In Memoriam: Essy Baniassad, 1936-2023

Brian MacKay-Lyons pays tribute to Dr. Essy Baniassad.

Dr. Essy Baniassad. Photo courtesy Dalhousie University


“All culture derives from the poor.” —Dr. Esmail Baniassad

It is an honour to offer this tribute to Dr. Essy Baniassad, an inspirational teacher and dear friend of mine from 1977 to 2023. I often think of the many lessons that he taught me about a life in architecture. I am certain that he similarly touched so many of us. 

Essy Baniassad grew up in Tehran, the son of a brick mason. As a young man, he left Iran after nearly being killed by the Shah’s police. He went to the US and studied architecture at The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, as a way of learning the English language. He received his Ph.D. in architecture at the University of Manchester. After teaching architecture in Manchester, England, Essy served as a visiting professor at The Nova Scotia Technical College (TUNS) Faculty of Architecture. 

I first met Essy as my thesis advisor at TUNS in 1977. Just after graduation in 1978, while wandering aimlessly in a park, I came across Essy, who immediately challenged me to an impromptu running race in his socks: “Let’s race around that apple tree and back.” He was always a free spirit, with both a childlike quality and a remarkable intellectual rigour. One might see Essy alone on a Sunday morning, walking down the street, playing with a piece of string, or emerging from the fog on his windsurfer. From 1980-1994, as Dean of Architecture and Planning at what is now Dalhousie University, Essy designed an architecture curriculum, built upon his doctoral dissertation, which encompasses the complete discipline of architecture. Today, that curriculum remains intact and vital at Dalhousie. In 1982, while I was completing my graduate studies at UCLA, Essy offered me a teaching position, and the opportunity to return to my native Nova Scotia. When I said that I must first go to Italy and work with Giancarlo DeCarlo, he said “Go—what is good for you is good for the school.” 

Essy inspired many through his wisdom and insight. Each September, Dean Essy would say to the incoming first-year architecture students, “Don’t let the school stand in the way of your education.” To the faculty, he would say, “In architecture, there is much to learn and little to teach, but what can be taught can be taught clearly.” To me as a young practitioner, he would say, “I suggest that you fashion your practice after that of Frank Lloyd Wright.” When I was considering giving up my practice in Nova Scotia and returning to California, he said, “A real farmer never sells the farm.” So, I continued cultivating my practice, my family, and our farm (which we call the ‘Village at the End of the Earth’). 

Essy contributed to our profession as President of the RAIC in 1989-90. He served as the Chancellor of the RAIC College in 2001-2002. While at Dalhousie, he founded TUNS Press (now Dalhousie Architectural Press). Essy was additionally appointed as the Chairman of the Department of Architecture from 2000 to 2005 and then Chair Professor from 2006 to 2007 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). 

Essy traveled the world with his sketchbook, using his fine drawing hand as a way of reading cultures. He taught me strategic observation by drawing landscapes from a fast-moving automobile. His life’s research in community development took him to South America, where he was kidnapped by the Shining Path guerrilla group, and was later shot and almost died in Lima, Peru. Undaunted, he also ventured to Africa, where he started an architecture program in Botswana. While speaking with the university president in Botswana, he was told that there could be no new architecture school there due to the lack of funds. In response, Essy said, “Do you have dirt? Do you have a shovel? If you give each student nine square metres of dirt and a shovel, you can have the best school of architecture in the world.” It was Essy’s view that an institution needs to grow its own leaders. From this emerged an exchange program between the University of Botswana and Dalhousie University. At a personal level, his irreverent attitude toward architectural education inspired me to develop the Ghost design/build laboratory at our farm (1994-2011). 

Two months ago, I spoke with Essy by telephone, from his hospital bed in Hong Kong. We both remembered, in vivid detail, that race in our socks together in Point Pleasant Park 45 years ago, as if it were yesterday. 

Essy’s beloved daughter, Elisa, a computer science professor at UBC, was with him when he passed away in Hong Kong. 

—Brian MacKay-Lyons OC, FRAIC, RCA, Hon. Intl. FAIA, Hon. Intl. FRIBA, 2015 RAIC Gold Medal