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Designing for people

Features, Interiors | November 1, 2009 | By:

Eberhard Zeidler strives to include community and environment in his buildings

In downtown Toronto, the tiers of offices inside the Zeidler Roberts Partnership (now called Zeidler Partnership) building overlook a small oasis. At the center of the building, sun streams into an atrium from skylights four stories above. Tall ficus trees within filter the sunlight, forming a lacy leaf roof over nearby cubicles.

Although it may be on a small scale compared to other projects the firm does, the office reflects two of the ideals held by the firm’s partner in charge of design, Eberhard H. Zeidler. These ideals are people and light—a sense of community and environment. “It makes me furious when people don’t think about people,” he exclaims. “After all, it doesn’t cost more to do that if it is designed well.”

Zeidler graduated from Bauhaus Weimar in architecture and from Technisch Hochschule Karlsruhe (now Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.) He worked in Germany a few years before emigrating to Peterborough, Ontario, in 1951. There he joined Blackwell and Craig, where he became associate in charge of design, then in 1954, a partner. The firm moved to Toronto in 1962.

Compared to the modernists who strictly followed the Bauhaus dictum of “less is more,” Zeidler has raised the roof, first with glass, as two of his best-known Toronto creations can attest. Later with fabric and combinations of fabric and glass.

Queen’s Quay Terminal is a lakeside warehouse renovated into a mixed-use building with condominiums, which overlook the lake or one of two interior parks. The parks are four stories high, glass-domed, and replete with full-size evergreens, shrubs, stone paths and benches. One includes an 8m-high waterfall and a suspension bridge 8m above the park floor. Toronto Eaton Centre in downtown is also glass-enclosed with trees and park benches along a central corridor, imitating a village street. A flock of fiberglass-sculpture geese fly above.

Zeidler’s first design job was a hospital. Since then, he has been involved in the design of more than 2,000 projects and become known for revolutionizing hospital design. And more recently, he has become a proponent of the use of fabric in architectural designs.

His breakthrough in hospital design was McMaster Health Science Centre, one of the first medical buildings to be interstitial. The idea came from office buildings in which tenants generally stay five to 10 years before moving to different quarters.

“What we really did was to say ‘What if we built [McMaster] as an office building in which each department is a tenant?’” Zeidler explains. This approach, taking into consideration the interrelationships of the departments, has resulted in changes to the building being minimal and relatively inexpensive.

“All innovation, to my mind, comes from relating two things that were previously unrelated.” Hospitals and offices, for instance. Or parks and village streets in urban buildings. Or fabric and architecture. But the truth of his statement applies outside of architecture. Zeidler points out that the scientists who are credited with discovering DNA might not have if they hadn’t spoken to a scientist in another field who referred them to additional research materials.

His reference to science is not unintentional. The premise of Bauhaus or Modern architecture was that through science and technology we could ultimately understand environment, Zeidler explains. It was expected to simply be a matter of time before that status was reached. But, he continues, what Modern architecture ignored was substance. As a result, a gap exists between architecture and an understanding of environment. “The more I meet really great scientists, that point becomes obvious,” he says.

In the 1980s, Post-Modernism addressed the emotional side of architecture. “I thought the Post-Modernists were opening the door to get away from the Modernists, but they quickly went to the other extreme—that emotionalism is everything,” Zeidler says.

And into which camp does the Zeidler Partnership fall? “I feel two things very strongly. We’re not Modernists. Nor are we Post-Modernists. To me it’s a balance between technology and emotionalism.”

These combinations of old and new, of technological and emotional, are present in many of his designs. And in the past few years, fabric has played an increasing role in some of these combinations.

Zeidler first used fabric in 1970 in an outdoor amphitheater at Ontario Place, a large urban waterfront park. But the fabric roof was later replaced with copper. “I wish we hadn’t replaced it, but the acoustics people felt the copper provided better acoustics,” he says. “Fabric can now adapt to anything you need it to in terms of heat, cleaning, sound—all issues can be resolved. But like any material, it is best for certain applications. The worst thing that can happen is to have an architect use a material without proper investigation into its applications. Then if the project fails, the material is blamed.”

At Ontario Place, a fabric roof does remain over the play area in the Children’s Village. After using fabric in that project, he included the material in “a whole bunch of designs,” including a patented retractable dome roof, but they were never made.

Things changed, however, with the construction of Canada Place and Ontario Pavilion in Vancouver, British Columbia. Both were built for the Expo ’86. Ontario Pavilion was intended as a temporary structure and has been dismantled. But Canada Place now houses the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, a luxury hotel and a cruise ship terminal.

The first plan of Canada Place, designed by other architects, was rejected by the city, which said it looked like a large warehouse. “I used the fabric then, not because it was cheaper—because it wasn’t—but to give it that needed uplift,” he says. “We had done all the functional things that were needed, but that hadn’t been enough. The entrance to the harbor is an important symbol.” The addition of nautical detailing and the Teflon-coated fiberglass “sails” on the top level helped create that symbol, a “ship” at the mouth of the harbor.

The completed Canada Place received a positive reaction from the public despite the fact that a number of his buildings have been controversial for their inclusion of fabric. Zeidler says his firm doesn’t intentionally create controversial designs. And he quickly points out that although receiving criticism initially, many of those buildings have since become landmarks. Canada Place bears out this claim—it has appeared on a Canadian postage stamp and graced the cover of an official tourism brochure for the province.

Canada Place isn’t the first Zeidler building to be described as a ship. “It is only when you use materials in the way they must be used that these references are made,” he says. “And that can be good.” It means the architect did enough research into the material and used it in a manner that answers the design problem and draws an emotional response as well.

Some obvious uses of fabric materials are marquees and awnings, he says, “but fabric becomes really powerful where you have large open spaces. The light plays, without the problems of glass, with which shading needs to be created. It almost gives a Mediterranean feel to a space.”

This Mediterranean feel is apparent in one of his more recent projects, Sherway Gardens. The shopping center in Etobicoke, Ontario, was renovated to include a fabric roof that incorporates three skylights. Now, as with Sherway, he is trying to combine fabric with glass in other design proposals, including one for a project in England and one for renovation of the Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

Before determining which projects are best suited to fabric use, however, Zeidler says care must be taken to consider the four conditions for architecture: function, construction, beauty and especially place—because architecture is not moveable. “We try to respond to the conditions of the place,” he says. Style can be determined historically, he explains. For example, Gothic style on each Gothic building may look different from the others.

When asked about a style in which his buildings might be categorized, he replies, “I don’t think an architect can develop a style.” While working on a project, concentrating on establishing a particular style is not the priority, Zeidler continues. Rather, he believes the priority for architects should be to strive for an integration of their buildings within a city. However, he admits, an architect’s work may be labeled a particular style in retrospect.

“Later on, people will probably say there is a certain consistency to what I’ve done, but it’s not that consistency I’m striving for. It’s a particular answer to a problem.”

And perhaps it’s just as well that he avoids categorization. “The thing that is really amazing to me,” he says, “is that people do not respond as strongly to historical designs as much as the people who design such buildings think they will.” Zeidler says he finds that “people are looking for a variety and a complexity on one hand and a certain order on the other hand. For example, there’s a geometrical order to a cloud or a mountain, but we see it as beautiful. That complex order can also occur in a beautiful city—but not a militaristic order like the Modernists saw. A taming of the complexity of the space and yet a freedom to the design—that is what I consider as exciting in architecture.”

Jean M. Cook was editor of Fabric Architecture magazine from 1990–1996. This article ran in the Winter 1990 issue, her first.

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