OUTSIDERS

Portrait of the artist as a young émigré, Formentera, 1967

Portrait of the artist as a young émigré, Formentera, 1967

I recently received an unusual request from the architectural writer Fred Bernstein. “Since Trump was elected, as a subtle political statement, I have been posting profiles on Facebook of immigrants who have made a contribution to the built environment.” His request brought me up short. I’ve never thought of myself as an immigrant. Born in Scotland to Polish parents displaced by the Second World War (my father served in the Polish army), I was not technically an immigrant, but I was hardly a Scot. I grew up in England, a proper cricket-playing English schoolboy, but that was just a surface impression. “Although I wore a blazer and a schoolboy’s cap, I wasn’t really English,” I wrote in My Two Polish Grandfathers. “For one thing, I always spoke Polish with my parents, although I can’t recall if I learned it first, or together with English. We also ate different foods, barszcz (beet soup) and gołąbki (stuffed cabbage rolls). At Christmastime we had babka instead of plum pudding, and jellied carp instead of roast beef. I got my presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day, and there was always something under my pillow on St. Nicholas’s Day.” When my parents moved to Canada I became an actual immigrant, not that Canadians wore their nationalism on their sleeves. We lived in Quebec, which was mostly French, but I never considered myself un Anglais. I suppose I was Other. Nor did Canadian-ness play a big role in my architectural education. The architects my classmates and I admired were mostly Europeans: Aalto, Aldo van Eyck, Frei Otto, Ralph Erskine, Georges Candilis, Shadrach Woods. The last three were immigrants, or émigrés, as were so many prominent practitioners of the 1960s: Mies and Corbusier, of course, and Breuer, Saarinen, Pei, and Sert. So were my two most influential teachers, Norbert Schoenauer (Hungary) and Peter Collins (England), and my mentor Alvaro Ortega (though he, a Colombian and UN worker, was really a citizen of the world). My first job was with Moshe Safdie (born in Haifa). Many of my architect friends—Jack Diamond, Allan Greenberg, Michael McKinnell, the late John Belle, the late Bing Thom—are/were immigrants. Perhaps that’s what attracted me to architecture, it deals with a sense of place yet so many of its leading lights were—like me—placeless. I now live in Philadelphia, a city where the two best architects of the last 100 years, Paul Cret and Louis Kahn, were both immigrants. A coincidence. Maybe.

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