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Architect Architect George Baird sits in front of an image of the Toronto Harbourfront 2000 plan.ERIK CHRISTENSEN/The Globe and Mail

George Baird liked to tell a story about a flight to Boston. In the 1990s, on one of his weekly trips to teach at Harvard University, the architect and theorist became very familiar with the route. Once, he noticed the plane wasn’t passing over the right territory, and called a flight attendant to ask whether he was on the wrong plane. No, he was told. Everything was in order. And yet, as he always said to conclude this tale, the plane changed direction anyway.

Mr. Baird’s attention to place, his intellect and his sense of humour made him a major figure in Canadian architecture and, globally, in the field of architectural theory. Twice the dean of the architecture school at the University of Toronto, Mr. Baird was an architect, theorist, a renowned teacher and mentor to generations of students. He died Oct. 17 in Toronto of kidney failure. He was 84.

George Baird was born Aug. 25, 1939, at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, the first of three children. His mother, Gertrude, was a homemaker and former bank employee; his father, George, ran a small business producing and delivering milk and had strong leftist politics. The family home was located in North York Township; it was “not a farm, but was surrounded by farms,” Mr. Baird recalled later in an autobiographical text. During his youth, the area would be subsumed by the fast-growing suburbs of Metropolitan Toronto, open space replaced by houses and even apartment buildings. (The Baird house was moved half a block to face onto a new cul-de-sac.) Young George encountered some serious architecture here as well: A friend’s father worked at the mansion of Frank Wood, who hired the New York firm Delano and Aldrich to design it. Here, George saw his first Renoir.

This semi-rural, semi-urban place was fertile territory for a boy interested in cities. “He knew from very early on that he wanted to be an architect,” his wife, Elizabeth Baird, said. “He took the city [as an idea] very seriously, perhaps because he didn’t really grow up in one.”

Playing outside, “I learned from a very early age how to entertain myself,” he wrote, “and one of the principal ways was to play in a sandbox beside our garage, a box the sides of which I soon removed, since the sand cities that I was constructing there required more space than the original box provided.”

His world expanded further at East York Collegiate and then, starting in 1957, at the University of Toronto’s architecture school. Here he distinguished himself and made a handful of lifelong friends, including the late Ted Teshima – who would go on to practice alongside the late Raymond Moriyama.

Two fellowships during his school years took him to Europe: Finland in 1959, then Sweden in 1961. On graduating, he went to work for the architect Jerome Markson, after stumbling across an interesting-looking house renovation by Mr. Markson in the Summerhill neighbourhood. Mr. Markson, also Toronto-born, had spent time working in London and had brought back some of the latest Modernist ideas. Mr. Baird, after a few years in Markson’s office, would do the same.

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Mr. Baird taught at the University of Toronto before soon afterward launching his own office, George Baird Architect.Andre Beneteau/Handout

In 1962 a friend introduced him to Elizabeth Davis. The two became a couple and married in 1963. “I think we fell in love quite quickly,” said Ms. Baird. George in those days “was very optimistic; he was very curious. He loved to go to concerts and movies. We’d look at buildings, at historic buildings; we’d read together. It was really a rich time for me, and he was throwing the cream into the coffee. He added pleasure to every part of our lives.”

The marriage would last almost 60 years. Ms. Baird would achieve prominence in her own right as a food writer and editor, becoming arguably better-known than her husband; both were inducted separately into the Order of Canada. The couple pursued separate intellectual interests, Ms. Baird said, but warmly supported each other’s pursuits. “And George loved to entertain,” she recalled. “All sorts of people would travel from across the world to visit, and George found a different sort of conversation around the dinner table.” She prepared the food. He “was a lousy cook,” Ms. Baird said with a laugh.

In 1964, they left for London, where Mr. Baird began postgraduate studies. “I did not know it upon my arrival, but in fact I had landed in the middle of the most intense discussion about architecture that was proceeding in the world at that time,” he wrote later. He befriended several important architects and historians, including his mentor Joseph Rykwert; Kenneth Frampton; and the American architect Charles Jencks.

Mr. Baird and Mr. Jencks collaborated on an unusual book called Meaning in Architecture, which applied the structuralist theory of semiotics to architecture. This text, particularly Baird’s essay La Dimension Amoureuse in Architecture was important both to the new academic field of architectural theory, and to the postmodernist movement, which dominated the next two decades of design. “An emerging type of architect brought fresh cultural references to what was then only a professional curriculum,” Mr. Baird’s student and colleague Roberto Damiani wrote in a 2020 book on Mr. Baird, “and expanded architecture’s agenda.”

For Mr. Baird, architecture had both political and aesthetic dimensions that were inseparable. He drew heavily on the ideas of Hannah Arendt in his 1995 book The Space of Appearance, the title of which came from a phrase of Ms. Arendt’s about the role of public space – both literally and metaphorically. “None of Arendt’s philosophical predecessors nor any of her contemporaries has matched the depth of her passionate engagement with the ‘things of the world,’” Mr. Baird wrote in a passage that also implies his own close interest in the physical and sensory realities of architecture.

Robert Levit, a long-time colleague and now the acting dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto, explained these concepts at a public lecture in Mr. Baird’s name – which took place Oct. 19, two days after his death. “For George, putting to use Arendt’s concepts, architecture is the site of civic life, of public acts – where history, small and large, is made,” Mr. Levit said.

In 1967, the Bairds returned to Toronto. The next year, Mr. Baird began teaching at the University of Toronto; soon afterward he launched his own office, George Baird Architect.

Mr. Baird re-emerged in his home city with some metropolitan polish. “He cut quite a figure in his slim jeans, leather jacket over a T-shirt, long woollen scarf and a Mick Jagger haircut,” recalled Barry Sampson, his student and later partner in architecture, in 2010.

Architect Barry Sampson was deeply committed to creating energy-efficient buildings

In a story that is now legend within Canadian architecture, he recruited four students to work for him despite a lack of paying clients: Joost Bakker, Bruce Kuwabara, Mr. Sampson and John van Nostrand, all of whom became leading Canadian architects of the Boomer generation. “We just thought he was the most interesting person around,” Mr. Kuwabara said at the Oct. 19 public lecture. “We didn’t want to work for anyone else.”

The firm moved into an office on Britain Street, in downtown Toronto, sharing the building with a nascent publishing firm. James Lorimer and Co. was owned by Mr. Lorimer and his wife Myfanwy Phillips, friends of the Bairds since the early 1960s; Elizabeth Baird published her first book with them. “It was a very fun time,” she recalls. “They did a lot of the renovation work themselves, and so our house became the place where everyone would come and fuel up after pulling nails or stripping paint.”

The firm evolved into Baird Sampson and, later, became Baird Sampson Neuert Architects. Mr. Sampson died in 2020. Jon Neuert leads the firm, which continues to practice today. “His greatest strength was defining the big ideas and narratives,” Mr. Neuert said. “As a member of design review panels, a studio leader, a much-called-upon contributor to studio reviews – he had this amazing ability to articulate verbally what was the core of the problem and the core of the design project.”

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George Baird (front), works with his friend and classmate Ted Teshima (middle), and architect Alan Sherriff, at the office of Pentland & Baker in Toronto, in 1959.George Baird Fonds/Handout

Through the 1970s, Mr. Baird found himself in a position of power as the city of Toronto reinvented itself. Following the fast growth of the 1950s and 1960s, driven by some Modernist ideas in city planning and urban design, a new leadership took over – the “Reform council,” led initially by David Crombie and later John Sewell.

Mr. Baird was among a circle of architects who reshaped city built-form and planning policy.

The high point of this period was the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, a mixed-income neighbourhood completed in the early 1980s on former railway lands. It reflects Mr. Baird and his studio’s preoccupations with the history of Toronto and with public space. The neighbourhood extends existing, historic public streets, and it centres around a linear park which also serves as a schoolyard. It is the area’s space of appearance, a place for personal and political encounters.

Mr. Baird and several colleagues also generated two reports that shaped the urban design ideas in the city and beyond: onbuildingdowntown and Built-Form Analysis. These brought a new emphasis to the physical conditions of the central city, attending to sunlight, wind, and subtle questions of how space was defined: Should all city benches look the same, so that everyone knows they are public?

Mr. Baird brought this sensitivity to both big ideas and small details in his teaching work, which he continued at the University of Toronto through the 1970s and 1980s. While deeply interested in the details of a building, he also brought a variety of different disciplinary lenses. “He was among the first people to speak about ‘context,’ and in particular the influence of nature, agriculture, surveying and even … food on architecture,” wrote the architect John van Nostrand in 2019.

In the process he became a model and a mentor to scores of practitioners, and continued to establish a rich network of friendship and mentorship with younger architects. He thrived on the social contact. “He was a terrible gossip,” Elizabeth Baird says. “But not a malicious gossip. He just wanted to know what people were doing, and wanted to share it. He had these great friendships, often with people who had the gift of the gab.”

But the Toronto school was going through hard times, racked by political and personal disagreements. In 1992, Mr. Baird accepted a teaching job at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He flew back and forth for nearly a dozen years, contributing to the work of the architecture office at home while teaching and writing in Cambridge, Mass. During this period he helped develop the discipline of urban design, and published The Space of Appearance, building on his graduate-school work.

In 2004, Mr. Baird took the job of dean back at the University of Toronto’s architecture school, serving for five years before retiring. In the following years he published one more book: Public Space; Cultural/Political Theory; Street Photography. He also collected a large group of awards, including the Gold Medal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. In 2016 he was invested in the Order of Canada.

In his later years, Mr. Baird taught, continuing one postgraduate class on the history of Toronto until the spring of 2023. At the time of his death, he was preparing to attend the lecture in his honour. “In George’s case, he has passed on to so many people in this room and elsewhere, people whom he knew well and others whom he has never met, this legacy of who he has been and what he has thought – about architecture, politics, the city,” Mr. Levit said than evening. “We are his heirs, perhaps his progeny, and I think I can say that we carry within us his teachings and wisdom.”

Mr. Baird leaves his wife, Elizabeth; his sister, Susan; and extended family.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Mr. Baird became dean of University of Toronto's architecture school in 2003 and served for a year before retiring. He took the job in 2004 and served five years. This version has been updated.

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