Most architects know or have heard of George Baird. Over the course of his career, he has had a profound influence on the way architects, city planners, and politicians in Toronto, and beyond, think about architecture and how cities are designed.
As well as advising the City of Toronto on urban-design matters over the years, he has seved as Dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, and more recently, was awarded the prestigious Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education.
Toronto Standard spoke with Baird about his prolific career ahead of a two day symposium at the University of Toronto – George Baird: A Question of Influence – which aims to celebrate his lifetime of achievement.
What would you consider to be the greatest achievement of your career so far?
In 2010, I was fortunate enough to be selected to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. This medal is the “highest honour that the architectural profession in Canada can bestow on a member”. The Gold Medal is awarded to one architect each year that it is given, and some years, it is not given at all. Typically, it is given to an architect in recognition of an exemplary series of executed architectural projects over many years. But in my case, I believe that it was given also in recognition of my career in architectural education. Just last week, I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Topaz Medallion given jointly by the American Association of Architects (AIA), and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA). The Topaz Medallion – again, only one per year – is given to an architectural educator who is seen to have been an exemplary teacher of architecture over many years. But again, in my case, I believe the Topaz was given to me partly in recognition of my career as a professional architect, in addition to my role as an academic.
As far as I know, I am the only architect and educator ever to receive both of these awards. I am very proud to have been able to pursue deeply rewarding careers in both architectural practice (my own firm, Baird Sampson Neuert Architects) and in two architecture schools (the University of Toronto and Harvard University) over many years.
You have worked as an educator as well as an architect. How do you think the education of architects has changed since when you first began teaching in the late 1960s? Has it changed for the better?
The biggest change in architectural education during my career has been the advent of the computer in architectural education and in practice.This powerful tool has fundamentally altered architects’ ways of being able to develop their designs from conceptual ideas through to fully developed proposals for buildings, as well as to frame the eventual technical – and environmental – performance of the buildings they have designed with a much higher level of precision than was previously possible. At the same time that the powerful new computing and software tools have expanded architects’ capabilities, they have also facilitated an increased interest on the part of students in architecture schools in the technical and environmental performance of those designs.
Which project do you find the most challenging over the course of your career as an architect and why?
I will cite two. Many years ago, I submitted a project to a design competition for a new City Hall for the City of Edmonton. One very distinctive feature of my design was the preservation of the existing modernist city hall building already on the site, from the middle 1950s. My team was convinced that one could build a dramatic new City Hall for Edmonton, much bigger than the then-existing one, whilst also at the same time also preserving an important part of the history of that city. Alas, I did not win that competition, and the 1950s building was destroyed.
The second project was another competition entry – this one for Cloud Gardens Park in downtown Toronto – this time, unlike Edmonton, a competition that my firm won. In the case of Cloud Gardens Park, the history of Toronto is treated more metaphorically, as the design seeks to represent both the ongoing construction of, as well as the ongoing demolition of, the buildings of the downtown over the years. The competition entries for both the Edmonton City Hall Competition and Cloud Gardens Park are included in the exhibition of my early work currently on display at the Eric Arthur Gallery at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.
Can you give an example of what you consider to be an outstanding piece of architecture in the world today?
I will pick a Canadian one: John and Patricia Patkau’s Grand Bibliotheque de Quebec in Montreal. This very fine building – exquisitely beautifully designed and detailed is one of the handsomest of recent buildings from around the world, and it also performs extremely well, in my view as an integral component of the urbanity of that city. As a bonus, it is an incredibly popular building with the general public, and gets an extraordinary level of visitation on a daily basis.
What do you think the future holds for Toronto’s architectural landscape?
In recent years, we have seen an interesting shift in the architectural landscape of Toronto. First of all, multiple residential buildings, which used to not typically to be all that well designed, have now seen a significant improvement in their visual appearance. Condominium buildings designed by such firms as Architects Alliance, Hariri Pontarini, and Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg are especially important in this respect (we only now need to hope that public pressue will persuade the developers to raise the environmental performance of such buildings). More recently, we have begun to see the emergence of a number of interesting designs of single family dwellings in the city. The middle generation firms of Ian MacDonald and Shim Sutcliffe led the way in this regard, but they have now been joined by a number of younger practices, such as those of Superkul and Williamson Williamson Chong. The next frontier of innovation, in my view, will be infill projects in the older suburbs of the city, Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough.
What’s your favourite place in Toronto and why?
It is still the historic center of the St. George Campus of my alma mater, the University of Toronto. Here, one finds a gracious island of serenity in the midst of the ever-growing Toronto metropolis, and it contains a remarkable number of very fine buildings, from the middle of the nineteenth century, right up to the present.
On March 9 and 10, the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design will be holding a symposium to celebrate Professor Emeritus George Baird’s lifetime of achievement. Visit the Daniels Faculty website for more information.