George Baird’s Provocative Wisdom

Barry Sampson
Partner, Baird Sampson Neuert Architects

George Baird returned to Toronto from England in the late fall of 1967, having collaborated with Charles Jencks on the internationally celebrated book, Meaning in Architecture. Recruited by esteemed architect John Andrews–then Chairman of the Department of Architecture at the University of Toronto, George joined his colleague Peter Prangnell in the process of transforming the curriculum. When he was introduced to the faculty, he cut quite a figure in his slim jeans, leather jacket over a T-shirt, long woolen scarf and a Mick Jagger haircut. He was returning to the city of his birth after a heady period of graduate study and involvement in the vigorous London architectural scene, which included learning with the architectural historian and theorist Joseph Rykwert, who served as his advisor. The time spent in London had diverted his attention to theoretical musings on semiology and architecture that led to Meaning in Architecture as well as other critical writings. At such an early age he had already developed the reputation as a rising intellectual.

The Toronto he returned to was a city that was being rapidly transformed by comprehensive redevelopment projects based on older Modernist principles. The process was actively encouraged by the instruments of city planning at the time–the official plan and zoning bylaws–and promoted by city politicians from the Establishment, along with a development industry that was not disposed to public scrutiny. George was part of a new generation of thinkers with attitudes and ideas that were open to the reappraisal of what had become the predominant manifestation of Modernism in Toronto–the redevelopment of whole blocks using tower-in-the-park or plaza typologies based on single-use zoning. A number of professional friends such as Jerome Markson who had been his mentor, and colleagues from his studies in architecture at the University of Toronto had ambitions to promote a new kind of Modern architecture based on different architectural and community-based sensibilities inspired by Scandinavian models and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Some of his colleagues worked in firms associated with the ongoing transformations of the city while others were involved in the growing Municipal Reform movement–individuals like James Lorimer and John Sewell, who sought his engagement and that of his students to criticize the big projects as part of a process of building community resistance and an alternative idea of city form and community-based design.

By 1972, when he established his firm George Baird Architect, he had already completed the renovation of his own house, and a very creative renovation of a small Victorian cottage for James Lorimer. Both were Modern in character, but highly responsive in sensibility to the underlying historical features of the host house. This ability to achieve a nuanced relationship between new and old–what I call a discourse through temporal space with previous generations–was indicative of a subtlety that George would bring to his contributions to the creation of an urban design scene in Toronto and Canada more generally, not to mention his role in broadcasting its accomplishments abroad.

Four graduating students from the University of Toronto–Joost Bakker, Bruce Kuwabara, John van Nostrand and myself–joined George in his new practice with the intention of doing competitions and whatever architectural projects might come next. More often than not, they were cryptically referred to as “back porch projects.” Most notable amongst these was a back and front porch commission for the much-loved film editor Don Haig, which was published in Progressive Architecture. What also came as a result of George’s writing and public engagement with issues of urban form were seminal urban design projects for Toronto, onbuildingdowntown, and Built-Form Analysis. Co-authored with Steven McLaughlin and Roger du Toit in 1974, onbuildingdowntown: Design Guidelines for the Core Area created a policy document never before seen in Toronto. It announced a new era concerned with urban design and included well-articulated issues on environmental design and insightful approaches to mapping.

In 1975, a young planner by the name of Ron Soskolne was in charge of revamping planning controls for the downtown core. Soskolne commissioned George Baird Architect to undertake a “Working Paper on the Implications for Built Form of Land-Use Policies Relating to Housing, Mixed Uses, and Recreation Space in the Inner Core Area.” This document brought the research capacity of the firm to the forefront, along with George’s ability to bridge between theoretical issues and observations relating to a developer’s response to zoning controls. It included analysis of form relating to a diverse range of existing precedents, as well as scenario-planning of potential development sites. It also yielded insights into the unintended consequences of various zoning regimes and planning practices. Most perplexing, it highlighted the finding that dramatic changes in building typology, from low-rise to high-rise, can be linked to zoning thresholds, thus calling into question the practice of planners brokering what appeared to be minor changes in density that were actually leading to completely different urban forms rather than expected outcomes.

These landmark studies led to other innovative assignments. In 1976, the firm was asked to advise on the planning of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, which was being reconsidered by a group within the City and supported by external consultants. The approach being taken was rational and focused on maximizing street-related built form and density. George’s firm observed that this resulted in an island-like approach to the block planning of the neighbourhood and risked unintended social consequences of a discontinuous urban fabric exhibited by the notorious Regent Park. A schematic map produced by the firm proposed an alternative street and block framework that would extend the north-south streets from the original ten blocks of the Town of York into the new development. For the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, we also proposed that the 19th-century vision of the Esplanade as a linear park be recovered and serve as an east-west open-space armature for the new neighbourhood. These recommendations were adopted as the basis of a new planning approach that resulted in what has come to be celebrated as one of Toronto’s great triumphs in urban redevelopment.

George’s success in Toronto led to further urban design consulting across the country. As his notoriety grew, he was invited to be a professional advisor for design competitions, including the internationally published Mississauga Civic Centre, as well as other urban redevelopments. He also involved himself with the organization of major international exhibitions that focused attention on the Canadian scene. Their titles, OKanada and Toronto: Le Nouveau Nouveau Monde, were provocative to a European audience and cleverly allusive of the Canadian character he was so proud of throughout his career.

Having made a significant contribution to a culturally vigorous world image of Toronto and Canada, George was enticed to join a new intellectual scene centred at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. During the time he taught there, he commuted back and forth to Toronto to remain active with his firm. Over the years, many of those that began their careers with George’s firm have gone on develop their own distinguished firms. Bruce Kuwabara joined Tom Payne–who also worked at George Baird Architect–to form Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects in 1987. Joost Bakker decamped to the West Coast where he joined Norm Hotson at Norman Hotson Architects in 1973 (the firm eventually became known as Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects and has sinc
e merged with Cohos Evamy). John van Nostrand formed his own firm in 1978, which he merged with Peter Clewes and others to form architectsAlliance in 1999. He subsequently left in 2008 to take over planningAlliance and found regionalArchitects. I left the firm for brief periods to do research work in Ontario and Paris, but returned to become a partner with George to form Baird Sampson Architects. It was later renamed Baird Sampson Neuert Architects in 1996, when a former student of mine, Jon Neuert, became a partner.

Happily, the Baird Sampson Neuert Architects collaborative partnership has itself established a distinguished record of award-winning work including three Governor General’s Medals, an AIA Honour Award, the RAIC Architectural Firm Award in 2007, and many urban design awards. Don McKay, who worked with the firm in the early years, has become a distinguished designer and teacher of architecture at the University of Waterloo. Brigitte Shim, who worked with the firm in its middle period, has formed an internationally renowned partnership with her husband Howard Sutcliffe. Martin Kohn, who also was with the firm for a period of time in the ’80s, has partnered with John Shnier to form the high-profile design firm of Kohn Shnier Architects.

In this regard, George’s legacy of ideas is not only embedded in his projects, but also in the people with whom he inspired a desire to utilize design research to move beneath the surface of everyday practice, and most particularly, to be wary of formulaic responses when reconsidering the design of the city. While George Baird was always too gracious to make unnecessary trouble, he was never averse to engaging in a battle of ideas.

Joseph Rykwert
Paul Philippe Cret Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Pennsylvania School of Design

I became aware of George Baird as the quiet, reserved person at the back of the lecture room at the Architectural Association in London, folding a copy of The Stage he was reading in order to listen to the lecture. This was years ago, and even then The Stage did not cater to architectural students’ interests, but instead provided an insider view of what was happening in the British theatre and cinema world, particularly exciting in the early ’60s.

I was intrigued that anyone in my audience would have such enthusiasms–and as we became friends, I realized that his interests were as much socio-political as literary; we were both fascinated by the developments of linguistic theory through the following decades, not so much for the structural models it offered, but as a way of looking at communications and at human polity. This became central to the contribution George has made to architectural thinking. Very few of his contemporaries were as acutely aware of how critical this issue was to all building and to the very nature of urban dwelling.

Such concern spilled inevitably into teaching. What has made him one of the great teachers of his generation is not just the coherence of his own position but his humility, the enviable gift of making pupils feel that their ideas, however undeveloped, are valuable–such that he is able to nurture into maturity the callow and the raw presented to him. George is not only a thinker and a teacher, but very much a doer, and his ability to translate conviction into urban plans and projects gives body and substance to his ideas and beliefs.

Bruce Kuwabara
Founding Partner, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects

When I first met George Baird as an architecture student at the University of Toronto, he asked us to consider architecture within the context of the history of ideas and culture. The essay “Langue and Parole” contained in his book Meaning in Architecture opened up discourse on architecture as a system of signification which was subject to rules and individual interpretations of a common language to produce difference and expression.

After graduating, I worked with George and my classmates–John van Nostrand, Barry Sampson and Joost Bakker–on a design competition sponsored by Casabella magazine that expanded on John’s thesis entitled “Getting to Know Eglinton,” which concerned the reinhabition of the highway and hydro infrastructure in Etobicoke. When George decided to open his practice, he invited us to work with him in his studio at 35 Britain Street, a cultural vortex of a building that included the publishing companies House of Anansi Press and James Lorimer & Company.

His teaching and writing gave my generation a way of thinking about architecture as a gesture within a social and cultural context. He illuminated to us the deep structure of Toronto, and his early focus on the formation and construction of the public realm as one of the urgent projects of architecture and urbanism had an indelible impact on the way we look at the world.

For decades, George has been the singular architect in Canada who has balanced theory and practice, and the intellectual that international architects and theorists talk about as a figure who has impacted their thinking. The brilliance of George Baird lies in his ability to articulate and make clear and evident what many of us might intuit on a good day. His ability to be “provocative, if balanced” as he was once described, reflects an intellect that is at once worldly, yet distinctly Canadian.

Having left Toronto to teach at Harvard University for 10 years, he was the unanimous choice to succeed Dean Larry Richards to become the Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto in 2004. It was there that he sustained a level of academic excellence and collegiality within the faculty that expanded and elevated design education. In 2008, he was able to consummate the largest gift to any design school in Canada–$14 million from John and Myrna Daniels.

Joost Bakker
Principal, Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects

For over 43 years, I have witnessed the unfolding of George Baird’s remarkable life trajectory, one that is carefully balanced between generosity of vision and strategic drive.

In his 1995 book The Space of Appearance, George postulated that “…it is possible to see how 1968…constitutes a sort of pivot point in the whole 20th-century evolution of ideas about human affairs.” It was also the moment George chose to return to Canada, coinciding propitiously with major revolutions about to hit the University of Toronto.

As fresh new students in 1967, we encountered vestiges of old Modernism embodied in severe men in lab coats insisting that grey paper shapes be composed on 8″ x 10″ white card. Subsequently debating aesthetic nuances of 40-card compositions was a perplexing introduction to architecture.

Barely into that first term, the “winds of change” roared into the school, spearheaded by John Andrews and Peter Prangnell. Bowled over and hardly able to catch our breath, we sensed another presence in the studio–shaggy-haired in jeans, boots and a brown leather jacket–formulating incomprehensible terms like “…phenomenology…epistemological crisis…animal laborans…” From this first encounter with George, we all quickly embraced his drive for broader platforms beyond the academic, but it was the establishment of George’s fledgling practice where we more directly encountered his restless intellect, drive and strategic design sense.

George’s interest in wider cultural frameworks manifested itself at the school with more activist minds like Jim Lorimer and John Sewell. His keen urban/political interest eventually bloomed with projects like onbuildingdowntown. Cross-Canada work soon followed. Most significant for me, as a longtime Vancouver resident, was George’s 1982 Greening Downtown study. This, along with Roger DuToit’s Downtown South Study–planted the seeds for
the urban phenomenon now smugly branded internationally as Vancouverism. George’s remarkably quick urban pattern-reading and political intuition coined notions like “double cross” and “green courts”–morphologies still resonant in this city.

A stealthier platform that quietly emerged was George’s support of his partner Elizabeth’s remarkable talent. Unsuspectingly, what began as late-night dinners after work rapidly transformed into the celebration of Elizabeth’s inventive culinary skill. George remains a champion of her ascendancy into Canadian food lore.

The early ’80s also saw the launch of TRACE magazine, “founded to serve a national and international forum for the discussion and presentation of architecture,” signalling George’s foray beyond national boundaries. His evolving strategic vision ultimately allowed him to step onto the larger international academic stage.

John van Nostrand
Founding Principal, planningAlliance and regionalArchitects

George Baird is the son of a dairyman from the “left bank” of Toronto’s Don River, and a student of Joseph Rykwert. He has simultaneously practiced and taught, and has masterfully managed to balance both. Nobody has a better understanding of what bridges meant to Toronto, or what Hannah Arendt meant to architecture. He was the first teacher to suggest that we might take a closer look at Toronto–and at the same time read from Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York. I remember helping George prepare for a lecture about Yonge Street. We drove to every major intersection–from Yonge and Queens Quay up to Yonge and Davis Drive–taking slides from the centre of each intersection. George showed them all during his talk.

In 1972, George purchased 35 Britain Street with Jim Lorimer and opened George Baird Architect–which he began under pressure from Bruce Kuwabara, Don McKay and myself. We were joined shortly thereafter by Joost Bakker and Barry Sampson. One of our earliest projects involved the preparation of something called “design guidelines” for Toronto’s downtown. We split a day into three eight-hour sessions that were spent walking set routes prescribed by our colleagues to draw and otherwise document what we saw. George drew the all-night shift–which he happily accepted. The following day, we pinned up our drawings and these formed the basis for onbuildingdowntown.

George is a brilliant theoretician with a wonderful sense of place. He has influenced an entire generation of architects–in Canada and the US. I am honoured to have been part of that generation.

Donald McKay
Associate Professor, University of Waterloo School of Architecture

Over a recent Christmas dinner, I asked George what he had been reading. His answer was (more or less) “nothing, entirely.” The truth has always seemed to me to be more about “everything.” We need architects who know everything, and remain confident that they know “nothing, entirely.” That is what George has taught us: as much as architects might want it to be all about architecture, it is really all about everything. “Everything” gives George context, and the meaning of what we do is inevitably in that context. And, it is in George’s nature to know everything.

At some moment in 1974 or ’75, Barry Sampson and I made slides for George as a bit of last-minute help to complete a lecture. We cropped the images with care and presented a gorgeous set of slides. George was disappointed. We had cropped out the “bookness” of the images, and their immediate context.

These days, I think I understand: no context provides no understanding. George is right.

John Sewell
Mayor, City of Toronto (1978-80)

George Baird is known for his wondrous analytical and critical interpretation of architecture, but what first brought him to my attention was his impressive practical approach to built form. In 1973, the new Toronto City Council was struggling with how to approach its downtown. Members of City Council like myself were angry with the large number of tall buildings that were dominating the downtown, and we were pushing to reduce allowable densities. Ours was a particularly innocent approach, attacking height and size as the evil to be confronted. But our city staff, then an innovative bunch, retained George to give his advice.

He produced a report titled onbuildingdowntown which, to put it mildly, opened my eyes to the new world of possibilities. He put his finger on things that not many of us on City Council realized were problems–the open plazas around the big buildings; the many bland banking halls that deadened the street; the wide setbacks that killed the idea of public space; the importance of selecting sidewalk materials to ensure they clearly communicate public space that all are entitled to occupy; the need for identifiable public furniture. To me, these were revolutionary ideas and far more sophisticated than our simple approaches. They helped shape City Council’s new plans for the city in the 1970s. George had opened the eyes of the Reform Council to a more intelligent approach to setting rules which would build a good city. I only wish that City Councils in the last three decades had asked for his practical advice. It would have served the city well.

The other example was about community design. As a City Councillor, I was heavily involved in the creation of the St. Lawrence community to the south and east of the downtown around the historic St. Lawrence Market. It was a derelict and forgotten area occupied by scrap yards, auto wreckers, open-air storage for coal yards, and decaying railways sidings. I helped lead the fight for the City to acquire these lands and build a new mixed-use area. But we needed something to pull the plan together, which was hampered by unused railroad tracks at its very heart.

City staff called on George. His idea was absolutely brilliant: use the railway land as a long narrow green space of walkways, parks and schoolyards. Treat it as the spine of the new community. And that is what it has become in the last three decades. Treating the railways lands as green space totally flummoxed the railway companies and they quickly agreed to sell the land to the city. The space took shape with a long tree-lined walkway along one edge and it seems busy day and night, giving a sense of public safety to the whole of St. Lawrence. The rest of the land is used for public purposes–wading pools, dog runs, areas to read and chat, and schoolyard playgrounds. George had done it again.

Robert Glover
Partner, Bousfields Inc., Director of Urban Design, City of Toronto (1998-2001)

When I was an architecture student at the University of Toronto in the early 1970s, Toronto’s planning and development thinking was being challenged. The rules, processes and decisions that had provided the basis for the city’s postwar development were being reconsidered. George Baird was the conduit for bringing much of this debate, and a number of leading thinkers and politicians at the time–including a very young John Sewell–were invited to speak at the school. As architecture students, we followed the debate closely, which was often reflected in our student work. Following the election of a Reform Council in 1973, Mayor Crombie and his allies, aided by the ideas of Jane Jacobs, were challenging the way we thought about the city–politically, physically, and through its infrastructure and character.

I first got to know George personally when, in 1972, he taught us the new third-year core studio entitled “Settlement.” Conceived by George, the studio was focused on teaching architecture students ideas that are now commonly thought of as being in the realm of urban design. Importantly, George’s understanding and teaching of urban design went beyond a singular focus on architectural patterns or repl
icating context, but made references to the political, social, planning and technological forces that extended beyond the static certainty of a master planner’s mindset.

Inspired by this approach to urban design, I ended up working for Toronto’s Planning Department in 1980, thereby combining the field of urban design with land-use planning. In those days, I often consulted with George on my professional work, which included a diversity of projects such as the large-scale Harbourfront, Railway Lands and Ataratiri projects, along with various infill and redevelopment projects throughout the city centre. During the 1990s, George’s presence was limited by his teaching schedule at Harvard, but I think that his influence can still be seen in the King-Spadina, King-Parliament and University of Toronto plans of this decade.

George’s presence and influence is so much a part of the design DNA of Toronto that we sometimes take him for granted. His contribution to Toronto’s approach to urbanism is the result of a lot of hard work by an amusing, intelligent, thoughtful and highly principled architect and urban designer.

Peter Rowe
Raymond Garber Professor of Architecture and Urban Design, Harvard University Graduate School of Design; Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Design (1992-2004).

I first came to know of George Baird as, I suspect, did many others, with the publication of Meaning in Architecture in 1969, which he co-edited with Charles Jencks. Almost 25 years later, I got to know George, as an esteemed colleague and friend when he agreed to join the faculty of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. Not long after, in 1995, he graciously gave me a copy of his then-new book, The Shape of Appearance, in which he took up a similar question: “What is architecture’s place in the world?” In it, George both thoroughly and meticulously probed Postmodern expressions of a Modernist critique that began in the 1960s, more specifically around the political and socio-cultural turning point of 1968.

The point of this literal bookending is to suggest a very important, sustained, creative and precise intellectual contribution on George’s part, about the relevance and, indeed, the fate of architecture. It is a discussion George has been having with many others over the years, often with profound effect, including numerous and by now influential former students. Moreover, it is a discourse at the ends of which he appears to be advocating much the same sentiments, namely “advocating designing within user experience with neither arrogance nor indifference,” if I’m quoting correctly from the first book, and the “construction of a public sphere of appearance that is large and diverse enough to make places for us all,” from the second book.

Beyond this perhaps overly cryptic account, there is a generosity to George’s message. It is broad in the scope of its intended social and cultural engagement. It is not trendy, nor populist, but wisely reflective. It recognizes but ultimately eschews both the pessimism of many recent critical theoretical accounts, as well as other overly bright and sanguine positions. It challenges us and takes measures of architecture that require living up to. This, after all, is the point of standards. It is also interpretatively open enough, leaving literal and metaphorical space to work with and to fruitfully consider architecture’s future.

Not surprisingly, the same or similar qualities have suffused George’s role as a leader in architectural education. He played, for instance, a very significant role in guiding the course of architectural education at Harvard for more than a decade, officially as Program Director. During any number of discussions he would often remind the rest of us on contentious points and the need to think further, rapidly running his hand across his chin and saying, “Well! Let’s not forget that…” followed by a pithy and pertinent set of predicates.

George Thomas Kapelos
Associate Professor, Ryerson University Department of Architectural Science

From my perspective, what distinguishes George Baird is his ongoing and persistent interest in the local and regional condition, and his steadfast commitment to nurturing an architectural culture here at home.

I first encountered George’s enthusiasm for the local in 1976 when we were presenters at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada (SSAC), a small but important organization passionate about Canadian architecture. Our meeting led to a series of collaborations which celebrated historical and contemporary Canadian architecture, locally and abroad.

George’s 1978 keynote address at “Conserving Ontario’s Main Streets” presented a case study of Brantford, Brockville and Napanee, focusing on the significant public spaces and the rich architectural traditions found in these Ontario towns. Ironically, his message about the value of public spaces and historical Main Street architecture still resonates today as communities struggle to retain their identity in the face of declining downtown populations, large-scale retail incursions, questions about reusing redundant historic buildings, and rapid suburbanization. In fostering a Canadian architectural culture, George addressed current practice, exposing contemporary Canadian architecture to an international public. Two exhibitions–OKanada (Berlin, 1982) and Toronto: Le Nouveau Nouveau Monde (Paris, 1987)–celebrated our nascent architectural culture, and contextualized Canadian architectural production in the world at large. In working with George on these initiatives, I grew to appreciate his promotion of a local architectural culture, which recognized the value of our collective architectural past and simultaneously nurtured innovation and talent necessary to ensure a vibrant architectural present and future.

George’s passion continues. Last spring, at the SSAC meeting held at Toronto’s Ryerson University, he commented on Toronto’s infatuation with “starchitecture.” He lamented that recent projects undertaken by name architects from abroad had not enriched the local architectural scene, unlike projects of earlier decades. Finally, and with a typical positiveness, George suggested that Toronto could well learn from Barcelona, where a strong, local architectural culture was fostered by editorial policy of the regional press. There, in the 1970s and ’80s, local architects were invited to discuss architectural projects and cultural activities in the larger world, while international architects were invited to comment on the local Barcelona architectural scene. Such a move, George contended, supported and expanded dialogue, and contributed to the evolution of an influential architectural culture in that city.

In celebrating George Baird’s accomplishments, therefore, I am grateful that this voice for the local remains strong and unequivocal.

Donald Chong
Principal, Donald Chong Studio

It is entirely plausible to suggest that I am a direct beneficiary of the evolving legacy of George Baird. He personifies what I believe might be the cornerstone of the quintessential practice in architecture: one which invites, fosters and expects dialogue at the intersection of practice, academia and the city. Perhaps it is fitting that my reflections–that of an emerging practitioner whose age likely equals the years George has devoted to his profession and the city–may further illustrate how his ideas continue to resonate across borders and across decades.

Through George, I have enjoyed aligning and conflating cross-generational ideas of key figures in my formative years–among others, Jane Jacobs, Barton Myers, Bruce Kuwabara, Detlef Mertins and Brigitte Shim, in the works of Vacant Lottery, onbuildingdowntown, The Presence of Mies, and Site Unseen. My practic
e owes much of its own enrichment and ambitions to these oral traditions; cradled by my teachers, catalyzed by George in his trajectories, offerings and threads of discussion. My privileged vantage point of a well-steeped, real-time thesis unfolding before my eyes shows that George has quite simply blazed trails. Enough so, that my generation may feel it incumbent upon itself to give back to the next and carry these conversations forward.

One wonders, then, whether this is the real project for architecture in the everchanging city–one that recognizes mentorship as the one true, sustainable framework for urban equity, and a lasting balance for layered, critical thinking well beyond that of a single generation. George Baird’s ongoing narrative of teaching, writing and building has coalesced into a career committed to the civic art of architecture. CA