural ideas. I remember a student whose computer skills were so developed that he could not only model but also express conceptual ideas–about the building, about space and organization, about structure and materials– without sacrificing the ambiguity of the gestural sketch. One day near the end of term, I found him cleaning his drafting table and his parallel ruler. “It’s time to build,” he explained, because for him, drawing the project by hand was analogous to building it, and building it was how he verified it. I understood then in a way that I hadn’t before that these two modes of thinking and working are, and always will be, complementary.

Let’s be clear: I am not against the computer. I think that everything is in evolution. In what I have been doing recently with masonry, glass, perforated metals or mirrors, I want to explore transparency and materiality, trying not to be in line with fashion but to discover what’s beyond all that. My question is how do we recognize serious practice from the other? Twenty years ago, when you looked at a drawing done by hand by a student, it would take you five seconds to determine whether this guy was a good architect. Today, there are beautiful pictures. One more beautiful than the other. The guy starts talking and says nothing, yet his presence is so appealing. This is a problem.

I do not accept that the time of the idea has passed and that things are changing in such a way that the substance is eliminated. I’ll go back to Hegel’s spiral. You go forward and then back to the same position, but always at a higher level. You only achieve a different level. There is knowledge of history and construction. Many younger architects lack that awareness. The good architects? You see everything behind them. For example, Eisenman has such a strong classical knowledge base.

You have taught at McGill, the Universit de Montral, and lectured at schools all over the world. What about the traditional role of part-time teachers in schools of architecture: teacher-practitioners, like you, who come in from busy offices not just to teach but also provide an essential link with the profession? Is the teacher-practitioner becoming an endangered species?

Yes it is. When you see a student who makes a basic mistake, there might be a weak professor behind him. But when the student finishes school, he hits the real world and has a shock, because he knows how to make beautiful pictures but he doesn’t know how to draw a brick. Does he have to? Is somebody else going to do it for him? Maybe. In my time, I was forced to absorb knowledge in school. It was not a privilege, but a duty. Philosopher George Steiner once said that absorbing knowledge “is not easy, it
must not be easy.”

What happens to your own practice when you leave?

I will die with my boots on. I have Nathan and Gilles and hope they will carry on. That would be great.

Will your practice change? How?

It will change because I did not have the ability and quality which are almost sine qua non for a prima donna or star architect. I don’t have that. Those kinds of architects are so enchanted with their own destiny that they care for little except the preservation of their name after they leave.

I was not so enchanted by what I do. I am not a great admirer of my buildings. If you are blinded by your place in history and the continuity of your name, then you take care in leaving it to somebody else. For me, I didn’t think that it was worth the effort. I am not trying to be modest or a hypocrite. Some people, like my good friend the French architect Henri Ciriani, is so conscious about it that, in a restaurant, his sketch on a paper placemat would carefully disappear into his pocket. Jean Nouvel was different. He would draw a bunch of sketches on the table and would leave them behind: a different approach. Perhaps I have not taken care of this because I don’t think it is so important; perhaps it is just my nature.

The juries responsible for the more than 50 awards you have received since 1981 might disagree with you. Of all the awards that have recognized your work–apart from the RAIC Gold Medal–which was the most precious to you?

The Prix Paul-mile Borduas is an awards program that recognizes the contributions of artists. From what I understand, I was the only practicing architect to receive this award. The prize acknowledged the idea that an architect can be an artist.CA