Episode 6.2

How to Build a Better Architect | Interview with Christine Macy (Part 2)

Vincent interviews Christine Macy: architect, researcher, and former Dean of Architecture at Dalhousie University.

In Part 2 of this conversation: the future of architectural education, importance of physicality in design and building, and advice for students and leaders about bringing life experience to your work.

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Christine Macy

Architect / Historian

Host: Vincent Van den Brink, Architect + Partner, Breakhouse, Inc.
Guest: Christine Macy, Architect, Researcher, and former Dean of Architecture at Dalhousie University.
Announcer: Danielle Pottier, Senior Architect, Breakhouse, Inc.
Producer: Brenden Sommerhalder, Director of Analytics + Integration, Breakhouse, Inc.
Production Assistant: Jamie White, Manager of Social + Front of House, Breakhouse, Inc.
Theme music: Ghettosocks

Episode Transcript

“You feel like you’re part of this great extended network of humanity and of life coming right up next to you that you’re part of this larger community, and it’s a feeling of communion and togetherness. It’s quite extraordinary.” Christine Macy


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Welcome to Design Makes Everything Better, a podcast about design as a process for making decisions and succeeding. Today, on Episode #6, Part 2, Vince interviews Christine Macy, architect, historian, and former Dean of Architecture at Dalhousie University. Now here’s your host, Vince.


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Vince: Hello, and welcome. Thanks for checking in to the second part of our conversation with Christine Macy. It is officially a continuation of our first conversation. This is going to possibly feel a little jarring if you didn’t listen to the first part. In this conversation, we tackle two really interesting areas of a topic, with first being the physicality of building.


What that means is the tactile components to coming to a design, the process of developing something, which is more than just living in the digital space. As people who work in the physical environment, it’s important that in the design process that we are really holding onto real elements and objects and doing mockups, so something that is very true to our office and something that we talk a little bit about with Christine.


The other part is something that is very true to what we value as an office, and it sounds like she sees a parallel in the value of architecture, and that is a need for cross-disciplinary skill sets. It’s important in the ever-changing pace of our world and the skill sets that we need to adopt and learn.


If we just go to architecture school and only learn how to be architects and designers, I think once we graduate and start working, some of those things will be obsolete, so it’s important to really broaden your experience. It is about design thinking and including a lot more in your toolbox of skill sets.


Thanks again for checking in, and I hope you enjoy this conversation. Be sure to like and subscribe. Tell your friends that we love doing this, and hopefully, you love it as well.


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Vince: Can you describe a little more, for me, the first part that you described of bringing together of people just a second ago with regards to how our role could increase and have a greater value or social contribution? How do architects in that particular scenario lead that space of inclusivity?


Christine Macy: They could have a role more like a movie producer or what we think of as a developer of buildings, which we tend to think of as very synthetic and integrative roles that connect the finance with the visualization. Architects have a lot of that same skill set that’s quite integrative, although it may be less like a movie producer and more like a movie director, but you still have to know an awful lot about these different pieces.


An office like yours is quite interesting, Breakhouse, because you have people working in many different domains on a shared activity, and I think this allows you insights that might be lacking in other firms about how to best proceed with a certain project. So rather than only looking at the form of something and then if it goes way over budget, well, then that’s someone else’s problem, or we have to have this material, or we have to have this look.


Actually, we might be able to do it with a completely different—maybe it’s about our social media strategy. Maybe it’s about making better use of an outside space. Maybe it’s about a graphic treatment. So you actually have more food in your pantry if I can use that analogy—a few more items in your pantry, then you can make better recipes.


Vince: I appreciate that because oftentimes—I think this is a significant role for design thinking, in general. If we have a client that comes in, and we’ve had a few that have come in with a very clear idea of what their problem or challenge was as a business. They thought, what we have to do is, we have to redo an interior of our retail space.


We spend time with them to study their existing spaces, understand how their customers are engaging with their staff, and then we come back to them. Sometimes, we’ve come back to them and said, “You don’t need to spend your money on that. What you need to spend your money on is a clear description of what you’re offering is because it’s not made clear in your space. What that looks like is we have to redo your brand; we have to evolve it and how you’re communicating it to your customers in the space or online and all of these different channels. So instead of spending nine dollars out of ten on each particular store, you can actually spend two out of that ten dollars, and you’ll see a significant increase.”


We have a number of examples where we’ve gone through and have found that success. If you give somebody a hammer, it will encourage everything that looks like a nail.


Christine Macy: That’s right.


Vince: If you go to an architect for a problem, a solution, if you need to find something, they’ll give you an architectural one; the same with an interior designer or graphic designer. It is a big challenge, I think, as a blind spot that we have as a profession, which is our teaching, and the way that we move into the professional world after graduating is our problems with housing are architectural or solution is architectural.


How we create a better city is to make nicer-looking buildings, which are so thin. It’s not deep enough in terms of thinking of a bigger picture that can really make our cities better and be a leader in art communities in a way that is substantial. It has to come from understanding that there are other voices out there, that there are other people out there that can influence the things that we need to build or not build.


Christine Macy: I think one of the big ways into that, it’s really a question about is a general education or specialist education better, and at one point if one starts an education and becomes a specialist, at what point you become a generalist in terms of your career trajectory? It’s also where you’re placed after education.


If you stay in a firm that is small and tends to be specialized in something, it’s very different than if you’re put in a firm where if you join a firm where you’re involved with people from many different domains, and you have to generalize. We see this often, let’s say, in industries. If someone comes in with an engineering specialty that’s very focused, and then they grow more and more in the larger dimensions of the challenge.


I think you actually need both kinds of education: specialist and generalized, but in terms of our school of architecture, I’m seriously becoming an advocate of a more generalists’ streams of education running in parallel to the specialized one where people could get an appreciation for some skill in that area of the specialized knowledge, but also be called on to look at comparative and linked challenges, a little bit like the College of Sustainability is doing it at Dalhousie, tries to look at applied projects and bringing in these larger systems thinking approach to solving problems.


Vince: Yeah. I think it’s certainly a way of solving problems in the future. I think that the general knowledge base to create this body of knowledge that we need is really held to be valuable or to see if it’s correct, like the systems of thinking if they’re accurate, if they’re put to the test. If you have an idea of how a house should be, or if you have an idea of what a city should look like, it’s important to find ways to test that, even if it’s general thinking.


Christine Macy: You know, that’s a great insight. They actually did this in the 18th Century in Europe, both in Rome and in France, when people wanted to say, “What would this street look like?” They would erect temporary scaffolding and painted facades of this beautiful new street and say, “Oh, yeah. That looks pretty well.” And then plan to build it over the next 50 years.


Vince: Now, it’s great. Now we can do it in virtual reality; we can give people the 3D immersive experience even with rendering. It’s remarkably easy to do.


Christine Macy: And even from the ‘60s, people started to say, “We’re not going to put paths here. We’re going to see where people go, and then we’re going to pave where they go. We’re going to allow them to move chairs on their own.” We start to see how people self-organize. It’s quite interesting.


Vince: Yeah. I know with Dal, there’s a co-op term where you can, if you find a particular field that is of interest in your studies, that you can hopefully find a studio of sorts that you can find a common theme or an interest in, and then hopefully see it come to be, and you can test some of these ideas, which I think is really important.


How do you feel students, once they graduate, are able to integrate themselves into the profession? If you have a student base that has a tremendous skill-based learning, is that going to be better for the profession, or is it a general one that’s going to be better because then, how can they integrate themselves into the profession and also relate to contractors and so on if they have a bit more of a general approach?


Christine Macy: I think it has to be general in a sense that students are never going to get enough skills to be useful to the profession in the short timeframe they have in an academic period. Also, the required skills, especially in terms of digital media, are changing so rapidly that they have to learn new programs and applications practically on a five-year horizon.


The other thing is students aren’t passive receptacles. They’re very active agents in what they learn. I don’t think education is about developing those specific skills that—obviously, they’re going to have certain skills that are very useful, but I think a lot of the skills that they learn that make them immediately useful to the offices happen in the co-op terms.


I think, for example, if we’re to look at the BEDS program, the undergraduate architecture program at Dalhousie, the first three terms, they learn the rudiments of designing buildings for people having to do with the need for buildings, the human activities the buildings surround, the basic aspects of structure, the basic aspects of form-making. They go through three different terms where they do this, again and again, these iterations, as well as having better architectural history, and how buildings stand up, and how the external environment works on them.


Then they go out into the workforce for four months, for one term, and they always come back radically changed both because they’ve had an opportunity to experience the limits of their education, to have a spark lit that motivates them to come back and look for something different in their education. Because they’ve been exposed to some dimension of practice out there, they’re either driven by aspects of it or possibly even repelled by aspects of it, and it helps reorient them. That’s what I meant by saying they’re active agents in their education.


Then they come back for the next three terms, and we see them much more agency, there are much more elective choices, they start to carve out a path for themselves, and that’s the really interesting point because that’s where they start to develop specialized knowledge that’s driven by the fire within them that is carving the path that they’ll take in the future. And because it reflects their passion, it’s super important.


But then, they also start to realize the limits of their knowledge and may want to explore more dimensions of it to integrate their own growth as a person, as a human being, with their disciplinary knowledge as it’s increasing in its dimensions. And the culmination of this after their second work term is their ability to come back and do a thesis under their own motivation of what they think is important and how they make sense of the world, and how they put it together.


By the time they finish that process, they’ve already had two entries into the workforce. They haven’t just left school once, they’ve left it three times, and each time, they’ve encountered the world out there, brought what they know, and also brought things back to the school, to the university. Hopefully, that pattern continues through their life. I know in the school, we benefit hugely from having our alumni come back and teach because they’re always renewing and refreshing that discussion both for themselves and for, obviously, the institution.


Vince: It is great that we have the co-op terms, and I know that there are some other universities that do, but it almost, in some way, legitimizes the knowledge base that you get first to say, “Now, you can take this, and you can see how this fits within a professional environment. If you’re not getting what you feel you need in the space that you want to work, you can go back and do it again. It’s a nice test to the experiment.


Christine Macy: It mobilizes that knowledge, too.


Vince: Yeah. It is great. I remember that was one of the bigger reasons why I ended up going to Dal. I had been accepted to a few other universities in Europe, one in London and one in Austria. They didn’t have a strong sense of that bigger knowledge base with the applicable testing, which I think is an important balance to any education.


I decided to come here because you can still have a knowledge that is interesting, and you can experiment and fail in school, and you can see how that works in an office, and then try and experiment and fail again because that is a problem or a challenge in the profession, especially in architecture where you’re hired for a degree of predictability. You’re hired so that you know you can create something which is in the vision or an intention of a client, which is hopefully going to be exactly what they need.


Christine Macy: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. If you are growing as an infant, you don’t want to stay in the incubator too long—


Vince: No.


Christine Macy: –to be able to develop everything you need to be fully human.


Vince: You’d be pretty soft.


Christine Macy: You have to be encountering the world around you, and I think it’s absolutely true for education.


Vince: What would you say in that realm, then, makes a great teacher?


Christine Macy: Oh, well, I think that’s for the student to say, not for the teacher to say. But I can say what I can aspire toward in terms of being a good teacher. What I hope to do with each student is to have them get that spark and feel excited about something, to latch onto something in each course that they’re learning and to feel like they have accomplished something so that they’ve either developed a skill or they’ve exercised a new ability, and they’ve learned something through the process, and they feel incredibly proud of what they’ve been able to do and that they’re able to achieve something that they wouldn’t have been able to do before, and that it gives them a new dimension to an understanding of themselves and also what it is they’re looking at.


It’s the accumulation of knowledge. It’s the development of skill. It’s the feeling of self-confidence. It’s the desire to learn more. It’s all those things. I think if, as a teacher, you’re able to see that happen in your students, you’re going down the right path and watching your students get out in the world and do amazing things. That’s also pretty rewarding. But the further you are away from the teaching moment, the less you can take credit for that.




Vince: Right. I think you can be within 30 years and say, “I know that gold medal that they received from the Royal Institute is partially because of your teaching.” Right?


Christine Macy: One of my great satisfactions as Dean over the past 11 years or something was visiting our alumni across the country and internationally. It was really amazing to see students that you taught 20 years ago, and they look different. They’re a little filled out. They have spouses or even exes, and they have children, and they’re telling you stories, and their experiences are just so marvelous.


And even people who were before I was teaching, who came from the same institution, you feel like you’re a part of this great extended network of humanity and of life coming right up next to you that you’re part of this larger community, and it’s a feeling of communion and togetherness. It’s quite extraordinary.


Vince: I can’t imagine. You think of the number of students that you would have worked with.


Christine Macy: Thousands.


Vince: I remember being enormously stressed out in studios and in times of evolution of a project and meeting with you or other faculty members. There’s some insight from leadership in a teacher that can help you see things again clearly, and you carry that with you forever. Especially if you’re going through similar stressful challenges in your own work, and the number of people that you would have influenced over the years would be quite huge.


I think any teacher would probably have that same kind of feeling whether they’re in academia or an elementary school teacher or a high school teacher, but in a professional environment, that’s one thing that is a little bit different. There are people that work for us, and we have different relationships, and we’re very excited about those that leave and start their own office and have their own flourishing career, and you have a family-like relationship. But the difference is the volume of which you do that compared to us, and that sense of community is like the difference in being in a rural environment, like us, and being in an urban environment in the population that you influence on your side.


Christine Macy: For me, as a teacher, I find that it’s such a privilege. It’s something that I’m very, very grateful for, the privilege of being able to be surrounded by so many young people who are excited about learning and excited about growing up and excited about the world. That’s incomparable.


Vince: I’m curious to hear a little bit more about the future of education. If you can walk me through some of the practical things, that would be different. Like, what does an architecture school look like, or are we still going to see students building wooden models? Are we going to see students, then, just using 3D printers?


Are we going to see students drawing still, or are they going to be almost primarily doing 3D in renderings and 3D models? Are we going to be talking about different types of buildings instead of studios with houses? How do you see, let’s say, ten years from now—I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but just as your insight from the years, where do you see it going?


Christine Macy: I think the general trend is going to be increasingly digital, so yes, much more 3D visualization, 3D environments, virtual reality goggles, the ability to envision and have your clients and other people envision and experience those spaces. But I hope not only us, but design schools and architecture schools around the world can keep a very strong place for design-build in their curriculum.


Whether it’s talking about model building or actually building at larger scales—but I think larger scales are more helpful. What you learn from working with many people together to build something, even if it’s a small thing like furniture on the waterfront or a pavilion on the Citadel or a small free-standing wall for a festival.


The things you learn from that are really tremendously important to, I think, the scale of working with people together to create something. The different kinds of learning and knowledge, the social abilities to be able to do that. I think those are all really important, and there are different people to shine and realize that they have skills in those domains.


I think if it’s all in the realm of virtual world, it’s as if we only use one or two muscles in our body, and I think that’s deeply problematic for people, human beings. I think we have to use more of our whole body in any kind of learning. It’s a very powerful tool, but you also need to develop hand-eye coordination, interpersonal communication, and interpersonal communication that is actually physical in the realm of the auditory and the olfactory and the tactile.


Our bodies have evolved over 50,000 years, and this new technology has developed over three decades. I think we have no idea how much we’re already missing our bodies, and there’s so much potential in there that I think operates without us acknowledging it in terms of everything from metalanguage to interpersonal connections to magnetic fields. It sounds a little spacey here, but I’m from California, so excuse me.


Vince: You are from California. That’s right.


Christine Macy: So I think those dimensions are really important. It’s one of the things I’ve appreciated, actually, about this pandemic time, being on Zoom. I’ve actually been able to be really close to people’s faces and experience that in much more one-on-one, so I think that’s been good. But one thing I’ve really missed is that feeling of community, like in a performance, or that ability for us to come together and learn with our hands and with each other. So I think the future, I hope, will carry both of those.


Vince: I have a few fun questions here for you.


Christine Macy: Ut oh. Favourite book and things?


Vince: Yeah. Some of those things. You’d be surprised when we ask many of our guests these questions how different, or in some cases, how similar a lot of them are. What is your favourite city?


Christine Macy: My favourite city. That’s a tough one. Mexico City.


Vince: Okay. You’ve been there quite a few times?


Christine Macy: Yeah. I spent my first summer there when I was 12. My parents—this was an exchange program. I stayed with a Lebanese family there for about three months in Polanco. Spanish was my first foreign language, and I just love Mexico City. I’ve been back many, many times since then. Everything, the weather, the rain in the summer afternoons, the incredible culture, the food, everything.


Vince: My wife and I have a deep love for Mexico, and we’ve been there many, many times and driven a small truck across Mexico, and I can’t wait to get back again.


Christine Macy: Mexico City is one of the great cities of the world. It’s got one of the great cuisines, and it’s got this incredible hybridity of Aztec culture and all the depths behind that long before the Aztecs came. And the Spanish Colonial, and the two things together, along with all the layers, subsequently make it one of the extraordinary cities of the world.


Vince: What is an object or thing that you feel was designed exceptionally well?


Christine Macy: There’s a wonderful little espresso pot from the early ‘80s, from Italy, which is—I’m not sure if it’s Alessi. I don’t think so. It’s a perfect little cylinder, and it has a spout that has a perfect little cylinder and a perfect half-circle for the handle. It’s one of the sweetest little espresso pots. It’s like a perfect item by House Design.


Vince: Nice.


Christine Macy: My brother, Mark, who is an architect who interned at Super Studio, brought it back for me as a present in the early ‘80s, and I still have it. It’s just extraordinary.


Vince: You’ll have to send me a photograph of it. I’d like to see it.


Christine Macy: Okay.


Vince: What book do you most often give as a gift?


Christine Macy: My favourite book, yeah, in the past five years, is this lovely memoir called The Hare with Amber Eyes. It’s written by a potter who specializes in porcelain. His name is de Waal, and he’s from the Ephrussi family. He talks about his family from their origins in Odessa, and one branch that thrived in Paris as art dealers in the 19th Century, and one branch that thrived in Vienna. Then the dispersal of his family after World War II, leading up to and after. It’s a very lovely memoir because it’s like an adventure story. You’re finding out about your own family’s past and how it intersects with history.


Vince: We’ll have some show notes left so people can find that book as well. What skill or talent do you have that would surprise most people?


Christine Macy: I can body surf.


Vince: Oh, yeah? That’s a good one. That’s great.


Christine Macy: And I do painting.


Vince: Oh, you’re a painter.


Christine Macy: Well, for the past ten years. Yeah.


Vince: Landscapes, portraits.


Christine Macy: Yeah, just for fun. We have people go out, and we paint alfresco and all kinds of stuff. I love to paint everything. Mostly what I think about painting is not so much like what you actually paint. I liked the way it felt like I was on some kind of drug for the first two years because I saw everything absolutely differently.


Vince: Yeah. That’s the power of drawing.


Christine Macy: You start looking, and you start to see fields of colour. It was really like hallucinating. I really enjoyed that moment for about two years when I actually saw the world entirely differently.


Vince: That’s probably my favourite part of studying. When I first got into architecture school I was just learning to draw and drawing. The process of seeing and talking to a lot of other professors or practitioners that would say it’s so important to draw spaces that you’ve been to or that you understand or think you understand. And you learn more after you’ve drawn them. There’s this whole memory drawing.


I think it was Richard Kroeker, one of the professors at Dal, who was talking about going into places that you know or that you’re familiar with and then coming back and then drawing them. Your perceived understanding is so significantly presented and illustrated to you as you draw it, so you essentially exaggerate the proportions of things.


Sort of like those plasticine figures of which the percentage of your input was scaled on those figures. It’s like noses were giant; the forehead was tiny; the mouth was giant. When you’re drawing a space, a square in plan and section, whichever it might be, if you’re by a window that felt cold, you may draw it in a way that would exaggerate that emotional or emotive response.


I still do it on a regular basis, where I will sketch places that I’ve been to, whether it’s cafes or something. You lock it into your brain, but you understand it that much more, which is the same as painting. Right?


Christine Macy: That’s where you’re going back to the 40,000-year-old body. The fact that you’re locking it into your memory and brain through that act of drawing is this relationship between doing and learning and knowledge that’s so essential. I don’t think anyone would ever say what you just said about the first time they drew a computer in a design because there, it’s data input, and you don’t actually have that connection between the hand and the mind.


Vince: It’s a huge struggle because as much as I want to include all of that in our practice or in our day-to-day development of a project, sometimes it is missing that tactile component. You’re sitting in one of our spaces, and we have part of our boardroom, which is literally from mocking things up and building elements of a space for our clients to see, but also for us to test out and to see if what we’ve been describing, though it doesn’t look correct on a 3D model, we know that it’s going to look better than what it looks like, no matter how well we develop it, you need to see it.


Behind you, we’ve got what will be presented to a client of ours as a ceiling element that runs through an entire space. What I’m pointing at, for those who aren’t here to see, it’s a white chain-link fence that is going to be hanging from a ceiling for essentially a light fixture. When our team would describe that to our client and say, “We’ve got this great idea. It’s going to be a chain-link fence that we’re going to hang off the ceiling, and it’s going to make a beautiful light fixture.




It doesn’t go across well. Right? So you have to build it, so there’s that physicality of it. We’ll have this described on a drawing to be built, so that’s the value of the computer, but we also have that balance of it being built in the space and testing it out so we can look at it and get a sense of it. It’s important to have both.


Another question for you. If you would go back in time to give yourself advice, what would you say? You can pick a moment of time. Maybe it was 30 years ago or 20 years ago.


Christine Macy: That’s a tough one. I think when you ask about advice, it seems there are right paths and wrong paths. I can’t see it that way because I’m happy with the paths I’ve taken. I wouldn’t give myself advice to change my path. There have been several moments like when I decided to do architecture instead of political science, or when I decided to do a year exchange in Vienna instead of Barcelona, or when I chose the graduate school that I would go to, or when I decided that this is the woman that I wanted to be with for my life, or when I decided I wanted to move to Canada, or when I decided to take this job here at Halifax.


All these things are moments, which are like thresholds. You give yourself advice and say do it or don’t do it. But I’m happy with my life, so I think those choices were—I don’t think I’d give myself advice about that. I think the one thing I might give myself advice about is, especially when I was younger, the younger me, would have been to listen more and to try to figure out what motivates other people.


I think in my life, I’ve been so enthusiastic and energetic about the things I saw or the things I felt that I wasn’t as good at listening to what other people had to offer. When I was younger, it was all about my excitement, sort of like an overgrown teenager. But in my mid-40s, I started being less interested in what I had to say and more interested in what made other people tick.


Vince: That’s a great lesson for anybody who is listening. I think we could all do that more often. That’s great. Last question: was I your favourite student?




Christine Macy: You are now.




Vince: Thank you so much for coming in and spending time with us today. It was great to catch up. We don’t get to do this often. You’ve been a significant contribution to many, many, many people that have come out of that school.


Christine Macy: Thank you.


Vince: Thank you for that.


Christine Macy: Thank you.


Vince: And we’ll be in touch. Thank you.


Christine Macy: Okay. Thank you.


Vince: Bye. Bye.


Christine Macy: It’s a pleasure.


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Thanks for listening to the Design Makes Everything Better podcast by Breakhouse, a Canadian strategic design firm. This was Episode 6, Part 2 with Christine Macy. A full transcript and show notes can be found at Breakhouse.ca/podcast/6.2. If you like the show, help us out. Subscribe, rate, and review us on your favourite podcast app and share us with your friends. Have feedback or ideas for the show? Drop us a line at podcast@breakhouse.ca.


[End of Episode 6.2 – 36:25]

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