INTERVIEW WITH JOHN BLAND(1911-2002)

Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, August 7, 1997

Irena Murray (IM) interviewed Professor Emeritus John Bland (JB), from the McGill School of Architecture, about Ramsay Traquair. This interview was conducted for the Canadian Architecture Collection and its special project for Industry Canada entitled Ramsay Traquair: The Architectural Heritage of Quebec.

IM:
We are talking about your teacher, Ramsay Traquair. What do you recall of his style as a teacher and what you learned from him?
JB:
Traquair always spoke in a lecture room, he never met us at the drawing table at all. Occasionally, on Saturday mornings he had a course called Historical Drawing. I remember he took us out to measure buildings and he taught us how to measure. They were old Canadian buildings. He taught us how to measure from finished surface to finished surface. When we were measuring, we always measured the interior of something and then the outside was simple to do, but the detail was on the inside. It was something that remained with me. As an architect, when you make a drawing of a building to be built, you don't measure from the finished surface to the finished surface because it isn't there. You have to make your measurement from something that might be there at the time of construction and that is completely different. I think I had always retained this method of measurement training and eventually it became a disadvantage.
IM:
Why?
JB:
Well, most of the drawings made by an architect are characters and constructions, not measurements of buildings that have been built. I don't remember anyone at McGill teaching us how to make really sensible construction drawings. I think we retained Traquair's method of making measured drawings. Much later, Watson O'Malley was the one who really taught me late in life how to make a precise drawing for construction.
IM:
That must have come from his architectural interests.
JB:
I think Traquair's main interest was archeology. He had built a few things himself. There was a church which his mother painted with murals. I never saw it.
IM:
Did his students think him an interesting teacher to listen to?
JB:
Yes, I think so. He took the time to prepare his notes. They were all written down. Traquair used chalk on the blackboard and showed you what he was talking about. He did tell us how designs evolved, which he may have learned from his father who was an archeologist. Traquair was more concerned with things as they were finished and how things evolved.
IM:
Traquair's father wasn't really an archeologist, he was a naturalist, the keeper of the Museum of Natural History in Edinburgh, but the interest in evolution must have come from his father.
JB:
Yes, I think at that time there was a great interest in evolution, but I don't think we are so concerned with evolution in architecture now, are we?
IM:
This might hold true with the impact of the Darwinian studies of evolution in the latter part of the 19th century.
JB:
Right, but I remember studying medieval architecture with Traquair and we were concerned with how things had evolved. How the cone had evolved, how the arch had evolved, how the pointed arch had evolved from the construction vault. In medieval architecture, if you had round arches and round vaults, the transverse ribs were elliptical - they had to be - but these were not so easy to build or to prepare on the ground. If the main transverse ribs formed a circle then they had to make the cross-arch come to a point. You could see that in so many aspects of a building, particularly in medieval buildings. They weren't creations. That I think Traquair taught very clearly. You can see that in furniture and in so many other things as they have evolved.
IM:
When did Traquair start the Sketching School? Was it right after he arrived in Montreal, that he decided to make measured drawings with his students?
JB:
I think it must have been. [Percy] Nobbs had done lots of measured drawings and I think it was part of the school curriculum. I never thought it was something that Traquair had introduced. I think Traquair was very interested in tracing the development of architecture in Quebec, much more interested in the evolution of the forms than Nobbs had been. Nobbs had developed a sketching school before Traquair.
IM:
In terms of shaping the School, when Traquair was the Director and had a fair amount of leeway in the way the School was run, what did the curriculum look like under his directorship?
JB:
There is nothing in my memory that makes it exceptionally Traquair. I think we can look at the announcements of the Faculty over the years and you can see the development of the School in that area. I suppose it was largely Traquair's school that I inherited. His particular emphasis in the teachings of architecture was to explore the aspects of the production of a building. He saw things as the work of craftsmen. Anyone that had anything to do with the development of a building was a craftsman. Traquair knew the materials he was using, knew how to select them, and how to finish them. His emphasis was always upon the work of the particular capacity of men. I know that he often took his students to workshops where we could see how things were made. Doors, paneling, or various components of a building that were prepared for construction.
IM:
That was part of the Arts and Crafts training?
JB:
Yes, and I think it's something that has been lost. I remember when I was in the School of Architecture, Cecil McDougall and myself designed an addition to the front of the Engineering Building. He built it, and at one point the masons were building this wall and they found the stones wouldn't fit. There was nobody in the construction crew at the time that could cut the stone and it had to be sent back to the cutting workshop. [The stones] went back in a taxi. It was an illustration to me of how different things were then, during wartime, when people who were involved in building knew their material and were trained. In this case, a man wasn't trained except to place a stone. He knew nothing about cutting it.
IM:
You said that you inherited Traquair's school. What were some of the things that you wanted to change?
JB:
We had to change, we had to change something. He had courses that required learning ornament and decoration that were very much Arts and Crafts. They were designed to acquaint architects with craftsmen, and architects at that time depended on craftsmen. Architects made outlines and sketches, but the craftsmen produced them. Now when I took over, those craftsmen had gone, there were no craftsmen in the sense of artists. There were people who were efficient builders, could plaster a wall, but had no ability in Traquair's sense. I think some of the things that the students were taught, like ornament and decoration, just had no meaning at all. We were interested in different things. We were interested in the efficiency of spaces and in visual finishes that could be achieved. Ornamentation meant nothing to us. The only time you saw an ornament on a building, the ornament was terrible. In Montreal, restaurants were ornamented occasionally, bars or taverns had ornamental windows or ceilings, but they were all fraudulent. They were completely fake. Students faced with a course in ornament and decoration were just being taught to produce fakery.

I remember being asked by man to design a tombstone for his father. He wanted something quite elaborate and I remember designing the lettering and drawing it very carefully. I used Roman lettering with curves. When they came to build it, they first put over the stone some kind of rubber material and then they cut the letters out. The Roman method was false but it was typical, you couldn't find a craftsman who could really cut it in the old fashioned way, so why should we have bothered teaching that kind of thing if it couldn't be done? Those were the changes we made. There was nothing the matter with Traquair's original course, but it was just out of date. In the time when he trained in Edinburgh, you could have these kind of things made.
IM:
When Traquair came here, there was a coherence between his two predecessors, Capper and Nobbs. They came from similar backgrounds and similar forms of training so I guess it was a natural progression. Yet Traquair seemed to be the one to have revamped the curriculum in a more radical way, certainly as compared to Nobbs. He seems to have taken it on as a whole, because you write in your essay of how he initially took the first year and reworked it in the terms of courses, and then took the successive years, until the entire curriculum was changed.
JB:
Yes, that's true. He had his own way of doing things that were different from Nobbs. I think Nobbs was more of an architect as you think of architects today. I think Nobbs was a creator - he could compose a building and build it. Traquair was interested in detail and in decoration.
IM:
Well, that was the archeologist in him. I think it is perfectly natural in the kind of interests that he had. Traquair always said that his greatest memory was his work as a historian. The work that he did when recording the Quebec buildings, measuring them, drawing them, and photographing them. If you had to say one thing that really makes Traquair remarkable in terms of his influence on the School, what would it be?
JB:
I think Traquair was concerned with materials, what their limitations might be, how they were used, what the tools were to make them suitable for a building, and what gave them their finish. Art, for Traquair, was something that could be produced skillfully with a brush, a pen, a chisel, or a hammer. What was achieved was very much how it was achieved. The process of building interested Traquair. He could see it in everything that was made at that time. It involved manageability to handle tools, but it was a hand process, never a factory process. He taught us how to appreciate this kind of thing. For example, in a silver teapot, its form, decoration or finish all depended upon how the material was used and how a man could build it or form it. Ultimately, it was about the quality of application in each stage of the process of designing and building. It was about not disregarding the details, and about giving them their proper place in the process of design. That is very typical of Traquair and that is what he really taught.

Traquair's appreciation of the Byzantine church could be traced to Roman work. Here were workmen who had no knowledge of Rome or of Roman techniques, but knew basically what was Roman in construction, how the dome was produced, and how the Byzantine round arches worked. The column in Byzantine work was very much like the columns of the Roman work. The column caps are quite characteristic as Byzantine, but not Roman. If you look at the columns as Traquair looked at them, you could have seen the Roman cap, the whole entablature before the arch began, as the whole thing was compressed in the capital of the column. You can see the evolution of the structure in much contemporary or modern work. We couldn't see that in Traquair's time because the structure was behind the architecture of the time. For instance, the steel column and the reinforced concrete made the tall buildings in Chicago possible. If you look at the Chicago buildings, most of the structure is hidden behind a kind of architectural concept, which is very much the old-fashioned architecture of the small building. As a matter of fact, these tall buildings in Chicago are made of layers of small buildings that have the base, the middle, and then the architecture flourishes again at the top. Traquair's view was that in the evolution of architecture, the structure was finally revealed and the old coating of architectural trimmings vanished. The great Chicago architect, [Louis] Sullivan, tried to find a suitable decoration. Now later architects, after Sullivan, took that decoration away altogether and made the structure more and more elegant and visible. Traquair saw that happening in ancient architecture and that is something that had continued from Traquair's method.

back to interviews

 

Digital Collections | © 2003, McGill University