This section describes how Isi Metzstein chose to train as an architect and it goes on to give details of his architectural work and his teaching commitments. Isi talks of his pride in being Jewish but the importance of his secular oulook. He has never been thoroughly involved with Glasgow’s Jewish community.
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INT: And did your family start interacting with the local Jewish community?
IM: Not very much. My mother was orthodox, quite religious, and we had big battles about that. She wanted me to do the right thing and by the time I was about 14, I must admit I had lost all interest in religion, or any belief in God. And we had quite a lot of difficulty there.10
But we lived always in the West End so that she went to Garnethill Synagogue and I did a Bar Mitzvah there. But after the Bar Mitzvah...oh, I went to my children's Bar Mitzvahs, but I never went to the synagogue so I didn't have much contact with other Jewish people. But I had quite a lot of contact with the residual Kinder Transportees who came back to Glasgow - the Jewish children who had different situations. Some of them were living on their own, some living with other families. So, that was it, I think the only real contact I had with, with ongoing Jewishness.
INT: Did you go to university?
IM: I didn't go to university. I went into an apprenticeship with an architectural firm.20
INT: And was that chance? Or did you know that's the direction you wanted your life to go in?
IM: It was chance that I went to that particular firm; although it was a very important chance it so happens. But I don't know why, the day I left school, almost literally, I decided I wanted to be an architect. Not that I knew what architects do. I still don't know what they do! But I just decided that I wanted to be an architect. So through a family friend of ours (I don't think it's necessary to tell the whole story but..). My best friend from the hostel, he had a connection through his aunt or his mother's cousin or something, to an architect called Jack Coia and she, I said to him, ask her if he has room or wishes to take on an apprentice and he interviewed me and said 'Come up on Monday and start'. That was it. The end and the beginning30
INT: Right. That was, that was very lucky. But I'm sure he recognized that you were worth taking on.
IM: Presumably. People write regularly that he discovered me. Of course he didn't. That's not the way things were done. A 17 year old boy isn't discovered but people like that romantic story.
INT: That is more romantic.
IM: Better that he discovered me than I discovered him
INT: Absolutely. And how did you meet your partner? When was that?
IM: The partnership?
INT: No, I think we are meaning your emotional partner.
IM: You mean my wife?40
IM: My wife. We're married although not in a Jewish sense. Not in a synagogue. Yeah we met...when was that? I've got to work it out, 44 years ago or something like that, whatever that date is...what is that?
INT: Once you got the apprenticeship you were with that partnership thereafter?
IM: Forever, yes
INT: Is that right? So some of these questions about was it hard to get work...Did it make any difference that you were Jewish?50
IM: None whatsoever
INT: Right, that's interesting.
IM: In fact, it's funny. My boss was a Catholic, or meant to be a Catholic – he was actually of Italian origin, he wasn't much of a Catholic. He didn't like employing Catholics because he thought they were being employed because they were Catholic. A complicated state of mind he was in but he quite liked the idea of employing Jewish people.
INT: And did he see that as a link to some of the architectural traditions of Europe?
IM: If he did then he didn't tell me.
INT: That's interesting.60
INT2: So you stayed there for an apprenticeship for five years?
IM: Five years.
INT2: And so where did you go after that?
IM: I didn't. I stayed on. It was unusual in those days. If you were an apprentice after 5 years you usually moved on to another but I stayed on. And by the middle of the fifties we had, that is me and my partner, future partner (my friend from the school, from the school of architecture) had more or less taken over the running of the office. Although we weren't partners for quite a few years after that.
INT2: And so was that the norm then? For people going into architecture, that they would do an apprenticeship?70
IM: No there were still quite a few apprentices then but they were disappearing and most, I would say by the time in 1955, everybody was going into universities, or schools of architecture. The schools of architecture went into universities. But that's another story.
INT: Going on that theme do you think that the apprenticeship system produced a different sort of architect?
IM: Not a different sort, a better.
INT: Well that's a different sort.
IM: No, well that depends; I don't want to go into all that in great depth, it's not really the topic. But those who then entered good offices, offices willing to teach their apprentices... Of course we went to day-release too.80
We went to classes, afternoon and evening classes while we were doing the apprenticeship but those offices were interested in their apprentices and they produced good architects and those that just used them as cheap labor (and cheap labor it was) [did not]. When I started in 1945 it was twelve and ten pence I got and then the next year I got twenty-two and ten pence.
INT2: That's quite a jump actually
IM: Yes and then thirty-two and ten pence.
INT: You couldn't live on that could you?90
INT: Within your architectural career would you say that your European links made a difference to your vision? No?
IM: I had no European links
INT: You didn't?
IM: I left Europe
INT: You were too young?
IM: I left Berlin when I was 11 and even I wouldn't claim I had such a degree of prematurity.
INT: Well obviously, from what you're saying, you really saw yourself as Scottish once you were here, was that right?100
IM: Well that would be an exaggeration. I saw myself as Glaswegian and British.
IM: I still don't claim myself as Scottish
IM: I think it's a little bit arrogant to do so. But no, just let me say it now before you ask me. I've had no difficulties in my job or in my relationships with other students or in the professional level with my Jewishness or my foreignness. I've never had any problem there. In fact, I think my exotic strangeness would probably have helped but I'd no problem, that's what I meant to say because many people have an idea that somehow there are terrific difficulties they may have had. I'll just put it into perspective.110
The firm I was in with did a lot of church work. I designed quite a few Roman-Catholic churches and I've had to deal with the bishops, the Archbishops, the local priests and there was never any problem.
INT: Well I suppose they saw you as not being one side or the other side. Was it easier in that respect?
IM: Well I think they saw me as being...the Catholic Church are a great believer in making use of everybody for the furtherance of their religious ambitions. So I was just another wheel in the system. But it never, I mean, I had no difficulty at all, I want to just emphasize that, and they had no doubt I was Jewish. They were well aware I was Jewish.120
So just to say, while I am not religious at all and I didn't mix (unfortunately) with Jewish people I always revealed I was Jewish. I mean, don't get me wrong I didn't say 'I'm Jewish' but there was never any effort to hide my Jewishness from anybody. In fact, I had a good drinking time with priests and things and it was always recognized that I was not only not Catholic, but not religious.
INT2: So career-wise, what would you say were the highlights in architectural commissions? Which ones stand out for you? Because you said you were involved in churches.
IM: When I first went there was no work that involved design because it was just, well, post-war. But once we started again (about 1950/51) we did churches and...but by 1950 Jack Coia was the church architect, by the way.130
But it came to the middle of the 50s, Andy MacMillan and I took it over more or less and we designed a church which drew a lot of attention in Glenrothes. A very small, but by that time a very modern church, and that drew attention to the firm and we did a lot of churches. And we built a seminary at Cardross that's quite famous.
INT2: Yes, that's very famous
IM: Notorious now because it's in ruins and we built...we built quite a few schools later, quite a few of them were Catholic schools. And I just want to emphasise – I'm not complacent or smug about it - other bothers people may have had, difficulties– I had no difficulties.140
If anything it was a positive thing that I was a bit exotic and a bit recognizable so that I stood out a little bit. But as far as my career is concerned and even my social life – I've had no problems.
INT: And within these various commissions, how much of a free hand did you have?
IM: Pretty well a free hand. Well you must understand how it happens. I mean people often ask me that question and people wouldn't come to you if they didn't want you. Architects are public. I mean, what they do is public. If somebody wants to go to look, know what kind of buildings I do or work we did – you can do that. It's accessible.150
Examples of your work are always available. So if a priest comes to you, or a bishop comes to you wanting a design he knows what kind of architecture. So they're self-regulating in a way. So no, we had no problem. Occasionally, of course, you could argue with a client but it was always amicable and very interesting in fact.
INT: Do you see yourself as following a particular trend in Scottish architecture or?
IM: Take away the word Scottish
INT: In general, World? European?
IM: Modern architecture. Well, more or less European, modern architecture. I would call it modified modern.160
I mean it's not trying to get away from modern architecture, it's to enrich it with some things that the early moderns had abandoned in the meantime I think, but that's a long story. I taught in the School of Architecture.
INT2: Sorry, you mean in the School of Art?
IM: No, at the School of Art.
IM: They were then connected at that time with the University because the University gave degrees because the Art School wasn't able to give degrees. But I taught in the Art School on a part-time basis170
DM: When did you start teaching?
IM: About 1970 - until about 3 years ago on a part-time basis. Design, teaching design, tutoring schools, lecturing...and that went on for...how many years? From '70 to about '97 or something,
INT2: And so what was the last commission that you were involved in? Can you remember?
IM: Depends what you mean by last commission. Last important commission was a college in Cambridge, a new College in Cambridge – Robinson College. That was our last important work. After that we collapsed the firm because work was difficult to get. It's like now (though not quite as bad as now, but almost as bad). Almost all our work had something to do with the welfare state and the church so we did schools, hospitals, colleges...and when that stopped (which it did) our workload disappeared because we never had any real reputation in industrial or commercial work (which was the big thing after about 1980 or so).180
So we couldn't find any more clients. Andy MacMillan, who was my business partner, he went to run the school, the Glasgow Mackintosh School of Architecture. And, at one stage, I got a Chair in Edinburgh in 1984, the Chair of Architecture in the University. Edinburgh not Glasgow.
INT2: And does Edinburgh tend to have a different style would you say? Or does it just depend on who is teaching within the schools?
IM: Well that depends. It depends on the relationship in my view (it's my favorite topic of conversation), the relationship between the school of architecture and its university.
IM: Until...what was it? About... I'm not sure of the exact date but in the 60s sometime or in the late 50s, it was decided that all schools of architecture who had previously either been freestanding or been attached to art schools or to technical colleges (and some of them to universities) - should all go into universities.
INT: And do you think that's limited them?
IM: Very much so. I think it's the worst place in the world for schools of architecture to be in universities for all kinds of reasons. One of them because universities are not too interested in vocational subjects and also because in the university - architecture is also controlled by the RIBA and other bodies - and there's a conflict there between the autonomy of the university [and these bodies].200
Anyway, university is not a good place for architects, architecture I should say. Talking about it would take a couple of days to discuss this issue. So I moved to Edinburgh. Ideally I went to Edinburgh I think because, one – we didn't have much work (or any work) and two, I really felt that I could make a contribution to a very poorly run school. Because in these universities, especially Edinburgh, nobody ever leaves – the staff stay on forever because nobody else will have them.
INT: Oh dear.
IM: And I thought I might make a difference. It didn't work out that way. I was very unwelcomed by the staff so I left after seven years.210
INT2: So why was that? Was that because you were from Glasgow?
IM: Partly from Glasgow and partly because they ran the school with a great autonomy of the staff. I don't think anybody ever told them what to do or checked on their work. And I decided they did [should]look into what they were doing and I think that's one of the areas of difficulty, because they just wouldn't. But they didn't want my leadership that's for sure. They had been quite happy running their own classes in their own way and if somebody came in to try and get involved they were very less than happy about this.
INT: And was the whole idea of modernism part of the problem there?220
IM: No, absolutely not. No I don't think so. Obviously there were people who didn't believe in modernism but by 1980, middle 80's, that was a, shall we say, a debate that was more or less over. Still, there were still residual people who believed in, I'll call it, neo-classicism, call it what you like, or what you call Scottish architecture...But it wasn't – that wasn't the issue. It wasn't an issue about architectural design. It was an issue about the school of architecture and if you want to make changes... I mean the first, after I would say 3 weeks I knew I'd made a mistake. I stayed on for 7 years.230
But the first thing I was told when I wanted to make some changes – 'This is a democratic school so you've no...' you know... secondly they said -I first realized I'd made a mistake - when I referred to it as a school of architecture (which we did in Glasgow, in most schools) they said 'This is not a school of architecture – it's a department of architecture, of the University of Edinburgh'. So the interest was more in relation to the university than teaching architecture. So this didn't work for me. But in the mean time of course, I didn't just teach. I was also on various visiting boards to other schools of architecture. I was also on the RIBA panel and I was an external examiner for other schools and things so I have quite a long experience and involvement in teaching. In fact, last year Andy MacMillan and myself got an award, a financial award (it was very nice) for the best teachers of that year.240
INT: That's great.
IM: However, it doesn't matter. So, I'm not boastful about it. It's not too difficult to be the best teacher but the point I'm making is that my involvement in teaching is not only extensive but over a long period of time. We built a significant number of churches; built a seminary in Cardross. We built quite a few schools and colleges, built the student residences in Hull. We built, as I said, a major new college in Cambridge and worked quite a lot for Wadham College in Oxford. So we had a certain national reputation and as I was saying ...I worked out of Glasgow. But while I was doing all this, I had other fingers in pies.250
I was, for eleven years I was on the Scottish Fine Art Commission and for five years I was with the Scottish Arts Council and various other things I did. So I'm just mentioning that because I was well integrated into the establishment we'll call it.
INT: Yes I was thinking about that when you were speaking. You really moved completely away from the Jewish community didn't you or is that..?
IM: And they moved away from me.
IM: They're not interested in architecture. I mean in our office we had two or three Jewish apprentices or assistants. I don't know what ever happened to most of them but almost most of them didn't go on to be architects because their parents didn't approve of being an architect. Jewish people don't want architects.260
INT: Why do you think that is?
IM: Because they don't think it's a safe enough job. I mean a lot of them want to be artists when they were children but the parents wouldn't stand for it so they said 'Well, be an architect'. Well, they just about got away with that. But there is no doubt we office trained two or three Jewish young people in our office and they were usually [there] against the approval of their parents because it's not a secure job. You have to be a dentist or a doctor or a lawyer if you're Jewish. So that's part of why my disconnection is not a deliberate effort, it's just there's no common ground to be quite honest.270
There was one Jewish architect in Glasgow, quite well known, called Baron Bercott but he was very commercial, a money-making architect. We weren't money-making architects and, as I said, I didn't move away from them, I was never with them. I mean my experience incidentally and my understanding is the Jewish community weren't all that happy to have all these refugees coming to Glasgow. They wanted the sleeping dogs to keep lying.
INT: Well that seems to be traditional isn't it?
INT: A fear of too many foreign people280
IM: Well not foreign people, it reminded the community that...you know what I mean. [of the existence of anti-Semitism] - I don't want to go into that, it's not a pleasant subject.
IM: But definitely. I mean in terms of taking children overseas from as, as refugees I should say, the Jewish community didn't make a great contribution to that. Almost all the people, you've met us, Kinder Transportees, went to non-Jewish families. I have no statistics but I don't know many people went to Jewish families.
INT: I think a lot of them were just beginning to settle and didn't want to disturb the equilibrium290
IM: Precisely! Oh no, I don't necessarily blame them but it's a characteristic of the existing established community so... But with me it's to do with my job. To be living in the West End, my non-interest in religious Jewishness. If somebody asked me 'What are you?' I'd say 'Well, I'm a secular Jew' or 'I'm an ethnic Jew' and I'd make no attempt to hide that, in fact I am rather quite pleased to be Jewish. But it doesn't mean for me to go to synagogue and mix with the rest of them.
INT2: But it's interesting that you said that your children still had a Bar Mitzvah.
IM: Yeah that's my wife!
INT2: I think it does sort of depend quite often300
IM: Yeah, there was no harm attached to it. I'm not blaming anybody. I mean I wanted them to feel Jewish but I had no demand of them from a religious point of view. I think that (to extend the discussion a little bit) a Jew needs to have some reason for being Jewish. I mean being treated as a Jew, whether negatively or positively. So you need to give them some backbone for that special relationship you have. While I have said I had no problem being Jewish, there was never any doubt that my Jewishness was a factor in my relationship with non-Jewish people. Not that I'm saying that as necessarily negative but you cannot be a Jew without being 'outed'.
IM: Even my best friends have always known that I'm Jewish, you know what I mean. They make remarks or give special attention to it. But it doesn't bother me, I'm quite happy about that.
INT2: So how did you actually meet, now that we know, the wife? Rather than partner, we just thought we should be correct when we were talking.
IM: That's all right, I don't mind.
IM: According to my Rabbi, we're not properly married so it doesn't matter!
INT: That's more exciting. So tell us anyway..
IM: It was a put-up job actually, I discovered later. I was introduced. I was invited to a cocktail party and Danni was invited to the party with the ulterior motive that we would meet – and we did.320
INT: That's very romantic
IM: Very romantic
DM: That was Gertrude Bentheim who died about a month, two months ago.
IM: You'll know Gertrude.
DM: She was a friend of my mother's.
DM: And she invited me to this cocktail party in order to meet Isi.
INT2: That's very nice. So you're not from Glasgow originally?330
DM: No, I was born in France.
DM: I came here in '53 with my parents.
INT2: So where from France?
DM: My mother was from Vienna, my father was from Germany.
DM: He had died, my mother remarried, also somebody from Germany.
IM: He got a job here after the war. She wasn't a refugee
INT2: Right. So how did you end up in Glasgow?
DM: My stepfather got a job in Motherwell.
INT2: Ah, right
DM: By a French company who then collapsed and we stayed.
INT2: And obviously, I mean Motherwell is just like France really! Slightly different accent!
IM: Yeah, just like France.
INT2: That was interesting when you were saying about...with your children, did you decide to talk to them in English then?