In Memoriam: Eb Zeidler, 1926-2022
Zeidler led the design of iconic buildings including Ontario Place, Eaton Centre, and the Health Sciences Centre for McMaster University.
As the new year begins, the Canadian architecture community is saddened to mark the passing of architect Eberhard (Eb) Heinrich Zeidler.
Born in Braunsdorf, Germany in 1926, Zeidler emigrated to Canada in 1951. He practiced with Peterborough-based practice Blackwell and Craig, which relocated to Toronto in 1963 and became Craig, Zeidler & Strong. The firm currently continues under the name Zeidler Architecture.
Zeidler’s practice—grounded in his training at the short-lived post-war revival of the Bauhaus school in Dessau, and subsequent work with Bauhaus professor Emanuel Lindner after escaping from Soviet-occupied East Germany—showed an enduring interest in technological themes in architecture. This was most evident in a series of radical new projects created in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Ontario Place in Toronto (designed with landscape architect Michael Hough, 1968-71), the new Health Sciences Centre for McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario (1972), and the Eaton Centre in Toronto (with Bregman and Hamann Architects, 1974-81).
Influenced by the success of Expo 67, Ontario Place was created as a futuristic recreational complex. The modernist pavilions designed by Zeidler projected over the lake, including a series of five interconnected mast-hung pavilions (the Pods), as well as a 35-metre-diameter triodetic dome (the Cinesphere). The Cinesphere was the world’s first permanent theatre for Canadian-invented IMAX technology. Working with landscape architect Michael Hough, the design integrated canals, walkways, and wooded areas, created in part by sinking a series of old ships and landfill around the foundations of the Pods to create an artificial reef.
The design for the hospital at McMaster University was equally innovative. “The hospital has none of the traditional spatial hierarchies we associate with institutions built in the early 20th century,” writes architectural historian Annmarie Adams, who considers it the most significant Canadian building of the past half century. Instead, it is based on a massive grid—a “democratization of space [that] resembles its slightly older Quebec cousins, Expo 67 and the Montreal metro system, whose global aspirations and large scale unfolded as a series of relatively equal pavilions or stops in a continuous whirl of planned movement.” Large interstitial floors were intended to facilitate the upgrading of specialized mechanical and electrical systems, and the grid plan anticipated future additions. Ironically, the building has become largely obsolete. Still, says Adams, “the project’s a precious reminder of a time when architecture sprung from new ideas and anything seemed possible.”
The Eaton Centre, writes historian and theorist George Baird, presented an “even more complex design challenge” compared to both Ontario Place and the McMaster hospital. Early designs for the urban redevelopment involved the demolition of several historic buildings on the downtown site, including Toronto’s nineteenth century Old City Hall. The design created by Zeidler and his firm preserved several of these buildings, extending the new development over a long, sloping block that connected two existing subway stations on each end. In a “design tour de force,” the multi-layered building was modeled on Milan’s Victor Emmanuel Galleria, yielding a soaring space framed by a “glistening white superstructure” and fleshed out with a “brilliantly detailed metallic interior,” writes Baird.
The prominence of the firm’s pioneering work during this period, writes Baird, is “clear evidence of Zeidler’s towering historical stature in our field.”
Other notable works include the master plan for the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco (1980–84); Queen’s Quay Terminal, Toronto (1979–83) and Canada Place for Expo 86, Vancouver. Zeidler’s design for the Walter C. Mackenzie Health Sciences Centre in Edmonton (1975-86) was a global pioneer in using a large atrium in a healthcare setting; a typological innovation continued in Zeidler’s Atrium (New Patient Tower) at the Hospital for Sick Children (1993) and the Princess Margaret Hospital (1995), both in Toronto.
Zeidler’s passing occurs in the midst of contention about the future of Ontario Place. Last fall, the government of Ontario released plans for a significant portion of the site to be redeveloped in partnership with private sector companies. The plans include an enlarged amphitheatre, an all-season park with indoor and outdoor pools and waterslides, and an adventure park. The provincial government intends to restore and maintain the site’s Cinesphere and Pods, with Ontario Science Place operating these elements as a satellite location for science-based exhibitions and programming.
Grassroots advocacy group Ontario Place for All opposes the plan, citing a lack of public consultation. “Private companies, working for their own profit, should not be shaping the future of Ontario Place,” the group writes. “There must first be a publicly-developed Master Plan to ensure that any future projects are aligned with the public vision and values of Ontario Place.”
Zeidler’s practice continues, and is now headed by Senior Partner Vaidila Banelis, who began working with Zeidler in the 1980s. “I first met Eb in my final year at architecture school at the University of Toronto. My father, an architect who had previously worked with Eb, recommended that I join his design studio,” recalls Banelis.
“That year, Eb taught me to not only focus on the strong conceptual design, emphasized in the Faculty of Architecture, but also to highlight technical solutions. He showed me how to ensure the survival of a strong concept through the development and construction process. Eb offered me a position after graduation. Since that time, over 30 years ago, I have enjoyed his tremendous support and encouragement, and am proud to represent the great design firm he founded,” writes Banelis.
Zeidler and his wife Jane were quiet philanthropists who supported a variety of causes, including donating over two million to the University of Toronto in gifts that date back to 1978. Most recently, this included gifts to establish the Eberhard Zeidler Library and Zeidler Family Reading Room at One Spadina in 2019. In addition to heading his practice, Zeidler taught at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design for several years.
“Eb was a commanding figure with an equal grasp—and mastery—of the urbanistic and technical dimensions of architecture,” says Daniels professor and former Dean Richard Sommer. “He was incredibly curious and prolific. Even beyond the celebrated works like the Eaton Centre and Ontario Place, he designed a diverse body of built and unbuilt works that are worthy of further study by professionals and scholars.”
“People should also know that as a person, he was incredibly warm and generous—a great listener who took everything in,” says Sommer. “Well into his 90’s, Eb made time to attend a variety of lectures and symposia around the city. He was also a student of history and a lover of books—which is why we are so proud to have Eb and his family’s name (along with his beautiful Piranesi prints) adorn the library at the Daniels Faculty, thanks to the gifts that he and his wife Jane made to the Faculty.”
Zeidler was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in 1984, received the Order of Ontario that same year, and received the RAIC Gold Medal in 1986. He received an honorary Doctor of Architecture from the University of Toronto in 1989.
Zeidler is survived by his wife Jane, and children Katie, Robert, Margie and Christina.