Barry Sampson’s family cottage was essentially falling down. The place on Ontario’s Beech Lake had been built by Mr. Sampson’s late father in the 1940s, its structure was failing, “and cottages like it were being demolished all around the lake,” recalls his life partner, Judi Coburn, of the place in Haliburton, Ont. But instead Mr. Sampson, an architect, and Ms. Coburn, a teacher and writer, rebuilt the place.
They had it raised nine feet and, after teaching themselves about construction, built an energy-efficient new structure below and around it. “He was good at imagining how you can take something that seems impossible, and – with 10 years of recruiting all your friends and family to help you – turn it into something quite beautiful,” Ms. Coburn recalls. This effort reflected Mr. Sampson’s approach as an architect: hands-on, a bit unorthodox, and deeply committed to sustainability.
Mr. Sampson, who died Dec. 5 of esophageal cancer, was a long-time partner in the firm Baird Sampson Neuert and also an admired professor of architecture at the University of Toronto. In both roles, and in life, he was a principled advocate of environmental sustainability and social justice.
“He was both a teacher and a practitioner, and he was exceptionally good at both,” said Brigitte Shim, a long-time teaching colleague of Mr. Sampson’s and a partner at the award-winning Shim-Sutcliffe Architects. “He was interested in how things go together, and also about the ideas that shaped them.”
Barry Sampson was born in Oshawa on May 30, 1948, the second of three brothers. Their father, Bill, an engineer and executive at General Motors, died suddenly when Barry was 8. Their mother, Bea, worked to support the family and made a point of taking them to Beech Lake every summer.
“She was afraid her sons would become juvenile delinquents,” Ms. Coburn says. Instead, Barry completed high school in Oshawa and rode his motorcycle into Toronto to become an architect. In 1967 – at the height of the Sixties tumult – he began studying at the University of Toronto, an institution to which he would remain connected through his life.
“My class was both test bed and vanguard,” he said in a 2015 lecture. Architecture was shifting “from its past in the practical sciences to new reference points in cultural criticism.”
On graduating in 1972, he joined three classmates, Bruce Kuwabara, John van Nostrand, and Joost Bakker, going to work for their professor George Baird. Mr. Baird, a prominent architect and theorist, would later join the architecture faculty at Harvard University and become dean of the Toronto school. The young graduates initially offered to work for free, Mr. Baird recalls.
The four would go on to prominent careers in architecture and planning in Toronto and Vancouver. Mr. Sampson and Mr. Baird continued a working relationship for the next 30 years. “Barry was central to all the built work we did in the early years,” Mr. Baird recalls of his colleague, who generally contributed to the practical and technical aspects of their projects.
Ms. Coburn, who met Mr. Sampson in 1973, said that he “had huge respect for George as an intellect, but was sometimes worried how he would find his feet in George’s shadow.”
In time this changed. After a year in Paris (where he and Ms. Coburn studied French “and walked through every garden and cemetery in the city,” she recalls), Mr. Sampson again teamed up with Mr. Baird. As the firm became Baird Sampson Architects, Mr. Sampson’s own creative voice became prominent.
The partners were widely recognized for their ideas in design competitions for Edmonton City Hall and Toronto’s Trinity Square Park. Later they won a competition for a downtown Toronto park. Cloud Gardens, completed in 1993, aimed to “reconnect different generations of the city” and “acknowledge the persistent presence of nature,” Mr. Sampson said in a 2015 talk. This project combines references to French gardens; sculpture by Margaret Priest that celebrates the construction trades; a waterfall; and a glass conservatory housing tropical plants. It won a Governor-General’s Award in Architecture.
Around 2000, Mr. Sampson and partner Jon Neuert assumed full control of their architecture practice, and their work pursued a theme that had been important to Mr. Sampson: environmental sustainability.
In 2005 they completed Thomas L. Wells Public School, an elementary school in suburban Toronto. The building uses daylight and “natural ventilation” – capitalizing on the upward movement of warm air – to minimize its energy use and create a comfortable environment. It won several honours including a major award from the American Institute of Architects, but its innovations have generally been largely ignored by the Toronto school board that built it.
“It was a great frustration to Barry that, as an architect, he couldn’t move farther on that agenda,” Mr. Baird says.
Teaching was another important part of Mr. Sampson’s life. He taught throughout his career, and in a profession where the schooling process forms lasting bonds, he had a broad influence.
Mr. Baird, himself a well-known professor of architecture, saw Mr. Sampson become a distinguished colleague. “His reputation within the profession was extremely high,” Mr. Baird says.
Betsy Williamson, an architect who taught for seven years alongside Mr. Sampson, put it simply: “He was the best teacher I ever saw,” she said, citing his “egoless” demeanour and a deep commitment to technique. “With him, you felt that you were learning how to be a better architect,” she said, “as opposed to learning how to talk about architecture.”
His central innovation as a professor was the school’s “comprehensive building project,” in which senior students were asked to develop a design in detailed technical terms and also theoretical ones. Mr. Sampson retired from teaching in 2019.
In recent years, he had been ill; he had successfully fought another cancer over the past few years, keeping it secret from some colleagues.
Two of his buildings – each highlighting his interest in environmental sustainability – won significant awards in 2020. His recently completed McEwen Graduate Study & Research Building at York University won an Award of Excellence from the Ontario Association of Architects. And the Niagara Falls Butterfly Conservatory, a pioneering, energy-efficient building completed in 1996, won the Prix du XXe siècle from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.
“That is a pioneering project, completed decades before the rest of the architecture profession was really thinking about sustainability,” said friend and colleague Howard Sutcliffe. “He was a deeply principled person, in architecture and in life.”
Mr. Sampson leaves Ms. Coburn; their sons, Ben and Martin; and his brothers, Dave and Bob.