George Baird is a giant.
I was first introduced to the legend of George Baird in the fall of 2000 in Larry Richards’ “Intro to Architecture” class at the University of Toronto’s undergraduate architecture studies program. Later, when George moved back to Toronto after serving as Chair of the Department of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and became Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, I sought him out as an advisor on a set of independent studies I was undertaking (and later as a thesis advisor) and posed to him the questions that remain at the core of my work today.
Stepping into George’s office as a young student was like entering a sanctum of deep knowledge — going behind the wizard’s curtain. To my eyes, he seemed omniscient, kind and encouraging, but also incredibly formidable. He was in regular correspondence with fellow giants of global architectural thought like Rem Koolhaas, Kenneth Frampton, and Peter Eisenman. George was deeply tapped into — and significantly contributed to — the wider ideas of this world. This was a man who not only shaped the modern curriculum at the school of architecture but was a key actor in the City’s self-conception and transformation. It is impossible to practice in or think about Toronto without being immersed in George’s legacy.
As a designer, educator, and theorist, George shaped the built and intellectual contours of the architectural profession — in Toronto and beyond. His writings on architecture were prolific. Together with Charles Jencks, he was editor of the seminal Meaning in Architecture (1969), while his authorship includes Alvar Aalto (1969), The Space of Appearance (1995), as well as Writings on Architecture and the City (2015), within which Frampton wrote that it was “impossible to do justice in the space available to the critical writing of the distinguished Canadian architect/theorist.”
As an advocate and practitioner in Toronto, George was instrumental in shaping the city through planning publications (such as 1974’s seminal On Building Downtown) and built work. His firm, Baird Sampson Neuert, has also designed landmark projects, including Toronto’s Cloud Gardens Park (which won a Governor General’s Award in 1994), the Niagara Parks Commission’s Butterfly Conservatory, and Erindale Hall at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. But, like generations of aspiring architects before me, I got to know George as a teacher.
My initial pitch to George was simple and somewhat cheeky: What made Toronto significant and unique, I argued, was not its early rejection of modernism — in its practice, theory, and experiment, to which George was instrumental — but rather the macroscopic thoroughness and completeness with which the modern project was adopted when shaping the city. Toronto’s metropolitan form during its modern era of growth more closely resembled the “Corbusian” suburbs of New Belgrade, outer Paris, or East Berlin, rather the North American peer Cities of Chicago, San Francisco, or Atlanta, to which we are more often compared.
To make my pitch, I had carefully carted in physical evidence, including archival reports, council minutes, conference proceedings, and photos from eastern European excursions. George immediately grabbed one of my printed folios – a report by E.G. Faludi called “Apartments in St. George and Jameson Ave” – exclaiming, “Faludi, well this is interesting…”. A Hungarian-Italian Jewish émigré and one of the pioneers of Toronto’s post-war modern planning, Faludi was a person of fascination for George. I had passed the first test.
George took me on as a mentee and agreed with my premise — that Toronto’s “edge cities” and modern apartment neighbourhoods were foundational to the contemporary city’s identity and conspicuously missing from current understandings of Toronto’s past (and its future potential). Urban experiments in Yorkville and the St. Lawrence neighbourhood were in many ways overwhelmed by the scale, ambition, and impact of the suburban visions behind Thorncliffe Park, the Don Mills corridor, North Scarborough, Rexdale, and beyond. And more critically, these neighbourhoods were home to millions of people whose daily experience defined Toronto at its fullest scale.
This perspective was the core premise behind the project that, with George’s help and encouragement (and, of course, debate and refinement), later evolved into “Tower Renewal.” Together, we embarked on the journey of understanding these peripheral modern landscapes and their role in defining the city’s future. Employing his critical practice — which can be found laid out in publications such as “Vacant Lottery” — to the typological and social possibilities of these spaces took root at the core of my practice, both in my collaborations with George ever since and with my partners at ERA Architects today.
Working with George, I came to understand that the greatest forces behind urban evolution are policy, finance, and personality. Not only did George have an intimate understanding of how these forces have made Toronto unique, but he also understood the mechanics behind the discrete moments when influential decisions were made. He had personal relationships with many of the key actors behind those decisions — and he was often one of them, too. George’s detailed anecdotes about these exploits came compellingly alive when spoken in his incredible storytelling baritone. He witnessed seven decades of dizzy growth in Toronto. All of this imbued George’s perspective on architecture with seriousness, urgency, political economy, and an intrinsic sense of justice.
After my graduation, George and I continued to work together. We looked at the development of Toronto and especially the lost histories of the modern tower blocks that are uniquely present in virtually all of the city’s neighbourhoods, from downtown to the outskirts. With provincial funding through the University of Toronto’s City Centre, we worked with graduate students, my team at ERA, and various partners to deeply investigate and catalogue where exactly these buildings were and inducted them into the map, data set, and policy framework of the region.
Recent discussions about George have brought up the fact that his partner Barry Sampson referred to him as “Curious George” because of his curiosity about and desire for knowledge everywhere. Indeed, at our regular lunches, discussions across the table were not limited to architectural topics but included those of political economy, politics, global affairs, and, above all, their link to urban form.
I remember driving around the modern suburbs at Bathurst Street and Steeles Avenue with George — where we enjoyed the local Jewish deli — and discussing the impact of 19th-century patent law on urban innovation (Brunel’s London), and the ways in which, relatedly, the modern forms of Toronto are shoehorned into the physical framework of British colonial property law. Toronto is a “Victorian” variety of modernism that was designed on the premise of the European open plan but in the process of being implemented became fragmented into little lots, today separated by chain link fences. These spaces are flush with possibility (and the subject of a design studio that George and I later co-led), but their origins are a result of several enmeshed systems at odds with one another. To George, everything was connected.
George taught his “History of Toronto’s Urban Form” class for over 20 years, where — for the last decade — I gave a yearly guest lecture on our collective research about the Toronto’s towers and the modern evolution of the city. It was such a pleasure and an honour to be able to learn and teach with him, and also to observe his mastery — he had a prodigious command of the seminar room and the design studio. The extreme generosity he showed his students was so instructive for carrying oneself as an educator, a mentor, and a professional who loves the city.
In 2022, I had the enormous pleasure of being the speaker at the annual George Baird lecture at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. This was at the height of Covid-19 and the onset of the War in Ukraine. The content and research of the talk was underpinned by a long collaboration with George. The dinner that followed was filled with laughs, gossip (as to the goings on of architecture’s global figures), and pointed insight about the events unfolding around us.
George Baird was a key figure in what has been called the “Toronto School of Economic and Urban Thought,” alongside other interdisciplinary thinkers such as Marshall McLuhan, Jane Jacobs, Naomi Klein, and Doug Saunders. Working always from this collective foundation of rigorous, lateral thought, he enabled critical design practice and civic action in generations of urban practitioners, theorists, and educators, through his teaching, writings, and built work. As we head into increasingly dark times, George’s voice of reason, his deep and varied knowledge, and his optimism must guide us forward. George was an omnipresent giant, and his presence will be deeply missed.
Graeme Stewart is a Principal with ERA Architects in Toronto where he leads urban research and design projects, including the non-profit Tower Renewal Partnership, which was informed by his thesis work. Graeme is also a founding director of the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal (CUG+R), an interdisciplinary urban research organization that supports policy and action toward more equitable and resilient communities.
Graeme Stewart pays tribute to the legendary Canadian architect and educator, who passed away in October.