St. Regis Tavern, Montreal,  1960s.

St. Regis Tavern, Montreal, 1960s.

Some architecture students had Louis Kahn, or Paul Rudolph, or Jose Luis Sert; I had Stuart A. Wilson. He taught the third-year design studio of McGill’s six-year course. His class was famous–or infamous–as a sort of boot camp. A grueling boot camp: students regularly repeated that year; some dropped out altogether, following his advice that they would be better off in another field. Wilson gave all sorts of design assignments: book jackets, posters, graphics, as well as hands-on exercises conducted in the carpentry shop, his private domain. The semester-long design problem required each student to build a large scale framing model of their project at 1/2 inch to a foot–every stud and joist in place–and to prepare a complete set of construction drawings. Wilson insisted that architecture was grounded in construction–”Art, fart” was a favorite saying. He was a relentless design critic, sardonically probing, gruffly puncturing youthful pretense, all the while dribbling cigarette ash onto the hapless victim’s drawing. At the same time he was the most accessible of teachers, always available for long conversations, ready with book recommendations–he seemed to have read everything. These talks often took place late at night, for he seemed to live in his office, which had a sleeping loft. He was rumored to have had several wives, the accumulated alimony obligations accounting for his unusual living arrangement, at least according to student lore which doubtless embroidered the facts.

The custom today is to engage callow adjunct instructors to teach beginning studios. Wilson was 50 when I encountered him. He had started teaching when he was 36, and had years of practical experience under his belt. In the 1960s, he  designed the interior of the St. Regis Tavern on St. Catherine Street, a cavernous space with an undulating Aaltoesque ceiling and hanging Bauhaus mobiles–he called them Doodle Boxes. It was an unexpected setting for a roomful of blue-collar men (taverns at that time were male preserves), noisily drinking Labatt and eating pig’s knuckles. Wilson also conducted sketching school, a two-week summer camp that was required to be taken–twice–by all students. He was an accomplished watercolorist and had exhibited in galleries, although we didn’t know that at the time.

In 1963, my classmate Ralph Bergman and I started a school magazine. The second issue included articles by Paolo Soleri, Christopher Alexander, and Philip Thiel. I asked Wilson if he would write something on programming. The result was “A Sordid Discussion, or Loose Talk on Programming,” a make-believe bull-session on the subject set, of course, in a tavern. “In a corner, seated beside a few beers and torn crinkly packages of barbecued potato chips, a small tense group of architecture types, boys and men, rocked and rolled in their chairs and poked out arms and chins.” The older man, a gruff professor, challenges the motley group of students–Owl, Mop-head, Cool, Turbulent, Passionate, Prim, and Scornful. Just another typical class. Wilson (1912-91) retired officially in 1981, but taught for another decade, a total of 43 years.

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