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AN INTERVIEW WITH PAMELA CLUFF
By Barbara Ross, OAA
Fifty-seven years ago, our current Dean of the College of Fellows of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada made a deal with the Dean of the Polytechnic School of Architecture in Essex. If Pamela could achieve grades within the top ten per cent of the first year class, she could stay for a second year of study. The same deal was made in each succeeding year until her college education was complete. In a class of eighty male students, most of whom were returning war veterans, this single girl, aged sixteen at entry, became determined — and so, determined, the lady remains.
Pamela began her practice, alone, in 1957, when being an employee in an architect’s practice and also a new mother wasn't difficult — it was simply unknown. “I started a practice because no firm wanted a new mother,” she says, despite her experience in one Canadian office and her advanced knowledge of concrete technologies (which were in use in the U.K. but new to the Canadian industry at the time). Any suggestion that the calibre of women's work in architecture might be different than that of men makes her bristle.
Yet she did not see the dual role of mother and professional as an issue. Her husband Bill Cluff was eventually able to leave the employ of another firm and the two worked as partners in business for thirty-six years. While gracefully sidestepping the slightest implication that men might tend to be deficient in caregiving, she suggests most women instinctively approach work with a nurturing attitude. That may be why the mention of her name immediately brings to mind the subject of Universal, or Accessible Design, or why she has devoted so much of her professional and voluntary work to health care. Still, she thinks nurturing probably infuses women's work anytime, anywhere, and she does not apologize for her pride in this tendency.
When asked what she sees as the major “improvements or un-improvements”, in the profession, since 1957, when she started her practice, her eyes roll. While she notes, with obvious pride, that “there are immeasurably good architects in Canada today”, it seems that the quality of the basic building has not altered substantially.
“And I can’t get a building permit these days in the time we used to see entire projects constructed,” she says. It seems the size and extent of the bureaucracy associated with a building project in today’s construction industry is out of control — particularly in the last decade, when the central challenge of every project seems to be “what can you do at the cheapest price in the fastest time?” There has also been an explosion in the quantity of red tape. Ms. Cluff observes “this leaves no leeway for niceties.”
During the late 1960s, with her own funds and initiative, Pamela conducted an unusual research project. Collaborating with a behaviourist from York University, she looked at several of her own built works, to re-examine whether the actual use of her buildings matched the patterns anticipated in the initial pre-design program. International recognition of this research brought invitations to travel overseas — twice to Israel, to South Africa, Egypt, Korea and often to the U.S. — and it is this work and the spin-offs from it which she remembers as the most fun and the most rewarding.
In this vein, she has gone out to the edges of the traditional practice of architecture, collaborating with David Crombie and Councillor Ann Johnson to help establish the Wheel-trans service and the curb-cut program in the City of Toronto. She looks at the accessibility of all building types, from individual houses to, for instance, Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport and, more recently, the National Trade Centre and Casino Niagara. This type of work began in the early 1980s, when, in response to a legal claim by a woman in a wheelchair who encountered multiple barriers, she helped develop accessibility policies and solutions for all VIA Rail stations across Canada.
Pamela is interested in the role architects can have in shaping public policy, particularly when this results in a more compassionate society. Currently, she is writing and lecturing, with architects and planners as her primary audience. She is hoping for a long-term vision, but not just for hospitals and long-term care facilities. She advocates the idea that architects should help all clients in every building type — to put as high a priority on providing access to the fifteen per cent of the population that has functional limitations as on other spending. “Consider the vision which created the public transit systems in the world’s greatest cities — New York, London, Paris — and consider the future capacity that was built into these systems, and how much more interesting the cities are as a result”. Then consider those among us who need help the most.
Despite her day-to-day frustrations, Pamela Cluff is crystal clear about what is essential to being a professional architect — and what is not. While the computer, the OAA’s ConEd program, and the Internship process are in the forefront of much discussion these days, she is certain the drive to be creative and the talent to solve problems — of all sorts — is what makes an architect..
While it appears, today, to be “the way of the world” to exert pressure on architects to design at the cheapest price in the fastest time, Pamela Cluff has devoted her life’s work to the discovery of what people really need, and the development of solutions for those who cannot speak for themselves. She is certain there is much more work to be done. She intends to get on with her part of it. And she hopes we all can become equally determined.
Pamela Cluff is principal of P. J. Cluff Architect Inc. in Toronto, and Dean of the College of Fellows of the RAIC
Barbara Ross is an Associate Partner with Carruthers Shaw and Partners Limited, Architects.
Excerpt from OAA Perspectives Magazine Awards Issue (Summer 2005):
This year’s worthy recipient has a long and distinguished history of involvement in social and cultural causes related to architecture. In her letter of nomination, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, CM, OAA, describes Catherine’s contribution.
Catherine Nasmith has made a substantial contribution to the discussion of urban issues such as architectural heritage, affordable housing and the environment. Over the past twenty years she has formed strategic relationships with other individuals, organizations and firms to further goals, project by project, to improve the urban environment.
A founding member of the Main Streets Advocacy Group, the Friends of Fort York, and the Garrison Creek Community Project, Ms. Nasmith also has been chair of the Toronto Preservation Board. She twice has been recognized by Heritage Toronto for her advocacy work on heritage issues.
Currently Ms. Nasmith is acting as coordinator and project manager to a partnership of several organizations that are using online communication tools to link the affordable housing community across the province. She hopes to do the same for the built heritage community and, to this end, is publishing an e-bulletin entitled Built Heritage News.
As a practising architect, Catherine Nasmith has received awards for architectural projects and for urban design. But at least, if not more, important has been her contribution to society through her volunteer work in the fields of architectural preservation and affordable housing. It is particularly in recognition of her devotion to these worthy causes and for working for them pro bono that I believe that Catherine Nasmith has served her profession and the community and has demonstrated the leadership that warrants her being awarded the Order of Da Vinci by the Ontario Association of Architects. I have no hesitation in nominating her for this award.
Nomination seconder Joe Lobko, as chair of the Toronto Society of Architects, has had a chance to assess Catherine’s contribution first-hand.
... Catherine’s long-term efforts on behalf of her community are exemplary and unique [in] our profession. Her sense of volunteerism and commitment to the betterment of the communities that she is part of serves as a model for us all. All too often members of our profession remain disengaged from the public and social discourse that has such a profound impact on our built environment and the social conditions of our society. Catherine’s willingness to energetically engage in public dialogue regarding so many important issues of the day is significant and worthy of our recognition.
Joe also mentions Catherine’s efforts on behalf of the Doors Open program in Toronto and her role as co-chair of the Gardiner Lakeshore Task Force.”