RAIC Awards – Lifetime Achievement Award
Sonja Bata, a longtime friend of architecture and Canadian architects, has been a strong advocate for design excellence and a benefactor of architecture worldwide for decades. On top of the remarkable series of architecturally significant buildings commissioned by her and her late husband, Bata has furthered public appreciation of design excellence through her outstanding community service in architectural and design advocacy.
Born Sonja Wettstein in Zürich, Switzerland, Bata studied architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. In 1946 she married Tomas Bata Jr., whose booming family business, Bata Shoe, was poised to become the world’s leading footwear exporter.
Tomas Jr. and Sonja commissioned architects to design Bata’s factories, shops and planned communities all over the world, continuing a tradition started by Tomas Jr.’s father, who worked with prominent architects such as Le Corbusier and Peter Behrens. Their factory towns were designed as models of sustainability and social innovation with accompanying schools, health-care facilities, and community, cultural and religious centres.
In 1939 Tomas Bata created a factory town in Batawa, north of Trenton, Ontario, which became Bata’s Canadian headquarters for 25 years. Parkin Architects designed a private residence for the family there in 1959, which still stands as a Modernist masterpiece and a beautiful example of Mid-Century Modern design. In 1964, the Bata headquarters moved to Toronto, and again Parkin Architects was commissioned to design the iconic Bata International Centre, which opened in 1965. Unfortunately, this fine example of the International Style was demolished in 2008, with Bata’s blessing, to make way for the Aga Khan Museum.
In 1975, Bata’s extensive collection of traditional shoes from around the world found a home in the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, a global centre for footwear research designed by Moriyama & Teshima Architects.
From 1964 to 1976, Bata was a member of the National Design Council of Canada, of which she was chair from 1973-1975. Under her leadership, the Council encouraged government and industry to employ good design and called for a national design strategy. Bata said, “If governments, with such huge purchasing power, don’t care about design then how are things ever going to improve for the rest of us? Design excellence should be a valid national objective.”
Bata continues to pursue her passion for architecture and the built environment in the revitalization of Batawa. The vision is for it to become a model of social and environmental sustainability once again. For the past 10 years she has worked with many Canadian architects on this project, including the Zeidler Partnership, Montgomery Sisam Architects, Quadrangle Architects and Dubbeldam Architecture + Design.
All the buildings the Batas commissioned were incredibly avant-garde for their time and stand as a testament to benefactors with a forward-looking vision, who enabled architects to achieve architectural innovation and excellence. Through her strength of character and intense vision, Bata’s role as an advocate for architecture and design is exemplary.
The nomination of Sonja Bata acknowledges a lifetime of work that is astounding in its breadth, rigour and commitment. This nomination represents a series of achievements so compelling and special that it deserves recognition and its own special award.