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Every morning, Eberhard Zeidler goes to work. This is curious because Zeidler is 87 years old and, officially, retired: He stepped down from the architecture office that bears his name in 2009. "But what are you going to do?" he asks, sitting at a round laminate worktable in the office building he designed 30 years ago. "You have started something and you continue. You feel good at it."

Many have agreed, over the past six and a half decades, that he is indeed good at architecture: The German émigré emerged as one of Canada's leading designers in the 1960s. And now Zeidler is in a retrospective mood. His recently published autobiography, Buildings Cities Life, is a 1,231-page tour through his career – and through the high points of Canadian nation-building, from the hospital and school boom of the 1960s and 1970s through Vancouver's Expo 86.

But this curtain call is also an occasion to ask some big questions: What are the lessons from the 20th century about cities and architecture? His book, and his career, offer contradictory positions: the fine-grained city versus the megaproject, and an attention to history versus a love of design innovation. We're still working through these points, and Zeidler's life and career encompass several swings between them.

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The catalogue of projects in the book includes more than 1,000 buildings, and there are another 1,000-plus unbuilt designs. There was a time when this country was thinking and building on a grand scale, and Zeidler, from the mid-'60s through the '80s, played a crucial role. He led the design of a series of innovative hospitals in Hamilton, Edmonton and Saint John; the infrastructural fantasia of Ontario Place; the indoor urbanism of the Eaton Centre in Toronto; the sail-capped Canada Place in Vancouver.

Is there a moral to his story? In person, Zeidler is reluctant to offer grand pronoucements. "Nobody will have the answer for everything," he says. "When you look at the complexity of this world, to say, 'This is the only answer?' " He shakes his head in answer.

But in his essays and lectures, collected in the two-volume autobiography, he returns to some themes. One is about the importance of the city, as opposed to the individual building. "Architecture isn't just one thing, it's everything," he says. "Where I am sitting here, how people arrive here, how you feel when you come into the building – all these things matter."

At a forum this week in his honour, the guests – including former Toronto mayor John Sewell – focused tightly on this part of his legacy. In the book, he brings together his arguments for a walkable city (Jane Jacobs was his friend and occasional collaborator); he insists on the importance of "the visual city," which is to say a streetscape that is consistent and visually pleasing; and the importance of history.

Zeidler started as an orthodox young modernist. After the Second World War, he began his education in the East German city of Weimar, and was influenced by the famed Bauhaus design school that had been the centre of architectural modernism before it was shuttered by the Nazis in 1933. The Bauhaus mantra that "the new architecture" was defined by structure, its function and contemporary technology worked on him. He escaped to West Germany and soon joined the office of his former professor, Emanuel Lindner; still in his mid-20s, Zeidler built a series of factories and medical buildings, all highly competent and in good Bauhaus style. But he also absorbed the lessons of his childhood in the medieval town of Liegnitz, and lessons in architectural history.

He landed in Peterborough in 1951, and joined a local firm in search of a fat salary ("I didn't know how much of a salary exactly, since nobody knew what an architect got in Canada") and was shocked. Here the architectural scene "was pretty primitive," he tells me with a laugh. "I thought I would rebuild the city in no time flat. I didn't." He did, however, make a mark, starting with some quite beautiful churches and public buildings in Ontario, and soon with much bigger things.

His great leap was the McMaster University Health Sciences Centre in Hamilton, completed in 1972, after he'd moved his firm to Toronto. The 120,000-square-foot building was among the first to isolate the mechanical guts of a hospital – placing them between the floors in thick slabs of hidden "interstitial" space. The system, at least in theory, allowed great flexibility: You can send up conduits, pipes and wires through the floors exactly where they are needed, and then remove them equally easily.

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"The key to it is that if you have health care that is constantly changing, you should make it so you can change it without knocking the whole building down," Zeidler explained to me. "And when you look at hospitals, it used to be that it would cost as much to expand the building as to knock the whole building down and re-do it."

The hospital's exposed steel structure and its towers – glassed-in columns holding pipes and conduits – reflect a fashion of the time, the fetishizing of infrastructure, which is an extension of a central Bauhaus idea. But there were other important innovations, including an atrium and several landscaped courtyards, which allow light and views into the hospital. The hospital, he writes, was technically sound but also "served the emotional needs of patients, staff and visitors."

This combination of the technical and the humanistic carries through Zeidler's career. Major hospitals became his office's main stream of work, and "atrium hospitals" are now the norm everywhere. But this sensibility also applied to the city; he adopted many of Jane Jacobs's views, and did not buy into the vision of the huge, master-planned suburb.

Starting in 1969, Zeidler's office designed the Eaton Centre in Toronto, a huge insertion into the middle of the city. With the support of Jane Jacobs, they designed the mall as an "interior street."

"It attempted to be part of the city fabric," Zeidler writes. This inspiration helped. Because of its careful connections to the city streets and subway stations nearby, its mixture of retail and office uses, and, simply, its beauty, the Eaton Centre worked, and it still does. Its details of nautical portholes and exposed ducts haven't aged as well, but the mall feels like a city place. Compared to its 1970s counterparts, it is a unique success.

This is partly because the Eaton Centre drew on a historic model: the covered arcade of the Galleria in Milan. During the 1980s and 1990s, Zeidler's office made other attempts to draw on historical examples. This was the age of Postmodernism, when designers made showy "quotations" from history; skyscrapers looked like Chippendale furniture and Doric columns appeared up in shopping malls. The Zeidler office generated some mediocre buildings in this vein, and some that are worse than mediocre, but Zeidler today won't express regrets about any of his work. "It is like a mother with her children," he says mischievously. "The one who is the worst, you love the best."

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Ultimately, while visual style is important – Zeidler believes this too, and his chapter on this subject reflects some serious practical thinking – it is less important than the fact of the city. Buildings and cities are places for us to be together as people, to mix, talk, eat, heal, celebrate, buy and sell, pray. Zeidler always got that right.

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