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Eberhard Zeidler, Feb. 2005.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

It was 1968, and Eberhard Zeidler was missing $9-million. The architect was working on plans for a new Ontario cultural centre, located in the lake off downtown Toronto. He had imagined a set of buildings on stilts above the water. But this idea, it turned out, required massive foundations that would cost $9-million – almost the entire budget for the project.

Mr. Zeidler pondered the problem while taking a Caribbean vacation with his young family. And in a glass-bottom boat, he found it. A coral reef broke the waves of the sea, leaving water as smooth as glass. This gave him the idea for a less-expensive solution to address the forces of the lake. He and his colleagues designed a set of barrier islands for Toronto, which would shelter their forward-looking modernist architecture and also create a waterfront park.

The result was Ontario Place, a seminal place for two generations of people in the Toronto region. It reflected the themes of Mr. Zeidler’s career, blending technical innovation, creativity and an emphasis on the public realm. Over 70 years of practice, he and his colleagues also designed Canada Place in Vancouver, Toronto’s Eaton Centre and the influential McMaster University Health Sciences Centre in Hamilton.

Mr. Zeidler died Jan. 7 in Toronto after a long illness. He was 95.

Over 70 years of practice, Mr. Zeidler and his colleagues designed Canada Place in Vancouver, Toronto’s Eaton Centre and the influential McMaster University Health Sciences Centre in Hamilton, among other projects.Randy Velocci/The Globe and Mail

Eberhard Zeidler was born Jan. 11, 1926, in the eastern German region of Silesia into an affluent family. He recalled his childhood milieu as a melting pot “where German, English and Russian backgrounds fought in different armies and visited each other between wars,” as he recalled in his 2013 autobiography. “I had good friends and we did all the things boys do, like going on hikes through the mountains,” Mr. Zeidler wrote. “But my real fascination was buildings.”

Mr. Zeidler volunteered for the German Navy in 1943, at age 17, and trained as an officer. After surviving the war – one of only 22 sailors in his flotilla to make it, he recalled – Mr. Zeidler returned to his love of architecture. He enrolled at the Bauhaus, the design and art school that was one of the crucibles of Modernism in Europe, during its short-lived postwar revival in Dessau. “I was taught that the only acceptable architectural forms are those derived from the function of a building and its structure,” he recalled later.

But soon the authorities in Soviet-occupied Germany became suspicious of the school and its free-thinking faculty and cracked down. In 1948, Mr. Zeidler escaped to Allied-occupied Germany, laboured in construction, and found a job with Emanuel Lindner, one of his Bauhaus professors who had also escaped. In his early 20s, Mr. Zeidler was leading the design of factories, warehouses, and medical buildings

One of Mr. Zeidler's major projects during his career was Ontario Place.John McNeill/The Globe and Mail

In 1951 he was drawn by the opportunity to move to Canada, believing “that an architect here would be very busy and very well paid,” his wife, Jane Zeidler, recalls, “which turned out to be not entirely true.” Mr. Zeidler came for a job at the firm of Blackwell & Craig in Peterborough, Ont.. The job offer turned out to be a misunderstanding, but after Mr. Zeidler showed up for his interview wearing a dark suit and carrying a cane – “in the proper German manner,” his wife recalls – the firm took him on. Colleagues nicknamed him “the Duke.”

Peterborough was hardly a hotbed of modernist architecture, but Mr. Zeidler helped make it into one. Through the next decade he worked as an architect and an engineer, drawing on his multidisciplinary German training, and completed more than 30 buildings around the region, including Peterborough Memorial Centre, high schools, the Beth Israel Synagogue and a dozen churches.

In 1954 with Blackwell & Craig, he finished Grace United Church. In his design, curving beams of glue-laminated wood supported a high pointed roof that protruded above the nave. It was modest for Germany but radical for Canada. Robertson Davies, then editor of the local newspaper, came to his defence, and the building was realized. It remains in use today.

Mr. Zeidler, and his wife, Jane, in their home in the Rosedale community of Toronto, July 23, 2009.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

His time there brought another milestone: he met his future wife. Jane Abbott, he recalls in his memoir, was “the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.” After four years of courtship, they married in 1957. The Zeidlers would have four children, Margie, Robert, Kate and Christina, over the next decade, and remain married nearly 65 years. Jane Zeidler became a public-art consultant, and the two collaborated professionally for decades as well.

Within a few years the couple moved to Toronto, where Mr. Zeidler’s career was taking off. They found their first house in Rosedale for about $25,000, and soon moved into a nearby house on a ravine. Mr. Zeidler redesigned it with large windows facing the ravine. “It was many people’s first experience of a modern house,” Christina recalls. “The adults would sit on the edge of their chairs, and children would just run out into the valley and back in” – exactly as the architect intended.

Decades later, the artist Peter Doig would paint a major canvas depicting the house.

The family’s home life was busy and, his wife and daughter recall, very happy. “He was a relentlessly positive person,” Jane says, “and he never said a bad word about anyone.”

The kids often accompanied him to construction sites. Christina recalls a favourite family picture: The Zeidlers and their older kids were standing with hard hats at the Ontario Place construction site in the dead of winter, the infant Christina “a ball of fluff in Margie’s arms.”

Eaton Centre in Toronto on opening day, Feb. 10, 1977.Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Zeidler’s work in the 1960s and 1970s was mostly on a large scale, and included an important role for him in Toronto politics and planning.

For Ontario Place, he and the office picked up the optimism and technical ambition from two things at Expo 67: Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes and Frei Otto’s German Pavilion, with its expansive textile roofs. “All these buildings had one thing in common,” Mr. Zeidler wrote in 1971: “The technological possibilities of their day were used with a clear understanding of their potential and were crystallized in a form that finally became an expression of their time.”

The pavilion buildings, intended to hold an exhibition about Ontario’s people and culture, also drew on the Japanese Metabolist movement and the British High-Tech style. Ontario Place’s exposed structure and mechanical services are “a triumphant display of high-tech virtuosity,” according to the architect and critic George Baird. They are a bold expression of the form-follows-function tenets Mr. Zeidler had learned at the Bauhaus. So did another Zeidler project of the same era: the McMaster University Health Sciences Centre. For this 1.7-million-square-foot complex, the firm of Craig, Zeidler & Strong developed an innovative approach: the floors were suspended from a network of columns, allowing walls to be moved at will, while between the floors were sandwiched low “interstitial spaces” that carried all the building’s complex mechanical requirements.

“Its enormous grid of columns punctuates an endless landscape of medical departments, differentiated only by colour coding and carved-out courtyards,” wrote Annmarie Adams, a professor at McGill University’s school of architecture and an expert on hospitals. Prof. Adams views McMaster as the most important Canadian building of the past half-century, and says its main ideas have been widely imitated across Canada and globally.

Mr. Zeidler’s work in the 1960s and 1970s was mostly on a large scale, and included an important role for him in Toronto politics and planning.DENNIS ROBINSON/The Globe and Mail

For all Mr. Zeidler’s aesthetic and technical ambition, he thought of his work as part of a larger whole. “More than anything, he believed that architecture was for people,” Jane recalls. “That sounds simple, but for him it was fundamental.”

That mix of modern architecture and humanist values helped shape Toronto in the 1960s and 1970s. In that period, a group of young politicians, planners, architects and activists worked closely together. This “Reform group” included Jane Jacobs, whose husband, Bob, was an architect at the Zeidler office.

“Our common goal was to make the city a livable place, and not just one where people could make money,” says David Crombie, mayor of Toronto from 1972 to 1978. Mr. Zeidler and some architect colleagues “were the street urchins, the troublemakers trying to make the city better.”

The planning of the 1950s and 1960s (in Toronto and elsewhere) aimed to sort cities into separate areas for housing, industry and offices, remaking older areas along the way. The Reform group, following the intellectual lead of Ms. Jacobs, pushed back against this tendency. Mr. Zeidler “absolutely believed in mixed uses,” Christina says. “That was a fundamental aspect of what cities were about.”

Mr. Zeidler played an important role in shaping Toronto’s 1976 Central Plan, which aimed to bring housing into the city’s office-heavy downtown core. His colleague Ken Greenberg, a former City of Toronto planner, said Mr. Zeidler’s approach had “a heavy dose” of Ms. Jacobs’s influence. “He looked askance at some of the things architects were doing at the time which were monumental but sterile.”

These issues came to a head with the planning of the Eaton Centre, the downtown mall on a large site owned by the Eaton’s company. Their initial plan to construct the mall was roundly criticized as an imposition on the historic fabric of the city. “They essentially would’ve taken a suburban mall and dropped it into downtown,” Mr. Crombie recalls. Mr. Zeidler, along with Ms. Jacobs, engaged with the developers and their architects to make the building less hostile to the city.

Mr. Zeidler played an important role in shaping Toronto’s 1976 Central Plan, which aimed to bring housing into the city’s office-heavy downtown core.James Lewcun/The Globe and Mail

In the end the Zeidler firm collaborated on its design. The result was inspired by Milan’s famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, with a central 900-foot-long passageway – which Mr. Zeidler described as “an interior street” – topped with a continuous arched skylight. The result “was much less destructive to the city than it might have been,” Mr. Crombie says.

The Zeidler office continued to grow through the 1970s and 1980s, although Mr. Zeidler chose to keep it at a moderate size in order to control design and maintain a sense of connection with colleagues. “The office really was like a family,” Christina says. “I knew almost everyone who ever worked there.” Later work included academic, residential and commercial projects as far afield as Dubai and Beijing.

Mr. Zeidler’s family carried on his sensibility. In the 1990s, his daughter Margie, who trained as an architect, led the family’s efforts to purchase 401 Richmond, a large brick-and-beam factory building in downtown Toronto. The building had little commercial value at the time, but Margie saw an opportunity to turn it into a hub for artists and creative enterprises; it still is today, in the family’s ownership. Mr. Zeidler collaborated with Christina on a renovation of the historic Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. Meanwhile, Kate is an interior designer and Robert is a real estate executive.

In his 80s, Mr. Zeidler stepped back gradually from the work of the Zeidler office, which remains active. His last decade was marked by Alzheimer’s dementia, and he received care at home. He died there, just before his 96th birthday, in a bed with a view of the Toronto skyline and a mature forest – a view that, Jane says, he loved deeply.

Mr. Zeidler leaves his wife, their four children and five grandchildren.