With Annmarie Adams, Director of McGill's School of Architecture

On August 1, Annmarie Adams took the helm of the School of Architecture, becoming its first-ever woman director and the first-ever to hold a PhD. The William C. Macdonald Professor in the School of Architecture sat down with the McGill Reporter recently to discuss, among other things, her new job, women in architecture and some of her favourite North American buildings.
Annmarie Adams: "This is a jewel of a school. Each person is so unique in their expertise that we're able to offer a dazzling array of programs.../ Photo: Owen Egan

Strengthening the foundations of a venerable school

By Neale McDevitt

On August 1, Annmarie Adams took the helm of the School of Architecture, becoming its first-ever woman director and the first-ever to hold a PhD. The School is also the only one in Canada to offer a PhD program in Architecture, which reflects architecture’s evolution as an academic discipline as well as a creative profession. In announcing Adams’s appointment, Christophe Pierre, then the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, praised her stellar reputation as “an internationally recognized scholar in the field of architectural history” and expressed his confidence that her leadership would “be able to unify the School during this challenging period” in which it has seen two directors over the past five years.

Adams, who, in addition to her teaching and research duties, recently served as Director of the Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, has had to hit the ground running as the School is looking to have its accreditation renewed in the spring of 2012 by the Canadian Architectural Certification Board – a rigorous, time-consuming process that demands collaboration between students, staff and faculty.

The William C. Macdonald Professor in the School of Architecture sat down with the McGill Reporter recently to discuss, among other things, her new job, women in architecture and some of her favourite North American buildings.

 What was the process of your selection as Director?

I was invited to become interim Director on July 1, following the resignation of Michael Jemtrud. An internal search committee put together by Christophe Pierre, including a student member and an external member, started work immediately and submitted three nominations. I was interviewed and subsequently named to the position for a three-year term

Why was the process so fast?

Besides the obvious need to provide immediate stability and a shared sense of direction, it is a big year for the School because we’re going through accreditation. I believe the University wanted to get someone in place right away because the accreditation document [called the Architecture Program Report or APR] was due Oct. 15.

Why is accreditation so important?

It’s the accreditation of the School that automatically certifies our graduates as eligible for professional registration. There are only 11 accredited schools in Canada and our 2006 accreditation is at the end of the maximum, six-year cycle.

How does a school become accredited?

There are 31 criteria that the Canadian Architectural Certification Board (CACB) believes we need as skills to be architects. We had to prepare the APR document by looking at every course we teach and demonstrate what skills students will acquire in each of them. It’s a very detailed process because our curriculum is so complex. For most of September and October, a team of us, including students, worked evenings and weekends to put this together. We’ve submitted the document and now we wait until March when CACB members will visit the School. Last time, in 2006, we basically got 100 per cent on the evaluation and we got the maximum six-year accreditation, so we’re hoping to continue that good record.

Securing accreditation aside, what is your vision for the School?

The important issues for me are stability within the School, fiscal responsibility, academic growth and enhancing our research profile.

I’m more of a researcher than a practitioner, so I am deeply interested the relationship between the profession and academic research.

What are some immediate projects you have planned for the School?

[Former Director] Michael [Jemtrud] started many excellent initiatives in the School and I plan on continuing most of them. I think his most significant contribution was that he took our professional Master’s program and divided it into two options – a 60-credit Master’s thesis where a student has a year to explore a personal project; and a more straightforward, no-nonsense, skills-based 45-credit option for students who want to get out in the workforce a little earlier.

Taking advantage of my research background, I will bring a healthcare theme to this year’s 45-credit program and students will do work in the health infrastructure of Montreal. This makes a solid link between ongoing research in the School and studio culture.

We also want students to get hands-on experience. This year, David Covo and I have encouraged the advanced construction class to look at real problems on campus and have students come up with design solutions. We’re looking for an architectural firm to support some of these projects.

We have an outstanding team of adjuncts working at the School, some 28-30 architects working in Montreal. Part of my vision is to increase the number of new, young teachers. Next term, for example, we have two new and creative teachers coming on board. It’s pretty exciting.

What are the School’s greatest assets?

This is a jewel of a school. If pro-research is one of my positions, certainly another would be diversity. We have an incredible group of faculty with very little overlap. Each person is so unique in their expertise that we’re able to offer a dazzling array of programs –from an undergraduate BSc in Architecture to the previously mentioned PhD. The School at UC Berkeley [where Adams did her professional training and PhD] was huge by comparison – about 40 faculty members. At McGill we offer almost the same range of expertise with a dozen people.

History and theory is one of our great strengths and certainly one of the big draws for PhD students. Urban design and housing have long traditions here as well.

With Michael Jemtrud and Aaron Sprecher, new technologies and media can also be added to our long list of strengths, because we now have two CFI-funded labs [Jemtrud’s Facility for Architectural Research in Media and Mediation and Sprecher’s Laboratory for Integrated Prototyping and Hybrid Environments] that focus on digital fabrication and digital imaging.

Currently, you are the only woman faculty member at the School, and its first female Director. Is that challenging?

[Laughing] If you’re going to be the only woman, you might as well be the boss, right?

It’s interesting timing because right now the directors of Quebec’s three schools of architecture are all women and of the 11 schools in Canada five are headed by women, so the pattern is much larger than McGill.

What kind of gender ratio do you have among the School’s students?

We’ve had at least 50 per cent women students here since 1980 and higher in the last ten years. But one of the great mysteries is why there are so few women academics and professionals in the field. Only about 20 per cent of registered architects in Canada are women.

Why don’t many women become registered?

Architecture is often an unpredictable professional culture since it is hinged to the economy and paying close to $1000 to be registered is not always a priority for architecture graduates. After finishing school and completing an internship of three years before they can do the registration exams, many women find it is also often at a time when they start to have a family.

But you can also work in an office and not be registered, in the employ of a registered architect. It is a tricky situation. There are many women working but they are not necessarily registered architects. There are even fewer women holding tenure-track appointments in schools of architecture.

What would you say to critics who say North American architecture is limited in scope?

I would strongly disagree with them. There is lots of exciting architecture in North America.

 Any personal favourites?

Definitely the Seattle Public Library. The way it was designed was actually generated from the functional requirements, where the architects made a diagram in which the important parts of the building were drawn really big and the less important parts were smaller.

On the inside, it’s like a parking garage for books – it’s a continuous ramp, unlike the traditional arrangement with horizontal levels of bookshelves. And it has this incredible green escalator that zigzags through out. Buildings like it have caused us to completely rethink the way public buildings are designed. The future looks good.