Four Tributes: Barry Sampson, 1948-2020

Adding to the obituary by colleague George Baird, a group of early colleagues—and lifelong friends—pay tribute to the memory of architect Barry Sampson, who passed away on December 5, 2020.

Joost Bakker, Bruce Kuwabara, Donald McKay and John van Nostrand were classmates with Barry at the University of Toronto’s school of architecture in the late 1960s. Upon graduation, Bakker, Kuwabara, van Nostrand and Sampson approached George Baird to work at his then-solo practice. McKay joined the practice a year later. The group would remain close for many years, even as each pursued their own path of practice.

At John van Nostrand’s invitation, each has offered a tribute to Barry Sampson. Here are their words.

The Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory. Photo by Richard Seck

Barry Sampson, the architect _ by Bruce Kuwabara

From 1967—the year I met Barry as a first-year architecture student at the University of Toronto—to the last conversation I had with him in November 2020,  he was the same person: deeply thoughtful, gently humorous, friendly, and courageous. His family has lost a loving partner and a father, while the world of design and education has lost a remarkable, ethical and creative architect and teacher.

As an architect of distinction throughout his life, Barry embraced and mastered a comprehensive,  critical approach to architecture, landscape, interiors, integrated sustainability, and teaching.  If you speak with his clients, colleagues, and students, you will get a sense of one of the best architects and educators of any generation.

The real significance of Barry’s contribution to Canadian architecture came home to me some years ago when I visited the Butterfly Conservatory with my children. We approached the elegant, chrysalis-like steel and glass enclosure emerging from the stone base. Upon entering the pavilion, we were delighted and filled with wonder seeing the diversity of butterflies fluttering and perching everywhere. In the wings of these butterflies, the inspiration for Barry’s vision’s design and meaning was revealed.

The Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory. Photo courtesy of Baird Sampson Neuert Architects

During the pandemic, Barry presented, on Zoom, the design concept for the new Robotics building at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus to the Design Review Committee. I saw right away that Barry’s vision for this research and workspace for robotics shared the same qualities of the Butterfly Conservatory: elegant, efficient, and sustainable.  Barry had let me know this would be his last building.  Both are deeply grounded in their natural forest settings, and both have symbolically shaped roofs that give a distinct identity and expression to their respective programs. Similar to the Butterfly Conservatory, Barry envisioned a one-storey pavilion for the Robotics building. The roof will be an inverted light wood truss structure with cantilevered extensions on all sides. It seemed to me that Barry’s proposal to create a unique geometric form integrating the warmth of the wood and emphasizing transparency held a more profound purpose: to remind the users of the implications of their work on Nature, and all life.

Concept sketch for University of Toronto Mississauga Campus Robotics building, by Barry Sampson.

One of the gifts of this pandemic has been the series of phone conversations Barry and I were able to have over the last nine months. We talked about everything and everybody who had influenced us.  We spoke of our formative years at the University of Toronto during a moment of significant change and disruption of the status quo in the late 1960s. We reminisced about our shared work experiences with George Baird, John van Nostrand, Joost Bakker, and Donald McKay during the 1970s. We laughed about the “crisis” of Post Modernism in architecture in the 1980s and how it challenged us to reclaim meaning in architecture during the 1990s. We shared ideas and philosophies about integrating deep, sustainable, and interdisciplinary thinking with the art of architecture to create social benefit for the 21st century.  We talked about our families and children and compared our personal experiences with cancer. Most of all, I feel grateful that I had the opportunity to express my gratitude to Barry and to tell him how much I valued our life-long friendship.

Barry Sampson and Bruce Kuwabara. Photo by Brigitte Shim

One of the last things I shared with Barry was a book, The Architect on the Beach.  It is about Le Corbusier’s radical shift from creating architecture as “machines for living” to organic form-making, and how a collection of seashells ultimately led to the design of Ronchamp.

As a friend and an architect, I will always remember Barry leading the way, quietly, exploring the deeper meaning of sustainability long before the world began to pay attention to climate change. When architecture forgot its connection to Nature, Barry was quietly setting the groundwork for remembering.

Dear Barry, I am going to miss you, your ideas,  and our conversations.


Barry Sampson in Reviews, December, 2015. Photo courtesy of Robert Wright, Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design

Barry Sampson, the teacher _ by Donald McKay

Barry Sampson: over forty years a teacher, rising through the ranks from sessional lecturer to full professor for the last fifteen years of his academic career. And in all that time, an architect—for thirty years of them a partner—in a critical and celebrated architectural practice.

For a high school season, I was a member of the wrestling team. I enjoyed it, even if, tall and thin, I was unsuited to it. By necessity, I learned to assess other people as wrestlers. The first time I saw Barry Sampson, I recognized a natural wrestler. That was 53 years ago last September.

A wrestler’s first inclination: stay in balance, take a broad stance and train to hold the ground. That is a place where Barry thrived. He studied conscientiously and widely, and he embodied what he learned, applying it to his own work and sharing it with colleagues and students, always developing the gravity he needed to ground the work. Teaching in parallel but never together, over the years I enjoyed reviewing student work with Barry. Characteristically, he would open his comments citing three or four principles or issues. You understood, when he spoke, he drew these from a bindle sack of dozens and dozens of such principles, developed in theory and practice and applied daily to test their value in teaching and in the office.

Wrestlers train, mastering fundamental positions, and dozens of moves from those positions. They seem solid, but they are quick, and will surprise an opponent in an act of recoupage. All of Barry’s preparations, and a natural thoughtfulness, would lead him to a well-considered practice, but it does not mean he was unprepared for a change. After some consideration, however brief, he would always step in. His constant study and self-criticism gave him the leverage to advance the work when he understood where to apply the appropriate force, and what direction it should take.

Over his career, Barry’s natural inclinations put him at the centre of two teaching streams.

For a decade and a half—until the century turned—he was a foundation figure in first-year studios in the School of Architecture, where new students learn so much so quickly. In the emotionally chaotic environment of those first years, he was a steadying influence, not only in the programs he developed, addressing the architectural craft step-by-step, but in his nature—benevolent and compassionate and profoundly professional.

And, for at least a dozen years in the new century, in Daniels’ graduate program, he took responsibility for the comprehensive building studio, the exhaustive term-long exercise that draws on the full range of building skills and architectural gifts. It was a studio he prepared for, and renewed for himself, all his life.

And, in all that time, he never neglected his own self-development. Barry kept a place in his career for special studios, teaching from out of his own enthusiasms: for building in glass, for green building, and for educational institutions.

Unlike boxers, wrestlers are part of a team; the success of all is as important as the triumphs of one. Barry served his entire community in a wide range of ways, but most particularly, at the University of Toronto he nurtured two school buildings, seeing that each met the demands of the day while anticipating the future in architecture. Handled badly, this can be a thankless responsibility, and the gratitude of that school community for what he accomplished there is the best evidence of the depth of his contribution.

Good teachers leave behind an intellectual and moral DNA of sorts. Barry set a high mark for grace and integrity, for all of us. Generations of architects will, by his example, strive to meet it.

Cloud Gardens, Toronto. Photo courtesy Baird Sampson Neuert Architects

Barry Sampson, the professional _ by John van Nostrand

We were all in first year at the School of Architecture in Toronto—beginning in ‘67 and heading for graduation in ’72. We were all “from away”—Bruce Kuwabara and I from Hamilton; Joost Bakker from Curacao; Donald McKay from Manitoba (via Etobicoke), and Barry from Oshawa.

Barry and I bonded early after I asked him what he had submitted as his portfolio. He took me over to his desk and pulled out his coloured drawings of new cars, including the hottest cars of the period: Corvettes, GTOs, Camaros. They were precisely drawn and rendered in beautiful metallic colours. This left me pondering for another 40 years over whether cars were more important in our times than buildings (we had all visited Expo ’67). They were “modern” in ways that most of the kids our age in Oshawa and Hamilton understood: Hamilton sent much of its scrap steel from ancient cars back to GM, where they made new models. We all knew that a driver’s licence was our “ticket to ride,” and was preferably obtained within a week of turning 16, if you were really cool. Barry was really cool.

In 1967, the school of architecture at the University of Toronto had undergone a major change in Leadership, under the guidance of John Andrews. He invited Peter Pragnell (from England) to move from Columbia University to the University of Toronto,  to serve as the new Director of Architecture.

Peter had strong affiliations with Team X (Team Ten)—a breakaway group including figures such as Aldo van Eyck that challenged the modernist-founders of CIAM, including Le Corbusier. Team X formed in 1953 as a new global international organization focused on architecture that addressed the everyday needs of real people.  They were interested in the ordinariness of everyday life, the house-as-city and city-as-house, the primitive Dogon with their squares that became circles. A weekly series of lectures led by Peter left us all in awe and confusion. We were asked to take our cameras out on the street to document this life—including “places where people gossiped,” or “places that supported human action and emotion”—and to try to tell our classmates what we had each seen. We were told we already had 18 years of experiencing buildings and cities, and that we needed to bring that experience to our work.

In ‘69, Peter invited George Baird to the school. George had just returned from several years in London,  where he had co-edited Meaning & Architecture with Charles Jencks, a book which introduced us to a completely new set of ideas, starting with “semiology”:

…the justification for semiology, the theory of signs… contends that since everything is meaningful, we are in a literal sense condemned to meaning, and thus we can either become aware of how meaning works in a technical sense (semiology), or we can remain content with our intuition.

From that point on, we lived in the midst of this juxtaposition of theory (George) with intuition and emotion (Peter). This was a situation in which Barry thrived. And with the subsequent establishment of George Baird Architect in 1972, it went beyond talking and “thinking and jumping” to projects—fascinating projects.

A student of Barry’s (who later became my business partner) recounted an experience from his thesis year. He selected Barry as his advisor and met with him at least once a week, and then twice as it got closer to the final review. Without fail, Barry would always end their meetings with a summary of his critique, telling him that it was not coming together, it lacked rigour,  and that he needed to get his ideas and their outcome together, and so on. Then, after the formal presentation to an assembled set of peers and professors, Barry took him aside and told him it was a “pretty good” project that got its point across. Barry would go on to recommend him to some well-known practices in the USA and Europe.

Barry demanded perfection: of himself first, and then everyone else. Ignoring Robert Frost, he took two paths at once—one as teacher and the other as practitioner. It was a model that few of the five of us could handle: as both an exceptional teacher and someone who led the creation of exception buildings. Barry was both a social architect and a social activist (a whole other story). He was at the centre of both the city and its industrial and economic hubs.

With affection, we nicknamed him “Blue Barry.” When he looked gloomy, he was really just turning everything over, and over, and over again. He got it right, any way that you turn it.

Greening Downtown planning study for Vancouver, led by George Baird with Barry Sampson, and with former colleague Joost Bakker. Cover rendering by Donald McKay.

Barry Sampson, the global community member _ by Joost Bakker

People enter into our lives, even if only for a brief number of years, and form markers that reverberate throughout our life.

I was last with Barry, and our original “hopeful circle” in Toronto, September 5, 2019. It was exactly 52 years ago to that day when this circle of friends/colleagues entered architecture school at U of T! We were gathered around that familiar dining room table at George and Elizabeth Baird’s, reminiscing and celebrating—Barry, John van Nostrand, Bruce Kuwabara, Donald McKay and our partners.

On day one of school, our circle was confined to De Stijl-like exercises: composing cut-out grey shapes on white cardstock. Within short months, we were suddenly unleashed into the tumultuous ‘60s and ‘70s, and empowering new design thinking deeply rooted in ideas of community. I have largely witnessed Barry’s unfolding from afar, having moved to Vancouver in 1974. From this vantage point, I have come to realize how deeply rooted Barry remained in “community”—as person, professional, and educator.

To travel far, far—and that first morning’s awakening under a new sky! And to find oneself in it—no, to discover more of oneself there.   – Rainer Maria Rilke

 A Volkswagon van road trip in 1971 to Latin America uncovered another transformative awakening in our lives. Meeting up with Barry, John, Danny McAlister, and Norm Grey-Noble in Panama City, we took our VW/home to Buenaventura on Columbia’s Pacific Coast. The resonance of that trip stays with us to this day. We encountered a deep multi-layered history with diverse cultural expressions and senses of public space, discovering a radically different world.

Together, we explored barridas on the mudflats of Buenaventura. We witnessed “Inti Raymi”—the ancient Inca festival of the Sun—in late June with bonfires proliferating on surrounding hills. We danced on the dark side of the moon with Pink Floyd blaring from a camped van’s roof in a seemingly endless Peruvian desert. We drove through devastated small villages and the town of Huaraz, places that had fallen victim of the Ancash earthquake the previous year.

For Barry, this trip awakened themes of lifelong interest, including a lasting love of travel. His travels and inquiries continued throughout the ‘70s, with studies in London, sojourns to Paris, and studies at the Sorbonne.

Over the ensuing decades, Barry crossed this country extensively while working on projects, design competitions, exhibitions and urban studies.  His firm’s 1982 “Greening Downtown” urban design study continues to define Vancouver’s Georgia Street, our main ceremonial street. My collaboration with Barry, George Baird and Donald McKay remains memorable.

[Ursula Franklin] defined technology as practice: how things are socially and morally done. She saw technology as complex systems of methods, procedures and mindsets rather than a collection of machines and gadgets.

A life immersed in travel, study, building, education and family allowed Barry to excel as an insightful and holistic teacher of practice. The interconnectedness of environmental and architectural systems eventually led to a new mindset and focus on “bioclimatic” design. As a young colleague (and U of T grad) in my office reminisced: ”Barry’s comprehensive building studio—weaving together structures, envelope and sustainability, acoustics, lighting sources and more—was a student favorite, particularly for those interested in architecture as a practice for designing and constructing buildings… something that sometimes gets lost in academia.”

I thought of the cottage as more of my home than the family home in Oshawa. I just felt I belonged there.  –Barry Sampson in Cottage Life, May 4, 2020

The deepest and strongest root running through Barry’s life was his cottage in Haliburton. This faux-log structure was hand-built by his father at the end of the Second World War. There was growing pressure to renew this small aging structure and meet the needs of multiple generations. That offered Barry the opportunity to reflect on, and conceive of, a high-performance all-season space that fully expressed his lifelong values.

Barry Sampson’s cottage, axonometric. Image courtesy Baird Sampson Neuert Architects

His father’s original timber cottage is now lovingly suspended and encased within a state-of-the-art sustainable glass enclosure. This transformed place on Beech Lake will remain a wonderful testament to Barry’s life and learnings, his sense of belonging, while providing ongoing community for his partner Judi and their sons.