In Memoriam: Eberhard Zeidler’s architecture defines the Toronto style

*Editor’s Note: The following are excerpts from a feature that appeared in the Form & Content section of the August 29, 1991 edition of The Globe and Mail by Fashion & Design editor David Lasker. Re-printed with permission of the author.

What is it, exactly, that makes Toronto special?

“I think we mix uses more astutely here,” says Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “The two city policies of discouraging cars and putting in housing downtown, constantly, whenever the opportunity arises, are pushed harder here than anywhere I know of in the U.S., and more intelligently.”

In speaking about Toronto versus the other important cities on the continent, Ms. Jacobs did not allude directly to architect Eberhard Zeidler. But she didn’t need to. For when it comes to the astute mixing of uses — where a building contains more than one type of component, such as office, retail or housing — Zeidler created the archetypes: Eaton Centre (1979) and Queen’s Quay (1983). A 1986 readership survey by Progressive Architecture ranked the Eaton Centre among the “greatest architectural complexes in North America,” and declared Queen’s Quay among the “best restoration or adaptive re-use projects of the past five years.”

The Eaton Centre in Toronto, 1974-81. (Photo by Scott Gummerson on Unsplash)

Zeidler’s concern for healthy cities stems, perhaps, from growing up in Europe, where fleeing to the suburbs never had quite the cachet it did in the New World. “Each period has its architectural masterpieces that epitomize the dominant concern of that era,” says Zeidler. “For instance, during the baroque and renaissance it was taking the order of the city out into the country, so we saw the symmetrical villas of Palladio near Venice, and Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles. Today, architecture’s leading edge seeks to re-establish that order in the city.”

Though we associate the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Zeidler’s mixed-use structures with European cities, there is evidently something in Zeidler’s projects that Europeans find unfamiliar and exciting. So, in a bringing- coals-to-Newcastle scheme, Zeidler’s firm won over several European contenders, including superstars on the order of Aldo Rossi, to design a multi-use development for the sprawling railway lands in the shadow of Cologne’s famous Gothic cathedral.

Unfortunately, Zeidler’s over-riding concern that buildings should relate to the life of the street doesn’t always wash with competition juries. For example, more than any of the three other finalists’ schemes in the competition to design the Art Gallery of Ontario’s expansion, Zeidler’s facade was oriented to people walking along Dundas Street, with shops and display cases inspired by the neighbourhood’s century-old houses. “I was worried about that huge existing AGO building,” he recalls. “My little boxes are exactly the same proportions as the houses across the street, and then you see the grandiose entrance to the art gallery.”

“You saw art, you saw activity going on, whereas the winning scheme denied the street,” adds Zeidler’s art-consultant wife Jane (who commissioned Michael Snow’s Flight Stop, the popular gaggle of geese near Eaton Centre’s Queen Street entrance).

Zeidler’s AGO scheme probably lost, he says, because “you don’t win a competition with subtlety but with a ‘big idea’ that hits the judges right in the face. Most of my buildings have to grow on you.”

An indefatigable competition entrant, he’s learned over the years to vet the jury before taking the plunge. For instance, regarding his loss in the competition to design the National Gallery in Ottawa, he says, “If I’d known that I.M. Pei was on the jury, I wouldn’t have bothered entering. There’s just no way I can design something he’d like. I feel that architecture has to relate to the city. Pei believes in architecture as super-sculpture, as a beautiful object.”

Certainly Zeidler’s interiors don’t hit you in the face. The vast spaces inside his mega-structures do not feel chilly and overpowering; think of Eaton Centre. The point is obvious, to be sure, yet other architects have trouble understanding it: take a stroll through the nearby Royal Bank Plaza atrium (by Webb Zerafa Menkes Housden) to experience just how chilly and overpowering a vast interior space can be.

“He’s the godfather of Canadian architecture,” says Bruce Kuwabara, of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg. Let us toast the godfather’s distinguished career.

The Cinesphere, part of Ontario Place in Toronto, built 1968-71. (Photo by Richard Cohen on Unsplash)

In Memoriam: Eb Zeidler, 1926-2022

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