Schreiber, John, 1921-2002

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Schreiber, John, 1921-2002

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Jan Juliusz Wlodzimierz Schreiber was born in Warsaw in 1922. He served in the Polish Navy, under British command, during World War II, following his capture at the outset of the War and a harrowing escape across Europe. Unable to return to communist Poland after demobilisation, John remained in Britain, where he studied architecture at the University of Glasgow. After a brief apprenticeship, he immigrated to Canada in the early 1950s and settled in Montreal, where he began to teach at McGill’s School of Architecture and to design houses and small commercial projects.

His one-man firm, characteristic of the time, expanded occasionally into partnerships with other local architects, including such associates as Fred Lebensold, Radoslav Zuk, Wilfrid Ussner and Edgar Tornay. These relatively short-term collaborations prefigured John’s lifelong practice of crafting carefully hand-picked teams for particular projects, often with great success. Many of these later teams included his close friend and fellow teacher at McGill, architect and city planner Norbert Schoenauer (1923-2001), a native of Hungary who had arrived in Montreal in 1951 after a number of years spent studying and working in Denmark. Other McGill colleagues from these early years became his lifelong friends, including director John Bland and the School’s administrative assistant, Maureen Anderson.

John’s first designs, principally residential, included a proposed 4-bedroom cottage for a small house design program sponsored by the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and apartment developments in Westmount and the Town of Mount Royal. His first constructed project in Montreal was the Malo Gas Station on Upper Lachine Road in west-end Montreal (completed 1957), a modest and unassuming building that still exists. Shortly after, John completed a striking barrel-vaulted addition to the Priory School on the west side of Montreal.

During this first phase of his career, John rapidly made a name for himself as an expert designer of the modern single-family house. He had a flair for this type of project, designing a series of residences that embodied the modern ideals of simplicity and openness of planning. He invariably brought a sense of uniqueness and individuality to each house, through thoughtful adaptation to site, original use of material, and non-standard room layouts. Most of these projects were designed for personal friends, neighbours, and McGill colleagues; they were principally located in the Montreal area and the Eastern Townships. The Grinstad, Sura, Ballantyne and Dancose houses were among the notable residences John built in these areas during this period. Other important residential projects, including those for the Vandendries and Hewitt families, were situated as far afield as the Thousand Islands in Ontario 1. Some of John’s best residential designs were prepared for the tradesmen who realised his designs - carpenters, masons, and his wrought-iron fabricator Mr. John Galbas, among others - with whom he had established a strong relation of confidence and trust. One of John’s best-known houses was constructed for himself: he rebuilt a burned-out brick building at 520 Lansdowne avenue in Westmount as a single-space, elegantly-finished loft, over a three-car garage which sheltered a burgeoning collection of vintage automobiles.

In 1964, on sabbatical from McGill, John returned to school in pursuit of a Master of Landscape Architecture degree at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He rapidly completed his studies while working part-time in the office of the landscape school’s director, Hideo Sasaki, who was among the most prominent landscape architects in the United States. These experiences initiated John to a new field of professional endeavour which he was to pioneer in Canada, and to integrate with his ongoing architectural work.

On his return to Montreal in 1965, John found himself in a unique situation, filled with opportunity. Montreal was booming, with preparations for the world exhibition Expo 67 under full steam on the St. Lawrence islands, the first phase of the Métro in construction, and public and private projects of all kinds demanding expertise in architecture and landscape architecture.

Responding to this demand, John created his first office outside his own home. This office was located in suite 742 of the Confederation Building (formerly C-I-L House) at 1253 McGill College Avenue, a handsome and robust prewar office block just down the street from the University and right next to newly-opened Place Ville-Marie, designed by architects I. M. Pei and Partners of New York, along with Montreal architects Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Sise. John’s office layout was careful, intricate and efficient, with one uniquely memorable feature: visitors were greeted by a room-wide photographic enlargement of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s famous 1877 plan for Mount Royal Park, establishing a sort of mystical link between John and the founder of the profession in North America.

From this office, which was to serve as his base of operations until 1980, John immediately undertook a number of prominent and large-scale landscape projects under the name “John Schreiber, Architect and Landscape Architect.” His role as local consultant to the Sasaki office on the Place Bonaventure gardens and his involvement in two major Expo 67 commissions, Children’s World at La Ronde and the landscape of the Atlantic Provinces Pavilion, were particularly noteworthy. In the mid-sixties he initiated a new partnership with Norbert Schoenauer and old friend Jean-Louis Lalonde, a Montreal architect who had worked in Paris, in order to undertake several new projects, including the Marina Ville-Marie development in Longueuil, on the south shore of the Saint-Lawrence River. One of the first employees of this partnership, McGill architectural graduate Ron Williams, encouraged by John’s enthusiasm for the obscure yet rapidly growing field of landscape architecture, sought a master’s degree in the discipline, and later became John’s partner on completion of his studies at Berkeley in 1972.

From the late nineteen-sixties, John focussed his efforts on building and leading an expanding interdisciplinary practice, leading him to diminish his teaching at McGill from a full-time engagement to one highly-appreciated lecture course, “Landscape As I See It”, described by François Émond in this publication. Under various names - John Schreiber Associates, John Schreiber/Ron Williams - John established a well-organised and highly competent firm, employing a number of young McGill graduates including Joe Carter, David Covo (the present director of the School of Architecture), Stuart Kinmond and Jacques Vachon, along with several young American landscape architecture graduates from the State University of New York at Syracuse - Michael Reed, Allan Robinson and Charles Burger (who, like many of John’s employees, went on to a distinguished academic career). John’s openness to new Canadians and foreign visitors, described below in more detail, also attracted architects Czesia Zielinska and Andzej Sierakowski, both originally from Poland, and Maria Duran from Colombia. The gifted perspective artist Witek Kuryllowicz, a Polish wartime resistance hero, was a regular collaborator, and office administrators Jolanta Sise and Rachel Lévy also became important members of the closely-knit group.

The late nineteen-sixties as well as the period 1970-76 were the highly-visible “glory years” of John’s professional career, as he inspired his team of talented neophytes and seasoned veterans to high levels of design and technical performance, applied to a variety of demanding large-scale projects. These included such public works as Théâtre de l’Île, the landscape of the Pont du Portage, and Victoria Island and Headlands, all carried out for the National Capital Commission in the Ottawa-Hull area. In Québec City, John was responsible for the site design of Complexes G and H, two large provincial government developments, along with the elegant park originally called Jardin Grande-Allée and now known officially as Parc de la Francophonie (and fondly referred to as “Le Pigeonnier”), which provides a link between them. Federal government projects included the landscape for Mirabel Airport north of Montreal and early studies for Place Guy Favreau in the downtown area. John’s firm also redesigned the landscape setting for several Montreal institutions, including Place des Arts and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; and the firm was active in private development work, designing the landscape and collaborating on the planning of the new resource town of Fermont in northern Québec and composing the site development plan for Montreal’s Cité Concordia and other multifamily housing projects.

Many of these projects were carried out in a consulting role to well-known architectural firms such as Montreal offices Arcop (in collaboration with partners Fred Lebensold, Guy Desbarats and Ray Affleck), Bland-Lemoyne-Shine, Webb Zerafa Menkes Housden (WZMH), David Boulva Cleve, PGL Architectes (Papineau, Gérin-Lajoie, Leblanc) along with their associate Gordon Edwards, and Eva Vecsei Architect; and Québec City’s Fiset-Deschamps and Gauthier-Guité-Roy, with whom John established a close long-term arrangement. Other projects involved the firm in larger multidisciplinary consortiums, almost always put together enthusiastically by John. Such organisations were Bégin-Schreiber-Graham at Mirabel (with Ottawa’s Don Graham and Benoît Bégin, founder of the Université de Montréal’s Institut d’Urbanisme) and Desnoyers-Schoenauer, along with celebrated Swedish architect-planner Ralph Erskine, at Fermont. Most of John’s projects involved electrical, mechanical and civil engineers; on projects directed by his office, he usually engaged his friends and close collaborators from his solo office days, Colin McMillan and Tony Martynowicz.

John’s enthusiastic putting-together of design teams also applied to architectural competitions. After working with one of the teams in competition for the Québec Pavilion at Expo 67, he participated in most of the national and international competitions held throughout this period. These included the Canadian Pavilion for the 1970 international exhibition in Osaka, Japan, the Mendel Art Centre and Civic Conservatory in Saskatoon, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and the Pershing Square competition in Los Angeles. In later years he continued this practice, submitting the winning design for Champ-de-Mars in Old Montreal (completed by the City of Montreal in general accordance with his team’s design in 1992), and competing in Montreal’s Musée de l’art contemporain and Cité internationale competitions.

Despite his concentration on large projects throughout the late sixties and seventies, John continued to pursue his great interest in residential design, turning out many highly original private houses, renovations and residential gardens. These houses and landscapes provided a focus for John’s creativity and drawing skill at a time when many of the office’s drawings were carried out by others, and they served as a laboratory in which he developed new approaches, details and materials which later found their way into the firm’s larger projects. Among his residential works during these years were the Ballantyne and Kerrigan projects in the Eastern Townships, the Dancose Ski House at Mont-Tremblant, and the McClure, Duder and Riesman projects in Westmount. All were designed with John’s customary flair and originality.

Another parallel current during this period was John’s involvement in overseas work. In 1968, the Ford Foundation invited him to act as landscape consultant for the expansion of the industrial city of Durgapur in India. During the several months he spent on this project, John saw clearly the folly of applying western standards to situations which were well served by traditional indigenous technologies and customs. This realisation was to inform much of his later work, particularly his passion for creative recycling and the “small is beautiful” philosophy. He returned to the East in 1976 to work on a large urban design scheme for Karachi, then the capital of Pakistan, in conjunction with Pakistani architect/planner Yasmeen Lari and an international consortium including Montreal architect Eva Vecsei. Among John’s other projects abroad, the tourist-oriented development of English Harbour in Antigua stands out.

The hectic and stimulating period of large projects began to wane in the late seventies, and John’s career entered a third phase. Liberated from the busy round of meetings, drawing production and supervision, his work focussed increasingly on his personal concern for sustainable design, leading him to extend his ethos of environmental consciousness from landscape architecture into architecture. During this period he became, more and more, his own client – perhaps inevitably, since a market for his new approach hardly existed. John moved out into entirely unmapped territory during this stage of his career.

In 1977, John’s partner Ron Williams had been invited to become a full-time professor at the fledgling École d’architecture de paysage at the Université de Montréal. Although the partnership was maintained and the two collaborated on a number of later projects, the great majority of John’s work in the following years was carried out once again under the office name “John Schreiber, Architect and Landscape Architect”. And he again brought a series of young architects from McGill and elsewhere into his atelier, inculcating them with his growing ecological concerns, along with his lifelong preoccupations with creative design and precise detailing. Among the members of this new generation were Carl Mulvey, Farchid Chiva Razavi, Adam Borowczyk, Louis Dériger, Julia Parker, Ewa Bieniecka, Jim Lalonde, Frances Bronet and Daniella Rohan. John relocated his office in the late 1970s from McGill College Avenue to a rundown row-house he purchased at 1167 St. Marc Street just above Boulevard Réné Lévesque, opposite the Canadian Centre for Architecture, then beginning construction. This row-house became John’s laboratory: he renovated and rebuilt it over a 15-year period, “moving every brick from one place to another at least once” in the words of architect Ray Affleck. He created a number of apartments upstairs, including one for himself, equipped with a secret access to his ground-floor office, its concrete floor painted a cheery cadmium yellow. This building became the new host for recycled materials of all sorts: old slate blackboards, steel beams which had somehow come all the way from England, thick red pine joists from torn-down buildings - all found their way into what turned out to be perfectly integrated compositions.

Once established in the new office, John embarked on a new series of demanding projects. The master plan for IBM’s extensive plant on a wooded site at Bromont was a unique challenge, as was the Plateau Marquette in Sherbrooke, Québec, an urban design project creating common ground between a number of government buildings at a key downtown site. For the latter project, John assembled a team drawn from the Université de Montréal, including Ron Williams, Bernard Lafargue and Pierre Teasdale, along with Adam Borowczyk from Poland. In 1985, John combined again with Williams and with David Farley, the Director of McGill’s School of Urban Planning, to submit the winning entry in a competition to recreate a public park on the derelict site of Montreal’s historic Champ-de-Mars. The key elements of this design were its integration of vestiges of the original 17th-century city wall into the design, and the creation of a vast open space reminiscent of the 19th-century parade square.

John continued to carry out many residential buildings and landscapes in the eighties and early nineties, including a revolutionary underground residence in the Eastern Townships for long-time client Mrs. Sydney Duder, and an extensive Florida garden for Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bronfman. But his outstanding project during this phase of his career was “Solominium”, a multi-use building he designed and constructed on an empty lot he purchased, at the corner of Réné-Lévesque and Saint-Marc, just beside his office. In this highly original design for an eminently visible site, John was able to bring together all his concerns for sustainability and urban integration. These concerns once again attracted a circle of enthusiastic young people, including Mark Ginocchio and Thierry Br�gaint. In the late nineties, John carried out another
striking and much-admired project: the McGill School of Architecture’s Centennial Garden. Here, in a formerly derelict and abandoned site, he fashioned a symbolic garden integrating many large stones - vestiges of nearby demolished buildings - into the design, and featuring a circle of trees, each of a different species, representing the diversity of the Architecture school’s corps professoral.

In 1995 John began his last project, a complex of two residences, landscape and outbuildings at “Taybarn”, in Perth, Ontario, on the banks of the river Tay. He worked closely on this project with his future wife Monika Taylor. This totally-integrated community of site and buildings carried even further John’s principles of minimal resource use, recycling, and relation to landscape. Visitors admired the highly original construction process, and he and Monika made many close new friends within the Perth community. In 1998 both moved permanently to Taybarn, where John died on February 21, 2002

John Schreiber est né en Pologne en 1921 et a étudié à Varsovie. Il a fui la Pologne pendant l'Occupation allemande et s'est réfugié en 1940 en Angleterre d'où il s'est joint à la Marine polonaise. Après la guerre, il a étudié l'architecture à l'Université de Glasgow où il a obtenu un B.Sc. ès architecture en 1951. L'année suivante, il a émigré au Canada. Après avoir travaillé brièvement avec Philip Goodfellow à Montréal, Schreiber est devenu professeur à l'Ecole d'architecture de l'Université McGill. En 1957, il est devenu professeur adjoint et en 1966, professeur agrégé. Au cours d'une année sabbatique en 1963, il a obtenu une maîtrise en architecture paysagiste de l'Université Harvard.


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The architectural work of John Schreiber (1921-2002) is an outstanding example of a major contribution to Canadian architecture and landscape architecture made by a generation of gifted Europeans who, displaced from their homeland by World War II, found an appreciative and fertile ground for their talents in Canada. Of Polish origin, Schreiber's work in Canada focused above all on sustainable design of which he was a pioneer long before this approach found a following among other Canadian architects.

As a professor of landscape architecture at McGill he educated two generations of students conscious of the environmental imperatives of every project and now in charge of major architectural works across the country. ""Landscape As I See It"" - a series of publications that originated in his courses remained popular long after he stopped teaching.

As practicing architect he contributed to a number of landscape projects at Expo ' 67, most significantly the Children's World at La Ronde and the landscape of the Atlantic Provinces Pavilion. School and museum spaces for children were of particular interest to Schreiber and both the Children's World and his addition to the Priory School in Montreal, Quebec, testify to his inventiveness. During this time he also served as a landscape consultant for one of the signature projects of Montreal architecture of the sixties, the roof gardens of Place Bonaventure.

Demanding large-scale public projects such as Theatre de l'Île, the landscape of the Pont du Portage and Victoria Island and Headlands, all carried out for the National Capital Commission in the Ottawa-Hull Area; the government complexes G and H, together with the Jardin Grande Allée, now known as Parc de la Francophonie; or the federal government projects such as the landscaping master plan for the Mirabel Airport, or the Place Guy Favreau remain his signature work in the 1970's. Overseas work on behalf of the Canadian Government in India also represented a significant contribution on an international scale.

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John Schreiber/Ron Williams Architects, Landscape Architects

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John Schreiber/Ron Williams Architects, Landscape Architects is the business partner of Schreiber, John, 1921-2002

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