Norbert Schoenauer Collections :: Housing Archive


Professor Norbert Schoenauer was born in Transylvania when it was still part of Hungary, on January 2, 1923. He lost his father when he was still a student at the Lyceum in Beszterce (Bistrita, in what is now Romania), and his uncle, who was an architect, became his surrogate father. Norbert began his own architectural studies at the Technical University of Budapest, but the upheavals of war and political turmoil in Hungary eventually led him away from his home to Denmark; he settled in Copenhagen and continued his studies there, earning a Certificate in Architecture from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1950. It was also in Copenhagen that Norbert met his future wife Astrid. He emigrated to Canada in 1951, intending to settle in Toronto, but only a few weeks later moved to Montreal, which became his and Astrid’s home for the next fifty years.

After a few years in practice in Montreal, Norbert returned to university as a student and completed a Master of Architecture at McGill in 1959. He joined the faculty of the School in 1960, was appointed Assistant Professor in 1961 and eventually served as Director of the School in the early 1970’s. Except for a sabbatical and a two-year leave of absence between 1975 and 1977, when he served as Executive Director of the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation in Ottawa, he taught continuously from 1961 until his death on August 7, 2001.

During this time, Norbert served the University and the community in many ways: as an outstanding teacher, as an innovative and accomplished researcher, as an imaginative administrator, and as a tireless and fearless advocate for responsible planning and design. His courses at McGill were legendary. His lectures were insightful and meticulously planned, a magical combination of scholarship and personal observation that made the subject both accessible and entertaining to generations of students from the School of Architecture and across the university. When Norbert received the Faculty of Engineering Class of ’51 Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1988, his students cited, among other qualities, his creativity and the unique capacity of his courses to inspire re-interpretation.

His major publications often started life as supplementary notes for his courses - courses like History of Housing, for which he was perhaps best known. His three-volume 6000 Years of Housing, published in 1981 and certainly his most important work, appeared for the first time in 1973 in the form of a little book with the unlikely name An Introduction to Contemporary Indigenous Housing. (Norbert once suggested that of all the improvements to the book over the years, the most important may well have been the change in title. As a title, he said, Contemporary Indigenous Housing was already a mouthful, but what was he thinking, he would ask, when he decided to call it An Introduction to Contemporary Indigenous Housing?) That book’s direct descendant, 6000 Years of Housing was translated into Spanish and Japanese in the 1980’s, and was updated and republished by Norton Publishing in 2000. It was, and remains, a classic and an essential reference.

Norbert was appointed Macdonald Professor of Architecture from 1982 until his retirement from full-time teaching in 1988, at which time the University honoured him with appointment as Emeritus Professor. As Emeritus Professor, he celebrated his retirement in characteristically unconventional ways - with his continuous presence and active participation in the academic and social life of the School, with the uninterrupted teaching of his specialized courses in housing and housing theory, with his courageous participation, and leadership, in the public consultations and debate surrounding a host of architectural and planning issues, and with the publication of a host of articles and four more books on housing.

Between his first book, The Court-Garden House, written with Stanley Seeman and published in 1962, and one of his most recent, Cities, Suburbs, Dwellings, which he was editing for republication just days before his death, are dozens of other books, chapters and articles that confirm his international pre-eminence in the field of housing, and his role in establishing McGill as an internationally recognized centre of research and teaching in this field.

He lectured widely, in Canada, the USA, Europe and South America, and held part-time appointments at the Université de Montréal, University of Calgary, Carleton, and Technical University of Nova Scotia. In addition to his two-year term as Executive Director of CMHC, he served CMHC as Senior Advisor on Planning and Design, and represented Canada on numerous missions for the United Nations and other international organizations in Europe and the Middle East.

His built work was distinguished by the same qualities of organisation, imagination and passion that marked his teaching, and his involvement in practice, as both architect and planner, was recognised with numerous awards over the years. Projects carried out in association with the well-known firm of Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold and Sise included the Chomedey Civic Centre and the Confederation Memorial Building in Charlottetown, both of which won national competitions in the early 60’s. Norbert was responsible for the master plan and housing design for a number of other projects in Quebec and Ontario, and was especially proud of the work he did with long-time partner Maurice Desnoyers on the Master Plan and Housing for the new town of Fermont, Quebec, a project which received, and continues to receive, broad international recognition.

He was a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and Academician of the Royal Canadian Academy, and his professional memberships included the Order of Architects of Quebec, the Ontario Association of Architects, the Corporation professionelle des urbanistes du Québec, and the Canadian Institute of Planners. Norbert was honoured by the Order of Architects of Quebec with La Medaille du Mérite in 1995, and by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture with a Distinguished Professor Award in March 1999. Just months before his death, he learned that his alma mater, the Technical University of Budapest, intended to recognize him with an honorary Doctorate (Artes Liberales).

Norbert’s scholarship and high standards in teaching, research and practice have always served as models for students and colleagues alike. He was a particularly strong ally of our international graduate students, many of whom moved on to important teaching and administrative positions all over the world, who found in him an unending source of knowledge, an interested ear and a steady friend. This remarkable accessibility, to students and colleagues, was in some ways his greatest contribution to the life of the School. Here, it has been suggested, one discovered the great teacher, always ready with advice and criticism, his office door never closed, the extra chair occupied by a student or a former student, a colleague or a visitor, all benefiting from his experience and wisdom and, most importantly, enjoying his undivided attention.

Friends and family who had the good fortune to spend some time with him in the last few weeks of his life will always remember the extraordinary grace and courage with which he faced that difficult time; his great dignity, his passion for architecture, his zest for life and his irrepressible sense of humour - qualities that served him all his life - never deserted him.

David Covo, FRAIC
Director, School of Architecture
McGill University

With contributions from Annmarie Adams, Derek Drummond and Pieter Sijpkes

6000 Years of Housing: The Pre-Urban House Book Cover

Confederation Memorial Competition Site Plan

Townsite of Fermont, Québec Master Plan