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Rick Haldenby had made it to the centre of the world. “Welcome,” he beamed to his audience, a gaggle of 20-somethings draped across various remnants of the Roman Forum, trying very hard not to move any more than necessary. It was an early morning in June, 30 degrees, and already Haldenby could feel the sun turning his white cheeks pink. “Welcome,” he repeated. “To the revival of the Rome program, all of you.” After 40 years of bringing students from the University of Waterloo School of Architecture to Rome for their study-abroad term, this year, the program’s 42nd, had nearly been cancelled.

But here they were at the Forum, Haldenby explaining that graduates from the 1979 class had been emailing him their wishes that week. “They were the founders, they were the Romulus and Remus. And you,” he gestured to the students, “are the Augustus, you are the re-founders of Rome.” Behind Haldenby, the Arco di Settimio Severo rose in the distance, and beyond that, the Coliseum. The sky, a clear Pantone blue, was the exact same colour that it was the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that, and nearly every year, for the last four decades, on this day in Rome.

In 1979, Mark Sterling experienced it first-hand. That inaugural year, the Forum tour was only three hours long. Haldenby had not yet fully grown into his tour-de-force personality—or amassed the knowledge of 40 consecutive Rome trips. Even then, it was obvious that there was “a kind of fierceness” in Haldenby’s lectures, a sense that “this stuff had to come out.” Sterling, who would go on to become a director of the Masters of Urban Design program at the University of Toronto, recalls the very first day of the semester: “The entire class paraded through Rome with our studio chairs.” Haldenby, then only 27 years old, had paid for every chair out of his own pocket; in fact, he had funded everything in that first makeshift studio space.

On this trip, Sterling took classes that were then novel to the University of Waterloo’s architecture program: a course on the history of the fountains of Rome and an urban sketching class. There were small towns east of Rome that fascinated Haldenby. The Saracens had invaded in the ninth century, so the Romans had been forced to live in hill towns for defence purposes. Over the next few weeks, Haldenby sent Sterling and his classmates on multiple trips to the Roman countryside. “The ability to kind of go out and look at something like that, systematically kind of reconstruct [these towns],” Sterling told me, “fascinated me in a way that I didn’t expect.”

For the first time in his life, he could see clearly how the city worked; Sterling studied the Saracen towns for weeks, making cross sections along the way. This sort of empirical learning is what Nikola Miloradovic, a video producer at Herzog & de Meuron who also completed the program, celebrates as Rome’s “enduring legacy of lived experience.” He told me recently, “If universities are bastions of rational thought, idea generation, and learning, then Rome is the next step. Rome is empirical learning through the place itself, through sight and sound, smell and movement — and touch.”

Sterling didn’t know it then, but the drawings he completed in the hill towns would inspire a cornerstone of the Rome program itself, the sketchbook class. Today, completing a drawing a day is a mandatory coursework requirement. Students draw inspiration from Haldenby-led walking tours throughout Rome, but also on class trips to the north and south of Italy — sites as diverse as lush Capri, castle-like Urbino, and the floating islands of Venice. “The type of drawings that Rick asks his students to do is drawing as a method of inquiry, not just documentation,” Isabel Ochoa, a Rome program professor and an artist at OCH Ceramics told me recently.

Daniel Beg, a recent Rome graduate, added: “Drawing is a lie. You just have to choose which lie you’re telling … What are you noticing?” The hope is that in learning how to think through drawing, the actual design process — designing buildings such as the end-of-term cultural institution every Rome student completes as his term finale — is made not only easier, but the design, richer.

Rick Haldenby was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2022. As the highest level of distinction in the Canadian Honours system, the award celebrates outstanding personal achievement and civic contribution to Canadian society. Since that first trip in 1979, he has sent over 2,000 students to Rome. In 1988, he assumed the role of Director of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, further changing the face of architectural pedagogy as we know it.

During his 26-year reign, and before stepping down in 2014, Haldenby acted as a reformer and a preservationist: He moved the School of Architecture from a derelict industrial building in Waterloo to its current location, a repurposed silk mill in Cambridge, Ontario, and has given countless lectures and interviews championing vernacular Canadian architecture — he is arguably the reason why institutions such as the University of Saskatchewan and Brock University have also repurposed former industrial buildings into campuses. He’s also still very involved in the shaping of new projects: Haldenby has managed several local architecture competitions — including the recently opened Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford.

Waterloo’s co-op program isn’t Haldenby’s own invention, and isn’t unique to the architecture school. Designed so that students complete six four-month internships over the course of their five-year degree, co-op education at Waterloo has been a cornerstone of the University since its inception in 1957. But by bringing the Rome term to Waterloo’s architecture school, which was only established in 1967, after all, Haldenby completed the school of architecture’s academic tripartite.

A co-op program that functions as a kind of apprenticeship, a five-year study of classical literature, a romp through the historical centre of civilization — Waterloo’s three-pronged approach to design school argues that the Classics still matter, because beauty does. And what is architecture’s most romantic persona if not a study of beauty itself? “Finding beauty, deeply observing and connecting with the world around us, and developing intellectual and emotional responses is part of being human,” Haldenby says. “And I think especially in this day and age, keeping an eye on humanity is extremely important.”

At 73 years old, Haldenby still speaks in an effervescent way; his gaze, thick brows furrowed, probes. Ochoa calls him “an institution;” to Beg, he is “joyous and joyous and joyous.” Former student Hiba Zubairi says that the way Haldenby teaches “feels like a memoir.” Haldenby has toured Hadrian’s Villa with Michael Ondaatje, foddering him with research for Ondaatje’s 1987 novel, “In the Skin of the Lion”. Haldenby, who speaks Italian and Latin fluently, has gone on numerous archeology digs, to Egypt, to Tunisia and Italy—where he would be fated to one day meet the artist Rosemary Aicher, now his wife. After he started the Rome program, he co-wrote a book with Lorenzo Pignatti, a Roman architect and count.

A black and white photo of Rick Haldenby lecturing in Rome
PHOTO: Wesley Zhu

While he built up Waterloo’s School of Architecture while it was still in its infancy from a homely design school in suburban Canada into one of the top architecture schools in North America, Haldenby almost followed a different path.  

Born in Toronto, Haldenby is named after both of his grandfathers—one a politician, and the other, an architect. His maternal grandfather, Ross Macdonald, was a recipient of the Order of Canada in 1974. On his father’s side, Haldenby’s architect grandfather was a founding partner at local architecture firm Mathers and Haldenby — of Robarts Library fame — which his father, Douglas, succeeded as partner in 1964. Attending the University of Waterloo might well have been a fluke. When he was a senior high school student, Haldenby convinced one of his father’s colleagues, then designing the faculty club at the University of Waterloo, to give him a ride to the city. He wandered into the office of Tore Bjornstad of the newly erected School of Architecture to ask a few questions. He was offered admission on the spot.

“It was a very strange first year,” said Haldenby. Many of his classmates already had careers as draftsmen. “It didn’t really seem that academic until we ran into the cultural history crew, and that’s when I knew the place was for me.” The year was 1969. Only two years earlier, Dr. Larry Cummings, an Elizabethan scholar, had read a motion to the university senate establishing the School of Architecture. He had wanted to create a community based on “profound multidisciplinarity”, where cultural ideas could be exchanged freely amongst its students. Cummings imagined something akin to a Great Books program — the kind championed by the likes of the University of King’s College in Halifax. Students would read the great classics of Western civilization and talk about them. The architects, Cummings believed, would be just the group to do it.

Those books would change their lives, and in due course, the lives of others across the world, as the books changed the types of buildings the architecture students would one day grow up to draw. At the time, the notion was a novelty in Canadian architectural education. Other programs were either highly technical, or taught a European-style approach to Modernism—no cultural history programs in sight.

Haldenby’s wanderlust was first stoked when he encountered a fourth-year student in a studio class he was substitute teaching who had biked from Norway to Greece; it inspired him to embark on his own cycling trip across Europe. He was giving himself the purest graduate experience an architect could get, experiencing ancient buildings first-hand. One day, in Athens, he received a telegram: Dr. Larry Cummings was urging him to apply for a teaching position at the school. “I said, ‘What. Are you joking? I just graduated.’” Nonetheless, he hired a local typist to write up his CV and sent it off, thinking nothing of the offer. Six months later, he got the job.

I asked Haldenby if it got to him, the repetition of teaching in Rome. He chuckled. “Do you ever get bored going home or going into your living room? No, because it’s a place you have a feeling for and is associated with a whole lot of feelings—with your siblings, your pets — and I just happen to have a very big house.” Haldenby’s hallowed halls hold bookshelves lined with St. Augustine, Homer. An extra plate is always set out in the dining room, welcoming the co-op student who wanders home from his travels. “[Rick] is perhaps a deeply privileged individual who has access to many threads,” shared Philip Beesley, of the Living Architecture Systems Group. “That privilege though, is so immediately shared.” No one dines at Haldenby’s house without being offered the full palette of life itself, à la Rick.

The Waterloo School of Architecture’s Cambridge headquarters.

If Haldenby’s Rome program established his reputation as a beloved teacher, his approach to the redesign of the School of Architecture – which directly involved students – made it enduring. In late 2000, Haldenby, into his 12th year as director of the School of Architecture, got a call from John Wright, a local land developer. “What would it take to move the School of Architecture to Cambridge?,” he asked.

By that point, the University of Waterloo was being called the best school of architecture in the country, but it had the worst facilities: a shared space with the Planning department on main campus. “Overcrowded” and “miserable” is what Professor Val Rynnimeri called it. “We were never truly happy.” The building lacked room for the new graduate programmed just instituted and offered no crit spaces. Haldenby was also aware that Wright, who represented a consortium of businesses in Cambridge, wanted the city’s downtown revitalized—the heritage district was failing. “It would take a great site, and lots of money,” Haldenby told him. “And this guy just looks at me and says, ‘Oh is that all? Then it’s as good as done.’”

The co-op program at the University of Waterloo taught students how to be independent—here’s a new architecture office to apprentice in, here’s a city you’ve never lived in before, learn how to fend and succeed for yourselves. But that independence was also lodged into the ethos of the faculty themselves. “Waterloo is not ruled by history and convention. So few universities embody a culture of individual initiative – but Waterloo does.”

For the next eight months, the faculty of architecture sat down every week with their students to discuss the new campus design. In a privilege often unafforded in “real world” architecture, the project architect, the client, and the building users sat at the design meetings, week after week. One of the group’s main design edicts was “students first”. They were retrofitting an old silk mill, and decided that key student spaces such as the studios, the gym, and the café would be programmed into the south-facing side of the building, offering views to the adjacent river. Staff offices, meanwhile, overlooked a much less desirable view of the nearby parking lot. A three-storey atrium was added. Here, students intermingled between classes, socializing and sharing ideas. The new building opened on September 7, 2004 — exactly 25 years after the first day of the Rome program.

A few weeks after the first day of classes in his new building, Haldenby wandered his new halls. Much work would have to be conducted that year; there were theses to read, exhibitions to attend, entire syllabi to update. No doubt he would be as busy as ever. Suddenly, past the entrance of the second-floor library, Haldenby stopped. Through the wide, square windows that perforate the School’s façade, Haldenby could see the sun hanging low in the sky, reflecting off the water in the river. “The entire ceiling in the library was showing the reflected ripples,” Haldenby recalled. In ancient Rome, the Romans often put pools of water on the floors of their buildings. “I realized then that in a certain way, my architecture life had come together in that moment — that my life in Cambridge and my life in Rome were somehow the same.”

I, myself, am an architecture graduate, a product of Haldenby’s Waterloo. I spent my years in school travelling as far as I could on my coops, gallivanting across the globe. My classmates and I completed the Rome program. Yet, for all the glitz and glamour that Waterloo’s architecture degree proffers, it is still the School that stands out most clearly in my memory: its heavy, brick presence, the deep charge of a late night in studio. It is the through-line of my architectural — and Classical — education, this old silk mill on the edge of the river that I returned to year after year.

When Cian Hrabi arrived at the Piazza di Santa Maria this past June, the site of the Waterloo studio in Trastevere, he’d been out of school for more than a year. He had taken a leave of absence in the hopes that by the time he returned, COVID restrictions would have abated enough to go to Rome. It was summer 2022, and for the first time in three years, sixty architecture students followed Haldenby around Italy. One of such walking tours, the infamous Roman Forum lecture, started at nine in the morning and ended nine hours later — when the site closed to tourists. “It’s like a bend in the space-time continuum,” one student wrote in a Facebook group.

In many ways, Hrabi’s experience of Rome echoes that of the 40 Rome terms that came before him. At Bar San Calisto, the 1960s-era dive bar just south of campus, Waterloo students still regularly frequented its checkered floorboards for early morning cappuccinos. They still tossed coins in the Trevi fountain, gaped in awe beneath the Pantheon’s oculus. On the school’s south field trip, to Paestum, students inevitably sneaked off to the beach in the dead of night to inevitably skinny dip beneath a pale blue moon.

Yet in other ways, the program as a whole is profoundly changed. COVID has changed how cities are explored, the way that buildings are experienced, and consequently, how architecture is taught. To place 60 students on a coach bus together in the middle of tourist season, in a pandemic, is to eventually confront a medical impasse. By the time the students reached Venice, the last stop on their north field trip, too many students had fallen ill to continue. Haldenby cut the trip short. Without any other forewarning, the students’ time with Haldenby — and with Italy — was over.

What the architecture student loses in a post-pandemic Rome is first-hand experience. How may it be regained? Or —w hat is the closest replacement to the real thing itself? As Haldenby has long known — he has, after all, built an entire career on it — it is to tell stories.

Back at the Forum, Haldenby continued to spin one of his most-versed tales yet. As the sun followed its arc across the sky, he told of the time of Augustus, when the Romans established a myth for their great city. A prophet tells Virgil that his children, Romulus and Remus, will one day kill him. They do. But, says the prophet, a new city will rise in his place. So it does. The site of a future Rome is enacted on the spot of Virgil’s death—but not before Romulus first kills his twin in a dispute. “Why is this so intrinsic to the story, killing your twin?” Haldenby turned to his audience. Behind him, in the heat, the ruins shimmered with the promise of a bygone empire. “Because you give up some natural part of yourself to live in the city. The imitation of human immobility is the city.”

The House that Rick Haldenby Built

The former director of the architecture school at the University of Waterloo, Rick Haldenby – who this year was inducted into the Order of Canada – shaped the school’s Rome program, its new home, and ultimately, its reputation.

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